When I was a college senior at the Catholic University of America and preparing to depart the comforts of the Catholic intellectual tradition for a career in mainstream “analytic” philosophy, I was sent out the door with a steady stream of warnings about the unhistorical character of the philosophical thinking I was about to encounter. I nodded and agreed that I would need to be on the lookout for this defect, but deep down the prospect excited me. It meant liberation from scholastic disputations and the philosophical categories of Plato and Aristotle; it meant a chance to consider contemporary problems in contemporary terms. I would now be doing philosophy, as I sometimes put it to myself, instead of just reading or studying it—creating new ideas rather than simply shuffling old ones around.

As it turned out, those who warned me about the perils of contemporary philosophy were wrong, but so was I. It was naive of me to think that textual interpretation wasn’t a genuine philosophical activity, or that classical texts didn’t have value except insofar as they related to problems I regarded as “current.” My undergraduate teachers, on the other hand, weren’t giving enough credit to the very illuminating historical work being done by philosophers clearly identifiable as part of the analytic tradition. During its early twentieth-century origins, when doing analytic philosophy meant regarding linguistic analysis as the philosopher’s primary task, that tradition had an undeniably antihistorical character. But, with the unfortunate exception of medieval philosophy, which is studied seriously at few non-Catholic institutions, more recent representatives of the analytic style have generally left this misguided bias behind. Indeed, it was through my encounters with contemporary analytic philosophy as a graduate student at Notre Dame and then Berkeley that my understanding of the relationship between philosophy and its history was set right.

Perhaps the best recent example of historically reflective analytic philosophy can be found in the work of John McDowell, a South African–born and Oxford-educated philosopher now teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. McDowell has written many important papers on Plato and Aristotle but is best known for his systematic work in metaphysics, ethics, and the philosophy of mind and language. In his much-discussed 1994 book Mind and World, McDowell presents a concise but wide-ranging case for a revolution in our understanding of the mind, arguing that we can best make the necessary changes by selectively appropriating the thought of Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel. Philosophy since the Enlightenment has, he claims, been crippled by a commitment to naturalism—to identifying the “natural” only with what can be studied with the methods of the physical sciences—that distorts our conception of ourselves and the world we live in. A renewed appreciation for past insights can help us to see how that conception might be repaired.

These two new volumes of McDowell’s essays—a few of them never before published, and nearly all written over the past fifteen years—further develop the systematic and historical strands of this argument, showcasing what can be accomplished when such threads are skillfully woven together. We can trace out one aspect of the overall project by considering McDowell’s explanation, in the preface to The Engaged Intellect, of the significance of the volume’s title:

"In [many of these essays] I resist a rationalistic conception of the intellect, in this sense: a conception that disengages reason, which is special to rational animals, from aspects of their make-up that they share with other animals. The engaged intellect, on this interpretation, is the intellect conceived as integrally bound up with the animal nature of the rational animal."

The definition of the human being as a rational animal is due to Aristotle, whom McDowell holds up as an example of a philosopher whose conception of the natural world made a proper understanding of intellectual engagement possible. In a paper on Aristotle’s theory of deliberation and moral development, for example, McDowell criticizes what he regards as overly rationalistic interpretations of the Aristotelian account of virtue. He argues that we should think of what Aristotle calls “practical wisdom” not as an abstract knowledge of how to apply general moral principles but rather as “a proper responsiveness to the details of situations—something Aristotle is willing to conceive as like, and even as a kind of, perception.” Similarly, we should understand the role of habituation in Aristotle’s account of moral development as that of instilling not only “nonrational motivational propensities” (that is, blind tendencies to behave in one way or another, which are not, by themselves, any kind of wisdom), but rather the excellences of reason and practical wisdom itself. So the virtuous person’s understanding of what is right consists of nothing other than his or her deliberate tendency to do the right thing in particular situations. The practical intellect is integrally bound up with the ways the human animal acts.

McDowell argues we will be blind to these possibilities if we insist that being an animal means being an unthinking thing, and that reason relates to our animal natures as a sort of supernatural add-on. By the same token, we cannot understand what is distinctive about intellectual capacities if we insist on trying to “reduce” them to scientific terms. So we must resist the temptation to think that understanding things as natural requires treating them as merely physical happenings. Only by recovering something like the premodern naiveté that McDowell finds in Aristotle—and, at another point, Aquinas—can a properly integrated understanding of the human mind be achieved.

This doesn’t mean that McDowell is advocating the overthrow of modern science or the repopulation of the natural world with the principles of Aristotle’s Physics. He has good, modern arguments against such ideas, and does not recommend that we try to forget seven hundred years of scientific progress. In his earlier work, McDowell gestured at a more respectable alternative by appealing to the notion of “second nature”: just as Aristotle describes the moral virtues as arising “neither by nature nor contrary to nature,” so the capacity for moral and intellectual discernment is, McDowell argues, something that human beings acquire through their initiation into a wider community. And it is at this point that Kant’s theory of the mind and (especially in these later essays) Hegel’s conception of reason as a social endeavor begin to take center stage.

Throughout these volumes McDowell offers provocative and illuminating accounts of these and other philosophers, and their relationship to the philosophical tradition. In each instance McDowell insists on a willingness to “learn something from the past,” as he puts it, by refusing to read into earlier figures “conception[s]...characteristic of our own time,” instead allowing their worldviews to stand as real challenges to our own. What McDowell finds admirable in the Kantian and Hegelian traditions is the willingness to treat reason not as a self-contained inner realm, but as a faculty integrally involved in many of the most mundane aspects of human life. Thus we cannot understand perception as simply a mechanical process that gives rise to perceptions in the mind, or intentional action just as a movement of the body that our thoughts happen to cause. “Thinking and knowing,” he writes, are “aspects of our lives,” and so “part of our way of being animals.” They are not activities that require “a mysterious separate involvement in an extra-natural realm of rational connections.” This is a way of bringing reason down to earth, of seeing it as something that is natural to human beings living in community even if it is not a direct product of human biology. It is Aristotle, in other words, for an irreparably post-Aristotelian world.

To evaluate fully the development of these ideas in McDowell’s work would require the kind of specialized language that only certified philosophical professionals (and not all of these) really like—the sort of language McDowell himself uses. The overarching issues, however, can draw in almost anyone. Those of us who are drawn into them for a living are doubly blessed to have McDowell’s distinctive mode of intellectual engagement available to challenge our own, and to remind us that the project of learning from the past is alive and well in the present.

John Schwenkler (@johnschwenkler) is professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of Anscombe’s ‘Intention’: A Guide (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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