What Can Philosophy Tell Us About How History Made the Mind?

Some philosophers maintain we can show a priori that mind is an essentially socio-historical phenomenon. But since questions of the development of mind are empirical in character, does philosophy have any right to pronounce on this issue? In this paper, I consider two of the greats of 20th century Western philosophy, Wittgenstein and Davidson, both of whom produce arguments that appear to show that social interaction is a precondition of language and, hence, rational agency. I maintain that their respective arguments are inconclusive. Moreover, neither position has an interestingly developmental dimension – both thinkers hold that we become rational beings, but neither think that there is anything much to be said about how this process occurs. I then turn to the position developed by John McDowell in Mind and World. For McDowell, our very capacity to experience the world, and to entertain thoughts, depends on conceptual capacities that we acquire through enculturation, or Bildung. Human beings are not born “at home in the space of reasons”, but attain this status as they enter the realm of the conceptual.

McDowell thus endorses a broadly socio-historical vision of mind, which has a developmental perspective, but he offers no more than a sketch. The paper concludes by considering an objection to such a project. Such socio-historical theories are prone to speak as if the child’s development is marked by a kind of “cognitive baptism”: that is, the child is born literally mindless, a “mere brute”, but when it is dunked into culture by its elders, the “lights go on” and it is happily transformed into a self-conscious rational agent, a person. To correct this fanciful idea, I present a view of conceptual development as significantly extended in time, progressing though various stages from primitive proto-conceptual abilities of discrimination, recognition, and identification, to sophisticated theoretical understanding. Such an account brings out how Bildung is temporally extended – across the whole of our lives in fact – and corrects the impression that the effects of enculturation are nothing short of magical.