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Rules, regression and the ‘background’: Dreyfus, Heidegger and Mcdowell

McManus, Denis (2008) Rules, regression and the ‘background’: Dreyfus, Heidegger and Mcdowell European Journal of Philosophy, 16, (3), pp. 432-458.

Record type: Article


The work of Hubert Dreyfus interweaves productively ideas from, among others, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. A central element in Dreyfus' hugely influential interpretation of the former is the proposal that, if we are to—in some sense—'make sense' of intentionality, then we must recognize what Dreyfus calls the 'background'. Though Dreyfus has, over the years, put the notion of the 'background' to a variety of philosophical uses,1 considerations familiar from the literature inspired by Wittgenstein's reflections on rule-following have played an important role in motivating the case for believing that we need to recognize the 'background' and thus also in identifying precisely what it is about the intentional that supposedly needs to be 'made sense of'.

Dreyfus argues that what he calls 'representationalism' will land us with an unstoppable 'regress of rules'. In this paper, I first argue that there are actually two different arguments that Dreyfus invokes; I then go on to evaluate quite how, in the light of the problems that those arguments reveal, our position might be thought to be improved by our recognizing the 'background'. Given that various philosophical positions designed to deal with these problems have emerged within the Wittgensteinian literature, an obvious question to ask is whether the position that Dreyfus would have us adopt is essentially one of those positions. If it isn't, then how does it differ? There is surely a variety of ways in which such a comparison might be carried out and what I offer is only one. I argue that if, through a recognition of the 'background', we are thought to have acquired solutions to those problems, then it's not at all clear that the supposed solutions that emerge work. So I explore instead the possibility that that recognition forms part of an attempt to 'dissolve' those problems. In order to bring some clarity to that possibility I consider a number of different ways in which Dreyfus' proposals might be interpreted by drawing on ideas set out by John McDowell (and I suggest that his view of one of the 'regress' arguments is anticipated by Heidegger himself). I then identify and assess some of the consequences of adopting such McDowellian readings.

My sense is that Dreyfus is on the side of the angels, so to speak. But if what is right in his proposals is to become clear, and if he is to be spared some obvious objections that those proposals may elicit, we need to be clear about just what kind of contribution those proposals are meant to make. In pursuing that clarity, I am attempting to follow through on the comparison of Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian ideas that Dreyfus and his supporters have initiated: what has yet to be clarified is how and why recognizing the 'background' will allow us to 'cope better' with the puzzles in the rule-following literature that they have cited in making a case for the need to recognize the 'background'. Ultimately, I will argue that assessing this matter may require a yet broader comparison of Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian themes, one which raises questions about what we take 'doing ontology' and 'doing phenomenology' to be.

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Published date: 2008


Local EPrints ID: 143385
ISSN: 0966-8373
PURE UUID: d95237be-8fb1-400c-a962-c2970aa32ff6

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Date deposited: 14 May 2010 11:12
Last modified: 18 Oct 2017 14:51

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