Experience and the World of the Living: A Critique of John McDowell's Conception of Experience and Nature

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Michael Bradie


John McDowell’s work (in Mind and Worldand elsewhere) has largely been devoted to two main objectives: 1) defending a non-traditional form of empiricism; and 2) articulating a revised conception of nature. McDowell sees these two objectives as connected. He wants to defend a conception of experience as involving the reception of conceptual “impressions” from the world. But, he sees that such a conception of experience seems to be blocked by a dominant form of naturalism which views nature as devoid of value and meaning. Such a “disenchanted” view of nature makes it impossible to combine the idea that impressions are impacts from the world with the idea that impressions are conceptually structured (by human minds). McDowell’s solution to this problem involves “re-enchanting” or revising naturalism so that nature can be understood as incorporating a “second nature”. McDowell’s notion of second nature is intended to “make room” (in nature) for the idea that the world’s impacts on the sensory faculties of concept-using human beings can be already imbued with intentionality. I agree with McDowell that both our concept of experience and our concept of nature are in need of revision. But, I disagree with (and critique) the revised conceptions that McDowell proposes. McDowell’s view is that experience should be conceived in terms of “subjects” passively receiving conceptual contents (or “impressions”) from the world. I criticize McDowell’s conception of experience for focusing on “subjects” who are passively acted upon by the world. Instead, I argue that experience needs to be conceived as an agential interaction, which involves organisms actively doing and undergoing things. Because McDowell conceives of experience in terms of being subject to passive transactions, his revision of naturalism does not challenge the widespread conception of nature as exhausted by passive relations, a conception which, I argue, extrudes agency from nature. Instead, he advocates for the idea of a second nature that simply “makes room” in nature for passive relations to be concept-involving. In this dissertation I charge that McDowell’s re-conception of nature does not go far enough. Nature, I argue, needs to be re-enchanted with more than just concepts; it needs to be re-enchanted with active relations. Thus, I argue for a different idea of second nature, one which includes all living organisms, not just concept-using creatures. I argue that the sort of relations that occur in the world of the living—i.e. my conception of second nature—are fundamentally distinct from the inanimate, passive relations that occur in first nature. Relations in second nature are “active” because they involve organisms doing things to their environment in an effort to utilize energy for the process of living. Experience, accordingly, must be understood as an agential relation; thus I argue that “experience” is a term that essentially refers to the doings and undergoings of living organisms.