conviction that we have to choose between a coherentist denial that thinking and judging are subject to rational constraint from outside, on the one hand, and an appeal to the Given [i.e., a purported nonconceptual foundation for conceptual knowledge] as what imposes the constraint, on the other . ... But the point of the third option, the option I am urging, is precisely that it enables us to acknowledge that independent reality exerts a rational control over our thinking, but without falling into the confusion between justification and exculpation that characterizes the appeal to the Given.40
McDowell’s point is that external reality does not depend on our acts of thinking; and if it depends on the content of those acts, it does so not because those contents are being thought, but simply because they are the contents they are, regardless of whether anyone actually thinks them.
This response may lay the spectre of subjective idealism – the kind of idealism that reduces the outer realm to the inner. But it might at the same time seem to raise the spectre of a more Hegelian form of idealism, the kind that reduces the outer realm to the third in the manner described by Collingwood:
[T]he word ‘thought’, in the sense in which Hegel called logic the science of thought, meant not that which thinks but that which it thinks: so that logic for Hegel is not a science of ‘how we think’, it is a science of Platonic forms, abstract entities, ‘ideas’ – if you remember to take seriously Hegel’s own warning that you must not suppose ‘ideas’ to exist only in people’s heads. That would be ‘subjective idealism’, a thing Hegel abominated. They only got into people’s heads, according to him, because people were able to think; and if the ‘ideas’ had not been independent of people’s thinking them, there would not have been any people, or for that matter anything else. For these ideas were the logical framework within which alone a world of nature and man ... was possible.41
The short answer is that, in a sense, McDowell has no quarrel with the Hegelian form of idealism; after all, in the preface to Mind and World McDowell describes
40 Ibid., pp. 26-27.
41 R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History: And Other Writings in Philosophy of History, ed. W. H. Dray and W. J. van der Dusssen (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 104.
R. T. Long – Wittgenstein, Praxeology, and Frege’s Three Realms – p. 29