Although our actions are the result of an interplay between, on the one hand, our beliefs and desires (to adopt, for simplicity, a familiar philosophical slogan) and, on the other, contingent features of the world which shape our abilities for action, this is not taken generally to undermine our responsibility for our actions. (Of course, in particular cases, it can.)
Secondly, McDowell combines his view that having an epistemological standing depends at least in part on a relation to the world with an anti-intellectualist view of knowledge. It can be brought out by considering his attitude to a contrast between what he terms ‘mediated’ and ‘unmediated epistemic standings’.
An unmediated standing would be one which was foundational, or an ‘absolute starting point’ [ibid: 431]. A mediated standing is one that, by contrast, stands in rational relations to other positions. McDowell argues that unmediated standings are the stuff of epistemological foundationalism and an instance of the Myth of the Given. Following Sellars, he rejects any such approach to epistemology. Even perception is a mediated standing. This leads to the question: what is the relation between one mediated epistemic state and another?
On one approach a mediated standing in the space of reasons is one for which an argument can be given, by the knower, from premises which do not beg any epistemic questions about the status of the position in question. The argument might thus move from premises about how things look to a conclusion to the effect that the subject can see that things are thus and so. Such arguments articulate the kind of rational relations that make up the space of reasons in general.
McDowell does not deny that there are some arguments relevant to one’s epistemological status. If a subject sees (or has seen; or hears; or has heared) that something is the case, then it must be the case. That argument is a simple consequence of the ‘factiveness’ of the locution ‘sees that’ (or ‘hears that’). What follows the ‘that’ must be a fact. Furthermore, to be a subject capable of knowledge, the subject must be sensitive to the rational relations that make up the space of reasons. This is a necessary background condition. But McDowell does reject the idea that the epistemic position of seeing that something is the case can be reduced to or constructed out of something more basic via an argument that the subject of the position could provide.
What I am proposing is a different conception of what it is for a standing in the space of reasons to be mediated. A standing in the space of reasons can be mediated by the rational force of surrounding considerations, in that the concept of that standing cannot be applied to a subject who is not responsive to that rational force. But that is not to say that the epistemic satisfactoriness of the standing consists in that rational force. [ibid: 430]
In the case of testimony, it is particularly clear that a hearer would not in general be in a position to rule out possible sources of error in what the speaker says or other factors that would imply that the speaker does not know what he or she affirms. Thus, in general, a hearer cannot provide an argument from what he or she hears said to its truth.
Pre-philosophically, however, it seems clear that testimony can indeed provide knowledge. McDowell’s response to this tension is to suggest that the attempt to give a reductionist account of epistemic good standing is mistaken.
The idea is, then, that one’s epistemic standing with respect to what one comes to know by testimony consists in one’s, say, having heard from one’s informant that that is how things are; not in the compellingness of an argument to the conclusion that that is how things are from the content of a lesser informational state. [ibid: 436]
So - and this is the third point flagged above - the tenor of the analysis runs in the opposite direction to what is normal. Rather than attempting to decompose the concept of knowledge into constituent elements which form its epistemological base or foundation, McDowell suggests that it is the most basic concept in play. Justification is thus explicated from the starting point of a standing in the space of reasons.