McDowell has, throughout his career, understood philosophy to be "therapeutic" and thereby to "leave everything as it is", which he understands to be a form of philosophical quietism (although he does not consider himself to be a "quietist"). The philosophical quietist believes that philosophy cannot make any explanatory comment about how, for example, thought and talk relate to the world but can, by offering re-descriptions of philosophically problematic cases, return the confused philosopher to a state of intellectual quietude. However, in defending this quietistic perspective McDowell has engaged with the work of leading contemporaries in such a way as to both therapeutically dissolve what he takes to be philosophical error, while developing original and distinctive theses about language, mind and value. In each case, he has tried to resist the influence of what he regards as a misguided, reductive form of philosophical naturalism that dominates the work of his contemporaries, particularly in North America.
McDowell completed a B.A. at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland before moving to New College, Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1963.
McDowell's earliest published work was in ancient philosophy, most notably including a translation of and commentary on Plato's Theaetetus. In the 1970s he was active in the Davidsonian project of providing a semantic theory for natural language, co-editing (with Gareth Evans) a volume of essays entitled Truth and Meaning. McDowell edited and published Evans's influential posthumous book The Varieties of Reference (1982).
In his early work, McDowell was very much involved both with the development of the Davidsonian semantic programme and with the internecine dispute between those who take the core of a theory that can play the role of a theory of meaning to involve the grasp of truth conditions, and those, such as Michael Dummett, who argued that linguistic understanding must, at its core, involve the grasp of assertion conditions. If, Dummett argued, the core of a theory that is going to do duty for a theory of a meaning is supposed to represent a speaker's understanding, then that understanding must be something of which a speaker can manifest a grasp. McDowell argued, against this Dummettian view and its development by such contemporaries as Crispin Wright, both that this claim did not, as Dummett supposed, represent a Wittgensteinian requirement on a theory of meaning and that it rested on a suspect asymmetry between the evidence for the expressions of mind in the speech of others and the thoughts so expressed. This particular argument reflects McDowell's wider commitment to the idea that, when we understand others, we do so from "inside" our own practices: Wright and Dummett are treated as pushing the claims of explanation too far and as continuing Willard Van Orman Quine's project of understanding linguistic behaviour from an "external" perspective.
In these early exchanges and in the parallel debate over the proper understanding of Wittgenstein's remarks on rule-following, some of McDowell's characteristic intellectual stances were formed: to borrow a Wittgensteinian expression, the defence of a realism without empiricism, an emphasis on the human limits of our aspiration to objectivity, the idea that meaning and mind can be directly manifested in the action, particularly linguistic action, of other people, and a distinctive disjunctive theory of perceptual experience.
The latter is an account of perceptual experience, developed at the service of McDowell's realism, in which it is denied that the argument from illusion supports an indirect or representative theory of perception as that argument presupposes that there is a "highest common factor" shared by veridical and illusory (or, more accurately, delusive) experiences. (There is clearly a distinction between perceiving and acquiring a belief: one can see an "apparently bent" stick in the water but not believe that it is bent as one knows that one's experience is illusory. In illusions, you need not believe that things are as the illusory experiences represent them as being; in delusions, a person believes what their experience represents to them. So the argument from illusion is better described as an argument from delusion if it is to make its central point.)
In the classic argument from illusion (delusion) you are asked to compare a case where you succeed in perceiving, say, a cat on a mat, to the case where a trick of light deceives you and form the belief that the cat is on the mat, when it is not. The proponent of the argument then says that the two states of mind in these contrasting cases share something important in common, and to characterise this we need to introduce an idea like that of "sense data." Acquaintance with such data is the "highest common factor" across the two cases. That seems to force us into a concession that our knowledge of the external world is indirect and mediated via such sense data. McDowell strongly resists this argument: he does not deny that there is something psychologically in common between the subject who really sees the cat and the one that fails to do so. But that psychological commonality has no bearing on the status of the judger's state of mind from the point of view of assessing whether she is in a position to acquire knowledge. In favourable conditions, experience can be such as to make manifest the presence of objects to observers – that is perceptual knowledge. When we succeed in knowing something by perceiving it, experience does not fall short of the fact known. But this just shows that a successful and a failed perceptual thought have nothing interesting in common from the point of view of appraising them as knowledge.
In this claim that a veridical perception and a non-veridical perception share no highest common factor, a theme is visible which runs throughout McDowell's work, namely, a commitment to seeing thoughts as essentially individuable only in their social and physical environment, so called externalism about the mental. McDowell defends, in addition to a general externalism about the mental, a specific thesis about the understanding of demonstrative expressions as involving so-called "singular" or "Russellian" thoughts about particular objects that reflects the influence on his views of Gareth Evans. According to this view, if the putative object picked out by the demonstrative does not exist, then such an object dependent thought cannot exist – it is, in the most literal sense, not available to be thought.
In parallel with the development of this work on mind and language, McDowell also made significant contributions to moral philosophy, specifically meta-ethical debates over the nature of moral reasons and moral objectivity. McDowell developed the view that has come to be known as secondary property realism, or sensibility or moral sense theory. The theory proceeds via the device of an ideally virtuous agent: such an agent has two connected capacities. She has the right concepts and the correct grasp of concepts to think about situations in which she finds herself by coming to moral beliefs. Secondly, for such a person such moral beliefs are automatically over-riding over other reasons she may have and in a particular way: they "silence" other reasons, as McDowell puts it. He believes that this is the best way to capture the traditional idea that moral reasons are specially authoritative.
McDowell also here departs from the standard interpretation of the Humean theory of how action is motivated. The Humean claims that any intentional action, hence any moral action, is motivated by a combination of two mental states, one a belief and one a desire. The belief functions as a passive representation; the desire functions to supply the distinctively motivational part of the combination. On the basis of his account of the virtuous moral agent, McDowell follows Thomas Nagel in rejecting this account as inaccurate: it is more truthful to say that in the case of a moral action, the virtuous agent's perception of the circumstances (that is, her belief) itself justifies both the action and the desire. For example, we cannot understand the desire, as a Humean original existence, without relating it back to the circumstances that impinged on the agent and made her feel compelled to act. So while the Humean thesis may be a truth about explanation it is not true about the structure of justification and it ought to be replaced by Nagel's motivated desire theory as set out in his The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 1970).
Implicit in this account is a theory of the metaphysical status of values: moral agents form beliefs about the moral facts, which can be straightforwardly true or false. However, the facts themselves, like facts about colour experience, combine anthropocentricity with realism. Values are not there in the world for any observer, for example, one without our human interest in morality. However, in that sense, colours are not in the world either, but one cannot deny that colours are both present in our experience and needed for good explanations in our common sense understanding of the world. The test for the reality of a property is whether it is used in judgements for which there are developed standards of rational argument and whether they are needed to explain aspects of our experience that are otherwise inexplicable. McDowell thinks that moral properties pass both of these tests. There are established standards of rational argument and moral properties fall into the general class of those properties that are both anthropocentric but real.
The connection between McDowell's general metaphysics and this particular claim about moral properties is that all claims about objectivity are to be made from the internal perspective of our actual practices, the part of his view that he takes from the later Wittgenstein. There is no standpoint from outside our best theories of thought and language from which we can classify secondary properties as "second grade" or "less real" than the properties described, for example, by a mature science such as physics. Characterising the place of values in our worldview is not, in McDowell's view, to downgrade them as less real than talk of quarks or the Higgs boson.
The later development of McDowell's work came more strongly to reflect the influence on him of Rorty and Sellars and, in particular, both Mind and World and McDowell's later Woodbridge lectures focus on a broadly Kantian understanding of intentionality, of the mind's capacity to represent. Mind and World sets itself the task of understanding the sense in which we are active even in our perceptual experience of the world. Influenced by Sellars's famous diagnosis of the "myth of the given" in traditional empiricism, in which Sellars argued that the blankly causal impingement of the external world on judgement failed to supply justification, as only something with a belief-like conceptual structure could engage with rational justification, McDowell tries to explain how one can accept that we are passive in our perceptual experience of the world while active in how we conceptualise it. McDowell develops an account of that which Kant called the "spontaneity" of our judgement in perceptual experience, while trying to avoid the suggestion that the resulting account has any connection with idealism.
Mind and World rejects, in the course of its argument, the position that McDowell takes to be the working ideology of most of his philosophical contemporaries, namely, a reductively naturalistic account that McDowell labels "bald naturalism." He contrasts this view with what he deems to be his own "naturalistic" perspective in which the distinctive capacities of mind are a cultural achievement of our "second nature", an idea that he adapts from Gadamer. The book concludes with a critique of Quine's narrow conception of empirical experience and also a critique of Donald Davidson's views on belief as inherently veridical, in which Davidson plays the role of the pure coherentist.
One of the hallmarks of McDowell's later work is his denial that there is any philosophical use for an idea that our experience contains representations that are not conceptually structured, so-called "non-conceptual content." Given that other philosophers claim that scientific accounts of our mental lives, particularly in the cognitive sciences, need this idea, this claim of McDowell's has provoked a great deal of discussion. McDowell develops a stringent reading of Sellars' diagnosis of a "myth of the given" in perceptual experience to argue that we need always to separate out the exercise of concepts in experience from a causal account of the pre-conditions of experience and that the idea of "non-conceptual content" straddles this boundary in a philosophically unacceptable way.
While Mind and World represents an important contemporary development of a Kantian approach to philosophy of mind and metaphysics, one or two of the uncharitable interpretations of Kant's work in that book receive important revisions in McDowell's later Woodbridge Lectures, published in the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 95, 1998, pp. 431–491. Those lectures are explicitly about Wilfrid Sellars, and assess whether or not Sellars lived up to his own critical principles in developing his interpretation of Kant (McDowell claims not). McDowell has, since the publication of Mind and World, largely continued to re-iterate his distinctive positions that go against the grain of much contemporary work on language, mind and value, particularly in North America where the influence of Wittgenstein has significantly waned.
Many of McDowell's papers are collected in four volumes:Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998)
Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998)
Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009)
The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009)
In 1991 he gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford. A revised version of these lectures was published as Mind and World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994; reissued with a new introduction, 1996). It is an influential but difficult work that provides a controversial account of empirical justification for beliefs, covering some of the same ground as Hegel's critique of Kant but informed by a deep sensitivity to contemporary modes of scientific naturalism.
His work has been also heavily influenced by, among others, Ludwig Wittgenstein, P. F. Strawson, David Wiggins, and, especially, Wilfrid Sellars. Many of the central themes in McDowell's work have also been pursued in similar ways by his Pittsburgh colleague Robert Brandom (though McDowell has stated strong disagreement with some of Brandom's readings and appropriations of his work). Both have been strongly influenced by Richard Rorty, in particular Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In the preface to Mind and World (pp. ix–x) McDowell states that "it will be obvious that Rorty's work is [...] central for the way I define my stance here." McDowell's own work has been criticized for its "sometimes cryptic prose."Michael Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Language (Times Literary Supplement, 30 November 1973: unsigned, as was then the custom in the TLS); reprinted (still anonymously) in TLS 12 (OUP, London, 1974), pp. 217–224
John Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (London Review of Books, 17 April 1980)
Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Times Literary Supplement, 16 January 1981)
Andrew Woodfield, ed., Thought and Object (Times Literary Supplement, 16 July 1982)
Fellow of the British Academy (elected in 1983)
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected in 1992)
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award, 2010
Honorary degree, University of Chicago, 2008
Delivered the 1991 John Locke Lectures in Philosophy, Oxford University
Woodbridge Lectures, Columbia University, 1997
Delivered the 2006 Howison Lectures in Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley
2010 Harvard Review of Philosophy Annual Lecture
2011 Amherst Lecture in Philosophy, Amherst College
2011 Aquinas Lecture, Marquette University