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Seeing things the way they are

A few really disastrous mistakes have dominated Western philosophy for the past several centuries. The worst mistake of all is the idea that the universe divides into two kinds of entities, the mental and the physical (mind and body, soul and matter). A related mistake, almost as bad, is in our philosophy of perception. All of the great philosophers of the present era, beginning with Descartes, made the same mistake, and it colored their account of knowledge and indeed their account of pretty much everything. By ‘great philosophers’, I mean Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Kant. I am prepared to throw in Hegel and Mill if people think they are great philosophers too. I called this mistake the “Bad Argument”. Here it is: We never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world. All we ever perceive are the perceptual contents of our own mind. These are variously called ‘ideas’ by Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley, ‘impressions’ by Hume, ‘representations’ by Kant, and ‘sense data’ by twentieth century theorists. Most contemporary philosophers think they have avoided the mistake, but I do not think they have. It is just repeated in different versions, especially by a currently fashionable view called ‘Disjunctivism’.

But that leaves us with a more interesting problem: What is the correct account of the relation of perceptual experience and the real world? The key to understanding this relation is to understand the intentionality of perception. ‘Intentionality’ is an ugly word, but we can pretty much make clear what it means; a mental state is intentional if it represents, or is about, objects and states of affairs in the world. So beliefs, hopes, fears, desires are all intentional in this sense. ‘Intending’ in the ordinary sense just names one kind of intentionality, along with beliefs, desires, etc. Such intentional states are representations of how things are in the world or how we would like them to be, etc., and we might say therefore that they have “conditions of satisfaction” — truth conditions in the case of belief, fulfillment conditions in the case of intentions, etc.

The biologically most basic and gutsiest forms of intentionality are those where we don’t have mere representations but direct presentations of objects and states of affairs in the world, and part of intentionality is that these must be causally related to the conditions in the world that they present. Perception and intentional action are direct presentations of their conditions of satisfaction. In the case of perception, the conditions of satisfaction have to cause the perceptual experience. In the case of action, the intention in action has to cause the bodily movement. So the key to understanding perception is to see the special features of the causal presentational intentionality of perception. The tough philosophical question is to state how exactly the character of the visual experience, its phenomenology, determines the conditions of satisfaction.

How then does the intentional content fix the conditions of satisfaction? The first step in the answer is to see that perception is hierarchical. In order to see higher level features, such that an object is my car, I have to see such basic features as color and shape. The key to understanding the intentionality of the basic perceptual experience is to see that the feature itself is defined in part by its ability to cause a certain sort of perceptual experience. Being red, for example, consists in part in the ability to cause this sort of experience. Once the intentionality of the basic perceptual features is explained, we can then ask the question of how the presentation of the higher level features, such as seeing that it is my car or my spouse, can be explained in terms of the intentionality of the basic perceptual experiences together with collateral information.

How do we deal with the traditional problems of perception? How do we deal with skepticism? The traditional problem of skepticism arises because exactly the same type of experience can be common to both the hallucinatory and the veridical cases. How are we supposed to know which is which?

Image Credit: Marmalade Skies. Photo by Tom Raven. CC by NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. VicP

    “So beliefs, hopes, fears, desires are all intentional in this sense. ‘Intending’ in the ordinary sense just names one kind of intentionality, along with beliefs, desires, etc. Such intentional states are representations of how things are in the world or how we would like them to be, etc., and we might say therefore that they have “conditions of satisfaction” — truth conditions in the case of belief, fulfillment conditions in the case of intentions, etc.”

    Brains are not a simple organ but a multiplicity of organs and that statement says that the organ of emotion lies at the bottom of our intentional perception. The visual pathways include the amygdala so that the added information of emotion goes into you not only recognizing your wife’s car in the driveway but seeing for the first time that there is a crease in the fender.

    Vision may our most complex or master sense but the function which allows us to see outside our body bears strong structural resemblance to the folded sheet which we call the neocortex which actually “sees” inside the body and like the retina’s optic nerve the neocortical layer also roots into the older brain function. The traditional philosophy of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Kant have all taken the “blind eye view” but R Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory says otherwise.

  2. Gene Callahan

    “Here it is: We never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world. All we ever perceive are the perceptual contents of our own mind.”

    Aaargh! Berkeley very, very explicitly says the exact opposite of this! For instance, “Let me be represented as one who trusts his senses, who thinks he knows the things he sees and feels, and entertains no doubts of their existence.” I can find dozens of other quotes like this if you like.

  3. JohnD

    Gene,

    That quote doesn’t entail the contradictory of “We never directly perceive…” since Berkeley can “trust his senses” “know the things he feels” and “entertain no doubts of their existence” even while denying that they are “directly perceived” in the sense that Searle means here. Perhaps Berkeley believes that he directly perceives the content in his mind, and then that this content happens to map to the real world, but that would be different from directly perceiving the content of the real world.

  4. Gene Callahan

    Pappas on Berkeley:

    “I know of no reason to think that Berkeley is committed to holding that each idea is private in the sense described. After all, any idea immediately perceived by a finite perceiver is also immediately perceived by God. So, Berkeley is committed to the contrary line, viz., that ideas are publicly perceivable entities.”

    The furniture of the world is objectively perceivable ideas, not ideas “in our heads.”

  5. Gene Callahan

    So, for Berkeley, what we perceive are indeed *ideas*, but they are not merely *our* ideas: they are the objective ideas that make up reality.

  6. onlein

    So it all boils down to phenomenology? The phenomenologists, and the existential phenomenologists and the phenomenological existentialists, have got this covered pretty well.

  7. Sekhar

    Language serves as an indexing finger but can never be that object or this subject.After indicating the object indexing should be withdrawn so to see either subject or object as they are.
    Otherwise verbal interpretation stand as a misleading interference in between subject and object.

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