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A.J. Ayer and other logical positivists have contended that the problem of perception is a central issue in modern epistemology and metaphysics. Ayer himself argued from a position of phenomenalism to what he termed “sophisticated realism.” Ayer represented more or less the end of the “psychologistic” approach to perception, even with later defenses of realism, and P.F. Strawson gives a biting critique of Ayer in his article “Perception and Its Objects.” Likewise, Alva Noe has argued for what he terms an “enactive approach” to perception, outlined in his Action in Perception. In this paper, I will compare the criticisms of both, in regard to the empiricist and psychologistic approach, as well as arguing that Strawson’s view of theory-laden approaches and common sense realism are also crucial for Noe’s thesis.
In order to understand Strawson’s criticisms of Ayer, it is necessary to first understand Locke’s view of perception and then move from this to the application of Strawson’s insights, to Noe, and then my argument for the necessity of a larger context as a precondition resulting from where both are correct. John Locke argued that human perception is akin to pictures of objects, received from sense impressions that in some form exist in the mind as concepts, or ideas. Locke is, of course, a seminal thinker, along with Hume and Berkeley, in British Empiricism. In this view, the human mind is conceived of as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, which passively receives impressions from the external world, which are then stamped upon the mind, as a kind of seal in wax, or picture in the mind. There are no innate ideas.
In this view, perception is thus not direct, but indirect, or mediated by sensuous qualities or “accidents” (in the classical terminology) we perceive of the object. Objects in the world possess primary and secondary qualities, and these qualities we receive as impressions through sensation are then the only data we pick up from experience. The mind is viewed here, though anachronistic, as a blank tape in a camcorder, which records the impressions. The self or subject then views them, as if there were a “little man,” or homunculus inside the mind of the subject. For Locke, the mind can never penetrate to the substratum, or reach beyond the veil of the senses. Hence, it is an indirect or mediated realism. The objects of the external world are indeed objects with a real ontological status; they have being. However, the mind of the subject can never penetrate to the world in itself, and this ends up being the chief problem for classical empiricism. The Lockian view, what Strawson calls “scientific realism,” ends up presenting us with systematic illusion.