Strawson’s Idea of Perception as Theory-Laden for the Philosopher, Alva Noe’s Action in Perception, and the Larger Transcendental Preconditions
November 25, 2010 21 Comments
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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.
This is also precisely the problem that Strawson identifies in Ayer, since Ayer is operating within this tradition. Ayer believes in a “common sense realism” when approaching the phenomenal world, and holds that we develop such a system as we mature to adulthood. Ayer argues that the evidential proof for such a position must be “strict,” so Strawson holds him to the claim, noting that on these grounds the evidence, then, cannot be theory-laden. This is where the problem arises for Ayer: the proof cannot be the thing in question, since to argue so is to beg the question. But this is precisely what Ayer does. In arguing for common sense realism as a theoretical position, he relies on common sense realist observations. Thus the circularity, and this is the source of Strawson’s claim that the “data are laden with the theory.”
The common sense realist view that we hold of the world, he says, does not hold for the non-philosophical man, the status of a theory, and Ayer seems to say that he does. It is not the philosopher’s theory, however, since Strawson argues that no man holds this as “theory,” really and truly. Strawson’s solution is to simply tear away the veil. There is no veil between us and reality: there is no reason to assume that we do not directly perceive the real objects of the world. They are not mediated and there is no little man watching a screen of images or impressions. Real experience is immediate and this is the normal approach to the world—not a theory of common sense realism that we supposedly develop as we mature. The reason for this is that most men are not “philosophic men,” but ordinary individuals who do not formulate theories of perception, but rather experience the world directly. The pre-theoretical theme we all have is realist.
We have then, Locke’s representational realism and Ayer’s common sense realism, both of which end up problematic. Other attempted solutions, such as those given by Mackie also prove problematic, and fall back into the same problems as Locke’s and Ayer’s views: namely, the real world is the source of a systematic illusion. In fact, Strawson goes on to argue that Ayer’s view as well falls into systematic illusion, or Maya, since the visual and tactile properties of experience are never shown to be properties of objects in an external world, but rather just in our minds. Empiricism and logical positivism gave rise to a “psychologistic” approach which tended to view things in this mediated way. The norm nowadays, however, is to reject pscyhologism, though it has a tendency to reappear, even after devastating critiques from figures like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Strawson’s strategy was to show through reductio ad absurdam argumentation that Ayer’s and Lock’s views tended to the same conclusions of psychologism—that of absurdity and a rejection from the outset of even the possibility of sensibly talking about the world at all, much less providing substantial theoretical groundwork for the philosophy of perception.
It is this notion of theory-laden perception that Strawson touches upon that is worth highlighting and fleshing out, and showing it’s relevancy in regard to Noe’s argumentation. Strawson mentions the fact that Ayer’s view is circular because the common sense realism appealed to common sense realism to make its case. Although he does not flesh this out, he has made a crucial point—the world we experience is not like a philosopher’s abstracted speculations concerning a single mind existing as a blank slate in a vacuum, which received impressions like a camcorder. That is the theory realm of the philosopher. This is not to say that scientific or philosophical observations are useless or irrelevant, but that that is not how we experience the world. We directly experience the world, and some of us theorize about how this occurs. The further step that needs to be taken is the realization that not only does perception occur directly and really, and prior to theorization, all judgments about the world and its objects are theory-laden. It is a mistake to think that because an individual does not himself theorize about his observation of objects in the world that his observations are therefore not theory-laden. The “normal man” has simply not reflected upon and considered perceptual theory. What is crucial to grasp here is that all predications presuppose a certain kind of world—and not just any world, but apparently, as far as know, the world we presently experience. However, before getting into this main thesis, it is necessary to consider Alva Noe’s insights on perception.
Noe argues in his popular book Action in Perception that Locke and company are completely wrong. Using examples from research of blind patients, considerations of Molyneaux’s question, the Kansiza triangle, and other experiments, the evidence suggests not only that Locke was wrong about his simple empiricist claims, but also that the senses are interdependent, and at a certain level isomorphic and, at some level, even proto-conceptual skills, borrowing from Kant. They are predicates of possible judgment. The argumentation is compelling, and Noe shows that not only are we involved in receiving impressions from the world, we are also active in perception, and that this has been the fatal missing link in the classical empirical schools. Noe states: “If the sensorimotor skills are a kind of simple concept, then perceptual experience depends on conceptual understanding, albeit of a special and primitive sort….the arguments for the non-conceptual character of experience are unsatisfactory…” Indeed, thoughts without concepts are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind, as Kant said.
We are so constituted so as to have sensorimotor skills that act as preconditions for the possibility of experience. We are not blank slates that wait to be written upon, but rather actively interpret and are involved in, the process of perception. It is not a one-way road, either way. Noe argues on the basis of research that vision is, in fact, touch like. It is also active, just as touch, and we do not “turn off” either vision or touch—we seem to always be touching and seeing. Our senses do receive information, but our part in the process is not static or passive, but active. We are so constituted as to sense and interpret. Furthermore, we do not merely record data like a computer, we act in response. Noe calls this the “enactive view.” However, Noe would part with Kant in that he is a direct realist, whereas Kant never sufficiently saw the possibility that we could pierce the veil of the phenomena.
We see, then, that Noe clearly hearkens back to Kant in finding an apparent preconditional or transcendental type of argument for the possession of conceptual sensorimotor skills, and combines this with direct realism. Transcendental arguments are, by the nature of the case, arguments made indirectly, inasmuch as the nature of the category or concept in question is not something that can be proven directly. Aristotle first noted this with regard to the law of non-contradiction. Its truthfulness is shown by the fact that its denial presupposes its existence. To deny the law of non-contradiction presupposes a world wherein logical laws apply. Thus such transcendental categories are demonstrated indirectly.
Strawson and Noe both point us back in the direction of “concepts” and worldviews, even if that was not the main intention of their argumentation. However, Strawson had argued that Ayer’s flaw was partially in treating his common sense realism as something that we arrived at as philosophers upon reflection and maturation. Yet that is not how we experience the world—as matured philosophers reflecting. This is a crucial insight. Not only do we not experience the world as normal humans—even the philosophers, we experience this world. And our experience of this world is theory-laden, meaning that it is situated in the context of some kind of worldview. Noe argues that we possess preconditional conceptual skills and are so constituted as to actively interpret the world, directly and really. Again, we are active in the perception, not just any “world,” not a dream realm or fantasy world, but this world, directly. This is relevant because it would appear that we should extrapolate that this is also universally the case for all humans, who at least possess all their faculties.
This is a strong case. It appears that denial of any of these positions places one in hot water. If we take Ayer’s or Locke’s position, we are stuck in Maya and perpetual illusion, with no conceivable way out. The solution is to go in the direction of direct realism and to also posit that perception is active and that we are constituted in a certain way. Here is my argument—let’s take Strawson’s point about the philosopher’s speculation as not being the “real world” insofar as this is not how we live our lives and apply it to Noe. I am not saying Noe has erred: on the contrary, I am saying that he is correct in his thesis, but that that is not all there is to the story. We do not exist in a world of abstracted philosophical and phenomenological investigation. When I approach a house or mailbox, I do not approach it, generally, with the concern of doing a phenomenological reduction or with a consideration of the transcendentally necessary categories. I might do that sometimes, when I’m in a particularly philosophic mood, or in the midst of a good conversation, but not all the time. My point here is similar to the point Heidegger made against Husserl—there is a life that is connected to these instances: not a mere scientific lab test. The world we experience is not a meaningless collection of Kansiza triangles that I then give meaning to. And the world that Husserl, Ayer, Strawson and Noe live in is not any world, but precisely this world.
If this is the case (and any direct realist must affirm it to be so), then this has tremendous implications. The response will certainly be that this is not what Strawson or Neo had in mind, and such a conclusion from the two works is to vast in scope and unwarranted. On the contrary, that they did not have such an idea in mind is completely irrelevant to the point. That fact bears no relation whatsoever to the truth or falsity of the claim that if their argumentation is sound, then other things follow. Indeed, this is what any person who writes a philosophy paper or work does. If we admit that it is this world that we all experience, then we must admit that each of these experiments and subjects mentioned by Noe (such as the blind or viewers of the scene with the gorilla) are also a part of this world.
The point being, there is no such thing as a realm wherein tests can be done to extrapolate data, as if the datum is
independent of the world, free from any interpretational bias, and frozen in time. There is no Kansiza star experiment that exists outside of real persons in this world going into a lab to experience the test somewhere, and the given scientists and subjects have obviously lived lives in this world. To ignore this obvious fact is the folly of approaching such an issue with a naively assumed, purely “scientific method” approach. The point is not that the scientific method does not work or yield evidence, or that the studies give us no facts; it is that they are studies conducted precisely in time and space, in history, by actual persons in this world. Yet the “philosopher” all too often approaches these issues like Ayer did. The philosopher presumes he can achieve pure neutrality, rationally lift his mind into the realm of abstracted truth, and then posit argumentation that is falsely believed to be objective and not theory-laden. At the risk of sounding post-modern, I should clarify that I am not saying the philosopher doesn’t achieve truth. I am saying that too often the philosopher does not flesh out his implications. It is astonishing that this so often goes unnoticed. Then again, most philosophers will not question their presuppositions and see where the evidence leads.
What is the point of all this? That Noe is right—there are preconditional conceptual skills or categories that are necessary for us as so constituted human beings to act in and interpret the world. And if this is the case, there is no philosophic police who can arbitrarily mandate that no further transcendental categories can be further extrapolated or demonstrated. Indeed, Noe has pointed us back in this direction, but also posited direct realism. Direct realism must conclude that it is this world that is directly real to us. This world encompasses the totality of objects and events, from past, present and future. What I mean by this is what Leibniz referred to in his famous Discourse on Metaphysics:
“But before going further it is necessary to meet a difficulty which may arise regarding the principles which we have set forth in the preceding. We have said that the concept of an individual substance includes once for all everything which can ever happen to it and that in considering this concept one will be able to see everything which can truly be said concerning the individual, just as we are able to see in the nature of a circle all the properties which can be derived from it.”
If “concepts without percepts are empty” and “percepts without concepts are blind,” as Kant said, then there is no such thing as abstracted scientific datum. All scientific data is datum connected to all other datum in this world, and studied by human beings in this world. There is no such thing as pure neutrality for objects in the world. Thus this world, in which we live, as it is so structured, is a precondition for Noe to write his book. For Noe to write his book in this world and to posit that we are naturally equipped with categories for perception is to argue for a world in which there are very complex designs.
A world of random chance and chaos is not this kind of world, and Noe in fact argues according to what appear to be blind, evolutionary processes. A world where meaning is found in social construction, and thus relative and ultimately meaningless is inconsistent with positing a world where there are beings constituted with complex skills like sensorimotor preconditional categories. Noe would surely respond that such conclusions are non sequiturs from his admission of Kantian-style preconditions. But it is not on my shoulders to reconcile a world like what we have in this line of reasoning, with a world or ultimate meaninglessness and chaos, but rather the job of those who hold conflicting presuppositions—namely, a world where all things necessarily relate to all other things, or a world of vast evolutionary chaos, where meaningless beings attempt to make meaning in a meaningless expanse.
 Strawson, P.F. ”Perception and Its Objects” in Vision and Mind: Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception
(MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. 2002), 99.
 Ibid., 92
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 109.
 Noe, Alva. Action in Perception (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. 2004), 182-183.
 Noe, 184.
 Noe, 182.
 Ibid., 85.
 Leibniz, G.W. Discourse on Metaphysics, XIII (Retrieved from:
) Thursday, November 25th, 2010.