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Tuesday, 12 May 2015

My talk tomorrow at the Hegel-McDowell conference

* This talk can be described like this: what would happen to McDowell´s account of perception if it is wedded to Whitehead´s philosophy of organism instead of flirting with Hegel´s ideas.

The muteness of intuitions:
asking ontological questions about what senses deliver

1. Kant motivated a way of thinking about sensible intuitions – the deliverances of the sense – according to which they can only inform about how things are in the world if they were unrelated to our spontaneous conceptual exercises. If the senses cannot provide any external verdict on our thoughts, we are somehow shut off from how things are – although we could still attain (some sort of) universality and necessity. Bringing together the exercises of spontaneity and verdicts of the senses taint sensory information with conceptuality and therefore leaves the footsteps of those who manage to set up the tribunal using what the senses deliver.

This way of thinking about intuitions posits that only a separation between conceptual exercises on the one hand and verdicts from sensory experience on the other could make sure we are properly affected by the world through the senses. We can connect such a separation with what Davidson (1974) labeled content-scheme dualism, although it actually points at a dualism – a separation - between conceptual scheme on the one hand and empirical verdicts on the other, and not one between conceptual scheme and whatever comes to us through the senses. It is, to coin a label, a scheme-verdict dualism. As it were, this dualism is often wedded with the also Kantian idea that unaided sensible intuitions cannot provide verdicts and therefore that there can be no scheme-verdict dualism because verdicts cannot stand independently from conceptual exercises. Verdicts had to be separated from schemes but they cannot be. The failed dualism can be understood as entailing that concepts and verdicts cannot be separated for there is some kind of internal relation between them.

A. C. Ewing, in his Idealism, a Critical Survey(1934), has debunked the connection between what he calls epistemological idealism and the internal nature of relations. His target was the argument that purports to infer antirealism from the ontological thesis that all relations are internal – and not a much weaker version that has been recently considered by Schaffer (2010) to entail priority monism, namely the thesis that there must be at least one internal relation between allthings. Because Ewing considers the stronger thesis that all relations are internal, he examines the argument that such thesis entails epistemological idealism. The argument concentrates on knowing and its object and has that if
all relations are 'internal', and then, since knowing and its object are related […] knowing must make a difference to its object, thus overthrowing realist epistemology. (43)

I take the argument would imply, for example, that an internal relation between verdicts from the senses and the knower who receives them puts epistemological realism in difficulties. It is as if realist epistemology would have to hold on to a scheme-verdict dualism. Ewing counter-argues that this is a mistake shared both by idealists who make use of the thesis that all relations are internal and by realists who insist that they have to reject the thesis. He points out that an internal relation between cognition and its object doesn't entail that the object of cognition is changed or brought into being by cognition. He then makes an interesting comparison: the effect of a cause depends on it but doesn't change or causes a change in the cause, nor bring the cause into existence. Ewing illustrates the point as follows:
Suppose a man had died through his head being cut off. In that case it would certainly be true that, if the man had not died, it could not be a fact that his head had been cut off, just as idealists suppose that, where it is the case that I know S, S could not have been the same had I not known it. But would it be right to conclude from this that the man had cut off his own head, or that by dying he had cased a change in the preceding stroke of the axe which led to his own death? Certainly not. Therefore why should we argue similarly that because, as the idealists assume, the object known would have been different if I had not known it […]? (47)
The internal relation, he concludes, would lead to no more than the thesis that the world being as it is, “minds could not have failed to know any given fact that they actually have come to know”. (48) In order to bring his point home to the issue of scheme-verdict dualism, one needs to assert that conceptually-aided verdicts are not different because they are internally related to concepts and therefore are not spurious, at least not in virtue of them being internally related to concepts. What I take Ewing's disentangling of internal relations and epistemological idealism to be doing is to open space for a response-dependency realist epistemology. In the case of perception, this amounts to the belief that there is a way for deliverances of the senses to be received and not distorted by conceptual schemes and in fact concepts can be true to internally related verdicts.

Now McDowell has championed a realist epistemology at least since his Mind and World (1994) and his variety combines a certain sort of conceptual response-dependency with an (epistemologically internalist) disjunctivism about perception. He holds that in genuine cases of exercises of perceptual capabilities, the deliverances of the senses – themselves made of the stuff conceptual thinking is made – are in touch with the world. When this is the case, one can attain perceptually to what goes on in the world, that things are thus and so. The senses provide therefore candidates to judgments aided by (passive) exercises of conceptual capabilities and thus can inform how things are, for the world is itself taken as thinkable. There is a dependence between the deliverances of the senses and what they capture: had what is perceived been different, the senses would deliver something else. There is an internal relation between verdicts of the senses and conceptual schemes: verdicts depend on conceptual capacities and concepts are crafted for empirical thinking.

An important feature of McDowell's epistemology of perception is that the internal relation between perception and its object is mediated by concepts that enable the senses to provide reasons. Conceptual perception is thought as internally related to what it perceives in a way that no other relation of perception is. They are related by a conceptual mediation embedded both in the deliverances of the senses and in the features of the world attained when one genuinely perceives how things are. So mediation doesn't stop anywhere short of the facts. The conceptual is understood as being unbound: it reaches everywhere the senses reach, and uncover the objects of perception. As a consequence, empirical thinking is internally related to things perceived in a way that makes no change to them, as they are conceived themselves as capable to be disclosed by conceptual exercises. In what follows I would like to suggest an alternative form of realism that, while appealing to an internal relation between sense perception and its objects – and between concepts and verdicts from experience –, doesn't make this relation sui generis by postulating a conceptual mediation as the connecting link between the relata. In some sense then, I will be recommending that a response-dependency realist epistemology would be better off parting company with a Hegelian outlook.

2. McDowell closes his Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge(2011) saying that “[p]erception as an operation of rationality is our distinctive species of something that is generically animal” (57). He wants precisely to defend the sui generis character of perception as an operation of concepts precisely because it affords an exercise of giving reasons for one's perceptual judgment. Conceptual capacities enable one to state that things are thus and so because they perceive things as being thus and so. Perception as an operation of rationality requires therefore an internalist approach, that he finds inSellars: to perceive something is to be able to engage it as a reason for a judgment. Interestingly, he makes clear that such an approach cannot generalize to all sorts of perception – he's thinking of how animals and infants deal with the deliverances of their senses – but he's convinced that
[although] internalism must be wrong in an account that is supposed to fit perceptual knowledge in general […] internalism [can be] right about a distinctive kind of warrant by virtue of which the percpetual knowledge of rational subjects counts as the knowledge it is. (21)
He proceeds to make a general methodological remark that intends to justify his approach to something far more restricted than perception in general, as genus where perception as an operation of rationality is no more than a species:
If our concern is with a species, we do not have to restrict ourselves to things that are true of all instances of the genus of which it is a species. (21)

In fact, he compares his internalist approach to perception as an operation of rationality with Burge's (epistemological) externalism concerning perception. An account of perception that doesn't pay attention to the specifics of the involvement of concepts in sense reception cannot make justice the legitimate claims that perceiving amounts to knowing. In a similar vein, Pritchard (2012) argues that perception provides accessible reasons – that is, genuine episodes of perception provide access to justifications – even though one could not discriminate genuine episodes of perception from spurious ones. This failure in discrimination together with the capacity for perception to provide accessible reasons makes disjunctivism in perception, according to Pritchard, an epistemological holy grail that would accommodate externalist intuitions within a firmly internalist account. An externalist take, by contrast, would fail to explain the connection between perceiving and knowing about the world for reasons would not be accessible to the knower. McDowell maintains that the internalist connection, by contrast, would engage reasons – and the deployment of concepts – to explain why genuine verdicts from the world can be provided by sensorial experience.

The concentrated attention in the specific case of perception as an operation of rationality, however, leaves perception in general unexplained for the more general relation between sensible intuitions and information about the world is left aside. Instead of methodologically restricting oneself to the species of perception as an operation of rationality, one could consider this case as an instance of what takes place in the broader genus of perception in general. This alternative – and speculative – methodology would make the species reveal something about the genus, instead of blinding us about it. As McDowell himself recognises, perception is a broader phenomenon and broad is the issue of how information from the world relates with the workings of the perceiver. An approach that looks at conceptually-mediated perception as a case of something more general will understand the internal relation between conceptual scheme and verdicts – and the falsity of the scheme-verdict dualism – in terms other than the mediation of concepts itself. McDowell finds in Sellars no objection to extending epistemic capacities beyond perceivers who monger concepts for his topic is “a species of a genus, which, for all he cares, can be recognized as being instantiated also [in other animals and infants]” (14).

In contrast, Sellars and McDowell would take perception as an instantiation of something else also broader: the placement of something in the space of reasons. Among perceivers with conceptual capacities, knowledge endeavours are instances of moves within this logical space. Perception episodes, in these cases, are linked with knowledge because perceivers can engage the deliverances of their senses as reasons. Perception as a genus, however, is an epistemic capacity found elsewhere where justification as a move in the space of reasons is not operative but still senses deliver from the world. To be sure, just like attention to perception as moving in the space of reason should not blur the specifics of perception episodes, to focus on the genus of perception in general should not obliterate the specifics of perception as conceptual operation at work. Rather, understanding the specific case as such should illuminate its features as instances of a broader perception phenomenon.

3. What would be the broader import for perception of the idea that a scheme-verdict dualism doesn't hold? The question leads to the issue of the nature of what is delivered by the senses. Considering the scheme-content dualism, McDowell reflects on the postulated independence of the two poles: conceptual schemes and the exercises they afford cannot respond to how things are in the world; on the other hand the deliverances of the senses that could provide verdicts about the world are placed, under the dualist assumptions, outside the conceptual exercises. He writes:
If rational relations hold exclusively between elements of schemes, it cannot be the case that what it is for something within a scheme to be rationally in good shape, and so worthy of credence, is its being related in a certain way to something outside the scheme. “Intuitions without concepts are blind”, Kant said. But […] a more suggestive metaphor for the point would be that intuitions without concepts are mute. They cannot intelligibly constitute a tribunal, something capable of passing favourable verdicts on some exercises of concepts and unfavourable verdicts on others. (1999: 89-90)
Mute intuitions are those that don't speak to those who enjoy them, who cannot inform about the state of affairs in the world. A perceiver who entertains mute intuition cannot be affected by them; there can be no verdicts because nothing is heard about the world – to the effect that things are one way or another. McDowell intends mute intuitions – which are taken by him as the ones deprived of concept – to be mute in the tribunal, that is incapable of passing verdicts. They are mute because they don't say anything that can make a difference – they cannot have any effect for they are not heard. We can think of mute intuitions as intuitions that are not felt, not sensed, not detected. They convey no message.

Now, if we aim at finding out something more general about perception from the interface between conceptual exercises and the deliverances of the senses, we can examine what is it in concepts that make intuitions not mute. In other words, how do conceptual exercises manage to extract a message – say, a verdict – from the otherwise silent senses. How do they make intuitions speak. The question leads to the issue of what could be an unaided intuition and how to make it deliver a message. Mute intuitions are the ones that are somehow transmitted and not received, maybe because the receiver lacksthe means to do it. In the case of perception as an operation of conceptual capacities, the lack of appropriate concepts makes reception defective or impossible. Hence, for an infant who is barely learning to articulate words, the presence of flames in her visual field doesn't convey the message – or present the verdict – that 'something is on fire'. Concept acquisition provides the appropriate modulation for sensible intuitions to speak for it enables one to detect in one's environment what makes enough difference for fire to be present and what doesn't. An acquired concept provides a matrix of differences and indifferences. Mute intuitions, by contrast, makes no difference to one's perception that things are thus and so. Mute sensible intuitions can be thought as information the perceived currently lacks the means to tune in. It is, in a sense, information that cannot be exploited by the perceiver. To acquire the means to exploit it – that is, to acquire, for instance, appropriate conceptual capacities – is to capture a message, a message that is in the object to be disclosed but which needs some sort of modulation to be conveyed. If the scheme-verdict dualism is rejected, there is an internal relation between perceivers and the perceived object – a relation that could be spelled out in terms of the unboundedness of the conceptual. In a broader picture – of perception as a genus – the internal relation holds between the capacities to tune in and perceived object. Modulation has to tune in to what is there to be perceived.

The rejection of the scheme-verdict dualism could therefore be suitably expanded to a rejection of a more general modulator-message dualism. As the verdict doesn't come from anywhere external to the conceptual scheme, the message cannot be separated from the modulator. An internal relation between message and modulator entails that the message is ready to be received by the modulator and that the modulator mediates the message. Such mediation is what the modulator does – such as the conceptual mediation in particular is what the conceptual operations do. The message is therefore internally connected to the modulator; the message is modulator-dependent and therefore it is response-dependent. The message received is therefore different from the object perceived, but in a genuine episode of perception the object perceived is present. The object perceived is what produces the perception effect and is internally related to the overall perception.

The emerging picture is neither one where the object perceived is left out of the perceiving process – that would lead to some epistemological idealism – nor one where the perceived object is immediately perceived – without it being present in a (modulated, decoded) message. But the perceived object is present through the message. It is a somehow Lockean image: there is a real object being perceived even though it is perceived through a medium. But it is a somehow peculiarly Lockean image – as opposed to a Humean one – in the sense that the primary focus of any perception episode is the real object. It is the real object, a res vera, that effects the act of perception. There is no genuine episode of perception if there is no real object being perceived.

4. The insistence on the general character of this somehow Lockean image of perception is central to Whitehead's philosophy of organism (1978). Perhaps it is time to attempt at domesticating the rhetoric of this philosophy. Whitehead explored the idea that there could be no such thing as a vacuous actuality – an actual existent that makes no effect on any other existent. He called this his ontological principle, and it is a thesis that he acknowledge to share with people he disagree deeply like Bradley. It is a principle common to some versions of idealism (and perhaps to absolute idealism) but it is easy to apply a variation of Ewing's argument above to the effect that the principle itself entails no epistemic idealism. His peculiar way of engaging the principle is by insisting that every genuine existent is capable of making effects on others. A completely mute intuition, for instance, would be a vacuous actuality for it would have no effect on anything. Scheme-verdict dualism – and, more broadly, modulator-message dualism – is therefore precluded and the received message is always connected to the capacities of the existent who exercised perception. To be sure, intuitions could be mute for some perceivers but not for others because modulators – as message- receiving capacities – are different and therefore are capable to exploit different sense intuitions. Other animals and infants, for example, could be capable of perceptually exploit sensorial intuitions that could be oblivious to conceptual perception. In any case, intuitions, like anything else, can only exist if they have an effect on something else.

Perception is the key ingredient in Whitehead's philosophy. While adopting a version of the Lockean image of perception – a thoroughly realist version along the lines of what was sketched above – he thinks Locke didn't take the metaphysical consequences of his views seriously enough. Those consequences include rejecting the idea that what is reality is made of substances in favour of taking it as an assemblage of perceiving and perceived occasions. Because he connects the exercises of perception with whatever actually exists, Whitehead understands efficient causes in terms of perception: an effect perceives its cause in the sense that it is modified by it. Instead of making the conceptual unbound, he finds an unbound perceptual – not because everything is perceived by something but rather because everything is engaged in some sort of act of perception. Perception is everywhere.Acts of perception always involve a perceived object – res vera – and a message being received – that he calls subjective form. The latter is what makes sure there is a mediator between the perceiver and the perceived object. His description of perception makes it very broad – it is unbound in the sense that no actual thing could be oblivious to the game of perceiving and being perceived. Interestingly, he builds his account from the conceptual perception instances – it is from Locke's and Kant's analysis of sensible intuition that he (speculatively) extrapolates a general account that attempts to make conceptual perception something that fits a broader picture.

I will not have time to say much more about Whitehead's philosophy of organism and its views on perception. But I would like to make few remarks on perception as an operation of concepts. Whitehead sees this as a species within a genus, but with important specificities. Concepts are instrumental in making some episodes of perception come alive – these are episodes that enable judgments in the form of propositions. In these episodes, concepts are at play because they engage the res vera in trying to fit them into a state of affairs presented to the perceiver. Conceptual perception (strictly speaking conceptual prehension, for prehension takes into consideration also what is not perceived) engage both universals and actual existents in a way that an exercise of fitting takes place: they modulate intuitions in a way that senses deliverances appear in the format of judgment. Concepts articulate the res vera perceived with a sensorial vocabulary involving universals in a way that they elicit features that enable empirical reasoning. Whitehead claims that the deployment of concepts (brought in by linguistic operations) elucidate percepta, including the elucidation of causal elements that affect human sensorial experience. In any case of perception, what matters is the “enhancement of the importance of relationships” (1978: 173) which were already present in what is perceived. Conceptual perception is special, it allows for typically human practices. Still, concepts are modulators of mute intuitions that have a role in the production of sensorial information that is similar to a role that has to be played in any episode of perception. The nature of the produce of perception is varied, but in all cases the object perceived is present and in all cases under a modulated form that extracts the relevant information from it for the perceiver to be affected. Conceptual perception is a special case of a general account, one that enables sensible judgments, that offers elements for inferences and that provide ingredients for rational operations. It is singular but only to the extent that it exemplifies something broader.

5. I think this Whiteheadian alternative account elucidates the kind of internal relation that holds between verdicts and conceptual schemes. Epistemological realism – with a quite widespread appeal to internal relations – is combined with a response-dependence account where a res vera is elucidated by the presence of a modulator. Perception is widespread. Indeed, it is a postulation of the philosophy of organism that perception is the grounding metaphysical situation. Perception involving the operation of concepts is a special case of something broader. To be sure, the medium in which res verae affect each other is perception because perception is never alien to the object being perceived.

Davidson, D. (1974) “On the very idea of conceptual scheme”, Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, 47.
Ewing, A. C. (1934) Idealism, a Critical Survey, New York: Methuen.
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge: Harvard UP
(1999) “Scheme-content dualism and empiricism” in: Hahn, L. E., The philosophy of Donald Davidson, Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 87-108.
(2011) Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge, Milwaukee: Marquette UP.
Pritchard, D. (2012) Epistemological Disjunctivism, Oxford: Oxford UP.
Schaffer, J. (2010) “Monism: the priority of the whole”, Philosophical Review, 119, 1.
Whitehead, A. (1978) Process and Reality, New York: Free Press.

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