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Monday, 20 March 2017

Perception as hospitality

In a lot of the discussion concerning the content of perceptual experience and the alternatives to what Sellars diagnosed as a myth of the Given, including in positions that try to avoid the myth while intending to claim that there is a content to what the senses deliver (and not only a causal connection with thought, like in Davidson), there is a tacit and important assumption: that the senses grasp in a flash. That is, perception is not a process bounded together with acts of understanding and movements of intentionality but rather the capture (and eventually the co-ordination) of a state of affairs - such as 'x is red'. McDowell's struggles to determine what is the nature of what the senses deliver - conceptualized content in the form of propositions or intuitions that require conceptual abilities - still fail to escape from the flash predicament. He assumes perception is separable in principle from the workings of the understanding - and response-dependence is set apart from any sort of ongoing interaction between the perceiver's capacities and what the perceived item offers. Receptivity is taken to be an instant and not a process. I guess receptivity would be best understood if considered in terms of the more complex and often greatly tortuous process of hospitality.

Last Friday I had a great conversation with Eli while walking with Vrim across the campus of the LSU and drinking chai at its outskirts. He asked me about McDowell, Travis and the Given. I recalled that Levinas (in Autrement qu'être) claims that the Other cannot be simply a consequence of my freedom (of my spontaneity) neither can she be an imposition (an exercise of exculpation). It's interesting that the Sellarsian debate use words associated with offering, demanding and welcoming: given (as in for-given), exculpations, excuses, responses.
Levinas' observation seems to indicate that the Other in perception what is to be received - maybe given but neither imposed nor constructed. What is perceived acts as demanding reception; hospitality is not a flash like a door being opened. A given is not an imposition and not a construction - it is perhaps like a demand. We have explored the idea that perception is like reading - and always an ethical act oriented by a quest of justice. If it is so, it would be attempting to do justice to the (singular) item being perceived. Perception is like reaching some sort of agreement with something singular - an agreement that responds to what is perceived and therefore involves responsibility. Response is itself perhaps best understood in the context of a conversation with the Other, what is perceived is part of a process that is longer than a flash (x is red) and involves what the perceiver takes as important and how the perceived challenges this by demanding something that can fail to fit the perceiver's expectations. As I wrote last year, maybe intuitions speak only in the context of a conversation.

To be present in perception is not to be represented, but to interrupt understanding (sometimes just to corroborate it). Perception sometimes fail because there is not the right effort to make justice to the singularity being perceived. Perception, like hospitality, requires what Derrida calls "a chez soi"- a framework of concepts, a co-ordination of facts where the perceived item can be received. The idea that there is an animation in what is perceived follows from Whitehead's ontology of organism: what is perceived is itself equally an actual entity. However, in a given episode of perception, for Whitehead, the perceived item is only passively present (even though it can perceive by itself in other episodes of perception). If perception is more like a conversation, subjective forms are always part of an ongoing dialogue. What the hospitality model affords is the idea that the animation of what is perceived is something with which we engage in a personal process when we perceive - and a process that is a non-ending quest for justice. Faced like this, perception is always responding to justice more than to truth.

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