Devices & Hardware

Perceptual Content and Lucid Looks

A common argument for perceptual representational content starts from how in experience things look ("perceptual looks"). However, recently anti-representationalists have challenged the idea that perceptual looks can be associated with
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   Perceptual Content and Lucid Looks Abstract:  A common argument for perceptual representational content starts from how in experience things look (“perceptual looks”). However, recently anti-representationalists have challenged the idea that perceptual looks can be associated with representation (Breckenridge 2007; Travis 2004, 2013). In this paper I defend the representationalist from these arguments. As I describe, the debate about perceptual looks turns on an issue of self-knowledge: the way the character of experience is subjectively available. On this issue, I argue for a view of experiential self-knowledge that supports the association between perceptual looks and representational content. Keywords : Perceptual Content; Self-Knowledge; Transparency; Perceptual Looks[there is] something at the heart of the problem [of perception], something which is rarely made fully articulate in discussion of it […] that the more fundamental problem here is one concerning our knowledge of our own minds. M.G.F. Martin 2000, p. 198Consider your current visual experience. There are certain ways things look. The cup looks reddish in the late afternoon sun. The book looks to be located under the stack of exams. Judging from the brilliant display of colors in the sky, it looks like it might be raining later. Call these types of propositions, i.e. descriptions of how things look visually, “looks”-sentences. 1 Traditionally, philosophers have taken “looks”-sentences as being importantly revealing of the nature of  perceptual experience. 2  For example, it has been argued that sentences like “ a looks  F  ”, when true of appropriate visual experiences, can provide the basis for arguments that attribute to experience representational content. 3  On such arguments, the ways things look in an experience—the cup looking reddish, say—are best explained in terms of ways the experience represents  the perceptible world as being. Accordingly, some philosophers take certain “looks”-sentences to in effect express  perceptual contents. Recently, however, the connection between “looks”-sentences and perceptual representation has been challenged, most prominently by Charles Travis (2004; 2013). On Travis’s line of argument, there are manyincompatible ways that things can look given a particular visual experience. The same “reddish” look, for example, may be associated with my white cup in the late afternoon sunlight, but it may also be associated 1  For now “looks visually” is intended broadly (excluding non-visual uses like “this case looks easy”). A more detailed treatment follows below. 2  For the seminal treatment, Chisholm 1957. 3  For such views: Tye 1995, 2000, 2009; Pautz 2010; Harman 1990; Siegel 2010; McDowell 1994; Peacocke 1992. For the specific association with looks-statements, see Schellenberg 2011. 1  with a reddish cup in ordinary sunlight. For Travis, no single way things may look provides a suitable candidate for being the way(s) my experience represents the environment as being. For Travis, there simplyis no type of “looks”-sentence that, while properly characterizing my visual experience, univocally “asserts” the existence of a particular state of affairs, as perceptual contents are intended to do. 4  While the debate concerning “looks”-sentences (and Travis’s argument in particular) has engendered significant literature, in this paper I will focus on a point that has been broadly ignored: the way“looks”-sentences express a form of  self- knowledge. Consider that a “looks”-sentence, if suitably descriptive of a visual experience, expresses a type of self-awareness on the part of the subject, viz. awareness of what her visual experience is like. 5  After all, in experience things look ways to  someone : viz., the subject of the experience. This raises the question how we should understand this subjective viewpoint. What type of self-awareness does the subject express when knowledgeably saying that “such-and-so is howthings look to me”? I will argue that anti-representationalist arguments, including Travis’s, depend criticallyon a mistaken model of this type of experiential self-awareness, viz. a model that unduly relies on a narrow conception of phenomenal character in grounding the subject’s self-awareness of the nature of her experience. I argue that a corrected, richer view of experiential self-awareness blunts the force of these anti-representationalist arguments, and provides positive support for a representationalist treatment of looks. The paper will proceed as follows. In §1 I introduce the argument for associating looks with representational content, and subsequently turn to anti-representationalist resistance to this argument. My focus will specifically be on the way the debate turns fundamentally on how to conceive self-awareness of experience. In §2 I introduce and reject two popular views of this type of self-awareness, both of which focus on experiential states being represented  by the perceiving subject. In §3 I develop an alternative approach, on which experiential self-awareness is best associated not with what is represented, but how the state represents.   In §4 I argue that given this conception of self-awareness, there is natural representational 4  Here it does not matter whether perceptual representations are taken to be conceptual or non-conceptual, insofar  both carry commitments to what is represented being represented as  some definite way 5  Note that this is not inconsistent with the common claim that experience is transparent  , i.e. that experiential awareness does not include awareness of qualities of the experience itself. Even given transparency, “looks”-sentencesexpress self-awareness. Consider, for example, that I can always say that things look such-and-so to me . 2  treatment of how things in experience look, which moreover avoids Travis-style anti-representationalist arguments. In §5 I conclude. 1. Two Requirements on the Argument from Looks While long considered the default view on the nature of perception, in recent years there has been increased demand for a positive argument for representationalist views of experience. 6  In response, one  popular way for representationalists to provide such an argument has been to reason from the way in experience the environment looks. 7  Here is how Wylie Breckenridge renders an impressionistic sketch of the argument (Breckenridge 2007, p. 117): One reason that I sometimes hear in support of [the content] view (at least in conversation) is the following:(1) When something looks a certain way, it makes sense to ask whether or not it is the way it looks.[…] The claim is not always formulated in this way—sometimes it is formulated as follows:(2) Visual experiences can be assessed as veridical or non-veridical, or as accurate or inaccurate, or as correct or incorrect.When I ask what is meant by (2), I typically get (1) as a reply, so I take it that they express the same claim.   As Breckenridge here illustrates, the heart of the argument from looks to content is that sentences that register looks—“the apple looks green”—are accuracy-evaluable, and that likewise contents are understoodin terms of such evaluation. Accordingly, the latter seem perfectly placed to explain the former. In an example, consider Susanna Schellenberg’s “Master Argument” (Schellenberg 2011, pp. 719-20). On this argument, if a subject is visually aware of her environment, then she is visually aware of the environment  being some way: the apple, for example, looks  green .   The conclusion Schellenberg draws from this observation is abductive: what best explains that in experience the environment looks some way to the 6  The pressure being due, no doubt, to increasing competition from non-representationalist views (e.g. those of Campbell 2002, Brewer 2011, Martin 2006, Fish 2009, Genone 2014, 2016). 7  E.g. Tye 2006, Chalmers 2006, Siegel 2010. 3  subject is that the experience bears content to the effect that her environment is  that way. Accordingly, experience has content. Recently anti-representationalists have questioned the association between looks and content. I herefocus on an argument by Wylie Breckenridge (2007), and an argument by Charles Travis (2004; 2013) that has received especially significant attention. I will introduce the arguments in turn.On Breckenridge’s version of the objection, the problem lies not in associating experience with accuracy-evaluable looks. Instead, Breckenridge challenges the abductive inference to experiential content. Consider assertions of e.g. walking or talking some way (e.g. “proud” or “American”). 8  For Breckenridge, such assertions are accuracy-evaluable (“John talks American, but is he?”). However, as Breckenridge is surely right to note, this hardly means that activities like walking and talking are associated with content: walking and talking do not represent. For Breckenridge this shows that the abductive inference from looks to content fails (Breckenridge 2007, p. 117): I take it that the move [from a looks-sentence] to the claim that visual experiences have representational content is supposed to be an inference to the best explanation [...]. I have just argued that this inference is too strong to be a good one. The similarity in form between the [looks-sentence] and [the applicability of correctness to cases of walking some way, talking some way, etc.]suggests that they be given a uniform explanation. So if the explanation just given is the best explanation of the [looks-sentence], then corresponding explanations are the best explanations of [the applicability of correctness to cases of walking some way, talking some way, etc.] As Breckenridge argues, the grammatical surface similarity between cases of looking some way and walking some way or talking some way suggests that these phenomena be explained in a uniform manner. However, the application of correctness to “walks”-talk and “talks”-talk does not ground an abductive inference to content. Accordingly, such an abductive inference cannot be sustained in the case of looks-talk either.How should we consider Breckenridge’s argument? As formulated, the argument begs the question against the representationalist. In sentences like “John walks proud”, John’s manner of walking may be 8  Breckenridge intentionally chooses the non-adverbial grammar of phrases like “John talks American”, but argues that such phrases are grammatical and that, moreover, using ungrammatical sentences in arguments is not problematic (Breckenridge 2007, p. 120). One way to approach my criticism of Breckenridge below is to suggest the grammar is not unproblematic, and serves to import representation where it isn’t present. 4  some indication  that he is, in fact, proud, raising the question whether the sentence is true. 9  By insisting on a uniform treatment of the surface grammar, Breckenridge effectively argues that the same is true for the “looks”-sentences associated with visual experience. 10  However, the representationalist treatment of looks in experience involves a different idea: how things look does not indicate  they are that way, but rather—the suggestion goes—represents them as being   that way in a stronger sense. Accordingly, Breckenridge is wrong to assume we should treat “looks”- sentences in the same way we treat “walks”-sentences or “talks”-sentences. However, Breckenridge’s argument does bring out a deeper challenge to the association between looks and representational content. As several philosophers have recently pointed out, there is a sense in which in which assigning representational content to a state comes cheap (e.g. Vuletic 2015, pp. 8-12). Perhaps some notion of evaluation for correctness is sufficient grounds to associate experience with  some  form of content. In this limited sense, the looks-argument for representational content is bound to succeed. But what Breckenridge’s argument brings out is that this limited representationalist success is not very interesting: mere accuracy-evaluability does not establish the particularly strong way in which perceptual looks are supposed to establish representational content. In motivating her own argument for representational content, Schellenberg frames the difficulty as follows (Schellenberg 2011, p. 720; italics altered): On the weakest way of understanding this relation [between the way things look to the subject and content], it is simply one on which content is associated with the experience. This way of understanding the relation is too weak to give support to the content thesis: it does not give support to the thesis that experience is  fundamentally a matter of representing the world. As Schellenberg here points out, the task for the looks argument extends beyond establishing merely any  relation between experience and representational content: experience must, in some  fundamental   sense, be 9  More precisely, there seem to be two possible readings: “John does a particular type of walking, i.e. walking  proudly”; or “John walks like a proud person typically walks.” Neither is representational, and for the latter the question of accuracy arises, but only as constituting a possible expression of John’s pride. 10  Breckenridge effectively accepts this characterization of his view, describing the upshot of visual experience in terms of evidential import, and suggesting that any intuitive differences between vision and the walking and talking cases can be explained by the facts that the evidential support they provide is weaker than it is in the visual case. If I am correct in this paper, it is wrong to characterize the sense of “looks” that grounds representationalism in terms of merely providing evidence for a proposition (i.e. so-called “evidential” looks, see Chisholm 1957 and discussion of Travis 2013 below). 5
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