Wednesday, June 18, 2008

early modern direct realist perception... maybe

There’s a fun discussion in the secondary literature on whether or not early modern philosophers really should be saddled with this “veil of perceptions” doctrine, where their realism is one of representationalism (i.e., indirect realism).

One step towards getting rid of the lingering notion that all the early modern philosophers were representationalists is to find a way of talking about mental ideas such that they are not being reified under analysis.

In Descartes’ context, for example, Arnauld and Malebranche had a big fight over whether Descartes should be taken as (in our terminology) a direct realist or a representational (indirect) realist. Arnauld sided with the former and Malebranche (in his very odd way) the latter. In that Cartesian context, a way of framing the issue is as follows: In the mental act, there are three variables that must be analyzed: (i) the act of mind, (ii) the mental object, and (iii) the object that is thought of in the mental act. Arnauld, in crusading for a direct realist reading of Descartes’ theory of perception (Arnauld’s language: mental acts exemplify a “primitive integrity”), argued that (ii) and (iii) differ by a mere distinction of reason (in contemporary discourse, (ii) and (iii) are two different descriptions of the same reality). For Arnauld, there is only the mental act that is modified when it is directly presented with the object that is the content of the mental act: mind and mind-indepenent world with no reified ideational intermediary. Malebranche argued that all three are totally distinct entities.

Well, the jury is still out on that discussion, but I lean more towards Arnauld, though of course the causal mediation between mental content and represented reality is really strange (see below).

For Locke’s context, the discussion is usually brokered by arguing about the status of mental images. Yep... even in Lockean secondary literature, there’s a big hubbub about whether Locke himself was a crypto-direct-realist.

I guess that depends on making sure that Lockean ideas qua images are not things as such. This is true even though all of us, I imagine, experience mental images and even would say things like “I have a mental image of my living room.”

I would not hesitate to say of myself that “I have a mental image of my living room where blueness is represented.” Is this an attribution of a monadic property to me or a dyadic relation between myself and some other thing (in this case, the mental image)?

I think that it makes more sense to say that it’s the former. By way of analogy, when I say that I’m in a mischievous mood, I think it’s very unnatural to think that there is a thing such as a mischievous mood. Rather, to say “Dan is in a mischievous mood” is to say that Dan is acting a certain way, not that Dan is related to another thing called a mood. It is an adjectival statement about me or an adverbial modification of my acting.

Another way of saying this: To say of Dan that he is in said mood is to be assimilated to the logical form Gx rather than R(x,y) — viz, monadic, not relational.

That’s step one in claiming that some form of direct realist perception is a viable interpretation of the early modern theories of perception. In looking at the medieval period, one will find similar kinds of discussions about the ontological or merely logical status of such items as intentional species — i.e., whether they are modes of mind or more strongly tertium quid between mind and world.

In early twentieth-century philosophy, there are sense-data and arguments against such reifications.

It’s pretty interesting how perennial questions in philosophy pop up over and over again so frequently (neurotically?).

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