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Perception, Non-Propositional Content and the Justification of Perceptual Judgments

Jan Almäng
From the journal Metaphysica

Abstract

It is often argued that for a perceptual experience to be able to justify perceptual judgments, the perceptual experience must have a propositional content. For, it is claimed, only propositions can bear logical relations such as implication to each other. In this paper, this claim is challenged. It is argued that whereas perceptions and judgments both have intentional content, their contents have different structures. Perceptual content does not have a propositional structure. Perceptions and judgments can nevertheless have the same cognitive significance. So the veridicality of a certain perceptual experience, can imply the truth of certain propositions. Consequently, perceptions can have non-propositional content, but even so justify perceptual judgments which have a propositional structure.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Ghislain Guigon, Ingvar Johansson, Kristoffer Sundberg, Christer Svennerlind, an anonymous referee, and all the participants at the research seminar in theoretical philosophy at the University of Gothenburg for many helpful comments. The writing of this paper was funded by The Swedish Research Council (Research Grant 421-2011-1587).

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  1. 1

    I shall mostly refer to perceptions justifying perceptual judgments rather than perceptual beliefs. The discussion is however often framed in terms of how perceptions can justify perceptual beliefs. I believe that beliefs are at least normally fixed by judgments. So the problem is best construed as what justifies perceptual judgments. Nothing important however hinges on this assumption; judgments and beliefs presumably have the same kind of content.

  2. 2

    A note on terminology: Perhaps it is objected on terminological grounds that only propositions can bear logical relations to each other and that consequently no non-propositional entity could bear a logical relation to a proposition. Then we might reformulate my claim in the present paper as the claim that propositions referring to non-propositional perceptual experiences can bear logical relations to perceptual judgments. The claim is in other words that propositions of the type expressed by the sentence “If p is correct, then j is true”, where p is a perceptual experience with non-propositional content and j a perceptual judgment, is true for some pairs of p and j. Since nothing of any substance hinges on this, I shall however I refer to non-propositional experiences as being able to directly imply the truth or falsity of some propositions.

  3. 3

    Brewer (2000), seems to use the term “propositional” in this sense.

  4. 4

    It seems to the present author to be trivially true that perceptions could not justify perceptual judgments if they were not even characterizable in terms expressing a proposition. For that would mean that perceptual judgments could not be true in the sense that they adequately reported the content of the perception. But in such a case, they could certainly not be warranted by the perceptual content.

  5. 5

    I am also critical of Russellian theories of content for quite general reasons (i.e. such that do not pertain to the present problem), Cf Almäng (2012).

  6. 6

    Since Russellians claim that a proposition is constituted by the very things and properties it is about, they are sometimes wary of claiming that it has conceptual content. Note however that I have simply defined the constituents of a proposition as concepts, and my claim in this paper is simply that the contents of judgments have other constituents than the contents of perceptions, no matter what these entities really are. It is to be noted that Frege did not use the term “concept” in the way I use it either, since he distinguished between concepts and senses. Nothing important in the present context however hinges on this.

  7. 7

    Husserl (1901, 235), but not Twardowski (1977, 61f), argues that the relation obtains between colours, shapes and extensions. For the sake of simplicity we shall express the theory in terms of the relation holding between colours and shapes, though nothing important hinges on this simplification. For an elaborate discussion of the notion of existential dependency in Husserl, see Smith and Mulligan (1982).

  8. 8

    Of course, this presupposes that we follow Husserl and Twardowski in accepting that determinable-moments are perceivable (Cf Husserl 1901, 229 and Twardowski 1977, 62). If this is denied, the formulations would have to be rewritten. This is however a technical problem, not one which requires significant revisions of the argumentation. For an argument to the effect that determinables are perceivable, see Johansson (2000). The formulations also presuppose an ontology of moments with respect to intentional content. But this is once again a terminological issue, rather than a substantial issue. If some other ontology is preferred, the formulations can easily be rewritten.

  9. 9

    In my opinion Husserl should have said that a visual perception of objecthood is one-sidedly dependent of a part of content presenting shape and of a part of content presenting colour, at least insofar as an object is taken to be a concrete physical body with determinate boundaries. We can apparently perceive shapes without perceiving objects, as when we perceive the shape of a waterfall or of a cloud.

  10. 10

    In Erfahrung und Urteil however, Husserl presents a slightly different account of propositional structure. He argues that meanings referring to properties can be either one-sidedly dependent on the subject (as in the proposition expressed by the sentence “S is p”) or independent (as in the proposition expressed by the sentence “S has p:ness”) (Husserl 1948, 261ff). In both cases however, predication differs from the type of predication occurring in perception, where the part of content representing the object and the part of content representing the property are mutually existentially dependent.

  11. 11

    Husserl’s distinction between nominal or pre-predicative acts on the one hand and predicative or propositional acts on the other hand has caused some confusion among commentators. Here is for example Charles Parsons: “It is not clear to me how Husserl reconciles the view that nominal acts are inherently simpler than propositional acts with the view of perception as attributing properties to the object and therefore as presumably involving the subject in something that, if not exactly judgment, at least has the content that x is F” (Parsons 2001, 134). But on the present account this can be explained. If the present description is correct, there are different ways of intending that an object has a property. And the simplest case is presumably one where the attribution is implicit in the perception of the object and vice versa. For on the present account, the part representing objecthood in perception depends on the part representing shape and colour. You cannot have a perception of an object without a perception of a shape and a colour.

  12. 12

    Matters may however be different if you are a Platonist with respect to content and locates it in a third realm.

  13. 13

    Frege for example would not accept this as he held that concepts are “unsaturated” entities in need of “completion”.

  14. 14

    If it is held that propositions contain dependent parts as well, we will have to reformulate the argument slightly. But the major point still stands. For example, a part of content that is dependent upon a part of content representing shapes (like the parts representing objects and colours in perceptual content) cannot be identical with a part of content that is not dependent on a part of content representing shapes (like the parts of content representing objects and colours in propositions).

  15. 15

    Another major difference between the mode-content distinction and the present proposal is that the psychological mode operates on the entire intentional content. But on the present proposal, the determination operates on parts of intentional content, not on content in its entirety. Of course, if the parts differ, the “complete” content will differ as well. But this difference is a result of the determination of the parts and not of a distinct mode operating on the content in its entirety. While my account is different from the mode-content account of intentionality in that it forbids perceptions and judgments from having the same content, I do not see it as a competitor. I am not saying that the difference between perceptions and judgments is only a difference in content. Presumably, we will still need a notion of psychological mode in order to account for other differences.

  16. 16

    Cf Mulligan (1997, 129f) for a similar idea. Mulligan argues that demonstrative conceptual content has veridical perceptual content as its determinate. So demonstrative content can be determined differently by different perceptions. But on his account, the relation between the conceptual content and the visual is one of determinable to determinate. On the present proposal, conceptual and visual content are different determinates of the same determinable.

Published Online: 2014-1-7
Published in Print: 2014-4-1

©2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston