Wednesday 7 March 2012

McDowell's first Edgington Lecture, Perception: Objects and Contents

Here are my very rough and obviously massively truncated notes from McDowell’s first Edgington Lecture, Perception: Objects and Contents. It seemed to me that about a third of the questions asked after the two lectures failed to understand what McDowell had said, whether or not what he said was plausible. (“Although you said you were talking about conclusive warrant, I realise that you did not really mean that. You were really talking, were you not, about degrees of warrant?” “No, I really meant, just as I said, conclusive warrant.”) Perception of lecture content is obviously fallible. Now if McDowell is right, awareness of that need not undermine my knowledge of what he actually said if the exercise of the capacity was not, on this occasion, defective. But I am not sure I am reassured on that.

Perception: Objects and Contents

There’s no tension between naive realism and the idea that experience has content. The target idea – to be countered – is: if experience has content then we debar ourselves of the idea of naive realism.

For seeing to have content is for its content be captured through the use of that clauses such as ‘seeing that there is a red rectangle’. This is merely a partial account of the content of an experience (missing out its size and shape, for example). It may even be true that the content of an experience cannot be exhausted by that clauses. But if so, that does not matter. All that matters is that such that clauses can be true.

Note uses of ‘see’ without a ‘that’ such as: ‘I see a red rectangle’. One needs to beware of the way such locutions present seeing such what experiential content drops out.

Is the experience’s content what a subject encounters? If so that idea might block realism because what would be encountered would be representations rather than worldly objects. Likewise the idea of experience as evidence (an idea Travis criticises). But there is no need to suggest that experience presents representations.

Consider the argument:
1) Experience is constituted by subjective character: experience as of...
2) Content can mislead.
3) Experience’s subjective character is non-committal with respect to external reality.

What else – aside from such an argument – would be the point of talking of experience’s content? That is only one reason to reject the combination of content and realism and can be rejected in the following way.

In an experience which is a seeing, the representation is a revealing or disclosing bringing aspects of the world into view. Whilst some do not, some representations reveal: those that make knowledge available. A seeing does not just seem to reveal.

If we are just told that an experience represents, we do not yet know whether it reveals. Its representing can be its revealing.

An experience’s subjective character is partly constituted by representing reality as being a certain way. ‘Partly’ because it can reveal also. Revealing is a mode of representing external reality. But experience can also be misleading. One can take oneself to have a revealing experience when one does not. For example, trompe-l’oeil cases.

“Surely one can’t be wrong about subjective character?” That assumption is disastrously wrong.

Naive realism implies that only descriptions of subjective character in false case is of what seems true but is not. There is no positive account. A non-seeing visual experience may seem to reveal environmental reality. What – aside from such seeming – can we say of its subjective character?

There is some positive characterisation in common, however: the experience’s representational content. But the shared aspect of subjective character does not exhaust subjective character. Revealing is a further aspect of an experience’s subjective character beyond representing. The subjective character of a revealing is constituted [partly?] by external reality. The truth concerning subjective character is that the subject is in contact with external reality.

Second lecture.