Wednesday 8 May 2024

Travis' ‘Suffering intentionally?’

In ‘Suffering intentionally?’ Travis argues against Marie McGinn’s argument that some uses of ‘see’ are intentional in the sense that they can take an object that isn’t there. The paper ends with a discussion of various examples from Anscombe which seem to support this view and Travis’ contrary and more natural reading of them. But what is perhaps more interesting is his discussion of seeing aspects discussed in a way that fits the phenomenon to to his non-content-laden view of perception as a direct relation of subject and environment.

There are some initial clarificatory moves:

McGinn cites Anscombe as saying that “verbs” of sense perception “are intentional or essentially have an intentional aspect” (p. 38). If we like, we can stipulate that the verbs ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘smell’, etc., are to be called verbs of sense perception. Perhaps they also have ‘intentional uses’, though it is not at all clear to me that they do. (46)

To return, then, to Anscombe. There are, at least, these different theses: the verb ‘see’ is intentional; perception is intentional, or has an intentional object. The verb ‘see’ might be intentional (if there is such a thing as intentionality) because it has uses on which it does not speak of perception (nor of perceptual experience, if such has a wider scope than perception proper), and on these uses it is intentional. (I do not assert that this is so.) Whether perception is intentional depends on what it is that it is possible to see, using ‘see’ here as a verb of perception. It is to this question that I thought, and continue to think, the answer is ‘No’. I am not perfectly clear as to what McGinn thinks the answer to this question is. But more on that later. I take it, though I might misunderstand, that Anscombe takes the answer to be ‘Yes’. I do not think Wittgenstein offers any such answer. (47)

The focus of Travis’ paper is whether seeing – the experience – is intentional. He argues that it never is.

‘See’, used to report a case of perceiving, is not an intentional verb, for one thing, because it is a success verb. You cannot see the (or even a) toad on the lotus leaf if there is no toad. (47)

This is set against a distinction from Frege that Travis often presses.

But, as Frege noted (1897: 149; 1918: 61), ‘see’ has non-perceptual uses. When we say, for example, ‘He sees that that flower has five petals’ (one of Frege’s examples), ‘see’ is not used to report perceptual awareness. One way to see this is to note that, while the petals are on the flower in the garden, and from thence form images on retinas – they are that sort of thing – that the flower has five petals is not in the garden. Nor is it on the kitchen table. It is not the sort of thing to be located, a fortiori, to form images on retinas. Rather, it is the sort of thing one recognises by exercising capacities of thought. In thought, one can represent the flower as falling under a certain generality; as being a certain way there is for a flower to be – five-petalled… Frege’s discussion of the construction ‘see that’ was meant to draw our attention to two different sorts of awareness, invoking two different sorts of capacity. There is perceptual (e.g., visual) awareness. In the first instance, at least, this is something one enjoys in perception proper: the sort of awareness I enjoy of the wine in my glass by seeing it, or, again, tasting it. Then there is what one might call cognitive awareness – realising that my companion’s glass is empty, for example. (46)

At this preliminary stage, Travis also notes that see-as might be used as a non-perceptual verb.

One might further note that non-perceptual uses of ‘see’ show up in other constructions besides ‘see that’. There is also at least ‘see as’. Perhaps this sometimes has perceptual uses. (I think it does.) But it also has uses like this: ‘I see social networking as a threat to civilisation’, or ‘I see wind energy as our hope for the future.’ (48)

It is striking that Travis highlights, later, Wittgenstein’s apparent view that seeing-as is not perceptual but rather, on the Fregean distinction, belongs to the realm of thought. But see-as does not have an obvious intentional reading, according to Travis’ intuitions.

As for ‘see as’, on its non-perceptual uses, I can certainly see something as something it is not – e.g., a threat. I cannot see nothing as anything. I cannot, e.g., see ‘Virgil the snark’ as a threat. As for perceptual uses of ‘see as’, it is unclear to me that one can see something as something it is not, though I do not want to fight the point. I am sure that one cannot see nothing as anything. (47)

Thus far in the first four pages, Travis has advanced everyday aspects of the apparently factivity of perception. But one might think that the suggestion of seeing-as connects to something that might not support these everyday features. Might seeing aspects in the duck-rabbit and other figures put pressure on this and suggest some intentionality-demonstrating aspects despite Travis’ doubts. Here Travis makes what still seems to me to be a striking observation.

The thing to remember is that the rabbit, the duck, the tiger or the yacht difficult to pick out among the mass of dots, are, first of all, images in pictures, and, second, things which are there to be seen. The picture is an image of a yacht, difficult as it may be to make this out. When one sees the image of the cube in orientation A, one sees an image that is there to be seen. The peculiar thing about ‘ambiguous’ pictures, like the Necker, the black cross–white cross, the convex–concave step, is that it is not possible to see all that is there to be seen at once. If I see the cube in orientation A, that is at the price of missing the cube in orientation B. I may know that it is there – that the lines are organised in that way too. But I cannot then see it. (48)

Travis thinks that the everyday aspects of seeing apply also to the seeing of aspects in carefully drawn ambiguous figures. The aspects are there to be seen in the figures, though the seeing of the cube in one orientation rules out seeing the simultaneous seeing of the other aspect.

What lesson do we learn so far? One might think of things like this. In normal perception one sees what is before his eyes. Or at least that is a sort of outer limit. (48)

Of course one does not always see everything that there is there to be seen.

One does not see of this what is not visible – what is obscured by something else, or in the dark, or too small, or faint, or large, for his perceptual capacities. (48)

But also:

There is also another way to fail to see what is before one’s eyes – or at least to fail, on some occasions, to count as seeing it. One may miss it, or be oblivious to it. Such contrasts give special reasons, sometimes operative, to deny that someone saw something. What is missing, where these are reasons, is suitable uptake on the seer’s part; some suitable form of registering what one sees (suitability liable to vary with the occasion for asking for it). (48)

This is the first mention of ‘uptake’ in this paper. It is mentioned 13 times in total. But it is not the mark of a concession to a content-laden view of perception such as McDowell’s. Uptake does not undermine Frege’s distinction between perception of what instances conceptual generalities and the expert subsuming of instances under generalities in judgement or thought. When I last read this paper, I found the connection more baffling than it seems now. Here is one suggestion of the link between uptake:

What uptake then might be is some responding attitude – a form of thought. E.g., one recognises what he sees as such-and-such, or at least takes it to be such-and-such. ‘Did you see my aunt’s pen on the table?’, ‘Yes, I did.’ Here, then, is a possible role for thought to play even in the most banal cases of perceptual experience: the awareness one enjoys is perceptual awareness (insofar as it is seeing that is in question); but one does not count as enjoying it at all unless he responds to this awareness with a thought of some kind. I do not assert that this is generally so. It is just one way things might go in an experience of seeing. (49)

Travis suggests that uptake plays a role in Wittgenstein’s discussion of aspect dawning as part of a rejection of inner ideas of the sort that Frege rejects in rejecting Vorstellungen. Frege’s rejection of Vorstellungen is discussed very many Travis papers so I will ignore it here. But Travis summarises the dialectic thus:

If Frege’s point holds good [ie the rejection of Vorstellungen] (and Wittgenstein certainly seemed to think so), then the problem for philosophy of mind is to see how to think of psychological phenomena without assigning Vorstellungen any essential role in them. Where the phenomena are, or appear to be, perceptual, one way for them to work would be for thought (responses to what is happening to you) [ie ‘uptake’] to take over some of the roles which, in the case of perception are played by, e.g., what is before your eyes. If I saw a bĂ­saro, that is because that is what was there. If I ‘saw stars’, perhaps, that is because such is my response to what happened to me… In the late manuscripts, one of the main ways in which Wittgenstein develops this idea of responses taking over functions which belong, in perception, to what those responses are to is in opposing an idea of what he calls an ‘inner image’. (49-50)

Travis then sets out the attraction but failure of an idea that the experience of an aspect changing in a static external figure (of the cube or duck rabbit) concluding

The inner image offers no better candidate for what a shift in looks consists in than the Necker does itself. It makes no progress. (51)


For what I see to change here would then be for there to be a change in uptake – in what, there anyway to be seen, impressed me, was registered – under those special conditions the Necker poses, in which taking in one thing precludes taking in another. (51)

The clearest account Travis then gives of the nature of aspect changing runs:

Two (related) things are distinctive about the Necker (and the duck–rabbit, the black/white cross, etc.). First, while it provides us two different things to see, it does this while occupying a given location, and providing us the same thing at that location to be seen (or missed) no matter which of the two options we take up. At that location is a pattern of lines. It remains the same where we see the A-cube and where we see the B-cube. And (unless we miss it, hence see neither cube) that occupant of the location is something we do see throughout. Second, in this case, seeing the one thing (the A-cube, say) excludes seeing the other. The exclusion lies in the seeing: what is there to be seen leaves either option open. So the question is how seeing can impose a choice between these two. Here, clearly, uptake is all. Our responses to what we are presented with visually must choose what kind of visual experience we have, or what it is of. Without varying what we are presented with, our responses, or uptake, might make what we see either of two things. As I read Wittgenstein, he is developing reasons for caution in how we appeal to responses here, or in just what in responses might do that selecting which, patently, is done… If uptake does the choosing, then I see the A-cube just where I am responsive in a given way to what I see. For me, things are, visually, just as they would be in seeing the A-cube. Such is an attitude on my part. But it is not the same as seeing that such-and-such, nor seeing the Necker as such-and-such, where ‘see-as’ does not speak of perceptual awareness. (52)

In that quote, I omitted a contrast with the idea of seeing-as. Going back a page we have:

If this view of the Necker is correct, then I may say, ‘I see the A-cube’, if that is what I am doing, using ‘see’ as a straightforward perceptual verb. I might also go on to say: ‘I see it as an A-cube.’ What would the ‘as’ add (if anything)? Or, less tendentiously, what would the difference be? Perhaps it is possible to hear the ‘as’ as adding nothing; as simply a way of saying how it looks: it looks to me as (an image of) an A-cube would. But I think the ‘as’ can also work to make the whole verb not purely perceptual, but rather one which works to report how I think of what I am seeing. Consider a different case: a puzzle painting. I stare at it for hours and see only a mass of dots. Finally, the yacht comes into focus for me. ‘I see the yacht!’, I might exclaim, excitedly. Suppose now that I go on to say: ‘I see it (the painting) as a painting of a yacht.’ Such would be taking an extra step. There is the yacht to be seen, alright. But now I also hold a certain view of the matter: if you want to depict a yacht, this is a way of doing that too. Here we have another example of the genre yacht portrayal. (51)

And in the middle of p52:

Where ‘see as’, read non-perceptually, adds something to what would be said here in the simple ‘see’, prima facie, at least, that something is not something appeal to which would do the needed selecting. So, for example, I may see how it could be a diagram of an A-cube, or see it to be, or see it as one (as Sid may see Vic as a rival). But that sort of uptake, if it belongs to what is added in seeing-as – an addition purely in thought, on a par with recognising what I see as the cube on the exam yesterday – cannot be what distinguishes seeing an A-cube from seeing a B-cube in looking at a Necker. (52)

This suggests a potential contrast with thinking that aspect dawning just is ‘seeing-as’ (as I confess I always have). If I follow, to see the duck aspect of the duck-rabbit is to see the duck-look drawn into the ambiguous figure with a degree of uptake. It is to notice the duck aspect. To ‘see’ the duck-rabbit ‘as’ a duck – to ‘see-as’ – is to add self-conscious thought or judgement to the initial noticing.

What makes this a bit more confusing, however, is another phenomenon Travis follows Wittgenstein in discussing.

It is thus, I think, that the Necker and its kin serve as a stepping stone to a range of further cases. Of some of these, at least, Wittgenstein makes the following remark: ‘Here one must guard against thinking in traditional psychological categories – say, decomposing experience into seeing and thought; or things of that sort.’ (LW I 542). (52)

Again if I follow, the suggestion seems to be that ambiguous figures (duck-rabbit, Necker) alone would not put the distinction between perception proper and judgement or thought under threat. It applies to some different examples.

To what sorts of cases is this advice meant to apply? Drawing from its surroundings, cases, it seems, like these: seeing a similarity between two faces (where someone might see the faces as well as you, but not see the similarity); seeing a row of evenly spaced dots as organised into pairs; seeing someone you have not seen for years and not recognising him, then recognising him. (53)

The first thing to note about these cases is: insofar as there is talk of seeing here (‘see’ used as a perceptual verb), there is no question of seeing anything other than what is there to be seen… The second thing to observe here is that in each of these cases there is a question one might puzzle over as to whether the difference between seeing and not seeing the thing in question is a difference in visual experience – that is, whether one visually experiences something in the case where he sees other than what he experiences where he does not see. Does it look different where you perceive the dots as a string of pairs? (54)

Travis approaches these examples through a discussion of how one would represent what is seen following a clue from Wittgenstein.

What is the criterion of the visual experience? The criterion? What do you suppose? The representation of ‘what is seen’. (LW I 563; PI II, 169)

To take just the case of seeing the line of equi-spaced dots as being positioned in pairs. One might draw equi-spaced dots or one might draw them grouped into pairs but either would need to carry a rider, an understanding. This illustrates the role of thought. The representation is a represent as that such and such.

But to show an organisation that was seen one needs to take a different step. One step would be, not to show, but to describe: ‘He saw the line as a line of pairs of dots’. Another would be to show it, to draw something. But then what one needed to draw would not be determined by what was there before the eyes. It would all depend on how one’s drawing was to be taken. What we need here is some ‘method of projection’. And practically anything might show the right thing under some such method. The interesting thing is that, for all this, what is being described might still be someone seeing such-and-such, undergoing a particular kind of perceptual experience. (55)

And so, Travis suggests, in such cases one sees a generality.

So now consider seeing the resemblance in the face – a resemblance, say, between a son’s face and his father’s. How would one represent what was seen? Again, that depends on the way a given representation would be taken, or how it is to be taken. But one would need to take account of the fact that, so far as what is reproducible is concerned – things, that is, like shapes and colours – there is no reason to suppose that anything different was seen by one who did see the resemblance than by one who did not. So we need some form of representation of what was seen which needs to be taken in the right way. Wittgenstein’s idea for doing this amounts to roughly the following. To see the resemblance is to bring what was seen under a given generality (represent it to oneself as so falling). And, as Frege insisted, doing that is a function of thought, not sight. Wittgenstein’s rough idea: To see the resemblance is to register, or note, seeing what would also be seen in such-and-such range of other cases. One is presented visually with what he is. What he sees is fixed not just by his registering, or being suitably sensitive to, things being (visibly) as they were, but also by his responding to what he sees by bringing it (now in thought) under given generalities. Here it is that that ‘thinking in traditional categories’ which Wittgenstein refers to lets us down. Now we seem to have cases with the following two features. First, they involve questions of what was seen – of what needs representing to represent this – where the objects of ‘see’ are (speak of) the sorts of things which might be objects of sight: not that such-and-such, but rather objects, events or episodes, visible features of those objects, such as, e.g., looking just like Elvis, or having an Elvis quiff. So they are cases where ‘see’ seems to function like a verb of perception. But, second, they are cases where seeing seems to involve noting, or being struck by, something; thus responding in a certain way to what one sees. And this seems to involve us with things which belong to thought, and not to perception. The above idea about representing gives us another way of putting the point. In these cases, representing what was seen seems to require producing what calls for understanding in the same ways that representing truly or falsely does. It requires representing something as something, rather than (if this is a contrast) simply producing the colour of something. Here, I suggest, is where Wittgenstein wants to abandon ‘traditional psychological categories such as seeing and thinking’. The representing involved here remains in a subject’s responses (in thought) to what he is presented with. But the upshot concerns what is seen. (55-6)

The discussion thus seems to highlight Travis’ endorsement of the distinction between seeing and thinking. That distinction even holds of cases of seeing aspects. See an aspect is just seeing something there present to be seen in a picture. By contrast, seeing-as – just as Wittgenstein says – is not in such cases perceptual. (Travis suggests that there can be distinct perceptual versions of seeing-as in the case of illusions that I’ve ignored here.) ‘See-as’ adds to seeing an aspect some more general awareness of the phenomenon – for example that there are two aspects to be seen – an aspect of thought or judgement. But in a small range of interesting cases, one can notice something that, while there to be seen, inheres in a generality, such as a relation between father and son. It’s object – a generality – thus belongs to thought but is nevertheless experienced visually.

In effect, by giving this account of exceptionality, Travis is defending his slimmed down view of perception as itself concept-free. But in its favour is the fact that such phenomena do genuinely seem somehow exceptional.

See this for my previous attempt on this paper, this entry on ‘A sense of occasion’, this on ‘Reason’s reach’, this on ‘The twilight of empiricism’, and this on the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing.

Travis, C. (2015) 'Suffering intentionally?' in Campbell, M. & O'Sullivan, M. (eds.) Wittgenstein and Perception, London: Routledge