Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception, by John Searle (Oxford), $24.95/£16.99
Look at the scene in front of you. Now close your eyes. You no longer see anything, but your visual consciousness doesn’t stop. You still have a conscious visual field, with minimal content – yellow patches against a dark ground, perhaps. That is the subjective visual field minus the rich representational content it had when you were looking at the scene, the objective visual field, in front of you. What is the relation between the subjective and objective visual fields in perception? That is the main topic of John Searle’s characteristically direct and lucid book Seeing Things as They Are.
Searle argues for two central theses: first, the commonsense view that perception is unmediated, i.e. direct realism; and second, the multipart thesis that visual experience is intrinsically intentional (or representational), that its intentionality is realised in its phenomenology (what it is like), and that this is explained by a “backward road” from its objects to its content.
The direct realism Searle advocates aims to steer a path between sense data, on the one hand, and disjunctivism, the view that veridical experience and hallucinations have nothing in common, on the other. The metaphysical version of direct realism holds that perception is direct in the sense that we do not perceive trees and cats and stars by perceiving anything else first. Seeing a cat jump on the couch is not like watching events unfold on live television or seeing something in a mirror. The epistemic version of direct realism holds (additionally) that there are no epistemic intermediaries between us and the objects of perception from which we infer their nature. Searle holds both but argues mostly for the first.
Direct realism is the deliverance of common sense and phenomenology. Searle identifies a common fallacy in arguments against it. The fallacy lies at the heart of the argument from illusion, according to which, being aware of something in veridical and non-veridical visual experience (in seeing an orange, for example, and vividly hallucinating one), we perceive something in both cases, something obviously mind-dependent in the non–veridical case, hence, also in the veridical case. The fallacy is to conflate awareness of visual experience in hallucination with perception of the scene it presents, which requires the experience to be caused by what it represents.
Interestingly, Searle argues that disjunctivism, which seeks to support direct realism, commits the same fallacy. It accepts that if there’s something perception and hallucination have in common, that must be what’s perceived (or counts as our evidence); therefore disjunctivism denies there’s anything in common. Disjunctivism aims to undercut scepticism by individuating veridical visual experience by its objects. Searle sees this as overkill and as incompatible with phenomenology and our scientific understanding of vision. (There is a purely epistemic disjunctivism as well. Searle appears to reject both, but since he accepts that our epistemic positions in the two cases are fundamentally different, there is a trivial sense in which he embraces epistemic disjunctivism.)
The phenomenological account of intentional content distinguishes between basic perceptual features, features perceived but not by perceiving anything else, and non-basic perceptual features. I’ll focus on basic features. Examples are colour and shape. Searle’s main idea is that “the experience of having this conscious visual experience necessarily carries the intentionality that it does because the feature in question [phenomenal redness, e.g.] is experienced as caused by its object and its object is precisely constituted (at least in part) by its ability to cause this type of experience.” This makes it sound as if phenomenal redness represents the causally relevant categorical property in the objects that typically cause it, which makes its content relational. But that is not what Searle intends. In discussing spectrum inversion, he says: “Red objects are those which cause colour experiences like this one and green objects are objects which cause colour experiences like that one.” The intentional content presents dispositional properties. Searle tells the same story for primary qualities (shape, size, distance etc.) as for secondary qualities (colours, sounds, tastes, etc.). On this account, then, perceptual content is limited to representing external things in terms of interlinked dispositions to produce visual phenomenology.
This account of intentional content generates tension with other aspects of Searle’s views. First, it does not make intentional content intrinsically phenomenal. It assigns intentional content to phenomenal features independently identified. Second, it is incompatible with Searle’s view that (a) brains in a vat may share phenomenology and so intentionality with people like us but (b) have false beliefs about their environment. It secures sameness of phenomenology but not sameness of what the perceptions are about, since that depends on what causes the phenomenology, and consequently it does not entail brains in vats have false beliefs. Third, by leaving us blind about the categorical nature of the world, Searle’s account cuts against the central idea of direct realism. Fourth, it secures us against scepticism only by minimising what visual experience claims about the world.
Regardless of those worries, Seeing Things as They Are is full of interesting ideas. It is engagingly written, and deals with big questions about the mind-world relation and the relation between the phenomenology and intentionality of perception. I recommend it to anyone interested in what makes perceptual contact with a mind-independent world possible.