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Monday, January 25, 2010

On the Relativity of 'Reallys'--A Critique of Strawson on Science and Perception: Part 1

As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been blogging much for the last several months. This is due to the fact that I was pretty busy--I was taking five classes-- and also to the fact that I've had what I'll call philosopher's block--the inability to come up with anything new or interesting to say on philosophical subjects. I hope to overcome that soon and start posting (fairly) regularly again. In the meantime, here's one of my papers from a class I took on the philosophy of perception.


1. Introduction

1.1 In his article “Perception and Its Objects”, P. F. Strawson defends a common-sense standpoint on the nature of perception against its scientifically-inspired opponents. In order to do so, he must establish that these standpoints, despite appearances, do not really contradict each other. However, I think that in this case the appearances are not deceiving. First, I explain the apparent conflict between the scientific standpoint and the common-sense human perceptual standpoint. Next, I outline Strawson’s attempt to reconcile the two via the notion of relativization to a standpoint. Finally, I argue that Strawson’s attempt fails because in the end the notion of relativization to a standpoint is incoherent.

2. Opposing Standpoints

2.1 In the last few pages of his article “Perception and Its Objects”, Strawson tries to reconcile two opposing standpoints: the scientific standpoint and the common-sense human perceptual standpoint. According to the first, objects do not possess any properties except those which our best physical theories attribute to them (Strawson, pp. 98-9)[1]. Physical objects do not, for example, have sensible properties such as colors. According to the second, in cases of veridical perception physical objects really do possess the sensible properties they seem to have (Strawson, p. 100 and p. 103), colors being a prominent example. Because perception is direct according to the common-sense standpoint (Strawson, p. 106), colors cannot be properties of perceptual intermediaries such as sense-data. So if there are any cases of veridical color experience, at least some colors must be properties of the external, physical objects of our perception; otherwise all color experience is illusory.

2.2 It would thus seem that we face a dilemma. If the scientific standpoint is correct, we are the victims of a massive amount of perceptual error. If the common-sense standpoint is correct, our best physical theories are radically incomplete, for then there is a large class of properties that they cannot account for, and do not even acknowledge to exist. Yet it seems that one or the other of these views must be right: Either colors are “out there” waiting to be perceived in the external, physical world, or they are not. Is there any way out of this? Can we have our chromatic cake and eat it too?

3. Strawson’s Aim: Reconciliation through Relativization

3.1 Strawson apparently thinks that we can. In order to do so, we must take a cue from the way we talk when we ascribe visual properties to things. For the same thing may look one way to Jones in one circumstance, another way to Smith in the same circumstance, and still another way to Jones in a different circumstance. The same mountains might look red at a certain distance in a certain light and blue at a different distance in a different light (Strawson, pp. 106-7). And the same fabric that looks purple in one light may really be green (Strawson, p. 107). Such property ascriptions are relative to a perceptual point of view that is regarded as standard, and we only recognize the relativity when things deviate from this standard (Strawson, p. 107). Sometimes, though, we can change the standard: “Magnified, the fabric appears as printed with tiny blue and yellow dots. So those are the colors it really is. Does this ascription contradict ‘it’s really green’? No; for the standard has shifted” (Strawson, p. 107). And of course we can also shift the standard back (Strawson, p. 107). Strawson thinks that we can give a similar account of the apparent conflict between the scientific and common-sense standpoints. The difference is that in this case we do not shift from one perceptual viewpoint to another, but from a perceptual viewpoint to a scientific one. Thus ascriptions of color are, for example, true relative to the common-sense human perceptual standpoint, and false relative to the scientific standpoint. As Strawson rightly notes, “This method of reconciling scientific and common-sense realism requires us to recognise a certain relativity in our conception of the real properties of physical objects” (Strawson p. 108).



[1] This and all subsequent page references are to Vision and Mind.

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