Aristotle on Perception

Real and meaningful analytic distinctions in experience such as activity and passivity need not be grounded in ontological dualities.

It is common to hear Aristotle summarized as asserting a monolithic passivity in processes of perception. This is a considerable simplification. What is true is that in the absence of something perceptible that does not depend on us for its being, Aristotle would say we have a case not of perception but of something else. This does not mean there are not many active dimensions to typical sense perception as well.

One of Aristotle’s deepest principles involves a recognition of profoundly mixed conditions as being more typical of real life than monolithic or homogeneous ones. At the level of the equivalent of first philosophy, Plato considers “mixture” as a topic in its own right at the very top level, and not as a mere derivative from “pure” concepts.

Later authors have often tended to downplay Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mixed cases in experience as normal, and instead to privilege pure “black and white” cases. I think we should if anything privilege the mixed cases, and demand evidence when confronted with claims that any real-world cases involve “pure” black-and-white distinctions.

Aristotle’s account of perception in book 2 of On the Soul relies mainly on descriptions expressed in terms of actuality, potentiality, and actualization. While it is true that actuality has a character that is mostly active and potentiality has a character that is mostly not active, it is once again an oversimplification to simply equate actuality with activity and potentiality with passivity.

Aristotle’s description of perception is deliberately abstract, which reduces the need to speculatively fill in missing details. Perhaps the most salient overall aspect of this account is that it involves a multi-leveled layering of actuality and potentiality and of active and passive aspects that may be only analytically distinct. He focuses very generally on the various requirements of the kinds of form involved, and works hard to avoid causal explanations not clearly grounded in evidence.

It is very characteristic that Aristotle treats perception and whatever is perceptible in a single context. For instance, his discussion of light occurs here. He has no theory of the transmission of light, which was only experimentally demonstrated in early modern times. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, he sees light as instantaneously diffused through a medium, and reasons that the medium must therefore play a necessary role in perception. For him, light is “the being-at-work of the transparent as transparent” (On the Soul book 2 ch. 7, Sachs trans., p. 101). “By transparent I mean what is visible but not visible in its own right, to put it simply, but on account of the color of something else…. Light is a sort of color of the transparent, whenever it is at-work-staying-transparent by the action of fire or something of that kind…. What, then, the transparent is, has been said, and what light is, that it is not fire or any body at all, nor anything that flows out of any body…, but the co-presence of fire or any such thing in the transparent” (ibid). “Rather, the color sets a transparent thing, such as air, in motion, and by this, if it is continuous, the sense organ is moved” (p. 103).

It is important to recognize that this is a thoughtful interpretation of ordinary experience, with minimal assumptions. We would say, e.g., that light is transmitted at the speed of light rather than instantaneously diffused, but this can only be justified by complex empirical evidence. We associate colors with particular wavelengths of light, and we think of light as consisting of material waves (or alternatively, particles of a particular kind) that cannot be directly observed, but all this depends on complex evidence and test equipment. By contrast, Aristotle aims mainly to do justice to our ordinary experience of seeing things — a dog, a rose, a landscape, and so on. He seems to think of the air in the presence of light as metaphorically “charged” with sensible forms, such that there is a continuous translation of visible configurations of color through the air along each perspectival line of sight.

He somewhat paradoxically speaks of a “transmission” of “forms without the matter” in perception, and of the soul-as-active-form-of-the-body “receiving” them. The soul, as an entelecheia (in Sachs’ translation “being-at-work-staying-itself”, or more literally “in [itself] end having”) of an organic body, is active at root. Perception is then at top level supposed to be the being-at-work of a receptivity of the primarily active soul. Since the “transmission” of color through the air is said to be without matter, it must be more like a translation of color between the medium and the eye.

Some contemporary writers have claimed that Aristotle’s account of perception is of historic interest only, sheerly on the ground that it focuses on potentiality and actuality rather than physical causes. But as usual, Aristotle is far more interested in interpreting experience in meaningful ways, with as few assumptions as possible.

I think it is better to have a very abstract description that remains descriptive of experience, rather than imaginatively positing physical or physiological explanations. That is to say, it is better to be only abstractly descriptive but faithful to ordinary experience like Aristotle, than it is to have a more physically grounded explanation like the Stoics, at the cost of depending on additional assumptions of fact that turned out to be wrong in light of more detailed empirical investigations.

The Stoic theory — following the general Stoic precept that everything that has being must be some kind of body — seems to involve a kind of subtly material forms of objects invisibly but literally flying through the air as complete wholes, ancestral to the medieval “sensible species”. This is a logically consistent physical and physiological account, which however makes numerous speculative leaps of the sort Aristotle aimed to minimize.

The mathematicians Euclid and Ptolemy geometrically analysed properties of light rays, but believed light rays were actively emitted by the eye, rather than received by it.

The “father of modern optics” and early contributor to scientific method, Iraqi polymath Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1040 CE), known to Latin readers as Alhazen, was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflected from objects passes to the eye, and to assert that the brain plays a major (active) role in the process of identifying objects. His work was taken up by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Huygens, Descartes, and Kepler, among others.

The reception of light in and of itself is passive, but seeing has a large cognitive and interpretive dimension, whether considered at the level of events in the brain or at the level of an interpretation of meaningful content. Reception of light rays is passive, but even the most minimal identification of objects cannot be entirely passive.

The visible forms of patches of color that are diffused through the transparent medium in Aristotle — just like the reflected light in the modern account — are indeed passively received, but that no more makes the entire process of vision necessarily passive in Aristotle than it does in the modern account.

“But about all sense perception in general, it is necessary to grasp that the sense is receptive of the forms of perceptible things without the material, as wax is receptive of the design of a ring without the iron or gold…; and similarly the sense of each thing is acted upon by the thing that has color or flavor or sound, but not in virtue of that by which each of those things is the kind of thing it is, but in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute, and according to a ratio” (book 2 ch. 12, p. 118).

Joe Sachs comments in a note that “Some of the difficulty can be avoided if one keeps in mind that, by form, Aristotle does not mean shape or appearance. In the Platonic dialogues, it is always emphasized that the eidos is not the mere look of a thing…. That to which one must look, according to Aristotle, is the being-at-work of the thing. It is, then, no part of the analogy Aristotle intends with the wax impression, that the eyeball, say, becomes shaped and colored like an olive when it looks at one. What it takes on must be some sort of active condition” (p. 118n, emphasis added).

This last point about the active condition, I think, is the import of Aristotle’s phrase in the above quote, “not in virtue of that by which each of those things is the kind of thing it is, but in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute, and according to a ratio”. We do not directly perceive the kinds of things we perceive, but rather “that by which [they have] a certain attribute, and according to a ratio”. I take this to be a suggestion of what should or should not count as a “perception”.

There is a puzzle here about how “that by which” a thing has an attribute would count as perceptible. I would argue that if this kind of abstraction does count as perceptible in some way, that would be another indication that perception is not entirely passive. Aristotelian “perception” would then be quite rich, including many things I have been calling products of the Kantian synthesis of imagination. But it would still stop short of, say, directly apprehending a complex gestalt or whole “image” as an immediately intelligible unit.

Worries about “passivity”, it seems to me, ought to be directed mainly at the kind of claims of direct apprehension of complex images as meaningful wholes that Aristotle explicitly rules out in this passage.

“But ‘being acted upon’ is not unambiguous either…. For the one who has knowledge comes to be contemplating, and this is either not a process of being altered (since it is a passing over into being oneself, namely into being-at-work-staying-oneself), or is a different class of alteration” (p. 98).

“Being-at-work perceiving is described in the same way as contemplating, but differs in that the things that produce the being-at-work of perceiving are external, the visible and audible things, and similarly with the rest of the senses. The reason is that active perception is of particulars, while knowledge is of universals, which are in some way in the soul itself. Hence thinking is up to oneself, whenever one wishes, but perceiving is not up to oneself, since it is necessary that the thing perceived be present. And similarly too, even the kinds of knowing that deal with perceptible things are not up to oneself, and for the same reason, that the perceptible things are among particular, external things” (book 2 ch. 5, pp. 98-99, emphasis added).

I note first of all the explicit reference to to “active perception”. Second, it makes perfect sense that “the kinds of knowing that deal with perceptible things are not up to oneself” — that in some way sensible things are what they are, independent of us, in a way that abstractions and universals are not. Aristotle even seems to think there is an at least abstractly identifiable level at which the particular senses cannot be deceived.

“[T]he means by which we live and perceive is meant two ways, as is the means by which we know (by which is meant in one sense knowledge but in another the soul, since by means of each of these we say we know something)” (book 2 ch. 2, p. 87).

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right, … for sense perception when directed at its proper objects is always truthful, and is present in all animals, but it is possible to think things through falsely, and this is present in no animal in which there is not also speech” (book 3 ch. 3, pp. 133-134).

Here he explicitly bounds the analogy between perception and thought. We have already seen that perception for Aristotle is not entirely passive, so thinking, as something that is more up to us, must be less passive than that.

“And it is certainly not the reasoning part, or intellect in the way that word is used, that causes motion, for the contemplative intellect does not contemplate anything that has to do with action…. And even when the intellect enjoins and the reasoning part declares that something is to be fled or pursued one does not necessarily move, but acts instead in accordance with desire, as does one without self-restraint…. But neither is it desire that governs this sort of motion, since self-restrained people, even when they desire and yearn for something, do not necessarily do those things for which they have the desire, but follow the intellect” (book 3 ch. 9, pp. 152-153).

Later he specifies that the motion mentioned here is motion with respect to place, i.e., bodily movement, not anything directly associated with perception or thought. Comparatively speaking, the earlier “motion” of air in the presence of light was said in a different, more figurative way. We should not assume that the way activity and passivity apply in the one context is the same as it is in the other.

He continues, “But it is obvious that these two things [together do] cause motion, desire and/or intellect, since many people follow their imaginings contrary to what they know, and in other animals there is no intellectual or reasoning activity, except imagination. Therefore both of these are such as to cause motion with respect to place, intellect and desire, but this is intellect that reasons for the sake of something and is concerned with action, which differs from the contemplative intellect by its end…. So it is reasonable that there seem to be two things causing the motion, desire and practical thinking, since the thing desired causes motion, and on account of this, thinking causes motion, because it is the desired thing that starts it. So it is one thing that causes motion, the potency of desire” (book 3 ch. 10, pp. 153-154, emphasis added).

What Aristotle initially mentions as “obvious” is refined and corrected later in the chapter. This sort of thing is very common in Aristotle. In book 2 chapter 2, he says that “what is clear and more knowable by reason arises out of what is unclear but more obvious” (p. 84).

“[B]ut the potency of desire is not present without imagination, while all imagination is either rational or sensory” (p. 156).

“For imagination is different both from perceiving and from thinking things through, and does not come about without perception, and without it there is no conceiving that something is the case” (book 3 ch. 3, p. 134).

So Aristotle is saying that while conceiving that something is the case depends on imagination and imagination ultimately depends on perception, we never directly perceive that something is the case. That something is the case is a practical judgment about particulars, rather than a perception. “Thinking things through” (dianoia) is discussed separately from pure thought or intellect (nous), and appears to be a rational activity of the soul grounded mainly in imagination. To really “occur” in a human, pure thought depends on the activity of thinking things through as its vehicle.

“[F]alsehood is always in an act of putting things together…. What makes each thing be one is intellect” (book 3 ch. 6, p. 144). “[B]ut thinking what something is, in the sense of what it keeps on being in order to be at all, is true, and is not one thing attached to another” (p. 145).

Here he seems to be emphasizing that the idea of what something truly is, in the sense of being-at-work-staying-itself, is not adequately expressible in terms of any “external” combination of pre-existing features. Also, no expression of a “what” by itself forms an assertion that could then be either true or false. A “what” by itself has more of the character of a stipulation or hypothesis. If the thought of a being-at-work-staying-itself is simply “true”, it seems to me it must be true in some sense other than correspondence — a being-true-to-itself through coherence. This use of “true” is also different from the way it is defined in On Interpretation, which would be inapplicable to any “what” taken in isolation. Only what is said about the what could be true in that sense, but then it could also be false, depending on what is said.

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time, for all things that come into being have their being from something that is at-work-staying-itself. And… the perceiving thing is not [merely] acted upon nor is it altered. Hence this is a different kind of event from a motion” (book 3 ch. 7, pp. 145-146, brackets in original, emphasis added).

Here he emphasizes a distinction between motion in the primary sense of ordinary bodily motion on the one hand, and the actualization of a potential on the other, identifying perception with the latter.

Being the One Acting

Another passing doubt in my reading of Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows came up when he said something along the lines of “I know I am the one acting because I am the one acting”. This certainly captures an intuitive feeling that I have too, but on reflection it seems to rely on what I would call an appearance of inner sense.

With Aristotle I call all inner immediacy an appearance of inner sense. Then my Platonic instincts say that no appearance qualifies as knowledge.

Does Pippin mean to suggest that Hegel — “that great foe of immediacy” — believes in a sort of immediate self-knowledge of individuals via the identification of thinking and being? But he pointed out that Hegel’s German selbst is strictly an adverbial modifier that has no dual usage as a substantive noun, the way “self” does in English. What he wrote in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy seems at odds with this as well.

Pippin has argued that thought for Hegel is inherently self-referential. I think I want to affirm this, but the relational “self” of self-referentiality and unity of apperception is not the immediately contentful, more noun-like empirical “self” of me and mine (see The Ambiguity of “Self”), which I think we experience through the medium of Aristotelian/Kantian imagination rather than thought. Pippin’s remark with which I began seems to blur the line between transcendental self (-referentiality) and empirical self. The relation between transcendental and empirical “self” is one of neither isomorphism nor hylomorphism, I want to say. Something like what Plato called “mixing” does seem to occur in experience, but how to characterize it is a very difficult question.

Aristotle used episteme (knowledge as rationally articulable) and gnosis (direct personal familiarity) in contrasting ways, but it is common to see them both rendered to English as “knowledge”, as if they were interchangeable. With Hegel too we have to be careful, because multiple German words get translated by English “knowledge”.

Zambrana on Actualization

Building on the interpretations of Pipppin and Brandom, Rocío Zambrana in Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (2015) argues that Hegel’s logic is based around the same notion of actualization that orients his ethics, and that actualization is none other than Hegel’s reformulation of Kantian synthesis. This is a fascinating complement to my previous focus on the Aristotelian background of Hegelian actualization. She argues that the main significance of the theory of the “absolute” idea in the Science of Logic is to make intelligibility a function of normativity.

She begins, “To be is to be intelligible, according to Hegel” (p. 3). Plato and Aristotle would concur.

Zambrana agrees with Pippin that Hegel defends the complete autonomy of reason, thus radicalizing Kant’s critical project. “For Kant, the sensible given and the postulates of practical reason (freedom, God, the immortality of the soul) are touchstones of knowledge, morality, faith. For Hegel, the only legitimate touchstone of a thoroughgoing critical philosophy is reason itself” (p. 4).

She suggests that intelligibility and normativity for Hegel are a matter of binding between ideality and reality that is always subject to renegotiation.

“In the Logic, Hegel pursues an immanent critique of classical ontology, philosophies of reflection, and transcendental idealism that allows him to elaborate his distinctive view of determinacy as a matter of the dialectical relation between ideality and reality” (p. 6).

“In what is perhaps the most puzzling passage of the Logic, Hegel describes the absolute idea as personality (Persönlichkeit). While puzzling, this passage is not mystifying. It is in fact key. It helps us specify the status of the absolute idea as the concept that elaborates the view that intelligibility is a matter of normative authority. It indicates that binding is the structure of intelligibility” (pp. 5-6; see also Substance and Subject).

“Hegel argues that form is nothing but negation(ibid).

That form is negation for Hegel seems clear. But I constantly struggle to clarify the real meaning of negation in Hegel. For sure, it is not classical negation. But what exactly is it? To me, many of Hegel’s usages of negation and related terms seem metaphorical. Ordinarily, people use concrete metaphors to circuitously express more abstract things, but Hegel often uses the extreme abstraction of negation or negativity as a metaphor for various more concrete things or conditions. Negativity in Hegel therefore doesn’t seem to me to have a single fixed meaning. This ought not to be surprising, given Hegel’s strong opposition to single fixed meanings in general.

I sometimes think Hegel goes too far in this direction. Good definitions retain value for clarity of thought, even if they are always provisional and context-bounded. Hegel himself seems to recognize something like this when he emphasizes that understanding, despite its limitations, plays an essential role. I prefer Aristotle’s style of approaching things as “said in many ways” — where each of the ways is potentially definable, but there may be real question which is applicable in any given case — over unspecified generalized fluidity.

“Negation is necessarily a negation of something — whether a logical category, a philosophical position, a historically specific identity or institution. Form thus requires content in order to be negation. The central claim of Hegel’s theory of determinacy, then, concerns the negativity of form and the necessity of content” (ibid).

I am also very sympathetic to the importance of content, but a bit in doubt about the argument that negation in and of itself straightforwardly requires content to which it is applied. That would be true for negation in a formal sense that is not Hegel’s, but Hegel does not put much stock in fixed definitions, and he often speaks of a pure negativity that doesn’t seem to depend on anything else or refer to anything external to it. This I take to be part of what he calls the “inverted” perspective of otherness.

“Negativity is the inner determination of the way in which intelligibility is articulated within practices and institutions” (p. 7).

“Inner determination” here would be the purely “logical” aspect, as distinct from the social and historical.

“[N]egativity calls into question the assumption that the content of any normative commitment retains authority or stability within a historically specific form of life…. [Concrete forms of intelligibility] are subject not only to reversals of meanings and effects but also to coextensive positive and negative meanings and effects. For these reasons, no determination can be understood as final or fully stable” (ibid).

She seems to think this latter point is implicit but insufficiently emphasized in the readings of Pippin and Brandom. I think they already make it explicit. How much relative emphasis to give to determination versus fluidity is a delicate matter subject to considerations of context.

“[T]he key to Hegel’s idealism and its emphasis on negativity is his treatment of the Kantian problem of synthesis” (p. 12).

“Hegel follows Fichte’s reading of Kantian autonomy [as positing], yet he stresses that positing is a matter of actualization, which he understands in terms of normative authority. The activity of reason is a matter of distinction-making” (p. 37).

Provocatively, she suggests that Hegel makes a three-way identification of reason, imagination, and synthesis.

“Recall that Hegel suggests [in his early work Faith and Knowledge] that the transcendental unity of apperception and the figurative synthesis are one and the same synthetic unity. Hegel calls this one and the same synthetic unity ‘reason’. In fact, he argues that ‘the imagination is nothing but reason itself’…. Reason for Hegel, I want to suggest, is neither an epistemic faculty nor an ontological principle. It is the work of synthesis” (p. 40).

My instinct is still to distinguish reason from imagination, thinking of reasoning as mainly conscious and deliberate and imagination as mainly pre-conscious. Similarly, I am doubtful about early Hegel’s identification of Kantian unity of apperception and figurative synthesis. Both are forms of synthesis, but following Brandom I take the unity of apperception to be a kind of moral imperative, whereas I take the figurative synthesis of imagination to be something that happens pre-consciously. This seems like an important difference.

That the activity of reason in general is one of synthesis, however, is an excellent point.

“A totality of relations of negation is gathered together by inferential patterns that thereby institute a concrete determination of reason. Reason can thus be thought of as concrete forms, figures, or shapes of rationality articulated by a process of actualization” (ibid).

“A logic of actualization indicates that intelligibility is not only historically specific but also precarious and ambivalent” (p. 41).

She points out that for Kant, an individual concept is not itself a product of synthesis, whereas for Hegel it is.

“That a thing, event, idea is always already outside of itself… is not to the detriment of the thing. Rather, it is the thing’s way of becoming what it is” (p. 42).

She recognizes that Hegel’s teleology is Aristotelian rather than “classical” in form, and that teleology for both Aristotle and Hegel is inherently subject to contingency in its actualization. In neither Aristotle nor Hegel is the working out of teleology underwritten by an omnipotent power.

“Hegel does not articulate reason’s purposiveness in terms of a goal that is unambiguously realized, thereby affirming a classical teleology of reason. Hegel argues that reason is purposive ‘in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive activity'” (ibid).

She recognizes that the import of Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” is not an assertion of some cosmic mind, but rather is intended at a much more elemental level.

“The ‘tremendous power of the negative’ is accordingly the capacity of things to unfold in and through conditions that exceed them…. The actualization of reason is the subjectivity of things themselves” (p. 43).

The “subjectivity of things themselves” testifies that we have here moved beyond the opposition of subject and object that Hegel attributes to ordinary consciousness.

“Establishing the objectivity of subjectivity requires action (Handeln)…. Hegel’s appeal to action introduces the thought that Kant’s signature problem of objectivity is in effect a problem of normative authority” (p. 118; see also Hegel on Willing).

I would prefer to say activity rather than action, but in this context that is a nuance.

Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Sellars on Kantian Imagination

The analytically trained Kantian pragmatist Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) is increasing recognized as one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. It has been said that he played a central role in taking analytic philosophy from its empiricist beginnings to a new Kantian stage. He is known for his critique of the “Myth of the Given”, his work on material inference, and his concept of the space of reasons. I found an essay of his on the Kantian productive imagination.

He begins by contrasting two approaches to perceptual judgment. First is a standard empiricist notion that goes as far as possible in reducing judgment to grammatical predication, to the point where the perception itself is treated as a bare this, and all the cognitive work of judgment is concentrated in applying a predicate to the bare this.

“Traditionally a distinction was drawn between the visual object and the perceptual judgment about the object…. This suggested to some philosophers that to see a visual object as a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface consists in seeing the brick and believing it to be a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface: ‘This is a brick which has a red and rectangular facing surface’…. Notice that the subject term of the judgment was exhibited above as a bare demonstrative, a sheer this, and that what the object is seen as was placed in an explicitly predicate position (“The Role of Imagination in Kant’s Theory of Experience”, in In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, Scharp and Brandom, eds., p. 455).

Rather than pretending that perception gives us only a bare this, we should recognize that at least we talking animals live always already immersed in meaningful content. The most primitive human sense perception involves taking something not just as this, but as something with definite characteristics. This will turn out to be what Kant calls a schema, as distinct from a concept.

“I submit, on the contrary, that correctly represented, a perceptual belief has the quite different form: ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing surface’. Notice that this is not a sentence but a complex demonstrative phrase. In other words, I suggest that in such a perceptually grounded judgment as ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing side is too large for the job at hand’ the perceptual belief proper is that tokening of a complex Mentalese demonstrative phrase which is the grammatical subject of the judgment as a whole. This can be rephrased as a distinction between a perceptual taking and what is believed about what is taken…. From this point of view, what the visual object is seen as is a matter of the content of the complex demonstrative Mentalese phrase” (ibid).

In a nonessential decoration of the argument, he mentions “Mentalese”, a term used by analytic philosophers for inner speech. We need not concern ourselves here with whether or not there is a “mental language” distinct from, but patterned on, natural language, as this term suggests. The important point is that in every human perceptual “taking”, there is a kind of linguistic or language-like articulation, which we can express with a phrase consisting of classifying terms and syntactic relations between them.

“We must add another distinction, this time between what we see and what we see of what we see…. How can a volume of white apple flesh [hidden inside the apple] be present as actuality in the visual experience if it is not seen? The answer should be obvious. It is present by virtue of being imagined (p. 457).

“Before following up this point, it should be noticed that the same is true of the red of the other side of the apple. The apple is seen as as having a red opposite side. Furthermore, the phenomenologist adds, the red of the opposite side is not merely believed in; it is bodily present in the experience. Like the white, not being seen, it is present in the experience by being imagined” (ibid).

Here he seems to recall Husserl’s perceptual “adumbrations” or foreshadowings. Sellars is a bit more straightforward and explicit in attributing these to imagination.

“Notice that to say that it is present in the experience by virtue of being imagined is not to say that it is presented as imagined…. Red may present itself as red and white present itself as white; but sensations do not present themselves as sensations, nor images as images. Otherwise philosophy would be far easier than it is” (pp. 457-458).

When we imagine something to be the case, we are most often not aware that we are doing so. We simply think or believe that it is the case. As soon as we already have experience, what Sellars in the thin modern sense calls the “actual” presence of the imagined content comes to us as primitively mixed in with that of the perceived content. It takes work to analytically separate them, and any such separation always has a hypothetical character.

“But while these [hidden] features are not seen, they are not merely believed in. These features are present in the object of perception as actualities. They are present by virtue of being imagined” (p. 458).

As with Husserl’s “presentified” contents, the contributions of imagination are not theoretical constructs, but part of the experience itself.

“We do not see of objects their causal properties, though we see them as having them…. To draw the proper consequences of this we must distinguish between imagining and imaging, just as we distinguish between perceiving and sensing…. Roughly imagining is an intimate blend of imaging and conceptualization, whereas perceiving is an intimate blend of sensing and imaging and conceptualization” (ibid).

I like the way Sellars recognizes the interweaving inherent to these “intimate blends” of imaging and conceptualization.

“Notice that the proper and common sensible features enter in both by virtue of being actual features of the image and by virtue of being items thought of or conceptualized. The applehood [by contrast] enters in only by virtue of being thought of (intentional in-existence)” (pp. 458-459).

“The upshot of the preceding section is that perceptual consciousness involves the constructing of sense-image models of external objects. This construction is the work of the imagination responding to the stimulation of the retina…. The most significant fact is that the construction is a unified process guided by a combination of sensory input on the one hand and background beliefs, memories, and expectations on the other. The complex of abilities included in this process is what Kant called the ‘productive’ as contrasted with the ‘reproductive’ imagination. The former, as we shall see, by virtue of its kinship with both sensibility and understanding unifies into one experiencing the distinctive contributions of these two faculties” (p. 459).

Here we have a very basic Kantian point about the nature of experience — all perception involves imaginative construction. Objects are not just given to us fully constituted.

“Notice once again that although the objects of which we are directly aware in perceptual consciousness are image-models, we are not aware of them as image-models. It is by phenomenological reflection (aided by what Quine calls scientific lore) that we arrive at this theoretical interpretation of perceptual consciousness…. Thus we must distinguish carefully between objects, including oneself, as conceived by the productive imagination, on the one hand and the image-models constructed by the productive imagination, on the other” (pp. 459-460).

In common with Plato, Kant is at pains to point out that everything we experience — including everything we apprehend in inner sense — is appearance. I would say we also have “contact” with reality underlying the appearances, but we do not easily get knowledge of that reality.

“Kant distinguishes between the concept of a dog and the schema of a dog…. [O]ur perceptual experience does not begin with the perception of dogs and houses…. But though the child does not yet have the conceptual framework of dogs, houses, books, etc., he does, according to Kant, have an innate conceptual framework — a proto-theory, so to speak, of spatio-temporal physical objects capable of interacting with each other; objects — and this is the crux of the matter – which are capable of generating visual inputs which vary in systematic ways with their relation to the body of the perceiver ” (p. 460).

Here he explains the important Kantian notion of a schema. Concepts express nonperspectival essences, but schemas are perspectival, involve potentially sensible content, and implicitly include a relation to a perceiver.

“Consider the example of a perceiver who sees a pyramid and is walking around it, looking at it. The concept of a red pyramid standing in various relations to a perceiver entails a family of concepts pertaining to sequences of perspectival image-models of oneself-confronting-a-pyramid. This family can be called the schema of the concept of the pyramid…. Notice that the pyramid-schema doesn’t follow from the concept of a pyramid alone. It follows from the complex concept of pyramid in such-and-such relations to a perceiver” (p. 461).

In a Kantian context, we have no access to a sensible world apart from a perceiver’s perception of it.

“However thin — as in the case of the child — the intuitive representation may be from the standpoint of the empirical concept involved, it nevertheless contains in embryo the concept of a physical object now, over there, interacting with other objects in a system which includes me. It embodies a proto-theory of a world which contains perceivers of objects in that world” (p. 465).

Here we have the basis of Kant’s “transcendental deduction”, which aims to show that perception and imagination effectively already presuppose the same categories that govern understanding. This is how Kant recovers the possibility of objectivity.

Passive Synthesis: Conclusion

Husserl’s initial discussion of associative synthesis seems to me to be the climax of his lectures on passive synthesis, resulting in a great simultaneous genesis of the experience of time, self, world, and objects. He had indicated that the next frontier would involve taking more account of the content of things as opposed to the mere genesis of their identities, but I confess I found the follow-through disappointing. Here he follows conventional treatments of association that emphasize similarity as the main basis of particular associations. In hindsight, I’m inclined to doubt whether association really ought to be the main theme governing what I just called the great simultaneous genesis.

There is a discussion of affection that I also found disappointing. Curiously, it is separated from another later section that touches on feeling. Feeling he treats only as a function of the ego, outside the scope of “passive” synthesis. I see feeling as deeply bound up with the imagination and spontaneous belief involved in preconscious synthesis. I would prefer to see the ego treated as a function of feeling, rather than vice versa.

I do think he succeeds in developing the overall notion of preconscious synthesis in a somewhat more concrete way than Kant, who already greatly fleshes out this territory in comparison with Aristotle’s brilliant but obscure hints that I take to imply a kind of synthesis at work in the “common sense” and “inner sense”. As I mentioned in the last post, the very fact that Husserl here considers subjectivity as something constituted and not only as something constituting other things is also of great importance.

I was disappointed that so much of the discussion was limited to beliefs arising out of sense perception. In his early Logical Investigations, Husserl was engaged with a much broader inquiry into meaning as something not merely subjective or psychological. At the level of what he calls passive synthesis, I would hope to see much more about the linguistic side of our being.

When Husserl was working, Sellars and Brandom had not yet developed the rediscovery of concrete meaning-based material inference. Just as much of our immersion in language is at a preconscious level, I think we make many material inferences at a preconscious level, and this provides a far richer basis for the shaping of experience than similarity-based association. (See also Phenomenological Reduction?.)

Husserl on Evidence: Introduction

Returning to Husserl’s lectures on passive synthesis, we have reached the subdivision on what he calls evidence. Naturally, this will be a phenomenological kind of evidence, different from that with which scientists or lawyers are concerned. This is closely bound up with what he calls “intuition”. He begins with a nice summary of the ground covered so far. After that, I’ll add some general background on this new topic of intuition and evidence.

“By undertaking a systematic study of perceptions we came across the moment of belief, of passive doxa, and attended to the modalizations of belief. Naturally, what was demonstrated here is mirrored mutatis mutandis in each mode of intuition and accordingly in remembering, which in itself is characterized as a re-perceiving, as it were. We then contrasted with these doxic events occurring in the passive sphere, the functions of higher judicative activities that are founded in them” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 106).

“While carrying out our analysis of perception we had to point out its synthetic character as something fundamental. Perception is a process of streaming from phase to phase; in its own way each one of the phases is a perception, but these phases are continuously harmonized in the unity of a synthesis, in the unity of a consciousness of one and the same perceptual object that is constituted here originally. In each phase we have primordial impression, retention, and protention, and unity arises in this progression by the protention of each phase being fulfilled through the primordial impression of the phase that is continuously contiguous to it” (p. 107).

“We also speak of fulfillment in other respects within the sphere of mere presentations to which we restrict ourselves now, within mere receptivity…. We expect something to happen — now the very thing occurs, confirming the expectation…. We can also say that we are making an initial study of the nature of evidence…. [This] concerns a synthesis of a presentation that is not self-giving with a presentation that is self-giving” (pp. 107-108).

“Meanwhile, every external perception harbors its inner and outer horizons, regardless the extent to which perception has the character of self-giving; this is to say, it is a consciousness that simultaneously points beyond its own content. In its fullness it simultaneously points into an emptiness that would only now convey a new perception. The self-givenness of a spatial thing is the self-givenness of a perspectival appearing object that is given as the same in the fulfilling synthesis of appearances intertwining and devolving upon one another…. Thus, where there is no horizon, where there are no empty intentions, there is likewise no [synthesis of] fulfillment” (p. 108).

This last point about horizons and pointing beyond is important, because it suggest that the implications of what he misleadingly calls “empty” intentions (in contrast to the “fulfilling” intuitions associated with external perception) may really be as essential to verification as the intuitions that seem to be emphasized at first glance.

“It is of fundamental importance to distinguish between the different possible syntheses pertaining here to intuitions and empty presentations, and to characterize them in more detail” (p. 109).

I’d like to provisionally situate Husserlian intuition in the context of a few other notions of intuition. To begin with, I would say that in common usage, “intuition” is a knack for hitting upon things that happen to be true, by means of unexplainable leaps. This is a real thing that happens sometimes.

“Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning”, as Wikipedia puts it. Here I would substitute “true belief” for “knowledge”. I follow Aristotle in reserving the term “knowledge” for an understanding of the why of things. Merely that something is so by itself, without any reason, could not be knowledge, but at best a true belief. For me, no freestanding categorical judgment “A is B” by itself could count as knowledge. I even think the well-foundedness in what I call well-founded belief has to do with an understanding of the why, though it may depend on assumptions. A true belief that is not well-founded really just happens to be true in the sense of correspondence with something external.

Husserl on the other hand aims to ground knowledge in a phenomenologically disciplined intuition that helps explain something else. Husserlian intuition is supposed to be concerned with clear and present witnessing evidence, and does not so far seem to involve anything like a leap. In a later post we’ll explore what this looks like.

He seems to give present intuition a privileged epistemic role in the verification of knowledge that I think Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur, among others, would dispute. But once again, his detailed development is keeping me interested, and the complementary emphasis on “empty” intentions is a mitigating factor.

Kant and Hegel considered leaps of so-called intellectual intuition — i.e., intuition that purports to discover truths beyond any possible experience — to be a huge source of bad philosophy, and therefore wanted to ban intellectual intuition altogether. It is possible that the evidentiary use that Husserl makes of intuition is completely distinct from this, but at this point I am unsure. Unlike Kant, Husserl does not seem to limit intuition to our preliminary apprehension of the sensible manifold, but gives it a larger epistemic role. Also unlike Kant, he speaks of perceptual objects as given in intuition, rather than only the raw manifold.

Husserl’s contemporary Henri Bergson also claimed that intuition could be the basis of a disciplined method, but I have not dwelt enough on Bergson to compare Bergsonian intuition at this point.

The epistemic role of Husserlian intuition has a few points in common with the evidentiary role that a certain kind of disciplined mathematical “intuition” plays in so-called intuitionistic or constructive mathematics. Husserl did work in the philosophy of mathematics, and several early contributors to intuitionistic mathematics had a considerable interest in Husserl. Intuitionistic mathematics was originally broadly inspired by Kant’s views on the intuitive (as opposed to real or conceptual) character of space and time, but in the later 20th century its scope was unexpectedly discovered to exactly coincide with the scope of what is computable, as independently defined in computability theory by Church and Turing. Inspired by this conjunction, the intuitionistic type theory of Per Martin-Löf formalizes intuitionistic mathematics in a computable form. Intuitionistic type theory is distinguished by having no axioms (therefore depending on no assumed truths), and by its requirement of witnessing evidence in exactly specifiable forms for all valid assertions. This notion of witnessing evidence seems far removed from the relative indeterminacy of Kantian intuition — to the point where I’ve ironically called it to myself “intuitionism without intuition” — but it may still have some relation to Husserlian intuitive evidence.

Husserl makes a fundamental distinction between intuition as a kind of direct relation to currently present external perception, and the “presentification” of contents that are not currently present, but are anticipated or remembered. I am apprehensive about the emphasis on presence here, but reserving judgment for now.

Presentification and some aspects of Husserlian intuition together seem to have much in common with Aristotelian “imagination”, which I have suggested would be the main basis of consciousness from an Aristotelian point of view. Closer examination will be required to see what the differences are.

Aristotelian imagination at root seems to involve an experiencing of potentially sensible contents that need not depend on current sensation. It is said to ground memory, dreams, waking fantasy, and other visualization or analogous operations based on the other senses, but also and importantly the synthesizing functions of the so-called “common sense” and “inner sense”, which Aristotle mentions only sketchily. Aristotelian imagination may include sensible traces of things that go beyond sensation, like language or people’s characters.

By comparison, at this point I’m not sure whether Husserl would include dreams or fantasy under presentification. He might go further than Aristotle in including things that go beyond sensation — like mathematical objects — under presentification or intuition.

Figurative Synthesis

I wanted to extract a few more key points from Beatrice Longuenesse’s landmark study Kant and the Capacity to Judge. She strongly emphasizes that judgment for Kant refers to a complex activity, not a simple reaching of conclusions. She especially stresses the role of a capacity to judge that precedes any particular judgment and is grounded in a synthesis of imagination. (See Capacity to Judge; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant; Kantian Synthesis.)

At issue here is the very capacity for discursive thought, as well as “the manner in which things are given to us” (p. 225, emphasis in original), which for Kant involves what he called intuition. (See also Beauty and Discursivity).

Through careful textual analysis, Longuenesse argues that Kant’s claim to derive logical categories from forms of judgment makes far more sense than most previous commentators had recognized. For Kant, she argues, the “forms of judgment” are not just logical abstractions but essential cognitive acts that reflect “universal rules of discursive thought” (p. 5).

She recalls Kant’s insistence that the early modern tradition was wrong to take categorical judgments (simple predications like “A is B“) as the model for judgments in general. For Kant, hypothetical and disjunctive judgments (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“, respectively) are more primitive. These correspond to the judgments of material consequence and material incompatibility that Brandom argues form the basis of real-world reasoning.

Another distinctive Kantian thesis is that space and time are neither objective realities nor discursive concepts that we apply. Rather, they are intuitions and necessary forms of all sensibility. Kantian intuitions are produced by the synthesis of imagination according to definite rules.

“[I]ntuition is a species of cognition (Erkenntnis), that is, a conscious representation related to an object. As such it is distinguished from mere sensation, which is a mere state of the subject, by itself unrelated to any object…. One might say that, in intuition, the object is represented even if it is not recognized (under a concept).” (pp. 219-220, emphasis in original).

Before we apply any concepts or judgments, “Representational receptivity, the capacity to process affections into sensations (conscious representations), must also be able to present these sensations in an intuition of space and an intuition of time. This occurs when the affection from outside is the occasion for the affection from inside — the figurative synthesis. The form of the receptive capacity is thus a merely potential form, a form that is actualized only by the figurative synthesis” (p. 221, emphasis in original).

“[A]ccording to Locke, in this receptivity to its own acts the mind mirrors itself, just as in sensation it mirrors outer objects…. Kant shares with Locke the conception of inner sense as receptivity, but he no longer considers the mind as a mirror, either in relation to itself or in relation to objects…. Just as the thing in itself that affects me from outside is forever unknowable to me, I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me” (p. 239, emphasis added).

The point that the mind is not a mirror — either of itself or of the world — is extremely important. The mirror analogy Kant is rejecting is a product of early modern representationalism. We can still have well-founded beliefs about things of which we have no knowledge in a strict sense.

“Kant’s explanation is roughly this: our receptivity is constituted in such a way that objects are intuited as outer objects only in the form of space. But the form of space is itself intuited only insofar as an act, by which the ‘manifold of a given cognition is brought to the objective unity of apperception’, affects inner sense. Thanks to this act the manifold becomes consciously perceived, and this occurs only in the form of time” (p. 240, emphasis in original).

She develops Kant’s idea that mathematics is grounded in this kind of intuition, ultimately derived from the conditions governing imaginative synthesis. In particular, for Kant our apprehensions of unities and any kind of identification of units are consequences of imaginative synthesis.

“Extension and figure belong to the ‘pure intuition’ of space, which is ‘that in which the manifold of appearances can be ordered’, that is, that by limitation of which the extension and figure of a given object are delineated. Therefore, space and time provide the form of appearances only insofar as they are themselves an intuition: a pure intuition, that is, an intuition preceding and conditioning all empirical intuition; and an undivided intuition, that is, an intuition that is presupposed by other intuitions rather than resulting from their combinations” (p. 219, emphasis in original).

“According to Locke, the idea of unity naturally accompanies every object of our senses, and the idea of number arises from repeating the idea of unity and associating a sign with each collection thus generated by addition of units…. But for Kant, the idea (the concept) of a unit is not given with each sensory object. It presupposes an act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity…. Thus the idea of number is not the idea of a collection of given units to which we associate a sign, but the reflected representation of a rule for synthesis, that is, for the act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity. When such an act is presented a priori in intuition, a concept of number is constructed.” (p. 260, emphasis in original).

“Mathematics has no principles in the absolute sense required by reason. Axioms are not universal propositions cognized by means of pure concepts. They may be universally and apodeictically true, but their truth is based on the pure intuition of space, not derived from pure concepts according to the principle of contradiction” (p. 287).

Incidentally, Longuenesse thinks it does not follow from Kant’s account that space is necessarily Euclidean, as many commentators have believed and Kant himself suggested.

Droplets of Sentience?

One somewhat speculative theme I’ve been developing here is the suggestion that our basic sentience or awareness has only a very loose unity, like that of a liquid. The idea is that sentience attaches primarily to our concrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, which can then flow together like droplets of water. Consciousness is not a matter of being a spectator of some internal theater. It attaches directly to the action of the play, so to speak. (See Ideas Are Not Inert; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant).

William James famously spoke of the “stream” of consciousness. I take this to be quite different from the unity of apperception that Kant talked about. The unity of a stream of consciousness is very loose and constantly changing, but that loose unity is a matter of fact. The unity of a unity of apperception on the other hand is quite strong, but it is a teleological tendency or a moral imperative, and not a matter of fact.

When we say “I”, that refers primarily to a unity of apperception — our constellation of commitments. This has much greater relative stability than our stream of consciousness. It is also what I think Aquinas was reaching for in claiming a strong moral unity of personal “intellect”. By contrast, one of the great modern errors is the equation “I am my consciousness”.

Imagination: Aristotle, Kant

In the glossary to his translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul, Joe Sachs nicely summarizes the various roles of phantasia or “imagination” in Aristotle:

“A power of the soul that perceives appearances when perceptible things are absent and thinks without distinguishing universals (429a 4-8, 434a 5-11). The imagination is identified in On Memory and Recollection as the primary perceptive power of the soul (449b 31 – 450a 15). Thus, many activities discovered in On the Soul may be collected and attributed to the imagination, such as perceiving common and incidental objects of the senses, being aware that we are perceiving, discriminating among the objects of the different senses (425a 14 – b 25), distinguishing flesh or water (429b 10-18), and perceiving time (433b 7). Also, implicit within the power of imagination to behold images (phantasmata), there must be imagination in a second sense, eikasia, by which we can see an image as an image (eikon) or likeness (On Memory and Recollection 450b 12-27)” (pp. 194-195; citations in original).

In the above, I would particularly highlight “thinking without distinguishing universals” and “being aware that we are perceiving”. Imagination — and not intellect, for instance — seems to me to be the primary source suggested in Aristotle for what we, following Locke, call “consciousness”. Also noteworthy is language suggestive of what Kant would later call synthesis.

The vital implication here is that the closest analogue of “consciousness” in Aristotle comes into being not as a transparent medium of representation, but rather as a shifting collection of concrete forms in imagination. Further, the forms we experience are not just passively received, but actively organized and discriminated at a pre-conscious level. Thus when Aristotle says — as he also does — that, e.g., the eye is essentially passive in receiving forms as differentiations in received light — this latter is intended at a purely physical level, and is far from providing a full account of, e.g., visual perception by a human.

Prior to Descartes’ confabulation of scholastic “cogitation” and “intellection”, concrete human psychic activity or “cogitation” was generally recognized as having its roots in imagination. Intellection was understood to have a more specialized role, focused on the constitution of universals. However, attempts to reconcile Aristotle with Plotinus and Proclus in the Arabic tradition, and then with Augustine and pseudo-Dionysius in the Latin tradition, provided a background that was ultimately very supportive toward Aquinas’ strong claim that intellect must after all be understood as the leading part of the individual human soul, morally responsible for all its concrete thoughts and actions. This made it far more plausible for Descartes to take the further step — which Locke followed — of simply identifying cogitation and intellection. The self-transparency of the cogito in Descartes and of consciousness in Locke, respectively — along with their identification with intellection — served to marginalize the role of forms in imagination in their conceptions of “mind”.

A very important feature of Kant’s work that is relatively little appreciated is that he restored a central role for “imagination” in philosophical psychology and anthropology. For Kant, humans can have neither direct knowledge of empirical facts or objects, nor any knowledge of transcendent realities. All intellection and knowledge are discursive, as I think Aristotle would have agreed. We have immediate though “blind” intuition of a sensible manifold, but intellectual intuition is an oxymoron, because intellection is inherently discursive. And in between the synthesis of initial sensory apprehension in intuition and the synthesis of recognition in the concept (Kant’s equivalent for intellection) comes a crucial synthesis of reproduction in imagination. Though his terminology is quite different, Kant not only recovers but even expands upon the role that imagination played in Aristotle.

In Kant and the Capacity to Judge, Beatrice Longuenesse carefully develops what Kant says about imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is a major dimension of her book, so I can only give a flavor of it here.

“The imagination ‘in which’ there is reproduction is not the imagination as a faculty or power (Einbildungskraft), but the representation produced by this faculty (Einbildung)” (p. 35). Though Kant uses the terminology of representation, this effectively refers to the same forms in imagination that Aristotle emphasized.

“[Kant] shows that these acts of combination can contribute to the cognition of a phaenomenon, an object distinct from the ‘indeterminate object of empirical intuition’ (Erscheinung [or mere appearance]), only if they all belong to one and the same act of synthesis of the spatiotemporal manifold. The form of this act is determined a priori by the nature of our mind, and its outcome is threefold: the manifold of intuition represented ‘as’ manifold, the representation of imagination (Einbildung) emerging from empirical associations, and finally the universal representation or concept, under which particular representations are subsumed. This act is that very act of synthesis which Kant, in section 10, attributes to the imagination, in the A Deduction [of the categories] more precisely to transcendental imagination, and which in the B Deduction he calls synthesis speciosa, figurative synthesis” (pp. 35-36).

As usual in Kant, “transcendental” means not metaphysical, but simply constitutive in a way that is not reducible to empirical events. Longuenesse points out that imagination in Kant is not merely reproductive, but also productive. In any case, for Kant not only the logical “matter” but also the elaborated form of our fully constituted experience owes a great deal to imagination, and a recognition of this — as opposed to the assumption of a putative transparency of consciousness — is fundamental to the “Critical” attitude Kant aimed to promote. Here I am using “form” in a sense more Aristotelian than Kantian. (See also Capacity to Judge; Figurative Synthesis; Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Animal Imagination; Imagination; Four Layers of Being Human.)