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.

Husserl on Perception

“External perception is a constant pretension to accomplish something that, by its very nature, it is not in a position to accomplish. Thus, it harbors an essential contradiction, as it were. My meaning will soon become clear to you once you intuitively grasp how the objective sense exhibits itself as a unity in the unending manifolds of possible appearances; and seen upon closer inspection, how the continual synthesis, as a unity of coinciding, allows the same sense to appear, and how a consciousness of ever new possibilities of appearance constantly persists over against the factual, limited courses of appearance, transcending them.”

“Let us begin by noting that the aspect, the perspectival adumbration through which every spatial object invariably appears, only manifests the spatial object from one side. No matter how completely we may perceive a thing, it is never given in perception with the characteristics that qualify it and make it up as a sensible thing from all sides at once. We cannot avoid speaking of such and such sides of the object that are actually perceived. Every aspect, every continuity of single adumbrations, regardless how far this continuity may extend, offers us only sides. And to our mind this is not just a statement of fact: it is inconceivable that external perception would exhaust the sensible-material content of its perceived object; it is inconceivable that a perceptual object could be given in the entirety of its sensibly intuitive features, literally, from all sides at once in a self-contained perception” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 39-40).

Adumbration is something like foreshadowing.

While many of his contemporaries were caught up in the logical empiricist enthusiasm for literal “sense data” as the supposedly rock-solid foundation for knowledge, Husserl was taking an extremely original approach to a more classical view of the inherent limiting and “transcending” features of sense perception, explicitly bringing out implicit characteristics of any possible seeing of physical objects that seem clear as soon as we bring them into focus and reflect on them.

We need not take something like Plato’s refusal to treat sensation as a source of knowledge as a case of repugnance toward physicality. With Husserl’s help we can “see” a more specific grounding of Plato’s view in reasons inherent to the subject matter. Husserl’s exceptionally clear examples in the realm of visual perception also provide a kind of model for understanding something like Hegel’s frequent complaints against “one-sided” points of view.

“When we view the table, we view it from some particular side…. Yet the table has still other sides” (p. 40). “It is clear that a non-intuitive pointing beyond or indicating is what characterizes the side actually seen as a mere side” (p. 41). “In every moment of perceiving, the perceived is what it is in its mode of appearance [as] a system of referential implications…. And it calls out to us, as it were, in these referential implications: ‘There is still more to see here, turn me so you can see all my sides, let your gaze run through me, draw closer to me, divide me up; keep on looking at me over again and again…'” (ibid).

“These indications are at the same time tendencies that push us toward the appearances not given…. They are pointers into an emptiness since the non-actualized appearances are neither consciously intended nor presentified. In other words, everything that genuinely appears is an appearing thing only by virtue of being intertwined and permeated with an intentional empty horizon, that is, by virtue of being surrounded by a halo of emptiness with respect to appearance. It is an emptiness that is not a nothingness, but an emptiness to be filled-out; it is a determinable indeterminacy” (p. 42).

“In spite of its emptiness, the sense of this halo of consciousness is a prefiguring that prescribes a rule for the transition to new actualizing appearances…. This holds time and again for every perceptual phase of the streaming process of perceiving…. There is a constant process of anticipation, of preunderstanding” (pp. 42-43).

“[A]s soon as a new side becomes visible, a side that has just been visible disappears from sight….But what has become non-visible is not cognitively lost for us…. Having already once seen the back side of an unfamiliar object and, turning back to perceive the front side, the empty premonition of the back side now has a determinate prefiguring that it did not have previously” (pp. 45-46).

“The fact that a re-perception, a renewed perception of the same thing, is possible for transcendence characterizes the fundamental trait of transcendent perception, alone through which an abiding world is there for us, a reality that can be pregiven for us and can be freely at our disposal” (p. 47).

Here “transcendence” just refers to the various characteristics of the incomplete perception of spatial objects he is pointing out.

“[W]e see that every perception [implicitly] invokes an entire perceptual system; every appearance that arises in it implies an entire system of appearances” (p. 48). “What is already given to consciousness in a primordial-impressional manner points to new modes of appearance through its halo which, when occurring, emerge as partly confirming, partly determining more closely…. Advancing along this line, the empty intentions are transformed respectively into expectations” (p. 49).

Perception gives us the very opposite of isolated sense data. Every perception is connected to other perceptions.

“If we ask, finally, what gives unity within every temporal point of the momentary appearance… we will also come across reciprocal intentions that are fulfilled simultaneously and reciprocally” (p. 50).

Substance in the elementary sense of something persisting through change emerges from networks of mutually reinforcing cross-references.

“We can never think the given object without empty horizons in any phase of perception and, what amounts to the same thing, without apperceptive adumbration. With adumbration there is simultaneously a pointing beyond what is exhibiting itself in a genuine sense. Genuine exhibition is itself, again, not a pure and simple possession on the model of immanence with its esse = percipi [to be = to be perceived]; instead, it is a partially fulfilled intention that contains unfulfilled indications that point beyond” (p. 56).

“[I]n the process of perceiving, the sense itself is continually cultivated so in steady transformation, constantly leaving open the possibility of new transformations” (p. 57).

Everything we perceive reaches beyond itself, raising new questions.

“We always have the external object in the flesh (we see it, grasp, seize it), and yet it is always at an infinite distance mentally. What we do grasp of it pretends to be its essence; and it is it too, but it remains so only in an incomplete approximation, an approximation that grasps something of it, but in doing so also constantly grasps into emptiness that cries out for fulfillment” (pp. 58-59).

I suggested above that what Husserl illustrates so clearly about visual perception can serve as a model for other things. In particular, I think both facts and beliefs share the perspectival character of visual perception of spatial objects, because they revolve around analogous issues of correspondence with something external.

The very best and most complete facts about anything at best resemble a collection of still views of a tree from different angles, like the sides of the table in Husserl’s example. The virtue of facts is that they are supposed to be individually self-contained, and individually verifiable by correspondence to states of affairs. Even leaving aside all questions of interpretation that tend to unravel this putative self-containedness, by virtue of their isolation all individual facts still remain “one-sided” or perspectival, like individual still views of the tree.

Even the most complete collection or sequence of still views fails to capture the simultaneous many-sided unity-in-diversity of the concrete tree. The real concrete unity of the tree is not factual but teleological and “transcendental”, forever out of reach of a merely factual approach.

If this is true of the best possible facts, I would say it must also be true of the best possible beliefs, because both revolve around a kind of correspondence to states of affairs. The difference is that beliefs are just assertions of correspondence between what we say and what “is”. But to qualify as a fact, an assertion must also be verifiable by correspondence.

But verification by correspondence can only apply to what appears, not to what “is”, so facts only apply to what appears about states of affairs. Facts in effect just are verifiable appearances. They are an instance of what Plato called “true opinion”. They are objects of justified true belief, and potentially of a kind of subjective “certainty”.

Beliefs on the other hand usually reach beyond appearances toward what is, so although they assert a kind of correspondence, they cannot in general be verified by correspondence. Their well-foundedness in the general case has to do with a goodness of reasons. Well-foundedness by reasons falls short of certainty in one way, but it reaches deeper. It is potentially less subject to perturbation, because it does not directly depend on appearances or correspondence.

I think knowledge is something stronger than well-founded belief. Unlike facts and beliefs, I want to say that knowledge in the proper sense has nothing to do with correspondence to something outside itself. Also, well-founded beliefs may depend on assumptions that could eventually be refuted, but “knowledge” in the sense I want to give it does not depend on any assumptions either.

Contrary to common usage, then, I want to say that facts are not knowledge, and even certainty about appearances is not knowledge.

Judgments of correspondence — including beliefs and facts and certainties about appearance — seem to me to be inherently perspectival in the way that Husserl talks about. On the other hand, that rare thing called knowledge, in the way I am using the term, would be immune to perspectival limitations, because it does not depend on correspondence at all. (See also Husserl on Passive Synthesis; Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True; Berkeley on Perception; Platonic Truth; Everyday Belief; A Criterion for Knowledge?; McDowell on the Space of Reasons; The Non-Primacy of Perception.)

Passion, Balance

Plato and Aristotle would not have endorsed the Stoic idea that passion is simply a bad thing to be mastered and exterminated, and that the sage should therefore be completely unaffected. While excess is bad, the right kind of passion can be good, and passion in general can contribute to good. This is even more true for general emotion, and still more so for what I have called feeling. Rather than striving to eliminate passion altogether, it is better to let it be moderated through balanced perspective — seeing things from multiple angles, and stepping outside of one’s immediate reactions to take in a bigger picture. Balanced perspective is a relative thing associated with what I have called emotional reasonableness. It is a moving target; each new situation may present different challenges. (See also Dialogue; Obstacles to Synthesis.)