Robert Alan and Kathryn Dunlevie Hayes Professor of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Rice University

Sensory experience and intentionality

[Numbers in brackets are linked to entries in "Publications."]

On my view, sensory experience is both phenomenal and “intentional” (i.e., has "intentionality"--object-directedness, assessability for accuracy, signficant "content"). And the specific forms of phenomenality it exemplifies suffice to make it intentional.

In [1] Chapter 7, I argue for this as the thesis that having certain phenomenal features (involved, e.g., in something’s looking shaped and situated a certain way to you) is enough to make you assessable for accuracy with respect to them. That is, we can talk about whether the way it looks to you is accurate or not, without the addition of separable “interpreting conditions” of the sort that need to be added to make symbols or pictures similarly assessable. That this is so is enough to make some visual phenomenal features intentional features. However, this sort of “intentionalism” does not license a reductive representationalist approach to consciousness. I further clarify my position on representationalism in [11] and [12]. For my overview of the issues regarding the relation between consciousness and intentionality, see [10].

In more recent work ( [2] , [19], [23], [28]), I argue for my intentionalism somewhat differently, based on a phenomenology of object constancy, taking what I call “objectual sensing” as basic to the intentionality of perceptual experience. The link between my earlier and more recent approaches is to be found in my views (discussed in [2] [22] and [23]) of how the accuracy of experience is confirmed and disconfirmed from the subject’s point of view through experienced object constancy, and so how visual illusions may be exposed and corrected through the “experience of disillusionment.” These topics are tied to consideration of the role of motor skills, attention, and embodiment in perception (treated in [20], [22], and [23]) and the relative “richness” of visual experience (discussed in [5] and [21]).

It is part of this richness, I maintain—in [1] (Chapter 7,and in [2] )—that experience is “recognitional”: the phenomenal character of sense experience is inseparable from our experiencing things as “recognizably of certain kinds.” However, I stop short of saying this shows we “represent kind properties” in virtue of the phenomenal character of sensory experience. For it is not clear that when things look to me recognizable as K’s (where K is some artefactual or natural kind), my visual experience would be inaccurate merely because the things in question were in fact only K-like things that lacked the design history or hidden structure needed to be genuine K’s. For example, if a bird that is indistinguishable from a duck without internal examination “looks to me recognizable as a duck” in my sense (it "walks like a duck," and so on), we could just say that it accurately looks to me “duck-ish”—not that I visually misrepresent it as a duck. I merely mistakenly think it is a duck, based on its duckish appearance—its duck “Gestalt.”

 This brings us to controversies over the “conceptuality” of sense experience, which I discuss in [2] [13] and [23]. On my proposal, objectual spatial experience can occur in the absence of relevant (recognitional and inferential) conceptual capacities, and variation in appearances resists complete specification in conceptualizing content attributions. In this sense at least, we may say generally the content of spatial experience is not wholly conceptual, and can be entirely “nonconceptual.” However, the recognitional aspect of conceptual abilities belongs to what it’s like to have sensory experience, and recognitional capacities are sometimes acquired and exercised in ways that depend on one’s capacities to make inferences relevant to one’s grasp of concepts. But is it at least possible (conceptually or metaphysically)  that we might have had all the very same sophisticated recognitional skills we actually possess (as, e.g., surgeons, mechanics, architects, filmmakers, athletes, art historians), but in the absence of any inferential ones? This is doubtful at best. But precisely when, where, and which capacities of the latter more robustly conceptual sort are implicated in experience also seems unresolvable. We should just say that experiencing what we do—having sensory experience with the phenomenal “content” ours has—constitutes the exercise of various capacities for object perception and recognition, which we cannot completely separate from our capacities to classify things in inferential thought.

© 2020 Charles Siewert. All Rights Reserved.