Noë’s Action-Based Theory of Perception and the Role of Representation

In recent years a spate of experiential “blindness” studies has reinvigorated the debate in the contentious borderland of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science over how far consciousness, and the action of attention in consciousness, can be naturalized. Psychological experiments targeting kinds of attention “blindness” -- purporting to show that perceiving subjects, to their surprise, often fail to register non-trivial aspects of their environments -- have attempted to demonstrate that we are misled in various ways about what is available to us in experience. That we could be in error about our experience is troublesome for philosophy (and especially phenomenology) in view of the fact that many of our philosophical investigations either proceed from the fact of experience, or, at the very least, allow background assumptions about the givenness of experience guide the application of philosophical. If natural limitations inherent to our brains stifled the rich givenness of experience that philosophers tend to think we enjoy, denying us a starting point for investigations and/or a reliable world to which we might apply the results, then the discipline of philosophy would strain to supply the accounts of consciousness it thinks itself capable of supplying. The charge of “blindness,” therefore, forms a newer, smaller front in the older, larger “war” over whether philosophy is a boon or a boondoggle for humanity.
The philosopher Alva Noë makes a brief, yet spirited, defense of the philosophy of consciousness with his article “Inattentional Blindness, Change Blindness, and Consciousness” (2007). In the article, Noë considers two ominous (for philosophy) responses to the empirical results of these “blindness” studies; rebuts them with, among other tactics, compelling phenomenological descriptions that expose unwarranted philosophical presuppositions in these studies; and, finally, provides his own action-based theory of perception (ABP) in the attempt to disambiguate what there is of philosophical versus natural scientific value in the studies.
In this paper I will (a) review, and largely endorse, Noë’s reading of the standoff between philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science in these two responses and his attempt to reframe “blindness” in terms of ABP. However, I will (b) argue that his methodological appeal to phenomenological description, even in its limited extent, necessitates the assumption of a much larger phenomenological task than his ABP is prepared to assume. Finally, I will (c) present two objections to his ABP: one that I expect to be easily defeated, in order to show where Noë has been scoring many of his philosophical points against the natural science “crowd,” and another I expect to cause more difficulties, in order to show the direction where ABP will need to develop.[1]

(a) Contra “grand illusion,” contra New Skepticism, pro ABP

The two rhetorical opponents[2] -- the “grand illusion” hypothesis and the so-called New Skepticism -- are chosen by virtue of the fact that they both, to Noë’s reading: (i) insist that the philosopher of consciousness must be relying on a robust model of internal representation in order to explain how what is “out there” (phenomena of the external world) come to consciousness “in here” (the brain); and (ii) insist that experiential “blindness,” which Noë gathers under the umbrella term ‘detail blindness’ (DB), deals a fatal blow to the richness or veridicality of internal representation, and by extension, to the philosophy of consciousness. Noë ultimately will want to disown (i) as too phenomenologically naive to count as philosophical explanation, “What is is about the 3-D model thanks to which we are phenomenally conscious of the world around us? After all, we don’t see the model....Representations in the head, however detailed, do not (would not) explain visual consciousness” (2007: 509). First, though, he will attempt to show that the two rhetorical opponents fail in regards to (ii).
            The “grand illusion” hypothesis denies that a perceiver is aware of the perceptual richness of his or her environment, contrary to what he or she might think (2007: 504).[3] This claim is vividly supported by “gorilla” experiment (Simons and Chabris 1999) in which observing subjects, intently counting the number of times a basketball passes between a collection of youths, frequently fail to register the presence of a gorilla-costumed interloper wending its way through the scene.[4] We might equally well verify this lack of attention from a less clinical example -- say, we’re picking a friend up at the airport and, expecting the friend to emerge from one door, we fail to notice that our friend has emerges from another door and stands in plain view. In these cases neither the gorilla nor the friend were concealed. We possessed a full, unobstructed view of the scene and yet we missed non-trivial details of the scene; the gorilla being non-trivial because its presence so thoroughly disrupts the coherence of the scene, the friend being non-trivial because in this case we are familiar with what we are looking for and still miss it. Experiments of all manner could be run to verify different sorts of DB. The takeaway point for the “grand illusion” hypothesis is that the perceiver is misled about his or her grasp of the richness of the scene. There is a failure to take in, by means of internal representation, all the detail in the world we behold. As a result our attention latches onto only a small amount of this detail and we hold in reserve no rich internal representation which we might consult in order to draw out further detail.
            This “blindness” demands that we rethink how consciousness works, but Noë does not immediately concede that the results, however surprising or disappointing, entail that we lack rich representations of our world, internal or otherwise. He supplies two alternate readings of the “blindness” results that save the possibility of rich internal representations (even if he will ultimately argue against (i)) (Noë 2007: 506). First, that the results could just as easily be accounted for by more nimble theories explaining the mechanics of how we bring these representations to mind -- a “grand illusion” reading of the “blindness” results assumes that we have unadulterated access to our internal representations at all times and in every way, but perhaps there are structural limits on what we can recall at any given time that, once elaborated, will make the “blindness” results look less blind. Second, that perhaps we have a rich internal representation of the world, but it fades quickly. Both of these counters essentially ask the experimental psychologist to be more explicit about the philosophical presuppositions at work in the notion of internal representation: either support and elucidate this presupposition with experimental data, or don’t presuppose it at all.
            Another line of response to the “blindness” results takes the form of what Noë calls the New Skepticism, whose chief proponent Noë identifies as Daniel Dennett. On Noë’s reading, New Skepticism is a novel form of traditional skepticism which nourishes doubts not about whether we grasp things as they are, but rather whether we even grasp things as they seem. The added twist discards the old Platonic bugbear of ‘being versus seeming’ in favor of a direct attack on the veridicality of seeming. The same “grand illusion” experiments can be used to argue in favor of New Skepticism that we are misled about our understanding of the world. Empirical assessments of the comprehensiveness of the visual field also show that our visual perception is constitutively “imperfect”: the ability to focus is not evenly distributed over the range of the visual field (we focus sharper in the center of our visual field, as opposed to the margins; our retina is almost color-blind; our eyes are in constant movement (Noë 2002: 2). Despite these disadvantages, our experience of the world remains persuasively full, continuous, rich, uniform. We know our sensory apparatus is not built to provide this optimal experience, and yet this is how we experience the world. For the new skeptic, this is a troubling disconnect. We are like the emperor with no clothes, strutting about confident in our assessment of the world, waiting for the cold precision of hard science to point out our ridiculousness.
It’s a grim line of thought. There are certain inescapable ways in which our brain and sensory apparatus are deficient and cannot live up to the task of perceiving the world with the sort of detail. The best we can do is map out the constitutive gaps in our experience with the right sorts of experiments. These gaps can be pointed at with certain negative phenomenological indicators, such as surprise, that trigger when we realize our self-assessment of our perceptual abilities has overreached the mark (Dennett 1991: 356). But surprise only serves to alert us to our error, not to correct it.
            Noë’s rebuttal is simplistic on its face, though it invites complication as we will see in (b). He denies that the average perceiver bears any theoretical commitment to the internal representation model, or what Noë calls elsewhere the “snapshot” conception of experience (Noë 2002: 4). So the surprise of misled perceivers is not a sign of some constitutive, ongoing disconnect with the world -- a failure to register some putative “snapshot” in full detail. It’s simply a sign that we “overestimate how good we are at noticing changes” (Noë 2007: 508); an overestimation, however, that offers the possibility of non-skeptical redress.
For the average perceiver this overestimation is not a sign of theoretical deficiency, but rather a deficiency of our practical techniques of looking. Here Noë is making an appeal to the common sense know-how of the average perceiver, a common strategy for rebutting skepticism of the traditional sort.[5] In the context of rebutting New Skepticism, Noë asks us to reflect on how the average, everyday perceiver recognizes that, on the one hand, his or her attentiveness to the details of his or her environment may be limited; but also recognizes that, on the other hand, his or her grasp of the environment can be modified for the better by recalibrating one’s habit of seeing to meet new challenges in perceptual awareness.[6] Awareness of DB does not generally trigger the same reaction in the experimental scientist as it does the average perceiver; the former either confirms or disproves a theoretical hypothesis, the latter tries to adjust his or her practical comportment towards the object or scene.
The theoretical/practical distinction is more difficult to see in the clinical environment of experimental psychology, wherein the “blindness” studies are often designed to strip the trial of practical context. In the “gorilla” experiment, what the perceiver fails to register is an element that does not belong in the scene according to any habit of seeing. Nor is there any opportunity  to adjust one’s habit of seeing in the normal flow of lived attitudinal adjustments -- once the gorilla has been spotted, the experiment is over for the scientist. For the average perceiver, on the other hand, this is precisely where the effort of learning new habits of seeing begins. In the example of picking the friend up at the airport, for example, I will remember next time to attend to both doorways so as not to be surprised if my friend emerges from the second and not the first. Noë takes the fact that our practical knowledge of the world often steers us in the right direction (and provides detours of learning new habits of comportment when old habits lead us astray) as a sufficiently compelling evidence against New Skepticism. And he places the burden back on his interlocutors to justify why we should impose such a high-level of theoretical commitment on the average perceiver (as the source of surprise), or why we should accept that being wrong occasionally about what appears to us entails a skeptical condemnation of the entire perceptual apparatus.
The action-based theory of perception (ABP) encapsulates into a positive account some of Noë’s main points of criticism against the “grand illusion” hypothesis and New Skepticism. In matters of perceptual comportment we are practical subjects first and theoretical subjects second: before we formulate a visual theory, we need to acknowledge our visual praxis in everyday life. We perceive the world as a real world, not as a representation of a real world. As Noë writes, “Perceptual experience is directed to the world, not to the brain” (Noë 2002: 6). If perceptual experience were directed to the brain, we might reasonably expect the sort of high level intimacy with perceptual objects that the internal representation model, or the “snapshot,” demands. After all, I have a sort of direct access to my own brain that nobody else can have. If the perceiver can’t conjure up a “snapshot” of his or her own visual experience, who can? The question, however, confuses the privilege of perspective with the privilege of content. As practical, first-person subjects we each have a privileged perspective on the world that is ours alone. But that privilege is not accorded in the same way to the objects of perception enjoyed according to that perspective. The objects themselves are not “in here” (the brain), they are “out there” (the world). Therefore, the partial views we get on objects of perception are precisely what we should expect if they were real and not part of a “grand illusion.” Whether the partial views are provided by our circumnavigation of a 3-D object, or through the rapid sacaddic movements of the eye, the partialness of the view appears to be no obstacle to engaging the world. Nor should we forget to counterbalance the surprise we feel at being occasionally misled by perceptual experience with the overwhelming confidence we demonstrate in the perceptual activity of our daily life.
There remains the worry, however, that Noë’s move will not fully satisfy the “grand illusion” crowd or the new skeptic because they were expecting a theoretical solution (not a practical one) to a theoretical complaint. It might be the case that certain kinds of skepticism do not merit a response, or do not require one, insofar as they are self-defeating.[7] But Noë nevertheless attempts to bridge the gap between what his opponents might expect and what he has to offer with the theory of amodal perception. He borrows the theory from experimental psychology; briefly, it states that we have the ability to perceive as perceptually present what is not wholly in view (Noë 2002: 9). When we see the partial outline of a triangle, we perceive as perceptually present the whole triangle; when we see a 3-D object in a discontinuous series of saccadic eye movements, we perceive the 3-D object as stable and enduring; when we see a cat in partial view behind a picket fence, we perceive the cat as a unity. In all these cases we enjoy a perceptual experience of wholeness despite the fact that the view of the object is only given in parts. Such an ability on behalf of perceiving subjects would discard the need for the rich internal representation, or “snapshot,” of experience because overcoming DB would not be a matter of having all of the perceptual object or scene in view, rather it would be a matter of viewing from the right perspective (as determined by interest, habit, etc.). Whether or not amodal perception can be definitively, empirically verified is another unsettled issue, but it is at least comforting to the philosopher of consciousness to know that the internal representation model is not a foregone conclusion among experimental psychologists. Philosophy might yet have something to offer the world in the way of explicating consciousness and attention.

(b) Noë commits to more than he thinks: the saccadic eye (constitutively unaware of gaps) versus the picket fence cat (aware, or potentially aware, of gaps)

Not just philosophy, also phenomenology. The crucial move against the reductive and/or skeptical response to DB issued out of phenomenological considerations of our experience. We don’t require internal models of experience to engage with the world in a veridical manner; a phenomenological consideration shows that we are, as practical subjects, already operating in the midst of multiple partial perspectives on objects and scenes, and doing so with remarkable success. Amodal perception is offered to the experimental psychologist as justification for this success.
And if amodal perception sounds familiar (and attractive) to the phenomenology crowd as well, there is good reason. The theory runs parallel to perceptual experience as it is described in the theory of intentionality, one of the core structures contained in Husserlian phenomenology. In the theory of intentionality, as with amodal perception, we find the basic recognition that perception provides the perceiver with a grasp of the whole through the medium of the part: “...perception is essentially the presumptive apprehension of some object, not its adequate intuition. Perception itself, though part of the ego’s phenomenological being, naturally falls, like so much else in consciousness that evades notice, beyond the glance of perception, much as ungrasped, yet apparent, aspects of a perceived external thing are not themselves perceived” (Husserl, LI:5:8 (93)).[8] The demand for “adequate intuition” of a perceptual object or scene would be the demand for the “snapshot” of experience. The practical subject, however, functions without such a “snapshot”; both Noë and Husserl are in agreement that the phenomenological evidence shows us that perception “sees through” the part, or the aspect [Abschattung], to the whole.
Yet how far does this agreement extend? For every perceptual aspect that is seen, there are unseen aspects of the same object, either on the obverse side of the object, or “in plain view”, as we’ve seen in the DB studies. It does not seem to make a difference to Noë whether the unseen aspects are (i) the result of intrinsic mechanical shortcomings of our perceptual faculties (the instability and discontinuity of saccadic eye movements, for example) or (ii) the result of obstructed views of an object within an adequately intuited scene (the cat behind the picket fence, for example). I would like to suggest that this is a philosophically and phenomenologically salient difference for Husserl. Noë’s failure to make this distinction results in, I argue, two latent and subtly competing theories of perception within ABP: (i) causal ABP and (ii) motivational ABP, which correspond to the distinction made by Husserl in Ideas II between the experiential regions of material nature and the spiritual world, respectively.
Taking Husserl’s distinction as our guiding clue, we can determine the two theories as follows.
Causal ABP (cABP) describes the activity of action-based perception from within the natural, material causal nexus in which the perceptual relation of perceiver to the object or scene is regulated by our acquired sensorimotor skills. These sensorimotor skills constitute a “practical knowledge of the ways what we do gives rise to sensory stimulation” (Noë 2002: 10). Contrary to the “snapshot” conception, sensorimotor skills do not offer us a model to which we might consciously attend, but rather provide the habits of seeing through which we exercise the strengths and cope with the shortcomings of our perception. “We peer, squint, lean forward, adjust lighting, put on glasses, and we do so automatically” (Noë 2002: 7). All these adjustments arise out of passive habitualities that, for the most part, pass beneath the threshold of our attentive awareness. This activity, thus, is pre-intentional insofar as it is unattended to (though the right sort of reflection could, theoretically, bring the practical activity into view).
Motivational ABP, on the other hand, describes the activity of action-based perception from within the motivated relations of the spiritual world -- or, to give Husserl’s idiom a more contemporary inflection, from within the motivated relations of a meaningful social and cultural environment. Unlike the pre-intentional activity of causal ABP, motivational ABP is characterized by our intentional “reading” of the clues and context of our cultural surroundings. When a police officer, for example, surveys a political demonstration in the process of threat assessment, it’s important that he or she possess a conscious awareness of what he or she is doing and why it is being done. If violence erupts, the police officer will be forced to act in ways that will demands justification later. When it comes time to write the report it will presumably not be sufficient for the officer to respond that he or she was merely acting on (pre-intentional) instincts and habits. Motivational ABP accounts for cases like this where awareness of the social and cultural reasons for adopting certain perceptual perspectives makes a difference.
Noë hints at the philosophical importance of social and cultural valences for ABP in reference to the work of “artists, magicians, stage designers and cinematographers” (Noë 2002: 7). But no attempt is made to distinguish mABP from cABP. The unstated assumption is that this class of people, who specialize in the presentation and manipulation of images as images, have simply mastered the rules of cABP and use these rules to play various sorts of tricks on the senses of their naive audiences. Such an assumption would hold that all “mABP” phenomena ultimately reduce to, and can be explained in terms of, cABP. But is this the case? To ask the phenomenological question whereby Noë distinguished himself from the “grand illusion” crowd and the new skeptics: does such a reduction accord with descriptions of our experience? The grouping together of disparate types like “artists” and “magicians” should already raise a red flag that we are overlooking important phenomenological differences among the various ways of perceptual activity. Further consideration of the disparate phenomena might reveal that more is lurking beneath the surface of Noë’s general motto “perceiving is a way of acting” (Noë 2004: 1) than he is ready to admit.

(c) Two objections: duck/rabbit and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

I will offer two objections to the reduction of mABP to cABP. But, first, let’s recall the reason why such a reduction seems inevitable for Noë. His primary interlocutors in the discourse on consciousness and attention, as we’ve sketched it, have been either experimental psychology (the “grand illusion” crowd, broadly construed) or the new skeptics (Dennett et al.). Both used the results of the DB studies to mount an attack on the veridicality of perceptual experience as we describe it (that is, as rich, full, complete, detailed, and so on). If Noë wants to rebut his opponents with yet more (phenomenological) descriptions of experience, he needs those descriptions to hook up with the realm of natural science in a real, impactful, empirically-verifiable manner, lest he simply beg the question by supplying his opponents with descriptions they believe they already have demonstrated to be constitutively inadequate. The treatment of amodal perception is one indication that he believes results of phenomenological description can be folded back into natural science. Noë is a cagey enough thinker that he doesn’t let his argument rest on amodal perception alone, but he clearly has left an open invitation for empirical psychologists and philosophers alike to come up with a knockdown argument that every mAPB reduces to cABP.
            The two objections will be broached in reference to (i) Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit and (ii) Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I expect the first objection to fail and the second to provide more difficulty. Why bother with posing an objection I think is bound to fail? Because I think (i) highlights the point at which ABP is designed to be attacked, whereas (ii) shows us where it should be attacked according to the merits of the theory.

(i) the duck/rabbit

Towards the “end” of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein develops a number of thoughts on the question of “seeing as....” To put the question one way: what is the difference between seeing something and seeing something as something? The sorts of figures and illustrations appealed to, including the duck/rabbit, offer themselves in full and open availability to the perceiving subject (similar to the visuals of DB studies: nothing is concealed). This full availability sets us up for a surprise when we discover that we can attend to the same markings on the page (the duck/rabbit) in two different ways, either conjuring up an image of a rabbit, or a duck. We are all the more amazed when we reflect on the fact that attending to the markings in different ways required no apparent shift in our physical perspective, no leaning forward, no squinting, no putting on our glasses. Nevertheless, the change from duck to rabbit happens, at our will. When we attend to the markings as a duck, we are “blind” to the rabbit; when we attend to the markings as a rabbit, we are “blind” to the duck. In short, we don’t see markings that can be read as duck or rabbit -- we see the duck or rabbit.


            The objection to Noë, then, runs as follows: since there was no apparent physical activity involved in the attentive switch from the duck to the rabbit then we must be relying on some sort of mABP-based functionality such as our acquired cultural awareness of what markings can count as a duck and what markings can count as a rabbit. This is not to say that, during the shift, the perceiving subject somehow slips out the the causal realm of natural science into direct contact with, say, the Forms of duck and rabbit. We remain bodily organisms in a causal chain of material nature. Yet it is not the cABP-based functionality, which arises out of this natural causal chain, that triggers the shift between duck and rabbit. Indeed, how could this be possible? The markings provide the eye with the same sense data input in the case of the duck as the rabbit. Without a change in the input, cABP has no basis on which to explain the shift of attention. But since we know the shift in attention occurred, mABP looks like the only remaining explanatory option.
            Why does this objection fail? First (but less importantly, I think), it fails because the empirical psychologist (and Noë) can provide a more detailed scientific, empirical account of how seeing works that might persuade us of a tighter correspondence between the attention shift and a cABP reading of our bodily comportment. The saccadic movements of the eye, for example, will likely target different patterns of the markings. If we reduce our perception of the duck, or rabbit, to these corresponding patterns of saccadic movements, then we have successfully reduced mABP to cABP. Although it does not appear that we are moving, our eyes have never stopped moving: perception remains, essentially, a way of (sub-intentionally) acting. Second (more importantly, I think), the objection fails because it nurtures an unlikely idealism in regards to object of perception. As embodied perceivers, it’s unlikely that an account of how we see what we see can ever be entirely divorced from the natural, bodily mechanics that set the stage for perception. There’s no (human) seeing of the rabbit/duck without eyes, brain, body, etc. To deny that we can track a correlation between a cABP account and a mABP account is not supported by experience.

(ii) Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors[9]

But correlation does not imply causation. A brief consideration of The Ambassadors (1533) will attempt to show that, correlation or not, mABP is phenomenologically irreducible to cABP. The painting is a double portrait of Jean de Dinteville, a landowner, and George de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, rendered in the richly-detailed manner of Netherlandish painting. According to the traditional reading, Jean de Dinteville, with his hand fixed on the blade at his hip, represents the the life of action; while George de Selve, his elbow resting on a book, represents the life of contemplation. Together they form the classic dichotomous pairing of the theoretical versus practical life and present the viewer with a suitably straightforward object of aesthetic and intellectual edification.

Figure 1 “The Ambassadors” Hans Holbein (National Gallery, London)

            One significant detail, however, remains hidden to the typical viewer who expects a typical portrait and faces it in the typical way: the image of a skull is anamorphically included at the base of the portrait. This skull, visually-elongated in such a manner so as to obscure its meaning from a headlong perspective, is only visible if the viewer situates himself from a particular vantage point at the lower-right of the painting. Headlong the skull looks like an awkward piece of driftwood, a log. The viewer must “enact” his or her perception of the painting by breaking with the inherited visual praxis of gazing headlong at 2-D painting and recognize that flat plane portraiture takes place within a 3-D environment. When the perceiver does so, he or she discovers a new element represented within the picture plane. Not a new part of the same whole, but rather a new part of a new whole.

Figure 2 Detail of Anamorphic Skull (The Ambassadors)

            So the objection to Noë, then, runs as follows: practical comportment matters here for seeing, but it is an intentional, practical comportment that is motivated by cultural norms that stand alongside, without being reduced to, the sub-intentional habits of seeing that guide us in our average and familiar perceptual exploration of our world. Without the existence of a cultural practice of facing pictures headlong, Holbein could never have “hid” the skull. This pictorial norm eventually becomes absorbed into the sub-intentional viewing habits of the average perceiver (cABP) -- Holbein counts on precisely this absorption in order to lull the viewer into complacency. The viewer is very much like a link in a causal chain, passively responding to stimulus in a pre-determined manner and producing a predictable result. But this is only the first step in the viewing process. Only when the viewer transcends this passivity and takes an active stance on how one sees is there the possibility of seeing something new in the painting.
            Where does this promise of novelty lie? If visual praxis is simply a matter of habits, it’s not clear how these habits are formed or overcome. cABP-based explanations tell a good story about our tendency to repeat a perceptual praxis that works for us, but it does not tell us very much about the motivations that drive habit formation and relinquishing. Could the motivation simply be one further habit that adds another link to the causal nexus percolating beneath the unexamined drama of perception? I find this unsatisfactory because it neglects to recognize that the shifts in visual praxis not only produce shifts in the meaning of visual objects (duck/rabbit, log/skull), but also the shifts themselves are meaningful. The violation of the headlong pictorial gaze tradition is itself part of the explanation of how we see what we see. mABP accounts explains the meaning of the shifts in visual practice -- cAPB accounts merely correlate to these shifts.

Conclusion: the return of representation

The main thrust of Noë’s objection to the “grand illusion” hypothesis and New Skepticism consisted in using phenomenological description to make the philosophical presuppositions of the representation model of consciousness less persuasive. Our perceptual comportment towards, and in, the world does not resemble that of an individual navigating his or her world by means of a theoretical representation of it. Rather, we are practical subjects first; we learn practical skills of perceptual comportment with our environment; and the style of our success and our failure is consistent with an embodied subjectivity that does not know the world in a theoretical manner in advance, but is gifted with the practical ability to piece together such a theoretical model if so desired.
            This rejection of the representation model of consciousness seems right. And insofar as it is a rejection of internal representation, Noë has added another iteration to the longstanding plaint of phenomenology against the empiricist and neo-empiricist notion of the “theatre of inner consciousness.” But this paper tries to suggest in (b) and show in (c) that the phenomenological critique of empiricist theories of consciousness ranges further than intentionality in the mode of perception. No two phenomenologist have an identical account of consciousness (the same could be said of empirical psychologists, of course), but a consistent touchpoint is that consciousness is above all directed towards meaning primarily, not the “vehicle” of meaning. In other words, in everyday consciousness we are directed to the sense of sense data, not the sense data itself. Sometimes it is difficult to tell these apart. When we look at a red wall and say, “Look, red!”, it seems like our attention will accommodate explanation in cABP terms (and perhaps it will). But when we consider more complex examples involving the nuances of our cultural world, we require an explanation in terms of mABP to justify claims such as “Look up on stage, Hamlet is a tragic figure!” Why is that?
            I would like to offer that what Noë inadequately addresses, in his attempt to be taken seriously by empirical psychology by sticking to sense data, is that practices of attentive awareness include more layers than that of perception. We might mention imaging, for example, which Sartre treated in L’imaginaire. When we image -- when we watch Hamlet perform upon the stage -- we direct ourselves attentively to an object that is empirically absent in important respects. This absence shapes how we comport ourselves to the object. Amodal perception, of course, makes a similar point, but notice the difference between the absence of perception and the absence of imaging. In perception, we negotiate the absence in order to better cope with what is present; in imaging, we negotiate the absence in order to to better cope with what is absent.
The absence of imaging shows up in the fact that we address ourselves to the mABP-functional object, or scene, as a representation. Not the internal representation of the “grand illusion” hypothesis, to be sure, but a representation nonetheless. We might grant Noë’s opponents a notable, though unclarified, phenomenological point. The “grand illusion” hypothesis and New Skepticism both recognize, if not require, consciousness in the form of imaging and representation. But rather than awaken them to the ways in which this imagine is a positive phenomenological feature of conscious awareness, Noë highlights it in order to scare empirical psychology away from its philosophical pretensions and back to the data. That’s a useful gesture in the short term. In the long term, however, the problem remains to account for mABP in ways that do not diminish extra-perceptual modes of intentionality at work in imaging, as well as all the other manners of experience (willing, remembering, hoping), that reductive cABP accounts can only dream of.

[1] Full disclosure: this direction will be aesthetic understanding, which Noë tackles in a new book, Varieties of Presence. My paper, thus, can be read as outdated, or, more charitably, as a student’s attempt to gain  a fuller understanding of the grounds of a contemporary philosophical debate.
[2] Noë grouped these two rhetorical opponents together in an earlier article “Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion” (2002). In the earlier article the two positions are articulated as two aspects of the same basic position. So the fact that the later article (2007) sorts one position into two (related) positions may indicate a meaningful trend in Noë’s thoughts on the matter. Or it may not.
[3] Noë refers us to the work of Blackmore et al. (1995) and O’Regan (1992) in this vein.
[4] Participants failed to observe the unexpected event 46% of the time (“Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events” Simons and Chabris, 1999). A minority figure, nonetheless impressive for such a supposedly exotic disruption of the scene.
[5] G. E. Moore’s “here is one hand” move in the essay “Proof of an External World” (1939) is one of the most  famous contemporary examples, but many rebuttals against skepticism before and after have made similar gestures.
[6] Christopher Mole makes a similar appeal to “common sense” understanding of consciousness and attention (Mole 2008). He uses the example of the mother (un)reflectively attending to the cry of her child to show that we are conscious of everything that we pay attention to, but do not need to pay attention to everything that we are conscious of. The scope of what we are conscious of is potentially larger than the scope of what we attend to. The “extra room” allotted to consciousness above and beyond attention is the basis of our ability to shift into other modes of attending to the same experience, or more fully appreciating what we are conscious of in the same mode of attending.
[7] Self-defeating in the usual manner of profoundly skeptical arguments: by requiring a premise of the sort that they ultimately wish to defeat. To wit, skeptics about the veridicality of intuition presuppose intuition in order to reject it.
[8] Later in (c) I will want to problematize the “like so much else in consciousness” with respect to what I see as Noë’s blindness to other modes of consciousness beyond perceptual consciousness.
[9] For background on painting,see the following short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQZUIGzinZA.

No comments:

Post a Comment