July 16, 2012

What you see is what you grasp

In my previous blog I promised to get back to the question of what tempts us to accept accounts of other people’s experience in the style of Gopnik’s account of what it is like to be autistic. What I had in mind was something like the following idea: “Suppose I can see that those beings over there are human beings and you can’t see it. That means that it must be given to me in what I see that they are human, whereas it is not given to you. Hence they must look different to me than to you.”
                      I want to try out the suggestion that this is connected with a general inclination, in speaking about seeing, to focus on locutions of the form “seeing an X” (”seeing a lion / a fire / clouds”) – what we might call the “direct-object form”. Less attention is usually paid to locutions of the form ”seeing that ---” (”seeing that a lion is hiding in the bush / that something is burning in the fireplace / that the sky is clouding over”). One reason for this may be that we don’t think very much about the difference between these forms, we just assume that it does not really matter which form we focus on, and find it simpler to speak about direct-object locutions (“After all, in either case, we’re talking about the same thing: seeing”). 
Another, slightly more sophisticated reason may be that we are inclined to think of the direct object form as simpler or more basic than the seeing-that form, in either a logical or an epistemological sense, or both: 
- logically, in the sense that all cases of seeing-that are taken to involve the corresponding forms of direct-object seeing (“seeing that the cat is on the mat consists in seeing the cat and the mat and the relation between them”); 
- epistemologically, in that cases of seeing-that are taken to be based on the corresponding forms of direct-object seeing: “it is through seeing the cat and the mat and the relation between them that I am able to see, hence to judge, that the cat is on the mat.”
In short, on this view, the direct-object form gives the most concrete account of what seeing involves.
Differently put, whenever I see that ---, there must be some state or entity which mediates my seeing: there must be a look of things, a set of percepts or sense-data or visual appearances, or a way in which I am appeared to. 
                      (On the other hand, it will be agreed that the seeing-that locutions generally give a more direct expression to how my seeing bears on my activities. My seeing the red traffic light explains my stopping the car only provided I saw that there was a red traffic light. For I may see the red light without seeing that the light is red.)
                      Here I want to set out briefly what I think about this approach to seeing (I realize that I am here trying to cover enormous ground in a few steps; possibly I’m getting in over my head, and I’m ready to be corrected):
(1) Actually, what the “see-that” locutions capture is usually more specific and concrete than what the direct-object locutions capture. The use of direct-object locutions is more varied and harder to survey than seeing-that locutions. 
On some uses, seeing an object is compatible with not realizing what object one is seeing, on other uses it is not.  We sometimes use a locution like “She saw the red traffic light” together with qualifications such as “but she doesn’t know what traffic lights are”, or “but she couldn’t make out what it was”, or “but she is colour-blind and thought it was green”, or “but she was thinking of something else”. On other occasions, we imply that the seer does grasp what she is seeing. (On those occasions, we could mostly have used a see-that locution instead.) 
The context will make it clear in which way the word “see” is being used; however, when doing philosophy we tend to gloss over those distinctions, and to ignore the role of the context. The consequence is that when philosophers discuss seeing, they apparently have only a hazy idea of what precisely they are discussing. (I plan to give examples of this in a later blog.)
(2) On the other hand, it is usually quite easy to grasp how what will count as seeing that --- depends on the particular context of speaking. Thus, we can easily imagine how “She saw that there was food on the table” would fit into a context in which she was starved and looking for something to eat or where she had been asked to change the table-cloth or where it meant that dinner was being served; on the other hand, without some such story we would not know what to make of the ascription of seeing.
(3) Focusing on the direct-object locution tempts us to concentrate on the first person case: we contemplate “what it is like” for us to see things, at the cost of asking in what circumstances a person will qualify as seeing that ---. (On the whole, it is often healthy to shift one’s attention to the third person in discussing issues like those of perception, memory, as well as many other psychological phenomena.)
(4) In the ordinary sort of case, seeing that --- requires no mediator: it does not usually consist in, nor is it based on, any specific state or entity. To decide that someone sees that the traffic light is red all we need to do, roughly speaking, is to establish that, with the help of her eyes, and the light being red, she judges that it is red. (In many cases of seeing-that, it isn’t even clear what the object might be: you can see that it’s windy from the way people in the street clutch their clothes, you can see from her eyes and her expression that she has been crying, you can see that the suitcase is heavy from the way that man carries it, you can see that there’s been bread in this basket from the crumbs left in it.)
(5) A great many (maybe most) tangles in the philosophy of perception are due to the idea of a mediating state or entity, and to the effort to decide what that state or entity must be like.

Let’s get back, then, to the Gopnik example. I would suggest that she makes the following assumption: the way human beings appear to people with autism has to differ from how they appear to others, since it is through their appearance that it is given to those others, and is not given to people with autism, that what they all see are human beings. (Here I grant the notion that we do not normally infer that people we see are people. I am not, on the other hand, committing myself one way or the other on whether her assumption that people with autism are “mindblind” is well-grounded or how it is to be understood.) 
My criticism of the passage by Alison Gopnik, then, has two parts. On the one hand, I would question the idea that there is a context-independent way of articulating how things appear to a person, and on the other hand, I would suggest that there is no reason for accepting the way Gopnik chooses to articulate how things appear to an autistic person, in whatever context.