What is Perceptual Content?

Last year I gave a paper at the workshop leading up to the Sellars Centenary Conference organised by UCD in Dublin (by the wonderful Jim O’Shea, with financial help from the generous John McDowell). I was very unhappy with the paper at the time, as it seemed to me that the idea I’d attempted to articulate in the abstract didn’t pan out in the finished piece, probably due to the fact that I didn’t leave myself enough time to write it, and was, as ever, typing away right up until the last minute. In retrospect, though I still see the inadequacies of the piece, these are largely matters of a dearth of specific examples and a failure to tackle certain more tricky details, both forced upon me by the length of the presentation. So, as a first step to getting me to revise the paper into something more adequate (and hence, publishable) I’m going to put it up here for those of you interested in Sellars and/or the philosophy of perception.

The title of the paper is ‘Is there a TV in my head?: Content, Functional Mapping, and the Myth of the Given’. This is my first real foray into the philosophy of perception, and my goal was twofold: a) to articulate a worry I have with much work on perception, namely, that the notion of perceptual content is all too often implicitly defined in such a way that it vitiates the possibility of productive debate regarding whether or not it is conceptual, representational, or anything else for that matter, by outlining an alternative methodology that begins by outlining the explanatory role that the notion must play, and the resources available to it as a form of content per se, and b) to use this alternative methodology to clarify Sellars’ account of what Jim O’Shea calls the myth of the categorial given. I don’t think the paper entirely delivers, but it’s certainly on the right lines, and I aim to return to those lines when I have the time. It may also be of interest to those who’ve read my paper on Sellars and Metzinger (here), and vice versa, as it deals with some of the same issues from a different angle.

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No Givenness Please, We’re Sellarsians

Dan Sacilotto over at Being’s Poem has just put up an excellent post discussing some issues that myself and Ray Brassier have been working on, in the light of a comparison between the two titans of Hegelianism in contemporary philosophical world: Badiou (the paragon of mathematical ontology) and Brandom (the paragon of inferentialist semantics). As Dan was so generous in the complements with which he opened his post, I feel I should say a little something in return. The pleasure in our correspondence has been entirely mutual. Dan is an incredibly enthusiastic and sincere interlocutor, and he’s consistently challenged me to improve both the content of my ideas and their form of expression. He’s also patiently and valiantly attempted to explain Badiou to me, and has been very helpful, in spite of my persistent inability to grasp what Badiou means by ‘presentation’. Dan exemplifies a lot of the virtues of a good philosopher: he’s intensely autodidactic, philosophically omnivorous, he doesn’t pull his discursive punches, and he refuses to write about things unless he thinks he understands them. All in all, a top chap.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to address a few of the aspects of Dan’s post. I’m not going to cover everything, as it’s filled to the brim with interesting content. However, I do think that I can present my own point of view on several issues in a bit more detail, and provide some additional context for those who aren’t aware of the way mine and Ray’s Sellarsian projects have been developing of late. To this end, I’m going to carry on my recent practice of quoting from my own correspondence, and post a few snippets from my correspondence with Ray.

However, before I get down to this it’s useful to quickly summarise the central point of Dan’s post. His basic idea is that, although their rejection of the primacy of phenomenal givenness is highly laudable, both Badiou and Brandom end up going too far in minimising the role of experience, especially in their rejection of the role that sensation plays within it. Although the way this happens within each philosophical system differs, he takes it that they both seem to collapse back into something like Hegelian idealism, albeit from opposite directions. He sees myself and Ray as attempting to avoid this danger by championing the work of Sellars, ameliorating the Hegelian dangers of Brandom and Badiou by returning to a more Kantian approach to the relation between thought and Being. The aim here is to give experience its due, without collapsing back into the Myth of the Given, and thereby establish both the principled separation and effective connection between mind and world. However, Dan also suggests that Ray’s greater interest in Sellars’ account of sensation (and the associated notion of picturing) keeps him safer than my own more Brandomian proclivities. Needless to say, I’ve got a few points I’d like to make about this.

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