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The Genetic Epistemologist

The Journal of the Jean Piaget Society

Volume 25, Number 3 (1997)

Genetic Epistemologist Homepage

Table of Contents:

  1. JPS Symposium 1998 in Chicago

  2. JPS Symposium 1999 in Mexico City

  3. Editor’s Note

  4. Defending Experience: A Philosophy For The Post-Modern World (Edward Reed)

Editor’s Note

Chris Lalonde

This issue of the Genetic Epistemologist is devoted in its entirety to an unfinished manuscript by late Edward S. Reed. At the time of his death, Ed served as the editor of the GE and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Jean Piaget Society. The text below has not been modified or corrected in any way.

Table of Contents


Chapter One. Have you ever been experienced?

Philosophy meets the real world

The Other-Worldly Philosophers

From its outset, the Western philosophical tradition has been hostile to everyday experience. This hostility has only intensified with the rise of modern philosophy. After the "new philosophy" associated with the scientific revolution came to dominate the intellectual world, an attack on ordinary experience became a defining feature of "serious" Western philosophies. Ever since, the widely acknowledged first step towards what passes as philosophical wisdom in the West has been to debunk much of what non-intellectuals cherish in everyday experience. The scientific and philosophical revolutionaries of the modern world believed that what exists is just matter and motion–not even color, much less meanings or values. The important experiences of our lives–feeling love and loving back, making a place into a home, coming to identify ourselves with certain activities–all these and more are dismissed by mainstream Western thought as unreal, as subjective additions to a world that is nothing more than whirling particles. Experience, if it can be said to exist at all, is said to exist in the mind only, and not at all as part of the realm of things. Those who have tried to make a place for something in our world besides matter in motion–for love and hate, for fear and pride, or even for color and harmony–have for centuries now been labeled "naive realists," which is the philosophers’ equivalent to tarring and feathering somebody and running them out of town. Serious philosophers simply do not listen to naive realists, they just get rid of them.

Early in the present century discontent with this anti-experiential posturing was running high, especially in the United States. William James offered his "Radical Empiricism" as the pay-off of pragmatism–a way of bringing philosophy back into contact with human practical reality. James was perhaps the first important philosopher to begin his thinking by accepting everyday experience as a basis for philosophizing. Unlike most Western philosophers, he resisted the assumption that everyday experience was "really" made up of atoms (sensations or ideas in the mind) just as everyday objects were supposed to be. James insisted that our experience is a complex stream, full of currents and eddies, none quite independent of any other. A school of so-called "New Realists" started from James’s radical empiricism and began to reconceptualize how science as well as philosophy, could be brought into line with a revitalized concept of experience. At about the same time John Dewey began to develop his metaphysics of experience, in which experience is firmly seen as part of the nature which gives us life. [1]

Unfortunately, all these efforts miscarried. Whenever Jamesians or New Realists tried to answer mainstream epistemologists on their own grounds, they ended up tangled in contradictions or undermining the very richness of everyday experience which they had tried to resuscitate. In awe of physical science, epistemologists assumed that subjective world must be made up out of something like atoms of experience–but it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to deduce a world worth having out of sensory atoms. The critics had a field day with the new realists: Lovejoy slashed and Russell smashed–these realists were "naive," they had no way of dealing with illusion or with science, and could not argue their way out of the epistemological circle. Either experience was a set of private sensory atoms or it wasn’t "really" pure experience at all, they insisted. But James and his followers insisted that experience could encompass the whole self, perhaps even the whole universe, and this was attacked as totally misguided. Dewey protested that both the assumptions and the goal of these critics was wrong-headed, because they were forcing us to abandon everyday experience for the Pickwickian kind found in philosophy books–sensa, raw feels, neutral logic-phenomenal atoms, and the like. How could these critics know what counted as my experience? How could they set themselves up, not merely as arbiters of what is real, but as arbiters of what is real for me–or anyone else? But no one responded seriously to Dewey’s challenge, and pretty soon mainstream philosophy again became a club where entrance was restricted to those who eschewed naive realism, and endorsed "the scientific view" of experience. [2]

Now, in the last decade of the twentieth century, the membership in this exclusive club is once again getting restless. Some, like Richard Rorty, want to shut the club down, to do away with a separate discipline of philosophy altogether rather than promulgate false, malicious ideas about experience, imposing one view of reality on everyone. Others have picked up the notion from James and Dewey that one can believe in real, thick, rich experience and still do philosophy. Maybe, just maybe, the constrictive ideas of the "new philosophers" of the seventeenth century are finally losing their grip on our culture as the twenty-first century looms into view. However, it is sobering to remember that many astute thinkers–from Thomas Reid to Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein–have prematurely declared the demise of anti-experiential philosophy. The mainstream Western philosophical disdain for everyday experience has survived all attacks, and a strong defense of everyday experience has never been sustained. What looks like the beginning of a trend towards a philosophy of genuine experience can thrive only if we are first very clear about the importance of this trend and, second, if the critique of the anti-experience philosophy is accompanied by concrete ideas about what a pro-experiential philosophy might look like, something that the modern world has never seen.

The History of Western "Ideas" Against Experience

The Western philosophical tradition about which we hear so much these days in arguments over so-called "cultural literacy" has been an intellectual force for undermining everyday experience from its beginnings. The great Athenian thinkers promulgated a dichotomy between reality and appearance in order to denigrate everyday experience as mere appearance, and to emphasize that one’s experience is never so real as one’s thoughts, as even the most casual reading of Plato reveals. For Plato the abstract Idea of something–the Idea in heaven, as it were–is what is truly real; our world here is but a shadow of that real one. Aristotle had greater respect for everyday experience than Plato, but even he was wedded to a form of essentialist realism which makes it impossible for ordinary experience to be the vehicle of real knowledge. He believed scientific knowledge had to be a kind of hunt for the hidden essences–secrets–of nature. These essences are not found in experience, but behind it. For the Greeks, to know in any strict sense of the term is to know the forms of things, and one does not learn about these through everyday experience, but only by special processes that lie for the most part outside the ordinary realm of experience. [3]

Although Greek philosophy and its offshoots tended to downgrade ordinary experience in the hunt for ideal essences, it took the great scientific revolutionaries of the 1600s to make the destruction of experience a basic tenet of philosophical thinking. First Galileo insisted that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics–and, therefore, that ordinary human experience could not decipher the world’s meanings. Worse, if the only things that are real are those things that can be counted or analyzed mathematically, then ordinary experience is not a real part of the world. On the heels of this startling concept came the truly crushing blow: Descartes, agreeing with Galileo that only what can be mathematized is real, determined to replace ordinary experience with a scientific version of it, with a mathematized account of happenings in the mind-brain. [4] Western philosophy and science had to treat experience as made up of "imperceptible atoms" of mind because it had determined that only such countable corpuscles were real. To make human experience "real"–in this very odd sense of the term–it had to be redescribed in a way that makes it unrecognizable to most of us. After Descartes, experience and the wisdom or folly to which it might give rise were replaced by the motion of matter in the nervous system and the response of an immaterial rational mind to that motion. The fundamental conceptual innovation that made this switch possible was a radical change in the meaning of "idea."

In previous western philosophy, as we have seen, "ideas" were associated with real essences. Platonists thought ideas existed in some quasi-supernatural fashion, Aristotelians looked at ideas as a kind of natural magic hidden from experience that, for instance, guided the growth of animals and plants into their adult shapes. But, after Descartes, ideas became permanently lodged in the human skull, where they are supposed to be the formal intermediaries between the "outside world" and the "inner world."

According to the scientific revolutionaries, all appearances derive from ideas which in turn derive from the mind’s reaction to physical stimulation coming into the nerves. Some thinkers, such as Newton, considered ideas to be little images in the brain; others, Descartes chief among them, saw ideas as the mental "aspect" of motions in the brain. Regardless of these disagreements, all serious "new philosophers" insisted that what we experience ordinarily is these internal ideas, not the real, external world. This is the "scientific view" of experience. To get knowledge of the external world, one has to engage in a very special kind of thinking, quite unlike ordinary experience, in which one is first aware of these ideas or subjective states and then, through a recondite process of ratiocination, one infers what "must exist" in the outer world to have caused those subjective states. James and others who claim experience is simply a stream of consciousness revealing the events around us will be told that they are wrong: they have inferred the stream (and the external world) from the "real" basic or primary experiences, the ideas in their heads. For an ordinary observer to find out about the real world, according to this standard philosophical view, the observer must follow just those special "rules of method" that the new philosophers had put forth. Many of these texts on method are quite dismissive of the problems of daily life. Descartes’ Discourse on method simply urges its readers to dismiss any such problems–the philosopher should follow the norms of his home country, so as to have the tranquillity to pursue mental efforts. [5] In this modern Western tradition, "deep" philosophical questions are supposed to be concerned with abstract issues such as the nature of existence. The everyday, homely issues of how we manage to live our lives have simply not been considered "basic" or "deep" since Descartes’ transformation of philosophy.

After the excitement had died down a bit, a sober-minded Scot named Thomas Reid surveyed these developments with ill-concealed horror. In the name of true knowledge and modern science, these proponents of ideas (he called it the "ideal theory"–pun definitely not intended) had seriously undermined common sense and our ordinary understanding of the world. Perhaps such an attack on common sense might be justified in developing a scientific theory, he allowed, but how could philosophers justify cutting themselves off from ordinary concerns? Reid’s question, first raised at the height of the enlightenment, has haunted Western "rational thought" ever since. [6] Reid’s own influence was great, but perhaps not in the form he would have desired. A whole school of "common sense" philosophers evolved to dominate British and American thought for fifty years after Reid. But whereas Reid wanted to probe and use common sense to develop wisdom, much of this school simply wanted to use common sense to attack all forms of intellectual change.

More influential even than this Scotsman was an East Prussian Professor of Scottish extraction who in this same decade of the 1780s scandalized the intellectual world with arguments purporting to prove that the new philosophy, for all its scientific pretensions, could not be defended like a science. If knowledge is based on a rational mind interpreting ideas, then we are led, Kant showed, to serious contradictions–antinomies–that cannot be resolved. Kant therefore suggested that we should pursue a dual strategy: we should both adopt empirical realism (embrace ordinary experience as truly informative) and simultaneously adopt a transcendental idealism (not assume that our experience gives us perfect knowledge of things as they are.) Kant argued both that our experience is true of the world and that we cannot know the world completely, that we had better assume that experience has limitations as well as revelations. Ironically, Kant is probably the most influential modern philosopher but not a single important thinker has followed through on both aspects of this suggestion of his. [7]

This contradiction in the reception of Kant’s theory is very telling. Serious philosophers simply have been unable to take Kant at his literal word. When a sophisticated thinker like Kant says he is an "empirical realist" surely he cannot mean what he says! Philosophers always question ordinary experience, don’t they? Typically, Kant is taken to mean something almost diametrically opposed to what he says–that he supports some form of empirical idealism, in which the appearances of ordinary experience are shown to deviate from the objects of the external world. [8] The Western tradition is so anti-experience that it cannot even hear one of its own most eloquent spokesman when he defends primary experience.

Most nineteenth century philosophers who "followed" Kant quite explicitly rejected his realism for one or another form of idealism. I find it useful to distinguish, very roughly, two alternate metaphysical strands coming out of Kant. In the first, best exemplified by Schopenhauer, primary experience is turned into Kantian "appearances" (as opposed to realities). These appearances are treated not as parts of the real world, but as some kind of unreal image or play, superimposed upon a reality which is only seen through a glass darkly. Schopenhauer explicitly identifies the phenomenal realm with the Indian concept of Maya, a systematic illusion, one which eternally conceals the nature of reality from us. [9]

A second metaphysical strand coming out of Kant’s world view is Hegelian theory. Hegel sees the Kantian antinomies not as a kind of logical reductio ad absurdam of the Western metaphysical tradition (which is what Kant says they are), but as proof that the rational soul must undergo internal change. The vehicle for propelling such change will be antinomies: thesis-antithesis and the overcoming of contradictions, leading to new stages in thought. [10] In Hegel’s view, appearances are always contradictory, but our rational thought contains at least some hints for overcoming these contradictions. Thus logic itself may evolve and change, and what was untrue in one time and place may come to be true in other times and places. From the perspective of the earlier new philosophers, Hegel’s’ willingness to postulate internal changes in the soul–in rationality itself–is profoundly troubling. Instead of trying to understand experience when it seems illogical, Hegel argued that we had to change how we thought of logic. Only some in the philosophical community were ready to abandon their old logic, even when it seemed contradicted by experience. The new philosophers were willing to jettison the world of everyday folks, but many of them were and are far less willing to jettison their own conception of an unvarying rationality.

Western philosophy and science is still very roughly split between those whose metaphysics agree with Schopenhauer and those who agree with Hegel. For one group, experience delivers to us mere appearances, and reality itself is something far different–whether that be conceptualized in Schopenhauer’s terms as "will" or in modern terms as "quantum states" or, sometimes, as both. For the second group, experience is merely the springboard for our minds to move through a series of apparent contradictions and reconciliations. In many cases, this second group of thinkers is forced to identify the universe with the mind, either with the evolving mind of God or the human mind. At any rate, for these thinkers there is no reality behind the phenomena, there is just the phenomena and the mind[s] dealing with them.

The Pragmatic Movement Towards Experience

With Western thinkers spinning crazily along such paths it is perhaps no wonder that, at the end of the nineteenth century, a number of philosophers began to look for a way off of what appeared to be theorists traveling out of control. Must philosophy be synonymous with disbelief in the everyday world? Apparently so, for with very few exceptions, this disbelief seemed to be the starting point for Western philosophical reflection. By 1900 a series of quasi-Hegelian and quasi-Schopenhauerian philosophical systems had proliferated across Europe, and all of them agreed on one point only: their undisguised disdain for primary experience. Increasingly, philosophers interpreted primary experience to be nothing more than simple mental atoms or sensations, so that all sorts of mental powers were supposed to be required to make something meaningful of these sensations. This was the period in which modern Experimental Psychology was invented, with its focus on categorizing sensations and the timing of mental responses to these hypothetical sensations. Psychologists and physiologists began to be asked to study the actions involved in factory work and interpreted the action and experience of these people entirely in terms of energy release and sensation. Artists began to paint what they called their "true impressions" of the world, supposedly unsullied by interpretative processing. Surprisingly, neither the philosophers nor the scientists nor even the artists were deterred by the obvious act that the simple sensations and those mental powers alleged to be necessary for interpreting them never seemed to be experienced by anybody. The worker shoveling coal into a Bessemer furnace simply does not have sensations of weight and effort which he then interprets to be shovels full of coal. This might be a clever way to describe something in a psychologist’s laboratory, but it has little relevance elsewhere. Yet, to be successful as "professionals" these new scientific psychologists had to show how what they knew and what they did went beyond common sense. Because of this need to strike out away from everyday experience, a torrent of hypothetical "unconscious" mental processes flooded European thought starting in the 1860s: sensations which we "did not notice" were said to be linked by unconscious associative and ratiocinative processes to memories we forgot we had, and so on. [11]

Perhaps nothing is more indicative of how far removed such theorizing was from ordinary experience than the various new schools of painting based on trying to get one’s original, unsullied impressions down on canvas. Doubtless, the advent of the camera and early experiments at creating motion pictures had much to do with this new way of thinking about painting. That such highly skilled observers and visualizers as painters could be so influenced by "scientific" theories of seeing that undermined the ordinary processes of observation is nothing short of incredible. Nevertheless, many European painters from about 1850 on–and especially such technically oriented artists as the pointillists–happily subscribed to a theory which treated vision as something that happened literally in the blink of an eye (like a camera with a shutter). When looking is reduced to such "snapshot vision" then the visual world does begin to resemble many impressionist canvasses: with a clearer center than periphery, and with a kind of swirling array of hues, each patch of color being rather small.

For example, Manet’s 1874 picture of Monet painting while in a boat shows a fairly clear image of Monet’s face and hat, but even Monet’s hands are intentionally blurred, and the background scenery is sketched in with broad strokes of color and form. Many Renoir canvasses of large scenes have this structure as well. Yet, unless one is trying to become a camera, this is not the visual world of everyday experience–it is the scientist’s "image on the retina" turned right side up and put on a canvas. But no one ever sees the image on their retina, because we look at things by moving our eyes and heads, thus seeing the whole scene, not mere impressions. Despite this, the impressionist is willing to assert that everyone has pure sensations which are just those little daubs of color, registered unconsciously, and "interpreted" (some would say "distorted") by further judgments, also unconscious. Luckily, this odd and confused theory of seeing rarely dominated all aspects of these artists’ practice, and they produced some beautiful pictures as well as optical illusions.

At the end of the nineteenth century, with the rise of "scientific psychology" and the refinements of Western metaphysics mentioned above, intellectuals, scientists, and even artists, were literally re-creating experience, trying to redefine it and reconstitute it according to their theories. If primary experience did not agree with their theorizing, then it was ignored, and unconscious experiences were hypothesized as replacements for everyday experience. This effort pushed everyday experience further and further to the margins of intellectual life. In the guise of offering rational and scientific analyses of experience, these modernists in various fields were subverting experience, and substituting for it something entirely different, of their own creation.

Perhaps the most disturbing result of this modernist subversion of experience is its implicit disdain for the everyday. Whereas experience used to mean whatever wisdom one managed to gather in the course of one’s daily life, it has increasingly come to be seen as something outside of the everyday, as exotic. To become experienced in the modern sense one has to be an adventurer of some sort, as was immortalized in the Jimi Hendrix song from which the present chapter takes its title. We are now so accustomed to the idea of a boring, bland, routinized, empty, everyday life that the earlier concept of experience–found for example in Montaigne or Shakespeare who treat experience as the distillation of everyday experience into wisdom–seems alien. [12] But this equation of experience with the exotic is a disaster, psychologically, morally, and philosophically. If experience is only gained in situations outside the everyday, it quickly becomes a preserve of the hero or the specialist, and wisdom is transformed into mere expertise, increasingly divorced from everyday concerns. Even an individual with decades of painfully acquired first hand knowledge or skill can be seen, from this distorted perspective, as somehow not being experienced or wise (possessing only "intuitive skill," for example, not "real understanding.") This makes for such thrilling amusements as Byronic heroes or even the heroic image of the scientist. But the ultimate consequence of the separation of experience from everyday life is that fewer and fewer people will be in a position to develop their own experience into wisdom.

The American rebellion against these attacks on experience was spearheaded by William James, in his psychology and then in his philosophy of pragmatism. First James and later (and more explicitly) Dewey, argued that modern philosophy’s alliance with the atomistic and reductionistic view of the world promoted by the scientific revolution was its Achilles’ heel. [13] Forced by its alliance with physical science to dismiss most human experience as mere subjective froth, this philosophy became increasingly alienated from human concerns. Even an answer to the great philosophical question of the modern era–how can we know the external world?–would not be counted as wisdom by most ordinary folk. But shouldn’t philosophy’s mission to be besides helping us to understand and deepen our own lives? Whether clothed in the austere scientistic clothes of late nineteenth century positivism or in the metaphysical garb of post-Hegelian idealism, philosophers were dressed for success with scientists or theologians, but they couldn’t even break the ice with ordinary folks.

James and Dewey thus found themselves fighting against an entire conception of how to do philosophy: against both its goals and its methods. A decade after James’s death, just after World War I, Dewey began to call for a "reconstruction in philosophy," identifying both the Greeks and Descartes as the chief culprits in setting philosophy off on its wrong course.

Surprisingly, it is for this rebelliousness that James and Dewey have become "heroes" among some modern American philosophers. I say "surprisingly" because, for the longest time, the legacy of pragmatism was taught as if it were just any other epistemological and metaphysical system. James and Dewey were studied for their "theories" of knowledge and truth, not for their revolt against philosophy’s basic assumptions. Throughout the twentieth century few philosophers seemed to even be aware of the fundamental critique of philosophy motivating James and Dewey. Certainly, when the post-Heideggerians began trying to deconstruct traditional philosophical assumptions–often much less effectively than the pragmatists–they had no idea that the pragmatists had been there before. It was Richard Rorty’s highly influential Philosophy and the mirror of nature which created a new trinity of heroes for "anti-philosophical" philosophers: Dewey, Heidegger, and (the late) Wittgenstein. [14] Rorty culled from these new heroes a series of arguments to the effect that the very goal and working assumptions of modern Western philosophy were mistaken.

There is no question that Rorty’s book and his subsequent work marked an important transition in late twentieth century American philosophy. Once again, many philosophers began to critique the epistemological assumptions of what Reid had called the ideal theory. Yet Rorty himself–and many of his followers and critics–did not conceive of this critique of philosophy as offering a resuscitation of the primary experience Western philosophy had tried to suffocate. In many respects these anti-traditionalist philosophers accept much of the traditional subversions of experience offered by the Western tradition: ordinary experience, they are convinced, is not likely to offer a basis for finding truth or wisdom. They offer instead a refined contingency and irony of intellectual reflection on everyday experience, a new kind of elitist separation from homely concerns. Rather than align himself with everyday concerns and realities, Rorty continues to extol the activities of Western philosophy, simply insisting that philosophers abandon what he sees as their pretensions of having access to deeper truths than anyone else.

Putnam’s Resurgent Natural Realism

Hilary Putnam, in his 1994 Dewey lectures, sees the above-described painful situation in philosophy with acute clarity. Unlike Rorty, his response has not been to undermine philosophy as such, but to try to develop a philosophical position that escapes the traps set for it by the Western anti-experiential tradition. Putnam wants a philosophy that makes contact with primary experience. For Putnam, in contrast to Rorty, the message from James and Dewey is not to abandon philosophy, but to reconstruct it. In these recent lectures Putnam proposes that we take the first step suggested long ago by Reid–abandon the ideal theory. This is because this theory, as Putnam notes, simply "makes it impossible to see how persons can be in genuine cognitive contact with the world." [15] Furthermore, Putnam urges us to abandon this notion of "ideas in the mind" without severing our ties to natural science. If all this can be done, it will constitute a truly major philosophical development: combining the widely acknowledged critique of Cartesianism with at least the beginnings of a naturalistic alternative philosophical position.

Putnam begins his lectures by asking why realism about the external world has become such a problem for philosophy. To answer this he follows the arguments of John McDowell, another philosopher who has rediscovered Reid’s basic insight. "In McDowell’s view," Putnam explains, "the key assumption responsible for the disaster is that there has to be an interface between our cognitive powers and the external world–or, to put the same point differently, the idea that our cognitive powers cannot reach all the way to the objects themselves." [16] This is a consequence of the scientific revolutionaries’ assumption that primary experience "really" is made up of little atoms of subjective sensation. If experience is really a set of atomic sensations then, in order for us to have useful knowledge of the world around us, we must build up a picture of the world–a "representation"–using these elements, just as Seurat built up a picture with dots of pigment. . The impressionists thus tried to transfer onto canvas what contemporary scientists claimed was "really" going on in our minds as we saw the world, albeit unconsciously.

This assumption of a need for a cognitive interface (what Locke in his plain style called ideas) derives from modern philosophy’s association with Western science. The primary reason why theorists have insisted on such cognitive interfaces is widespread belief in what philosophers call the causal theory of perception. This so-called theory is really more a set of overarching assumptions than a theory–assumptions which have constrained virtually all theories of perception, philosophical, or scientific. The number one assumption here is that, in developing a scientifically respectable theory of perception, human observers should be treated as if they were simply inert entities–like rocks or billiard balls. Galileo, Descartes, and Condillac all used the example of statues to describe what happens in perception. And, as usual, what is surprising about this very odd idea of what counts as a model for perception (a statue as a model of an observer?! snapshot vision as a model of looking at things?!) is that philosophers have for the most part not commented on the utter inappropriateness of this conceit. Strange but true: in three centuries and more of theorizing about perception, the simple notion of studying the active (non-statuelike) processes of looking, listening, and feeling was never taken up seriously! Philosophers really were content to believe that we experiencers are akin to statues, passive and unmotivated in receiving impressions of the world. One of the most important consequences of Gibson’s ecological approach to perception was to emphasize the need to study these activities of information pickup, as I shall discuss at length in Chapter Five.

The idea central to the causal theory of perception is that perception proceeds in two stages. First, a physical stimulus, such as a ray of light, causes some change in the statue or observer. In the second stage, something internal to the statue or observer detects this change and, on the basis of this datum, infers what caused the change. According to the theory, what is detected in this second stage–our sensations–as all that can ever truly be experienced directly. (Note how the everyday activity of primary experience is thus changed into a kind of second hand experience, like inference, or interpreting telegraph messages.) This causal theory, with its two part structure, is found throughout modern philosophy and psychology in a confusing array of variants. Alternative theories are rarely put forward, primarily because they are automatically criticized as "naive realist," and simply dismissed out of hand.

Putnam tries to offer an alternative to the causal theory of perception. In an effort to forestall the usual attacks, he announces in advance that he expects to be criticized for his views ("To [many] philosophers what I am calling for will seem to be a re-infantilization of philosophy.") He suggests that his new approach be named "natural realism" because he hopes it will prove to be consistent with both everyday experience and scientific knowledge, and that is will at least begin to help us to understand what a truth claim is. "The natural realist," Putnam writes, "holds that successful perception is just a seeing, or hearing, or feeling, etc., of things out there; and not a mere affectation [sic] of a person’s subjectivity by those things." If Putnam is right, philosophers will have to stop beginning courses with "the problem of our knowledge of the external world" because it will no longer be a problem in philosophy. [17]

The causal theory is such a bad trap for philosophers because there is no way out once the mind is shut inside the head. Putnam dismisses most theories of how the mind refers to the world as mere "metaphysical magic". At one point he derisively recounts his own earlier position by claiming that he imagined something like "noetic rays" stretching from the outside into our heads. As Putnam puts it, no causal theorist has come up with an account that avoids making it "seem magical that we can have access to anything outside our ‘inputs’." [18]

It is precisely here that Putnam moves beyond Reid or even Kant. Both earlier philosophers knew that a casual theory made knowledge of the external world problematic. Reid, however, was willing to accept the magical assertion that God–somehow, although Reid admitted to not having any idea how–arranged for us to perceive whatever objects caused our sensory impressions. Kant avoided direct reference to God in his account, but only a few philosophers will think that his appeal to "the transcendental unity of apperception" is anything but metaphysical magic.

At this juncture, trying to get away from the causal theory of perception, Putnam is stuck in a place already scouted out by Bertrand Russell in his Analysis of Matter. Russell argued that the modern philosopher is in a fix: if physics is true with its world of matter and motion, then our primary experience cannot be true because we experience a world rich in meaning, not just a buzzing of atoms–yet, don’t we want to say that, in some sense, physics is based on our experience? The distance between our physical theories and our experienced world puts the philosopher in a fix. Putnam thinks he may have a way out of the fix. He wonders aloud how it was that the idea that nature must be described in physico-mathematical terms came to be "coercive" in philosophy, even though it undermines the meaning and usefulness of ordinary experience. Couldn’t physics be true in a way that would not so radically undermine our ordinary view of the world? [19]

Putnam on Direct Perception

The steps Putnam takes to get out of the mess created by the causal theory of perception are tentative. Nevertheless, they appear to be moves in the right direction. Bolstered by James’s radical empiricism and some of the careful argumentation in J. L. A . Austin’s Sense and Sensibility, Putnam offers three counter-arguments to confront claims typically made in defense of the causal theory. [20]

The first, and weakest, of Putnam’s counter-arguments concerns hallucinations and dreams. These odd mental states are frequently invoked to "prove" the existence of "cognitive interfaces" or "ideas" in the mind. Surely when I hallucinate or dream a dragon I am not seeing a dragon! Yet, equally surely, I am aware of something in these cases. Isn’t this evidence for the existence of sense data, mental representations, or call them what you will? That is, isn’t the fact that I am aware of something, when I clearly am perceiving nothing, evidence that what I am aware of in these cases is something like an internal idea or representation of the world?

Putnam counters that the mere assertion that a hallucination involves "Sense data" does not explain these odd mental phenomena. Perhaps not, but all the causal theorist is looking for here is evidence that such "sense data" exist. It would be nice to have an explanation of hallucinations, but that isn’t what the causal theorist needs here. The causal theorist can accept Putnam’s counter-argument, and continue undeterred to disbelieve in direct perception.

A stronger counter-argument can be given, however. To the extent that the causal theory treats veridical perception and hallucination as identical, as simply the "having" of sense data or mental representations, it undermines the distinction between perception and hallucination. (Indeed, there are theorists who seem to want to equate perception with hallucination.) A theory which can help to clarify this distinction would therefore be an improvement over the causal theory. [21]

Putnam’s second counterargument against causal theorists has to do with their fast and loose use of the unconscious. He notes that in certain kinds of pathologies, such as cases of "blindsight," people have no visual sense data–such patients deny being able to see quite vehemently–but nevertheless it can be demonstrated that they do see. Such cases force us to either invent a class of unconscious sense data (which sounds like a contradiction in terms) or at least to give up one of the basic claims of the causal theory of perception–that sense data (the data for the second of the two stages in two stage theories) are immediately and accurately perceived. However, one does not need to enter the realm of pathology to find such anomalies. Consider binocular vision, something common to most human beings. I daresay very few readers of this essay have ever noticed all the diplopic (doubled) images in their visual fields at regions outside of the narrow locus on which both eyes are focused. If you now attend to these doublings and notice them did you just bring them into existence, or were they already there? Either way, it is increasingly clear that in many cases, and not just pathological ones so-called, sense data are not immediately and accurately perceived. [22]

Finally, Putnam’s third counter-argument is that the identity theory of mind and body on which so much of the causal theory of perception relies is not viable. The identity theory holds that particular neural states can be identified with particular subjective states (in this case, particular sense data). But, as Putnam points out, to accomplish such a theoretical mapping requires a very well articulated theory of the entities involved. And yet "it is not clear that there is a theory of sense data" in this sense. Putnam is right, but he does not know just how right he is. A philosopher, Putnam is apparently unaware that many psychologists contemporary with William James in fact tried to develop such theories of sensory data and accompanying taxonomies of the different kinds of sensa–and failed. The idea was to list all the species of color, or taste, or smell, and to develop a complete non-overlapping set of these species. Not even the genius of Wundt, Titchener or G. E. Müller could come up with a consistent and coherent set of sense data for a single sense. Not long after this it was discovered that both sensory and perceptual states change merely with repeated experience. For example, staring at a red spot your sensation of red will tend to become "washed out" and then, after looking away that spot in your field of view will appear to take on a greenish tinge. Analogously, simply staring at a curved line (like a parenthesis mark) will result in the line’s appearing to straighten out and, after looking away, other lines in one’s field of view will appear to be curved in the opposite direction. The idea that a sense datum can be identified with a particular stimulus causing a particular change in the observer is destroyed by these results, as is the goal of formulating a kind of inventory of sensory data supposedly available for interpretation or association with other data. The identity theory of mind-brain sounds good, but when one tries to work out the details, it proves to be radically incoherent. [23] The mental atoms of the scientific revolutionaries turn out to be both changeable and difficult for observers to access–making them rather unsuitable for the job assigned to them.

By thus strengthening his critiques of traditional theories of observation, we can extend Putnam’s natural realism. It is not that one needs a new metaphysics to explain how we know the external world; rather, it is that we need to get rid of those ubiquitous Western metaphysical assumptions which force us to ask the question in this way. "Winnowing through to natural realism is seeing the needlessness and unintelligibility of a picture that imposes an interface between ourselves and the world."[24] But philosophers, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Without some sort of theory of experience to replace the causal theory, I very much doubt Putnam or his followers will be able to maintain a healthy natural realism. As Putnam himself notes, James and the New Realists came almost as far as he–but, lacking an alternative theory of experience, they were unable to persuade philosophers to abandon the same old dualistic dogmas.

What Putnam needs is more than the assertion that his natural realism is consistent with natural science: he needs a theory of perception that is explicitly anti-causal but still scientific. Without this, the old Western philosophical anti-experiential reflexes will knock Putnam’s natural realism off the field. Luckily, as the examples I have used to amplify his argument suggest, such a perceptual theory has already been developed with a great deal of success by the psychologist James Gibson and his students.

Gibson’s "ecological approach to perception," as he calls it, makes a radical break with the Western tradition’s dismissal of experience. For Gibson, perception is not caused by the world, but pursued actively and achieved by the observer. Each observer tries to make sense of his or her surroundings, hunting for meaningful information. Hence, all forms of mental atoms–sensations, ideas, subjective states–are, for the most part, incidental or even useless parts of the perceptual process. What is useful is the stream of activities–looking, listening, feeling, scrutinizing, checking–that yields meaningful information, shaping our experience of a world full of significances, both valuable and dangerous.

But for us to understand just how new and profoundly different Gibson’s theory is we need a deeper appreciation of the connection between anti-experientialism and the goals of Western philosophy. We need to see how and why Western philosophy has turned away from the idea of a meaningful everyday world. To get an appreciation of this turning away we need to turn back from Putnam to the philosopher in whose honor Putnam offered a natural realism, John Dewey. [25]


1. William James, Essays in radical empiricism. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 198x). R. B. Perry, E. B. Holt, et al, The new realism (New York: Scribners, 1912); Herbert Schneider, American realism (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964). Almost no scholarly attention has been paid to the greatest of the New Realists, James’s’ student, E. B. Holt. Holt formalized radical empiricism and integrated it with the emerging discipline of symbolic logic in his The Concept of Consciousness (New York, 1914) and he related his New Realism to both Freudian theory and modern physiological ideas in his masterpiece, the unjustly neglected Freudian wish and its place in ethics (New York: Holt, 1915). An out-of-the-closet homosexual, Holt felt compelled to resign from Harvard in 1916, and only returned sporadically to academia. His last important essay, "Materialism and the criterion of the psychic," Psychological Review, 1937, xx, 000-000, offers an important naturalistic account of experience. The only good source on Holt is the fine chapter in Bruce Kuklick, The rise of American philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). John Dewey’s metaphysical ideas are best extracted from his Experience and nature (South Bend: Open Court, 1925) and Art and experience (New York: Scribners, 1931).

2. A. Lovejoy cite. B. Russell cite.

3. Terence Irwin, Classical thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 199x) is an excellent overview of Classic Greek philosophy.

4. N. Maull 1980 E. S. Reed, The corporeal ideas hypothesis, Review of Metaphysics, 1982, 34, 000-000

5. Isaac Newton, The opticks. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1932); Rene Descartes, The optics in J. Cottingham, et al, (Eds.) The philosophical works of Descartes, 3 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 198x)

6. The most important text of Reid’s related to these issues is not his Inquiry of 1764, but his remarkable dyptych of Essays on the Intellectual and Active Powers of Man (1785 and 1788). Read carefully and together these contain the seeds of both scientistic Enlightenment thinking and much of the post-Enlightenment world view as well.

7. Easily the best overview of Kant’s early influence–and one which clearly outlines the various ways in which his ideas were received–is F. Beiser’s The fate of reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 10987)

8. Of course Kant interpretation is exceedingly difficult, and there are reasonable objections to my interpretation here. My goal is not to offer a fool-proof interpretation of Kant (could there be such a thing?) but simply to get across the point that few philosophers even try to interpret Kant literally or straightforwardly on these matters. Mightn’t it prove useful to follow my suggestion and do so? Instead, so much of Kant scholarship seems bent on making him say things that are congruent with the standard Western anti-experiential line of thought. For example, P. Kictehr’s recent Kant’s psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) manages to make Kant sound like a modern cognitive scientist who embraces empirical idealism–all by the simple expedient of never citing the passage in Kant’s first Critique concerning empirical realism.

9. A. Schopenhauer, The world as will and representation. 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1978). See especially the appendix to Vol. 1 where Schopenhauer offers his appreciative critique of Kant.

10. G. W. F. Hegel, Logic (cite)

11. For the "unconscious mania" of the 1860s, see E. S. Reed, " Theory, concept and experiment in the history of psychology " in History of the Human Sciences, 1989, 4, 333-353. and From soul to mind: The emergence of psychological ideas, 1815 - 1890 (New Haven: Yale University Press, In press). For physiological psychology applied to human labor, see Anson Rabinbach, The human motor (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For the influence of science on impressionism, see P. Vitz and A. Glimcher, Modern art and modern science: The parallel analysis of vision. (New York: Praeger, 1984).

12. Giorgio Agamben develops this idea of Walter Benjamin’s in Infancy and History: Essays on the destruction of experience. (London: Verso, 1993) translated by L. Heron.

13. William James, The principles of psychology, 2 vols. (New York: Holt, 1890); Pragmatism: A New name for some old ways of thinking, reprinted in William James, Writings 1902 - 1910. (New York: Library of America, 1987. John Dewey, Reconstruction in philosophy. The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899 - 1924, Vol. 12. (Carbondale & Edwardsville: University of Southern Illinois, 1988)

14. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the mirror of nature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

15. Ibid., p.454

16. John McDowell, Mind and world (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994). The quotes are from Hilary Putnam’s Dewey Lectures, Journal of Philosophy, September, 1994, p.453 and 457

17. Putnam, p.454

18. Putnam, p.461, p.464

19. Bertrand Russell, The analysis of matter (cite); Putnam, p.468

20. J. L. A. Austin, Sense and Sensibility (New York: Oxford, 1962)

21. K. Oatley, Perception and representations (Brighton: Harvester, 1978) explicitly equate perception with hallucination, as did Hyppolite Taine a century ago in his De L’Intelligence (Paris: 1879) Again, it is in Gibson’s work that a clear distinction between perception and hallucination has finally been drawn, as will be discussed in Chapter Five. See also James J. Gibson, "On the relation between hallucination and perception." Leonardo, 1970, 3, 425-427.

22. See Larry Weiskrantz, Blindsight. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) for a review of these phenomena. The trick to seeing these diplopic images (and similar phenomena) is to not look at them. (This is why I insist they are part of special, peculiar, ways of looking, not ordinary looking.) When you look at something you inevitably focus both eyes on it. However, only objects in front of or behind the locus at which one focuses produce double images. One way to see these images is to fixate on an object hanging on a wall at some distance away. Then, slowly move a pencil a few inches in front of your nose, without changing where you are looking. You should see two translucent images of the pencil. For more discussion of the philosophical implications of this, see E. S. Reed, "Knowers talking about the known," Synthese, 1992, 92, 9 - 25.

23. For a brief review of this history see James J. Gibson, "Lessons from a century of sensory psychology" in S. Koch & D. Leary (Eds) A century of scientific psychology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1985). For more on adaptation and its implications see Gibson’s "Adaptation with negative after-effect," Psychological Review, 1937, 00, 000-000. On the inventory theory of sensory states see E. G. Boring, The physical dimensions of consciousness (New York: Century, 1933). Boring was a student of Titchener’s who did his damnedest to save Titchener’s sense data theory. In this book he explains why he failed.

24. Putnam, Op, cit., note 16.

25. Since this book was written, Charles Taylor–whose earlier work is discussed in Chapter Seven–has offered what I take to be a version of the present argument. Throughout his Philosophical arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) he suggests that a new view of perception is needed to get philosophers back in touch with everyday concerns. And what he emphasizes is that ordinary perceptual experience is structured in terms of significance: we see what things are good for, what we can do wit things (or what they can do to us). In Gibson’s jargon, we see "the affordances" of our surroundings.

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