Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Philosophical Theory of Sense Perception

Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Philosophical Theory of Sense Perception

Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Philosophical Theory of Sense Perception

Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Philosophical Theory of Sense Perception


Seeing, Doing, and Knowing is an original and comprehensive philosophical treatment of sense perception as it is currently investigated by cognitive neuroscientists. Its central theme is the task-oriented specialization of sensory systems across the biological domain; these systems coevolve with an organism's learning and action systems, providing the latter with classifications of external objects in terms of sensory categories purpose--built for their need. On the basis of this central idea, Matthen presents novel theories of perceptual similarity, content, and realism. His work will be a stimulating resource for a wide range of scholars and students across philosophy and psychology.


Vision informs us of located features. It tells us of certain qualities—sense-features such as red, square, moving. And it tells us where these features occur: in which places—red there, movement to the left, and in which objects—that sphere receding, that face flushed. The aim of this book is to examine the nature of these features, and how they and their locations are represented. The examination of visual features will occur in the context of a general treatment of sense-features. The discussion of location will be more specific to vision, for as we shall see different modalities use different systems of feature-location.

I Perceptual Content and Information

That vision informs us of located features is a central axiom of classic theories of perception by Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and the psychological theories of a host of nineteenth-century scientists including, most prominently, Hermann von Helmholtz and Ewald Hering. This claim received its most elaborate and logically sophisticated treatment in the twentieth-century works of Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, and Nelson Goodman. However, the attitude taken by these classic thinkers is very different from that presupposed by the framework for visual information proposed in this book. Their attitude is shaped by the philosophical reaction to scepticism. By contrast, the framework that will be presented in this book is motivated by considerations about how animals, including humans, use perception.

What are the features of which vision informs us? What is the nature of the space in which they are seen to be located? The classic theories assumed that sensation is innocent, that is, untainted by assumptions about the world. In Descartes and Locke, this assumption came ultimately from reflections on scepticism. From Pyrrho to Sextus Empiricus, the ancient sceptics held that even when I, a normally sighted person, am looking directly at a physical object like a coffee cup in good light, I am able to entertain the thought that the cup is delusional or unreal despite the visual sensations I experience. The cup may not be the colour or shape it looks; indeed, what I am looking at may not even be a cup, but simply a trick of the light, or a hallucination

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