What’s behind the veil of perception? A response to Han Thomas Adriaenssen

Imagine you’re using glasses, would you think that your grasp of reality is somehow indirect? I guess not. We assume that glasses aid our vision rather than distort or hinder it. The fact that our vision is mediated by glasses does not make it less direct than the fact that our vision is mediated through our eyes. Now imagine your perception is mediated by what early modern philosophers call “ideas”. Does it follow that our grasp of reality is indirect? Many philosophers think that it is. By contrast, I would like to suggest that this is misleading. Ideas make our perceptions no less direct than glasses.

Both early modern and contemporary crictics often take the “way of ideas” as a route to scepticism. The assumption seems to be that the mediation of perception through ideas makes our thoughts not about reality but about the ideas. Han Thomas Adrianssen’s recent book is original in that it tells the story of this and related debates from Aquinas to the early modern period. In celebration of receiving the JHP book prize, Han Thomas gave a brief interview that aptly summarises the common line of criticism against ideas or the assumption of indirect perception related to them:

“Okay. So you explore the philosophical problem of ‘perception and representation’ from Aquinas to Descartes; what exactly is the problem?

HTA: ‘Right. So it goes like this: what is going on in your mind when you see something in your environment? Take this chair, for instance. When you see this chair, what’s happening in your mind? One answer is that you form a kind of pictorial representation of the chair. You start drawing a mental image for yourself of the thing in front of you, and you label it: ‘chair’. … But then there is a worry: if this is how it works – if this is how we access the environment cognitively – then that means there is a sort of interface between us and reality. A veil of perceptions, if you will. So what we’re thinking about is not the chair itself, but our picture of the chair.– But that can’t be right!”

Besides summarising the historical criticisms, Han Thomas seems to go along with their doubts. He suggests that metaphors trick us into such problematic beliefs: the “mental image metaphor” comes “naturally”, but brings about “major problems”.

While I have nothing but admiration for the historical analysis presented, I would like to respond to this criticism on behalf of those assuming ideas or other kinds of representational media. Let’s look at the chided metaphor again. Yes, the talk of the mental image suggests that what is depicted is remote and behind the image. But what about the act of drawing the image? Something, presumably our sense organs are exposed to the things and do some ‘drawing’. So the drawing is not done behind a veil. Rather the act of drawing serves as a transformation of what is drawn into something that is accessible to other parts of our mind.* Thus, we should imagine a series of transformations until our minds end up with ideas. But if you think of it in those terms the transformation is not akin to putting something behind a veil. Rather it is a way of making sensory input available. The same goes for glasses or indeed our eyes. They do not put something behind a veil but make it available in an accessible form. My point is that the metaphor needs to be unpacked more thoroughly. We don’t only have the image; we have the drawing, too.

Following Ruth Millikan’s account of perception,** I would like to argue that the whole opposition of indirect vs direct perception is unhelpful. It has steered both early modern and 20th-century debates in epistemology in fruitless directions. Sense perception is direct (as long as it does not involve inferences through which we explicitly reason that the presence of an idea means the presence of a represented thing). At the same time sense perception is indirect in that it requires means of transformation that make things available to different kinds of receptors. Thus, the kind of indirectness involved in certain cognitive vehicles does not lead anymore to scepticism than the fact that we use eyes to see.

What early modern philosophers call ideas are just cognitive vehicles, resulting from transformations that make things available to us. If an analogy is called for I’d suggest relating them, not to veils, but to glasses. If we unpack the metaphor more thoroughly, what is behind the veil is not only the world, but our very own sense organs making the world available by processing them through media accessible to our mind. If that evokes sceptical doubts, such doubts might be equally raised whenever you put your glasses on or indeed open you eyes to see.

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* As Han Thomas himself notes (in the book, not the interview), many medieval authors do not think that representationalism leads to scepticism, and endorse an “epistemic optimism”. I guess these authors could be reconstructed as agreeing with my reply. After all, some stress that species (which could be seen as functionally equivalent to ideas) ought to be seen as a medium quo rather than that which is ultimately cognised.

** Ruth Millikan even claims that language is a means of direct perception: “The picture I want to leave you with, then, is that coming to believe, say, that Johnny has come in by seeing that he has come in, by hearing by his voice that he has come in, and by hearing someone say “Johnny has come in,” are normally equivalent in directness of psychological processing. There is no reason to suppose that any of these ways of gaining the information that Johnny has come in requires that one perform inferences. On the other hand, in all these cases it is likely that at least some prior dedicated representations must be formed. Translations from more primitive representations and combinations of these will be involved. If one insists on treating all translation as a form of inference, then all these require inference equally. In either event, there is no significant difference in directness among them. ”

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