Burge, T. (2009): Perceptual Objectivity

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  • Burge writes in reaction to a view of perception & representation that he finds deeply mistaken. The mistake results (he thinks) from a tendency by philosophers to hyper-intellectualize the nature of basic perceptual representational states. Burge traces the origin of this view – Individual Representationalism – in the 20th century to Quine and Strawson

    Individual Representationalism (IR) : According to this view, an individual cannot objectively and empirically represent a physical subject matter as having specific physical characteristics unless the individual has resources that can represent some central conditions under which such representation is possible (2).

    Burge argues that this view takes two general forms:

    • (IR1): to represent a physical subject matter as having specific physical characteristics, an individual or an individual’s perceptual system must be able to construct a representation of that subject matter from more basic representations (e.g. the cause of such-and-such sense data).

    • (IR2): to represent a physical subject matter as having physical characteristics, an individual must be able to supplement this representation with representation of general constitutive features of objectivity (e.g. criteria of individuation).

    Burge’s position, in contrast, claims that to represent elements in the physical environment, an individual need not have resources that can represent general conditions on objectification (30).

    The thrust of Burge’s criticism seems to rely on one main objection. Exactly how the objection goes in detail is unclear to me but in general it seems to be along the lines that (1) scientific theory, based on empirical research, attributes basic objectual representational capacities to non-linguistic organisms; (2) such attributions do not require the organisms have any conception of sense-data, minds or of criteria of individuation; (3) so organisms with the capacity for perceptual objectual representation do not require any other more general conceptual resources.

    This is a slight caricature of the argument but the thrust is generally right. After all, Burge spends a great deal of time arguing against Quine on the basis of empirical research (20-6)

    But how convincing an argument is this? Surely Burge does not want to commit himself to the thesis that perceptual representation “carves up” the world in exactly the same way for non-linguistic beings and sophisticated concept possessing language users alike?

    • There is a sense in which one wants to answer yes to the latter question and a sense in which one need answer no. I don’t see how Burge’s discussion has really helped us get any clearer on the exact nature of these two senses and why we would answer one way or the other.

    There is also a general worry I have about Burge’s objection of hyper-intellectualization. Burge seems to focus on the requirements for the representation of particulars rather than objective particulars. But it does seem compelling to me that one cannot represent an objective particular unless one has (1) the capacity to represent that particular in other ways and other particulars in the same way (thus obeying the Generality Constraint). Further, one must be able to (2) represent the particular as the kind of thing which one can identify and then, after some period of time in which it is unperceived, re/identify the object (not just as an object or a body but as the /same thing previously perceived). If a subject cannot do these things then the subject cannot represent objective particulars, for the subject cannot represent the necessary features of mind-independent objects (note that this does not involve any conception of minds, etc.).

    • It is also important to emphasize that (1) and (2) denote abilities or complexes of abilities rather than abstract objects (e.g. propositions). Hence there is nothing to stop an attribution of such abilities to non-linguistic beings.

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