SAAP  2002, Mike Ventimiglia, Commentary on Lane’s "Peirception"

Professor Lane refers to himself as a "direct realist," and he takes this position to imply that non-mental external realities are directly perceived in sensation.  Lane’s hope is to find a theory of perception that can lend some precision to the seemingly indubitable but hopelessly vague position of "direct realism."  He turns to Peirce.  Specifically, Lane pins his hopes on Peirce’s percept, one element of Peirce’s theory of perception.  Because it is the percept that seems to provide a pre-intepretive, pre-discursive constraint on Peircean perception, it is the percept that seems to offer the best hope for putting some directness into direct realism.  Lane concludes however, that certain types of experience, when interpreted by the Peircean model, seem to require that percept be at times hopelessly disconnected from the external world.   Lane therefore concludes that Peirce’s theory of perception is not up to the task of providing a precise account of how "direct realism" could be true.   Lane’s paper, in sum, is a clear and carefully-argued case for why he thinks that Peirce’s theory of perception cannot, in fact, satisfy the vague demands of a direct realist.

There are two sorts of experiences, specifically, that are the bases for Lane’s two arguments against the directness of Peircean perception.   I’d like to address each of Lane’s arguments in turn and to offer some humble criticisms.  The first argument is the argument from pseudo-hallucination.  Pseudo-hallucination occurs when one experiences--but is not fooled by--a perception that has no basis in the external world, when one sees pink elephants but chalks it up to alcohol rather than, for example, genetically modified peanuts.  Lane argues that the entirety of the perceiver’s contribution to perception, on the Peircean model, occurs in the perceptual judgement.  This claim that the perceptual judgement is the only interpretive or representative element of perception Lane calls the "representational exclusivity of judgement" or REJ.   REJ follows from Peirce’s well-known insistence that the percept is not a presentation at all and thus cannot be in any way true or untrue to our experience.  Now, if we can perceive pink elephants but know that they are not real, Lane argues, this means that our perceptual judgement in this case is true.  But if our perceptual judgment is true, this means that it must be our percept which has misrepresented reality.  If our percept has misrepresented reality, we have lost our foothold on direct perception.  Insofar as percepts can be interpretive of the external world, rather than simply reactive to the external world, Peirce and his percepts seem to offer little hope for a theory of direct perception.

I’d like to make two criticisms of Lane’s first argument.  The first is minor. First,  Lane’s REJ claim—the claim that the perceptual judgement is the only interpretive element in Peircean perception—functions as a premise is his argument against the directness of the percept.  But this REJ claim, I think, depends upon a misinterpretation of Peirce’s percipuum.   Lane refers to the perceptual experience as the percipuum, and implies, if I understand him correctly, that the percipuum is the sum of the percept and the perceptual judgement.  But, if I understand Peirce rightly, this is not correct.  The percipuum is not composed of the percept and the perceptual judgment.  It is, as Richard Bernstein notes, a third, independent element of perception. [1]   The percipuum, as Carl Hausman argues, functions as a bridge between the percept and the perceptual judgement. [2]   What’s more, is that this third element of perception is, like the completed perceptual judgement, interpretive.   As Peirce writes, the percipuum is the "percept as it is immediately interpreted in the perceptual judgement" (7.643)   If the percipuum is a third, interpretive element of perception, then REJ, the claim that only the perceptual judgement functions interpretively, is false.   Not because, as Lane argues, the percept must be interpretive as well, but because there is a third element of perception that could save the percept from the fate of being interpretive.  I do not think, however, that that this interpretation of the percipuum has any serious consequences for Lane’s argument, since it is still the percept that is supposed to be exclusively non-representational.   Lane could argue that both the perceptual judgment and the percipuum are true in the case of pseudo-hallucination, and then still conclude that the percept must be misrepresenting reality.

            But even if Lane were to make this small adjustment to the argument from pseudo-hallucination, the argument would, I believe, still fail.  My second criticism of Lane’s fist argument pertains to his claim that in pseudo-hallucination the perceptual judgement is correct in the first place. Lane claims that since we know a pseudo-hallucination is, in fact, a hallucination, this means that the perceptual judgement must be true and, consequently, that the percept must be (mis)representing reality.  But in pseudo-hallucination the perceptual judgement is not true.  This is because the judgment that there are not really any pink elephants out there is not a perceptual judgment.  It is, in fact, a fairly complex inference, one that, unlike a perceptual judgement, can be considered and controlled.  In Lane’s example, the judgement that there is a pink elephant in one’s field of perception is the perceptual judgement.  The judgement that the pink elephants I am perceiving are not really out there is a second judgement, one that assumes the first perceptual judgment as a datum.  In fact, this second judgment declares that the perceptual judgement was incorrect.  The point, of course, is that, the interpretive work in perception here is done by the perceptual judgement, and so we cannot pin either representation or misrepresentation on the percept.   And so we cannot thereby prove Peirce’s theory of perception to be inadequate or prove that it is incapable of explaining how the percept can provide some direct contact with reality.   In sum, Lane’s first argument tries to show, by disjunctive syllogism, that the percept must be responsible for (mis)representation.  But, on two counts, we have reason to doubt that his argument accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish.

This leaves Lane’s second argument, a version of the argument from hallucination.  It is not uncommon to perceive realities that do not exist or to not perceive realities that do exist.  People have hallucinations. Since in hallucination the phenomenal aspect of the percept seems to have no necessary relation with external reality, we seem to have a strong argument that the percept fails to meet the minimal standards for a direct relation with reality.

Lane points out that one way to escape this difficulty might be to craft a distinction between "genuine" perception and hallucination.  This strategy, as Lane suggests, seems contrived. More importantly, from a Peircean perspective, it is a move that Peirce explicitly resisted.  Peirce himself was aware of the possible objection from hallucination, but he refused to distinguish between hallucination and "genuine perception."  Peirce is explicit: "There is no difference between a real perception and a hallucination, taken in themselves; or if there be, it is altogether inconsiderable  . . . it is not a difference in the presentations themselves" (7.644).  Elsewhere Peirce explicitly states that percepts may indeed be illusory.  Peirce writes: "The percepts constitute experience proper, that which I am forced to accept.  But whether they are experience of the real world, or only experience of a dream, is a question which I have no means of answering with absolute certainty.  . . . [It] may be a hallucination" (2.142).  These passages and others (cf. 5.43, 5.462, 7.647) show that Peirce did not seem to think that hallucination presented a significant threat to his theory of perception.  In fact they show specifically that Peirce did not think that there was any guarantee that the percept was necessarily the product of the "external" world.   But if Peirce essentially admits what Lane set out to prove, doesn’t this mean that Lane is correct in his claim that Peirce’s theory of perception cannot satisfy the needs of a direct realist?   Can Peirce offer what Lane wants? 

I think the answer may be "yes," but not with the sort of guarantee that Lane desires.   For Peirce we do not know absolutely that percepts are always direct interactions between the perceiver and the external world.  It may be, in Peirce’s words, that "the percept is illusory" (2.142).  This is only to say that for Peirce perception carries no certificate of authenticity.  The percept, as Bernstein puts it, possesses compulsion, but not authority. [3]   This said, we do have every reason to believe that most our percepts are usually the product of a direct relation between the perceiver and an external world.  This is because for most of us the majority of our perceptual judgments can be confirmed through our own collateral experience and, more importantly, the words and actions of others.  In Peirce’s post-foundationalist philosophy there is no absolute guarantee that perception is of a direct external world.  But there is an enormous amount of inductive evidence that strongly suggests that our percepts are indeed in direct relation with an external world. And so Peirce can, I think, satisfy the demands of a direct realist so long as the direct realist is satisfied by inductive and probable evidence rather than by absolute guarantees.   Peirce, I think, would say that this will have to be good enough.

I am grateful to Professor Lane for raising these difficulties about Peirce’s theory of perception.  It is, of course, significantly easier to criticize than it is to create.  And I fully expect that my criticisms themselves are in need of criticism from both Professor Lane and the audience.     

[1] Bernstein, "Peirce’s Theory of Perception,"  Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, p. 175.

[2] Hausman, "Charles Peirce and the Origin of Interpretation,"  p. 9.

[3] Ibid.