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Wilfrid Sellars

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Categories: A Colloquium, edited by Henry W. Johnstone, Jr. (Pennsylvania State University, 1978), and appears here with the kind permission of Professor Johnstone. Edited in hypertext by Andrew Chrucky.



1. My aim in this paper is to give a sympathetic account of Kant's theory of the role played by what he calls the productive imagination in perceptual experience. My method, however, will not be that of textual exegesis and commentary, but rather that of constructing an ostensibly independent theory which will turn out, it just so happens, to contain the gist of the Kantian scheme. Proceeding in this way will enable me to avoid the tasks involved in coping with Kant's terminology, architectonic, and polemical orientation. By concentrating attention on the subject matter itself, this approach will make possible a relatively brief treatment of what would otherwise be a time-consuming enterprise.

2. By referring to the theory I am about to construct as "ostensibly independent," I also mean to imply that although I shall stick reasonably close to what I think to be the truth, I shall not be above warping and slanting the argument to fit the role of a sympathetic interpretation of the Critique. The extent to which I succeed in capturing the spirit of Kant's thought must be measured by the degree to which it illuminates the letter of the text.

3. Our access to the external world and to the nature and variety of the objects (in a suitably broad sense) of which it consists is through perception. Phenomenological reflection on the structure of perceptual experience, therefore, should reveal the categories, the most generic kinds or classes, to which these objects belong, as well as the manner in which objects perceived and perceiving subjects come together in the perceptual act.

4. I shall therefore begin my reflections on Kantian themes with a careful account of the relevant features of perceptual (in point of fact, visual) experience. An initial survey will provide a framework of working distinctions which will subsequently be refined. These distinctions, in one form or another, are familiar tools of the philosopher's trade. It is the subsequent refinements that will lead into the arena of controversy.

5. In the first place there is the distinction between the act of seeing and the object seen. Visual experience presents itself as a direct awareness of a complex physical structure. It also presents itself as having a point of view, as perspectival. Opaque objects present themselves as endowed with facing colored surfaces. I do not mean by this that they present themselves as complex structures of color expanses (visual "sense data"), but rather that they present themselves as three-dimensional physical objects which stand in such and such relations to each other and to the perceiver's body.

6. In the second place, there is the distinction, already alluded to, between the objects perceived and what they are perceived as. Thus in veridical perception occurring in optimum circumstances--I shall have nothing to say about illusions, misperceptions, or hallucinations--the object is not only, for example, a brick which is red and rectangular on the side facing me, it is seen as a brick which is red and rectangular on the facing side. How is this to be understood?

7. Traditionally a distinction was drawn between the visual object and the perceptual judgment about the object. The latter was construed as a special kind of occurrent believing. Occurrent acts of belief were, in their turn, construed as propositional in form; as having, so to speak, a syntactical form which parallels or is analogous to the syntactical form of the sentence which would express it in overt speech. Believings, so to speak, occur in Mentalese.

8. This suggested to some philosophers that to see a visual object as a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface consists in seeing the brick and believing it to be a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface:

This is a brick which has a red and rectangular facing surface

where the judgment has a demonstrative component analogous to the linguistic demonstrative, "this," in the sentence by which it would be expressed.

9. Now I think that there is something to the idea that seeing as involves an occurrent act of belief, but I also think that the standard account misconstrues the structure of the believing. Notice that the subject term of the judgment was exhibited above as a bare demonstrative, a sheer this, and that what the object is seen as was placed in explicitly predicative position, thus "is a brick which has a red and rectangular facing surface."

10. I submit, on the contrary, that correctly represented, a perceptual belief has the quite different form:

This brick with a red and rectangular facing surface

Notice that this is not a sentence but a complex demonstrative phrase. In other words, I suggest that in such a perceptually grounded judgment as

This brick with a red and rectangular facing side is too large for the job at hand

the perceptual belief proper is that tokening of a complex Mentalese demonstrative which is the grammatical subject of the judgment as a whole. This can be rephrased as a distinction between a perceptual taking and what is believed about what is taken. What is taken or, if I may so put it, believed in is represented by the complex demonstrative phrase; while that which is believed about the object is represented by the explicitly predicative phrase which follows. Perceptual takings, thus construed, provide the perceiver with perceptual subject-terms for judgments proper.

11. From this point of view, what the visual object is seen as is a matter of the content of the complex demonstrative Mentalese phrase.




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