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The Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Perception Paperback – March 1, 1988
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He has written books such as The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism [which is a revision and expansion of Truth and Toleration], as well as The Art of Reasoning,A Life of One's Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State, etc.
He wrote in the Acknowledgements section of this 1986 book, “The philosopher who had the greatest influence on my thinking about perception was the later Ayn Rand… It is unfortunate that her work has not received more careful attention from other philosophers, for I believe it represents a … profoundly important alternative to traditional theories in epistemology… This book, in any case, has been written in the spirit of her philosophy; my basic assumptions are hers… I have dealt with many issues which (to my knowledge) she did not herself address. The conclusions I have reached about them cannot therefore be taken as a direct expression of her views.”
He states in the first chapter, “The position I defend is a type of realism. I argue that in perception we are directly aware of physical objects and their properties, and that perceptual judgments about those objects and properties can be based directly on perception, without the need for any inference.” (Pg. 2)
He explains, “Realism and idealism, the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness, are theories about the relation between subject and object in cognition.” (Pg. 27) Later, he adds, “The primacy of existence is therefore not a conclusion at all. It must serve as an axiomatic foundation for any inquiry into the nature and functioning of our cognitive capacities. This does not mean, however, that the thesis is an arbitrary postulate of an act of faith. The point is rather that it is self-evident, and its self-evidence can at least be EXHIBITED.” (Pg. 30)
He says, “I can state my first major thesis about perception. Perception is our normal mode of experience. It is the normal result of using our senses, and the basis for our ordinary judgments about the objects around us. Sensations are experienced only in unusual circumstances, and pure sensations are probably not possible for an adult with normal faculties… if a subject’s nervous system is capable of the integration necessary for perception, his percept is a unitary product; it is not composed of sensations as real constituents; sensation and perception are distinct modes of awareness.” (Pg. 49)
He admits, “To say that perceptual awareness must occur by some physical means is not to explain how the operation of the physical process---in this case, the neurological mechanism that registers the presence of the stimulus invariant---can give rise to the awareness of an object in the external environment. Or rather, I have not explained this fully---and could not, without a theory of how conscious experience in general relates to physiological processes. In short, Fodor and Pylyshyn are raising a mind-body issue, to which I have no general solution. But the inference they posit is no solution either.” (Pg. 78)
He acknowledges, “Hume was right when he said that we have ‘no [perceptual] idea of substance, distinct from that of a collection of particular qualities.’ We see the colors of the shirt, its shape and texture, but we do not see any metaphysical substrate---any bare particular or prime matter---that underlies and holds them together.” (Pg. 156) He continues, “It would be fruitless to argue … that we DO perceive some mysterious relation between the qualities and an equally mysterious ‘something I know no what’ that underlies them. We perceive no such thing. The proper reply is that the issue has been set up invalidly… It is not surprising, therefore, that if we ask what holds the qualities together, the question seems puzzling, or that if we take the question seriously, the only possible answer seems to be an activity on our own part. For it was we ourselves who took the qualities apart in the first place.” (Pg. 157)
He argues, “So to claim that these facts are given directly must seem an intolerable paradox to those who assume that only the sensational level is given. But they ARE given. I have pointed to experiences in which the entitative features stand out most clearly and can be seen to be given as directly as the qualitative content. And I have answered the claims that these experiences should be mistrusted, that the features must really be the product of imposing categories on sensory data or of making sophisticated subconscious inferences. Perception is a distinctive form of cognition, not a blend of sensations and concepts.” (Pg. 173)
He notes, “The Cartesians are not the only trustees of the realist principle that they have mismanaged so badly. That principle should be separated from the other premises which make Cartesianism unworkable. Although I have done this, in detail, for perception itself, the same cannot be accomplished here for conceptual knowledge. I can, however, give some indication of how perception fulfills the mediating role sought by Cartesians.” (Pg. 197)
He deals with objections: “any claim that psychological factors necessarily affect our thinking in this sense labors under a heavy burden of proof. There could not possibly be evidence for it in its universal form---no one can claim an objective basis for asserting that objectivity is impossible. But even more limited claims---that particular factors affect particular types of judgment---would require a special sort of evidence. Statistics are not enough. We know that people are more likely to be nonobjective about an issue if they have strong feelings or beliefs about it, just as people are more likely to be dishonest fi they stand to gain from a life. But it would take much stronger evidence to support the claim that such influences are inescapable.” (Pg. 243-244)
He says near the end of the book. “there is a good evolutionary reason for the perception of natural objects to remain autonomous from conceptual identification. The world contains surprises. Natural objects have identities not exhausted by our conceptual knowledge of them, and they can therefore violate our expectations. But symbols have only the identity we give them, so that some measure of autonomy might well be sacrificed in the interest of speed and transparency. The reasonable course, then, is to treat the perception of speech as a special case and to reject any generalization to perception as such.” (Pg. 254)
Those who are somewhat “turned off” by Ayn Rand and/or her philosophy can nevertheless read and appreciate this book; it is far beyond her rather limited epistemology, and Kelley’s arguments use her simply as a “starting point,” not as “eternal truths” which are unalterable. Kelley’s book gives an excellent example of the kind of scholarship that COULD be carried out in support of Rand’s work. (Sadly, enthusiasts of Objectivism and Rand are not always prone to support and encourage such “independent” research and writing.)
Some people would complain about the author being a bit too abstract in some parts, and I would agree, but then again the subject matter is one that is hard for most folks to understand if you have not read much literature about it. Even so, I think David Kelley has done a good job summarizing the historical arguments in which he debates with and gives a very well laid out case for a realist theory of perception.
You do not need to be a fan of Ayn Rand or Objectivism in order to appreciate this book at all. In fact, even if you find the title a bit daunting I encourage you to read it anyway; it just may help shape your own arguments about perception and reality.
Kelley's debt to philosopher Ayn Rand is acknowledged in the book, but contra the suggestion of another "reviewer" on this page, the book is not a "thinly disguised pitch" for Rand's views. Rand took the validity of the evidence of the senses for granted and in a certain respect, so does Kelley; they're on the same page there; but he explores the question and related issues and contentions much more thoroughly.
Some years ago, another reviewer, publishing in Reason Papers, made an opposite kind of complaint, that the book didn't spend more time on Randian ideas. Why so much about perception and epistemology? the reviewer wanted to know. Where's the theory of ethics, and so on? A very peculiar objection to a book written specifically to deal with matters pertaining to the evidence of the senses. It was as if a reviewer had slammed a book on plumbing for not also treating architecture and urban planning.
At the same time, is must be recognized that Kelley has not written an introduction to theories of perception or epistemology. Reading this book is no substitute for the later. On the contrary, Kelley's book can be better appreciated with a prior familiarity with more traditional theories of perception. Carefully read, Kelley's book provides a thoughtful counterpoint to the standard theories.