Kant on Perception: Naive Realism, Non-Conceptualism, and the B-Deduction

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  • The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 64, No. 254 January 2014ISSN 0031-8094 doi: 10.1093/pq/pqt019

    Advance Access Publication 5th November 2013

    KANT ON PERCEPTION: NAIVE REALISM,NON-CONCEPTUALISM, AND THE B-DEDUCTION

    By Anil Gomes

    According to non-conceptualist interpretations, Kant held that the application of concepts is not necessaryfor perceptual experience. Some have motivated non-conceptualism by noting the affinities between Kantsaccount of perception and contemporary relational theories of perception. In this paper, I argue (i) thatnon-conceptualism cannot provide an account of the Transcendental Deduction and thus ought to berejected; and (ii) that this has no bearing on the issue of whether Kant endorsed a relational account ofperceptual experience.

    Keywords: Kant, perception, non-conceptualism, relational, representational.

    I. INTRODUCTION

    Recent debates in the philosophy of perception have focused on the contrast be-tween relational and representational theories of perceptual experience. For initialpurposes, the following rough characterisation will suffice: relational theoriesare those that hold that the phenomenal character of perceptual experienceessentially involves the obtaining of a non-representational relation that holdsbetween subject and perceived objects. Representational theories are thosethat hold that the phenomenal character of perceptual experience essentiallyinvolves representational properties that determine accuracy conditions forthe perceptual state.

    Interest in these debates has been prompted by the recent developmentand defence of nave realist relational theories. Such views hold that the non-representational relation involved in perceptual experience is one that subjectsstand in to ordinary material objects and their properties. Versions of this viewwere popular amongst the early 20th-century Oxford Realists, but it is therecent work of John Campbell, Mike Martin, and others that has brought theproposal back into the philosophical landscape.1

    1 CookWilson, J. (1926) Statement and Inference, with Other Philosophical Papers. Oxford: ClarendonPress; Prichard, H. A. (1909) Kants Theory of Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Campbell, J.

    C The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the Universityof St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

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  • 2 ANIL GOMES

    This debate in the philosophy of perception intersects with a recent issue ofinterpretation in Kants theoretical philosophy. Kant famously holds that thereare two stems to human cognition: a passive faculty of sensibility and an activefaculty of the understanding. The former presents us with objects by meansof intuitions; the latter enables thought by means of concepts. But thoughtswithout content are empty and intuitions without concepts are blind: only fromtheir unification can cognition arise (A51/B76).2 An important question to askis how we should understand the relation between intuitions and concepts andwhat contribution each makes to our perceptual consciousness of the world.

    Following a series of papers by Robert Hanna and Lucy Allais, answersto these questions have split into two broad camps. The traditional concep-tualist interpretation holds that the application of concepts is necessary forthe perceptual presentation of empirical objects in intuition. In contrast, thenon-conceptualist interpretation of Allais and Hanna holds that intuitions canpresent us with empirical objects without any application of concepts.

    This terminology is somewhat unhelpful since the terms conceptualist andnon-conceptualist are used in the philosophy of perception literature to pickout varieties of representational theories: conceptualist theories hold that per-ceptual experience involves properties that represent the world as being someway and that subjects who undergo such experiences need possess the con-cepts required to specify the content of those experiences; non-conceptualisttheories hold that perceptual experience involves properties that represent theworld as being some way but deny that subjects need possess the conceptsrequired to specify the content of those experiences.3 This use should not beconfused with the terminology used by those involved in the debate about howto understand Kants theoretical philosophy. In the rest of this paper, I willuse the terms conceptualism and non-conceptualism solely in the Kantiansense.

    How does the debate about the nature of perceptual experience relate to theKant debate? There is no immediate correspondence between positions in onedebate and positions in the other. Yet those on both sides of the Kant debateoften assume that conceptualist interpretations are committed to ascribing toKant a representational account of perceptual experience. This is importantbecause one way of motivating non-conceptualism goes via the claim that

    (2002) Reference and Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Martin, M. G. F. (2002) TheTransparency of Experience, Mind and Language, 4: 376425; Brewer, B. (2006) Perception andContent, European Journal of Philosophy, 14: 16581.

    2 References to the Critique of Pure Reason [Kant, I. (1998) Critique of Pure Reason, ed. andtrans. P. Guyer and A. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.] follow the standardA/B pagination. All other references are to the volume and page of the Akademie edition ofKants works Kant, I. (1902) Kants Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Koniglich Preussische Akademie derWissenschaften, vols. 129. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    3 Crane, T. (1992) TheNon-Conceptual Content of Experience, in T. Crane (ed.)The Contentsof Experience, pp. 13657. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  • KANT ON PERCEPTION 3

    Kants account of the perceptual presentation of empirical particulars shouldbe read on the model of a relational account of perception.4 The assumptionappears to be that if Kants account of intuition is relational, then he cannothave thought that the application of concepts is necessary for the perceptualpresentation of empirical particulars.

    My primary concern in this paper is to suggest that non-conceptualism isfalse: Kant holds that the application of concepts is necessary for the percep-tual presentation of empirical objects in intuition. But I will also show that thishas no implications for the question of whether Kant endorsed a representa-tional or relational theory of perception. Relational theories of perception arecompatible with conceptualism.

    Why would one think that conceptualism required a representational ac-count of perceptual experience? It is true that influential conceptualist in-terpretations have ascribed to Kant a representational account of perceptualexperience, but it is hard to find an explicit argument in the literature for thissupposed link.5

    Here is one line of thought: according to conceptualist interpretations,Kant held that the application of concepts is necessary for the perceptualpresentation of empirical objects. The reason for endorsing this claim is thatKant takes intuitions to depend on acts of synthesis. And acts of synthesisare undertaken by the understanding: they take the manifold of intuition andcombine it according to rules. These rules are concepts of the understanding.Combining the manifold of intuition in accordance with rules thus involvesapplying concepts in intuition. And if concepts are applied in intuition, thenperceptual experience represents the world as being a certain way. Thus thereasons that motivate a conceptualist interpretation of Kant also motivateascribing to him a representational theory of perception.6

    In the final section of this paper I will examine this argument. Before that,in 2, I will set out the debate between conceptualist and non-conceptualistinterpretations and draw attention to the considerations that motivate eachside of the debate. In 3, I will draw on the B-edition of the TranscendentalDeduction to provide some reason for thinking that non-conceptualism is false.Finally, in 4 I will show that this has no bearing on the question of whetherKant endorsed a relational theory of perception: conceptualism is compatiblewith relational theories.

    4 Allais, L. (2009) Kant, Non-Conceptual Content and theRepresentation of Space, Journal ofthe History of Philosophy, 47: 383413; 38792; Allais, L. (2010) Kants Argument for TranscendentalIdealism in the Transcendental Aesthetic, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 110: 4775; 5862;Allais, L. (2011) Idealism Enough: Response to Roche, Kantian Review, 16: 37598; 37983.

    5 McDowell, J. (1998) Having the World in View: Sellars, Kant, and Intentionality, Journalof Philosophy, 95: 43191; Abela, P. (2002) Kants Empirical Realism. Oxford: OUP.

    6 Ginsborg, H. (2006) Kant and the Problem of Experience, Philosophical Topics, 34: 59106;pp. 647 presents a particularly clear exposition of this line of thought.

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  • 4 ANIL GOMES

    II. NON-CONCEPTUALISM

    According to non-conceptualist interpretations of Kants theory of cognition, wecan be perceptually presented with particulars without any input from theactive faculty of the understanding.7 Since K