Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Evaluative Perception Conference at Glasgow University

As a slight digression from my series of posts on the subject of imagination - having just attended a conference at Glasgow University on the subject of Evaluative Perception - some thoughts:

Throughout the conference there was much discussion of "cognitive penetration" (i.e. the degree to which - or whether - cognition penetrates perceptual experience, and at what point) and there was also significant discussion of the perception (or the possibility of perception) of evaluative properties: i.e. do we perceive cruelty or do we infer it.

Perhaps it is understandable that a conference on the subject of perception should place a lot of emphasis on misperception yet an alien listening-in might well be led to the conclusion that human perceptions are enormously fickle and malleable things. There is no doubt at all that the reports people give of their perceptions are often at significant variance. I spend much of my working life doing what could be called “perceptual report comparisons” with groups of students (AKA artschool crits) but I can't ever recall feeling as though we were all describing substantively different sensory perceptions. Different degrees of attention to different areas of an object, different associations, different intuitions about what might improve the image, yes. But if our perceptions are so readily influenced by ongoing affective states and cognition, then we have to explain how it can be the case that the hundreds of students I have taught are each able to print an analogue colour image to a very high degree of accuracy despite all the many different emotions and all the many 'levels' and kinds of cognising supposedly 'penetrating' their perceptions.

Strictly speaking, which is surely what all philosophy aspires towards, I'm not convinced that there is anything other than sensory perception, which means to say that evaluative perception, or aesthetic perception or whatever perception you wish to invoke is nothing but the invention of philosophers with – dare I say - too much imagination. I'm being facetious of course, and they are right to explore all the available avenues, I just wasn’t left feeling like evaluative perception has much to offer in terms of explanatory potential – far from it.

Let’s return to my claim about the stability of perception (sticking with the visual for obvious reasons). I can print an analogue colour image whilst wearing mildly coloured glasses without there being any adverse influence on my perceptual accuracy. Our perceptual systems are remarkably good at recalibrating themselves in adverse but regular circumstances. Obviously there are instances where an influence or deficit (colour blindness for instance) is so great as to be impossible to compensate for. But these exceptions are evidence of just how stable and regular our perceptual systems really are.

Dominic McIver Lopez, whose mother studied at the same art school that employs me - bizarrely - sails extremely close to phenomenalism with his theorisation of how conceptual artworks and works of literature elicit aesthetic responses. He proposes that "sensory experience is one of a species of a broader genus of experiential states" and these are mentally "encoded" in the same way as conceptual art and literature. He constructs his theory upon an intricate network of representational states, data structures and analogue to digital encoding. All of this sounds to me like a hi-tech version of Descartes mechanical model of the brain and I couldn’t help asking the impossible to answer question of how all of this could have evolved. From the several rudimentary models that I have researched there remains no compelling evidence at all that digital encoding could ever evolve naturally. How, for instance, could an encoding module evolve without an encoding module to initiate it (not to mention the far more daunting question of the decoding module)?
"There is no way within encodingism per se for those representational contents to ever arise in the first place. There is no account and - we argue - no account possible, of the emergence of representation." - Bickhard and Terveen (1995)
The question of how a haiku poem might lead someone to aesthetic reverie would be much more easily explained through a dispositional account of mind. And the evolutionary story would be a great deal more straightforward to sketch out too I think.

Dustin Stokes, of the University of Utah, makes what I felt to be a deeply contentious claim: that “perceptual experiences vary with artistic expertise.” He puts forward the “hypothesis that the expert better judges art because she better perceives art. And she better perceives art because she better knows art.”

I should be flattered but I’m not. I found this claim to be an all too familiar conceit frequently promulgated in notions of connoisseurship that I’m extremely averse to - not that this necessarily invalidates Stokes’ hypothesis nor do I mean to suggest that he was in any way conceited as a person. But let me say how I think his argument falls down via a simple analogy. To say that an expert better perceives an artwork than a novice is like saying that an art teacher sat at the back of a room looking at the same artwork as a student closely attending the work, perceives more of the artwork than the student. I don’t see how Stokes’ hypothesis can get off the ground.

When I was a student I worked as a darkroom assistant for a photographer who was producing work for a retrospective. She asked me to match-print some of her images which involved some very subtle darkroom manipulation. I soon demonstrated that I was able to print matching copies and moreover I was able to suggest some improvements. I didn’t for one moment think that I was more of an expert perceiver than she was. I suspect our perceptual abilities were largely on a par – apart perhaps from the fact that she wore glasses.

The significances that are claimed to be “seen in” artworks are not like conjurors rabbits just waiting for experts to draw them out. What defines an expert is how she is disposed to respond to what everybody else sees perfectly well. The art expert is no better at the game of Spot the Difference than anyone else despite whatever unique saccades their eyes are reputed to perform. In fact most kids will notice differences much more swiftly. An expert’s expertise is something she is disposed to do (i.e. to speak relevantly), not some ‘potential’ she “sees-in” the artwork and skilfully teases out.

The point, that may need to be stressed here, is that it doesn’t make sense to use one form of representation (other than Matching, which is often difficult to arrange) to evaluate a perception of another representational form. This is vitally important and may help explain why I don’t take a student’s verbal report about their work as a indication of their perceptual abilities. I take their ability to match a print as proof of their perceptual abilities.

Another presentation brought up a related issue. Paul Noordhof, of York University, mentioned how chicken sexers are reputedly able to determine the sex of chickens on sight but they cannot explain how. Noordhof claims that this indicates that the chicken sexers do not perceive the cues but pick them up unconsciously. I spoke to Noordhof after his talk and suggested how this claim might be tested. If the chicken sexers were able to do their job on the basis of a painting then he could no longer say that the cues could not be perceived because the painter would clearly have rendered them. Noordhof agrees. Now, it may be the case that the cues are motion orientated in which case a painting wouldn’t work. But the point is academic, and again we can easily exemplify why. My son can’t tell me how he knows girls from boys but should we conclude therefore that he doesn’t perceive the difference? And if so, why is it the case that he became so deeply curious  the other day when we saw a child of uncertain gender playing in the street? Matching representations are the only true measure of perceptual ability: i.e. the ability to accept or reject a duplicate or non duplicate of the thing sensed, not what someone is disposed - or not disposed - to tell you.

Anya Farennikova of ANU, made the claim that we “perceive absence” when our desires, expectations or beliefs are thwarted. It’s a compelling idea and would, I'm sure, be very popular indeed amongst many artists for whom the concept of absence is an important source of inspiration. Sadly though, I don’t think it explains what actually goes on very well at all. Absence is an abstract concept like justice or goodness and to treat it as a perceptible entity is to reify it - in other words to endow it with concrete properties. Furthermore, if any one (non)thing were a candidate for lacking perceptible properties, absence has to be the primary contender. It gets worse though. If we have a mental representation of this absence as Farennikova claims, then it is required - by the logic of her argument - that the mental representation of absence must be the result of a thwarted expectation, otherwise it cannot be represented as an absence. If so, then this mental representation must have another antecedent expectation and so on. I fear Farrenikova's project is unsalvagable due to the presence of the greatest philosophical presence of them all: infinite regress.

And just in case you are thinking that this criticism only applies to Farrenkova's thesis, it doesn't. Farrenkova is quite right to observe that the concept of absence is conditional upon prior expectation. The problem then, for anyone who claims that the brain functions through the use of representational states, is to explain how these states could ever represent absence. It's simply not possible without an infinite regress of prior expectations and representations. Lamentably, too few philosophers are prepared to accept this primary point of logic as the proof of the unworkability of their theoretical foundations.

Of all the presentations, Kathleen Stock’s was probably the least expected in the context. It was nonetheless excellent. Her paper: “Objectification and Perception” contends that the decisive feature at issue in debates over body objectification is the treatment of the subject - not as non-minded - but as fungible-minded; as having a mind that is imaginatively replaced by the preferred identity of the viewer. Kathleen Stock contrasts this view with the by now familiar, and generally accepted throughout much academia, post-Kantian instrumentalisation-type arguments put forward by Catherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin or Martha Nussbaum etc. This paper reignited an important debate for me that I had simply assumed was settled. Exactly what good philosophy should do.

Lastly was Jack Lyons of the University of Arkansas. Lyons proposed that perception is an intuitive process, a kind of knowing in which we do not know how we know what we know. I agree - but perhaps not in the way that he intended. To perceive is to intuitively know how to represent the thing perceived in one or more respects and in one or more ways. If this was what Lyon's meant he certainly didn't claim as much. In his presentation he brought up the example of medieval artists' depictions of babies and claimed that they “obviously didn’t know the cues for what babies are.” Now, this is a ridiculous suggestion, as I said to him afterwards. His response was to reel-off the Ruskinian story of how naive artists draw what they know, not what they see. I won’t repeat my criticism of this flawed notion - prejudice even - here since I’ve written about it at length elsewhere. In fact it’s the reason I went to the conference in the first place, because I hoped to encounter some conceptual tools and perhaps even some theorists who's work might help me better explain the problem and to elucidate the solution. Insofar as our antagonists are our helpers I think this conference did just that.

The organisers of the conference should be thoroughly commended on bringing together an extremely stimulating group of thinkers. It is clear that there is still an enormous amount that isn't known about perception but the pursuit is an extremely valid one. If I had the opportunity of presenting a paper at the conference I would have argued for the importance of an explanatory theory of representation as being foundational to a definition and understanding of perception. Perhaps when philosophers finally begin to accept (in much larger numbers than is currently the case) that representational states cannot possibly explain the way the brain functions, we may well see a sea change in insights into the workings of perception and no doubt much more besides. At present, the steps are very small and very uncertain and sometimes they stray into limitless voids from which they never return. Such is the nature of cultural evolution.


simon bill said...

Perception is a subject about which academics of all sorts feel qualified to offer theories whether or not they've read the literature. I've found that in art schools it is not widely known that perception is a subject in its own right at all, even though it's very likely being studied in the very same university that houses the art school. Knowing that Merleau-Ponty wrote a book called 'The Phenomenology of Perception' passes for expertise (even though that book isn't really about perception – it's about the experience of subjectivity; and no one's read it anyway). Nobody's heard of Herman Von Helmholtz, or even Richard Gregory.

Jim Hamlyn said...

…or J.J. Gibson for that matter. Yes, perception is something that everyone believes s/he is an expert on and this makes it a huge challenge to get past one’s working foundations in any discussion. It’s a constant struggle to explain the counter intuitive idea that it’s the world that’s turning not the sun rising and falling each day. And in the process of constantly arguing the basics we’re left neglecting the more revealing understanding of the planets’ trajectories or many other related enigmas. We can’t all be right and it’s often much easier to point out what’s wrong with other peoples’ theories than to figure out what’s right in them and to keep the insights moving forward. I’m sure I could be accused of doing that. I hope it doesn’t seem that way. I’m not interested in shooting peoples’ theories down for the sake of it. That’s a pointless exercise. I’m trying to advocate an alternative to the widely accepted notion that mental processing involves representational states. I’m also exploring the fascinating consequences of Donald Brook’s theory of representation and its association with perception. If you think that nobody has heard of H.V.H or Richard Gregory then imagine what it’s like being an octogenarian Australian art theorist. As one of the folk at the perception conference said to me “How can it be possible that Brook has figured out these issues when some of the greatest minds in history have been unable to?” Judging a theory on the basis of probability is a ruinous philosophical enterprise.

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