Monday, 2 November 2015

Mute Witnesses



"While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph." Lewis Hine (1909)

A few days ago I presented a paper at a conference at the University of California Berkeley on the subject to the image. One of the other speakers gave a presentation beginning with the above quote from the early 20th Century social documentary photographer Lewis Hine. The quote reminded me of Picasso's famous remark: "“Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.” Like Picasso and Hein, many people hold the view that images — photographs in particular — are truth bearers, that they provide meaningful testimony and have what philosophers sometimes call "factive", as opposed to fictive, status. I aim to explain why such talk about images has the effect of misleadingly reducing them to linguistic tokens. Furthermore, doing so overlooks, misunderstands or worse still ignores, the essentially mute but nonetheless powerful effectiveness of images as substitutes for the things they represent.

As any linguist will confirm, all well formed sentences contain a subject and a predicate. Language is thus a system of procedures by which we ascribe attributes to things through the use of arbitrary symbols. Only the most intelligent creatures can do this because only the most intelligent creatures are capable of following the rules necessary to engage in practices of predication: of the socially negotiated attribution of abstract linguistic tokens to objects and states of affairs.

It should be clear to everyone that images are not linguistic entities, yet quite evidently it is not in the least clear. Almost all theories of representation refer to images as "signs" or "signifiers", as "readable" objects or "messages" that require "decoding", "deciphering" or "interpreting." In everyday use, we talk of how images "convey meaning", "have content" and are "about" the things to which they "refer." We also talk of what images "tell" us, what they "describe", "articulate", "suggest", "explain" and "imply."  And it is not impossible to find reference to images as oracles and chronicles or soothsayers or that they predict the future, commentate on the present and narrate the past. It might help to exemplify the absurdity of such thinking by noting that we can say exactly the same of tea leaves or the lines on one's hand. That we can do so, reveals far more about our infatuation with language than it does about the nature of images or the susceptibilities and skills that enable their use.

Any student wishing to understand the question of how images actually work (this was the title of my presentation at the conference by the way) will be met by an impenetrable thicket of confused and over complex theorisation about these profoundly simple but powerful tools. They will have to assimilate and understand numerous technical terms like "denotation", "connotation", "punctum", "studium", "icon", "index", "symbol", "sign", "referent", "veridicality", "verisimilitude" etc. And with each step along this path they will be no closer to the answer they seek. In fact, with each step, they will descend deeper into a convoluted labyrinth from which there is little hope of return.

Depictive images work because they can be mistaken for the things they represent in certain ways and in certain respects. It is as simple as that. There are ways to make images resemble the things they depict because there are ways and respects in which they can be made more or less indiscriminable from them, ways that fully exploit the potential for illusion. You simply cannot do this with words — words do not look anything like the things they stand in for.

So when we say that images "tell" "truths" or "lies" we ignore their essential nature and instead treat them as linguistic items. In ordinary usage this is fine, but strictly speaking (which is what we should require of all serious theories) lying and telling truths are the exclusive preserve of language users. Of course, images can depict things that never did, could or will ever happen. But nonverbal misrepresentation does not reduce to verbal misrepresentation: to lying. Images are not texts and the skills necessary to use them for communicative purposes are by no means reliant upon (although they are massively assisted by) our skills as language users.

There are two fundamental questions we can ask of any image: "What is it of?" and "What is it about?" The first is always more basic than the second because the second relies to a very significant degree on the first. If it were not a matter of some importance what images are actually of, then we could indeed replace them with abstractions, with symbolic tokens, with words. We can do this of course, but not without significant loss.

Recognising what an image is of, is usually effortless, whereas the answer to the question of what an image is about — what it means — is almost never so. In fact the answer to the question of meaning is about as straightforward as the answer to the question of the function of a length of string. If you do not know how to use a length of string, then it has no function. The same is true of meaning.

Images can neither lie nor tell the truth. They can be used in acts of lying and they can be used to corroborate truths, but just as a nonverbal human witness can point to the perpetrator of a crime with no recourse to language, so too do images gain their fundamental efficacy from factors that are entirely independent of linguistic competence. Images can be deceptive but they cannot deceive. They can mislead and misguide but they cannot cheat. They can be clear but they cannot be honest.  They can distort but they cannot feign. They can simulate but they cannot pretend.

Images are powerful because they trigger many of the same embodied responses as the things they represent — just as words do in fact. But, unlike language, they do not require elaborate skills in symbolic substitution and rule following to do this. So it is simply mistaken to suggest or conclude that images are bearers of truth, tellers of tales or descriptions of the world. If someone shows you a view through a window, they are not showing you a lie and nor are they showing you the truth. Likewise, a view of the moon through the distorting lens of a telescope is neither factive nor fictive. When we present evidence of the truth, the evidence does not constitute the truth. Truth is not something that can be perceived. When we say "I see the truth" we do not mean to suggest that the truth is something that can be seen. We mean that the truth is something that can be understood.

During the conference, another of the presenters mentioned something that struck me as relevant to this analysis. Apparently the root of the word "epiphany" is to be found in the Ancient Greek term: phanein, meaning "to show." Images are used in acts of showing. It is what we do with images, and more specifically, the communicative practices within which images are integrated, that transforms them into such extraordinary and useful tools. Language enables us to use images in extraordinarily sophisticated ways, but language also significantly obscures our understanding of these essentially mute witnesses.



19 comments:

Luke said...

Thanks for the post. You write very well and inevitably provoke some responses. The first is that while sequences of images are not sentences, there is a case for the view that visual argument with an inferential structure analogous to propositional statements is nevertheless possible: I don't know if you know [REF] but I found it quite persuasive.

Also, on the grounds of the ordinary language philosophy view that we should respect the wisdom of common sense, it would seem odd if there were absolutely nothing to all this metaphorical talk about images as linguistic entities - that it is all just pure confusion. Common sense by no means always gets it right, but there is often something to the intuition that it has latched on to. You are dismissing a wide range of ideas here rather summarily. Just because tea leaves and palmistry don't have much to tell us doesn't mean we can get rid of the whole range of such metaphors; those relating to past and future are only a subset of such talk, and I'm not sure your example disposes even of those in their entirety.

You claim that 'when we say that images "tell" "truths" or "lies" we ignore their essential nature and instead treat them as linguistic items', but let us take a familiar case; Lenin having Trotsky airbrushed out of the picture of him giving his speech in 1920. Is it not crucial to this that the image is an image, a visual and not merely a verbal record which if genuine would put the matter of Trotsky's presence beyond doubt or at least beyond the realm of hearsay (it could still be a body double or a case of mistaken identity, perhaps), and is it not the case at the same time that the altered version of the image cannot be understood otherwise than as a purposeful attempt at deception, that is, as exactly equivalent to the deliberate utterance of an untruth?

Luke said...

I think in other words that you should consider whether you are not eliding two separate issues; the status of images as (speech) acts and as propositions. It is true of course that an image is not an act of lying; I do accept that images have no agency and thus can't be speech acts or indeed acts of any kind. But on the other hand I see no difference, propositionally, between the logic of the airbrushed image and the statement that Trotsky wasn't present at Lenin's speech. These seem to me to be false for exactly the same reason i.e. that we have independent evidence (of which the unaltered image is itself one piece) that Trotsky was there.

I don't understand, either, when you say that 'There are two fundamental questions we can ask of any image: "What is it of?" and "What is it about?"', why you have not simply reinvented denotation and connotation. This seems to me to be, in plain English, exactly the distinction Barthes was pointing to, unless I have misunderstood 'The Rhetoric of Images' completely.

Does not the question of whether images are texts or not depend on the particular image and its context? And when you say images are not linguistic entities, does this not depend on the language in question? In a hieroglyphic script, for instance that is just what they are? Even in English some blurring of the distinction is surely possible: there are some nice examples at http://www.fubiz.net/2012/04/03/word-as-image/ for instance. I think I mentioned that I like Ranciere's view that there is always language in the image even when no words are present, and that what we are really dealing with is a constant dialectical interplay.

All that said, I suppose in the end I think that images are relationships, not objective entities or things in the world as such. The photograph is just a flat patch of colour, physically speaking. It is the gaze of the viewer that makes it an image; and this means that there is a sense in which the image does not exist, except as an understanding, just as you rightly say truth only exists in that sense. TH, since you mention him, was a strict nominalist about this: there is no truth in things, only in words. Except I do want naughtily to add, given that words and pictures are both ultimately concepts, and since I know it will vex you, 'and in pictures too.'

Anyway, I hope this long reply will make you feel your own original post was worthwhile. How dull everything would be if we agreed with one another, or with ourselves, for that matter.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I hope you don't mind my responding. I'll try to be as brief as I can.

"...it would seem odd if there were absolutely nothing to all this metaphorical talk about images as linguistic entities - that it is all just pure confusion. Common sense by no means always gets it right, but there is often something to the intuition that it has latched on to. You are dismissing a wide range of ideas here rather summarily."

Perhaps the second paragraph of my bloggy thoughts didn't quite give sufficient attention to the significance of our powers of ascription (hence your supposition that I am dismissing talk of pictorial content or metaphor) but I had hoped that it would be clear that there is obvious efficacy in our linguistically enabled capacity to ascribe meaning to things (not just tea leaves) even though the act of doing so has no causal influence on these things whatsoever and nor it is a measurable property of them. A meaningful silence is not a silence in need of emptying and nor is a meaningful image an image with additional ingredients. As I wrote:

"...only the most intelligent creatures are capable of following the rules necessary to engage in practices of predication: of the socially negotiated attribution of abstract linguistic tokens to objects and states of affairs."

You write:

"...is it not the case at the same time that the altered version of the image cannot be understood otherwise than as a purposeful attempt at deception, that is, as exactly equivalent to the deliberate utterance of an untruth?"

You already noted that the image can indeed be understood otherwise when you said "it could still be a body double or a case of mistaken identity, perhaps." Our understanding of images is in part enabled by the interpretations we make of them. Such interpretations are situated within and enabled by a culture of inference making. That in turn is dependent on our grasp of language and its socially negotiated rules. But unlike sentences, images are not wholly reliant on culturally enabled interpretation. Passport controllers are not experts in the interpretation of images but they don't need to be because images do not rely on interpretation.

"I think in other words that you should consider whether you are not eliding two separate issues; the status of images as (speech) acts and as propositions."

On the contrary, the confusion pertains to two quite different ways of representing things: verbal and nonverbal. The fact that we language users can also attribute meaning to whatever we like (images in this instance) does not make images either speech acts or propositional tokens. This kind of confusion beleaguers practically all theories of representation.

Jim Hamlyn said...

"I don't understand, either, when you say that 'There are two fundamental questions we can ask of any image: "What is it of?" and "What is it about?"', why you have not simply reinvented denotation and connotation."

The theory of denotation and connotation does not distinguish between verbal and nonverbal representations. Prepositions do. Barthes was mistaken. Images are not texts (even though they are obviously apt for for the attribution of meaning by language users).

"Does not the question of whether images are texts or not depend on the particular image and its context?"

If you place an image in a culture of language users they will commonly interpret it linguistically, yes and there is great efficacy in doing so. But it is vital to bear in mind that the fundamental efficacy of images is not as verbal tokens but as nonverbal tokens. Words do not look like the things they represent and cannot be mistaken for them. Resemblance does not rely on rules. Language does.

"And when you say images are not linguistic entities, does this not depend on the language in question? In a hieroglyphic script, for instance that is just what they are?"

Yes and no, hieroglyphs are proto-symbolic inscriptions.

"I like Ranciere's view that there is always language in the image even when no words are present."

Ranciere is under the same spell as Barthes: bewitched by language. There is only language where there are language users. I repeat, meaning is not a property of things. It is not "in" them.

"...given that words and pictures are both ultimately concepts..."

Categorically not. Concepts are the exclusive preserve of language users. They are highly sophisticated abstract tools devised by creatures capable of following strict rules. Nonverbals do not have concepts even though many of them have some nonverbal representational skills that theorists repeatedly and mistakenly take for concepts.

Apologies if I seem dogmatic. Perhaps I need to lighten up but sadly I take this stuff so seriously that I find it almost impossible to make light of it.

Did you hear about the Roman who went into a bar and held up two fingers and said "Five beers please"? Too often we mistake nonverbal representations for symbols. It is time we liberated nonverbal representation from the shackles of the linguistic turn.

Luke said...

A roman walks into a bar is very good. I shall steal that. And I don't mind at all that you take all this seriously. What else should one take seriously if not ideas? I also think we clearly agree on the correctness of the nominalist standpoint. But I think all I would like to insist on is that there is some overlap between the way words and pictures work in some contexts. I don't want to insist that there is no difference between the word and image; that would clearly be wrong, and even absurd if pushed to its logical limit. So it isn't that I disagree with the distinctions that you want to draw, only that I don't want to apply them as absolutely as you do.

Anyway, I have some responses of my own. Certainly, the original image from which Trotsky was later edited out can be doubted (was it really Trotsky in the first place?) But this is not an alternative understanding of the image, just a query as to the conditions that would make clear whether the image from which he was removed really was an attempted falsehood about Trotsky's presence or not; and if it wasn't, it was still a lie about somebody else's presence, just not about Trotsky's. You don't explain how this image is not directly analogous to the kind of proposition found in a verbal lie, at least not to my satisfaction. Certainly, it does not have a syntax or a grammar, but it does the same thing.

Is it not contradictory when you write 'Our understanding of images is in part enabled by the interpretations we make of them' and then say almost in the same breath that 'images do not rely on interpretation'? At least, there is something here that escapes me.

When you say that 'The theory of denotation and connotation does not distinguish between verbal and nonverbal representations', even if this is true of the theory as it was originally stated, cannot the theory be made to do so very easily? Does not a word have both a dictionary definition and an emotional valency in a way that is analogous to the difference between what the image shows and the range of associations it possesses? So even if 'Barthes was mistaken' because 'Images are not texts (even though they are obviously apt for the attribution of meaning by language users)', I don't think one has to defend the view that images 'are' literally texts. Of course they aren't, and RB presumably knew it - this was, again, a metaphorical use of 'are', which simply points to certain similarities of the kind I'm indicating. This, I'd repeat, doesn't mean that there's a complete identity between word and image, only that there is some overlap and symbiosis between them.

Luke said...

Again, the truth claim that 'the fundamental efficacy of images is not as verbal tokens but as nonverbal tokens' seems to me to depend on the context and on what one is doing with the image. So too does the claim that 'Words do not look like the things they represent and cannot be mistaken for them', which is why I sent you the link to the words as pictures blog yesterday. 'Vampire' can be written to look a bit like a vampire by fusing letter and picture; it has pointy bits, some red showing, etc.

As for the idea that 'Resemblance does not rely on rules,' I think this ignores the extent to which seeing that something resembles something is learnt and conventional. The 2D image is not obviously similar to 3D reality unless one has been educated in a certain way. Are we sure that the uncontacted tribes in the Amazon would immediately notice that a photograph of an animal they were familiar with resembled the animal itself?

'Concepts are the exclusive preserve of language users' but this doesn't mean that images are not also concepts, only that non-language users can't have concepts that are either words or images. Once one admits there is no such thing as an immediate apprehension of an image, any more than there is an immediate apprehension of a linguistic proposition, and that in both cases we are dealing with learnt understandings and judgments, there is an important similarity between the language of words and (sorry) the 'language' of images.

So I like the distinction between a non-verbal representation and a symbol, but I don't think these things are always mutually exclusive classes. They can overlap. Some symbols, though not all, can be non-verbal representations (again, dependent on the context - I suspect that it is not always the case that the same symbol must be a non-verbal representation in every instance of its deployment), and vice-versa. I believe you when you say these things are carelessly conflated very much of the time, and that this is irksome, sloppy thinking; I can understand why it bothers you. But I don't think there's an absolute categorial distinction to be drawn there, even though it's very often right to separate them,

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Luke,

What a pleasure it is to have an in depth discussion about these issues. I appreciate your comments but my aim of course is to persuade you that we can and should make some sharp distinctions. Why work with blunt tools when nice sharp ones are in the offing?

Concepts are tools that can be applied with precision, with negligence or with rough expediency. One of the things that I very much admire and aspire towards in Ordinary Language Philosophy is the determination to wield concepts with as much precision as possible for the purposes of clarity. For this reason alone I think it behoves us to get it right about how nonverbal representations differ from verbal representations. Once the foundations are laid we can make any claims we wish about the many extraordinary things symbol pushing (language use that is) can do.

Connotation and denotation will never cut it I’m afraid – not unless we place what would be regarded as unreasonable strictures on the use of “denotation” such that it ceases to be a term that can be applied to verbal representations but only to nonverbal representations. As I mentioned before, verbal representations are not of the things they represent. Despite the fact that they represent things, the procedure by which they do so is rule governed, whereas nonverbal representations function by way of a completely different procedure. If you tell me that a representation is of someone I need no further information to be quite sure that the representation must resemble them in some way or else the preposition (and proposition actually) is unintelligible.

“You don't explain how this image is not directly analogous to the kind of proposition found in a verbal lie.”

The image has an analogous use, yes. Images commonly serve an evidentiary function because of the causal mechanisms by which they are typically produced. But evidence is not testimony (whether true or its opposite) and we must resist confusing the two. Nonverbal and verbal representations often have equivalent and therefore interchangeable utility in our communications but this doesn’t mean that they cannot be sharply distinguished as procedures.

“Is it not contradictory when you write 'Our understanding of images is in part enabled by the interpretations we make of them' and then say almost in the same breath that 'images do not rely on interpretation'? At least, there is something here that escapes me.”

It sounds like a contradiction I admit. For present purposes we can say that interpretations fall into two broad groups. We can interpret the meaning of things (including representations) and we can interpret the use of things (including representations). The first form of interpretation is necessarily a more sophisticated version of the second. A nonverbal (i.e. some autistic children) can understand images without being able to interpret their meaning because they understand how they are intended to be used (as stand-ins for the things they represent). Nonetheless there is a more fundamental level at which images function. We can make them sensorily indiscriminable from the things they represent in certain ways and in certain circumstances. In such circumstances they can be mistaken for the things they represent. Hence they do not rely on any form of interpretation for their fundamental efficacy.

Jim Hamlyn said...

“As for the idea that 'Resemblance does not rely on rules,' I think this ignores the extent to which seeing that something resembles something is learnt and conventional. The 2D image is not obviously similar to 3D reality unless one has been educated in a certain way. ”

Do we have to learn that many things are indiscriminable from one another in one or more respects? Is the resemblance between two leaves from the same tree reliant on convention or socially negotiated rules? If you were to claim that perception is culturally acquired, then I would agree with you. But perception itself relies on sensory discrimination and that is by no means culturally acquired. Images function because in certain circumstances and in certain respects they are sensorily indiscriminable from the things they represent. This is what makes them apt as tools for tool users. Their use needs to be learned, yes, but not the possibility that they might be mistaken for the things they represent. That is just a consequence of the discrimination failures to which all creatures are subject.

“Are we sure that the uncontacted tribes in the Amazon would immediately notice that a photograph of an animal they were familiar with resembled the animal itself?”

Actually we do have some evidence that they don’t (vide Jan Deregowski). But this is not because these people are not subject to discrimination failure. If you set up the illusion in the right way they would be just as susceptible to it as the rest of us.

“Once one admits there is no such thing as an immediate apprehension of an image, any more than there is an immediate apprehension of a linguistic proposition, and that in both cases we are dealing with learnt understandings and judgments, there is an important similarity between the language of words and (sorry) the 'language' of images.”

I do not concede that there is no immediate apprehension (although I wouldn’t quite put it like this). If we can mistake an image for the thing the image is of in certain circumstances and in certain respects, then that is about as immediate as it is possible to get. Learning how to use resemblances as tools though is another matter.

“I don't think these things are always mutually exclusive classes. They can overlap.”

Yes, but only for those with the capacity to apply different procedures to them (to hold up two fingers and to mean either 2 or 5 by virtue of two completely different representational techniques). The differences in the procedures are undeniable and can (and should) be distinguished sharply for the purposes of explanation.

“But I don't think there's an absolute categorial distinction to be drawn there, even though it's very often right to separate them”

I obviously disagree and I hope I have persuaded you that I might not be mistaken in this view. Nonverbal representations are used in acts of showing, whereas verbal representations are used in acts of telling.

Luke said...

Yes, it's very good to be able to discuss all of this and you are clearly much better versed in it than I am. I do agree, too, about the need to be as precise as we can with our thinking and find the analytic tradition admirable for just that reason. You do persuade me that words and images function very differently, and the rules vs resemblances distinction has a lot to be said for it.

However - I am inclined to think that the difference, if we are trying to be precise, is not that there are rules in the verbal case and a simple intuitive obviousness in respect of images, but that there are two different rules, one for words, and one for images. Your own mention of a 'procedure' for resemblance at least does not exclude this, and of course the rule is initially implicit (though may be made explicit) in both cases. The rule for verbal representation is, after all, learnt in use initially, even if we go on to spell it out grammatically or philosophically later on. Treating resemblance as itself a rule of a kind doesn't seem too much of a stretch.

Nothing in this view would really contradict your point that verbal and visual representations work very differently. Nor, indeed, would my saying that 'denotation' and 'connotation' can be used in two different but related senses depending on whether we are talking about words or pictures. So long as you are prepared to admit, as you do, that 'the image has an analogous use' to the verbal proposition, I don't need also to insist that it is structured the same way to make my point that words and images can share something in common from this functional standpoint.

When you say evidence is not testimony, however, this isn't right, because testimony is actually one form of evidence; it just doesn't exhaust the category. A picture is not identical to a witness statement, certainly, but both can clearly be evidence e.g. in the courtroom; they can belong to the same 'game,' so to say, of establishing guilt or innocence. But once again, I don't think we're at cross-purposes, so much as emphasizing different features of the situation. For example, the point I'm trying to make here doesn't abolish the distinction between showing and telling that you want to draw, because all I want to say is that these different actions are similar insofar as they can serve the same end, not that they are actually structurally (as distinct from functionally) equivalent.

Luke said...

I am also happy with the view that there are levels of interpretation and that interpretations of meaning and use can be distinguished. Nevertheless, it seems incorrect to say that because we can be mistaken about the image and take it for reality, when we are dealing with the meanings of images, interpretation is not involved. In fact, even being mistaken that an image of a cat is really a cat is an interpretation or judgment, just as is the belief that a picture of a cat is like the cat I now see on the mat.

The information we receive via our eyes - the light that hits the retina - does not interpret itself, any more than do the noises that make our eardrums vibrate which constitute the physical component of the words we hear. It is in this sense that I think immediate apprehension is strictly impossible. So far as lived experience is concerned, of course, we can treat our experiences as unmediated for practical purposes. The mediation I am pointing to is of a logical kind; we can only become aware of it in analysis. I hear speech as speech; I do not first hear the noise, then interpret it as speech. That is not my point at all.

I do agree that these judgments or interpretations of visual resemblance, mistaken or otherwise, need not themselves be in the least verbal. I am happy, as I said to you, with non-linguistic thinking, to the extent that I would have to say that even plants 'think' in a very primitive way, if pushed. A root 'knows' when it meets an obstacle and grows around it instead of just uselessly pushing against it. I am probably taking it a little too far if I say that sowing seeds on stony ground would be a discrimination failure on the tree's part, but there again, I liked Alison Stone's book on Hegel's philosophy of nature which I read lately in which she characterises his view of even inanimate matter as 'petrified intelligence'. This is a teleological perspective on nature rather than a physical/scientific one, but I don't think it is to be dismissed simply because of that.

So, on the one hand, I could happily extend your position that discrimination failures are common to all creatures even further than you do. But on the other hand, I can't agree that, where human beings are concerned, sensory discrimination is not also culturally acquired. Things like depth perception really do depend on the culture in which one is raised; live only in a forest where you never see very far, and processing great distances is something you will not find easy all at once, or such is my understanding. So I'd be inclined to say that not all discrimination failures are of the same kind, I suppose; some presuppose much more culture and judgment than others. The delightful thing about human beings is that we can be wrong in so many ways, which is good for us academics, or we would quickly be out of a job,

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Luke,

"When you say evidence is not testimony, however, this isn't right, because testimony is actually one form of evidence; it just doesn't exhaust the category. [...] these different actions are similar insofar as they can serve the same end, not that they are actually structurally (as distinct from functionally) equivalent."

Excellent point. I will borrow that!

"it seems incorrect to say that because we can be mistaken about the image and take it for reality, when we are dealing with the meanings of images, interpretation is not involved."

I'm sure I didn't say that, and nor would I hope to have implied it. You misinterpreted my meaning in fact (which I hope adds some conclusive weight to the point). However, if you mistook a nonverbal representation for the thing it represents, it wouldn't be a failure of interpretation, it would be a failure of sensory discrimination. The two are distinctly different. And here we come to another important distinction I have inherited from Donald Brook. Interpretations are purposeful actions (a tautology by the way) whereas sensory discrimination is a form of behaviouristic responsiveness that is not intentional in the sense that it is not driven by goals or learned habits.

"In fact, even being mistaken that an image of a cat is really a cat is an interpretation or judgment, just as is the belief that a picture of a cat is like the cat I now see on the mat."

Let's say that we replace half of the gravel on someone's drive with fake gravel that is indiscriminable from the previous gravel. Is it a misinterpretation on the part of the owner to perceive the fake stones as gravel? If I replace the sugar in a cake with another sweetener is it true to say that the people eating the cake are misinterpreting the cake? I would say that it is not an interpretation at all.

I think you are assuming that perception is a form of interpretation. I take the view that perception is most commonly a readiness to interpret. Sensory discrimination, on the other hand, happens all the time, even during sleep. But perception needs to be actively pursued or triggered. This is presumably why we commonly think of perception as a skill. Sensory discrimination comes free with our genetic endowment.

The assumption that perception is a "judgement" (a term you and others use almost interchangeably with "interpretation") is even more extravagant than the assumption of continual ("global" one might almost say) interpretation. Judgement is a ratiocinative skill that requires language.

"I think immediate apprehension is strictly impossible."

It depends on what you mean by immediate apprehension. Does a person with blindsight have immediate apprehension of the shape put before them? Push them for an answer and they will get it right, but they will deny all apprehension. Sensory discrimination is clearly not sufficient for apprehension but it is necessary.

Jim Hamlyn said...

"The mediation I am pointing to is of a logical kind; we can only become aware of it in analysis. I hear speech as speech; I do not first hear the noise, then interpret it as speech."

Exactly.

"A root 'knows' when it meets an obstacle and grows around it instead of just uselessly pushing against it."

The use of scare quotes betrays your doubt. This is a version of your argument that the gut 'learns' and can 'forget' how to digest food. I don't buy (or should I say "swallow") it.

On the subject of intelligence. I take all intelligence to consist in the capacity on the part of creatures to produce publicly perceptible representations of the things with which they are causally engaged: to have and pursue goals in other words.

"So, on the one hand, I could happily extend your position that discrimination failures are common to all creatures even further than you do."

I take sensory discrimination and its opposite to be fundamental to all life. Only with the capacity to communicate (nonverbally) does purposeful activity (goals) enter the scene along with agency, perception and culture.

"But on the other hand, I can't agree that, where human beings are concerned, sensory discrimination is not also culturally acquired."

Sensory discrimination isn't culturally acquired, no, but perception is.

"Things like depth perception really do depend on the culture."

Exactly. Just ask yourself why it isn't called "distance perception" and you have all the proof you need.

"The delightful thing about human beings is that we can be wrong in so many ways, which is good for us academics, or we would quickly be out of a job."

Haha, Amen to that!

Luke said...

I'm glad you like the point about evidence, minor though it is.

I can't agree with 'if you mistook a nonverbal representation for the thing it represents, it wouldn't be a failure of interpretation, it would be a failure of sensory discrimination', however. It would be a different kind of failure of interpretation to a verbal or textual one, certainly; I am happy to let you have your point But since I don't believe in the possibility of sensory discrimination entirely free of thought or judgment, however rudimentary, I have to beg to differ.

You see, it's just not true, in my world, that 'sensory discrimination is a form of behaviouristic responsiveness that is not intentional in the sense that it is not driven by goals or learned habits.' Babies don't discriminate sensorily; they have the potential to, but they only learn under guidance. Without it, they just die. It is true that we can refine our capacity for sensory discrimination so much that we don't have to think about it once we've learnt it, but nevertheless discrimination is learnt even when it has become what Hegel calls our second nature. We don't start off hearing speech as speech, but even though we can't easily help doing so once we've mastered the skill it is still acquired and needs to be exercised whenever we hear someone talk. It is also true that we we can only discriminate sensorily within certain limits because of our physiology (we don't naturally see in infra-red or UV), but that doesn't affect the point that whatever sensory discrimination we do engage in rests on skills that have been painfully acquired.

So, when you say "Let's say that we replace half of the gravel on someone's drive with fake gravel that is indiscriminable from the previous gravel. Is it a misinterpretation on the part of the owner to perceive the fake stones as gravel?" I can say yes. It is a misinterpretation, or misjudgement. It is so, however, not because of the purely visual information received, but because of the facts of the matter of which the owner is unaware. There again - in my world there is also no such thing as the 'purely visual.' The objective image is an abstraction, as I believe I have already said. When we see a photograph we see an image, not a flat surface with a pattern of light and darkness; the conclusion I draw is that the 'photograph' is not an object but a relationship, just like a film or a book etc.

The other example is a little different as it concerns tastes. "If I replace the sugar in a cake with another sweetener is it true to say that the people eating the cake are misinterpreting the cake? I would say that it is not an interpretation at all." Whether or not this is a misinterpretation for me is a contextual thing and depends on whether the consumer is judging the cake according to its sweetness or whether other factors (texture, moisture) are relevant to the assessment of said comestible. I could, conceivably, just enjoy the cake. But even this, actually, would be a judgment of an amoeba-like sort, embracing the pleasurable and moving away from the unpleasant stimulus.

Luke said...

So when you say "I think you are assuming that perception is a form of interpretation" you are right, I am doing so. But I am not just assuming it, I am arguing for it, because there is no other way to bridge the gap between sense-data and experience. This is what Idealism has taught me. I am fine with making distinctions between perception and sensory discrimination because I accept that there are many finely gradated levels of difference at work with respect to how our interpretations and judgments of the world are carried on. Very many of them can be treated for all practical purposes as passive and unconscious. This does not mean to say that they are not logically presupposed by our experience. I think the difference is that you are treating as completely beyond thought interpretative situations in which I would prefer to say that active thought is latent: I rather like your description of perception as 'a readiness to interpret' in this regard.

This makes me think that your insistence that 'Judgement is a ratiocinative skill that requires language' is just too narrow a view of judgment. Of course some judgments are like this. But not all. When I catch a ball I make a judgment; no words enter in. Similarly when I taste the cake and decide it needs more sugar. We judge via the body as well as the mind. This doesn't mean I think we are making the same kinds of judgments that we make when we assess a philosophical argument; there is a world of difference between deciding to pass the ball out to the wing instead of into the centre circle and declaring an argument successful but unorthodox. But we are still deciding to do one thing rather than another. Everything turns on the conditions of the different kinds of judgment involved. So I can happily agree with the point that "sensory discrimination is clearly not sufficient for apprehension but it is necessary" because I feel I have a good (neo-Kantian) account of what the other sufficient conditions are.

As for the use of scare quotes, they weren't there to indicate doubt, but to show that I know I am being somewhat metaphorical, and yet I am still convinced not entirely fanciful. Back to the gut for a moment: babies aren't born with the ability to eat the things that an adult can. They have to be weaned over an extended period. How does one separate introducing them to certain foods in the hope that they will like them from giving them things they will physically tolerate? One can't, not absolutely. Similarly, one can learn to tolerate large doses of poisons by regularly imbibing increasing amounts, starting with small quantities. Is this not teaching the body? Where is the absolute difference here from learning to ride a bike? I don't see it.

Luke said...

"On the subject of intelligence. I take all intelligence to consist in the capacity on the part of creatures to produce publicly perceptible representations of the things with which they are causally engaged: to have and pursue goals in other words." Well, it is this, certainly. But I think this view of it allows for a broader reading than you think. One could say the waggle dance of bees fits with this account of intelligence, for instance. I'm happy with that, so long as it's not taken to mean that there is no difference between bee intelligence or consciousness and yours or mine; I'm not so sure you are! At a push I could even say that on this definition, the growth of a root is its own representation of its desire to extend itself; it is a thought embodied in motion. I cannot forbear from pointing out that we are both 50% banana so far as our DNA is concerned ;-)

I am inclined to make us as continuous as possible with the rest of reality without losing sight of the fact that we are also a very distinguishable part of it. The universe as a whole has to be mostly incipiently intelligent for some bits of it (us and who knows what other bits of it elsewhere) to be actually intelligent. It is an incidental point, but I'd also say my view allows for an interesting foundation for animal rights, for instance, because if non-human non-verbals are still intelligent we presumably have more in common with them and should be more willing to subject ourselves to ethical restraints in our treatment of them. Ditto plant life, even.

'Just ask yourself why it isn't called "distance perception" and you have all the proof you need.' This one was a bit obscure to me; I'd welcome some elaboration?

I am grateful to you for your continued efforts to rescue me from the error of my ways!

Jim Hamlyn said...

Sorry it’s so long. The next reply will be haiku in comparison, I promise.

“I don't believe in the possibility of sensory discrimination entirely free of thought or judgment.” Well let’s see if I can put a little more pressure on you to change your mind.

Do you really suppose that the iris needs thoughts or judgement to allow it to contract in response to bright light or to dilate in darkness? Does the galvanic response of the skin? Do the lungs and diaphragm need to exercise judgement or have thoughts in order for us to sneeze? When a leaf unfurls due to environmentally triggered differences in the moisture levels of its upper and lower surfaces is this a form of thinking or judging? Why suppose that evolved mechanisms qualify as incipient thoughts or judgements when much more rudimentary mechanisms easily explain the process? You seem to be on what we in Scotland call a shoogly peg?

Talking of Scotland, some 230 years ago Thomas Reid wrote:

“I am sensible that a strong objection may be made to this reasoning, and that it may seem to lead to an absurdity or a contradiction. It may be said, that every judgement is a mental affirmation or negation. If, therefore, some previous exercise of judgement be necessary to understand what is meant by affirmation or negation, the exercise of judgement must go before any judgement which is absurd.
In like manner, every judgement may be expressed by a proposition, and a proposition must be conceived before we can judge of it. If, therefore we cannot conceive the meaning of a proposition without a previous exercise of judgement, it follows that judgement must be previous to the conception of any proposition, and at the same time that the conception of a proposition must be previous to all judgement, which is a contradiction.
The reader may please to observe, that I have limited what I have said to distinct conception, and some degree of judgement; and it is by this means I hope to avoid this labyrinth of absurdity and contradiction. The faculties of conception and judgement have an infancy and maturity as man has. What I have said is limited to their mature state. I believe in their infant state they are very weak and indistinct; and that, by imperceptible degrees, they grow to maturity, each giving aid to the other, and receiving aid from it. But which of them first began this friendly intercourse, is beyond my ability to determine. It is like the question concerning the bird and the egg. [510]”

Reid was absolutely right, I think, to I raise this objection but his solution is unsatisfactory to say the least. Biology now offers a much clearer and more parsimonious answer: sensory discrimination.

Jim Hamlyn said...

“Babies don't discriminate sensorily” Really? Then what exactly enables them to respond differentially to the milk and air that go down their gullets? Are you sure that they don’t discriminate between these two different substances? Do they first have to learn the difference before they can respond differentially to them: to discriminate sensorily with peristaltic motions in one case or none in the other? And what capacities of non-discrimination and non-judgement and non-thought allow them to learn to discriminate and judge and think if they first have to learn to discriminate in order to discriminate and judge and think? I hope you see the regress in your position?

“…they have the potential to, but they only learn under guidance. Without it, they just die.” If creatures cannot discriminate between things from the very first stages of development then they do not die, because they do not ever get to live in the first place. Sensory discrimination is a prerequisite of all life. Simpliciter.

“It is also true that we can only discriminate sensorily within certain limits because of our physiology (we don't naturally see in infra-red or UV)” Yes, but when we fail to see UV is it true to say that we misinterpret or misjudge what we see? According to the logic of your position, if the gravel example is a misjudgement then this must be a misjudgement also. In fact, in the logic of your position, all discrimination failures—which let’s face it are innumerable—are misjudgements or misinterpretations.

“The objective image is an abstraction, as I believe I have already said.” If you are claiming that the concept of an “objective image” is an abstraction then this is trivially true. If you are claiming that images have the same relation of representation to the things they represent as do abstractions then you are plainly mistaken. Photographs do not gain their efficacy by a rule bound relation (like symbols) but by a being indiscriminable from the things they represent in certain circumstances and in certain respects.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Of the cake example you write “Whether or not this is a misinterpretation for me is a contextual thing and depends on whether the consumer is judging the cake according to its sweetness or whether other factors (texture, moisture) are relevant to the assessment of said comestible.” That doesn’t work. The judgement would have to detect the substitute sweetener to qualify as a judgement of the relevant property of the cake. Your gut, on the other hand, would discriminate between the sweetener and other kinds of sweetener and you would be none the wiser.

“…there is no other way to bridge the gap between sense-data and experience. This is what Idealism has taught me.” I was hoping I could pass over your earlier mention of nominalism in silence. There is no gap between sense-data and experience because there is no such thing as sense-data. A small dose of J.L. Austin could cure you of that nasty affliction. ;-)

“I think the difference is that you are treating as completely beyond thought interpretative situations in which I would prefer to say that active thought is latent: I rather like your description of perception as 'a readiness to interpret' in this regard.” Let’s be clear, a readiness to interpret is not an active thought that is latent. You’re on the verge of an oxymoron there. It is not a thought at all. If it is triggered then it might become an action or thought. If it is not triggered there are still causal influences involved but none of these are sufficient to trigger perception.

This makes me think that your insistence that 'Judgement is a ratiocinative skill that requires language' is just too narrow a view of judgment. Of course some judgments are like this. But not all. When I catch a ball I make a judgment; no words enter in.

All judgements require reasons. Do you really want to say that the innumerable adjustments involved in catching a ball are all reasoned? Here’s Thomas Reid again:

“In bare conception there can neither be truths nor falsehood, because it neither confirms nor denies. Every judgement, and every proposition by which judgement is expressed, must be true or false; and the qualities of true and false, in the proper sense, can belong to nothing but to judgements, or to propositions which express judgement. In the bare conception of a thing there is no judgement, opinion, nor belief included, and therefore it cannot be either true or false.”

Jim Hamlyn said...

The reason there can be no true or false at this level of responsiveness is because the skills necessary to enable the evaluation of truth and falsity are simply too complex: they are the progeny of linguistic culture, not biology.

“…one can learn to tolerate large doses of poisons by regularly imbibing increasing amounts, starting with small quantities. Is this not teaching the body?” No. It is developing new forms of sensory responsiveness or reduced responsiveness as the case may be.

Perhaps something that might help you to recognize the sense in what I am saying would be to look up the “Mereological Fallacy”. Perhaps you know of it already. Anyway, from the point of view of the mereological fallacy it is incoherent to argue that the part of a thing can perform the same function as the whole. It makes no sense to say that the cockpit of a plane can fly or that a cell or organ can judge. Judging is something only skilled agents can do, not their parts. Likewise the parts of the body cannot learn. Only an agent can be said to learn, to judge, to think and to reason. See Wittgenstein in the Investigations.

“Where is the absolute difference here from learning to ride a bike?” Learning to ride a bike requires the gradual development of many forms of sensory responsiveness. Knowhow is much slower to develop than know-that. Look up the “backwards bike” on YouTube. It’s great!

Bee intelligence and yours or mine are significantly different, yes. I don’t think bees have much choice (if any) in their actions but they are perceivers, agents, communicators and as such they have the rudiments of culture.

“At a push I could even say that on this definition, the growth of a root is its own representation of its desire to extend itself; it is a thought embodied in motion.” That would be several pushes too far I think. Representations are purposefully produced by perceivers for the mediation of their relationships with other perceivers, usually of the same species. In short, representations are public entities produced for communication.

“The universe as a whole has to be mostly incipiently intelligent for some bits of it (us and who knows what other bits of it elsewhere) to be actually intelligent.” Really? Does the universe have to be incipiently skillful for us to be actually skillful too? I think you have just invented a new partner to the mereological fallacy.

On “depth perception”. I’m not a historian but I bet that the term emerged after the invention of perspective during the heyday of seafaring and seafaring metaphors. If it weren’t for perspective we would probably just say “distance perception.” It doesn’t make any sense to say that a picture has distance. They don’t have depth either, but if we wrap nonsense in metaphors sometimes we get away with it. Sometimes for centuries.

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