Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sense and Sensibilia, Chapters VIII and IX

On Wednesday the workshop met to discuss a short paper of Russell Rolff’s on Timothy Williamson and chapters VIII and IX in Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. What follows is a summary of our discussion of Austin.

Jason was our lone faculty representative because David was off giving a paper in Scandinavia. He (Jason) began discussion by focusing attention on Austin’s argument against Ayer’s claim that there are “different senses” of “’perceive’ and other verbs designating modes of perception” (87). Ayer wants to argue for the claim that sense-data talk is just a “clearer and more convenient” way of talking about the objects of perception (87). How does he reach that conclusion? Austin presents Ayer’s argument as follows:

1. There are several different senses of the word “perceive”: In one sense of the word, saying that I perceive an object means that “it is necessary that what is seen should really exist, but not necessary that it should have the qualities that it appears to have”; while in another sense, “it is not possible that anything should seem to have qualities that it does not really have, but also not necessary that what is seen should really exist”.

2. Some philosophers use the word “perceive” or “see” as a kind of mongrel version of both senses of “see” just described. That is, they use “see” and “perceive” in such a way that it has the sense that what is seen must exist, and that it must have the properties that it appears to have (86). But since in delusive situations, what is “seen” either doesn’t really exist or doesn’t have the properties it appears to have, they are thereby obligated to find an object that both exists and has the relevant properties. That object is a sense-datum.

3. Next, these philosophers “find it ‘convenient’, Ayer says, ‘to extend this usage to all cases’, on the old, familiar ground that ‘delusive and veridical perceptions don’t differ in ‘quality’” (87).

4. So, in all cases of perception, “the objects of which one is directly aware are sense-data and not material things…[this] enables us only to refer to familiar facts in a clearer and more convenient way”.

Austin fastens on Ayer’s claim that there are different senses of “perceive” and “see”. Austin denies that the evidence that Ayer offers in support of this claim establishes that there are different senses for “perceive” and “see”. discusses a number of different examples given by Ayer in support of the claim that there are different senses of “perceive”. For each example, Austin tries to show that instead of finding different senses of “see” or “perceive”, there are other perfectly acceptable ways of avoiding apparent incompatibility.

For example, Ayer says “If I say that I am perceiving two pieces of paper, I need not be implying that there really are two pieces of paper there” (89). Interestingly, Austin agrees with Ayer on this point, that we can say that we are perceiving two pieces of paper without thereby implying that there really are two pieces of paper we are seeing, as in a case of double vision (90).

But Austin stops short of finding a different sense of “perceive” in this case. He says that in normal circumstances, saying that you perceive two pieces of paper entails that there are two pieces of paper, but “we may have to stretch our ordinary usage to accommodate” the “exceptional case” of double vision (90-91). He then says that to say “I am perceiving two pieces of paper” in the case of double vision is to say that faute de mieux (for lack of something better), and that “the fact that an exceptional situation may thus induce me to use words primarily appropriate for a different, normal situation is nothing like enough to establish that there are, in general, two different, normal (‘correct and familiar’) senses of the words I use” (91).

Jason was quick to point out that this line of handling the different senses of “perceive” seems at odds with the way that neo-Austinians like Charles Travis want to handle similar situations by saying that words do have different senses (truth-conditions) in different circumstances.

That is part of Austin’s response to Ayer’s claim that there is a sense of “perceive” that does not require that the object that is said to be perceived actually exist. He then takes up Ayer’s claim that there is a sense of “perceive” that does not entail that the object seen has the characteristics (properties) it appears to have.

Austin then discusses Ayer’s case of a man, gazing into the starry heavens, says both (a) “I see a distant star which has an extension greater than that of the earth”; and (b) “I see a silvery speck no bigger than a sixpence”. Since nothing can both be a silvery speck no bigger than a sixpence and have an extension greater than that of the earth, Ayer says that “one is tempted to conclude that one at least of these assertions is false” (92). Of course, Ayer (like Austin) thinks that both assertions can be true, and he tries to make room for the truth of both statements by saying that there are two different senses of “see” at work in this case, one which does not require that the thing seen have all the properties which it appears to have (this is the sense present in (a)), and one according to which “it is not possible that anything should seem to have qualities that it does not really have, but also not necessary that what is seen should really exist” (94). This second sense is supposed to be the sense operative in (b), above—the case of the silvery speck.

What does Austin say about this case? Though he finds the first sense “a bit obscure”, he thinks it is “probably all right”. He focuses his attention on the second sense. He first observes that saying that you see a silvery speck “of course ‘implies’ that the speck exists” (94). And then he says that there is no legitimate distinction that can be drawn between merely seeming to be no bigger than a sixpence and being no bigger than a sixpence (95-96). I take the point of Austin’s observation to be that the best way to understand “I see a silvery speck no bigger than a sixpence” is as “I see a silvery speck that appears no bigger than a sixpence” (if I remember correctly, Will suggested something like this in the workshop). So it looks like Austin is saying that rather than find multiple senses for “see”, we find different senses of “is” here. Austin takes this to show that there is no second sense of “sees” as suggested by Ayer.

Jason then asked about the intriguing footnote on p. 95. Austin says:

“What about seeing ghosts? Well, if I say that cousin Josephine once saw a ghost, even if I go on to say I don’t ‘believe in’ ghosts, whatever that means, I can’t say that ghosts don’t exist in any sense at all. For there was, in some sense, this ghost that Josephine saw. If I do want to insist that ghosts don’t exist in any sense at all, I can’t afford to admit that people ever see them—I shall have to say that they think they do, that they seem to see them, or what not”.

Jason thought this was odd. If you say that cousin Josephine once saw a ghost, why not say that you’re saying something that is obviously false and implicating that she believes that she saw one? That way we needn’t have to say, even in some sense, that there was a ghost that Josephine saw. That sounded reasonable enough—those who believe in ghosts, even in some sense, don’t need any aid and comfort from ordinary language philosophy.

The workshop will meet again on May 31 to discuss the rest of Sense and Sensibilia and a paper by Rachel Goodman.

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Esteban Céspedes said...
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