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Representationalism and Anti-Representationalism About Perceptual Experience

Ph.D. Thesis, University of Warwick, submitted September 2012; examined January 2013 (no corrections)

Many philosophers have held that perceptual experience is fundamentally a matter of perceivers being in particular representational states. Such states are said to have representational content, i.e. accuracy or veridicality conditions, capturing the way that things, according to that experience, appear to be. In my Ph.D. thesis I argue that the case against representationalism— the view that perceptual experience is fundamentally and irreducibly representational — that is set out in Charles Travis’s ‘The Silence of the Senses’ (2004; forthcoming) constitutes a powerful, but much misunderstood and neglected argument against this prevailing philosophical orthodoxy.

In chapter 2, I present an interpretation of Travis’s arguments that poses a dilemma for the representationalist concerning the indeterminacy and availability of perceptual content. Chapters 3 and 4 evaluate a variety of arguments in favour of such content based upon the nature of appearances, or ‘looks’, including those by Byrne (2009), Siegel (2010) and Schellenberg (2011), each of which I find to be problematic. Finally, chapters 5 and 6 examine the relationship between representational content and phenomenal character, i.e. what perceptual experience is subjectively like, outlining some potential responses to Travis’s anti-representationalism. These include the external individuation of content and self-knowledge, and the operation of perceptual discriminatory capacities, the latter of which does not necessarily favour a representationalist account of experience.

I conclude that Travis’s arguments establish substantive constraints upon the nature and role of perceptual content. Moreover, I argue that the debate centres less upon the existence of such content than its explanatory role, particularly in relation to phenomenal character and the contents of other mental states: belief, intention, thought, knowledge, and so on. This in turn highlights the need for representationalists to better clarify the role of the contents their theories posit, and why such theories constitute a better explanation of the relevant phenomena than the corresponding non-representational view.

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Keith Wilson,
6 Jul 2013, 07:23