What is Perceptual Content?

Last year I gave a paper at the workshop leading up to the Sellars Centenary Conference organised by UCD in Dublin (by the wonderful Jim O’Shea, with financial help from the generous John McDowell). I was very unhappy with the paper at the time, as it seemed to me that the idea I’d attempted to articulate in the abstract didn’t pan out in the finished piece, probably due to the fact that I didn’t leave myself enough time to write it, and was, as ever, typing away right up until the last minute. In retrospect, though I still see the inadequacies of the piece, these are largely matters of a dearth of specific examples and a failure to tackle certain more tricky details, both forced upon me by the length of the presentation. So, as a first step to getting me to revise the paper into something more adequate (and hence, publishable) I’m going to put it up here for those of you interested in Sellars and/or the philosophy of perception.

The title of the paper is ‘Is there a TV in my head?: Content, Functional Mapping, and the Myth of the Given’. This is my first real foray into the philosophy of perception, and my goal was twofold: a) to articulate a worry I have with much work on perception, namely, that the notion of perceptual content is all too often implicitly defined in such a way that it vitiates the possibility of productive debate regarding whether or not it is conceptual, representational, or anything else for that matter, by outlining an alternative methodology that begins by outlining the explanatory role that the notion must play, and the resources available to it as a form of content per se, and b) to use this alternative methodology to clarify Sellars’ account of what Jim O’Shea calls the myth of the categorial given. I don’t think the paper entirely delivers, but it’s certainly on the right lines, and I aim to return to those lines when I have the time. It may also be of interest to those who’ve read my paper on Sellars and Metzinger (here), and vice versa, as it deals with some of the same issues from a different angle.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

12 thoughts on “What is Perceptual Content?”

  1. If I understand you correctly, you’re claiming that for anything to be properly describable as ‘perceptual content’, it has to both “play a functional role in a process of systematically guiding behaviour
    in relation to sensory input” and “play an active role in the move from sensation to conception”, but also has to do play the first role independently of its playing the second role, ie. its guiding of behaviour is not the same thing as its moving from sensation to conception. Is that correct?
    I’m not clear on the relation of section 4 to the preceding sections. Is the “TV in the head” the same thing as the perceptual content that plays both the behaviour-guiding and the sensation-to-concept roles independently? So the denial of the existence of a TV in the head would be a claim that no functional state can guide behaviour and mediate between sensation and conception without its behaviour-guiding being essentially conceptual? If that’s an accurate statement of your claim, I don’t see an argument for it in your article. Does Sellars give one somewhere? Or did you give one that I missed? The claim does seem plausible though.
    I’m also not clear about the distinction between behaviour and action. Clearly action involves concepts in some way that behaviour doesn’t, but I don’t know precisely what sort of involvement you have in mind.
    Some of my misunderstanding is probably due to my insufficient familiarity with Sellars, but I assume you’d like your article to be comprehensible to non-Sellars experts, so hopefully my questions help.

    1. Thanks for the questions, they are certainly helpful. I’ll do my best to address them. As you’ve noticed, this paper was indeed given to a room full of Sellars experts, so its likely it needs padding out in some ways for non-Sellarsians. Anyway, on to the specific points:-

      1. The contrast between the epistemological and psychological explanatory tasks was not meant to be quite so stark. I’m not claiming that the functional role of perceptual content in guiding behaviour must be entirely distinct from the role it plays in the transition from sensation to conception, far from it. From my perspective its essential that the latter is at least sometimes a crucial part of the former. However, the broader point is that there is room for debate regarding just how they intersect.

      2. “So the denial of the existence of a TV in the head would be a claim that no functional state can guide behaviour and mediate between sensation and conception without its behaviour-guiding being essentially conceptual?” This isn’t quite right. There are plenty of functional states that are involved in both, from retinal receptor activation patterns to neuronal configurations. The point is that there can be no such state whose role is not dependent upon the particular causal mechanisms it is bound up in, save for states that are ascribed conceptual content. What I’m denying is that there is any meaningful criterion of individuation under which any two causal systems could be said to have the same ‘experience’ that is not somehow conceptual, be it directly (as in the case of systems that count as concept users) or indirectly (as when we characterise the content of system’s states in terms of what they purportedly represent). This is argued for, though I wouldn’t say it’s an iron clad argument. I’ve merely tried to lay out what would be required by proponents of universal non-conceptual perceptual content, and suggest that this requirement is impossible to meet given the explanatory demands it involves.

      3. With regard to action, this is another point where I’m presupposing a certain familiarity with Sellars. The crucial idea he introduces is that action is to be understood in terms of language-exit transitions in a fashion that complements his account of perception in terms of language-entry transitions. I would suggest taking a look at the Metzinger-Sellars paper I linked to, as it explains this point better than I could here.

  2. Hi, Pete. Some off the cuff thoughts… You might run into some problems with your account of causal explanation and prediction: Carl Craver, for instance, argues (influentially, I might add) that an adequate account of neural explanation needs to be able to distinguish explanation from prediction. If I remember correctly, he gives the example of how the initial mathematical formulation of Long Term Potentiation allowed for all kinds of predictive work to be done without actually providing any causal explanation whatsoever. He also paints a convincing case for the role played by ‘negative causation’ in mechanical explanation: ‘success or failure’ via some ‘explanatory schema’ doesn’t seem to be how neuroscientists generally explain neural function. They simply talk about what does what to what, where ‘what does’ can be, and often is, an absence, and ‘what’s done’ can be some drastic change in function.

    My big criticism (aside from your linguaformalism and noocentrism, of course) has to do with your account of content (but given that nobody has been able to provide a workable natural theory of content, this is no great shakes). Regarding your VHS/Betamax example, I just don’t see how the brute repetition of pattern (which characterizes all of nature) could count as ‘content’ in any meaningful sense. In other words, I just don’t see how you can divorce content from representation as you initially do without talking about something other than content altogether – burying the burning question in the backyard, so to speak. It just seems to be a way to set up the kinds of equivocations intentionalists often use to blur some spooky notion of meaning into an apparently naturalistic framework. Perhaps call it, ‘pre-content,’ or something.

    The million dollar question is, How do these pre-content patterns come be about (that is, true and false of) something in the world? Of course the brain makes use of low-dimensional (ie, heuristic) recapitulations of environmental structure (often wildly parsed and distributed) in the generation of behavioural outputs. The trick is precisely one of understanding how and what intentionality and normativity have to do with any of this. You attribute the transformation of pre-content percepts into representations amenable to the game of giving and asking for reasons to ‘language entry moves.’ And this is where your account seems to take a turn to the occult (again, as all representational accounts do). Brandom makes the community his ‘skyhook,’ whereas Dennett gives an incrementalist, evolutionary ‘design process’ story. You give neither, alluding to the question as ‘tortured.’ But this is the very thing you need to make your account interesting, isn’t it?

    1. Hi Scott, always a pleasure to have your thoughts, even if they are off the cuff. I’ll try to break up my responses to you too:-

      1. I’m entirely onboard with the distinction between explanation and prediction, even if I do think they’re crucially related. On the one hand, I distinguish between epistemological explanation (which is not predictive at all) and psychological explanation (which is). On the other, the whole point of introducing the notion of explanatory schema is to show how certain ideas can be explanatory insofar as they organise prediction, without necessarily implying any specific prediction. The most famous example here is obviously the theory of evolution, which is so powerful precisely because it gives us a new predictive form (inc. retrospective prediction), even though this implies nothing specific on its own.

      2. I’m not sure what feature of genuine content you’re saying my account of ‘pre-content’ lacks. Bear in mind that I’m trying to start from the genus of content per se before working my way down to its perceptual, representational, and conceptual species. This means that it has to fit mere informational content too, that old friend of yours. Of course informational content is everywhere in nature, this is something that we actually agree upon!

      3. I don’t claim to provide the whole story in this paper, as obviously there’s a lot more to the whole tortured question of just how to account for representation than I’ve mentioned here. However, I think it’s important to counter your accusations of normative witchcraft by pointing out that I’m quite scrupulously trying to avoid using the notion of representation without explaining it. It’s not a primitive for me, but something that needs to be accounted for, and the story I put forward in the paper is broadly compatible with this explanatory enterprise. The big question is just how conceptual content gets to be representational. Following Brandom, I take the notion of inference to be the foundation of any such story, but it’s one I’ll tell it another time.

  3. Yeah, it struck me post-post (the way it always does) that I was criticizing your paper for not answering *my* questions. Apologies. I actually think the problem with causal/mechanical explanation (which is a hot topic at the moment) is tonal as much as anything else: you would be better served I think by referencing the controversy and stipulating rather than claiming ‘explanation is x.’

    Re 2: I don’t think there’s any such thing as content, so you won’t catch me using the word. For me, *nonsemantic* information is an unexplained explainer (rather like ‘truth’ in Davidson), something justified by the amount of work it seems to do. I just don’t know how to understand ‘content’ short of some semantic definition, and I think I’m far from alone in that regard. A little ‘pre’ would go a long way to smoothing out some big squints!

    1. No problem, it’s always hard to get our own questions out of the forebrain when addressing these things. I don’t think I’ll address the controversy of explanation in this paper, as it’d just be too tangential, but it is something I’d like to work on more at some point. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s some deep points to be mined on that terrain that have important ramifications for everywhere else.

      I personally don’t think there’s any *natural* criteria for individuating content of any kind (semantic or merely informational), but that doesn’t mean that the notion is dispensable. It’s not clear that you can make sense of information as an explanatory notion without being willing to talk about its individuation (i.e., about ‘units’ of information), which means without being willing to talk about content. As such, the appeal to information as an unexplained explainer might simply be harbouring some implicit conception of content that could do with explicating.

      1. Again, I’m confused. What does the quantification of information have to do with ‘content’?

        Otherwise, certainly the notion of content is dispensable in a wide variety of contexts on *any* account. BBT argues (as would Dennett) that it is dispensable in all contexts, though not efficiently so, given the pariochal constraints of human cognition.

      2. Remember that I’m using the term ‘content’ in the most general sense I can, not restricted to the species ‘semantic content’. That’s the point of trying to approach the concept through the topic of information storage media. If you dispense with this notion of content, then you might be talking about ‘information’ in the abstract, but you’ll never be talking about concrete pieces of information that can be held by different states of the same system, or even different systems.

  4. Nevertheless, you will end up confusing a good number of PoM types with this usage. We’re both talking mechanism (we have to be, to belong to the life sciences conversation at all) and the kinds of component devices that maintain various sensory/behavioural circuits pertinent to the game of giving and asking for reasons (granted there is such a thing as you define it). ‘Precontent’ gives you the kind of Salmonesque ‘mark transmission’ you seem to be after. You really don’t need ‘content,’ you’re risking readerly equivocation to keep it, so again, it’s hard not to think you’re spiking the punch terminologically here.

    One thing you will definitely want to check out is Andy Clark’s BBS piece, “Whatever Next? Predictive Brains, Situated Agents, and the Future of Cognitive Science,” not only because of the way Bayesian brain accounts (especially Friston’s) seem to be sweeping the table, but because of the way it reorganizes, perhaps even dissolves, the percept/concept/behaviour relation. I know you’re enamoured with Sellars’ account, but things are moving fast on the research front, and I would urge you to travel light. The odds of the science falling into the lap of any one prescientific philosophical picture are, you have to admit, slight.

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