bertrand russells theory of perception

Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Perception, put forth in his book The Problems of Philosophy is focused around the theory of sense-data. This essay will outline Russell’s theory and present some of the arguments that support his view, such as the argument from hallucination. I will outline an attack on Russell’s theory and then move to present an alternative argument accounting for the relevant phenomena: the adverbial theory and show how Russell’s theory does more to convince one of the nature of our perception.

Russell’s theory of perception is rooted in his faith in sense-data. This is the notion that whatever we perceive are mind dependent objects whose existence and properties are known directly to us and about which we cannot be mistaken. Sense-data are representations of ‘real’ objects in the world outside the mind, of which we can be mistaken. For Russell and the sense-data theorist, what is being perceived depends greatly on the mind for its existence and that what we perceive is not a public physical object but a private, non-physical entity. He also believes that relying on the experiences of other people is question begging and therefore commits himself to finding; ‘…in our own purely private experiences, characteristics which show, or tend to show, that there are in the world things other than ourselves and our private experiences.’1

So, according to Russell, we can only have knowledge of external objects by being aware of the representations of objects that our sense-data gives us. However, it is important to note that according to sense-data, objects cannot exist unperceived. This is a form of indirect realism, and there are some arguments that support Russell’s theory.

There are three sub-arguments that fall under the broad term of the Argument from Illusion that support Russell’s assertion that sense-data is distinct from the physical object and that what we experience is not that of a public object. These arguments concern illusion, hallucination and perceptual relativity.

The Argument from Illusion appears to be very persuasive. In this case, we are talking about instances whereby, ‘qualities are immediately experienced that the relevant object clearly does not possess’,2 for example, perceiving a stick appearing to be bent when half immersed in water. In this case, no relevant physical mind independent thing is bent. Thus, one must be perceiving something non-physical. If, in the illusory cases, one is perceiving something non-physical then in the non-illusory ‘good’ cases, one is also perceiving something non-physical, so therefore, in all cases one is perceiving something non-physical and mind dependent. This works as a convincing argument for the sense-data theory and in Sajahan Miah’s book Russell’s Theory of Perception, he is also supportive of this argument, stating, ‘The argument from illusion forces us to admit that in any perceptual situation what we are immediately aware of are sense-data.’3

Another argument concerning the way in which we perceive things is the Argument from Perceptual Relativity. Here, we can consider the passage where Russell speaks of regarding the table in his study. He notes how the appearance of the table seems to change depending on the perspective, or conditions under which it is being perceived.4 Russell finds that the nature of his sensory experience of the table changes not only in regards to colour and shape, but for many of the qualities of the table such as touch and texture. However, Russell maintains that although we are presented with different sense-data that appear to be separate from one another, the object itself does not change.

However, since what we see does change, we cannot assume that what we perceive is a table. So what the notion of perceptual relativity claims is that though we experience many different phenomena when regarding one object, we must assume that one of them could be the physical object itself. However we have no means with which to single out one experience that can be identified as the immediate physical object and so it is safer to assume that our immediate experiences are distinct from the physical object in question5, thus, supporting the sense-data theory.

With regard to hallucinations, we consider instances whereby we actually consider certain qualities that could be attributed to some kind of physical object when there is no physical object present at all, for example, seeing a pink elephant. In both cases, we are presented with sensory experiences of qualities that the object in question does not posess, and so, these experiences must be distinct of the object, thus, reiterating the sense-data theory.

The argument from illusion has been attacked by the likes of John Austin in his Sense and Sensibilia when he suggests that the argument ‘trades in confusion’ between an illusion and a delusion and gives an example of a church being camoflauged to look like a barn. He wonders whether any sort of serious question can be asked about what we see when we look at it. He tries to put forth that we don’t see anything immaterial and that we can’t say anything about it concerning out sensory experience of it. However, I think that one must take this example from a personal point of view and think about what you would have an experience of if you were to look at the church/barn. You, having no idea that the building has been camouflaged, would have the sense-datum of a barn because you don’t have any evidence to suggest that it is something else.

It would only be if you were to delve deeper, as it were, and investigate the inside of the building that you would have grounds to change your interpretation of your perception. So this in fact backs up Russell’s theory about sense-data because you have only the knowledge of what your immediate sense-data tells you about the object and cannot derive any further information regarding the building until further investigation is undergone in which case, even then, your sense-data would adapt and correct itself concerning the object in light of more informed inspection.

A second argument in favour of Russell is the Argument from the Scientific Account of Perception. This argument puts forth the view that perceptual experiences can be altered by natural science, such as ‘…changes in the conditions of perception or the condition of the relevant sense-organs and the resulting neurophysiological processes…’6

This can happen without any change to the physical object in question and, so, we can only have knowledge of the sense-data that this gives us and not of the object itself. A particularly poignant part of this argument concerns ‘time-lag’. It concerns the fact that often, in the short amount of time it takes for the object to be perceived and the perceiver actually having the sense experience, the object can invariably have changed in some way. In fact, if you look at some astronomical examples, by the time we have the experience, the object may even have ceased to exist. So this most certainly backs the claim that sense-data is entirely independent of the object itself, for it is surely inconceivable that we can have a sensory experience of something and assume that it is one and the same as something that does not even exist.

An alternative argument for the nature of our sensory experiences is the Adverbial Argument. This argument removes any need for an object within the material world, my mind, or anywhere else for that matter. It is concerned with the person as a sensor and focuses on the sense-datum itself as an object, thus eradicating the confusion of the object as a physical object or a mental object etc. So the argument concerns itself with the state of sensory awareness of the person. It is the specific manner in which the person senses or the way in which something is appeared to them that is in question and it is this that can tell us of the specific content of the immediate experience. So, in the jargon for this argument, if I hallucinate a multi-coloured elephant, I sense, or am appeared-to a-multi-coloured-elephant-ly, or if I perceive a blue circle, I am perceiving bluely and circularly.

So the attraction of this argument is that one can say that if they experience a blue circle, then something is modified a certain way, but there isn’t any need to incorporate some abstract or mysterious sense-data.7The adverbialist is concerned only with the experiences themselves and not with the objects that they may or may not represent. However, this argument in fact fails by it’s own principles. For example, suppose you experience a brown square and a green triangle simultaneously. The adverbialist would have to say that his state of mind is ‘sensing brownly and squarely and greenly and triangularly,’8 But then, couldn’t that be read as the state of mind is sensing a brown triangle and a
green square? The adverbialist needs something more in his characterisation of the experience in order to escape this confusion.

Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Perception is a theory that makes a good attempt to account for our perceptual experiences and their relations to objects and the arguments from Illusion and The Scientific Account of Perception offer interesting solutions for perceptual phenomena that seem to trick us so often. However, I find Russell’s strategy of completely disassociating objects and our perceptual experiences from one another quite ambitious as it would seem to me that though our sense-data can give us knowledge about the representation of the object in question, we also have the ability to manipulate the object in ways that force certain sense-data to appear to us.

Russell talks of sense-data in a manner suggestive of something that has power over us and our thought processes. However it seems to me that I can alter the sense-data that I experience. for example, I were to perceive a sheet of paper, I could change the sense-data that I receive simply by tearing the paper in half. In this manner, it seems to me that there is some kind of causal relationship between the object, the perceiver and the sense-data, and that the perceiver can have power over the sense-data.

Bibliography:
Russell, B. The Problems of Philosophy (OUP 2001)

Miah, S. Russell’s Theory of Perception (Dhaka University Press 1998)

John Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (OUP 1964)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Epistemological Problems of Perception, (published July 2001): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-episprob/

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Problem of Perception, (published March 2005): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/

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