The Primacy of Perception: A phenomenological reappraisal of the perception-cognition distinction in the cognitive penetrability debates
Anya Daly (University of Melbourne, University College Dublin)

September 20, 2018, 4:15pm - 6:15pm
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, The University of Melbourne

Jim Potter Room/Old Physics
The University of Melbourne

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Recent empirical research in perception has revived the historical disputes concerning the veridicality of perception and its epistemic status, exemplified notably in the current ‘cognitive penetrability’ debates. The central claim of this paper is that in many of the contributions to these debates, understandings of our relationship to the world and the roles of perception and cognition in knowing the world have been fundamentally misconstrued.  These debates serve as a useful entrée into investigating the ontological and epistemological assumptions underpinning the conceptual missteps that have to greater and lesser extents contributed to the confusions.

By drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s work on perception, I will argue that our initial engagement with the world is through primordial percipience, a primary knowing which is ontologically basic and that cognition is a second order form of knowing that depends on perception even in its most abstract employment. Correlatively, I argue that perception concerns ‘the real’ and cognition concerns ‘the true’. Key to vindicating these claims is Merleau-Ponty’s challenge to the interiority-exteriority divide, demonstrating that perception holistically engages the world as a gestalt involving figure-ground structures not as a modular process from outside-in to inside-out.

I finally conclude that these debates have been overcomplicated due to the choice of the metaphor ‘penetration’, which has distorted the issues under consideration. To accurately account for our conditioned experiences, the metaphor of ‘obscuration’ serves us better requiring no structural change to perception itself and more effectively accounting for error recognition and correction.  Perceptual learning when interpreted through the ‘obscuration’ metaphor supports the impenetrability claim and the direct perception thesis. This paper thus defends Merleau-Ponty’s Primacy of Perception Thesis and rejects modular accounts of perception susceptible to cognitive penetration.

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