Manual Wittgenstein and Perception

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From Genius to Madness

Browse All Figures Return to Figure. A second theme which preoccupies Wittgenstein at this time is that of sensory simples. This is a question about which he in his Notebooks displays considerable uncertainty. But this is a question on which the Tractatus does not pronounce. Russell sought to explain our knowledge of the external world in terms of the construction of judgements about ordinary objects of knowledge from judgements about sense data.

Wittgenstein’s forgotten lesson | Prospect Magazine

The Tractatus conception of philosophy excludes consideration of what precisely perceptible complexes are complexes of, relegating this question to empirical psychology. Indeed, at Tractatus 4. But nothing in the logical doctrine of the Tractatus seems adequate to explain this impossibility.

In some respects, the treatment of visual space is reminiscent of that contained in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein again emphasises that neither the viewing subject, nor the eye, is represented in visual space. But here the idiosyncrasies of visual space are examined at length.

In visual space, unlike in physical space, there is absolute position, absolute motion and absolute direction By the time of the Big Typescript, composed mostly around , these ideas have been developed into what can without too much exaggeration be called a general approach to visual space, appearance, and sense data. This approach to perceptual notions runs against the view, popular in this period, that sense data and not physical objects are what we, strictly speaking, perceive. Indirect realism in the style of Russell and of A.


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Ayer thus becomes a target of criticism. There is a real table in my room, insofar as the table is not an imitation BT, The question of whether mental images are real, by contrast, has been given no clear sense. The idealist has made a grammatical mistake in his treatment of perception.

In the Blue Book this line of criticism is carried further. Relatedly, he argues that the existence of sense data is not if the concept is properly understood a philosophical opinion. Rather, sense-datum language is a means of expression which acts as an alternative to talk about material things. But there is one point which is particularly salient here.

As such, the remarks in this period are largely negative. The Tractatus approach held out the prospect of providing a general account of per- ception in terms of the Tractarian notion of fact. But it did involve a positive philosophical proposal: insofar as per- ception is a topic for philosophy, it is to be understood in the same terms in which we understand judgement. The self-criticisms of the early s showed, at least, that such a treatment is not adequate to the phenomena of perception.

It may well be doubted that Wittgenstein succeeded in supplying, or even aimed to supply, an alternative philosophy of perception. One would like to people a world, analogous to the physical one, with these thuses and thises … RPP I Most naturally, this inner world is characterised as constituted by images, perhaps a two-dimensional arrangement of shapes and colours.

Generality Both in the Brown Book and in the Philosophical Investigations, the issue of the perception of features frequently recurs. Scepticism over this inference relates to a point made in the Blue Book, that it is a mistake to think that properties of things are ingredients of them BB, The tendency to reify properties is explained by our drawing comparisons between things with reference to shared properties.

A similar temptation arises —72 in cases where the same object presents more than one aspect, as when a drawing of a cube switches in orientation. Nevertheless the tendency is a mistake. In such circumstances, being able to carry out an order, say to fetch all the red apples from a selection of red and green apples, may act as a criterion for seeing the common feature. Similarly, seeing strokes on a page as a drawing of a face, or as a drawing of a cube, is not a matter of seeing two things: strokes on the one hand and face or cube on the other.

But neither is it a matter of taking the strokes to be a face. In the course of the discussion of family resemblance in the Investigations, there appears a discussion of what it means to use something — say a leaf — as a sample of green, or of leaf shape, or of a particular shape that leaves can have. It is not necessary, in order for the leaf to act as a sample of one of these properties, that it have, corresponding to the property, a particular way in which it can be seen. PI 74 When we see things as belonging to certain types, or as instantiating certain rules, our representation of what is seen seems to reach beyond the immediate visual presentation.

Related to the issue of seeing general features is that of perceptual recognition, of what it is to recognise a perceived object either as belonging to a kind or as the particular object it is. PI And it is not so much as if I were comparing the object with a picture set beside it, but as if the object coincided with the picture. So I see only one thing, not two.

As such, it need involve no particular impression or sensation. We can experience a feeling of familiarity when we recognise something we perceive. But the relative rareness of this experience should be borne in mind; it does not occur in everyday cases of perceptual recognition.

Wittgenstein on Perception, Emotion, and Expression

Indeed, the feeling of unfamiliarity or unnaturalness is a more familiar phenomenon than its opposite Brown Book BB, ; PI In the case of the feeling of unfamiliarity it is natural to understand this as a matter of the comparison of impressions. As elsewhere, Wittgenstein is concerned to combat the idea that this reveals a structure which underlies sense perception in ordinary cases. That would be to think that the feeling of unfamiliarity reveals to us that the feeling of familiarity involves an awareness albeit perhaps subliminal of the results of a similar process of comparison.

He considers the suggestion that our ability to understand words is to be explained in terms of our familiarity with them. To what extent? A stranger walks into my room, but it is a human being, so much I see at once. Some swathed thing walks into my room. I see an unfa- miliar object on my table, an ordinary pebble, but I never saw it before on my table. I see a stone on the path; I am not astonished, although I do not remember having seen just that stone before.

I see on my table a queer- shaped object whose function is unknown to me and am not surprised: it was always there, I never knew what it was and was never interested to know, it is thoroughly familiar to me.

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But, once again, Wittgenstein insists that in a case like this we do not see two things: word and mould. In the Investigations there is an expression of puzzlement at the idea of hearing a word in a particular sense. This idea is connected with other sorts of perceptual phenomena: feeling a sequence of notes to be the end of a tune, for example , or seeing a picture of a smiling face now as kindly and now as malicious We learn to follow a rule when continuing the sequence in a particular way comes to feel natural to us PI Wittgenstein consistently describes the discerning of such patterns in perceptual terms.

But, if you have seen this law in it, that you then continue the series in this way — that is no longer an empirical fact. But how is it not an empirical fact? RFM VI 26 Another issue that is considered is the idea that the meaning of a sentence is something that we perceive in it. This view is a natural extension of the idea that in perceiving things we take them under general categories.


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One might say that just as in seeing a leaf one thereby relates it to the class of leaf-like objects, in seeing a meaningful word one thereby relates it to the objects which that word denotes. In his early writings, Wittgenstein appears to endorse this suggestion: If we hear a Chinese we tend to take his speech for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot recognize the human being in someone. But what are sense-impressions? Something like a smell, a taste, a pain, a noise etc.

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