perception (2)

This entry is a supplement to the previous essay on Perception/Perceivability written by Christopher Aque. The project of this entry will attempt to reconsider some of the questions raised by Aque in hopes to clarify particular theorists’ takes on the polemic of perception. I will begin by providing a few general psychological and philosophical accounts of perception in order introduce the concept to the reader. Later in the essay, I will move to more complex accounts of perception, ones which deal directly (sometimes explicitly) with immediacy.

I must note that my entry is intentionally preoccupied with the philosophical and psychological accounts of perception in order to better formulate the problem of immediacy v. mediacy and its relation to perceptual reality. Rather than give an account for how the conditions of perception change when the conditions operate through different media (, writing, sculpture, photographs, speech, telecommunications, the list is endless), I prefer to approach the problem from an epistemological perspective. It may appear that I am evading what is at heart in theorization of media, but I contend that by trying to offer an account of how and to what extent our perception(s) can be characterized as immediate – and more simply, what perception is – we may edge closer to important conclusions concerning how types of media relate to and constitute our given reality. More importantly, I believe by asking such epistemological questions of perception, we can better understand how media theorists (like Marshall McLuhan) uptake the notion of the impossibilities of an absence of mediation or an unmediated reality. I hope to determine which conceptions of perception offer such a possibility.

To begin, an entry from the Cambridge dictionary of Philosophy provides a helpful introduction to the process of perception: “The extraction and use of information about one’s environment (exteroception) and one’s own body (interoception)”1. In making use of this sense-data, we rely on what Cambridge terms “Proprioception,” a perception of the self, which “concerns stimuli arising within, and carrying information about, one’s own body – e.g., acceleration, position, and orientation of the limbs.”

Seeing and Seeing-that
The entry on Cambridge’s site explains how the mingling of these perspectives manifests “stages” of our enacted orientation. The first corresponds to our perception of objects, and the second (or later stage) is the perception of facts about these objects. For example, a perception of an object (or event) would be to see both an apple and a table. The perception of a fact would be to see the apple on the table. The act of a perception of an object or an event does not require particular identification or recognition; depending on my viewing conditions (perhaps the room is poorly lit), I may misidentify the apple for an onion. So perception of an object is non-epistemic.

So the claim is that perception of facts (seeing facts or seeing-that) is epistemic. In order to see the fact that there is an apple on the table, I must come to know or believe that the apple is on the table. Seeing a fact, then, is coming to know the fact in some visual way. That is to say, to see the fact of the apple on the table requires me to know it is an apple and not an onion. So in this sense, seeing facts necessitates some form of realization.

Perception theories which are concerned with perceptual relativity – i.e. what we perceive is relative to ourlangauge, our conceptual scheme, or the scientific theories we have available to interpret phenomena of the physical world – distance themselves from the above approach which makes the distinction of object–fact perception, or seeing v. seeing–that. Later on, we will see how theories of perceptual relativity are unsatisfied with such a distinction settled as a set of perceptual stages. Instead, they venture what is bound up with perception’s immediacy and how reality informs the perceiver, i.e. perception’s epistemology.

The psychologist JJ Gibson attempted to tackle the problem of perception in his consideration of the mechanisms of perception2. Gibson’s psychological account asks questions about the relation of the perceiver to her ecological environment3. He believed that the psychology of perception is a matter of the ways we perceive things through the senses . By looking at how the stimulus array enables what he termed as “perceptual systems,” we will understand how we are able to “pick up” information about the world.

In “De Anima4,” Aristotle provides an account of perception which attempts to set out the conditions which are both necessary and sufficient for perception of an object to occur, conditions which list the physical and biological relations between a perceived object and a sense-organ of the perceiver. Aristotle’s discussion of perception as sensation involves the notion of judgment. Unfortunately, his account fails to clearly elucidate how we discriminate in our perceptions. To his credit, this nod to the link between perception and thought provided a basis for later theorists. Unlike Aristotle, many later theories of perception – representative theory, casual theory, phenomenalism, etc. – are less preoccupied with what perception is and concern themselves with perception’s epistemology.

Perception’s Epistemology
For example, Descartes was concerned with whether perception provided knowledge. Ideas, sensations, and impressions were all the immediate objects of the senses. Such objects of perception were representational of the actual physical objects which exist “outside the mind.” 5 Descartes was one of the first to articulate the problem between that of the ideal and that of the real by asking questions about the subjective or relative nature of our knowledge compared with objective knowledge.

Berkeley uptakes a similar theme and proffers a thesis of idealism which attempts to determine the relations that exist between ideas (or representations) of perception and objects in the physical world6. The thrust of Berkeley’s argument comes with the distinction between the external world and the internal mind. The thought goes something like this: part of what it is to be human means to think of the world in terms of human thought; we are immediately confined to an epistemological role by virtue of our ideas, which exist within the mind. In turn, the physical world that we live in is apart from our minds and can be rightly characterized as ‘external’ to our minds (and not just external to our bodies). Put more simply, the way in which humans relate to the perceived world is through epistemic knowledge, or ideas, and this process (for Berkeley) does not have absolute (or direct) access to objective physical reality. Instead, Berkeley believes reality consists in some way only of ideas, thus he is famously quoted: “To be is to be perceived or to perceive.” 7

While this account seems straightforward, I would like to pause and deconstruct some of Berkeley’s language in order to make his theory helpful for a theorization of media. Berkeley’s position is not merely that human perception is mediated through the use of ideas. His internal mind – external world distinction signals to the notion of immediacy. Remember Berkeley’s fundamental claim: we perceive sensible things themselves. So in contrast with Descartes (or Locke), Berkeley believes that the things we normally claim to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel are the things we perceive. What does this mean? Berkeley wants to argue that such beliefs and knowledge (of seeing, feeling, etc) are mediated by entities which are immediately accessible to us – such as our ideas and sensations. Ideas, then, are no longer the mere modes of the mind; instead, ideas are things in themselves that exist in the mind.

In claiming we perceive sensible things themselves, Berkeley also contends that we only perceive our own ideas and sensations. This seems confusing because Berkeley identifies sensible things with ideas8. Berkeley does not distinguish between things we perceive by our senses and things we perceive immediately. That is, the particular way in which we perceive or make sense of stimuliis not immediate in the way we may ordinarily think. Put simply, the external world is not immediate. This is because the access to the external world is restricted by our internal mind’s necessary use of ideas (which are immediate) 9.

Continuing with this problem of perception’s immediacy, Barry Maund offers a helpful distinction between the traditions of theories in his book Perception. He sets up two opposing traditions which either consider perception to be direct or indirect10:

Indirect realism/representational realism:
The perceiver perceived physical objects and states of affairs indirectly by perceiving immediately or directly other items, standard sensory particulars or states of affairs.
Direct realism: 11
The perceiver perceives immediately (or directly) physical objects and states of affairs without perceiving any intermediary (Maund, 68).

The indirect/representative realist approach asks the question of how ideas of the senses contribute to the mind directing awareness to external things. While ontology pushes to claim that mental representations are distinct from the object represented, epistemology instead wants to claim that mental entities like sense-data are the objects of direct awareness. Consequently, perceptual realization of external objects involves immediate awareness of sensory ideas or sense-data.

Indirect realism aims to combine both the ontological and epistemological claims. So the indirect/representative realist claim is not only committed to a form of reality that is indirect but also inferential. Inferential representational realism implies that “one is aware of sensory states or sensory particulars as sensory states or particulars, and then makes an inference [or can make an inference] to the hypothetical cause of these states or particulars, some physical object” (Maund, 69).

In the 18th century, Thomas Reid, unconvinced with David Hume’s inquiries on impressions and ideas, set out to provide a theory of perception along the vein of Berkeley, one that distinguishes sensation from perception12. Reid insists that sensations suggest to us the corresponding perception, because sensations are a natural sign of perceived qualities of an object. That is to say, sensation, as an act of mind, has no object other than itself. Reid took issue with indirect realists that held a view of representational reality, which can be traced back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In his second volume of Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Reid writes that indirect realism, “suppose[s] that we perceive not external objects immediately, and that the immediate objects of perception are only certain shadows of the external objects”; ideas become internal objects. Reid rejects this form of perception’s mediacy. To better understand why Reid disagrees, we need to consider how he Reid argues perception is directed to objects in the world and involves concepts of such objects, coupled with beliefs in their existence which were not the result of any reasoning or inference. The thought goes something like: Perception: its object is distinct from the act.
Sensation: its object was not something distinct from it; it could only exist while being sensed. To say that sensation as an act of mind has no object other than itself is to claim that in having a sensation, one is necessarily conscious of having it. This is a subtle, yet important distinction. For Reid, normal perception means to experience sensations without being directly aware of them because our attention is directed to the objects of the perception.

Robert Schwartz explains what Reid intended: “although vision is a two-stage process, the link between sensations and perceptions is irresistible, immediate, [and suggestively] innate” (Schwartz, 8-9). It seems that Reid is urging us to a point about perception and belief being both immediate. Even if we entertain the case when belief is unnecessary, Reid wants to say that the relation to an object and what it is conceived as is not a product of thought alone (as idealism suggests).

After making the useful distinction between sensation and perception, Reid goes on to distinguish two different kinds of perception, original and acquired. Original perceptions are “natural” and keep in line with what we’ve seen of Reid so far. Acquired perception, Reid explains, are suggested by original perceptions. An original perception would be to perceive of a sphere as two-dimensionally round and an acquired perception is learned through experience by means of touch or bodily movement which comes to determine the object’s third-dimensional characteristic (Hamlyn, 15). This further distinction of Reid somewhat complicates the degree of perception’s immediacy. Nevertheless, Reid’s work does provide us with enough ways to think about how reality is mediated by perceptual knowledge.

It’s hard to decide which theory of realism – indirect or direct – offers the more plausible account of perception. Yet, all of these theories can agree: to whatever extent we denote perception’s immediacy, reality as we know it will always be mediated by perception: nothing that is properly considered to be knowledge can escape the mediation of our perception. Therefore, there is no form of human knowledge we can say is unmediated. That is to say, there is no form of reality that is unmediated.

Patricia Dwyer


1 “Perception”, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.

2 Gibson, “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems.”

3 Gibson, James J. “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.”

4 Aristotle, “On the Soul.”

5 Descartes, Meditations.

6 Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonus.

7 Ibid.

8 Katia Saporiti makes this problem clearer in her essay, “Berkeley’s Perceptual Realism”, 2004 edition.

9 Berkeley amounts merely to saying whatever we perceive ends up appearing to us the way it does. This is because Berkeley’s perceptual realism takes on a further and controversial task which denies there being any way to be mistaken about what we immediately perceive with any one of our senses. As Ralph Schumacher notes, “Consequently [for Berkeley], the only things we have infallible knowledge of are the qualities we perceive with one sense at a given time” (21).

10 Maund, Barry. Perception, 61- 69.

11 This category uptakes a ‘common sense view’ that we see objects directly and immediately.

12 Reid, Thomas, “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man.”


Aristotle, “On the Soul.” Perception, ed. Robert Schwartz. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA. 2004. 12-17.

Berkeley, “Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonus.” Readings in Modern Philosophy, ed. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins: Vol II. Hackett Publishing Company. 2000. 175-223.

Descartes, “Meditations.” Readings in Modern Philosophy, ed. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins: Vol I. Hackett Publishing Company. 2000. 22-55.

Gibson, James J. “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems.” Perception, ed. Robert Schwartz. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA. 2004. 71-76.

Gibson, James J. “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.” Perception, ed. Robert Schwartz. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA. 2004.  77-79.

Hamlyn, D.W., Understanding Perception. Avebury Publishing. Chippenham, Willshire. 1996.

Maund, Barry. Perception, McGill-Queen University Press. 2003. 63-69.

Reid, Thomas, “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man.” Perception, ed. Robert Schwartz. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA. 2004. 24-29.

Saporiti, Katia, “Berkeley’s Perceptual Realism.” Perception and Reality, ed. Ralph Schumacher. Mentis Publishing, Germany. 2004. 189-213.

Schumacher, Ralph, Perception and Reality: from Descartes to the Present. Mentis Publishing, Germany. 2004. 21-22.

“Perception”. (1999). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Retrieved 01/28/2008.