My morning walk took me on a mesa overlooking a cow pasture. In the corner of the pasture is a pond and, this morning, in the pond was a… what? The first feature I could distinguish was the head, lifting out of the water on a longish neck. The torso was spotted black and white. Four legs could be discerned. Not a cow, surely: too skinny for that. A horse? It had the triangular head for it. But there was something funny about the head: bright white, nearly gleaming; triangular like a horse’s, but if anything too triangular, like a poorly-drawn head of a horse, and seemingly too big for the body supporting it. And the legs: why could I see all four of them extended, as if the horse was floating on its side? But surely it wasn’t dead, since the first feature I had seen was the head, stretched up and out of the water on its long neck. My attention was momentarily distracted by cars moving along the road beyond the far edge of the pond. Looking back to the pond I suddenly realized that the horse was actually larger than the cars, maybe twenty feet long — far too big to be a horse. And the pattern of black and white spots had shifted, and was in fact still shifting as I continued to walk at an oblique angle to it. The pond, in contrast, retained its consistent flat grey-green color. Then, suddenly, I realized that I had it all wrong. What I’d been looking at wasn’t an object in the pond. It was a part of the pond’s surface, the only part not covered by pond scum. What I had taken to be the mottled pelt of an animal turned out to be a reflection of the partly cloudy sky behind it, its pattern changing with the wind and with my movement relative to the reflective patch of pond surface.
Smaller, more intricately patterned in light and shadow, more irregularly shaped than its background, this patch of clear pond carried all the visual signals by which one typically distinguishes figure from ground, object from context. Trying to discern what sort of thing this anomalous object actually was — during those two or three seconds of confusion I had engaged in an act of conscious attention and categorization and inference, whereby I repeatedly compared the features and the whole of what I was seeing with abstracted representations compiled in my memory from other specific objects I’d previously encountered and for which I had names. But the initial perception of this shape as a 3D object backgrounded against the 2D surface of the pond: that was nearly instantaneous, preconscious. But it wasn’t a direct perception. What hit my retinas as I looked at the pond was a 2D array of light in varying colors and luminances. Nearly instantaneously and unconsciously, I had transformed this luminance array into a perceptual representation of the 3D landscape I was looking at, assembled not only from the immediate sensory input extracted from the world but also from memory-driven unconscious inferences for making sense of the sensory input. It’s how perception works all the time.
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In his clear and thorough and excellent post about concepts, Pete Wolfendale describes, via Kant and Brandom, the iterative process by which people revise their judgments about the world based on experience of the world. “This is,” says Pete, “the theoretical role of reason in constituting a unified account of nature.” Pete endorses what he calls “thick practices” of discerning reality:
“The causal features of the objects themselves act as constraints upon the development of our dispositions to respond to them in perception and action, and via them upon our dispositions to reason about them.”
Our “dispositions to respond” iteratively and inferentially to the world need not be stated explicitly, in the form of rules for understanding the world and for sorting its objects into categories. Usually the norms are implicit, to be inferred from patterns of practice in engaging the world. Making norms explicit, in the form of statements communicated via language, is essential if humans are going to help one other recognize errors in their idiosyncratic subjective understandings of the world, and if they are going to learn new truths about the world discovered by others. But it’s also the case that an individual in isolation can correct an erroneous understanding of the world through activating the iterative practice of comparing features of the world with dispositions for interpreting those features.
While it’s possible to describe the iterative processes underlying perception propositionally, there is no reason to assert that the practice is intrinsically linguistic. Cognitive processes can operate without ever coming into conscious awareness. Conscious thinking is a relatively slow process, requiring focused attention on a relatively small number of features extracted from the world or from memory. In perceiving one’s immediate environment it’s more efficient, and more thorough, to rely on distributed, unconscious cognitive operations for iterating between sensory input and representations of prior perceptual arrays stored in memory. Perceptual inference need not rely on implicit reason or propositional logic, as evidenced for example by the observation that many other mammalian species improve through experience their abilities to navigate environments, not just by following a few well-defined trails but by staking out new paths and shortcuts they’ve never taken before.
The contention that inferential processes for understanding the world need not be conscious or even rational does not obviate Pete’s ideas about the importance of concepts and propositions in achieving a better understanding of what the world is really like. Though human reasoning and language are qualitatively different from and arguably better than the cognitive capacities of other animals, these abilities didn’t just come out of nowhere. The ability iteratively to compare concepts with the objects they represent evolved incrementally from similar comparative practices that don’t rely on concepts. And, like other mammalian species, we still deploy these non-conceptual iterative practices whenever we are actively perceiving the world we live in.