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A Philosophical Foray: Sense-Data

March 12, 2013

One of the most ingrained notions in modern philosophy is one bequeathed to us by the empiricist philosophers. They developed a concept of sense experience and handed it down to us. This crystallized into the notion of sense-data. Sense-data are supposed to be the qualitative experiences we observe here and now, out of which we build an empirical picture of the world, from basic empirical data.

Humes theory of sense impressions





They became a necessary defence for the empiricists against their rationalist opponents. If there wasn’t basic empirical data we could observe, then there was wiggle room for a rationalist to place some conceptual framework around the data as equally fundamental to the knowledge we build up of the world.

Much important 20th century philosophy is devoted to the explosion of this, what came to be called, the myth of the sense datum. Wittgenstein’s arguments against the possibility of a private language; Quine’s attack on the dogmas of empiricism and his argument for the indeterminacy of translation in Word and Object. Sellars criticism of the myth of the given. Merleau-Ponty’s argument for the primacy of perception: the active acquisition of data about the world, rather than the passive receiving of data.

So understanding this, I think, is crucial to any contemporary philosopher who wants to be on the cusp of things. Because it is such an ingrained view, and very difficult to part with. Akin to the struggle trying to understand the theory of relativity when you have long been educated in Newtonian Mechanics.

The way I came to see it was that two basic mistakes were made with the postulation of sense-data. It comes down to two misunderstandings about the concept of naming. Take a red sense-datum, a patch of red color in your vision. Such would normally count as a classic example of a piece of sense-data. Now ask yourself in what lies the redness of this red patch in your vision? You will find it is not any quality in the red, but only the fact that you distinguish this indeterminate patch in your vision from something around it that is not red. This tells us the first thing about naming we want to know. That a name doesn’t describe the qualities of our experience, it distinguishes things in our experience. This was the first conceptual error of the empiricists. To think that a name for something could somehow also describe the qualities of that something in itself. When in reality a name only helps describe the qualities of something relative to something it doesn’t name. For if all our vision was red, we would be blind, not seeing redness, but seeing nothing.

The second thing about naming is that it is predictive, not merely descriptive. A name for something isn’t placed solely in the here and now. A name also predicts some stability over time of the thing named.

So these two factors about naming are how I have come to view it impossible for their to be sense-data. Here is how I put it in something I wrote a few years ago:

To use names already entails a structure to our discourse, in that names can only be applied to stable objects. Yet such an application means that a name, whenever we use it, is predictive and preemptive of the stability of the thing it names over a certain substantial time. Therefore names can never label ‘present’ experiences, because their very use reaches beyond the present moment. Hence the descriptive reduction, whether it be an ontological reality or not, it is certainly epistemologically inaccessible to us, because our conceptual tools are insufficient to perform the reduction. That is, even when we merely try to name our present experience, we inevitably reach beyond the present moment due to the way in which names must relate to the things they name in order to count as names. So the present moment, here and now, is epistemologically inaccessible. This is why we cannot build up our epistemological knowledge from it, and why it inevitably leads to skepticism. So when we think we know our present experience, if nothing else, this is incorrect. This is the one thing we can definitively never know. Since the tools with which we know things, i.e. the names which we label things with, in order to refer to them, and to locate and observe them, are not fine enough to dissect an indivisible moment, but this shouldn’t really come as a surprise…

The result of all this is to free us from seeing ourselves as trapped in the present moment, at a point in time here and now, passively receiving sense impressions from the things around us. We actively reach out into the world around us. Even when we name things, we are performing an act that goes out beyond the present moment. We are imposing a structure on our world to bring it into order. For this is what we humans do, we create order in our world, we don’t just passively receive order already inherent in the world, as the strict empiricist would have it.

This discovery, in many forms and ways in the 20th century in philosophy is a liberating experience to share in. It shows us how our concepts can empower us, but also shows us the dangers of how certain concepts can imprison us in a limited world view. It is why we need to keep thinking things through for ourselves and not take things for granted, and philosophy provides a valuable service in this respect.

  1. Absoluter netter Artikel. Werde jetzt öfter reinschauen Vielen Dank und Grüsse aus Bonn

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