It’s all interpretation? (Part 1)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, January 6, 2011)

It’s all interpretation? (Part 1)

Some contemporary thinkers hold the view that human experience of the world is wholly and inescapably interpretive. In the case of visual perception, all seeing is, according to this view, seeing as. The idea behind “seeing as” is that all seeing is filtered by the background assumptions (perspectives, histories, languages, concepts) that we bring to our investigations. It is alleged that even our experience of an everyday object is completely a matter of interpretation, and such interpretation varies from person to person. On this view, we cannot truly know the actual world via direct acquaintance; rather, it’s interpretation all the way down.

Should we agree? I (and many other philosophers) think not.

Here is the first of two arguments for thinking that the interpretation-all-the-way-down view should be rejected.

Although it’s true that background assumptions play an important role when we interpret the world, it very much seems not true that all seeing is “seeing as.”

Significantly, as philosopher J. P. Moreland points out, “Philosophers distinguish three different kinds of seeing.” (This quote and subsequent quotes are from Moreland’s excellent book, Love Your God With All Your Mind [NavPress, 1997], pages 77 and 78.)

First, there is the case of simple seeing. To illustrate simple seeing, Moreland considers an ordinary case of seeing a dog, that is, a case of “having the dog directly present to you in your visual field.” Moreland writes: “You don’t need to have a concept of what a dog is to see one. For example, a little child could see a dog without having a concept of what a dog is supposed to be. In fact, you don’t even need to be thinking about a dog to see it.”

In simple seeing, then, an object is visually perceived but is not classified in terms of one’s conceptual scheme. This is a pre-conceptual perception/awareness: visual sensations constitute the means whereby the mind directly sees the object itself.

Second, Moreland describes the act of seeing as as simple seeing coupled with “classifying the object of sight as an example of a mental concept.” According to Moreland, “When I see a dog as a dog, I must have some concept of what it is to be a dog and apply this concept to the object I am seeing. I could not see a dog as a dog the first time I saw one since I wouldn’t have the relevant concept yet. Likewise, to see a dog as my neighbor’s favorite pet, I need the concepts of a neighbor, a pet, and being a favorite.”

Third, Moreland describes the act of seeing that. Here one judges that the conceptual classification (the seeing as) of the object perceived (via simple seeing) is correct. According to Moreland, “If I see that the dog is my neighbor’s favorite pet, I judge that this belief is true of the object I am seeing.”

Clearly, seeing that presupposes seeing as, and seeing as is dependent upon the observer’s conceptual scheme. (A conceptual scheme, then, is a set of concepts used for the classification of what is simply seen.) Moreover, and significantly, simple seeing is not dependent upon the observer’s conceptual scheme.

Significantly too, simple seeing lets us grow and refine our conceptual scheme as we explore and further come to know the actual objects of the world in such a way that we can see that our concepts appropriately (i.e., truly) apprehend those objects.

In other words, we can know the world/reality to some extent via simple seeing (which is a form of knowledge by direct acquaintance), and then we interpret.

Because simple seeing seems obviously true and philosophically basic (and because it lurks at the foundations of a common-sense critical realist understanding of perception, which very much seems to be the way to go in our everyday and scientific investigations of the world), the reality and truthfulness of simple seeing provides good philosophical grounds for thinking that the interpretation-all-the-way-down view—the view that all seeing is “seeing as”—is false.

Why do I think that the above defence of simple seeing is so important?

First, I think truth is important.

Also, it seems to me that with simple seeing we can ground interpretations of what is true of the world in the actual world.

Moreover, it seems to me that God has revealed truth in the actual world via simply seen objects that can be interpreted as clues or signs which communicate knowledge of Him—and such clues or signs include, for starters, written reports arising from eye witnesses to Jesus’ resurrected body.

Next time I will present another argument (a reductio ad absurdum argument) for thinking that the interpretation-all-the-way-down view is false.

P.S. For more information about the muscular dog in the photo, click here.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, CanadaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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