Indirect Realism In John Locke: A Critical Assessment Of The Representationalist Theory Of Perception.

Project and Seminar Material for Psychology

Project and Seminar Material for Psychology


Chapter One


1.0 Introduction

The aim of this chapter will include; an attempt to establish the nature of the controversy between direct and indirect realism right from the period of John Locke who had established the foundations for the debate. The rationalists had come to lay a foundation of our knowledge on supposedly certain and indubitable foundations in reasoning, Locke too, in his empiricism began to occupy a position referred to as ‘indirect realism’ due to his argument that objects of experience cannot be directly perceived. But before then, an attempt shall be made to account for the nature of the argument of the realists as against the position of the anti-realists’ divide in epistemology. Going back to the period of the British empiricists with our main point of focus on Locke, and Berkeley. Having mentioned earlier that there is a divide between direct and indirect realists, the difference boiling largely out of how one perceives what one perceives, it will be considerate to account therefore for the nature of the debate between the both of them and the attempts of the direct realists to escape the two arguments (arguments from illusion and hallucination) rendered against it by the indirect realists.


1.1 Contemporary Realist Arguments

The problem of perception is one that has been in the mind of several philosophies ever since the period before Socrates, where we see philosophers like Democritus and Leucippus who claimed that physical objects are really composed of tiny indivisible particles referred to as atoms. The problem which is popularly referred to as ‘the problem of perception’ has been given a new formulation. Epistemologists concerned with the problem of perception seek to enquire how we come to perceive the contents of the external world. Before going any further, I shall try to define what perception itself entails.

Perception is the process by which we, through any of our five senses- eyes, ears, tongue, nose and skin, gain knowledge of the external world. It is due to this kind of definition that one is bound to think that it is something pertaining to empiricism alone. It is indeed a valid assertion, since it seems to lay emphasis upon the senses and the kind of connection they have with the world in the bid to acquire knowledge. We should note that in the light of the above definition, there is a distinction between what exists in the world, and what we perceive as existing. According to this conception, there are several theories. These theories of perception try to answer the question of what and how we can know through sense experience and they include: realism and anti-realism.


1.2 Realism vs. Anti-Realism

The argument of the realists is entailed in their conception that objects of the world exist independent of the mind. For the realists, every physical thing we perceive would exist even if we were not around to perceive them, it could therefore be said that for the realists, perception is mind-independent. That is there does not have to be a mind before the existence of a physical object could be ascertained. This implies that the relation between perceiver and the perceived is not of a dependent form. For the anti-realists however, perception is mind-dependent. This means that everything that exists only exists because there is a mind perceiving them. It may look like they are saying that perception is a temporal thing because the implication will be that what is not being at the moment perceived by some mind cannot be claimed to exist until otherwise perceived.

We should note that the above outline of the divide between realists and anti-realists is that of an old tradition as we shall come to see in the work of John Locke. It is not the case that their doctrines have changed, but we shall attempt to account for possible modifications in the various positions. Our next contention thus, shall be to try to articulate the positions of contemporary realists in the problem of perception.

As already outlined above, realism is that epistemological position in the problem of perception that holds that what we perceive in the external world is independent of our perceptive faculties. For the realists, perception is mind independent so that the external world is a permanent fixate that our senses only come to apprehend whenever we attempt to perceive.Realists claim that physical objects exist as things that are independent of our minds and of our perceptions of them. A realistbelieves that there is a world (the “material” world) that exists independently of whether or not any conscious mind experiences it. A realist believes that if all the minds (mental beings) stopped existing tomorrow, there would still be a world out there, just one that no one was conscious of.

An example of a realist is John Locke, whose philosophy of perception helped define the lines of indirect realism today. Another is David Hume who is credited with the saying below:

…this very table, which we see white, and which we feel hard, is believed to exist, independent of our perception, and to be something external to our minds, which perceives it.


1.3 Direct Vs. Indirect Realism

Our main aim in this section is to discuss contemporary views on realism, but this will not be possible if the several views are not themselves divided into two other schools, the direct/naïve realists, and the indirect/sophisticated realists.

As much as realism is the school that holds that whatever it is we perceive, its existence is not dependent on the mind, the position of the direct/naïve realists is that objects of perception are directly apprehended, that we have a direct access to the physical objects of the external world. Direct realists claim that we perceive the physical objects themselves. When we perceive the world, it certainly appears to us as it is exactly we directly perceive physical objects that exist independently of our minds. Direct realism claims that the immediate object of perception is the physical object itself. We don’t perceive it in virtue of perceiving something else that ‘mediates’ between our minds and the physical object.

The indirect realists however are also referred to as representative realists. An example of an indirect realist will be John Locke who claims that what we perceive are not the objects but an idea of the object in the world and since an idea is not a physical but a mental thing then it means that what we perceive according to indirect realism is just an intermediary between object and perceiver. This means that they advocate for an intermediary between objects of perception and the perceiver.

The contemporary argument of the representative realists is informed in their critic of the arguments against the direct realists. This is using the arguments from illusion and the argument from hallucination. We shall talk better on this later in this chapter. Bertrand Russell is an example of an indirect realist, another example is G.E Moore.


1.4 The Empiricism of John Locke

With the aim of the continental rationalists being built on the idea of innate ideas, which says that every mind is born with ideas, for them whatever it is we claim to know must have been built upon the certain ideas that was in our minds at birth. This seemed to make sense, since their aim was (Descartes for example) to establish a certain foundation from which all knowledge would emerge, and they thought that the mind would be that certain foundation in contrast to experience, thus the doctrine of innatism.

So, in being an empiricist, the aim of John Locke was to unsettle the previous philosophy before him, rationalism and their doctrine of innatism, Descartes wanted to provide a solid, indubitable foundation for knowledge, however Locke viewed rationalism as resting upon unquestioned assumptions, like the assumption that the mind is born with ideas at birth, and the further assumption that clarity of concepts can give accurate knowledge of reality.

It seemed to him, like he’d successfully showed the inadequacy of the rationalist foundations, so Locke proceeded to assert that the mind was born at birth blank, empty, this is where his concept of tabula rasa originates. Unlike the innatists, whatever it is we eventually come to know is not a function of the mind, but that of experience, from the senses. This eventually exposed the modest and humble beginnings of Locke’s epistemology. This is because unlike Descartes who wanted a deductively certain foundation, Locke agreed that the senses are not certain source of knowledge (as we shall come to see). This eventually rendered him a modest empiricist.

Since Locke had asserted that unlike Descartes, the foundation of his own empiricism is not built on the concept of a blank slate, then it seemed empirical for him to proceed how it is that our sense from the outside world help to imprint ideas in the mind.

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: —How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

So, for Locke, experience is the source from which all of our knowledge arises and not the mind. He described the processes according to which the sense derived ideas from the external world as the process of sensation. In sensation the senses gets ideas from the physical objects out there, and through reflection the mind is able to impose its characteristic functions of composition and abstraction on the idea gotten from the external world.

…by reflection then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean, that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding.

This is the origin of simple and complex ideas in Lockean epistemology; the eyes for instance perceive a simple object of sensation like a man and a horse. But the mind, being able to compose and sometimes abstract the simple ideas gotten from sight is able to form a further idea of a centaur which although has no existence in reality. This process of compounding ideas together is referred to as ‘reflection’, the combination of both processes is what gives us the knowledge that we end up claiming to have, for one without the other is not sufficient considering that even Locke claimed that in sensation, the mind is passive, but in reflection, active.

1.4.1 Lockean Indirect Realism

In perceiving the objects of the external world, Locke claims that what we actually perceive is not the object itself, rather we only perceive qualities. This will imply that those qualities must in some way or the other possess a sense of reality, a reality they owe to being a part of a material object. This may seem like what follows, but in our distinction between the types of qualities there are, we shall come to see the idea take some concrete shape. He defines qualities as ‘the ability of an object to cause ideas in our mind’. This is to take care of the Cartesian question of whether or not the mind has an accurate representation of the contents of the external world. It is in his distinction and explanation of the types of qualities that we have as we shall come to see that the position of Locke as an indirect realist is explicitly seen.

Since it is the case that we do not always have an accurate representation of the objects out there, and since Locke had established that what we perceive are not the objects themselves but only an idea of them, then it seemed normal for him to posit that in the object themselves are some qualities, these he called primary and the other are outside of the object, this he called secondary qualities. Primary qualities are the qualities that are inherent in the objects of perception, they are ‘primary’ to the objects and once they are abstracted from the object, then it can never remain the same. They are objective, universal and include: solidity, extension, figure, mobility, bulk, weight, texture – “…are utterly inseparable from body…” The secondary qualities however, are not of the same nature, they do not reside in the object of perception and are not ‘primary’ to it. They are only conceived in the minds of the perceiver, they are subjective and are the representations that the mind perceives in objects. They include color, taste, smell, sound, [felt] temperature and are caused in us by primary qualities. They are why we can claim to have perceptual errors since they are not identical to the object, but are only comprehended by each perceiver. Unlike the primary qualities therefore, they are not universal. They are the reasons Locke is considered an indirect realist today. While the ideas that primary qualities produce in us resemblethose qualities in the objects that caused us to have those ideas, the ideas that secondary qualities produce in us do not resemblethose qualities in the objects that caused us to have those ideas.

Whatever realities we may by mistake ascribe to them, colors, smell sound and taste (secondary qualities) are nothing but qualities produced in us by the primary or real qualities of objects – sensation, which in no way resembles the qualities which exists in the object

This explains how it is that there is a distinction between both primary and secondary qualities as well as the process of perception and the object of perception. If Locke will go by saying that primary qualities are the real qualities of objects in being resident in the object itself, then we perceive much more than these qualities for existence cannot be denied of the secondary qualities either, this renders us with evidence for no other conclusion than that since they differ, they must report separate realities, thus we do not have direct access to the objects of perception. This is how it is that Locke ends up being an indirect realist.

The consequence of this is that the world does not appear to us the way it really is, since secondary qualities are really distinct from the primary qualities which are seen to be in the object itself, and unlike the primary qualities, our ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble the object itself, thus they are only really appearances and are distinct from the object. The modern version of this notion is entailed in the indirect realist’s idea of sense data for which Locke is rightly credited for having established foundations for.


1.5 Representationalist Theory of Perception

Having asserted the intricacies of Lockean indirect realism and how it led us to the conclusion of his being a representationalist in his claim that , we shall now examine the idea behind the representationalist theory itself and what it entails in length. The grounds for the reprsentationalist theory of perception could be found in the arguments that the indirect realists raised against the direct or naïve realists. I however shall desist from rendering an explanation to it in the current section for the next section will be committed to it.

Representationalists say that we perceive ‘indirectly’; what we perceive ‘directly’ is a ‘representation’, a mental image, that exists in our minds but which represents the physical object. The physical object is perceived ‘via’ this representation. The representation is an ‘appearance’; philosophers have called it a ‘sense-datum’. So for the representationalist, they argue that though we do perceive the world, there is a difference between how the world looks like, and how we perceive it. What occurs to our consciousness is different from what ought to occur for it is a mere representation of reality. This might sound like a contradiction, but it is the argument of the indirect realists.

Several philosophers have likened the representationalist distinction between what exists and what we perceive as being similar to that in which Aristotle made between appearance (what appears to exist) and reality (what exists). Since in the representationalist vocabulary, the physical objects differ from the sense datum, perception is therefore incomplete until there is sense-datum. We shall attempt outlining some of the features or characteristics of the sense-datum.

‘Sense data’ was originated by Bertrand Russell, but was first put into use by G.E Moore, they are seen to be the direct objects of perception in the indirect realist’s vocabulary. Sense datum is that which is given directly in perception by the senses, sometimes referred to as the data of immediate awareness. Some would refer to it as the immediate mental effect of brain or neural activities resulting from stimulation of sense organs by the external object. One should however not mistake them for the cause of perception, so that sense data theory does not become a causal theory. It should not be taken as causal especially since we can have instances perceptual relativity, illusion and hallucination which suggests that even if it will be causal; it ought to be an adequate cause.We shall now proceed to outline the features of sense datum.

Sense-data are ‘private’, they are subjective in character. They are the particular data from the senses in a particular consciousness. By contrast, physical objects are ‘public’. One and the same table can be experienced by different people.
Sense-data only exist while they are being experienced. An experience must be
experienced by someone to exist at all. A physical object, such as a table, can exist when no one experiences it. Thus they are temporal.

Sense-data are exactly as they seem. As we said above, they are ‘appearances’. There is no further reality to an appearance than how it appears. Physical objects can appear differently from how they really are (e.g. the stick in water). They have a reality which is not defined by appearance.
It seems however, that the indirect realists, in Humean terms were ‘multiplying entities unnecessarily’ as it does seem like we would have to create a new world for these set of entities called ‘sense data’ since it has been shown that they do not reside in the object, neither do they reside in the perceiver. So the indirect realist faces the problem of being able to account for a comprehensive nature for these new set of entities without contradiction.


1.6 Direct Realism vs. Indirect Realism Theory of Perception

The distinction between the tenets of direct realism and the indirect has so far been clearly defined. We shall make an attempt to account for the argument of the indirect realists, this shall be included in the aim of the present section, besides trying to assert an enquiry into the nature of the divide.

While the argument of the direct realist hinges on the notion of our ability to directly and immediately perceive the objects of perception, the arguments of the indirect realists has been an attempt to render direct realism which of course holds contrary views to them incoherent and thus unacceptable as an adequate theory of perception. The indirect realist uses mainly two ‘severe’ critiques against direct realism, which establishes their own positions as indirect realists. These arguments include: the argument from illusion and the argument from hallucination.

1.6.1 The Argument from Illusion

In illusions, we perceive objects, but not as they really are. The most common examples of this kind of a perceptual error is the example of the bent stick in water which under normal conditions would not be bent. This kind of argument would seem to undermine direct realism, as it would then require an extra explanation for this kind of perceptual error.

Indirect Realist’s Argument: The indirect realist however is able to conveniently accommodate the notion of a perceptual error given the concept of ‘sense data’. The argument is that since all we can really perceive are sense-datum, then whatever we seem to perceive is not the object but a sense-datum of it, thus it is not the stick that is bent in water, but only our sense data of it makes it appear so.

The direct realist would however in an attempt to disprove the indirect realist claim that the argument from illusion might unsettle his own tenets, but it is not sufficient to establish the grounds for indirect realism. If sense data attempt to represent the world to us, and if they are the only objects of perception, then we ought not to be able to have illusions, because illusions are cases of what is not appearing as it is, but since sense data is all we perceive, then how do we know for sure that it renders an inaccurate representation of the world beyond it? In fact, since it is the nature of sense data to be variant and subjective, then how do we really claim to have uniform knowledge of the external world?

1.6.2 The Argument from Hallucination

If in cases of illusion, we ‘misperceive’, then in hallucinations, we see something, but nothing which exists, for instance a mirage.

Indirect Realist’s Argument: For the indirect realist thus, whenever we have instances of perceiving when there really is no external object behind the perception, then what we perceive cannot be the object since it does not even exist, but sense datum. Like the previous one, the direct realist seems pushed into a corner for the lack of an explanation to this obvious deficiency in his theory, so once again the indirect realist attempts to establish the foundations of his notions of sense data by claiming that what we perceive that does not exist is nothing but sense data for there really is no physical object behind it.

The direct realist would again attempt a reply, for them;as much as a version of the argument against the indirect realist in the argument from illusion can be rendered here as well, one is pushed to consider the idea behind an hallucination: instances of experiencing what does not in fact exist. But if sense data is a representation of the external object, and since it is possible to perceive sense data when in fact there is nothing is represents, then how could we ascribe adequate credentials of representation to it? Just as much as to claim not to have an accurate account of perception is to know what exists beyond what appears to us (the sense data).


1.7 Conclusion

We see how Locke is justifiably referred to as an indirect realist, due to his distinction between the different kinds of qualities. The contemporary arguments for indirect realism and how they introduced the concept of ‘sense data’ is also looked into. We also try to establish the boundaries between the arguments of the direct and the indirect realists with the nature of the controversy in mind and the possible counter arguments that a direct realist would attempt to use to rescue their argument.


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