Colloquium - Becko Copenhaver - Lewis & Clark College
Title: Berkeley on Perceptual Development and Perceptual Learning
According to Berkeley the immediate objects of sense are sensible qualities: colors,
sounds, shapes, flavors, odors. When the primary objects of one sense (vision) suggest
the primary objects of another (touch) we the perceive the latter mediately. But what
does mediate perception do for us? It appears superfluous; it makes available sensible
qualities already supplied by immediate perception. I argue that on Berkeley’s view,
mediate perception makes possible experience of sensible things. We perceive
sensible things because we perceive by suggestion.
We perceive cats, cups, and cars because sensible qualities are the vocabulary in a
grammar of nature that makes the world legible for beings like us. The suggestion
relations that constitute this grammar unify our experience, guaranteeing that we never
experience mere color, or mere texture, or mere odor. Moreover, our perceptual
abilities are developmental: typical humans acquire greater perceptual sensitivity to a
greater range of features through interactions with the environment.
Philosophers will be tempted to assimilate these developmental changes to differences
in judgment or belief, in which case they are not genuinely perceptual, or they will think
of them in terms of cognitive permeation (also known as cognitive penetration), where
judgment or belief affects the contents of perception. I argue that the developmental
changes described by Berkeley are best seen as perceptual learning, described by E.J.
Gibson and others (Goldstone, Connolly): they are long-lasting changes in perception
that result from practice or experience in and as a response to an organism’s
environment. I conclude with some brief thoughts about whether we should read
Berkeley as an anti-realist idealist (as does Chalmers) or a realist idealist (the
interpretation I favor).