“Seeing Reasons” Jennifer Church

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Volume 80, Number 3 (May 2010), pages 638-670.

I can see the broken window, but can I also see why the window is broken?  In this ambitious and interesting paper, Church argues for an affirmative answer to this question.  Just as we can have perceptual knowledge of a state of affairs, so too can we have perceptual knowledge of the reason for that state of affairs.  Her defense of this claim proceeds in roughly two stages.  First, she develops an account of perceptual knowledge, i.e., an account of what makes a given piece of knowledge perceptual rather than non-perceptual.  Second, she shows how this account of perception can be extended to the case of reasons.

The first stage of her argument depends on three key claims:

(1) Perceptual knowledge can be distinguished from non-perceptual knowledge in terms of justificatory immediacy: “perceptual knowledge is immediate knowledge in the sense that it does not depend on any other knowledge for its justification.” (640) 

But unless we develop an explanatory account of perceptual immediacy, Church worries that this claim may be construed in a deflationary way.  She thus argues that:

(2) Perception requires the experience of objectivity: “An experience is a perceptual experience precisely when the independent reality of its object is evident from within that experience.”  (644)

This in turn requires her to explain how we can achieve this experience of objectivity (what I will call experiential objectivity).  How can we experience a state of affairs as existing independently of our experience of it?  Her answer, which draws on an intriguing claim by P.F. Strawson that one’s perception of an object is “infused with … other past or possible perceptions of the same object,” is to invoke imagination:

(3)  Our experience of something as objective depends on our imagining alternative perspectives of it.  Via the imagination, we can occupy perspectives and modalities different from the ones we are presently occupying, and it is these imaginings that serve to ground experiential objectivity.

It is important to recognize what a strong claim (3) is.  Church is not merely invoking our capacity to imagine alternative perspectives in an effort to explain experiential objectivity; rather, she explicitly claims  that “we actively imagine alternative perspectives whenever we experience something as an objective state of affairs.”  (649)  Her argument is largely a transcendental one:  “it is only by imagining alternative perspectives and imagining no-actual possibilities that we could perceive states of affairs, because only then could the objectivity of what is seen be evident from within perception.” (659)  The transcendental considerations, however, are supplemented by empirical ones, for she also suggests that we have good reason to believe that we engage in such imaginings based on the phenomenology of perception.  As she notes, we are not typically aware of such imaginings (one might ask: are we ever aware of them?), but introspective exercises suggest that “we can transform our ordinary experiences of objects into experiences of patches of light and color … by ceasing to imagine alternative perspectives.” (658)  Here, though I am sympathetic to her claim, I would have liked to have heard a bit more.  She rightly notes, in my view, that there is a phenomenological (and not merely cognitive) difference between seeing something as two-dimensional and seeing it as three-dimensional (649), but more could be said to show that active imagining is involved in the explanation of this phenomenological difference.

In the second stage of her argument, Church applies the account of perception that she has developed to the case of perceiving reasons.  She first focuses on explanatory reasons.  When we see why the window is broken in addition to seeing that the window is broken, we must see what explains the broken window, and we must also see it as explaining the broken window.  Explanations might be causal, constitutive, or some combination of the two.  With respect to causal explanations, Church discusses three different analyses of causality: (1) Regularity; (2) Energy transference; (3) Counterfactual, but she focuses largely on the third of these.  How could we perceive causes if to do that we have to perceive counterfactual possibilities?  To see that C caused E—that E would not have occurred if C had not occurred—would seem absurdly to require that we see the non-actual case in which C fails to occur.  The problem is easily solved, however, on Church’s analysis of perception in terms of active imagining: “the non-actual alternatives are alternatives that, when actively imagined, can inform and infuse our current experience in such a way as to make causality perceivable.” (656)

Turning to constitutive explanations, Church offers a similar story.  We explain the shape of an object in terms of its atomic structure, which in turn involves constitutive dependencies: the object would not have the shape that it does if its constituent parts were differently arranged.  What enables us to see these constitutive dependencies is our active imaginings of various alternatives.  As Church notes, not all of these constitutive dependencies are easily seen, and this can be explained by the fact that they cannot be easily imagined.  For example, when we see why a particular diamond is hard, it is not enough merely to have various beliefs about atomic alignments and so on, nor can we simply imagine geometrical structures.  Rather, “our view of the diamond must be informed and infused with our imaginings of various changes in atomic structure and their various effects.” (660)

After extending her account of perceiving explanatory reasons to the case of perceiving justificatory reasons, Church turns in the final section of her paper to a discussion of three advantages of seeing reasons, as opposed to gaining knowledge of them some other (indirect or reflective) way.  First, if our knowledge of reasons is perceptual, and hence immediate, it relies much less heavily on memory than inferential knowledge does, and this gives it greater security.  Second, via perception we are well placed to generate further knowledge from the knowledge that we already have.  Perception makes certain facts evident in a way that facilitates new discoveries.  Finally, we are typically more motivated by beliefs gained through perception compared to beliefs gained through inferential reasoning.  The importance of this fact becomes clear when we consider both moral contexts and other contexts where quick action is advantageous.  As Church notes, “Insofar as increased responsiveness to the world and to others is desirable, then seeing reasons will be preferable to understanding that remains non-perceptual.” (667)

Reviewed by Amy Kind

Claremont McKenna College

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