Rationalism about Experience

My main interest is in the way reflecting on rationalism, especially in its 18th century German versions, allows us to think about perceptual experience.

Why perceptual experience? Apart from raising independently interesting questions about sensory awareness, for me the central motivation is constituted by the way perception lies at the intersection of profound questions of mind and rationality. Perception is not merely a phenomenally conscious state, it is also a core source of knowledge. Focusing specifically on perceptual knowledge displays the way perception raises fundamental questions about the human mind. Knowledge is a distinctly rational achievement, but experience is a distinctly sensory state. How do these two features of the human mind, rationality and sensation, fit the same picture? In this way, thinking about perception does not merely isolate one aspect of the mind: perception in some sense captures an important duality of human mentality generally. Addressing this duality carries philosophical premise beyond the character of sensory awareness strictly.

Why rationalism? Here the promise is to place in contrastive light a broadly shared (and apparently natural) empiricist consensus about questions of perceptual experience. If  experience, qua modification of sensory awareness, is a source of knowledge, it can seem natural enough to assume that perception’s epistemic power consists fundamentally in its sensuous aspect. (For example, recent phenomenal intentionalists and dogmatists explicitly take this approach). But rationalism offers a compelling alternative. For the rationalist, it is the inclusion of sensory awareness in a distinctly rational type of self-awareness (characterized by the subject’s use of “I”) that is central to its epistemic power. To paraphrase the Leibnizian dictum shaping so much subsequent German rationalism (most notably Kant’s focus on the “unity of apperception), perception is

The passing state that enfolds and represents a multitude in unity, or in the simple substance [of the “I”]. (G VI 608).

That is, understanding perception fundamentally requires referencing a “unity” proper to the thinking self— it is only against this background that perception’s sensory character can be understood as knowledge-providing. (Compare again the Kantian subordination of Sensibility to the “synthesis” provided by the Understanding.) In sum, rationalism promises an interesting reversal of the explanatory priority of rationality and sensuousness in thinking about the nature of perceptual experience.

(This, of course, is a description of my research interests, not an abstract of my dissertation. For the latter, see here.)

Further Research

The above approach to perception is developed in the dissertation that I defended in the Fall of 2017.  Since then, I have been in the process of working on several follow-on projects. Here are brief descriptions of three of these projects.

A) Rationalism about Perceptual Phenomenology

My dissertation explores the claim that conscious perceptual experience is a modification of a type of self-awareness. If true, one would expect this claim to carry significant implications for the phenomenology of perceptual experience. In my dissertation I devote a last chapter to one way in which self-consciousness shows up phenomenally, viz. as a form of unity in experience. But this topic clearly requires more comprehensive treatment. Specifically, the more general question is whether phenomenal character as such is constitutively associated with a type of self-awareness. On this view, the fact that for human subjects experience has a qualitative character—the fact that there is something it is like to undergo experience—fits a more comprehensive theory of human consciousness as a type of self-awareness. In turn, this would carry interesting theoretical implications for the explanatory profile of phenomenal consciousness, including perceptual phenomenology.

B) Leibnizian passivity and Kantian Sensibility

Kant makes a pivotal distinction between our faculty of thought, the understanding, and our faculty for sense affection, sensibility. My dissertation places Kant’s taxonomy of mental faculties in the context of Leibniz’s substance metaphysics, which turns fundamentally on opposing active and passive aspects of the mind. In particular, my dissertation discusses that while Leibniz’s development is towards an exclusively active faculty psychology (with passivity explained in terms of imperfection), much of Kant’s development of the faculty of sensibility can be understood as a repudiation of this aspect of Leibniz’s later thought. In this light, there is interest in conducting a more systematic investigation of Kant’s faculty-psychology against the background of its Leibnizian roots. This would require a study of Kant’s pre-critical, relatively unexplored works, including the Physical Monadology and the New Eleucidations, which are explicitly neo-Leibnizian works. The result would be a more thorough understanding of Kant’s Critical Philosophy as the product of an engagement with Leibnizian rationalism.

C) Thought and Self-awareness

The classic rationalist thought that plays a central role in my dissertation asserts a connection between the nature of thought and a type of self-awareness. A subject thinking thought T is constitutively associated with a subject’s awareness of T. My dissertation primarily emphasizes downstream consequences of this claim, specifically for the character of experiential consciousness. But the claim itself would benefit from more systematic consideration. In its Kantian guise, the claim is that the unity of self-awareness is constitutively associated with the unity of thought (or what Kant discusses under the heading of acts of the capacity to judge). In my dissertation, I briefly provide an interpretation of this idea in terms of propositional unity. But significant questions remain. If thought and self-awareness are constitutively associated, in what sense can they be considered as distinct acts (or distinct aspects of an act)? Still more puzzlingly, how could there be a type of awareness of T if the existence of T does not logically precede this awareness? The key notion to explore in this light the Kantian idea of a form of non-receptive (or in Kantian terms, “pure”) self-knowledge, Understanding such knowledge carries the promise of upsetting some widely shared tenets of contemporary epistemology, including, for example, the common idea that knowledge is fundamentally a matter of reliable detection.