Spatial Senses
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Spatial Senses

Philosophy of Perception in an Age of Science

Tony Cheng, Ophelia Deroy, Charles Spence, Tony Cheng, Ophelia Deroy, Charles Spence

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eBook - ePub

Spatial Senses

Philosophy of Perception in an Age of Science

Tony Cheng, Ophelia Deroy, Charles Spence, Tony Cheng, Ophelia Deroy, Charles Spence

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This collection of essays brings together research on sense modalities in general and spatial perception in particular in a systematic and interdisciplinary way. It updates a long-standing philosophical fascination with this topic by incorporating theoretical and empirical research from cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology. The book is divided thematically to cover a wide range of established and emerging issues. Part I covers notions of objectivity and subjectivity in spatial perception and thinking. Part II focuses on the canonical distal senses, such as vision and audition. Part III concerns the chemical senses, including olfaction and gustation. Part IV discusses bodily awareness, peripersonal space, and touch. Finally, the volume concludes with Part V on multimodality. Spatial Senses is an important contribution to the scholarly literature on the philosophy of perception that takes into account important advances in the sciences.

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Part I
Twenty-First-Century Oxford Kantianism, or

Transcendental Philosophy Naturalised?

1 Strawson and Evans on Objectivity and Space

Paul F. Snowdon
I aim, in this chapter, to examine, in a selective and inadequate way, the linked but contrasting views of Strawson and Evans about objectivity and space. The primary contribution of Strawson is contained in his highly original discussion of sounds and the sound world in Chapter 2 of his book Individuals, and the debate is carried on in the critical response of Gareth Evans to Strawson’s ideas.1 However, Strawson’s discussion in Chapter 2 cannot itself be understood without some understanding of the background in the first chapter of his book. So I need to start there. (Indeed, it is perhaps more illuminating to treat those first two chapters as a unity.)
At the end of the first chapter Strawson concludes that material bodies are basic to particular-identification in what he calls ‚Äúour conceptual scheme.‚ÄĚ Ignoring for a moment what that quite means the question that Strawson next pursues is whether there could be a conceptual scheme which involves reference to ‚Äúobjective and identifiable particulars‚ÄĚ but in which material bodies are not basic. As Strawson puts it, ‚ÄúCould there exist a conceptual scheme which was like ours in that it provides for a system of objective and identifiable particulars, but was unlike ours in that material bodies were not the basic particulars of the system‚ÄĚ (Strawson, 1959, p. 60)? Now, as I read it, Strawson‚Äôs answer to his own question is that there could be such a scheme, an example being the conceptual scheme that a subject could operate within the sound world that he describes.2 Since the example that Strawson constructs, the sound world, is one which is deemed to be non-spatial, in an important sense, he thinks that not only there can be a system of objective reference in which material bodies are not basic but also there can be objective reference in a system which is non-spatial. In a slogan‚ÄĒobjectivity does not require spatiality. Evans reads Strawson differently, regarding him as arguing for the idea that objectivity requires spatiality, but it is reasonable to interpret Strawson, so it seems to me, as supporting the opposite.3 What Strawson would say, I think, is that in so far as the sound world subject can make objective judgements there must be some element in its experience which functions for that subject in an analogous way that spatial experience functions for us. Strawson is not, however, prepared to allow that a subject in the sound world which he envisages could have a conception of him- or herself as opposed to other particulars. Such a creature could not have what Strawson calls a ‚Äúnon-solipsistic consciousness‚ÄĚ (Strawson, 1959, p. 84). His reflections on this at the end of the chapter provide the link with the third chapter on persons, where he explores, as it might be put, the conditions for having a non-solipsistic consciousness.

1. The Background to Strawson’s Discussion of the Sound World

To be in a position to understand Strawson’s discussion and to try to evaluate his arguments we need to explain some of the notions he is operating with and some of the claims he is advancing. In fact, analysing, to some extent, this earlier discussion is of great interest in itself, and not merely as something needed to get into Chapter 2.
The first notion is that of something being basic in a conceptual scheme. Strawson‚Äôs focus in the first chapter is on the different things we refer to when communicating with others. He calls such referential occurrences ‚Äúidentifying reference,‚ÄĚ the idea being that the speaker‚Äôs employment of a referential term aims to enable the audience to identify the item being talked about.4 Strawson also calls the items being referred to ‚Äúparticulars.‚ÄĚ Relative to this context Strawson introduces the idea of there being a basic class of particulars in the following words:
First, is there a class or category of particulars such that, as things are, it would not be possible to make all the identifying references which we do make to particulars of other classes, unless we made identifying references to particulars of that class, whereas it would be possible to make all the identifying references we do make to particulars of that class without making identifying reference to particulars of other classes?
(Strawson, 1959, pp. 38‚Äď39)
The condition in this question is the condition for being basic. I want to add one further detail which will facilitate our elucidation. Strawson‚Äôs proposal is that what he calls ‚Äúmaterial bodies‚ÄĚ are, in fact, basic in this sense. At this point I do not need to explain properly what ‚Äúmaterial bodies‚ÄĚ means, but having that answer available enables us to make two observations about Strawson‚Äôs notion of basicness.
First, let us assume, as Strawson evidently does, that sounds do not belong to the class of material bodies. It seems that we can refer to something which is (or counts as being) a material body via reference to a sound‚ÄĒfor example, ‚ÄúThe person making that grating sound.‚ÄĚ5 Now, on the face of it I could not make that reference to a material body without referring to a non-material body. Does this count against the idea that we can make all the identifying references we do to material bodies without making identifying reference to particulars of other classes? If we understand ‚Äúall the identifying references we do make‚ÄĚ to range over actual cases in speech then this seems to discredit material bodies as basic strictly speaking. Strawson might respond by proposing a weaker interpretation of ‚Äúall,‚ÄĚ so that it means rather identifying reference to the same object at the same time, even if the referring expression itself is different. But there is no guarantee, given the cognitive position of the speaker at the time of making the reference, that he or she has to have available a way of picking out the material body which does not rely on reference to the sound. Maybe all that the speaker remembers of, or can tell about, the person is that they made the grating sound. This problem makes it look rather unlikely that any category will be strictly speaking basic.
Second, there is another oddity in Strawson’s elucidation of basicness. Taking what he says strictly, a category of things to which we do refer is not basic if there is another set of things that we must refer to in order to refer to all of the items of the former sort we do refer to. But that is consistent with there being some references to items in that category which do not depend on there being reference to the supposedly more basic things. If so it would seem that a better way to put this would be that there are two categories of things that are basic, only within one general category some of the references to its members are dependent on reference to the other basic category. Implicit in this observation is a recipe for guaranteeing that there would be two basic categories in the stronger sense (if we ignore the first problem set out earlier). Let it be the case that the speaker speaks only about items in the non-material-body category that they can do without referring to a material body.6
Taken together these points suggest that Strawson’s definition of being basic requires too much and does not categorise things in a totally illuminating way.
Leaving these comments aside, the main question to be faced in the complex argument developed in Chapter 2 is, as we have seen, whether it has to be the case that material bodies are basic in any conceptual scheme enabling objective reference to particulars. Now, one thing to note about this question is that there are two ways the answer might be ‚Äúno.‚ÄĚ The first is if there is a conceptual scheme in which some other category of referent is basic but communication can occur. The second is if there need be no basic category for communication to proceed. However, in order to test this the most obvious case to consider initially would surely be that of a world, not in any way non-spatial but which does not contain any material bodies perceptible by speakers, who will not, therefore, refer directly to material bodies nor develop concepts of material bodies, and to ask whether in a such a world there can be communication with others about the particulars that there are in their shared environment. (Or perhaps what should be considered is a world in which there are far fewer material bodies than there are in the actual world, which might result in a downgrading of their role.) Of course, a second element for the discussion to focus on, which I shall take up shortly, is whether Strawson has so much as a prima facie plausible argument for thinking that material bodies are basic.
Before describing the framework that Strawson develops to consider his own question, and raising some issues about it, it is necessary to say, briefly, what Strawson means by ‚Äúmaterial bodies.‚ÄĚ When developing his argument for the basicness of ‚Äúmaterial bodies‚ÄĚ Strawson indicates that if the idea of material bodies as space occupiers required that they occupy space in the sense of being resistant to touch then his general argument for the basicness of material bodies would not go through. So he allows the term ‚Äúmaterial bodies‚ÄĚ to cover what he describes as ‚Äúpurely visual occupiers of space,‚ÄĚ as well as other more standard occupiers of space (Strawson, 1959, p. 40). Strawson‚Äôs idea is that his requirement for identification would be fulfilled if the space looked to be filled as it does, even if the ‚Äúobjects‚ÄĚ seen were not solid in a strong sense. The subsequent discussion of his argument should be read with this interpretation in mind.

2. The Framework for the Discussion of Necessity

Strawson himself, however, makes a number of significant modifications or restrictions within the framework of his discussion as he sets about determining an answer to his question. (We might say, I think, that having posed the question he actually replaces it with another one.)
Strawson‚Äôs first modification of the framework in Chapter 2 is that he no longer focusses on speech by a speaker to an audience, but focusses on what one might call referential thought by an individual. This change in focus is reasonable in that one would say that if something is a topic of reference in communication then it would be something the subject on his or her own would think about. For example, if in a certain situation I would say to an audience nearby, ‚ÄúThat snake is dangerous,‚ÄĚ then I myself would surely think to myself that it was dangerous. However, it is not completely obvious that a subject does not have the power to think in a non-dependent way about particulars that he or she can only talk about to another in a way dependent on reference to material bodies. So there may be an extension of the class of what is basic in the purely individual case, though not a restriction. One possible example to consider would be how one can think about one‚Äôs own pains, as compared with how one can talk to another about them. (I do not wish here to take up this issue).
The second major modification that Strawson makes is to limit the subject to the sound world. The sound world comes into the debate because Strawson’s view is that a subject whose perceptual experiences were restricted to sounds would not have spatial concepts, and hence not material body concepts. (I shall say some more about the sound world later.)
Now, if the interpretation so far is on the right lines it seems fair to suggest that there is indeed a genuine question about the case that Strawson chooses to test the possibility of what he calls an alternative conceptual scheme. The reason for suggesting this is that the particulars that Strawson has picked out as basic are material bodies‚ÄĒin, it has to be agreed, the somewhat extended sense of that expression that Strawson employs. Since material bodies are not the only spatial things‚ÄĒfor example, events occur in space but are not material bodies‚ÄĒthere might be a conceptual scheme in which the basic particulars are, say, events, and not material bodies. Unless Strawson has a reason for thinking that the employment of spatial concepts has to be grounded by a conceptual scheme in which material bodies are basic then there is no clear reason to focus on such an extreme possibility as the no-space world. Now, Strawson evidently does think there is a reason to suppose this. He says,
Now I have suggested earlier that the fact that material bodies are the basic particulars in our scheme can be deduced from the fact that our scheme is of a certain kind, viz. the scheme of a unified spatio-temporal system of one temporal and three spatial dimensions.
(Strawson, 1959, p. 62)
Before considering whether there is a sound deduction as Strawson claims, another interesting aspect of the new framework needs highlighting.
The third feature of the discussion that needs highlighting, or perhaps grappling with, is what is meant by ‚Äúobjective particulars.‚ÄĚ Now, this is somewhat complex on my reading of the discussion, and I hope that the interpretation and comments that I am about to develop are fair to Strawson. On one use of the term it has an epistemological interpretation. In such a sentence as ‚ÄúDavid has lost his objectivity when considering Brexit‚ÄĚ (or ‚ÄúDavid is not being very objective‚ÄĚ), ‚Äúobjectivity‚ÄĚ stands for certain commendable ways of thinking critically and fairly about an issue. In the present context, by contrast, ‚Äúobjective‚ÄĚ stands rather for certain items or objects in the world‚ÄĒthe objective ones. But which ones? Strawson puts it this way:
The limits I want to impose on my general question is this: that I intend it as a question about the conditions of the possibility of identifying thought about particulars distinguished by the thinker from himself and from his own experiences or states of mind, and regarded as actual or possible objects of those experiences. I shall henceforth use the phrase, ‚Äúobjective particulars‚ÄĚ as an abbreviation of the entire phrase, ‚Äúparticulars distinguished by the thinker ‚Ķ &c.‚ÄĚ
(Strawson, 1959, p. 60)
Now, reflecting on this elucidation, a number of questions naturally occur. First, the form of the definition means that the realm of objective things has to be relativised to an individual. From my point of view I am not part of the objective world, but from your point of view I am. Again, from my point of view my experiences are not part of the objective world, but, for all that Strawson says, yours are, whereas from your point of view my experiences are part of the objective. It is, of course, perfectly possible to define the term this way, with these consequences, but it seems rather odd. It is especially odd to rule that from my point of view I am not an objective thing. It seems that I am as much an object as anyone else, and my own existence is not, surely, tied to my own experiences. I have them but my existence does not depend on them. A second question relates to what is meant by Strawson’s condition captured in the...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Contents
  7. Preface
  8. Introduction: Sensing in and of Space
  9. Part I Twenty-First-Century Oxford Kantianism, or: Transcendental Philosophy Naturalised?
  10. Part II Perceptual Magnitudes, Phenomenal Space, and Frames of Reference
  11. Part III Sounds, Smells, and Space
  12. Part IV Body Spaces
  13. Part V Molyneux’s Question and Multimodality
  14. List of Contributors
  15. Index
Estilos de citas para Spatial Senses

APA 6 Citation

Cheng, T., Deroy, O., & Spence, C. (2019). Spatial Senses (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Cheng, Tony, Ophelia Deroy, and Charles Spence. (2019) 2019. Spatial Senses. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Cheng, T., Deroy, O. and Spence, C. (2019) Spatial Senses. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Cheng, Tony, Ophelia Deroy, and Charles Spence. Spatial Senses. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.