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  • Perceptual Cognition:A Nyāya-Kantian Approach
  • Monima Chadha

We find certain things about seeing puzzling because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.

Ludwig Wittgenstein1


Experience must find a prominent place in the philosopher's list of the "rich and famous" entities of this millennium. Not just the more exotic experiences that the more fortunate among us have had the privilege to enjoy, but even the ordinary perceptual experiences of the world around us are rich and many splendored. It is a fact that the human perceptual mechanism is such that it transforms the meager input, namely the stimulation of the senses, into a much richer output. Interest in the philosophy of perception lies in understanding, as W.V.O. Quine puts it, in what way one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence. The result is an epistemological urge to delineate the available evidence—the pure given—from the total content of a perceptual experience that is enriched with concepts. This preoccupation with the pristine purity of the given was shared by philosophers in ancient India, and the tradition continues among contemporary Western philosophers in their quest to identify the nonconceptual content of perceptual experiences.

It is commonly believed that the given consists of particulars that are cognized as such in perceptual experiences. Against this popular belief, I shall argue that there is no coherent notion of perceptual cognition of particulars. Perceptual cognition must be restricted to universal features. If particulars-as-such do not even qualify as objects of perceptual cognition, then there is no possibility of knowing particulars-as-such in perceptual experiences. Thus it seems to follow that perception cannot be a source of knowledge of particulars. This claim is hard to digest. We have always thought that perception is the primary, perhaps the only, source of knowledge of particulars. We are forced to conclude that particulars cannot be objects of cognition or knowledge. This conclusion is counterintuitive. I think that the conterintuitive conclusion can be avoided by reconsidering our intuitive notion of knowledge of particulars.

The argument in this essay draws on discussions among ancient Indian philosophers, especially among Buddhists and Naiyāyikas, on the characteristic content of perceptual experiences. Although there are considerable disagreements, the ancient Indian philosophers agree on one crucial matter: perceptual experiences are, at the very least, cognitive in character. I think they are right. The contents of perceptual [End Page 197] experiences are, at least potentially, objects of cognition or awareness. After all, the whole point of introducing the notion of the content of perceptual experiences is to explain a perceiver's capacity to gain knowledge of perceived objects. This minimal claim is beefed up by the Nyāya philosophers by adding that all cognition, and thus perceptual cognition, requires conceptualization. This is the focus of the controversy between Buddhists and Naiyāyikas. The Buddhist, in contrast, insists that perceptual cognition must be totally devoid of conceptualization. Perception is conception-free awareness of a particular-as-such.2 This radical thesis is based on a plausible intui-tion: perceptual experiences, unlike other cognitive episodes, must be constrained by causal interaction between the sense faculty and the given. For the Buddhist, conceptualization requires "imaginative construction" by the mind that is unconstrained by the given.

In the first section, we shall consider the central arguments offered by the Nyāya against such a conception-free awareness of a particular. In this section, I will extend the Nyāya arguments to reveal the incoherence in the very idea of a conception-free awareness of particulars. This does not mean that I reject the plausible intuition that guides the Buddhist: the content of perceptual experiences must be constrained by the causal interaction between the senses and the given. What I do reject is the stronger claim that the Buddhist defends on this basis, namely that the content of perceptual experiences must, therefore, be restricted to particulars. There is nothing new to this response, it is just a restatement of the famous Kantian dictum: intuitions without concepts are blind.

In this essay I shall defend the simple Kantian thesis about the nature of perceptual cognition: perceptual experiences...


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