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The Direct Contextual Realism Theory of Perception
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17.4 (2003) 245-258

Direct realist theories of perception do not receive much consideration today, aside from the cursory refutations that have appeared in the literature for decades. The model of perception most widely accepted today, dominant across not just mainstream philosophy of mind but also psychology, cognitive science, and neurophysiology, is "indirect" (or "representational") realism. For indirect realism, the external world's existence and knowability is not compromised by its absence in experience. There are notorious difficulties involved with sustaining indirect realism's viability in the face of challenges from the idealist (why doesn't experience simply encompass all reality?) and the skeptic (how can we know anything beyond experience?). Direct realists see such difficulties as unnecessary and preventable. If some form of direct realism can effectively reply to these challenges, philosophy of mind and psychology would be radically transformed.

This paper develops one sophisticated type of direct realist theory, the direct contextual realism (DCR) theory of perception. DCR holds that perception is a natural process of experience that contains a portion of the perceived object (typically its surface) within that process. This theory's origins may be traced back to the attempts by pragmatists, especially John Dewey, to formulate an alternative to dualistic and idealistic accounts of experience. These origins will not be surveyed here, although they inspire my efforts to revive direct contextual realism. For today's readers, the motivation for giving this theory due consideration will be developed in two stages. First, this paper examines a strong argument by John Foster against direct realism in order to expose a contradiction within its foundations. Second, it shows how this contradiction can be avoided through contextualizing perception while at the same time preserving the directness of perception. For those readers already persuaded by direct realism, this two-stage procedure may seem unnecessary. However, contextualism is not a well-developed and widely familiar philosophical perspective. In this contemporary atmosphere the most effective and persuasive tactic would be to place DCR's cornerstone precisely where its would-be destroyer crumbles. However, the usual philosophical style will here be reversed. Instead of providing the details of the theory and then showing how it resists attack, this paper explains where an attack against a type of direct realism self-destructs and a stronger version of direct realism is born from its ashes.

Many arguments have been carefully crafted since the Greeks attempting to show that the external world cannot be directly perceived. Modern attempts typically rely on a principle sometimes labeled as Leibniz's Law (a.k.a. the Indiscernibility of Identicals): If X and Y are identical (in the sense of being one and the same object), then everything that is true of X is also true of Y. In other words, if X and Y are the same object, then they will have exactly the same properties. To cast doubt upon whether or not the perceived object is really an external object, it is only necessary to provide a situation in which some quality of the perceived object is not any of the qualities of the external object. Once just such a discrepant situation has been established, a key conclusion follows: In that situation, the perceived object cannot be the external object (or any other external object in the vicinity), and so something "internal" must be perceived instead. To complete the argument against direct realism, one further step is needed: If, for all we know, all perceiving situations are likewise discrepant situations, then, for all we know, perception is only of internal objects of some sort. Therefore, whatever knowledge perception can give must be knowledge only of these internal objects, and direct realism has no justification for claiming that perception is of external objects. This bare outline only suggests a common modern tactic; of course many additional premises and subarguments give this epistemological mode of argument any cogency.

John Foster's argument against direct realism in The Nature of Perception has this general form, and it also has the merit of supplying one of the most elaborate and powerful versions of this argument in recent philosophy. Inspired by Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer...

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