Enactivism and the “problem” of perceptual presence


Alva Noë (2004, 2008, 2012) understands what he calls “perceptual presence” (2004, 59) as the experience of whole, voluminous objects being ‘right there’, present for us in their entirety, even though not each and every part of them impinges directly on our senses at any given time. How is it possible that we perceptually experience voluminous objects as voluminous directly and apparently effortlessly, with no need of inferring their three-dimensionality from experience of the part of them that is directly stimulating our sense organs? For Noë, this is the ‘problem of perceptual presence’. In this paper, I integrate Noë’s view by articulating a different view of what perceptual presence at a more basic level amounts to. This new account of perceptual presence which, I believe, can clarify and make an enactive account of presence richer. The view I suggest revolves around the idea, developed especially by Merleau-Ponty (1945, 1947) and Kelly (2005, 2007, 2010), that perceptual experience is in an important sense indeterminate. Indeterminacy, I argue, is key if we want to understand perceptual presence and the ‘problem’ Noë solves.

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  1. 1.

    As most other people who have written on this topic, I will mostly talk about vision. However, the reader should be free to extend all that is being said to other sensory modalities. As a matter of fact, it might turn out that certain claims made with vision in mind are not easily ‘translatable’ in other modalities. This is definitely a problem worth further consideration, but I won’t discuss it in this paper.

  2. 2.

    This ‘problem’ has been formulated several other times in somehow similar ways. For instance, Siewert (2015) asks: “how can our visual experience, inevitably limited by perspective, provide us with something to think about and act upon, beyond that perspective?” (p. 23), while Schellenberg (2010) invites us to explain how it is that “a subject’s perception is not limited to the ways objects are presented in her egocentric framework of reference” (p. 152), and how one “transcends” such egocentric framework of reference (Ibid.). Similarly, Merleau-Ponty (1945) claims that “we must attempt to understand how vision can come about from somewhere without thereby being locked within its perspective.” (p. 69). Wilfrid Sellars (1978) is also interested in this ‘problem’ when he introduces the distinction between seeing an object as something (i.e. the content of our perceptual experience) and seeing something of the object (i.e. its proper and common sensibles, what’s directly accessible by the senses). Sellars would say that ellipticality is what we see of the coin, and we see the coin as round: he follows Kant and makes seeing as a matter of judgment/belief, and what Noë calls ‘presence-in-absence’ a matter of constructive imagination. Noë, on the other hand, denies that there is any construction or imagining going on: awareness of occluded parts of objects (presence-in-absence), as well as awareness of objects as wholes, is perceptual through and through. In other words, Noë would claim that we see of the coin its roundness, and of an apple its internal white flesh. But we see of the coin its roundness and of the apple its white flesh in seeing of the coin its ellipticality and of the apple its red surface. As I will argue later on, the way in which Noë spells out this idea of seeing the intrinsic properties or the whole object in whatever is visible from our viewpoint in terms of a part-whole relation. We see the roundness of the coin in its perspectival ellipticality the same way in which we hear the melody in the succession of tones, or we touch a person by touching their hand.

  3. 3.

    Noë stresses multiple times that, in his view, all perceptual modalities should be understood using touch as a model. In Noë’s theory, vision is just as exploratory and active in character as touch.

  4. 4.

    Consider an analogy with the case of perceiving speech. If someone knows, e.g., Turkish, this person clearly perceives the separation of the single words, the sounds characteristic of Turkish speech as opposed to, say, Turkish singing, the tone of a question as opposed to an assertion, etc.; I don’t. A Turkish speaker perceives Turkish speech; I don’t. Knowledge of Turkish, in this case, seems to be the very condition that enables perception of Turkish speech. According to Noë’s view, mastery of sensorimotor dependence patterns plays the same kind of role in perceptual experiences as knowledge of Turkish does in Turkish speech perception. Knowledge of a language is relied upon in the form of implicit expectations regarding the phonemes that will follow based on what has been heard so far, thereby enabling a perceptual experience permeated with understanding. According to Noë, practical knowledge of patterns of sensorimotor dependence works analogously in the case of object-perception. The clarification (Noë 2008, pp. 702–703) comes as a response to a criticism formulated by Campbell (2008).

  5. 5.

    It is important that Noë talks about a “detailed” scene. Indeed, what he seems to mean is that a scene as a whole is present, according to the VIP view, insofar as its individual components are present (and specifically, virtually present). This contrasts quite directly with the indeterminacy which, I will argue later, sustains the more basic notion of ‘presence of things’, and shows how Noë’s account needs to be integrated by such a notion.

  6. 6.

    It is controversial whether Merleau-Ponty’s views on perception push him too close to a form of idealism. On one interpretation (e.g. Kelly 2005), Merleau-Ponty holds the view that objects can never be fully seen, except if we were able to take up all the possible perspectives at once or, in other words, the “view from everywhere” (1945/2013, p. 71). Since Kelly attributes to Merleau-Ponty the view that objects are actually perceived only if we can have the view from everywhere, and this view isn’t a view that we can ever have, this seems to make an idealist out of Merleau-Ponty, and therefore not very helpful in dealing with perceptual presence. Most of us would probably be tempted to choose Noë’s account, however flawed it might be, over a thoroughly idealistic one. However, on another interpretation (e.g. Matherne 2017), even though Merleau-Ponty discusses the view from everywhere and claims that it is preferable to what he calls the “view from nowhere” (1945/2013, p. 69) which he attributes to ‘rationalist’ idealists such as Leibniz, he doesn’t himself endorse such a position. According to this alternative interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s view, the view from everywhere is also ultimately implausible, precisely because it would put the objects beyond any human capacity to perceive them. In other passages of the Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty’s views seem quite incompatible with idealism: the role played by the body and by the concrete engagement with the world that our bodies afford, as well as their capacity to generate the most primitive form of intentionality, seem to steer Merleau-Ponty more in the direction of realism. Ultimately, whatever Merleau-Ponty’s own view on the topic may be, the very fact that there is interpretative disagreement is good reason to refuse Merleau-Ponty’s ‘help’ a priori.

  7. 7.

    Merleau-Ponty explicitly claims that the world is experienced as ‘real’ in perception because, as embodies perceivers, we are also ‘things among things’. Objects ‘hide’ parts of themselves from us just like they ‘hide’ other parts from the other objects in the scene. We experience the presence of the world because we are part of the ‘system’ that constitutes such world: “to see is to enter into a universe of beings that show themselves, and they could not show themselves if they could not also be hidden behind each other or behind me. In other words, to see an object is to come to inhabit it and to thereby grasp all things according to the sides these other things turn towards the object. […] Thus, I can see one object only insofar as objects form a system or a world, and insofar as each of them arranges the others around itself like spectators of its hidden aspects” (1945, 70–71). The body, thus, is essential for perception: “This is what we expressed by saying that I perceive with my body. The visual thing appears when my gaze—following the indications of the spectacle and gathering together the lights and shadows that are scattered there – approaches the illuminated surface as what the light manifests. My gaze ‘knows’ what such a patch of light signifies in such a context, and it understands the logic of illumination. […] To have a body is to possess a universal arrangement, a schema of all perceptual developments and of all inter-sensory correspondences beyond the segment of the world that we are actually perceiving. Thus, a thing is not actually given in perception, it is inwardly taken up by us, reconstituted and lived by us insofar as it is linked to a world whose fundamental structures we carry with ourselves” (Ibid., 341).

  8. 8.

    In fact, Noë himself credits Merleau-Ponty as one of the figures that most inspired the enactive approach to perception (cfr. 2004, 17).

  9. 9.

    The body, in other words, has its own form of intentionality, which Merleau-Ponty calls “motor intentionality” (1945/2013, pp. 112–113) For more on motor intentionality, see, e.g., Dreyfus (2004), Sachs (2015), Käufer and Chemero (2015), Matherne (2017).


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Buccella, A. Enactivism and the “problem” of perceptual presence. Synthese (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02704-1

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  • Perception
  • Enactivism
  • Perceptual presence
  • Phenomenology
  • Indeterminacy