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Perceptual presentation and the Myth of the Given


This paper articulates and argues for the plausibility of the Presentation View of Perceptual Knowledge, an under-discussed epistemology of perception. On this view, a central epistemological role of perception is that of making subjects aware of their surroundings. By doing so, perception affords subjects with reasons for world-directed judgments. Moreover, the very perceived concrete entities are identified as those reasons. The former claim means that the position is a reasons-based epistemology; the latter means that it endorses a radically anti-psychologist conception of reasons. First, I articulate and motivate the Presentation View. Then, I defend the view from three incarnations of a major objection levelled within the ranks of reasons-based epistemologies: McDowell’s version of the accusation that a view like this falls prey to the Myth of the Given. I argue that all three incarnations fail to show the Presentation View to be inadequate. The first version holds that a general characterization of the Myth clearly shows that it is an incoherent idea. The second version holds that endorsing the Myth makes it impossible to construe non-conceptual items as items that can stand in rational relations to judgements and beliefs. The third version holds that endorsing the Myth leads to a conception where perceptual experiences merely cause, but do not warrant, our perceptual beliefs and judgements. I explain in detail how the Presentation View has the elements to respond to each of these objections.

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  1. 1.

    E.g. Schellenberg’s (2011) response to Travis (2004).

  2. 2.

    As we shall see below this wide category is meant to include entities that do not fall straightforwardly under the ordinary category of “objects”, such as absences. See Austin (1962) for useful discussion on the “objects” of perception.

  3. 3.

    Section 2 will offer a detailed explanation of how perception has this epistemological role.

  4. 4.

    See Travis (2004, 2005, 2007, 2013) for a defence of the view that the chief epistemological role of perception is that of presenting the (perceivable) world to us. For a similar view see Kalderon (2011).

  5. 5.

    The terminology used to describe the position is significant. I use the notion of “presentation” to suggest that a central epistemological role of perception is that of merely showing us what there is (for us) to perceive. On this view, it is an additional step that we make out what there is before us, by recognizing our surroundings as the things they are (see Austin 1946, p. 97). This stands in clear contrast to talk of “manifestation”, prominently used by McDowell (1996), which suggests that perception delivers judgeable [or at least, thinkable (2006, 2008)] contents to perceivers.

  6. 6.

    A terminological clarification is in order: the notion of “exploiting” one’s warrant in a judgement should be read as a being equivalent with the notion of “basing” a judgement on one’s warrant. The use of an expression or the other is merely a stylistic matter.

  7. 7.

    Here, I use the notion of “being entitled” in its ordinary sense of having a right to (do) something. Not to be confused with any technical notion articulated recently by epistemologists—such as Burge (2003) or Wright (2004).

  8. 8.

    This thought is specially salient in Kalderon (2011) and Travis (2007, 2013).

  9. 9.

    Although it has experienced a revival in recent years. See Kalderon (2011), Travis (2004, 2005, 2013), French (2016, 2020), and as a target of criticism in McDowell (2018) and Cunningham (2018).

  10. 10.

    For more detail about how my strategy differs from Kalderon’s see pp. 17–8 below. I thank two anonymous reviewers for pushing me to be more explicit about this.

  11. 11.

    I focus my efforts in responding to formulations of this attack by McDowell (1996, 2008) for two reasons: first, McDowell’s is one of the most influential characterizations of the Myth as it arises specifically for perceptual knowledge; and, second, in recent work (2008) he has tried to fill an important gap in this literature by developing explicitly a general formulation of the Myth (I discuss this formulation in detail in Sect. 3.1)—something which is conspicuously missing from Sellars’ (1963) original introduction of the notion. For other prominent formulations of the Myth see Davidson (1986), Williams (1977), and BonJour (1985). Although I focus on versions of the challenge that can be found in McDowell (1996, 2008), it is worth mentioning that I also take into consideration further clarifications he makes in his more recent (McDowell, 2008). But being a defensive paper against criticisms by Travis (2013), I do not find a version of the Myth that differs from those articulated elsewhere.

  12. 12.

    See Austin (1962, p. 114).

  13. 13.

    That will be the target of Sect. 3.

  14. 14.

    My use of “evidence” follows Austin’s (1962, 1946, 1950, 1979). It is characterized as a consideration that “speaks” in favour of the truth of a statement by “indicating” its truth, where the relation of indication is consistent with the falsity of the supported statement.

  15. 15.

    This conception of perception, and its associated is consistent with McDowell’s (1982, 2010, 2011, 2013) account of conclusive perceptual warrant.

  16. 16.

    See Williamson (2000) for a defence of seeing as a factive state.

  17. 17.

    It is important to note that my appeal to an alethic necessitation connection intends to avoid unnecessary commitments to the existence of truthmaking entities, a controversial aspect in Kalderon’s (2011, p. 226) version of PV.

  18. 18.

    I exclude necessary propositions from the class of propositions that can stand in this kind of alethic necessitation relation with concreta. It is true that necessary truths (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4) are true no matter what perceived objects there are. But the kind of alethic necessitation relation I am concerned with here is one where the relevant proposition is true by virtue of the existence of the concrete object perceived.

  19. 19.

    See Dancy (2000) for anti-psychologism about reasons. For discussion, see Roessler (2014), Wallace (2006), Hornsby (2008), and Peters (2019).

  20. 20.

    For this version of radical anti-psychologism see Kalderon (2011), who in turn finds a version of the view from Johnston (2006). For discussion see French (2016).

  21. 21.

    For a formulation and discussion of this definition of concreta see Hale (1987) and Rosen (2014). See Hale (1988) and MacBride (1998) for further discussion about the concrete/abstract distinction.

  22. 22.

    For those who believe in tropes, these can be included in the list. On the one hand, some construe tropes as concrete entities (Giberman 2014), and thus would fall under the class of concreta. On the other, those who construe tropes or “moments” (Mulligan et al., 1984) as particularized properties (Kriegel 2005) or as abstract particulars (Lowe 2008) often concede that tropes exist at a particular place at a given time (unlike universals). On this conception, tropes are abstract because several tropes can exist in the same place at the same time (Kriegel 2005)—e.g., the coffee’s bitterness and the coffee’s coldness can coexist. On this conception, tropes can be included in our list because they are spatiotemporally located entities that can be objects of perception. In fact, trope’s perceivability is often cited as a reason for their existence (Lowe 2008). I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for calling my attention to this issue.

  23. 23.

    On the variety of perceivable “objects” see Austin (1962), Kalderon (2011), and Soteriou (2018).

  24. 24.

    Kalderon (2011) articulates quite clearly a version of radical anti-psychologism that is very similar to the one I endorse here. Nevertheless, radical anti-psychologism is part of his “dogmatic” [in his own words (2011, p. 227)] exposition of PV. As a result, he does not provide arguments in its favour. Here I aim to fill this gap by providing the beginning of an argument for it.

  25. 25.

    See Dancy (2000), Alvarez (2014) and Roessler (2014).

  26. 26.

    I use the notion of “favouring the truth of p” as an umbrella term including cases where x merely indicates (but does not guarantee) the truth of p, and cases where x guarantees (and not merely indicates) the truth of p.

  27. 27.

    See Alvarez (2014).

  28. 28.

    In Sect. 2.2 I say more about recognitional capacities and their importance in perceptual knowledge acquisition.

  29. 29.

    See McDowell (2011, 2013) for a defence of conclusive perceptual warrant from recent attacks by Burge (2011). See also Kalderon (2011).

  30. 30.

    By no means exercise of these capacities exhaust what subjects might need to do to exploit perceptual warrant.

  31. 31.

    Particularly, Kalderon’s (2011) and Travis’ (2004, 2013). Importantly, I take it that the explicit incorporation of an agential component is not obviously incompatible with their versions of PV. In my opinion, incorporating these components would strengthen their views.

  32. 32.

    A suggestion along these lines can be found in Austin (1946).

  33. 33.

    I explore this issue in detail in my “‘Absent Contrary Indication’ – On a pernicious form of epistemic luck, and its epistemic agency antidote” (manuscript).

  34. 34.

    This is consistent with the claim that independent information, from a source different to perception, might allow subjects to neutralize counter-considerations.

  35. 35.

    This idea can be found in Descartes (1996, p. 43), as he repeatedly points out in the Meditations that even if we are unable to attain knowledge of many of the issues that are cast into doubt by critical reflection, we can always retort to suspension of judgement in order to save our cognitive integrity and avoid falsity.

  36. 36.

    See Kalderon (2011, pp. 220, 241) for the case that PV is a form of the Myth.

  37. 37.

    See footnote 11 for further explanation of my choice of target.

  38. 38.

    See Davidson (1986, 1973). McDowell’s own view has been characterized as a form of idealism. He responds that the kind of idealism he espouses is not a pernicious one (2011).

  39. 39.

    See McDowell (1996), especially the Introduction and Ch. 1.

  40. 40.

    Especially his “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (1956).

  41. 41.

    This idea can be found in McDowell (2008, p. 256), Alston (2002), and Kalderon (2011, pp. 219–221).

  42. 42.

    See p. 25 above.

  43. 43.

    See Kalderon (2017) for a discussion of the extent to which perception is also an active occurrence.

  44. 44.

    See Steward (2012) for the development of a minimal conception of control, according to which we exercise control over a process or event x when we are able to block its occurrence.


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I would like to thank Martín Abreu Zavaleta, Santiago Echeverri, Guy Longworth, Francisco Martínez, Diego Rodríguez, Johannes Roessler, Simon Wimmer, and two anonymous referees of this journal for very helpful discussions and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to Ángeles Eraña for her supervision during my postdoctoral stay. This work was made possible thanks to the financial support of the postdoctoral program of the National Autonomous University of Mexico at the Institute for Philosophical Research.

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Anaya, A. Perceptual presentation and the Myth of the Given. Synthese (2021).

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  • Perception
  • Perceptual knowledge
  • Myth of the Given
  • Epistemic agency
  • Perceptual presentation
  • Naïve realism