A Philosophy of Seeming

A Philosophy of Seeming

In “Seeming” I introduced seeming as a sui generis psychological natural kind. Here I will explore its uses in philosophical thought—the kind of impact it would have on philosophy were it to be taken seriously. I won’t repeat what I said in the earlier paper (this one should be read in conjunction with that) but the basic idea is clear enough: a seeming is an impression that something is the case—an impression of being. It is not to be assimilated to a belief, a sensation, an experience, a state of consciousness, a piece of knowledge, or a mental content. Roughly, it is an invitation to assent—a kind of intimation or suggestion (which may be rejected). It is not to be confined to the senses: although the senses do deliver events or episodes of seeming, they are not the only sources of seeming. There are also memory seemings, moral seemings, modal seemings, logical seemings, mathematical seemings, probabilistic seemings, introspective seemings, semantic seemings, other-minds seemings, existential seemings, negative seemings, and artistic seemings. Seeming is everywhere; it is hard to find a place where it isn’t. There don’t appear to be future seemings or unconscious seemings or self-reflexive seemings, but otherwise they are ubiquitous. They generally function epistemically: they provide reasons for beliefs or actions or emotions. They have intentionality. They interact with inference to produce knowledge. They can be episodic or dispositional. The concept of seeming is not a family resemblance concept (if such there could be); it is a genuine psychological natural kind with a real essence and a causal profile. Indeed, it is a biological natural kind, since psychology is really a branch of biology (the mind being a biological organ or system or faculty). There are many modalities of seeming, to be sure, but they are all united in a single psychological type, viz. impression of being. If it seems to you that something is so, you are under the impression that things are a certain way—the world strikes you as being thus-and-so (though you may reject this impression in the light of other impressions). Seemings are generally fallible, defeasible. Seemings are ontologically committed, but we can suspend these commitments in thought and speech. There are seemings of sense and seemings of reason; there are even mystical seemings and supernatural seemings. They have a distinctive phenomenology, a characteristic linguistic expression, and a logic of their own (referentially opaque, open to quantifying in). Presumably, animals have them too, and human infants; no doubt our species inherited them from earlier species (there were dinosaur seemings). They have a developmental psychology that might be empirically investigated. There is a neural basis for them. There must be a cognitive psychology underlying them (computational seeming algorithms, etc.). Some seemings will be alien to us because not shared by us (bats, sharks). And some will be intellectually beyond us, as ours are intellectually beyond simpler creatures (bats, sharks). Seeming science (“seemiology”) lies just over the horizon, I am convinced, poised to attract funds. However, let me now raise a few philosophical questions about this notion. First, what is the connection between seeming and concepts? Might it be true that all concepts require a basis in seeming? What about concepts belonging to the “absolute conception”, i.e., maximally objective concepts? Evidently, concepts of shape and color are tied to acts of seeming: to have these concepts is to be capable of its seeming to one that they are instantiated. But is this true of the concepts of mathematical physics or the concepts of morality or law or depth psychology? Has it ever seemed to anyone that General Relativity holds of space, or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics? I think it is doubtful that these concepts have a basis in seeming, though the evidential warrant for the theories in which they occur may well involve acts of seeming. Do we have any idea of how curved space-time might seem? Our theoretical concepts can transcend our capacity to be subjects of seeming, even very abstract seeming. In other words, the View from Nowhere (the “absolute conception”) is not tied to seeming; so not all concepts are rooted in the capacity to host seemings. Perhaps many of our moral and legal concepts are (these are not particularly theoretical), so that they are linked to more primitive sorts of reactive psychological capacity; they don’t float free of our ability to be struck by the world. But concepts like infinity (of space, time, and number) are independent of our ability to entertain episodes of seeming—no one has ever had an impression of an infinite object or collection of objects. Second, acceptance of the psychological reality of seeming allows for a natural description of what is going on in cases of seeing-as. In the duck-rabbit drawing, for example, we can say that it both seems to the subject that the picture has changed and that it has not changed: both impressions exist simultaneously. The lines don’t seem to change their shape and orientation, but it comes to seem as if a different animal is depicted. So, we don’t have to limit ourselves to the concepts of sensation and belief; we can employ the richer terminology of seeming to capture the phenomenon. We now have a further resource, drawn from folk psychology, to work with. Third, we also have a new way to formulate epistemological issues: does all knowledge rest on a foundation of seeming? Is everything we know derivable by inference from premises about episodes of seeming (not sense data as traditionally conceived, or physical stimuli). This gives foundationalism a new freedom, liberating it from dogmas of the given or the universal reach of the human senses. Seemings have the power to justify, and they crop up in every domain of knowledge, perceptual and other. We can thus retain the attractions of foundationalism without its dubious baggage (the senses by themselves never justify, but neither is it true that only beliefs can justify). The knowing mind just has to be conceived more broadly, with seeming occupying a central epistemological place. Among other things, this will enable us to provide a uniform epistemology for ethics and physics: both rest on seeming—of value and physical fact, respectively. Reasons are all of essentially the same kind (the natural psychological kind seeming). Seeming thus provides a unifying epistemological framework. Fourth, we can supplement the old dispute between empiricism and rationalism with a new question—whether all knowledge rests on seeming or not. Empiricism and rationalism both base knowledge on seeming (sensory or ratiocinative), so they are not as far apart as we might have supposed; but now we have the further question of whether any knowledge is, or could be, based on nothing impression-like at all. Granted, in most cases knowledge is based on reasons deriving from events of seeming, but might there be cases in which not even this is true? These would be cases in which our reasons don’t advert to anything like a seeming but simply go directly to the heart of the thing in question—as it might be, direct insight into numbers. The numbers don’t seem a certain way to our intellect, but we nevertheless know their properties. We bypass seeming. I confess I don’t know what to say about this, but the issue is interesting and prima facie real. There is no natural name for the doctrine I am envisaging but it exists in logical space. We could call it “impressionism” but that has other connotations, and “seeming-ism” is too coy. Maybe some Latin term could be pressed into service. For now, I will just call it “S-epistemology” and stipulate that this is to mean “the doctrine that all knowledge, a prioriand a posteriori, is based on episodes of seeming, sensory or ratiocinative”. Then we can ask whether S-epistemology is true or not: this question is orthogonal to the old empiricism-rationalism debate, and arises out of the project of reconfiguring epistemology around the notion of seeming (construed as neutral between sense and reason). My guess is that S-epistemology is true across the board, but it is a substantive question whether this is so. No doubt there are further issues that can be raised under the new dispensation, but let that suffice for now.[1] Certainly, a lot of philosophy takes on a new aspect once the generalized concept of seeming is allowed to penetrate its precincts. This forces us to rethink our conception of the mind and that cannot but affect the way many philosophical issues are approached. The powers of the mind have been significantly expanded.[2]

[1] I will simply list a few issues that I have not discussed. Are Fregean senses (modes of presentation) explicable in terms of seeming? How does an epistemology of seeming bear on skepticism: does it make skepticism stronger or weaker or leave it the same? Are certainty and seeming compatible: if we are certain that p, can it also seem to us that p? Does intending involve seeming, or does the lack of future-seemings rule this out? Is seeming subjective or objective or both? Do we have impressions of nothingness? Could it seem that things are contradictory? Are Hume’s “impressions” the same as impressions as here characterized? Are seemings conceptual? Are there higher-order seemings? How are the concepts of seeming and evidence related? Could there be perception without seeming? Does pain involve seeming—if so, of what? Could knowledge by analyzed as seeming plus being? Do we have an impression of the self? Could we ever have an impression of our whole nature?

[2] I mean that we now have a general faculty of seeming, applicable across many domains, and capable of providing reasons in each domain. It has the generality of reason but it isn’t a kind of reason. It is a sui generis mental faculty not reducible to the traditional categories, lying somewhere between sensation and belief. Seeming is a vital and irreducible component of mental life.

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