Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

Perceptual Avowals and Other Minds

According to the perceptual model of our access to other minds, sometimes we perceive other people’s mental states. A perceptual model is particularly persuasive in the case of emotions, which are said to have distinctive expressions; thus, basic emotions are said to have signature facial expressions. Hence, the claim made by defenders of the perceptual model is that we see other people’s emotions in their expressive features. According to a direct version of the perceptual model, sometimes we directly perceive other people’s emotions in their expressive features. This claim is implausible if expressive features are thought of as items mediating between the perceiver and the emotion, but defenders of the direct perceptual model treat expressive features as particular episodes of emotion, and perceptual access to other people’s emotions as a variety of aspect perception. A putative objection here is that people sometimes hide their emotions, but this can be explained in terms of the failure properly to exercise the ability to perceive certain aspects of people’s expressive features, rather than in terms of the essentially hidden nature of emotions; so the direct perceptual model is vindicated. Assuming that such a direct perceptual model of our access to other people’s emotions is plausible, the aim of this talk is to show that the model can be extended to other mental states, in particular perceptual states. For we often have access to the facts that others e.g. see the house opposite and hear that the neighbour’s dog is barking. But do we have direct perceptual access to such facts? A prima facie obstacle here is that unlike basic emotions, perceptual states do not have signature facial expressions. But in so far as people express their perceptual states through gestures and especially language, the pertinent question to ask is whether the latter provide direct perceptual access to other people’s perceptual states. Focussing on perceptual avowals, i.e. sentences of the form ‘I perceive such-and-such’, the claim to be argued for is that we directly perceive (say, hear or see) other people’s perceptual states when we notice the expressive content of their perceptual avowals. Hence, a variety of aspect perception is involved, and as a result a direct perceptual model of our access to the perceptual states of others is vindicated. As similarly stated earlier regarding emotions, this is an implausible claim if perceptual avowals are thought of as mediating items, in accordance with the view that they are first-person claims about one’s own mind. So, the view of perceptual avowals to be recommended here is that they are not always claims about one’s own mind, for sometimes they are the presentation of one’s own mind itself, more precisely an episode of a particular perceptual state. This follows from the fact that ‘I perceive such-and-such’ and ‘Such-and-such’ are sometimes interchangeable proper answers to the question ‘What can you perceive now?’, and that ‘Such-and-such’ is not a claim about one’s own mind, but rather a presentation of the content of one’s perceptual state. The latter matches an expressivist view of mind and a non-relational view of expression, according to which mental content is an aspect of some bodily-cum-behavioural features (including linguistic avowals), open to direct perception by suitably endowed subjects. Here, neither are inner (i.e. neurological) goings-on denied, nor related empirical findings snubbed, for such goings-on are acknowledged as the biological basis of mind.