How should things look? Senses vs. common sense

One day Gertrude Anscombe, speaking with Ludwig Wittgenstein, had this exchange of views. He greeted her with the question:

‘”Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?”
She replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.”
”Well,” he asked, ”what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

His point is that it’s not true that it looked like something rather than something else. Our opinions about what we see may be  right or wrong, but what we actually see is always ‘right’ one could say. In the case of the sun and the earth, it is not that they seemed to be what they were not (the sunlit land under the moving sun). They looked exactly as they were. What was wrong was our views on the matter.

Between what we see and the meaning of what we see – between perception and judgment – there is a chasm that is difficult to cross due to our prejudices.

What I want to reiterate with this famous anecdote (reported in ” An Introduction To Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ” 1959, p. 150) is what I have already brought up in the previous post: reality always appears exactly as it is. It could not do otherwise. There is simply no room, no ontologic space, for things not to be what they are.

So why do we have this very strong belief that the world may not appear as it is, as in the case of illusions? It’s because we confuse judgments with experience, concepts with perceptions.

First, I quoted Wittgenstein, now let me quote Galileo, who started modern science with his famous Dialogues in 1637. In this volume, Galileo challenges the value of the senses, suggesting that by observing experience we can go beyond our senses and reach true knowledge. The famous step goes as follows:

“I cannot find an end to my admiration of how much violence in the sense that Aristarchus and Copernicus could have made the reason, that against this she has mastered their belief.”

Here Galileo takes it out on sense, by which he means common sense (also based on other writings, in particular The Assayer, 1623) while the passage has been understood by many to mean the questioning of our senses.

But our senses are obviously neutral with respect to the judgments we can draw from them. For centuries men have seen the apple fall, without being able to understand Newton’s law. In a similar way they have seen the consequences of the rotation of the earth for centuries, without understanding that their planet is moving. But what were they supposed to see?

The tendency to want to diminish the senses as illusory arises from the confusion between our experience (always correct because identical with reality) and our common sense, our judgments. We are in fact arrogant: we always think we know how the world should be and therefore how it should look.

When experience and judgments do not coincide, we usually prefer to sacrifice the former to save the latter. We blame the world for not appearing as it is (or as we think it should be). We fail to question our prejudices.

So, one thing is our senses and another thing entirely is the sense (set of judgments and prejudices). The senses are never wrong (as Kant said).

Senses are never wrong because they are just a part of the world.

The sense, or common sense, on the other hand may very well be wrong because it consists of inferences from varied degrees of reliable reasoning. Common sense might be wrong (it almost always is). Our senses are always right.

10 thoughts on “How should things look? Senses vs. common sense”

  1. You might be oversimplifying things slightly. Three things – judgments and perceptions and objects (the world) – are being posited. The troubles arise when judgments are linked with perceptions instead of perceptions being linked with objects. It seems implied that this happens due to our commitment to our own judgments.

    But what do you make of that class of perceptions, possibly an overwhelming majority of them, possibly all of them, that are conditioned by previous experience in a way that has them charged with judgmental influence unawares? One takes a burning stick out of the campfire and waves it around a certain way in front of fellow campers. They ‘see’ a mysterious figure eight (clearly a ‘spread’ object) floating there in the darkness. No camper who had not learned his numbers at school would ‘see’ the eight. Is this thus a case of judgment linked with perception? Are there commitments here?

    1. Very clear:
      “The troubles arise when judgments are linked with perceptions instead of perceptions being linked with objects. It seems implied that this happens due to our commitment to our own judgments.”
      I couldn’t have said it any better!

      Judgments do not change what we perceives, they change the meaning of what we see (which is not something we perceive). You don’t see an ‘eight’. You see a flaming shape and you give it the meaning of an eight.
      At most, judgmental influence affects where our attention focuses. So, you learned to pay attention to certain shapes (among umpteen possible ones) and those are the one that you see when you look at random shapes in the world. hence, you may have the impression that judgement defines what you see. But they don’t. They direct your attention towards certain classes of events rather than others.

  2. Dear Riccardo,

    In these Coronavirus days, our body comes again on the scene, like the return of the repressed. You also relate the body as “it (the body) tends to be forgotten”. Our mind suppresses the awareness of our weak body. I think that you explain it differently, as you take the body as “the natural reference frame”. Am i right? Are your arguments related to the repression of body? Today, i have also read Michael Marder’s article “Contagion: Before and Beyond COVID-19”. He says that the body is psychologically repressed and the contagion reveals it again.

    With coronavirus pandemic, our senses are clear: Fear or the senses arise from fear. However, our judgments are doubtful. There are many different judgments about the virus or about our social isolated future. Included conspiracy theories. How can we think about the pandemic with your spread mind theory?

    Sorry, i confused. I remember a quote from a film. the Tenant (1976) by Roman Polanski
    “If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me?”

    Thank you very much,
    All the best,

    1. Very good point! and nice the quotation from the Polanski’s movie.
      I agree. The head has no right. The head is not a little me, and inside the head there is no homunculus.
      I’ll write something soon about the pandemic and the Spread Mind.

  3. Michael Schmidt

    Judgment does not influence a perception, but if judgmental influence affects where attention is focused, it must influence which perception (is perceived).
    Can there be a perception because it means something, without having perception of meaning? Does a perception not have meaning, simply by having some unknown meaning?

  4. Michael Schmidt

    Maybe these thoughts are relevant to my comment:
    Language does not communicate meaning; language communicates itself.
    Meaning is received in language, not through language.
    These points, roughly, are from Walter Benjamin. I think that WB was onto something by clarifying that language is any expression that creates mental meaning.

  5. Michael Schmidt

    I think what you say about language was precisely WB’s point, but I did not explain it well. His distinction was “in” versus “through”, and the “in” part is confusing, and I think I gave the wrong idea. The comment “language can only communicate itself”, in the context, was meant as language does not communicate anything – like saying that perception does not communicate judgement/meaning, it only communicates itself as a perception.

    So, I was relating language, thought of as you say, with perception. There is no meaning communicated through language or perception, but if there are pointers, then there is meaning in the language or perception – in there somehow.

    Do you see a connection from your viewpoint? What is the difference between perception and language?

    My initial comment/question was about how judgmental influence can exist without the involvement of meaning. I was thinking of similarity between language and perception – that neither communicate meaning but they somehow point to it, and judgmental influence might exist based on familiarity, not meaning.

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