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Philosophy of the Arts


Perception of Meaning

When we perceive there is both acuity and thought. Objects present themselves to us. And there is something we do, too: we present ourselves to the things.

The challenge is coming to grips with this.

How do we respond to perception? We can live it like an animal might: sticking as closely as possible to the present.
And of course, that is what we are as well: animals. There is bound to be much instantaneous responding to things. Yet, as humans we are also induced to make use of elaborate “apparatuses” that come, often, with rich cultural histories, most notably language; but other systems of representation abound, and photographs too teach us to look in certain ways, i.e. to have other mental processes invade the acute.

Just to be clear

I do not believe that we construct or make up the things from meaningless sensuous data. Meaningless sensuous data are a (philosophical) abstraction from perception—they precede the perception only causally, not perceptually: they are not data for us. All they are is input for the brain.
A causal model of perception is not a model of perception but a scientific-ish image of causal processes, such as brain activity: such a model provides only necessary ingredients. The causal model is insufficient to explain perception (unless, circularly, you conceive of explaining as providing a scientific story). Perception is an organism’s encounter with reality.

Nor do I think, as Kant put it, that we cannot make sense of the things as they are in themselves. We can, and we do—all the time.
Also, perceiving something is not identical to being able to give a paraphrase of the perceived. The paraphrase is in language, the perception is not.


Good literary art will try to make vivid the thought that is stirred in perceptual confronting the object—and other people.
The museal arts concentrate on what it means to perceive meaning.
Music: on what it means to hear meaning.

This is by no means exhaustive! Art works and artists do many other things as well. And there is more to perception than perceiving meaning.

The arts have different means available to them. A choice for a particular artistic procedure, or art form, is also a choice to delve into particular aspects of the perception of meaning.


The challenge for philosophy, I think, is no different: it is to come to grips with perception, only this time the focus is on the concepts we use: “perception”, “realism”, “scepticism”, “thought” and “association”, and “memory”. Why does seeing that chair make me think of my deceased skinny aunt? What is an association, and where is it seated? Is memory really like a database?


— Gendler, Tamar Szabó, and John Hawthorne, eds. 2006. Perceptual Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— McDowell, John. 1998. “The content of perceptual experience.” In Mind, Value, & Reality, 341–58. Cambridge, Mass and London, England: Harvard University Press.
— Travis, Charles. 2004. “The Twilight of Empiricism.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104:247–272.
— Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.
— Wollheim, Richard. 1993. The Mind and its Depths. Cambridge (Mass.), London (England): Harvard University Press.

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