Searle on direct realism

by Neil Rickert

As I hinted in my previous post, I want to discuss some aspects of Searle’s theory of perception.

Searle makes a good start with:

I believe the worst mistake of all is the cluster of views known as Dualism, Materialism, Monism, Functionalism, Behaviorism, Idealism, the Identity Theory, etc. The idea these theories all have in common is that there is some special problem about the relation of the mind to the body, consciousness to the brain, and in their fixation on the illusion that there is a problem, philosophers have fastened onto different solutions to the problem. (page 10).

I agree that those are mostly mistakes.  Searle continues with:

A mistake of nearly as great a magnitude overwhelmed our tradition in the seventeenth century and after, and it is the mistake of supposing that we never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world, but directly perceive only our subjective experiences.

That is Searle’s statement about his direct realism.  I do support the view that perception is direct, but I avoid the term “direct realism” because the word “realism” seems to carry some unnecessary metaphysical baggage.

There’s a lot of confusion around as to what it means to say that perception is direct.  I discussed that in an earlier post.

Searle’s title

I’ll start by looking at Searle’s title:

The first part of that troubles me, because I don’t think it means anything.  I am particularly referring to “as they are”.

I’m apparently in a minority over this.  I often hear people saying something like “there’s a certain way that the world is.”  If the point is that there is an actual world, that it isn’t in our imaginations, then I agree.  But I don’t think that’s what they are saying.  I can understand “there’s a certain way that we see the world.”  But I don’t think they mean that either.

I see a table as solid and smooth.  Physics tells us that it is mostly empty space between atoms.  So the way that I see a table is different from the way that science sees the table.  I never thought this to pose any problems, but it does illustrate the difficulty of giving a meaning to “the way the world is” or to the “as they are” in Searle’s title.

If you are a theist, you could say that “the way the world is” means “the way that god sees the world”.  But you would need to be a monotheist for that.  If there are two or more gods, maybe they see the world differently.  And even for a monotheist, it is not obvious that the way god sees the world is to be preferred over the way that we see the world.

I laughed

In arguing for the directness of perception, Searle writes:

I said the denial of Direct Realism was disastrous and I want now briefly to say how. The whole epistemic tradition was based on the false premise that we can never perceive the real world directly. It is as if one tried to develop mathematics on the premise that numbers do not exist. (page 29)

I found that amusing.  As a mathematician, I am a fictionalist.  That is to say, it is my view that numbers don’t actually exist except as convenient fictions.  That does not seem to have prevented me from doing mathematics.  I would not quite say that I do mathematics “on the premise that numbers do not exist.”  I just do mathematics.  I discuss numbers as if they exist — that what makes it a useful fiction.  But, whether or not numbers actually exist does not seem to make any difference to the mathematics.

Berkeley famously argued that reality doesn’t actually exist.  He would probably also find Searle’s statement to be laughable.

Subjective experience

Searle spends a good part of the book discussing what he calls “subjective experience”.  That’s the way that we experience vision.

As soon as you begin to theorize, you will notice a third feature in addition to the objective reality and the subjective experience: there must be a causal relation by which the objective reality causes the subjective experience. You do not need to know the details, but you do know that the light reflected off the objects hits your eyeballs and sets up a sequence of causal events that causes the perceptual experience. Another fascinating feature, one important for our investigation, is that if you try to describe the objective reality you see and then try to describe your subjective experience of seeing it, the two descriptions are pretty much the same, the same words in the same order. (page 12)

I’ll note that he says “You do not need to know the details”.  That’s where I see him as, in effect, saying that we should take perception as magical – there’s no need for an explanation.

Perhaps more important in that paragraph, is what he says about description.  He says that describing subjective experience is pretty much the same as describing objective reality.

I look out from my window.  I see a maple tree to my right.  Straight ahead I see a road with moving automobiles.  Beyond that, I see a hospital, with a parking lot in front of it.

To me, that is a description of the objective reality that I am seeing.  It is not a description of my subjective experience.  I don’t actually know how to describe my subjective experience.  I can perhaps say that what I experience is that what I see of the objective world seems to be laid out for me.  But that’s kind of vague.  We acquire language as a shared use of words to describe what we experience.  We cannot use it to describe experience itself, because we do not share that experience.  We only share what it is in the objective world that we are experiencing.

When Searle discusses experience in that way, he leaves the impression that he is really looking at his experience rather than at objective reality.  And that contradicts his claim that he is a direct realist.

J.J. Gibson

Curiously, I did not find any mention of the perceptual psychologist J.J. Gibson in Searle’s book.  That’s surprising, because Gibson’s name often comes up in discussions of direct perception.

Gibson’s view was that perception amounted to getting information about the environment.  And that seems right to me.  Gibson distinguishes between perception (getting information) and sensation.  In Gibson’s view, perception comes first.  It precedes the sensation.  What Gibson referred to as sensation was about what Searle calls “subjective experience.”

My own view is that our subjective experience is simply the experience of having all of that information readily available to us.

As an aside, a computer robot would also have lots of information about the environment.  But the robot would mostly have syntactic information, whose meaning might be apparent to the programmers of the robot but not to the robot itself.  So I doubt that a robot would have anything comparable to our subjective perceptual experience.  I take our subjective experience to depend on the meaning of the available information, not just on its syntax.

Searle spends a lot of words talking about the intentionality of subjective experience.  That is to say, he is arguing that the subjective experience is a representation of the objective visual field (he calls it a “presentation”), and that the experience is about what is in the objective world (hence intentional).

This is really a puzzle, unless Searle thinks that he is looking at the subjective experience.  As I see it, what matters should be the intentionality of the information itself.  Whether or not the sensations can be said to be intentional seems of no importance.


If you look at that paragraph (from page 12) that I quoted above, you will see that objective reality causes the subjective experience, at least according to Searle.  This seem to be a strange way of talking about perception.  In an appendix to chapter 1 (on consciousness), Searle says that features of consciousness are caused by neural processes.  That, at least, seems more realistic.

Searle apparently has two different meanings for causation.  When he argues that the desk in front of me causes my experience of a desk, he calls that “intentional causation” and he contrasts that with “billiard ball causation.”  I  presume “billiard ball causation” corresponds to my ordinary idea of causation that could perhaps be called “physical causation.”  The term “intentional causation” is still a bit of a mystery.  I did a Google search on that expression, and the result seemed to mostly refer back to Searle.

From my point of view, Searle’s account of causation seems to suggest that perception is something that happens to me, rather than something that I do.  It seems to suggest that I am a victim of my perception.  I see this as opening the path for Berkeley’s style of idealism.  Yet Searle is a critic of idealism.


While I agree with Searle’s view that perception is direct, Searle’s account of direct perception seems somewhat muddled.  Perhaps that’s because I am not a philosopher (except in the sense that everybody is).

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