Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Locke: Perception and Knowledge

"Knowledge then seems to me to be nothing but the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas. In this alone it consists. [Essay IV i 2] "

For some philosophers, "idea" is that which is in the mind as a condition of sensation, or "the given".
"Given, The: Whatever is immediately present to the mind before it has been elaborated by inference, interpretation or construction."

In other words, for those philosophers, if you sense that your hand is touching something, there is the "idea" that something exists which your hand is touching. But whether or not you call that an "idea", I know of no philosopher who doesn't also call it "the given".

Locke meant more than this. Locke meant by "perception" something that is defined in the mind beyond the mere point of the given; it had to be elaborated by inference, interpretation or construction, (induction; deduction; conceptualization).

This is easy to acknowledge when you read his words again: perception is the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas. The mind's acknowledgment of "the given" will neither agree nor disagree with either previous nor future events of what is "given" to us to perceive. But a perception is the acknowledgment of the given; acknowledgment requires a correspondence between "ideas"; ideas must be that which is "elaborated by inference, interpretation or construction", because without those, ideas would remain only as perceptions about which we know nothing except that they exist.

Ayn Rand, a Lockean herself, put it this way:
"A “perception” is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli [the given], but of entities, of things....A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. When we speak of “direct perception” or “direct awareness,” we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later: it is a scientific, conceptual discovery."

Locke, therefore, meant that perceptions were separate from sensations, and as far as "knowledge" of them was concerned, we have that only when we perceive that one idea is connected to another, at which time we also see that it either agrees or disagrees with the others. If it disagrees, it or one or more of the others is "repugnant", or contrary.

Perception is not the simple acknowledgment that we have had a sensation of "the given". An infant is "given" many things at birth, and his mind is in terrible turmoil attempting to determine the nature of his new world. He must determine that "mother is good"; "food is good"; "dirty diapers are bad", etc. But even then, until he gains a language by which to identify these things, they are still nothing more than "the given". He doesn't have the conception of a dirty diaper; he only knows that something happened to him and he doesn't feel good after that, and until he is taken care of.

So for Locke, "perception" is acknowledgment--of one idea or concept either agreeing with or disagreeing with other ideas, whether conceptual or not. An infant without a language can still determine that one thing is contrary to another (such as his mother makes him happy, then she makes him sad or angry, and he must eventually learn how one person can do both.)

So the key to "perception" in the language of Locke is to understand that it means the acknowledgment of at least a pair of "ideas" which will be either in agreement with each other, or "repugnant" to each other. 

It is only from the perception of like/unlike ideas that we can come to have "knowledge", because what is not "knowledge" is literally "unacknowledged" and must be greater than "the given".

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