noe on the reality of properties

Although I’m still a bit reluctant about my grasp of Noe’s position, I think I understand his position on the reality of properties. Say the problem we’re concerned with is something like, If I can only ever access an object from a particular perspective, can I ever claim that the object really is x, y, or z? Noe says yes, we can. He offers the example of a plate when discussing shape and a wall when discussing color. The plate really is round; the wall really does have a color. (This idea that color is real deserves its own post, so I’ll be brief about it here.)

Perception is an embodied process. As such we can only get a look at things from particular perspective. When we look at a plate from a particular angle, it appears elliptical. Why is this? Because round objects like plates appear elliptical to embodied, perceiving beings like us. This is one of their objective properties. Noe calls these ‘P-properties’ (perspectival properties). These P-properties only manifest themselves relationally, but this does not mean that they are subjective. They are real components of experience, they reside not in our minds but in perceptual experience.

By the same token, the color of an object is something that varies as we change our view on the colored object or as the ambient conditions of the room (say) change. Perception always involves a triangle of experiential elements: subject, object, ambient condition (what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘levels’). But if the color is constantly changing and can only appear to a being with the sensorimotor capability to pick up the light reflected off the surface of the colored object, doesn’t that mean that color doesn’t really exist, or that it’s subjective? Not at all. We can tell the actual color of an object because we understand how a given colored object responds to our shift in perspective or the changes of environmental conditions (lighting, shade, etc.). Colored objects are disposed to change appearance in certain determinate ways; to have a given color is to affect and be affected the environment in a finite set of ways.

To summarize:

The plate looks to be circular (it really does) and it looks elliptical from here (it really does). The wall looks to be uniform in color across its surface and it appears brighter, where it falls in direct light. A theory of perceptual content needs to acknowledge and account for this dual aspect of perceptual content. (Action in Perception, 164)

Noe’s ‘enactive’ view of perception can account for both aspects. For Noe, perception is a way of accessing how things are and how things look. (A lot of his argument hangs on the distinction between how things are and how they look, which is and is not equivalent to the noumenal/phenomenal distinction.) How do we get to the ‘thing itself’? By apprehending how it appears to us + understanding how this appearance varies for beings who actively engage objects. ‘How things look…is precisely a feature of the way things are. Looks are genuine, relational properties of things. But looks are not relations between things and your mind; they are relations between objects and the environment in which you find yourself as a perceiver’ (164). The key point here seems to be that we cannot take appearances/perspectives as a kind of wall that separates us from the way objects really are because we are embedded in the same environment as those objects. To perceive something is to enact the appearances afforded by that something, not to occlude the reality of that something by erecting a wall between the phenomenal thing and the thing in itself.

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4 thoughts on “noe on the reality of properties

  1. How did I miss this when you posted it? Wow Tom. Short and on the spot.

    You write,

    “The key point here seems to be that we cannot take appearances/perspectives as a kind of wall that separates us from the way objects really are because we are embedded in the same environment as those objects. To perceive something is to enact the appearances afforded by that something, not to occlude the reality of that something by erecting a wall between the phenomenal thing and the thing in itself.”

    Exactly! This is what I referred to as ‘conjuring the gap’. Mistaken beliefs about perception and embodiment (specifically about the efficacy of cosmological properties) leads to a “spectator” position on experience/perspective.

    I think your developing onto-aesthetic theory of emanating properties completely explodes the notion of ‘the gap’ and brings us back to the world conceptually in a fundamental way. And that’s not just smoke being blown up sphincters…

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Michael. I like Noe’s position, actually, and I read both of his books Out of Our Heads and Action in Perception. I’ve tried to indicate some problems, but overall the vision is what is important for me. I’m also finishing Clark’s Being There on Levi’s suggestion. These guys will definitely help me in the long run. By the way, I’ve been enjoying your exchange with Levi and have a post on potentiality (uncharacteristically lengthy) coming soon.

  3. Yeah, all the 4EA people have great things to say.

    That’s why I love the work John Protevi is doing. He blends Deleuze, 4EA and complexity theory into a panoramic and pragmatic (political) analysis of living assemblages. If you haven’t read ‘Political Affect’ yet you may want to. John puts takes ontology up to the level of the sociological

    As for your forthcoming post, I look forward to it! Surely you will provide additional resources to move the conversation forward. I am facinated to learn how you think of the (false?) dichotomy between the actual and potential.

  4. I love John’s work and at one point began Political Affect, but have yet to get back to it. Now is the time for it.

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