Sensing as Activity: Its Impact on the Structure of Perceptual and Emotional Experience

Philosophy Department of the University of Geneva

Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences



 Project members: Julien Deonna, Fabrice Teroni, Santiago Echeverri

Suppose you are handling an object that is out of sight. If you turn it around your hand, you will be able to feel its surfaces, contours, and edges, and even its identity. Yet, you would be unable to gain these pieces of information from the object if you were prevented from exercising your active touch. A number of philosophers and cognitive scientists have taken this kind of examples to heart, and have conceived of perception as an active exploration of the environment. Although research in this area has been fruitful, the implications of the existence of perception/action links on the structure of perceptual and emotional experience remain to be investigated.

We shall explore two hypotheses:

First, we will try to show that active theories of perception lead to a new conception of the structure of perceptual experience. We agree with representationalism that any account of perceptual experience should introduce the notion of content to characterize perceptual states. Nevertheless, this notion of content is different from the one presupposed by the model of propositional attitudes. If perceptual experience is a form of active exploration, it is essentially the manifestation of perceptual and practical abilities. Thus, we need a new theory of content to characterize the interplay between these abilities.

Second, building on our previous research on the emotions, we will try to show that the available research on active perception can shed light on how the emotions enable us to apprehend the evaluative properties of the world. Quite importantly, one can explore the parallels between active perception and the emotions without reducing the emotions to perceptions of value. To this end, we will examine the role of dispositions to ground our experiences of action tendencies, and compare the emotions with contemporary accounts of affordance-experiences.

The first module examines the different arguments pro and against the existence of constitutive links between perception and action, identifies a version of the active theory that gets better support from them, and examines the prospects of relational and representational theories of perception to make room for action in perceptual experience. We will try to show that, whatever view one holds, the existence of constitutive links between perception and action has yet largely unexplored consequences on some aspects of the structure of perceptual experience.

The second module explores the notion of dispositions, with the aim of distinguishing ‘bare’ dispositions like ‘fragile’ and ‘soluble’ from the complex dispositions that play a central role in active perception. We call the latter ‘abilities,’ and investigate their nature from two complementary angles. First, we examine the prospects of teleosemantic accounts to elucidate their correctness conditions. Second, we spell out the connection between abilities, dispositions, and phenomenal character.

The third module explores the applications of the dispositional model of experience to provide an analysis of object perception, perceptual classification, affordance-experiences, and the role of action in emotional experiences.