Philosophy of Perception: Naïve Realism vs. Representationalism vs. Direct Transformative Process Realism

Painting of a beautiful woman in a garden - Shows the richness of perceptionWithin epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that studies human knowledge, one of the most fundamental topics is the nature of perception. Philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to the present have offered various theories of what perception is and how it occurs. Because it is a topic so fundamental to human knowledge, specialized natural science can’t answer the basics about it. Science relies on perceptual observations of reality. Thus science itself relies on the idea that perception allows us to be aware of an external reality. If perception does not give us awareness of external reality, then scientific study of the external world is not possible: We would always, at best, be inspecting the contents of our own minds.

Thus, it is the job of philosophy to answer the most basic question: Does perception give us an awareness of reality, and if so, at the most basic level, how?

In this essay, I’ll explain three different theories of perception. To the question of whether perception gives us an awareness of reality, all three of them attempt to answer, “Yes.” Where they disagree is on the “how,” or the basic nature of perception. The three basic theories are naïve realism, representative realism, and Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR.) (“Representative realism” here is a synonym for representationalism. Note that these theories are all variants of “realism” in perception. Theories that answer “No” to the question of whether we can observe mind-independent reality would be variants of “idealism.”)

Philosophers sometimes use “naïve realism” as a synonym for “direct realism,” and there are many different theories that could be called “direct realist.” But here I will take “naïve realism” to be one specific sort of direct realist theory: the sort of approach to perception exemplified by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Representationalism too has quite a few variants, but they all share a common thread. I will focus largely on the version of representationalism associated with the English philosopher, John Locke. Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR) is my term for the theory of perception put forward by Ayn Rand and Objectivist intellectuals after her. It’s a form of direct realism that is very different from Aristotle’s approach. I’ll explain this term in more detail when I explain this theory later in this essay.

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Ontology and The Problem of Universals: An Objectivist Comments

shiny_red_applesAyn Rand is sometimes accused of misunderstanding the “Problem of Universals,” that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Boethius and William of Ockham have dealt with for millennia.

The Problem of Universals consists of the question: To what do people refer when we use terms that can be applied to different particular things? For example the term “man” is applied not just to one entity, but to many entities that are each called a “man.” Another example is “spherical.” Many different things can be said to be “spherical.” An answer to the Problem of Universals will explain how this use of single terms for multiple different objects works.

In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, (ITOE) Rand claims to have solved the ancient Problem of Universals. She describes in detail the process by which man forms generally applicable concepts from his perceptions of particulars in reality. Critics sometimes charge that Rand is giving us an epistemological theory when a solution to the Problem of Universals calls for an ontological theory. (Ontology, properly conceived, is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the most fundamental classification of existents; it is the study of “what there is,” metaphysically.)

But considering the Problem of Universals purely ontological, and thus considering Rand’s theory of concept formation irrelevant to it, improperly privileges variants of “Realism” (about universals) by treating the rejection of such abstract objects as sufficient to define a single theory (variously referred to as “Nominalism” or “Anti-Realism.”) The rejection of universals in external reality does not specify a positive theory of what universals are and how they are related to external reality. Much more explanation is required to do this, as evidenced by the various subcategories of Nominalism/Anti-Realism. In ITOE, Ayn Rand presents an alternative theory on the level of the variants of Anti-Realism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (i.e. Predicate Nominalism, Resemblance Nominalism, Trope Nominalism and Conceptualism.)

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The Arbitrary (from The Objectivism Seminar)

The Objectivism Seminar is a podcast series that features informal discussions of the works of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and others, (mostly Objectivist intellectuals.) It takes the form of a conference call between a number of Objectivists/Students of Objectivism, where they summarize, discuss and mull over the ideas presented.

This episode features a nice discussion of the section of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism (OPAR), titled “The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False.”

The Objectivism Seminar: The Arbitrary

Here’s the TalkShoe page for the podcast.

Here’s the Ayn Rand Lexicon page on the Arbitrary.


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Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandAt root, subjectivism, intrinsicism and Objectivism are theories of the nature of concepts or “universals.” Here, I summarize them in regard to their view of the nature of truth and knowledge. Since truth is an attribute of statements composed of concepts, each school’s view of truth is a direct outgrowth of its view of concepts.

Subjectivism holds that truth, in effect, resides only in the mind. For a subjectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, based solely on one’s mental choices, subjective processing, or emotions. (Kant (by implication), Wittgenstein, James, Sartre, etc.) “Truth” amounts to whatever one believes, and there is no such thing as “knowledge” of reality; only some sort of “experience” inside one’s own mind.

Intrinsicism holds that truth resides disembodied out in the world. Typically, intrinsicists hold that all people have to do is somehow “open their hearts to God,” or “pay attention to their intuitions,” or “open their minds to the light of truth,” and the “external truth” will infallibly push its way in. If the truth is already “out there,” then there’s no reason to think that any special processing is required to reach it; one merely has to absorb it. (Plato, Aristotle (partially, in regard to essences), Apostle Paul, Augustine, etc.) For an intrinsicist, conceptual knowledge is whatever external truths one happens to have absorbed. A particular statement is “true” for everyone, whether they have any evidence or not. (And it’s an arbitrarily answerable question whether various people can be held responsible for not grasping all the “floating truth” out there.) (1)

Objectivism holds that truth and falsehood are aspects of conceptual knowledge. Truth (and perceptual knowledge) is a relationship between a consciousness and reality. Truth is reality, as conceptually processed by a consciousness. Truths do not exist disembodied in external reality. Only physical entities (and their aspects–including other consciousnesses) exist in external reality. I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning (by the method of logic.) For an Objectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, only when there is a radical difference in the relevant perceptual evidence available to the two people. It does not depend on mental choices, subjective processing, emotions, or whims. (2) A statement can also be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another: People can have different levels of evidence that change how the statement ranks on their “epistemological determinacy” scale. (From arbitrary, to possibly true or false, to probably true or false, to certainly true or false.)

There is much more to be said about this topic, and I recommend Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, for more.


(1) To be clear, most modern, intellectual intrinsicists (and many such subjectivists) go to great pains to cloak their theory of knowledge in the appearance of reasoning from observation. They use the language of natural science and the formalism of deductive arguments. But this is all rationalization or inconsistency, because, for intrinsicists, the ultimate basis of “knowledge” is just to “feel the [allegedly external] truth.” For subjectivists, whatever their pretenses about subjectivism being necessitated by objective science, that self-contradiction wipes out objectivity on their part, and they thus imply that there’s no such thing as knowledge of reality. (What distinguishes knowledge of reality from fantasy is that knowledge is objective.)

(2) Some clarification on mental choices and truth: When I say that truth does not depend on mental choices, I am referring to what one might call “normative truth”: what the person ought to consider true. This depends solely on what parts of reality the person has observed, (i.e. what evidence he has.) What the person will actually claim as truth does depend on a mental choice: the choice to think about the evidence or not. This is why I say, “I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning…” The normative truth is a potential I have, based on my current context of perceptual evidence. Reaching this truth is exercising the choice to fulfill (recognize) the normative truth.

Note also that the position of one’s body can be affected by prior mental choices. Only in this narrow sense can what one perceives–and thus one’s normative truth–be affected by mental choices. Once one has actually perceived something, mental choices are irrelevant to the normative truth.

[Substantial Edit: 2/28/15: My statement that, “For an Objectivist, a particular statement cannot be true for one person and false for another, (2) but it can be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another,” in the fourth paragraph was altered to say that it is possible for something to be true for one person and false for another, based on evidence. I no longer agree with the old statement, and I don’t think Objectivism supports it. Footnote (2) was also altered to explain the current view.]


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The Scope of Evidence Pertinent to a Proposition Corresponds to the Scope of the Proposition

General evidence can prove generalizations. Specific evidence is required for specific propositions. The scope of sensory data that can tie a statement to reality (serve as evidence) varies with the scope of the statement.

If I make the statement, “All men have heads,” then the scope of potential, direct evidence for this statement (and counterexamples) is all men. I can observe a few random men and have a sensory basis to at least hypothesize that “All men have heads,” is true. (Exactly when I can logically say that a generalization is proven, is the subject of the epistemology of induction. While the principles of general induction are not yet fully known, the philosophy of Objectivism and the principles of modern science/technology show that induction works. I recommend Dr. Peikoff’s course, Objectivism Through Induction.)

If, on the other hand, I make the statement that “Julius Oglethorpe III lives at 10 Warkworth Terrace in Cambridge, England,” then I can’t gain a basis for hypothesizing that statement (let alone proving it) by observing a few random men. I need evidence that pertains to the specific statement at hand. To hypothesize, I need to see effects of the fact that Julius Oglethorpe III exists, or the fact that 10 Warkworth Terrace exists. To prove this statement, I need to see a set of facts that all evidence shows can only come from the fact that a man with this name lives at this address.

In both cases, the evidence that warrants the hypothesis or conclusion reduces to sensory data. But the evidence for the specific statement is much more specific than that for the general statement.

[Note: This short article was derived from a longer comment I made at “The Christian Egoist” blog: D’Souza vs. Bernstein: Is Either Good for Mankind?]


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The Proof of Free Will (Libertarian Volition)

By the nature of the following refutation of determinism, it can also be considered a proof (1) of (libertarian-type) volition. It is a refutation of any theory that would deny the existence of non-necessitated events–in the form of fundamental, agent-controlled choices–located in a conceptual consciousness, including incompatibilist determinism and compatibilism.

Here is a short video (by someone else) explaining the general outlines of the argument:

Here is a link to the paper by Harry Binswanger:

A Refutation of Determinism


(1) The argument shows that volition is a prerequisite of all knowledge and that the denial of volitional choice implies self-contradiction, thus establishing volitional choice as an axiom of epistemology. Strictly speaking, I think, by Leonard Peikoff’s definitions, this is not a proof, but an axiomatic validation. It establishes the axiom as absolutely and unquestionably true, but does not involve the specific process of logical proof of the positive proposition. The positive proposition is self-evident in each individual’s experience of existence.

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

Well, it’s finally happened: The impoverished reasoning methods employed by academic philosophy have infected YouTube comments….Shocking, I know….

But, all kidding aside, when most academic philosophers (who aren’t deeply acquainted with Objectivist literature and lecture courses) read about Ayn Rand’s axioms, they tend to deride them as tautologies. They can’t possibly imagine how you could deduce a whole philosophical system from such tautologies. Well, they have something in common with my interlocutor (mirabileamavi) in the comments of a YouTube video. Hopefully, my concise answers to him (her?) should be clarifying:

Interlocutor: …How do you derive causation from tautologies?

Me: The “tautologies” you speak of are axioms. If something is truly an axiom, it is too fundamental to be conceptually analyzed, but is perceptually self-evident. You need only observe reality to see that it is true.

An entity is itself, therefore it acts as itself. This mode of action consistent with its nature is causality. See:­ms-of-objectivism.html

Int: i still dont understand how you can derive causation from tautologies.

‘john’, from that i can infer ‘john’ is ‘john’ but i can’t infer that ‘john is a fireman’ can i? the predicate ‘is a fireman’ is not contained in ‘john’. while ‘john’ is ‘john’ is necessarily true and tautological, ‘john is a fireman’ certainly is not. from a=a we cannot infer that a=b.

heres an example: ‘frank ramsey’, who is his father, what is his occupation? obvious all you can infer is that F.R. is F.R., nothing else.

Me: At the level of bare axioms, all we can say is that, because John is John, John must act as John. That’s it: causality is a corollary of identity. But to identify John as a fireman, we cannot simply deduce from the axiom. We must specifically observe firemen in order to form the concept “fireman.” We must then observe John and see that he fits the concept. (Intro. to Objectivist Epistemology) Once we have observed he is a fireman, causality tells us he can’t swim and lay eggs as a female squid.

Int: ‘is’ is not equivalent to ‘act’.

okie, look at this from another angle. since identity is universally necessary, 2 is 2 is also an identity statement. but what does it mean to say that 2 act as 2? or for that matter, john act as john? if not just ‘john is john’.

from john is john nothing else follows. not causality, not anything. let me ask you again, what casual anything can you deduce from ‘frank ramsey’. thats right, nothing.

Me: An entity’s identity includes its qualities and capacities for action/reaction. We can isolate and focus on them in our thinking, by abstraction, but they cannot be separated in concrete reality. Causality is a corollary of identity, not a separately deduced fact. As a corollary, it is simply another way of looking at the same fundamental fact: an entity is itself. It’s self-evident: look at reality.

2 is a quantitative abstraction. Whatever 2 entities you are focusing on will act as themselves.

Int: take our friend ‘fr’ as an example, obviously we can infer ‘fr’ is ‘fr’ via any standard of formal logic. but we can’t infer ‘fr’ is also p. why? because additional information is needed to establish the new inference.

to say something is corollary is to say that something follows from another. but how do you infer from ‘fr’ without the additional info. that ‘fr’ is also p? can i seriously validly infer that A, therefore B, C, D, X…?

i.e. how am i justified in seeing arsenic for the first time to infer that it can or cannot kill? surely none of its properties follows from my visual perception of it or the mere knowing of its name. yes we can know its effects/properties through observation, but thats an additional step, not something that merely follows from our acquaintance with it.

Me: For the last time, Objectivism doesn’t say you can infer any specific properties/actions of entities from “A=A.” To see that arsenic is deadly, you make specific observations of its effects. Once you have induced that arsenic is deadly, you know that once you have identified a specific sample as arsenic, it will be deadly when taken. Without causality, arsenic wouldn’t have to behave as arsenic, and there’s no way to know what will happen if you ingest it; it could make you live 1000 years.

So the basic point here is that, in Objectivism, proceeding from the axioms does not mean deduction, but induction. The truth of the axioms (including the validity of the senses) makes induction from observation possible (that is, generalization; including concept formation as a certain type of induction.)

The major model of system building in modern Western philosophy has been that of the rationalists, who deduce consequences from “a priori postulates,” “intuitive” starting points, or mathematical axioms. Thus, when confronted with a philosophic system like Objectivism that claims axioms, most contemporary philosophers simply assume that the axioms are intended as a deductive starting point. They then rightly observe that nothing can be deduced from the axioms alone, and claim that Objectivism is a failure, or is not “serious” philosophy.

This is what I was referring to by “the impoverished reasoning methods employed by academic philosophy”: Real induction, which is a method of generating principles, has been largely supplanted by probabilistic reasoning, which most contemporary philosophers call “induction.”

The details of how induction works in various fields of knowledge is an active area of research among Objectivist philosophers. But we have cases of induction and general guidelines for how to form valid inductions left by Ayn Rand, and explicated by Leonard Peikoff. I recommend Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand’s Philosophy and Objectivism Through Induction by Leonard Peikoff.

The video below is not directly relevant to the above, but is an excerpt from one of Rand’s essays that makes general points about philosophy, reason and emotions.

[Edited: 9-1-12]


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