The Difference between Language and Perception

Talking behind the Tiger’s Back vs. Seeing the Tiger’s There

I suggest the following important difference between language and perception:

1. Language

With language, it is a good thing that content and vehicle can come apart. We can talk about situations in their absence. This benefits lying, fantasy and fiction, but it also benefits information about dangerous situations in the absence of those situations. Thus, I can learn about being eaten by tigers without actually having to be in the presence of eating by tigers.

If language couldn’t have vehicles in the absence of content, I think there would be a serious problem with it. In that case, in order to talk about tigers, I’d need to have the tigers there. Which is bad.

Call this capacity of language to represent in the absence of its content vehicle-content mutual independence — or representational-independence, for short. Then, what I’m saying here is this: it is a good-making feature of language that it has representational-independence. It allows you to talk about tigers when they’re not there.

With experience, however — or more precisely, perceptual experience, I don’t think representational-independence is a good thing at all.


2. Experience

Why do you believe a tiger is there? Because you see — you visually experience — a tiger being there.

With experience, it is a bad thing that content and vehicle can come apart. We have experiences of situations in their absence. If we know we can have such experiences, we can’t tell from our experiences that we are in a bad situation (“perhaps I am dreaming that my arm is being eaten. I will sit and wait and see if I wake up”). If we don’t know we have such experiences, but we do have such experiences, we waste a lot of energy reacting to things that aren’t there (“oh a tiger!” — says the person in an airplane, who then runs down the corridor).

This is not to say that we don’t experience things that aren’t there — hallucinations are a mainstay of perceptual theory. And the idea that we are hyperactive agent detectors works precisely on the idea that we interpret ambiguous signs of agents (e.g., rustling leaves) as agents (e.g., tigers) rather than not (e.g., wind).

These are a problem for naive views. The point here is that, when building a theory of perception, it is not so mistaken a move to assume content and vehicle are the same as it is for language. To roughly summarise:

— For language, for obvious reasons and/or for use-of-language reasons, it is foolish to assume content is the same as vehicle, and vice versa.

— For perception, for phenomenological reasons and/or knowing-what’s-happening reasons, it is not foolish to assume that that content is the same as vehicle, and vice versa (or even these terms do not apply).

I think I might put it this way. If language is a gossip engine, then perception is a witness engine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.