In yesterday’s post I briefly described some of the physical processes that have to happen for you to have the experience of seeing a banana.
I concluded with the claim that sensory perception happens through the operation of a dynamic network of physical relations.
And I raised the question: how could we know anything about an object or an event, independently of those relations? That question has very important implications, but I’d like to leave it hanging for a bit and come back to it later.
OK. So, having gone over (very superficially) the physical relations involved in the perception of a simple object like a banana, have I accounted for your ability to see the banana?
Nope. Not even close.
Physical relations on their own enable you to perceive an object with definite physical properties like colour and shape. But in the story so far, you have yet to experience the banana as a banana. To do that you need to have a concept of a ‘banana’.
Without the concept, you experience the banana only as a singular thing, without a name, almost formless. With the concept, your experience thickens, deepens, into the experience of banana-ness.
Concepts do stuff. A noun concept like ‘banana’ functions as a form of categorization or classification, telling us that this particular oblong yellow object
- “is the same as” certain other oblong yellow objects, i.e. other bananas;
- “is different from” still other oblong yellow objects like plantains or yellow zucchini;
- “is the same as” other objects with different shapes and colours, e.g. green bananas or mushed up bananas;
- “is different from but similar to” still other oblong yellow objects like plastic bananas or banana-shaped speedboats or your favourite yellow vibrator;
- will have various physical properties that we haven’t directly observed yet, like tasting yummy;
- evokes associations and carries meanings that go far beyond its physical properties, like the vague sense of ridiculousness that you probably feel when I use a phrase like “the epistemology of bananas”;
and so on.
All of these relationships and others come bundled up in the concept of “banana”. In this way, the banana, as a member of the class of bananas, exceeds its simple physicality. Even this humble fruit carries a world of meanings.
But to have the concept of ‘banana’ you need social interaction.
We learn concepts through interactions with other people: either directly, by talking to people, or indirectly, by reading books or watching TV or using other cultural products made by people.
And we know we have learned the concept “correctly” when other people respond to our use of the concept in ways that reinforce that use. If you ask for a banana and I hand you the object you had in mind, all feels right with the world, but if you ask for a banana and I hand you a mug of coffee, something has gone wrong. The practical use of concepts in our social interactions gives concepts much of their validity.
Occasionally a person might invent their own concept of something for themselves, by themselves. But even their ability to do this depends on having learned many other concepts, which happened through social interaction. And usually when we invent a new concept we want to communicate it to others. Even private thoughts usually link up to social interaction at some point in the past or future.
So even the simple case of perceiving a physical object depends not only on physical relations but also on social relations — on the actual social relationships that inform our use of a concept in the present, as well as the past or potential relationships we have had or could have.
We learn to categorize and attach meanings to our perceptions through relations with others. A great deal of this learning happens in infancy and early childhood before we form conscious memories of it, but it goes on continually all our lives. We learn not passively, like a blank tablet having words carved into it, but actively, through our efforts to connect with others and to do things in the world.
The active, self-actualizing quality of much of our learning can make it easy to overlook our dependence on social relationships for our knowledge of the world. But if you feel skeptical, imagine what would happen if suddenly everyone you encounter refused to recognize your use of the word ‘banana’. If one person did it, you might think they had something wrong with them; if everyone did it, you might think you had something wrong with you …
So, just as our experience of a banana comes not just from the banana as a thing separate from ourselves, but from a dynamic network of physical relations, that experience also comes from a dynamic network of social relations.
How could we know anything about the world independently of all possible social relations?