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Andrea Diem-LaneAndrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.

Philosophy's Cold Shoulder

An Analysis of Seeing Things As They Are by John Searle

Andrea Diem-Lane

Pragmatically, though not necessarily ontologically, realism makes great sense. All we really know is that our perceptions help us pilot through reality, whatever that is.

Over the years, whenever I have been asked what I teach and my response is philosophy, I usually receive a “deer in the headlights look” and then an instant change of the subject. I will never forgot the time I mentioned to a fellow surfer in the water something about teaching philosophy and he simply paddled away as if I had a potentially infectious disease. Sometimes when I reveal my discipline the person I am talking to reminisces about a past, undergraduate philosophy course, only to follow it with a comment about how awful the class was. With a sour, disgruntled look the person might recall how the professor would raise “absurd” ontological questions such as: “Is there really a chair there or am I just perceiving one” and “How do I know when I see green you are seeing green too; perhaps you are seeing red and calling it green.” From this fatigued response, I was not sure if the person who took the course was simply bored, did not follow the logic of it, or felt that erudite topics of philosophy offered no pragmatic purpose.

My husband, David, who also teaches philosophy, encounters the same feedback and so has resorted to simply saying that he teaches science. This is no hyperbole, as he focusses on the latest scientific understandings of reality, arguing in fact that “philosophy done well is science and philosophy done poorly is just philosophy” (he sometimes ends this with “philosophy done poorly is theology” when he is in a more daring mood).

John Searle
John Searle

From our experiences, philosophy seems to have gotten a bad rap from the general public. And this is indeed unfortunate, as this area of study offers so much to the inquiring mind. Our curriculum includes many engrossing topics, such as religion (atheism, agnosticism and theism), science (evolution, quantum physics, cosmology, and neuroscience), politics (socialism, communism, and democracy), the future (artificial intelligence and biotechnology), ethics (from animal rights to stem cell research), etc. The subject matter of philosophy is the human being, as the philosopher Donald Palmer succinctly put, and so anything related to us (our beliefs, our ethics, our biology, our planet, the multiverse) are part of the philosophical conversation. How can this be anything but truly fascinating?

So what is it about philosophy that garners this glassy eyed, no-body-is-home reaction or even a rude “I do not want to know you” glare? When I read John Searle's new book, Seeing Things As They Are: A Theory of Perception, I must confess I sort of got it. Let me explain. If one with no philosophical background (or even a slight one) were to pick up the text from the local bookstore, it most likely would be a very hard read, as it seems to assume a great deal of background knowledge in the subject. Though I am aware of the terms and thinkers within the reading the average reader is not. And I imagine that those who venture into its pages are quite overwhelmed how abstract it all is.

Moreover, Searle on occasion takes a slightly condescending tone in his presentation, implying that those who do not agree with him “owe us an alternative diagram,” and further aggravating the reader by saying “why would anyone in his or her right mind want to reject” his overall thesis. I think his most patronizing line, however, was when he declares that for those who do not accept his view, “then there really is nothing more to be said because you cannot understand conscious perception.” Perhaps those who disparage philosophy sense this “I know more than you” attitude among philosophers and this contributes to philosophy's poor standing in the social arena and why it receives a cold shoulder.

Searle's Direct Realism

Although, with all of this said, for those willing to tackle somewhat abstruse philosophical material presented with a razor sharp approach, Searle's text does offers the reader a fascinating look at ontology, the study of the nature of being or reality, and epistemology, namely our knowledge (or perceptions) of it. What Searle accomplishes here is a new take on these age old topics.

In his text, Searle's proposes what he calls “Direct Realism,” the argument that there is indeed a real world out there that we perceive. Now this may sound to those without any philosophical training obvious and perhaps inane. Utilizing what seems to be common sense one might state: “When I sit in a chair I am really sitting in a chair and not just thinking I am sitting in a chair.” But since Descartes from the 17th century (Searle actually argues it goes back to the ancients but Descartes popularized it), philosophers have more or less rejected that there is a real, objective world out there independent of the observer. Searle states that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Mill, Hegel, and contemporary philosophers as well, all seem to have made a huge mistake, a fallacy of sorts, which the author calls the “Bad Argument.” This monumental error is “supposing that we never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world but directly perceive only our subjective experiences.”

According to Searle, Descartes' dualism, Locke's representational realism, Hume's skepticism, and Berkeley's idealism all missed the mark when it comes to ontology and a theory of perception. What they seemed to lack was the understanding that “we are directly seeing objects” and that “these have an existence totally independent” of our perceptions. There is a real world out there and that we can access it, not just represent it as Locke contended. It does not cease to exist when we are not perceiving it, challenging Berkeley's view. And causality is a part of it, despite Hume's position that we cannot infer causation. Searle repeats within the text that “we live in a sea of experienced causation.” And perceptional experiences are “caused” by their objects. His bold statement (my paraphrase) that “reality is not dependent on experience but the opposite is true” captures the essence of the book.

Unlike his philosophical predecessors, Searle not only argues that there is a world out there but he asserts that our perceptions more or less match this external reality and through shared language we can express this. Our perceptions are not just sense data, mental images or imprints that can have significant variation. Rather, we can have direct awareness of the physical properties of an object. Of course, one may “interpret” the object one is seeing in a certain way different than how another interprets it, but the object itself being viewed can be seen as is. Art serves as a prime example. Though Searle sees the same work of art as Goethe, both interpret the message within a painting quite differently. All of this means that the world is out there, we can witness it as is, but how it plays in our psyche can vary a bit.

Throughout the book, Searle discusses the idea of intentionality and admits that for some philosophers it is a “controversial claim.” He explains that the ontologically objective object causes an ontologically subjective experience; one can think of this as the “world-to-mind” phenomenon. But this is only half of the equation, he says. There is also the “mind-to-world” aspect that needs to be considered. The object experienced satisfied certain conditions and causes intentional or mental states, and this he calls intentionality. It is “the feature of the mind by which it is directed at, or about, or of objects and states of affairs in the world.” Searle posits: “There is an internal connection between raw phenomenology of the perceptional experiences and the conditions of satisfaction set by those perceptional experiences.”

Searle's direct realism is fairly different than Locke's representative realism. According to representative realism, there is a distinction of primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities of an object are in the objects themselves—it is the object's weight, length, motion, etc., and it is through sight and touch that we experience them. Secondary qualities, such as color, smell, and taste, are not in the objects themselves and so can vary dramatically from person to person. Though Locke offers an astute assessment here (even Searle says “there is something to the distinction”), he does not take the next and necessary step that the world is accessible to us directly. Instead, Locke suggests that our minds, like a camera, take a picture of the world and so our images “resemble” (or represent) reality but are not it. Being one big step removed from reality, as Locke's ontological scheme is, marks the substantial difference between representational realism and direct realism.

Having the ability to directly perceive physical phenomena may play a very significant role helping us navigate our way in this world, according to Searle. He hints at an evolutionary explanation here. With these rich visual capabilities, it allows the organism to cope “with their environment in spectacularly successful ways.” In one section of the reading, he states it thus: “From a biological and evolutionary point of view the phenomenology of perception must relate us 'directly' to the world perceived.”

Einstein vs. Bohr

Interestingly, this question of whether there is a world apart from our perceptions of it brings to mind the nearly century old debate between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. Einstein supported realism, arguing much like Searle that there is an objective world free of human intervention. The moon is there even if he did not see it, Einstein opined. That we can access the truths of this objective reality was what he based his science on, especially in his search for Grand Unified Theory connecting the four known forces of the universe together. Bohr, on the hand, argued just the opposite, that realism is a fiction. Reality can never be known, he emphatically professed. In fact, even more astonishingly, Bohr claimed that reality appeared to us depending on the devices we used to measure it and so the observer in fact altered reality. Quantum physics seemed to support this view.

Practical Realism

As a philosopher, when handling ontological and epistemological questions I lean toward the position of Socratic Ignorance, that ultimately I can never know “Reality,” whether there is an external one or whether it appears to be there since I perceive it to be. However, this does not mean that realism should be entirely rejected. When I walk into a room and sit in what appears to be an empty chair (chair analogies somehow get a lot of attention in philosophy) it is common sense that once I occupy this chair others will not perceive it to be vacant and try to sit in it. Pragmatically, though not necessarily ontologically, realism makes great sense. Thus, instead of direct realism, perhaps we can embrace a softer form of it in “practical realism.”

All this means is that the world I perceive and the one you do is more or less the same (not considering cases of hallucination or illusion) and this certainly helps us function in the world. One might even hint at the claim that the world has an ontological existence independent of our perceptions as Einstein suggested and that our brains have evolved to understand it. Yet, practical realism stops short from asserting the truth of that final statement. All we really know is that our perceptions help us pilot through reality, whatever that is.


Overall, as we can see, Searle works hard to challenge the “Bad Argument.” Whether four centuries of poor thinking is corrected, however, remains to be seen. Regardless of where one stands on this ontological and epistemological issue, Searle no doubt got the conversation going once more, offering a new take on a well-established philosophical problem. Though Searle's book may not be an easy read for many, it certainly offered a worthwhile philosophical topic to investigate and one which Einstein and Bohr would undoubtedly appreciate.

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