LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The study of philosophy requires a natural skepticism of well-known “truths,” a keen ability to observe and the discipline to accept that definitive answers come rarely, if ever.
So it stands to reason that a philosopher would come to question a basic tenet of his field.
Jason Leddington, an assistant professor of philosophy at Bucknell University, studies sensory perception and the relationship between perceptual experience and thought. His study of the nature of hearing is challenging a well-accepted assumption in philosophy: that what we hear are first and foremost sounds and not the events that cause sounds.
In arguing that what we actually hear are the events, Leddington is going up against some of the most prominent scholars in his discipline, not the least of which is Aristotle.
“Aristotle believed that each sense has its proper object. For sight, it’s color. For hearing, it’s sound,” Leddington explained. “I think that, strictly speaking, this view is false.”
Rethinking our world
Leddington, who joined Bucknell in August, argues that sensory perception is our primary means of learning about and understanding -- or misunderstanding -- the world. The beliefs we acquire through our senses -- sometimes accurate and sometimes not -- shape our lives in fundamental ways.
“Part of understanding ourselves is understanding how it is that we acquire knowledge about and come to be able to think about the world around us,” Leddington said. “If we get that wrong then what we’ve gotten wrong is a critical component of our understanding of ourselves and our position in the world.”
Leddington most recently presented his work in a talk, “Naïve Realism and Perceptual Phenomenology,” at the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study at the University of London, where he was a visiting research fellow. He also spoke at the 2008 Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association at the University of Aberdeen, the main annual philosophical conference in the United Kingdom. A version of the talk, “Perceptual Presence,” is to be published in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
Changing the way we think
Although philosophy, by its nature, does not always provide definitive answers, perception plays an integral role in how we think about and assess people and things in the world, Leddington noted. Judgments on the basis of perception influence the successes and failures of politicians, the decisions of world leaders and the conviction or acquittal of people accused of crimes. In asking us to reflect on just what we perceive, Leddington’s work could have far-reaching implications.
“The kind of philosophy I do, in a certain sense, lacks practical application but contributes to the project of self-understanding,” Leddington said. “The basic point of my work is to understand our position as thinkers and knowers in the world, and perception is central to that. This project of self-understanding is valuable in and of itself.”
Leddington, who began his research on perception in 2003 while working toward his doctoral degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., started with an investigation of how perceptual experience enables us to think special kinds of thoughts about the world. He continued his work at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and this past summer at the University of London.
Perhaps surprisingly, Leddington’s research depends less on scientific experiment than on close attention to everyday speech.
“I am paying attention to how we employ words and what that shows us about the structure and nature of thinking -- and about perception,” Leddington said. “Much contemporary philosophy is like this. It’s part of the project of understanding the world in which we live and of thinking more carefully and precisely about the things that are ubiquitous in our lives.”
Many philosophers have come around to the idea that what we see, first and foremost, are objects, and that those objects have color, Leddington noted. Fewer philosophers subscribe to a similar point of view when it comes to hearing
“They would say you hear a sound, and then there is the event,” he said.
Leddington challenges that assumption. He uses the example of leaves of a tree rustling in the wind. While traditional philosophy says that people hear the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, Leddington argues that what we hear is the action or movement of the leaves, and that the sound is a property of that action. That may seem like a simple idea, but it is not commonly accepted among philosophers.
'What was that?'
Leddington is exploring his theories by examining how people describe sounds in speech. If, for instance, a person says she hears a bird chirping, she describes an action rather than a sound. Similarly, when a person hears something and asks, “What was that?” the common response is to refer to the event responsible for the noise, not to the noise itself.
“You’d say, ‘That was the dog barking.’” Leddington said. “The answer, ‘It was a barking sound,’ is typically just inappropriate -- and that reveals something about what we perceive. What we hear first and foremost are events, not sounds. And just as colors are properties of objects, sounds are properties of events.”
Part of Leddington’s project is to understand how we can come to know things about the world by means of sense-perception, and this has serious practical and ethical consequences.
People have the ability to recognize objects, such as sunglasses and birds, simply by looking at them. Because we have these remarkable cognitive abilities, we sometimes think we can know things on the basis of perception when we can’t. In other words, we overestimate our abilities.
“Sometimes we see something and we mistakenly think we know what it is just by seeing it. In this sense, we can make errors about the extent of our own capacities,” Leddington said. “Some people think by looking at someone you can tell if they are Jewish, heterosexual or gay, but for the most part you can’t. These are failures to recognize our perceptual and cognitive limitations. Understanding these limitations requires modesty and critical reflection.”
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