Illusory Signs as Frustrated Expectations: Undoing Descartes’ Overblown Response

Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 79 (3):1073-1096 (2023)
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Descartes held that it is impossible to make true statements about what we perceive, but I go over alleged cases of illusory experience to show why such a skeptical conclusion (and recourse to God) is overblown. The overreaction, I contend, stems from an insufficient awareness of the habitual expectations brought to any given experience. These expectations manifest themselves in motor terms, as perception constantly prompts and updates an embodied posture of readiness for what might come next. Such habitual anticipations work best when they efface themselves, so it is easy to blame perception when our expectations get frustrated. I illustrate this misdirected blame with the example of a stick partially in water: it is only because we expect the stick to be straight that its appearance as bent is deemed problematic. I thus conclude that, if we factor in the habitual interpretations operative in perception and switch to a processual view that allows practical engagement, we can deflate the worries that led Descartes to rule out perceptual truths. Distancing myself from the naïve “sign” of folk semiotics, my critique draws inspiration from the triadic semiotic model developed in some late medieval schools of Portugal.

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Marc Champagne
Kwantlen Polytechnic University


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