On the Phenomenology and Normativity of Multisensory Perception: Husserlian and Merleau-Pontian Analyses

In Sara Heinämaa, Mirja Hartimo & Ilpo Hirvonen (eds.), Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity: Norms, Goals, and Values. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 107-125 (2022)
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Sense interaction is ubiquitous. All conscious experiences involve at least some interaction between the senses. One of the most debated questions in recent scholarship concerns the proper way of characterizing the phenomenology of multisensory experiences. According to Charles Spence and Tim Bayne (2015), the phenomenal character of multisensory integration is reducible to the co-conscious sum of modality-specific features. Following Casey O'Callaghan (2015), we can call this The Thesis of Minimal Multimodality. The main goal of the paper is to refute the thesis and show that the effect of multisensory integration is reflected in experience in a way that is not exhausted by (the sum of) modality-specific phenomenal features. Whereas O'Callaghan's strategy in trying to prove this consists in providing phenomenological evidence that runs contrary to what Spence and Bayne hold, he does not, however, put into question what has become since T. Nagel's famous essay (1974) the standard conception of the phenomenal. By drawing conceptual resources in the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, I will elaborate another approach and explain why the phenomenal character of experience cannot be reduced to its "what it's like" character. Phenomenal experience is thicker, and also includes various forms of bodily self-experiences and felt possibilities of action and behaviours. Building on these and like insights, the main objective of the paper is to outline a phenomenological account of multimodal perception and sensory interaction. I will draw three main conclusions. First, I will argue that both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty would, too, reject The Thesis of Minimal Multimodality and endorse the strong, Constitutive Thesis that O'Callaghan defends. More interestingly still, we will see, secondly, that the widening of phenomenal consciousness that they argue for allows to generalize the constitutive thesis, thereby showing that all perceptual experience constitutively depend on the interplay of two or more senses. Spelling out the details of this claim will bring me, thirdly, to specify the intrinsic relation between normativity and perceptual experience. In short, I will argue that the mechanisms responsible for multimodality make a phenomenological difference evaluable in normative terms.


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