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‘Seeing as’ and the double bind of consciousness

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Central to aesthetic experience, but also to experience in general, is the phenomenon of ‘seeing as'. We see a painting as a landscape, we hear sequence of sounds as a melody, we see a wooden contraption as a boat, and we hear a comment as an insult. There are interesting and important differences between these cases of ‘seeing as': the painting cannot literally be a landscape while the wooden contraption can literally be a boat; a failure to hear sounds as a melody may count as a shortcoming whereas the failure to hear a comment as an insult may be admirable. Here I want to focus mainly on their similarities, however -- similarities that will lead us back to Kant, and to the nature of consciousness itself. The phenomenon of ‘seeing as’ presents certain familiar puzzles: how is seeing a painting as a landscape different from seeing a landscape, on the one hand, and from thinking of the painting as a landscape, on the other? ‘Seeing as’ is not the same as misperceiving, nor is it the same as offering an interpretation, yet it seems related to both. These puzzles are articulated in Section I, and some candidate solutions are rejected. Section II develops a Kantian account of experience showing how the convergence of conflicting representations, achieved through imaginative syntheses, is essential to the experience of objects and to consciousness itself. Kant's insights are used to evaluate some recent responses to the so-called ‘binding problem’ -- the problem of explaining how the contents of consciousness are bound together, and the role of the imagination is further detailed. Section III then returns to the difference between ordinary seeing and ‘seeing as', offering an explanation of the latter in terms of the framework developed in Section II.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601, USA.

Publication date: August 1, 2000


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