Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 January 2020
Can there be a first-order, philosophical or psychological theory that explains all the facts of surface perception? By ‘first-order’ I mean a theory about the constituents of what J.J. Gibson called ‘the ecological environment’; and by ‘surface perception,’ I mean the perception of the surfaces of any of those ecological constituents that have surfaces. The question about surfaces is important for two reasons. First, as we shall see, they are complex features and, as such, provide a difficult test case for any theory of perception. And, of course, if no theory can handle the case of surface perception it will follow by existential generalization that no first order theory of perception is possible. Second, surfaces play a key, virtually unique, role in human perception. Some account of that role is thus necessary; but if no first order theory is possible, that account will have to be something other than a theory. Since I shall be arguing that no first order theory is possible, I shall propose an alternative way of approaching the topic of surface perception. That surfaces play such an important role in the human perception of the ambient environment has been recognized by many writers.
1 Gibson, J.J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin 1979), 23Google Scholar
3 Putnam, Hilary Representation and Reality, 2nd printing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1989)Google Scholar
5 Wittgenstein, Ludwig Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1958)Google Scholar, sec. 109
8 For a discussion of the work of these scientists see my Surfaces, Ch. 3.
9 Steve Ups till, in the Render Man Companion (Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley 1990), has an extensive description of such complexities. In this highly original work he describes a variety of surfaces (quadric, polygonic, parametic) and how lighting and shading affect our perception of them. I am indebted to Brian H. McDonald for bringing Upstill’s work to my attention.
10 I use the word ‘virtually’ here because the views of Husserl and possibly those of Merleau-Ponty may well be exceptions, as Kevin Mulligan and Peter Simons have pointed out to me. Nonetheless, neither of these philosophers performed actual experiments, so I believe they can be subsumed under the rubric of vicarious experimentalists. We can thus reject their views as well.