Olivier Massin

Phenomenal Neutral Monism

According to Brentano, every intentional act is directed towards an intentional object distinct from itself (its primary object), and is also directed towards itself as its own secondary object. Kriegel has recently argued that this secondary object theory is one of the most interesting, though neglected, aspect of of Brentano´s account of intentionality. I believe, on the opposite, that Brentano´s theory of intentionality would be better without this cartesian relic.My focus will be the phenomenology of ordinary perception. I shall argue, contra Brentano, that the phenomenology of ordinary perception does not present us with our perceptual acts. All we are aware of, in ordinary perceptions, are the intentional objects. In seeing, hearing, smelling, we have no consciousness of our seeing, hearing or smelling.One immediate objection to this suggestion is that in visual perception we are obviously aware that the seen objects are distinct from us, and even, it is often claimed, independent from us. We do no see the apple as being part of us, or as being dependent on us.One way to reply to this objection would be to argue that the awareness of a relation does not require the awareness of its relata, so that we could be aware of the distinction between our seeing and the apple without being aware of our seeing.I would like to explore the more radical alternative. Ordinary perception does not present us with the distinction between itself and its objects. For reasons to become clear below, I shall call this view phenomenal neutral monism (“PNM”). PNM might initially sound as a deeply implausible view. This is not the case. I first introduce PNM by pointing out how it departs from three genuinely implausible views. I then put forwards two arguments in its favour.1 Phenomenal neutral monismPNM might be characterized by contrast to three counter-intuitive views.1. PNM says that perceptual objects are not presented as being distinct from us in perception (and consequently, that they are not presented as being existentially independent from us). PNM does not say nor entail that perception presents with its objects as being part of us or as being dependent on us. According to PNM, perception is simply mute with respect to the distinction between perceptual acts and perceptual objects, as it is with respect to the idea that perceptual objects are existentially independent from our perception of them.2. PNM says that in perception, there does not appear to be a distinction between a perceptual act and a perceptual object. PNM does not say that there is no such distinction. Quite the contrary: according to PNM, perception is intentional. This intentionality is, here following Brentano, a kind of awareness : an awareness of the perceptual object. But this primary awareness of the object is not itself something we are aware of in perception, it comes with no secondary awareness of the perceptual act. Perceptions are metaphysically intentional, but not phenomenologically so.3. PNM does not denies that perception sometimes present us with perspectival properties, such as “being three meters from here”, “being on the left”, “being behind” etc. According to PNM, perspective centers, or points of view, can be presented in perception. But viewpoints should not be conflated with perceptual acts or subjects. The best ways to defend PNM, following many historical neutral monists, is to associate it with some metaphysical realism about perspectival properties. Perspectives on things or surfaces are, as far as visual perception is concerned, what we see, i.e. intentional objects. Seeing acts are directed towards perspectives, not constitutive of them. Henceforth PNM is compatible, for instance, with visual depth being presented in perception: such a depth is a relation, inside each seen perspective, between a viewpoint and a thing, not between a seeing subject or seeing act and a thing.

One way to understand those three points together is to compare the proposed view with the one held by neutral monists (Mach, James, Nunn, Russell, Carnap…). Neutral monism denies, pace Brentano, that there is any distinction between intentional acts and intentional objects, on the ground that intentional acts are nowhere to be found in experience. I agree with the premiss, not with the conclusion. Though the phenomenology of perceptual experiences gives us no ground for the act/object distinction, this distinction has to be maintained on other grounds. Following, PNM, Brentano is right on the metaphysics of perception. All perception is a relation between an act and an object. But neutral monists are right on the phenomenology of perception. The act/object distinction is not given in perceptual experiences.2 Two arguments in favour of phenomenal neutral monismThere are a least two reasons to favour PNM over the view that the distinction between acts and objects is given in perceptual experiences.1. First, PNM constitutes a natural endpoint for those who take seriously the intuition that perceptual experiences or acts are phenomenally transparent (from Moore, Russell, to more recent intentionalists such as Drestke, Tye or Byrne). If really the phenomenal character of experiences is exhausted by the one of its content or object, then the distinction between the perceptual acts and the perceptual objects is not part of the phenomenal character of this experience. Such a transparency of perceptual acts was in effect Russell´s main motivation for giving up the distinction between perceptual acts (sensations) and objets (sense-data), and endorsing neutral monism. 2. Second, PNM has to be assumed in order to make sense of the self-world dualism question. One long-standing problem of genetic psychology has been to understand how we come to be aware of the world being distinct and independent from us. For people interested in this issue (Condillac, Maine de Biran, Dilthey, Scheler, Cook Wilson, more recently James Russell or Tom Baldwin to name only a few) our starting point, our initial attitude towards the external world is to be absorbed in it, to loose oneself in that world, without having any clue about ourselves or our mental acts being distinct from it. If the act/object distinction is already given in ordinary perception, this whole research program might collapse, together with the intuitions which gave rise to it. For instance, it has often been claimed in that tradition that only the experience of resistance to our will gives us the impression of a distinction between ourselves and the world. Such an intuition hardly fits with the view that ordinary perception readily presents us with this distinction.