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Contemporary Philosophy


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Bertrand Russell

Russell's Theory of Perception: 1905-1919 by Sajahan Miah (Continuum Studies in British Philosophy: Continuum International Publishing Group)  In Russell's Theory of Perception, Sajahan Miah re-examines and evaluates the development of Russell's concept of perception and the relation of perception to our knowledge of the external world. This original study focuses largely on Russell's work from 1905 to 1919, during which period Russell attempted a reductionist analysis of empirical knowledge, the foundations of which are sense-data with which we have direct acquaintance.

In the course of its development, Russell's theory of perception underwent considerable changes and modifications. Until 1912, Russell sponsored a representative realism, according to which the rela­tion between sense-data and physical objects is a causal one in which the effects (sense-data) repre­sent their causes (physical objects). But he soon realized the vulnerability of this position to sceptical attack and adopted an alternative approach, logical construction, in which physical objects are constructed from actual and possible sense-data.

With the introduction of logical construction, Russell's theory of perception seems to become a causal theory with phenomenalist overtones. Whether or not these overtones can be fitted into the main outline of his realist epistemology is a question that Miah undertakes to settle. The book argues that there is a consistency of purpose and direction which motivated Russell to introduce logical con­struction. The purpose was to strike a compromise between his empiricism and his realism and to establish a bridge between the objects of perception and the objects of physics and common sense.

Sajahan Miah is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dhaka. He was previously a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and has published widely in various international journals.


In tracing the development of Russell's theory of perception, Miah shows that Russell never gave up the realist theory of perception. This view agrees with what Russell himself says in his philosophical writings and also in his answer to Professor E.R. Eames' question as to whether she was 'correct in ascribing to him epistemological realism, in the sense that the world is there, and real, and acts upon us in perceptions'. To this question 'Russell replied emphatically that he had always been a realist'.' Miah is not claim¬ing that no change has occurred. Rather Miah admits and shows that, in the course of development, Russell's theory of perception underwent consider¬able changes and modifications. What Miah claims is that in spite of these changes and modifications, there is throughout a continuity. One of the pur¬poses in tracing the development of Russell's thought is to show both what changes and modifications took place and what continuity persisted.

Miah suggests that all the changes, both minor (i.e., within his theories of acquaintance and sense-data) and major (i.e., from explicit commitment to causal theory of perception to logical construction) that take place in his theory do not seriously alter his main philosophical position. Miah takes all these changes as not a change of position but a modification or development within the realist position. Miah shows that Russell remained throughout 1905 to 1919 a realist, despite the fact that he holds a constructionist view in epistemol¬ogy. However, Miah does not mean that after 1919 Russell ceased to be a realist and/or a constructionist. Miah only limits his enquiry until 1919 so as to deal with Russell's theory of perception for as long as he holds a sense-datum theory. After 1919 there was a sharp transition in Russell's theory of perception. In 1919, Russell explicitly and definitely accepted neutral monism,'  the theory that things commonly regarded as mental and things commonly regarded as physical do not differ in respect to an intrinsic property possessed by one but not by another, but only in respect of arrangement and context. Miah is not sure how far Russell's neutral monism affects his realism and constructionism, but he presumes not that much. But it surely affects his theory of perception in that, with the espousal of neutral monism, he had to abandon the sense-datum theory because he abandoned the relational character of sensation consisting of a subject and an object, i.e., a sense-datum.

Miah argues that there is a consistency of purpose and direction which guided the successive changes in Russell's realism.' The purpose and direction is to secure empirical knowledge from possible sceptical attack. As to the relation of perception to physical objects, Russell had an unresolved tension. On the one hand, sense-data are given in sensations, and appar¬ently we have no logical right to infer physical objects from them. Here Russell is quite at one with the sceptic. But on the other hand, Russell became increasingly interested in both common sense and the physical sci¬ences, especially physics. So he cannot ignore common sense and physics so easily. His aim is to show that the assertions of both common sense and physics are, when correctly understood, justified. The motive for change from THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY (1912) to the constructionist view was an empirical one, in the interests of assuming no entities which are not capable of being brought back to the experiential foundation.

How far the constructionist view fulfils the task of securing empirical knowledge from sceptical attack is debatable. But Miah suggests that it certainly tries to mitigate scepticism by constructing physical objects out of verifiable elements. The constructionist view tries to achieve a compromise between his realism and his empiricism which on the surface seem bafflingly inconsistent with each other. In constructing physical objects Russell tries to show that our knowledge of the external world beyond the immediate perception of the moment is not only legitimate but consistent with empiricism.

The investigation of Russell's theory of perception seems to me a worthwhile undertaking for several reasons. First, Russell is often interpreted as changing his position without assigning any good reason and as a result commentators find him hardly consistent. This interpretation of Russell reflects serious misunderstandings of both the changes in his position and the importance of the changes. Russell himself was certainly aware of these misunderstandings and therefore regretfully stated that his theory of per¬ception 'is rejected as a wild paradox by philosophers of all schools'. The reason for this rejection is, as Russell noticed, that they 'unanimously mis¬understand (his) ... theory of perception'. Miah agrees with Russell that his theory of perception has been widely misunderstood. Miah thinks that many of these misunderstandings are due, in large part, to a lack of a comprehen¬sive and detailed study of his theory. Miah feels that a comprehensive study of Russell's theory of perception during this important period is not only important but a necessity to do justice to Russell's epistemological views about the external world.

Secondly, there is no full-length study which deals thoroughly and carefully with Russell's theory of perception during this period. There are some works which deal in part with his theory of perception; but the theory requires a comprehensive study considering its importance in Russell's epistemology. A proper understanding of Russell's theory of perception is essential to an understanding of his epistemology and his epistemology is the centre of his philosophical development. Thus reflecting upon his philosophical career and shifting interests Russell admits that 'Where is only one constant preoccupation: Miah has throughout been anxious to dis¬cover how much we can be said to know and with what degree of certainty and doubtfulness'. Again, while his THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY (1912) was still in the press he wrote to Ottoline Morrell: 'There is one great question: can human beings know anything, and if so what and how? This question is really the most essentially philosophical of all questions'. Not only in the stipulated period, even for the rest of his life, whenever Russell under¬took epistemological enquiries, he endeavoured to confront the problem of how to know something with certainty and every time proceeded by a con¬ventional way into the problem of perception. Considering its importance in Russell's whole philosophy, the theory of perception requires a compre¬hensive study.

Thirdly, and finally, Russell's unpublished manuscripts and correspon¬dence have been made available very recently at the Russell Archives at McMaster University. Unpublished materials in the Archives help us to uncover many missing links in Russell's theory of perception during the period from 1905 to 1919. One very important paper, 'On Matter', allows us to uncover the missing link between the pre-constructionist and con¬structionist theory of perception that has never been considered. The received view about Russell's logical construction is that it emerged in 1914 in OUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD (1914) for the first time and that it grew directly out of his THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY (1912) theory of perception. But a close study of his unpublished works, supplemented by his correspondence, show that these views are mistaken. We have now con¬clusive evidence that the emergence of logical construction is a shift not directly from The Problems of Philosophy (1912), but from a transitional sceptical position which Russell held for a short time immediately after the publication of THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY (1912). Sceptical doubts about the THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY (1912) position had an enormous effect and had been a major impetus towards the constructionist view. At the same time, Russell's 'On Matter' conclusively shows that he was a logical constructionist in 1912. Historically, 'On Matter' is of special interest both for identifying the weak¬nesses of THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY (1912) and for the emergence of the constructionist view.

Miah prefers to trace the development of Russell's theory of perception topically rather than chronologically with respect to sources. That is to say, the division of chapters in this book does not correspond to the division of sources. The book is arranged in seven chapters including the Introduction. Each chapter, except Chapters 1 and 7, is divided into sections and often sub-sections; and they all are equipped with headings giving some idea of the main topics under discussion. Within each section and sub-section (where applicable) the arrangement of material is topical rather than chronological.

The first chapter introduces the issues to be addressed in this book. Chapters 2 and 3 cover the foundational aspects of Russell's theory of perception. In Chapter 2 Russell's theory of acquaintance is thoroughly examined. The items discussed are the nature, objects and principle of acquaintance. Miah shows that it is with regard to the objects of acquaintance that Russell's theory of acquaintance underwent considerable changes and revisions. Miah also presents a detailed discussion of the principle of acquain¬tance and its role in Russell's epistemology, and suggest that it performs two important functions, one epistemological and the other semantical. Both of them are seen to run hand in hand.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the doctrine of sense-data which, according to Russell, is the foundation of empirical knowledge during the stipulated period. Some obvious difficulties in interpreting sense-data are seen to disappear on closer inspection. Miah defends Russell from a certain amount of misunderstanding regarding the sensibilia theory. Miah also traces and presents the justification for a major modification of`his notion of the judgement of perception from Principia Mathematica, Volume I to The Problems of Philosophy and from The Problems of Philosophy to subsequent works. It is suggested that such a modification is required for the internal consistency of Russell's theory of perception.

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