The “transparency” of experience

In the first part of The Mind’s Construction, Matthew Soteriou spends a lot of time talking about a famous passage of G.E. Moore’s “The Refutation of Idealism,” in which Moore says: “The moment we try to fix our attention upon consciousness and to see what, distinctly, it is, it seems to vanish: it seems as if we had before us a mere emptiness. When we try to introspect the sensation of blue, all we can see is the blue: the other element is as if it were diaphanous.” Before reading Soteriou’s book, I hadn’t thought much about this claim of Moore’s in a very long time. I remember encountering it as an undergraduate, and accepting it as obviously right, and as an interesting and important point about conscious experience. But now I’m not so sure.

In the first place, while the claim is quite plausible as applied to vision, it’s decreasingly plausible as applied to hearing, touch, taste, and smell. In these cases, it doesn’t seem nearly so difficult to focus on the experience itself, as opposed to what it’s an experience of.

And that raises a question: why does it seem so much more difficult (or, if Moore is right: why is it so much more difficult) to focus on “the experience itself” when the experience is a visual one? Here, I confess, it seems to me that Moore (and his followers) might be in the grip of an intellectual illusion. Think of it this way: what would visual experience be like if it weren’t “as if it were diaphanous”?

What’s interesting about this question is that there are obvious answers. One thing we might take Moore to be pointing out is that our relation to our visual experience isn’t like our relation to a painting or a photograph. When we’re looking at a painting or a photograph, we can focus, in a straightforward sense, on the painting or the photograph itself, as opposed to the things it represents (on the representing, rather than the represented, in Wilfrid Sellars’s helpful terminology). This is especially clear in the case of less realistic paintings of ordinary scenes––for example: impressionist paintings.

But if you want to learn about the properties of your visual experience, why think that you need to “step back” in that way? As if you could look at the surface of your visual experience in the way you can look at the surface of a painting? Why not think that the way to learn about your visual experience is simply to attend to the objects you (seem to) see, and to how they look (which, after all, we rarely do)? Why think that attending to the properties of your visual experience itself requires anything else?

Soteriou mentions, in this connection, the case of blurry vision. One thing that the possibility of blurry vision suggests is that, on occasion, at least, the medium of vision does (seem to us to) “get in the way of” our experience of the object. In other words: when your vision is blurry, it’s actually not that hard to focus on the representing as opposed to the represented.

On reflection, though, I don’t find this suggestion any more plausible than Moore’s original claim. In this case, as in any other, if you want to attend to the features of your experience itself, you can do that best by attending to how the objects around you look. We might want to say, in this case, that more of the experience itself is revealed to us than in a typical case precisely because the way things now look––with blurry vision––is so different from the way they are. But, again, what does this really mean? When your vision isn’t blurry, do things really look the way they are? Look at a sign that’s really far away: does it look the way it is? How close to it do you have to be before it will look just the way it is? Is there a perfect distance (and strength of vision) that reveals to us the real (visually perceptible) properties of objects? Surely not.

Moore’s remark thus strikes me as dangerous, at least if taken in a certain way. For it seems to me that the very attempt to see or attend to the “diaphanous” medium “through” which we ordinarily see the world already involves a mistaken conception of consciousness: as if consciousness were the canvas on which the world of experience was painted.

But, in defense of Moore: any good refutation of idealism would surely reject this picture of consciousness. There is thus good reason to doubt that Moore’s point was that we just need to figure out how to get our attention turned onto consciousness itself, rather than to the objects it seems to reveal to us. Either that, or Moore didn’t provide much of a refutation of idealism.

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