According to some analyzes, the intentional content of perception is entirely conceptual. One can not perceive an object without mobilizing some concept of that object and without forming, or being willing to form, any belief about it.
(The Müller-Lyer illusion is an exemplary case of optical illusion showing that perception is also a matter of cognition. Müller-Lyer’s illusion is a famous distorted perceptive optical illusion that boils down to an arrow. When an observer is asked to place a mark in the middle of the figure, it will invariably be placed towards the tail.)
Perception is thus conceived as a form of knowledge that relates a perceiving subject to a perceived fact. For Wilfrid Sellars and John McDowell, it belongs to the “reason space” and implies a “propositional” type of knowledge, able of providing a report on the world.
Sellars, then McDowell, denounce what they call the “myth of the given,” to which both classical empiricists and partisans of logical empiricism adhere. According to this “myth,” perception is a preconceptual datum independent of the conceptual capacities of background and the theories available to the subject. This characteristic of “raw” perception is that it is the foundation of all our beliefs about the world. In contrast to this point of view, Sellars considers that it is not possible to understand the world without the exercise of our conceptual and linguistic capacities.
According to an alternative approach to conceptualism, perceptual experiences have a non-conceptual intentional content, allowing a richer and more refined representation of the different aspects of our environment than we grasp conceptually. In this perspective, the phenomenal properties of our perceptual experiences are qualitative contents. To justify this position, Michael Dummett introduces the notion of “protopensee”. A protopensee is characterized by its iconic (or pictorial) nature, unlike a conceptual thought that is necessarily embodied in a language.
According to Fred Dretske, also non-conceptualist, there are two forms of perceptual awareness:
- “Cognitive” perception, which is “steeped in theory”. What we perceive in this sense depends on what we know.
- “Simple” perception, which is independent of the subject’s prior knowledge. It is called “modular” in that it corresponds to mental operations that occur autonomously, unrelated to the conceptual operations of the subject.
Dretske also makes a general distinction between the consciousness of a “thing” and the consciousness of a “fact”. Whereas a thing is a particular entity designated by a singular term, a fact is described by a proposition. The perceptual awareness of a thing is simple, or purely sensory, while the perceptual awareness of facts is cognitive, in the sense that it engages concepts.