Back in August, I wrote a post entitled “Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?,” responding to a talk by Prof. Irfan Khawaja of Felician College. Now Prof. Khawaja has written a thoughtful response to my post, which is available here.
I probably won’t have time to response again to Prof. Khawaja at length, but suffice it to say that, while he makes some valid criticisms of my post in the first section of his piece, I agree with him that the core of our dispute traces back to the question of the nature of perception. Specifically, I maintain that perceptions and theories intermingle, and he strongly disagrees. I probably (even for such a long post) wrote too hastily on this point, skipping past some crucial steps to go right into talking about perception “depending” on “theories.” It’s much better to approach this subject by asking whether our perceptions are affected by our interpretations of them, or, put another way, by what we think they are.
I find the evidence for a positive answer to this question to be overwhelming, though I realize that this affronts the sensibilities and intuitions of the Western mindset since the Enlightenment. In lieu of defending this idea myself, for the time being I will refer interested readers to what I consider the definitive case for this idea: Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances (especially the first third — though I should say there are key parts of that and the rest of the book with which I disagree). It’s a short and bracing read.
Also, coming back to Alasdair MacIntyre — the philosopher whose work sparked the original discussion between myself and Prof. Khawaja — a similarly provocative account on the theory-perception question can be found in the chapter “‘Fact’, Explanation and Expertise” from After Virtue. MacIntyre also alludes to Kant’s crucial work on this question in The Critique of Pure Reason (see Wikipedia for a decent, very short overview). Finally, if you’re interested in a take on this subject from a less philosophical and more intuitive or experiential standpoint — which is, after all, closer to the subject under dispute here — I highly recommend Alain De Botton’s delightful book The Architecture of Happiness, which is about how our senses of what we find beautiful and ugly arise from associations and ideas that usually reside below our conscious awareness.