If you haven’t noticed, Alva Noë’s enactive theory of perception has been taking a beating lately. Many philosophers have pushed back against Noë’s supposed strong claims about the constitution of visual perception. For example, take the following claim of Noë:
The central claim of what I call the enactive approach is that our ability to perceive not only depends on, but is constituted by, our possession of this sort of sensorimotor knowledge.
Philosophers like Jesse Prinz read this in the strongest possible sense. Responding to Noë, Prinz says:
In vision, for example, we deploy skills of pattern recognition; we know how to discriminate colors without knowing that they are constituted by thus and such physical magnitudes; and we explore the scenes by focusing, scanning, and surveying with our senses. Moreover, no one would deny causal interactions between action and perception: shifting our eyes can change what we see, and what we see can incite us to prepare different motor responses. The thesis becomes controversial when Noë says, “to perceive you must be in possession of sensorimotor bodily skill” (p. 11). Two things stand out about such claims. First, the term “sensorimotor” makes explicit reference to output capacities, and, second, the term “must” implies that the perceiving necessarily involves such capacities. I interpret Noë to mean the following: perception cannot take place (in us? in any naturally evolved creature?) without engaging the mental processes that underwrite our capacity to move. One way to make sense of this necessity thesis is to argue that there is a constitutive relation between perception and action. On this interpretation, the mental processes that enable us to act are literally components of the mental processes that allow us to perceive. I am fairly confident that this is the view that Noë wishes to defend. He often says that, in perceiving, we must use knowledge of sensorimotor contingencies, which implies, that perceptual mechanisms work by registering how stimulation will change when motor effectors are engaged.
In order to defend Noë, I will argue that Prinz misunderstands the scope of Noë’s claim about perception “depending” on certain sensorimotor skills. Prinz takes this claim to mean that there is no visual experience without activating the mental processes underwriting locomotion itself i.e. broad limb control. Prinz takes “sensorimotor skill” to then mean moving the body around through efferent nerves. But this obviously leads to problems when you consider how people can have visual experience without those motor programs being operative. How then to rescue the strong constitutive claims of enactive theory?
First of all, as far as I can tell, when Noë is careful, he only claims that our ability to perceive depends on certain sensorimotor skills. And as far I see it, this thesis is almost certainly true in terms of visual perception provided “sensorimotor skill” is understood within its proper scope. For example, it is almost certainly true that normal visual perception depends on saccadic motion moving the eyes 3-4 times a second. Saccadic motion depends on tacit sensorimotor skills. Therefore, vision depends on sensorimotor skills.
I don’t think Noë’s argument about dependence needs to be read any stronger than this. And if I am right, then Prinz’s entire argument against Noë is misplaced since his reading of enactive perception is too strong. This also applies to Andy Clark’s recent criticisms of Noë.