Successful Perceiving

What is a good perception?  Suppose I witness a crime and am asked to identify the criminal.  I pick him out of a line up.  The police secure a search warrant and find evidence connecting him to the crime.  However, at trial, my testimony is obviously weak.  The lawyer gets me to admit that it was a dark and moonless night, that I was distracted, that I only glimpsed the criminal, etc.  She asks her final question: “Did you get a good look at the criminal?”  I’m forced to admit that I didn’t.  This example raises some questions in the philosophy of perception.  What exactly is a “good look”?  Why is my look good enough to secure a search warrant?  Why isn’t it good enough at trial, in spite of the fact I accurately identified the criminal?

I offer broadly pragmatic answers to these questions.  I argue that a good perception is a successful perception, where successfulness is relative to an aim (whether epistemic or practical) and to a reliable method for achieving that aim.  I argue against the two predominant positions (1) that perceptions cannot be good because they are passive and (2) that good perceptions are accurate perceptions.  The first position fails to appreciate that perception is active and that activities over which we lack basic voluntary control can be normatively assessed for the roles they play in helping us achieve our aims.  The criminal case above is a counterexample to the second position, and I offer others.

Defended March 2010

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