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Could Semantic Properties be perceived in Written Language?

The case for Semasthesia


Javier Anta (CCiL), 2016
Philosophy and Cognitive Science
Universitat de Barcelona

ABSTRACT
The purpose of this paper is to answer whether certain language specific properties, mainly semantic
properties, are visual perceived in written language contexts or not. In addition to the perceptual content, we
also will pay attention to the wide manifold of perceptual experiences linked to each particular condition.
From the diversity of visual phenomenology we could inference, by means of Siegels argument, that there
must be something in perceptual content (e.g. namely, some fine-grained properties) causing differences in
visual experiences. We will argue that meaning is not one of those properties perceived in written language
(neither in speech, according to OCallaghan), thought semantic properties are decisive for explanatories
purposes. In that sense, our proposal is that we might perceive visually meaningfulness or charge of
meaning in a piece of written language.

KEY WORDS
High-level properties. Perceptual content. Semantic properties. Written Language Perception.

1. Introduction: Experiencing Written Language and its Content.


Following OCallaghans general strategy, let suppose we do not have any knowledge nor
competence of Thai language at all, and suddenly, we came across with this symbols on a website,
(a)

Forget now the cognitive process that entails being unable to understand a Thai sentence as (a).
Firstly, we need to ask an essential question about the perceptual content: what is visually
perceived in (a)? To give an answer to this very question depends on how liberal or conservative,
rich or austere is our position concerning the content of perception, but disregarding our particular
position there must be certain common properties from all perspectives as well as there might be
other more controversial properties. We will try to delimitate both.
Secondly, we also need to regard the perceptual phenomenology: what is visually
experienced in (a)? As Siegel underlines, the perceptual experience of (a) is notably different
depending, in our specific case, on being competent or user of Thai language (Ea) or not competent
(Ea). Her argument entails that, based on this phenomenological difference, there must be a
difference in its perceptual content that also implies a difference in the high-level properties
contained in (a) and (a). The strength of Siegels argument lay on the fact that the differences
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between two overall experiences are successful explained by the difference in the content of this
two visual experience, which might imply they have different contents, and from difference in
content might follow that they have different properties as well1. It occurs the case of having
competence with Thai, which can be instanced in in two different minds where one is Thai
competent (Ea) and the other not (Ea) and also strongly, in the very same mind but in two different
moments with a learning time between (Ea) and (Ea). These are the two paradigmatic cases of
phenomenal difference. Nevertheless, it would be interesting for the sake of our analysis to take
into account other kinds of phenomenal difference, much more subtleties than the paradigmatic
ones, and check if different high-level properties could explain the variety of experiences. In our
case, we will argue that there are certain high-level language specific properties, namely, semantic
properties with a very specific characterization (it will be properly defined later), which will give
a satisfactory explanation of this manifold of different perceptual experiences. In this sense, we
aim to synthetize the two main perspectives in the current debate on whether the meaning is
something perceptible: the against perceive meaning position (OCallaghan) and pro-semantic
properties view (Siegel, Bayne and Reiland) in our proposal to solve the puzzle of semantic
properties in visual content2.

2. Written Language Properties in Visual Content and its Phenomenal Manifold


Imagine you came across with (a) and you know nothing of Thai language but the fact that
(a) is written actually in Thai alphabet because you are familiarized at some extent with this writing
system (your ex had a tattoo in Thai). Lets call the perceptual experience (E2a) that anyone can
experience under this conditions described (C2), namely, recognition of Thai writing system.
Suppose you learnt a couple of expression in spoken Thai but you know nothing of its written
system (C3), from now on the experience will be labeled as (E3a). The next step is to argue that
the very complexity involved in the perception of language is better explained mainly from the
perceptual field and not from the intervention of the cognitive system in the perceptual realm.
Firstly we will evaluate in a different cognitive abilities scenario which are the properties
of (a) carried in the perceptual content under each condition (C) and its correspondent
differentiated experience (E); in that sense we could analyze whether different visual experiences
are good explained by different contents in perception with different properties. The scenario is:
(Ca) No knowledge of Thai at all: we have an experience of (a) as (Ea) that can be
phenomenogically characterized as visual noise. The perceptual properties are in a
The structure of Sieges argument is what follows: (1) If the overall experience of which E1 is a part differs from
the overall phenomenology of which E2 is a part, then there is a phenomenological difference between the sensory
experiences E1 and E2. (2) If there is a phenomenological difference between the sensory experiences E1 and E2, then
E1 and E2 differ in content. (3) If there is a difference in content between E1 and E2, it is a difference with respect
to K-properties represented in E1 and E2. (Siegel; 2006)
2
This debate would be briefly sketched in this way: Some author as Siegel (2006, 2011) and Bayne (2009) claims that
we can experience the meaning, at that might explain the divergence between experience language being competent
with it and having no competence. OCallaghan (2010, 2011) denies that we can experience semantic properties in
auditive perception in the specific case of speech, also add that phenomenal differences relays on other mid/high-level
properties called language specific properties (LSP). Other philosophers, mainly Reiland (2015), criticizes
OCallaghan argument as a very constraint one by defending experiences of meaning.
1

minimum, mostly low-level, only allows to perceive (a) in a sub-graphematic level, which
means that cannot be distinguished the minimal visual units that linguistically compounds
(a). From this position (a) could be just perceived as a cluster of amorphous lines.
Analogally, if (a) were spoken the auditive perception would be restricted to the subphonemic level.
(C2a) The only ability of recognizing Thai writing system: the phenomenology (E2a) has a
correspondence in the grafematic distinction that implies the visual perception of (a) as
a set of iconically distinguishable unities or, in other words, something that have parts.
Anyone in this situation perceive apart from . Of course, (Ea) has a phenomenology
visually noisier than (E2a).
(C2b) The only ability of recognizing certain Thai spoken expressions: it is the auditive
counterpart of (C2a) as well as (E2b) is the auditive version of phenomenology (E2a).
When listening to those expression from this cognitive condition it is possible to
perceptually distinguish, with very poor accuracy, certain constitutive parts as phonemes
or lexemes.
(C1a) Learning Thai: an intermediate situation between (Ca) and (Ca) with notably visual
recognition of graphemes and words in the string of symbols at some extent. In this position
a Thai learner can localized set of graphemes that are not individualized by low-level
properties (its nearness or position) but by high-level ones: the LSP.
(Ca) Full competence with Thai: all the visual components of (a), graphemes and lexemes, are
easily and quickly recognizable with high level of precision and accuracy, even without
knowledge of what and which are morphemes or lexemes. Its phenomenology (Ea) is
opposed to (Ea) in the sense that when perceptually experiencing (a) in normal condition
there no visual noise but visual comfort, that means that the eye moves through the elements
of (a) with no resistance.

LINGUISTIC. LEVELS

PROPERTIES RELATED

Super-lexemic

Cognition

Lexemic
Graphemic
Sub-graphemic (glyphic)

High-level: LSP and Meaning Charge


Mid-level: Similarity and Interdependence
Low-level: Size, Shape, and Position.

PHENOMENAL DIVERSITY
Ca / Ea
C1a / E1a
C2a & C2b / E2a & E2b
Ca/ Ea

Table 1. Properties of written language in perception.


As all this cases show, what is visually experienced and visually perceived in (a) change
given different cognitive background related to the linguistic competence of (a). Nevertheless, it
wont be necessary to go beyond perception to explain this, as we will argue in the next section.
3. How much complex might be the perception for perceiving semantic properties?

In this section we are going to repeat the steps followed in OCallaghans argument for the
spoken language case, but now translated to the written case. It consist on going up from a
conservative position to a moderate perspective, and then to a liberal view, on which kind of
properties are required for explaining satisfactorily phenomenal diversity. Although, our
conclusion would be different at some extent from the OCallaghans one.
Conservative Position and the Low-Level properties of Written Language.
Lets suppose that we have to explain the variety of perceptual phenomenology (E) from a
conservative position, where the only properties that can be perceived are the low-level ones. In
that point, all the experiences in the scenario above would have the same low-level visual
properties of written language: shape, size-length, (color is irrelevant here) and it would be
perceived its relative position in the linear ordering. Mid/high level properties as semantics one
are totally rejected for explanatory purposes on this level, thought it would be very complicated to
explain phenomenal difference just with this very limited sources.
The conservative view would explain written language perception arguing for visual
discontinuities of (a): can be separated both in graphemic-alphabetic unities like or and in
lexical set of graphemes isolated by the wide central gap of (a):
(ai)

is separated -

Obviously, it strongly depends on the specific writing system of each language. One of the
main reason for using Thai is because of the difference on how it is written and how it is read,
having visual discontinuities in the writing that do not correspond with the reading discontinuities,
and in a certain way, also in the way it is perceived.
(aj)
(b)

Pheuuanginhaangaay-pheuuandtaayhaayak (Transliteration of (a))

Both (aj) and (b) are separated by - in two sentences. Nevertheless, the sentences of (aj)
and (b) have not the same discontinuities, because for instance you see four graphemic separations
in while you read it as pheuuan with no separation. That plainly means that (E2a)
and (E2b) are irreducible one to the other, though both perceptual experiences would have the
same discontinuities (low-level properties) on (aii) in their perceptual content. The property that
make possible to distinguish (E2a) and (E2b) have to be found in higher levels.
In that sense, how the visual capacity of perceiving discontinuities can explain the
phenomenal difference between (Ea) and (Ea), (Ea) and (E1a) or (Ea)? If (aj) has exactly the
same discontinuities in the visual content of someone with no knowledge of Thai (Ca) nor Thai
written system (C2a), with few spoken Thai expression (C2a), in learning process of Thai (C1a)

or full proficiency of Thai (Ca); then, visual discontinuities argument3 of the conservative view is
not explanatorily sufficient.
Moderate Position and the Mid-level properties of Written Language.
The upper level is to support a moderate position on which are the properties perceived in
written language. Keeping our methodological analogy with OCallaghan analyses of spoken
language case, we need to check if mid-level perceptual properties as similarity, on one hand, and
interdependence of graphemic components, on the other, are sufficient and/or necessaries for
explain phenomenal divergence.
Let assume firstly that the cognitive agents of (Ca), (C2a) and (C2b) would perceive not
just that some graphemes of (a) are repeated along the string of symbols, but also that there is a
pattern of repetition (colored in blue and green in (aiii)) between the two sentential parts of (a),
(ah)

Just for the sake of comparing, the spoken (transliterated) case would be,
(bi)

Pheuuanginhaangaay-pheuuandtaayhaayak

From that perspective, the repetition of identical graphemes only implies a quite developed
visual capacity of pattern recognition. Even supposing that (Ca), (C2a) and (C2b) are highly
mastered in pattern recognition and can tell all the repeated and not repeated set of graphemes, still
its perceptual experiences are not the same (Ea), (E2a) and (E2b) than (Ea) precisely because the
elements of (a) are perceived in a more systemic and integrative way from (Ca) having an
experience (Ea) that may not be aware of how set of graphemes occurs in (a). A weaker form of
similarity would be even worst in explanatory terms. That and are graphemic symbols with
very close low-level visual properties (its common vertical trace), does not tell us anything about
why (E2a) and (Ea) experienced perceptually them in a quite different manner.
Beside how fast, visually precise or accurate in pattern recognition might be any perceptual
experience of written language, its phenomenal idiosyncrasy begin with the Language-Specific
Properties4 (LSP). From a moderate position you can support LSP claiming the visual perception
of light interdependences of graphemes, which may be reflected in its phenomenology:
(ag)

(ak)

While (Ca) and (C2a) have the same perceptual phenomenology concerning (ag) and (ak),
from (Ca) it would be possible to experience (ag) has having certain visual comfort as well as to
experience (ak) as suffering from a kind of visual discomfort, still without knowing the
grammatical rule which claims that (ag) constitutes a part of Thai language and (ak) does not.
Obviously, this properties seem to be rather necessaries for our purpose, but still not sufficient.
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Visual Discontinuities Argument as it have been developed in this section of the paper, it also would be barely
defined as follow: from all the visually discrete unities (graphemes, words, sentences, etc) that compounds a written
language piece as (a) could explain its different visual experiences.
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Language-Specific Properties are those properties in perceptual content that are intrinsic to linguistic phenomena.

Liberal Position and the High-Level properties of Written Language.


The most sophisticate position concerning properties in perceptual content is the liberal
one or rich perspective. This entails the belief that the perceptual system is strong enough as to
grasp certain high-level properties, which applied to our case it would imply the claiming that
some complex LSP and/or semantics properties (and which ones) in the written language are
perceived. May be this view the key for characterizing differences in perceptual content and
phenomenology?
We apply the OCallaghans argument in the case of written language to defend that the
meaning is not a semantic property that can be perceived. Then, let take the case of homographs
words:
(c)

stand for (i) address, (j) close, (k) desert and (h) present

The homography in writing, as the homophony in speech, means that very different words
with its very different meaning are written with the same string of graphemic symbols. In the case
of (c) the homograph words have largely separated meanings among each other. Supposing that
we can see the meaning, then, due to the existence of phenomena as homography, we need to
perceive the very sensitivity of this set of graphemes to the context to perceive the correct meaning
in its word (a high-level relation upon high-level properties), which seems to exceed by far the
capacity of the perceptual system.
Nevertheless, we do not support the OCallaghans claiming that both apparent semantic
properties in general and the meaning within auditional content could be reduced to certain LSP
intrinsic properties as for instance homophony. The very presence of some LSP in visual contend
lead us to consider that some semantic phenomena it is happening in perception, although it has to
be other thing than meaning. We assert, following OCallaghan, that we cannot see the meaning
in a writing; but, in opposition to him, we may say we can see (and have the visual experience of)
a certain semantic disposition in written language under certain cognitive background.
As a previous pay for its explanatory potential, for high-level theorist it is required to draw
lines on which properties are perceived and which not. Firstly, we can postulate the integrated or
systemic linguistic interdependence of all the elements of (a) as high-level LSP in perception. It
does not claim other thing that the visual perception of (a) as a linguistic piece of information and
a cluster of interrelated linguistic elements. There is no need in saying that this is not a linguistic
cognitive process because there is not cognitive penetration in the perceptual field but a perceptual
readiness for (a) to be cognitively processed that can be experienced in visual perception (as is
the case of (Ea) and at some extent of (E1a)) as a sort of visual comfort. Secondly, and because
of being perceived as a cluster of linguistic information, (a) also can being perceived as having
sematic charge. This does not mean that in (Ca) you can see the meaning of (a) as we had
underlined before, but you can perceive in (a) its systemic pre-disposition for functionally
referring to some extensions5: its meaningfulness or charge of meaning.

This extensions only can be linguistically determined in cognition, obviously not in perception.

As it have been argued above, the liberal position offers an extremely satisfactory as well
as a quite simple way to explain the phenomenal manifold of our scenario, just by appealing to
certain semantic properties defined in the last paragraph. Explaining the same from a conservative
or moderate position would be, by far, much more complex precisely because it would require to
appeal to estrange interconnections among low and mid-level properties in written language.

4. Conclusion: The case for Semasthesia.


At this point, we would answer to the title of this paper that, yes, we could perceive
semantic properties in written language though not the meaning, because of its excessive
complexity of processing, but the meaningfulness or its meaning charge. We have not just
rehearsed OCallaghan argument, we have also separated the semantic properties that could be
perceived in vision, the charge of meaning or meaningfulness, from those that cannot be perceived,
like the bare meaning; synthetizing an against perceive meaning position, like OCallaghan, with
a view that support semantic properties in perceptual content, like Siegel or Reiland.
The dispositional feature of this high-level LSP depicts the readiness of perception for
language processing, as a process that involves cognition in a wide holistic way. Though meaning
is a property of language that cannot be seen as we roughly see the symbols that compound words
and sentences, supporting human semasthesia (for sema meaningful and aesthesis sensation)
from a liberal or pro-richness position is claiming that the informational richness of language is
something which yet occurs in perception and not exclusively after in central cognition.
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OCallaghan, C. 2011. Against Hearing Meanings. Philosophical Quarterly, 245, pp. 783-807
Reiland, I. 2014. On Experiencing High-Level Properties. American Philosophical Quarterly,
51, pp. 177-187
Reiland, I. 2015. On Experiencing Meanings Southern Journal of Philosophy, 53, 2015, pp.
481-492
Siegel, S. 2006. Which Properties are Represented in Perception? Perceptual Experience. Ed.
T. S. Gendler, J. Hawthorne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 481-503
Bayne, T. 2009. Perception and the Reach of Phenomenal Content. Philosophical Quarterly,
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