“Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” –Immanuel Kant
In 1954, researchers Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril had a paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. In their research they surveyed participants who watched a particular football game. They found that the results “indicate that the ‘game’ was actually many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as ‘real’ to a particular person as other versions were to other people”. Not only that, but Hadley and Cantril found that the participants’ interpretations of events were biased towards the teams in which they were emotionally invested.
How is it that people can see the same thing and have different interpretations about what they are seeing? In philosophy, naive realism is the position that we have direct access to knowledge of the world as it actually is through perception. In social psychology, naive realism is the inclination to believe that we see the world around us objectively. Any disagreement between people is believed to be either due to lack of accurate information, poor reasoning, or bias. Naive realism helps us understand many cognitive biases, i.e., systematic errors in thinking. One disturbing implication of the social psychology literature is that naive realism leads us to significantly overestimate our objectivity, even when we are aware of our biases and take them into account. Therefore, it can be incredibly difficult for us to be objective, if that’s even possible.
In his influential work Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant attempted to reconcile two schools of thought about how we come to know things: empiricism and rationalism. The empiricists argued that we come to know about the world through the senses while rationalists asserted it was through reason. According to Kant, both accounts of knowledge, though they had important points, were incomplete. Knowledge isn’t purely a product of reason or sensory experience. It is a product of both.
Psychologist Jean Piaget took some of Kant’s thinking and developed the idea of the schema. Kant argued that sense data has no meaning or structure without something that can structure it and give it meaning, i.e., an innate structure. Piaget’s schemes are units of knowledge, or models, that provide a structural framework for understanding the world and interpreting information. Together, they create a kind of mental architecture composed of models that connect, intersect, and reference each other in a kind of metaphorical web of concepts, ideas, and images.
Consider your concept of “dog”. You likely have an intuitive understanding of what a dog is: generally, a four-legged animal that has fur, teeth, a tail, and barks (among other things). You are also likely to be able to differentiate dogs from cats, because you know that although cats are generally four-legged animals that have fur, teeth, and tails, they meow instead of bark (among other things). Your schemas for “cat” and “dog” also likely fit under a more general category called “mammal” and you have an understanding of what these particular mammals have in common with other mammals (e.g., being warm blooded).
According to both Kant and Piaget, we cannot have knowledge without these structures as sensory data would lack meaning and context and the mind takes a very active role in constructing our experiences of the world and how we relate to them. Therefore, we do not have direct access to reality and what we do have access to is a kind of construction by our minds with the building blocks of sense data organized around schemes.
Okay – now that we have all of that out of the way, let’s consider a hypothetical transgender woman and let’s name her Katy. Depending on who you ask, Katy is different things. If you ask a social conservative, you might hear that Katie is just a mentally ill man in a dress. If you ask a trans-inclusive feminist, you might hear that Katie is, in fact, a woman. Both of these perspectives are the result of constructions of reality specific to the individuals constructing them.
Does this mean that both are right about Katy? Well, not exactly. Even though perception is subjective, it does not necessarily mean that all views are equally valid. One of the functions of reason and science is to help us arrive at a better understanding of the world, where “better” is more useful.