Auditory perception and the nature of sounds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy Psychology & Language


The research I propose to undertake develops an account of auditory perception and of the nature of sounds. Auditory perception is poorly understood, and there are a number of questions that need to be answered by an account. First, what is the nature and content of auditory experience? In particular, what does auditory experience represent? The obvious answer is that it represents sounds; but there are good reasons / and some empirical evidence / for thinking that auditory experience also represents the sources of sounds and their properties. An account of auditory experience needs to explain how our auditory experience represents the sources of sounds, and what the connection is between the sounds we experience and how our experience represents the sources of those sounds. Secondly, what are sounds? There is no widely accepted answer to this question. Sounds are produced by physical events and yet are often thought to be subjective or otherwise insubstantial. An account of the nature of sounds should explain how they relate to the physical world and to the things which produce them, and whether we can individuate them independently of auditory experience.

The account of auditory perception that I am developing answers these questions. It is usually thought that an account of auditory perception should simply be an account of the perception of sounds. I argue that this is mistaken: our experience of sounds is the result of a process whose function is the perception of the sources of sounds. Sounds are simply the objects of experiences produced by a process that functions in this way. Although it seems to follow from this that sounds are experience-dependent, it doesn't follow that they are subjective or mental objects; sounds are patterns or structures instantiated by the soundwaves produced by the sources of sounds. We perceive sounds, but only as part of a process which functions to perceive objects and events around us. I argue that we hear objects as the sources of the sounds we hear / that we experience sounds as having been produced by their sources. This makes auditory perception, unlike visual perception, a kind of mediated perception. Perceiving objects involves perceiving sounds which are patterns in the medium through which information about those objects is transmitted. It follows that auditory experience can be misleading in ways that visual experience cannot be; that is, by veridically representing a sound but misrepresenting the source of that sound. There are a number of little known auditory illusions that are best explained in just these terms.


10 25 50