Philosophical Studies

, Volume 166, Issue 3, pp 429–454 | Cite as

Seeing absence

  • Anna FarennikovaEmail author


Intuitively, we often see absences. For example, if someone steals your laptop at a café, you may see its absence from your table. However, absence perception presents a paradox. On prevailing models of perception, we see only present objects and scenes (Marr, Gibson, Dretske). So, we cannot literally see something that is not present. This suggests that we never literally perceive absences; instead, we come to believe that something is absent cognitively on the basis of what we perceive. But this cognitive explanation does not do justice to the phenomenology. Many experiences of absence possess immediate, perceptual qualities. One may further argue that the ability to detect certain absences confers strong adaptive advantage and therefore must be as primitive and fundamental to humans as seeing positive things. I argue that we can literally see absences; in addition to representing objects, perception represents absences of objects. I present a model of seeing absence based on visual expectations and a visual matching process. The phenomenon of seeing absence can thus serve as an adequacy-test for a theory of perceptual content. If experiences of absence are possible, then we have another reason (following Siegel) to reject the view that perceptual content is restricted to colors and shapes. Furthermore, if the proposed account is correct, then we have grounds for dissociating seeing absence from other imagery-based phenomena termed “perceptual presence-in-absence” (Noë, Macpherson).


Perceptual content Visual experience Perception of absence Phenomenal character Memory Imagination 


  1. Bar, M. (2003). A cortical mechanism for triggering top-down facilitation in visual object recognition. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15, 600–609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bar, M. (2004). Visual objects in context. Nature Review: Neurosciences, 5, 617–629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bayne, T. (2009). Perception and the reach of phenomenal content. Philosophical Quarterly, 59(236), 385–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bubic, A., von Cramon, Y., Jacobsen, T., Schröger, E., & Schubotz, R. (2009). Violation of expectation: Neural correlates reflect bases of prediction. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(1), 155–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Casati, R. (2006). The cognitive science of holes and cast shadows. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(2), 54–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Casati, R., & Varzi, A. (1994). Holes and other superficialities. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  7. Clark, Austen. (2004). Feature-placing and proto-objects. Philosophical Psychology, 17(4), 443–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clark, A. Whatever next: Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Forthcoming.Google Scholar
  9. Dennett, D. (1992). Consciousness explained. New York: Back Bay Books.Google Scholar
  10. Dretske, F. (1969). Seeing and knowing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  11. Dretske, F. (2004). Seeing, believing and knowing. In R. Schwartz (Ed.), Perception (pp. 337–353). London: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  12. Dretske, F. (2006). Perception without awareness. In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Esterman, M., & Yantis, S. (2010). Perceptual expectation evokes category-selective cortical activity. Cerebral Cortex, 20(5), 1245–1253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fenske, M. J., Aminoff, E., Gronau, N., & Bar, M. (2006). Top-down facilitation of visual object recognition: Object-based and context-based contributions. Progress in Brain Research, 155, 3–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gibson, J. J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. London: George Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  16. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  17. Gregory, R. L. (1974). Choosing a paradigm for perception. In E. C. Carterette & M. P. Friedman (Eds.), Handbook of perception: Volume I Historical and philosophical roots of perception. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  18. Kahneman, D., Treisman, A., & Gibbs, B. J. (1992). The reviewing of object files: Object-specific integration of information. Cognitive Psychology, 24, 175–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kirchner, H., & Thorpe, S. (2006). Ultra-rapid object detection with saccadic eye movements: Visual processing speed revisited. Vision Research, 46, 1762–1776.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Jovanovic.Google Scholar
  21. Kosslyn, S. M. (1980). Image and mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Kosslyn, S. M. (1994). Image and brain: The resolution of imagery debate. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  23. Kumaran, D., & Maguire, E. A. (2006). An unexpected sequence of events: Mismatch detection in the human hippocampus. PLoS Biology, 4(12), 2372–2382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kveraga, K., Boshyan, J., & Bar, M. (2009). The proactive brain: Using memory-based predictions in visual recognition. In S. Dickinson, M. Tarr, A. Leonardis, & B. Schiele (Eds.), Object categorization: Computer and human vision perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Lin, E., & Murphy, G. (1997). Effects of background knowledge on object categorization and part detection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 23(4), 1153–1169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Macpherson, F. (2006). Ambiguous figures and the content of experience. Nous, 40, 82–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Marr, D. (1982). Vision. A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  28. Matey, J. (under review). Can blue mean four?Google Scholar
  29. Miller, J., & Schröter, H. (2002). Online response preparation in a rapid serial visual search task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 28(6), 1364–1390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Moulton, S. T., & Koesslyn, S. M. (2009). Imagining predictions: Mental imagery as mental emulation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, B Biological Sciences, 364, 1273–1280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Noë, A. (2006). Experience without the head. In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience (pp. 411–433). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. O’Callaghan, C. (2011). On privations and their perception. Acta Analytica, 26, 175–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pomplun, M., Sichelschmidt, L., Wagner, K., Clermont, T., Rickheit, G., & Ritter, H. (2001). Comparative visual search: A difference that makes a difference. Cognitive Science, 25, 3–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Price, R. (2009). Aspect-switching and visual phenomenal character. Philosophical Quarterly, 59(236), 508–518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Prinz, J. (2006). Beyond appearances: The content of sensation and perception. In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience (pp. 434–460). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rensink, R. A. (1999). Sensing, seeing, and scrutinizing. Vision Research, 40, 1469–1487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rensink, R. A. (2004). Visual sensing without seeing. Psychological Science, 15(1), 27–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sartre, J. P. (1956). Being and nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library.Google Scholar
  39. Siegel, S. (2006). Which properties are represented in perception? In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience (pp. 481–503). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Siegel, S. (2009). The visual experience of causation. The Philosophical Quarterly, 59(236), 519–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Siegel, S. (2010). The contents of visual experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Sorensen, R. (2008a). Hearing silence: The perception and introspection of absences. In M. Nudds & C. O’Callaghan (Eds.), Sounds and perception: New philosophical essays. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Sorensen, R. (2008b). Seeing dark things. The Philosophy of Shadows. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Speaks, J. (2010). Intentionalism and attention. The Philosophical Quarterly, 60(239), 325–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Summerfield, C., & Egner, T. (2009). Expectation (and attention) in visual cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(9), 403–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Summerfield, C., & Koechlin, E. (2008). A neural representation of prior information during perceptual inference. Neuron, 59(2), 336–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Tsal, Y., & Kolbet, L. (1985). Disambiguating ambiguous figures by selective attention. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Philosophy, 37, 25–37.Google Scholar
  48. Wright, E. (1977). Perception: A new theory. American Philosophical Quarterly, 14, 273–286.Google Scholar
  49. Yardley, H., Perlovsky, H. L., & Bar, M. (2012). Predictions and incongruency in object recognition: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. In: Detection and identification of rare audiovisual cues. Studies in computational intelligence series. Springer Publishing.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

Personalised recommendations