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Bodily awareness and novel multisensory features


According to the decomposition thesis, perceptual experiences resolve without remainder into their different modality-specific components. Contrary to this view, I argue that certain cases of multisensory integration give rise to experiences representing features of a novel type. Through the coordinated use of bodily awareness—understood here as encompassing both proprioception and kinaesthesis—and the exteroceptive sensory modalities, one becomes perceptually responsive to spatial features whose instances couldn’t be represented by any of the contributing modalities functioning in isolation. I develop an argument for this conclusion focusing on two cases: 3D shape perception in haptic touch and experiencing an object’s egocentric location in crossmodally accessible, environmental space.

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  1. 1.

    My arguments for these conclusions are intended to remain neutral with respect to foundational debates in the epistemology and metaphysics of perception, including the debate between externalism and internalism and between representationalism and relationalism/naïve realism. Thanks to an anonymous referee for requesting me to be clear on this point.

  2. 2.

    See Rohde et al. (2016) and the essays collected in Trommershäuser et al. (2011) for useful overviews.

  3. 3.

    An anonymous referee expresses skepticism that “vision on its own suffices for the perception of voluminous, 3D shape.” I don’t think that such skepticism is well-motivated. It is true that multiple fixations (glances) may be required in some cases to reveal an object’s overt 3D structure and, hence, that proprioceptive-kinaesthetic information about eye movements may sometimes play a role in shape processing. It isn’t possible to generalize from this, however, to the conclusion that the perception of 3D shape always depends on proprioceptive-kinaesthetic information. Indeed, an opaque object’s shape may be completely revealed, I take it, to a passive observer under certain conditions. (Imagine, for example, viewing a cube rotating on an axis passing through the cube’s center and two of its vertices.) There is also a large body of psychophysical evidence that stimulus-driven mechanisms of amodal completion generate representations of self-occluded, 3D object structure (Tse 1998, 1999, 2017). For philosophically oriented discussions, see Briscoe (2008, 2011, 2018).

  4. 4.

    Helpful reviews of experimental findings include Roll et al. (1991), Lackner and DiZio (2005), and Taylor et al. (2017).

  5. 5.

    I’m not going to take a stand here on whether that structure is merely property-involving, as Fulkerson suggests, or instead involves elements that function to pick out environment particulars, e.g., “singular applications” in the sense of Burge (2010).

  6. 6.

    de Vignemont (2014), following Weber, defend a pressure theory of cutaneous touch. On their account, cutaneous touch is the direct perception of a symmetrical relation in which one feels pressure between a part of the body and some external object. Hence, cutaneous touch typically assigns features both to the object exerting pressing on a region R of the bodily surface and to R at the same time.

  7. 7.

    See, however, Longo and Haggard (2010, 2011), Longo et al. (2012), and Longo (2014) for evidence that this representation is systematically distorted in surprising ways.

  8. 8.

    For other empirical findings that support this conclusion, see Howard and Templeton (1966), Berthoz (2000), Lackner and DiZio (2005), and Taylor et al. (2017).

  9. 9.

    See Donaldson (2000) and Bridgeman (2010) for historically oriented reviews of psychological work on VDP. See Husserl (1907/1997) for an interesting and rich philosophical discussion of the role of kinaesthesis in visual space perception as well as Hatfield (1990), Gallagher (2005), Schwenkler (2014), Briscoe (2014), and Briscoe and Grush (2017) for further philosophical assessments.

  10. 10.

    “The role of efference copy and of extraretinal signals generally…,” Bridgeman suggests, “appears to be to inform the brain about static eye position during visual fixation, the time between saccades when the retina is transducing the visual world reliably. It does not support space constancy” (2010, p. 105). For other assessments, see Bridgeman et al. (1994), Deubel (2004), and Wurtz (2017).

  11. 11.

    David Katz, in The World of Touch (1925/1989), poses a similar anti-decompositionalist objection with respect to the role of kinaesthesis in texture discrimination: “Make a movement over your desk pad, and feel its quality of ‘soft roughness.’ This impression builds up during the movement, without having even the slightest trace of movement as a component in itself…. To be sure, one subjectively experiences the movement of the touch organ when it seizes upon the texture of a surface, but the movement does not thereby become a component of the surface touch” (Katz 1925/1989, p. 80, emphasis added).

  12. 12.

    Compare Thomas Reid’s denial in his Inquiry that our perceptual conceptions of tangible properties like hardness and extension resolve into the proprioceptive, kinaesthetic, and tactual sensations elicited in us when we touch them. For a valuable discussion, see Buras (2015).

  13. 13.

    Sources of proprioceptive-kinaesthetic information perform an analogously important function in spatial vision when both the eyes and head are moving, for example, during exercise of the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). See Fetter (2007) and Medendorp (2011) for discussion.

  14. 14.

    The structure of my argument here closely mirrors the structure of one of O’Callaghan’s (2017) arguments for intermodal apparent motion. I have focused in this section on the experience of object motion relative to a stationary subject. See Schwenkler (2014) for an argument that self-motion relative to a stationary object or 3D scene also figures among the admissible contents of visual experience.

  15. 15.

    An anonymous referee brings up the case of Ian Waterman [see Cole (1991) for a detailed description and the marvelous BBC Horizon documentary “The Man Who Lost His Body”]. Waterman suffers total deafferentation of his body from the neck down and, thus, has no sense of touch or proprioception in his torso or limbs. “Did this lead to deficits in visual object localization,” the referee asks, “as the author’s view might predict?” My reply, in brief, is that Waterman’s intact proprioception and kinaesthesis from the neck up afford information about eye and head position sufficient for perceptually locating objects in an egocentric frame of reference. My view doesn’t predict visuospatial deficits in this case, and Waterman doesn’t exhibit them. See Gallagher (2005), chapter two, for a careful discussion of Waterman’s case and further considerations in support of this assessment.


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Early versions of this paper were presented at the Multimodal Perception workshop held at the University of Antwerp in April 2015 and the Senses and Crossmodal Perception conference held at the University of Berne in October 2016. I’m grateful to Fiona Macpherson, Bence Nanay, Mohan Matthen, Matthew Nudds, and especially Casey O’Callaghan for helpful discussions and encouragement. I would also like to thank four anonymous referees for insightful comments and questions that resulted in many improvements. This article was completed with the generous support of the US-UK Fulbright Commission (Grant No. C5E1C25997U), while I was Fulbright-Scotland Visiting Professor at the University of Glasgow (2017–2018).

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Correspondence to Robert Eamon Briscoe.

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Briscoe, R.E. Bodily awareness and novel multisensory features. Synthese (2019).

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  • Multisensory perception
  • Proprioception
  • Kinaesthesis
  • Egocentric space
  • Haptic touch
  • Crossmodal perception