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Perceptual Modes of Presentation as Object Files


Some have defended a Fregean view of perceptual content. On this view, the constituents of perceptual contents are Fregean modes of presentation (MOPs). In this paper, I propose that perceptual MOPs are best understood in terms of object files. Object files are episodic representations that store perceptual information about objects. This information is updated when sensory conditions change. On the proposed view, when a subject perceptually represents some object a under two distinct MOPs, then the subject initiates two object files that both refer to a. My defense of this view appeals to its satisfaction of four constraints that I argue theories of perceptual MOPs should satisfy. Furthermore, I show that some existent accounts of perceptual MOPs fail to satisfy them. The defended constraints also indicate what is unique about perceptual, as opposed to linguistic or cognitive, MOPs.

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  1. For discussions of perceptual MOPs of attributes and property-instances, see Chalmers (2004), Thompson (2009), Burge (2010), Schellenberg (2018), and Rescorla (2020). For a discussion of perceptual MOPs of events, see Schellenberg (2018).

  2. For example, how perceptual contents can have distinct objectual constituents but correspond with the same phenomenal character, see Thompson (2009).

  3. For example, consider the inconsistent perceptual attribution expressed by ‘a is to the left of the streetlight’ and ‘b is to the right of the streetlight’ where a = b. This could be re-expressed in thought as ‘a is to the left of the streetlight’ and ‘b is not to the left of the streetlight’.

  4. A perceptual capacity has been understood in different ways. For example, as a capacity to discriminate and single out particulars (Schellenberg 2018) or to detect and differentiate particulars and features (O’Callaghan 2019).

  5. I am assuming that the identity confusion happens after representations stored in perceptual short-term memory.

  6. As further motivation for this assumption, many cases of feature binding, e.g., Treisman (1998), are plausibly construed as attributional.

  7. This is an ideal case of seeing double, where the perceptual system represents two objects in two distinct spatial locations.

  8. I assume that spatial attributions made in both vision and audition can involve the same object.

  9. I leave it as an open empirical question whether there are perceptual Frege cases beyond the attribution of inconsistent spatial properties.

  10. For arguments against this view see O’Callaghan (2014) and Bourget (2017).

  11. Speaks, on the other hand, has appealed to intermodal cases in order to argue against dividing up perceptual intentional modes in this way (see 2015: 179–185).

  12. In a recent discussion, Rescorla (2020) discusses cases of perceptual co-reference from the perspective of Bayesian perceptual psychology. For example, both haptic and visual representations, i.e., Bayesian ‘hypotheses,’ of the size of a distal object can be distinct representations but co-referential for the perceptual system. This is an example, Rescorla suggests, of co-reference of features of perceptual objects.

  13. In Richard et al.’s (2008) experiment, the stimuli were long solid rods with six ‘bites’ (or ‘carvings’) taken out. These bites were either bars or half-circles. Sometimes the stimulus was a single object and sometimes the stimulus was broken up into three objects. The task was to identify the shape of the middle two bites (either bars or half-circles). In the single object condition, reaction times were faster when the middle shape bites (the targets) matched the surrounding other four bites. Alternatively, reaction times were slower when the target was different from the surrounding bites. However, when the object was broken up into three objects, these effects went away. According to O’Callaghan (forthcoming), this is a case that demonstrates differential sensitivity to co-reference. The faster reaction times when there are matching bites, in the single object condition, but not in the multiple objects condition, suggests differential sensitivity to there being one object as opposed to multiple.

  14. Richard et al.’s (2008) design could be turned into a perceptual Frege case. In this hypothetical adaptation, the single object stimulus would be separated by a vertical post in the exact middle of the object. Like the dog case, this object could either be represented as two objects or one. Consider that the subject has a conscious perceptual representation of two distinct objects but exhibits reaction times that are slower when the surrounding bites don’t match the targets (and faster when they do match). These reaction times should be comparable to the results noted above in the single object condition as opposed to the multiple objects condition. In this way, the presence or absence of the reaction time effects would indicate whether the perceptual system is sensitive to the fact that the two objects are co-referential. This sensitivity to co-reference can be indicated while subjects report a conscious perceptual representation of two distinct objects.

  15. We might think that they learn something new phenomenologically, i.e., about what it’s like to undergo visual experiences of ‘a is F’ rather than auditory ones. However, this kind of epistemic gain is not what is under consideration.

  16. The term ‘de re’ is used in different ways in the literature. I use it here to mean singular non-descriptive thinking.

  17. While this connection between perception and thought is widely assumed in contemporary contexts, it is not without its opponents. For example, Russell (1911, 1912) didn’t allow de re thoughts about perceptual objects due to his restrictive views on acquaintance (a necessary condition for such thoughts).

  18. It might be thought that viewing perceptual MOPs as de re requires a Russellian view of perceptual content. On this view, content constituents are composed of objects and properties themselves. However, while Fregean MOPs are often interpreted to involve descriptive contents, theorists have argued that there can also be de re MOPs, e.g., Evans (1982), Bach (1987), and Recanati (2012).

  19. For example, one might also consider perceptual MOPs as types or abstract entities. These abstract MOPs are part of a proposition. Object files would then be token perceptual MOPs of these types.

  20. In a recent paper by Green and Quilty-Dunn (2020), the authors discuss what kind of representation object files are. According to their account, object file representations have a propositional, as opposed to iconic, format. Furthermore, they propose a ‘multiple-slots’ view according to which files store different perceptual features in distinct memory stores.

  21. For a recent discussion of this issue, see Quilty-Dunn and Green (2021). The authors defend a “flexible model” of attributional reference fixation. According to this view, object files can fix reference via attributional information. However, only for certain attributional information depending on contextual parameters. The authors’ view of attributional reference fixation involves primarily the maintenance of reference through time, as opposed to the initial reference fixing (what they call “locking”).

  22. For present purposes, I’ve left this characterization of ‘initiation conditions’ abstract. For more detailed discussions, see Carey (2009) and Burge (2010), who both suggest that the object file system selects and tracks individuals that are three-dimensional, cohesive and bounded. By contrast, Green (2018) has recently argued that the object file system selects and tracks perceptual individuals when they satisfy a more permissive set of organizational principles. Pylyshyn has suggested that “a FINST provides a reference link from an object files to an object in the distal environment, and…it does so in response to a causal/informational event in the world that captures the FINST reference tokens” (2007: 39).

  23. Pylyshyn argues that a variety of empirical phenomena suggest that our visual system includes such a mechanism (see 2007: 22–29).

  24. For example, Bahrami (2003) used a combined MOT and change detection task. They showed that detection of feature changes was better for tracked objects. This suggested that FINSTs (which track objects) are components of object files. Thanks to Jake Quilty-Dunn for bringing these studies to my attention.

  25. I acknowledge that FINSTs are not the only possible perceptual mechanisms for non-satisfactional reference. I’ve only shown that, if we adopt Pylyshyn’s view of FINSTs, then object files meet the singular reference constraint.

  26. For example, Burge challenges the view that there can be FINST indexes that “are not accompanied by any representation that ‘encodes’ a property” (2010: p. 455). This criticism is an instance of Burge’s view that ‘bare’ perceptual reference does not occur. For Burge (2010), perceptual reference must involve some minimal form of perceptual attribution. In this vein, Burge might reject the possibility of de re MOPs as I’ve characterized them here (since they are de re in virtue of utilizing non-satisfactional mechanisms of reference).

  27. As an additional motivation for this point, several theorists have argued that thinking of an individual through a MF is constitutive of de re thought (Jeshion 2001; Jeshion 2010; Recanati 2012). Hence, the view that something like an object file enables de re thinking has precedence in the MF literature.

  28. For some recent discussions, see Schellenberg (2018) and Hill (2021).

  29. For Chalmers, perceptual MOPs correspond with what he calls primary intensions of linguistic expressions (Chalmers 2004, 2006). Primary intensions are functions from possible worlds to extensions. If the primary intension of ‘water’ can be characterized roughly as ‘the drinkable liquid found in oceans and lakes,’ then the primary intension of ‘water’ maps our world, a world in which H2O meets this condition, to H2O. Alternatively, it would map the Twin Earth possible world to XYZ. This is the case since in this other possible world, it is XYZ, not H2O, that meets the condition specified by the primary intension (Chalmers 1996: 57, 2006: Sect. 2.1).

  30. This is not meant as an exhaustive treatment of all existent theories of perceptual MOPs. For example, I have not evaluated or compared Burge’s treatment of perceptual MOPs as distinct ‘perceptual perspectives’ on particulars (2010: 385, 411). Rather, I’ve limited my analysis to two discussions that have provided special attention to perceptual MOPs of objects. In addition, as one reviewer points out, Burge’s (2022) just-released book raises intriguing questions regarding how some of Burge’s views relate to those developed in the present article. Due to space limitations, I regret that I am unable to include a full comparison with the views described in Burge’s new book.


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I am grateful to Casey O’Callaghan for comments on multiple drafts of this paper. Comments from Jake Quilty-Dunn and three anonymous reviewers also led to significant improvements. I also thank Judith Carlisle, Ron Mallon, Emily Prychitko and Nic Koziolek for helpful comments and discussion on earlier drafts.


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Correspondence to Gabriel Siegel.

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Siegel, G. Perceptual Modes of Presentation as Object Files. Erkenn (2022).

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