Ambiguous figures and the spatial contents of perceptual experience: a defense of representationalism


Representationalists hold that the phenomenal character of a perceptual experience is identical with, or supervenes on, an aspect of its representational content. As such, representationalism could be disproved by a counter-example consisting of two experiences that have the same representational content but differ in phenomenal character. In this paper, I discuss two recently proposed counter-examples to representationalism that involve ambiguous or reversible figures. I pursue two goals. My first, and most important, goal is to show that the representationalist can offer plausible responses to both counter-examples. My second goal is to show the implications of these responses for the nature of the spatial representational contents of perceptual experiences.

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  1. 1.

    The notion of the representational content of an experience is usually elaborated in terms of accuracy (or truth) conditions. According to this idea, the content of an experience is given by the conditions under which it is correct or incorrect. For example, if you have a visual experience of a red cup in front of you, your experience will be correct just in case there is a red cup in front of you. And it is in virtue of these accuracy conditions that it represents a red cup in front of you.

  2. 2.

    Different versions of representationalism have been defended, for example, by Harman (1990), Shoemaker (1994), Tye (1995, 2000), Dretske (1995), Lycan (1996) Byrne (2001), and Chalmers (2004, 2006).

  3. 3.

    Determinate properties may include so-called super-determinate properties. A super-determinate property is a property with no further determinates. For the distinction between determinable and determinate properties, see (Funkhouser 2006).

  4. 4.

    In my own response to Nickel’s counter-example, I will argue that E1 and E2 differ because they attribute different figure/ground properties to the grid. One might therefore suggest that this is compatible with Nanay’s proposal. Could he not say that as a result of allocating your attention to different parts of the grid, E1 and E2 attribute different figure/ground properties? I think there are two related problems with this proposal. First, in the case of Nickel’s grid, E1 and E2 both attribute determinate figure/ground properties to the grid. Thus, allocating your attention to different parts of the grid does not lead to the attribution of more determinate properties. Second, given this, Nickel would have to describe the situation as follows. You experience the prominent squares as part of the figure rather than as part of the ground because you allocate your attention to them. And you experience the other squares as part of the ground because you do not allocate your attention to them. But this leads to the problems discussed in the following paragraphs of the paper.

  5. 5.

    I want to emphasize that I am not saying here that Nanay’s view implies that squares taken in isolation can be seen as prominent. My claim concerns only the nature of the properties that are to explain the phenomenal difference. As far as I understand Nanay, these properties are such that they can be attributed to individual squares.

  6. 6.

    Nickel makes the same observation. He writes: ‘You can have these different experiences [that is, E1 and E2] without changing where you look. For instance, you can continue to focus your vision on the center of Fig. 1 and still have the different experiences’ (Nickel 2007, 284).

  7. 7.

    I want to emphasize that this scenario is based on the assumption that attention is entirely voluntary and that I am therefore able to focus exclusively on square 5.

  8. 8.

    Nanay is aware of this and adduces it as evidence for his view that experience can represent determinable properties. He writes: ‘One lesson vision science teaches us is that our peripheral vision is only capable of attributing extremely determinable properties’ (Nanay 2010: 266).

  9. 9.

    The visual angle covered by the fovea is only about 2°, that is, the size of your thumbnail held at arm’s length (Palmer 1999, 31). This area is significantly smaller than that occupied by the 3 × 3 grid closer up. Visual resolution outside this area decreases rapidly, even more rapidly than predicted by cone spacing (Rossi and Roorda 2010). Color discrimination also decreases. For quantitative results, see (Danilova and Mollon 2006, 2010).

  10. 10.

    Nanay actually appeals to inattentional blindness in order to support his view that attention always affects representational content (Nanay 2010: 269).

  11. 11.

    Of course, one might no longer perceive a certain property in one region of one’s visual field if one focuses on a different region that is sufficiently far away. But this is not the case in the scenario under consideration. Squares 1 and 3 are closer to square 2 than the other squares belonging to the figure. Squares 1 and 3 are thus closer to the center of your visual field than the other squares. It is a typical feature of experiences involving inattentional blindness that once you have become aware of a property or feature in the center of your visual field, you will not miss it the next time.

  12. 12.

    For a recent description of these features of figure/ground organization and other Gestalt principles, see Palmer (1999), 280–281.

  13. 13.

    This conclusion is also supported by empirical evidence. As we have seen, Rubin thought that the contour is assigned only to the figural region. Rock (1983) conducted experiments in which he asked subjects to recall the shapes of regions that were experienced as background. He found that recollection of the shapes of background regions was no more than chance. This contrasted starkly with the subjects’ ability to recollect the shapes of the figural regions with high accuracy. Rock concluded that this must be due to the fact that the background is not experienced as having any particular shape.

  14. 14.

    The two experiences could have the same truth-conditions and still differ in representational content. This would be the case, if the contents of experience were individuated more finely than by their truth-conditions. For example, perceptual contents could be Fregean. If my proposal is correct, however, the two experiences have different truth-conditions and I will therefore not consider this option.

  15. 15.

    There is of course a difference in intention. After all, the two people intend to draw different figures. But such intentions do not guarantee that they actually draw different figures and thus are not relevant to the present case.

  16. 16.

    One person would use a white sheet of paper with black paint and the other would use a black sheet of paper and white paint.

  17. 17.

    One could describe such worlds more concretely by saying that the squares are drawn with white paint on a white sheet of paper and then framed with black lines. Even though one would not be able to recognize the difference between the pictures by looking, the pictures would nevertheless be different.

  18. 18.

    Some philosophers argue that judgments and other cognitive states have non-sensory phenomenal character. But for the purpose of formulating this objection, I assume that judgments do not have separate phenomenal characters.

  19. 19.

    Note, however, that someone who accepts the idea that judgments have their own distinct phenomenal character will reject this appeal to phenomenology.

  20. 20.

    This point would require more argument. But I will not go into this because it would take us away from the main argument of this paper. Nonetheless, the following consideration will help make the point more plausible. To most of us the discovery of the two different experiences of the Mach figure comes as a surprise, even if we have seen squares and diamonds before. If this is correct, it is possible to possess two different perceptual concepts (being a square and being a regular diamond) without knowing that these concepts refer to the same type of figure, namely to a four-sided, equilateral figure with right angles. In this case, we must have acquired these two different concepts on the basis of phenomenally different experiences.

  21. 21.

    Macpherson argues explicitly that the difference between the two experiences of the Mach figure cannot be explained in terms of judgments (Macpherson 2006, 90–93). She gives two reasons. First, not all judgments seem to lead to the kinds of changes observed in ambiguous figures. Second, judgments seem to be under our voluntary control, which is not the case with the gestalt switches associated with experiences of ambiguous figures.

  22. 22.

    Note that some of these responses, in particular those of Tye and Peacocke, predate Macpherson’s paper. But it will be helpful to consider them nonetheless.

  23. 23.

    One can experience the distorted square also as a figure that does not lie in the plane perpendicular to one’s line of sight. In this case, one would experience the figure as being tilted away from one’s point of view. In my argument, I am not referring to these experiences. Rather, I am discussing experiences that represent the distorted square and the kite as laying within the plane perpendicular to one’s line of sight.

  24. 24.

    Raftopoulos characterizes the nonconceptual contents of the experiences of the Mach figure as follows: “The NCC [nonconceptual content] that is involved in seeingph [seeing in the phenomenal sense of the term] and is formed along the ventral visual pathway is framed in a relational coordinate system that is best captured by Cartesian coordinates, in which the directions top-down and right/left are determined with respect to the position of the body of the perceiver” (Raftopoulos 2007). Note, however, that this is a simplification for the two-dimensional case. Actually, a viewpoint-centered reference frame would have to have three coordinate axes. The view that perceptual experiences represent objects in a viewpoint-centered reference frame has been defended both in vision science and in philosophy. For an important early discussion of viewpoint-centered reference frames in the psychology of vision, see Marr and Nishihara (1978) and Marr (1982). In philosophy, this notion has been discussed, among others, by Evans (1982), Peacocke (1992), Campbell (1994, 2002), and Grush (1998, 2000).

  25. 25.

    I elaborate on the notion of viewpoint-centered reference frames in the section “Consequences for the nature of the spatial representational content of perceptual experience” of this paper.

  26. 26.

    For Palmer’s view, see Palmer (1975, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1999). The research in Rock (1973, 1983) is particularly important for Palmer’s view.

  27. 27.

    Palmer develops the notion of an object-centered reference frame, for example, in Palmer (1989, 1992, 1999). Rock has argued for object-centered reference frames, for example, in Rock (1997, 1973, 1983). See also Rock and DiVita (1987).

  28. 28.

    Recent empirical evidence supporting that axes of elongation and axes of symmetry function as cues for reference frame selection and evidence for the interaction between these two types of cues can be found in Sekuler (1996) and in Sekuler and Swimmer (2000). For further discussion, see, for example, Marr and Nishihara (1978), Palmer (1985), and Quinlan and Humphreys (1993).

  29. 29.

    For a detailed account of this aspect of descriptions that are based on object-centered reference frames, see, for example, Palmer (1989, 125–127 and Palmer (1999, 368–371).

  30. 30.

    Let me emphasize, however, that this is only a suggestion. The description might include other properties. Which properties account for the difference between the two experiences of the Mach figure is an empirical question.

  31. 31.

    See, for example, Humphreys (1983). I describe these experiments in the next paragraph.

  32. 32.

    See also Palmer and Bucher (1981) and Palmer (1985).

  33. 33.

    See Humphreys (1983).

  34. 34.

    Familiarity refers to the perceiver’s ability to recognize the figure on the basis of previous experiences. Convexity refers to the shape of the contour. The convexity biases the visual system to assign the contour to the figure, rather than to the background.

  35. 35.

    For defenses of mind-independent representationalism, see, for example, Harman (1990) Dretske (1995), and Tye (1995).

  36. 36.

    See, for example, Shoemaker (1994) and Lycan (1996).


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I want to thank the two reviewers for this journal. Their comments helped me to improve the paper greatly.

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Correspondence to René Jagnow.

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Jagnow, R. Ambiguous figures and the spatial contents of perceptual experience: a defense of representationalism. Phenom Cogn Sci 10, 325–346 (2011).

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  • Perceptual experience
  • Representationalism
  • Spatial representational content
  • Mach figure