According to the received view in the philosophical literature on pictorial perception, when perceiving an object in a picture, we perceive both the picture’s surface and the depicted object, but the surface is only unconsciously represented. Furthermore, it is suggested, such unconscious representation does not need attention. This poses a crucial problem, as empirical research on visual attention shows that there can hardly be any visual representation, conscious or unconscious, without attention. Secondly, according to such a received view, when looking at a picture aesthetically, one both consciously represents and visually attends to both the depicted object and the picture’s surface simultaneously. Thus, contra the empirical research on attention, only conscious visual representations are coupled, by such current view, with attention. And this clearly poses a second problem, as this philosophical account is not in tune with what vision science tells us about the functioning of our visual system. Furthermore, this raises another crucial problem, namely, that of explaining why aesthetic experience of pictures does not feel odd or conflicting, since, as previously noted in the philosophical literature, and contra the received view, if we are simultaneously consciously perceiving both the picture’s surface and the depicted object, there seems to be two things, at the same time, in the foreground of one’s visual consciousness. But, if so, as suggested, this would lead to a conflicting spatial visual experience. This paper offers a new description of the role of visual attention in picture perception, which explains the difference between the usual and the aesthetic way of perceiving a depicted object, without facing the problems reported above. A crucial role in our new account is played by the notion of unconscious attention, the distinction between focal and distributed, as well as top-down and bottom-up visual attention and the relationship between visual attention and visual consciousness. The paper, thus, offers the first theory concerning the exercise of visual attention in pictorial perception that is both philosophically rigorous and empirically reliable.
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‘Seeing’ and ‘visually representing’ can be used interchangeably in this specific literature. For a general and recent review of the different committments to these notions see (Ferretti and Glenney 2020).
Note that, if one does not accept the presence of simultaneous conscious representation, one also needs to specify which component of the picture, either the depicted object or the surface, we visually represent in a conscious manner.
In line with Nanay’s discussion, we use the term ‘consciousness’ as to refer to a subject’s ‘phenomenal experience’: “I treat aesthetic experience as a specific kind of experience and, like in the case of other kinds of experiences, attention plays an important role in determining its phenomenal character” (Nanay 2015b, p. 96). Again, “The general idea is that, to put it simply, aesthetic experiences ‘feel’ different: what it is like to have aesthetic experiences is different from what it is like to have non-aesthetic experiences. The question then is: what is th,is phenomenal character that is proprietary to aesthetic experiences?” Nanay (2016, p. 20). In the case of vision, phenomenal experience refers to the ‘what it is like’ (Nagel 1974) to see something, sometimes called its phenomenal character. This is what is at stake when investigating the distinction between UPP and APP.
Nanay sometimes uses the notion of ‘awareness’ instead of ‘attention’. This is because he follows the Wollheimian terminology (1998).
For a review see (Nanay 2011, 2015, 2017; Ferretti 2018a, b, 2020a, b). As anticipated (Sect. 1), the idea that, in UPP, we must visually represent, at least unconsciously, the surface – while consciously seeing the depicted object—has been recently defended on the basis of the evidence for the perceptual fact that, when we do not (because we cannot) visually represent the surface, even if unconsciously, we enter the illusion that the object is present for real motor interaction, as in the case of pictorial illusions à la trompe l’oeil (for a review see Ferretti 2016c, 2018a, 2018b, 2019, 2020a, b).
See also (Nanay 2017) and (Ferretti 2018a, 2019, 2020a, b) for a discussion. Of course, we can sometimes be conscious of the surface while patently ignoring, from the point of view of our consciousness, the depicted object (Nanay 2011; Ferretti 2018a, b). But this is not an interesting case of picture perception.
A few additional clarifications about Nanay’s position on unconscious attention and about the fact that he focuses on conscious attention. He writes: “I need to emphasize that what I mean by attention is conscious attention. This is not to deny (or endorse) that attention can be unconscious, but it is conscious distributed attention that I take to be an important feature of the aesthetic domain” (2015b: footnote 6). And: “I need to emphasize that what I mean by attention here and throughout the book is conscious attention. This is very different from the way I have been using the concept of attention in my work in philosophy of perception, where I allow for unconscious attention (...). I do hold that attention can be conscious or unconscious, but I take conscious distributed attention to be an important feature of the aesthetic domain” (2016: footnote 10). The references to unconscious attention do not suggest that it plays any relevant role in UPP or APP, as, again, the main target is conscious attention: “[…] attending to a property of an object triggers unconscious attention to other properties of the same object. But what is at stake in the fourfold distinction I made in the main text is conscious attention. While unconscious attention does, as a matter of course, spread to a large number of the properties of the perceived object, we have no reason to believe that conscious attention does” (2016: footnote 13). And even when Nanay recognizes the notion that unconscious perception can rely on unconscious attention, which he takes, however, to be a rather controversial view, he does not consider the importance of unconscious attention for unconscious visual processing during picture perception: “I am assuming in this discussion that ‘seeing’ here is understood as conscious seeing. I myself am committed to the view that even unconscious perception is systematically influenced by the unconscious allocation of attention, but I am not relying on this (somewhat controversial) view here. I take the claim that conscious perceptual experience depends systematically on the conscious allocation of attention to be not controversial at all (at least not since the inattentional blindness experiments)” (2016: footnote 7).
This is not to say that attention may be devoted only to one visual item at a time (object, property, spatial location, etc.). Several items could be concurrently selected and allocated processing resources to different degrees. This adds a modulatory role to attention on top of its selective role. However, under the resource limitation assumption, it is still plausible to hold that what is not selected at all is not processed at all.
This strict dichotomy has recently been challenged (see, for example, Belopolsky and Thewes, 2012; Thewes, 2019). However, we shall accept it here for the sake of the argument and because it is still widely accepted in psychology.
For example, in their famous experiment on blindsight, Kentridge et al. (1999, experiment c) showed that performance in a visual target detection task would improve for a blindsight subject when presented with an unconscious peripheral cue (i.e. in the blind-field) that would reliably appear at the opposite location from the target, of which the subject was informed. Since the cue would not appear at the same location of the target, the performance increase cannot plausibly be interpreted as an effect of exogenous attention to a spatial location, but rather as an effect of endogenous attention driven by the subject’s knowledge of the cue-location likelihood. This clearly shows that unconscious top-down attentional cues can speed up detection performance, and that top-down attention need not be conscious.
We are grateful to an anonymous referee for asking to technically consider these aspects of attention.
Jennings (2015) also expresses similar worries about extant evidence of consciousness in the absence of attention, for gist perception, imagistic consciousness and phenomenal consciousness. However, she suggests a form of consciousness, conscious entrainment, which can happen in the absence of top-down attention. We believe that there are ways to resist the claim that conscious entrainment requires no attention, as it may instead involve an automatization of attentional patterns or attentional habit (Jiang and Sisk, 2019). That said, further discussion of specific aspects of this debate would be beyond the scope of the present paper. The considerations we offered should suffice, for the purposes of the present article, to defuse the worry about the possibility of having any consciousness without attention.
As held, for example, by Prinz (2012).
The view that attention is necessary but not sufficient for consciousness has the advantage of allowing for a constraint on the scope of consciousness in the processing hierarchy, which seems plausible when taking into consideration both neurophysiological and behavioral data (Koch, 2004; Boyer et al. 2005), as well as evidence related on introspection (e.g. disaggregated object features processed at early levels of visual processing do not seem to figure among the introspectively available contents of conscious experience). See also (Jackendoff 1987; Prinz 2012).
We need to acknowledge that, for its philosophical purposes, the received view exemplified by Nanay’s book (2016) explicitly focuses on conscious attention, without addressing the role of unconscious attention in picture perception. His article follows this methodological stance (2017) as well. That said, and though we are not against this methodological decision, it remains true that not considering the role and the nature of unconscious attention in picture perception rules out several important differences between the APP and UPP. Thus, it seems we cannot avoid taking unconscious attention into consideration. Starting from Nanay’s account, and being aware of these considerations, our move wants to fill the gap concerning the presence of unconscious attention and its peculiar role in picture perception.
This point demarcates our view from Nanay’s one (2016), who also talks about distributed attention, but acknowledges that attention can be both focused and distributed at the same time, which we exclude. Further discussion below.
Recall that it has been recently suggested that, in line with the view that, in UPP, we must simultaneously visually represent both the surface and the depicted object, but we do not consciously see both of them: we can either consciously see the depicted object while unconsciously seeing the surface, or consciously see the surface, while unconsciously seeing the depicted object (for recent reviews see, Ferretti 2018a, b, 2020a). Our account can extend this view by suggesting that, in APP, we can exercise not only consciousness in general, but conscious focal attention only on one of these two components of the picture at a given time.
Cfr. footnote 8.
Nanay basically defends the claims about APP exposed in his (2015b) and in his (2017a) even in his new book (2017b, see Sect. 3, esp. Sect. 3.4). Note that someone has recently criticized Nanay’s general view about aesthetic attention (Fazekas 2016). However, this critic does not aim to take into account Nanay’s theory of depiction. Differently, here we just aim to propose our view about the importance of unconscious attention in picture perception and, ipso facto, we suggest how we should conceive the difference between normal and aesthetic pictorial experience. But this is not in contrast with Nanay’s overall view of aesthetic experience.
Both authors contributed equally to the arguments and the writing of this article. The order of authors is purely alphabetical. Gabriele Ferretti was supported by a NOMIS Fellowship, awarded by the Eikones — Center for the Theory and History of the Image at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Francesco Marchi was supported by the Mercator Research Center Ruhr (MERCUR) project Pr-2016–0016 and by the Center for Mind and Cognition of the Ruhr Universität Bochum. We would like to warmly thank two anonymous reviewers for addressing important comments, both on the empirical and on the philosophical side, which led us to significantly improve the first version of this article. We also thank Albert Newen, as the idea for this paper was born as a beautiful result of a quick unexpected conversation in front of a blackboard between the authors, during a visiting fellowship of Gabriele Ferretti, hosted by Newen, at the Ruhr Universität Bochum. Finally, we are grateful to Bence Nanay and Albert Newen, for discussing with us the ideas offered in this paper.
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Ferretti, G., Marchi, F. Visual attention in pictorial perception. Synthese 199, 2077–2101 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02873-z