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Visual Experience: Cognitive Penetrability and Indeterminacy


This paper discusses a counterexample to the thesis that visual experience is cognitively impenetrable. My central claim is that sometimes visual experience is influenced by the perceiver’s beliefs, rendering her experience’s representational content indeterminate. After discussing other examples of cognitive penetrability, I focus on a certain kind of visual experience— that is, an experience that occurs under radically nonstandard conditions—and show that it may have indeterminate content, particularly with respect to low-level properties such as colors and shapes. I then explain how this indeterminacy depends on the perceiver’s beliefs or thoughts. Finally, I attempt to generalize the case and show how other sorts of visual experiences can also be penetrated by beliefs and, hence, be indeterminate.

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  1. For an overview of this position, see Robbins (2009); cf. Macpherson (2011), § 2.

  2. This is Siegel’s stronger characterization, which differs from the weaker one in that it precludes cognitive influence due to selection or attention. Cf. Siegel (2011) p. 4.

  3. Cf. Macpherson (2011), pp. 12-14.

  4. Walton argues that we indirectly see objects through photographs, but he (1990, ch. 8) also offers a general account of depiction in which by looking at a picture, we are imagining seeing the depictum. Being “penetrated” by the imagination, the visual state we end up having in looking at a picture represents the depicted object (this “imaginative penetrability” is akin to what Macpherson requires for her two-stage mechanism). From the intentionalistic perspective, imagining seeing may simply be considered as a kind of non-veridical visual experience of the depictum.

  5. On some of these views, we may simultaneously visually experience the depictum and the picture’s surface; and on other views, in experiencing the depictum, we cannot experience the surface. This difference is not important here.

  6. Hopkins (1998), Peacocke (1987), cf. Budd (1993) and Hyman’s (2006) three principles.

  7. In fact, the argument can be adjusted to accord even with Goodman’s (1976) and Kulvicki’s (2006) accounts, in which a picture, much like a verbal description, simply refers to the depictum. When a picture, much like a description, is perceived as referring to sparser scenarios, something in the way we perceive it changes (cf. Siegel’s [2006] Cyrillic text example). And since this is, as I will show, due to the influence of belief, pictorial indeterminacy is an example of cognitive penetrability on these accounts as well.

  8. This is a summary of my argument in Chasid (2007), §2.

  9. See Boghossian and Velleman (1989), Dretske (2003), Pace (2007), Schroer (2002), Smith (2008) and Tye (2002).

  10. For criticism of Dretske’s view (2003), see references in note 9.

  11. Note that the suggested mechanism does not include a trivial kind of belief influence; it is not that we fail to attend to the picture’s grey hue while experiencing the depictum, and hence we experience it indeterminately. Normally, we cannot avoid having the grey phenomenal aspect as part of the visual experience of the depictum, but because we believe that the depictum is not being depicted as grey, our experience of it is rendered indeterminate. For a thorough discussion on why such cases do not involve the change of attention, see Macpherson (2011), 20-23.


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Correspondence to Alon Chasid.

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Chasid, A. Visual Experience: Cognitive Penetrability and Indeterminacy. Acta Anal 29, 119–130 (2014).

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  • Perceptual experience
  • Cognitive penetrability
  • Indeterminacy
  • Intentionalism