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Object Files, Properties, and Perceptual Content


Object files are mental representations that enable perceptual systems to keep track of objects as numerically the same. How is their reference fixed? A prominent approach, championed by Zenon Pylyshyn and John Campbell, makes room for a non-satisfactional use of properties to fix reference. This maneuver has enabled them to reconcile a singularist view of reference with the intuition that properties must play a role in reference fixing. This paper examines Campbell’s influential defense of this strategy. After criticizing it, a new approach is sketched. The alternative view introduces representational contents to explain perceptual individuation. After arguing that those contents are not satisfactional, it is concluded that there is room for a third view of reference fixing that does not fit into the singularist/descriptivist dichotomy.

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  1. 1.

    I shall use capitals to denote mental representations, single quotes to denote words, and angle brackets ‘〈…〉’ to denote properties or representational contents.

  2. 2.

    I am using the word ‘fact’ in a broad sense, to include any factor that may be relevant to explain why a representation has the referent it presently has.

  3. 3.

    This dichotomy shapes influential views like those of Bach (1987: 12) and Burge (1977: 346), among many others.

  4. 4.

    This debate is orthogonal to the question of whether we are also acquainted with properties. One can term ‘pluralist’ any view according to which we are both perceptually related to objects and to properties. Many acquaintance theorists are pluralists, for they posit perceptual relations to colors, shapes or size (Campbell 2007; Kennedy 2007; Russell 1912).

  5. 5.

    A slightly different view analyzes perceptual content as having the existential form ∃x(Fx). Defenders of this view drop the uniqueness condition (Davies 1992; Jackson 2012; McGinn 1982). I examine this approach in Section 7.

  6. 6.

    Some philosophers use the phrase ‘satisfaction conditions’ as synonymous with representational content (Searle 1983). This is not the intended meaning. In Sections 46, I argue that there are non-satisfactional representational contents, i.e., contents that do not fix reference through a mechanism that complies with the representational and satisfactional claims.

  7. 7.

    It has been argued that there is pre-conscious and/or pre-attentive selection of objects. See Pylyshyn (2007).

  8. 8.

    If any representational content needs a vehicle to carry it, my arguments can be used to justify the introduction of more primitive representational vehicles than object files.

  9. 9.

    For different analyses of correctness conditions, see Pautz (2011), Schellenberg (2014), and Siegel (2010). For my present purposes, these details do not matter.

  10. 10.

    Indeed, Campbell (2002: 130) seems to be attracted by a disjunctivist analysis of perceptual individuation.

  11. 11.

    A similar analysis could be provided of static forms of perceptual reference.

  12. 12.

    It is common to individuate types of mental files by sameness of n-functional role (Recanati 2012). It is also common to put forward views that guarantee that, if two mental files are of the same type, they have the same n-functional role (Fodor 2008). And this is how cognitive scientists characterize object files (Section 1).

  13. 13.

    This argument seeks to show that disjunctivism is not a good strategy for avoiding the introduction of representational contents to explain reference fixing. Yet, it does not undermine epistemological disjunctivism. One might still argue that the evidence available in the good cases is not of the same type as the evidence available in the bad cases.

  14. 14.

    Of course, some shapes must be available before the system distinguishes figure from ground. These shapes are necessary to characterize some organizational principles, such as convexity or symmetry. Nevertheless, these shapes are not attributes of whole objects but of object-parts, as can be seen in Fig. 2. The columns are not entirely convex; only some of their parts are.

    The Kanizsa and Gerbino display also shows that some forms of figure-ground distinction exploit a pattern of similar configurations. If one reduces the number of black surfaces to one, it is unlikely that one experiences the remaining black surface as a figure. Hence, in some cases, the figure is not determined as the unique satisfier of a given property. Instead, it is determined as one of the satisfiers of a given property.

  15. 15.

    I owe this objection to an anonymous referee of this journal.

  16. 16.

    I do not mean to imply that descriptivism cannot respond to the circularity problems. I only mean that those problems do not even arise for representational singularism. A different circularity problem could be formulated for representational singularism if individuation had to operate over parts of objects. If the system had to know beforehand whether what it currently perceives is a part, perception could never get off the ground. In order to be in a position to discover the parts of a scene, one should already have singled out the corresponding object. For this reason, a correct account of perceptual organization must describe the system as having access to portions of the scene before any part/non-part distinction is made. That is precisely why I am using the phrase ‘pre-objective element.’ Parsing some elements as parts is one of the outputs of organizational processes.

  17. 17.

    This analysis came to my mind after reading Fine’s (2007) eye-opening defense of semantic relationism. Contrary to Fine, however, my semantic contents are not defined over sequences of objects but of pre-objective elements.

    Our reference-fixing contents also bear a superficial similarity to Kaplan’s (1977) characters. Kaplan’s characters fix the reference of indexicals but are not part of the content of those indexicals. Similarly, our reference-fixing contents fix the reference of object files but are not part of their contents. Nevertheless, our reference-fixing contents differ from Kaplan’s characters. First, Kaplan’s characters are functions from contexts to contents. Technically, Kaplan’s contexts are n-tuples of parameters. While these n-tuples are typically understood as lists of relatively independent parameters, the arguments of our reference-fixing contents are sequences of parameters that are related to each other by organizational principles. Second, whereas Kaplan’s contexts are often construed as sets of individuals or particular times or locations, the arguments of our reference-fixing contents are more primitive than individuals. They are pre-objective elements that serve as input to determine the individuals present in a scene.

  18. 18.

    A multisensory model of reference fixing ought to make room for other reference-fixing mechanisms, such as the auditory perception of events. On the plausible assumption that voices have the function of enabling humans to individuate and recognize their conspecifics (Matthen 2010), listening to a voice may suffice to open an object file or even a recognitional file (if one is familiar with the voice).

  19. 19.

    These questions were prompted by a referee of this journal.

  20. 20.

    This question was prompted by an anonymous referee of this journal.

  21. 21.

    So-called veridical hallucinations and illusions have also played a central role in debates on existential accounts of perceptual content. These cases raise difficult questions I cannot adequately examine in this paper. I will simply follow Tye (2011) and claim that, if veridical illusions and hallucinations constitute a legitimate test for theories of perceptual content, the problem they pose is also a problem for existential views.

  22. 22.

    The reason I wrote ‘possibly’ is that the account should be qualified with appropriate caveats concerning psychological limitations and contextual factors. Perceptual and memory limitations, distraction or even different task demands might lead a subject to activate numerically different object files in response to qualitatively identical sequences of pre-objective elements and the same object file in response to qualitatively different sequences of pre-objective elements.

  23. 23.

    If causal relations only obtain between objects as possessors of some properties, holders of existential views should avail themselves of a similar distinction to solve the problem. They should carefully distinguish the properties that enter into the reference-fixing causal relation from the properties that enter into the general content of perception.

  24. 24.

    In his recent work on perception, Tyler Burge sketched an analysis of reference that does not fit into the singularist/descriptivist dichotomy. According to Burge (2010: 464), “to represent something as a body, the individual’s perceptual system must segment a three-dimensional whole from a surround by […] principles for identifying cohesiveness and boundedness of three-dimensional volume shapes.” What is the difference between Burge’s account and representational singularism?

    We offer different analyses of the contents that fix reference to objects. Whereas representational singularism posits a reference-fixing function defined over a sequence of pre-objective elements, Burge holds that reference to objects is fixed by noun phrase structures of the form THIS F. Burge’s analysis is partly supported by his Second Thesis on De Re States: each demonstrative representation “must be associated with a nonschematic attributive […] that guides the singular representation.” (Burge 2009: 275) If representational singularism is correct, Burge’s Second Thesis is mistaken. Indeed, representational singularism shows that the reference of an object file need not be ‘guided’ by any attributive associated with the object file. After all, its reference can be fixed by other representational structures that lead to the activation of the object file. Thus, an object file can become active before (and independently of) any attribution of properties to the referred object.

    A good way of illustrating the difference between the two views is by reflecting on the example of the stick half-immersed in water. According to representational singularism, reference is not undermined by the misattribution of the property 〈Being bent〉 because the properties that fix reference are not the same as the properties the visual system attributes to objects. In other words, there is a principled difference between individuating objects and attributing properties to those objects. Given his commitment to the Second Thesis, Burge is compelled to treat object individuation on the model of property attribution. Thus, on Burge’s view, when there is reference to objects, there must be some attributives that are veridical of those objects (Burge 2009: 293–5; 2010: 151). Unfortunately, Burge offers no empirical support for this bold claim. I think this is a mistake inherited from descriptivism. As was pointed out in Section 5, many properties used for individuation are not properties of the referred object but of the pre-objective elements that turn out to be parts of that object.


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I presented earlier versions of this paper at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas-UNAM (7th May 2014), the 5th Workshop on Language, Cognition, and Context (23–25 May 2014), the University of Antioquia (29th May 2014), and the University of Geneva (25th September 2014). I am grateful to the audiences for their comments, especially to Santiago Amaya, Julien Deonna, Richard Dub, and Fabrice Teroni. I am also indebted to Santiago Arango, Reinaldo Bernal, Ariel Cecchi, Jérôme Dokic, Gregory Bochner, and an anonymous referee for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. This work was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (research grant No. 100012-150265/1).

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The present work has not been published before and is not under consideration for publication anywhere else. I declare that there is no actual or potential conflict of interest including any financial, personal or other relationships that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, my work.

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Correspondence to Santiago Echeverri.



Fig. 1

Fig. 1

If you are a normal trichromat and are not looking at this pattern in black and white, you will see a green numeral 5

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Figure-ground segregation by convexity. The black and white regions have the same area. Yet, the visual system parses the black regions as figures and the white ones as ground. Reproduced from Peterson and Kimchi (2013)

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Campbell’s selection/access model of reference fixing. a A causal use of a property enables the system to select an object or region. The quotation mark indicates that Campbell’s model offers no account of incorrect individuation. b Once the object or region is selected, the system can represent its properties. These representations may be answers to queries like ‘WHAT COLOR IS THIS’?

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Representational singularism. a Principles of perceptual organization are implemented by primitive representations. b The interaction among those representations yields a representation of various elements as one volumetric object. This representation explains the activation of object files in the good and the bad cases. Only when the representation matches the world and stands in an appropriate causal relation to the represented sequence, the object file refers to a determinate object

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Echeverri, S. Object Files, Properties, and Perceptual Content. Rev.Phil.Psych. 7, 283–307 (2016).

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  • Correctness Condition
  • Perceptual Organization
  • Perceptual State
  • Representational Content
  • Object File