Determinability of Perception as Homogeneity of Representation


Recent philosophical and empirical contributions strongly suggest that perception attributes determinable properties to its objects. But a characterisation of determinability via attributed properties is restricted to the level of content and does not capture the difference between perceptual belief and perception on this score. In this paper, I propose a formal way of cashing out the difference between determinable belief and perception. On the view presented here, determinability in perception distinctively involves homogeneous representation or representation that exhibits special sorts of formal type variability. This formal characterisation, I suggest, goes beyond traditional approaches to analog representation and parallels a baseline notion of analog computation.

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  • 31 July 2017

    An erratum to this article has been published.


  1. 1.

    See e.g. Thau 2002; Heck 2007.

  2. 2.

    The philosophical contributions include Kulvicki 2007; Nanay 2010, 2011, 2015; Phillips 2011; Stazicker 2011; Brogaard 2015 or Green 2015. Phillips and Stazicker offer interpretations of George Sperling’s partial-report experiments (1960) as involving determinable content or, in Phillips’s terms, ‘generic phenomenology’. Kulvicki and Green provide defences of the view that perception involves attribution of properties with varying levels or layers of abstraction—what Kulvicki calls ‘vertically articulate contents’. From a strictly empirical point of view, it has been shown, for instance, that attention affects the determinacy of spatial resolution (Yeshurun and Carrasco 1998), stimulus contrast (Carrasco et al. 2004) or size and spatial frequency (Gobell and Carrasco 2005). It is also often assumed that peripheral vision involves the perception of highly determinable properties (Nanay 2010, 266, 2015, 1727).

  3. 3.

    One may distinguish between propositional and conceptual content. On a sufficiently inclusive reading of ‘propositional’, perception may have propositional but non-conceptual content (Byrne 2005). If so, it is the conceptual character of propositional belief contents—as opposed to their propositional character per se—what marks the relevant difference between belief and perception. Once this qualification is made, however, I shall presently use ‘propositional’ to refer to the conceptual contents of states such as belief, and hence, interchangeably with ‘conceptual’.

  4. 4.

    Allan Paivio approaches this feature of perception in terms of synchronous availability (cf. Paivio 1986, 60).

  5. 5.

    This is certainly not a problem if one agrees that perception is thoroughly propositional (McDowell 1994) and hence, that there is, perhaps, no difference in the way belief and perception attribute determinable properties. This discussion is addressed to those theorists that would find the difference signalled in the main text plausible and worth of serious consideration in the spirit of the philosophical and empirical developments that motivate the consideration of determinability in perception in the first place (see fn. 2).

  6. 6.

    This is true even if one were to accept that perceptual states typically yield richer levels of determinability of content (Kulvicki 2007, Green 2015). I shall elaborate on this point in Section 4.

  7. 7.

    I, therefore, part company, for present purposes, with non-representational accounts of perception.

  8. 8.

    As advanced, homogeneity as understood here is a strictly formal or syntactic notion. For ease of exposition, however, I will systematically talk of formal types by reference to their contents (e.g. shape types corresponding to representations of the Big Ben, London, the Clock Tower, etc.). The reader must bear in mind that any types mentioned in this discussion are taken to be or correspond to purely formal types. Since we are conceiving of form liberally, and since it is a standard presumption of formal approaches that they can ultimately be made to match content, this way of talking of types is appropriate and will spare an unnecessarily tedious read.

  9. 9.

    It is easy to see that plasticity does not entail vagueness, nor does vagueness entail plasticity. However, the cases of interest in the explanation of determinability plausibly fulfil both homogeneity conditions, as we will see.

  10. 10.

    Or in Haugeland’s more succinct formulation: “no token [representation] is ever equivocal between two distinct types” (Haugeland 1981, 216).

  11. 11.

    Since continuity entails density, this means that homogeneity does not entail continuity either. Although density is often considered to be a mark of continuity, continuity and density are strictly speaking distinct: discontinuous schemes of representation can be dense (Goodman 1968, 136–137).

  12. 12.

    Goodman observes that “if only thoroughly dense systems are analog, and only thoroughly differentiated ones digital, many systems are of neither type.” However, Goodman’s suggestion is that “systems of such mongrel types seldom survive long in computer practice” (Goodman 1968, 162). Here, I intend to show that ‘mongrel types’ of analog/digital mixture—namely, homogeneous types—are theoretically useful in formally accounting for the determinability of perception and, in fact, might converge with a baseline notion of analog computation (see below).

  13. 13.

    Haugeland (1981), for instance, qualifies Goodman’s density-approach by introducing the engineering notion of procedures for the identification of representational types in write and read cycles. However, Haugeland seems to follow in the steps of Goodman’s approach in concentrating upon a fixed, all-or-nothing notion of analog representation that takes density or smoothness as a paradigm. This notion skims over the richness of intermediate levels that are presumably comprised by the approximation typing procedures of analog devices. The tendency to restrict the analog to fully dense and undifferentiated representation keeps dominating more recent articulations (e.g. Eliasmith 2000, Katz 2008, Schonbein 2014) in ways that contrast with homogeneity as understood here.

  14. 14.

    Consider, as it might be, a one million piece jigsaw puzzle made out of a picture. On Kulvicki’s analysis, each piece of the puzzle is a syntactic abstraction (or part) of the whole puzzle which in turn corresponds to the representation of an abstraction (a part) of the picture. Kulvicki’s criterion for analog representation is met. However, every piece might also be perfectly formally disjoint and differentiated (e.g. if each piece has a unique shape in the puzzle or if each piece is labeled with an identifying number or letter code). Thus, the one million piece puzzle is therefore analog on Kulvicki’s account but not necessarily homogeneous in our sense.

  15. 15.

    It is also worth noting that, while Kulvicki’s notion of abstraction over syntactic features works fine on physical pictures—just as Fodor’s notion of a picture part figuring in the Picture Principle—it is perhaps not so clear what would count as an abstraction over syntactic features in the case of a mental representation. We can abstract over syntactic features of pictures because, inter alia, we perceive them, but we do not actually perceive mental representations (cf. Kulvicki 2015, 178–179). By contrast, plasticity and vagueness are readily formal properties of mental representations in a way that syntactic abstractions over pictures are not.

  16. 16.

    Analog computers also accommodate degrees of variability of formal or computational type in the sense suggested by homogeneity. Roughly, since analog signals can be set up appropriately, gaps in the ranges of values corresponding to different computational types can be introduced so as to allow for arbitrary degrees of plasticity and vagueness.

  17. 17.

    For present purposes, we may simply assume that P1, P2,… Pn are determinates with respect to the determinable property P*. This is not to commit ourselves to any particular view about property determination (cf. Stazicker 2011, 170).

  18. 18.

    We may express this somewhat more technically by saying that *scarlet*, *crimson* and *vermilion* belong to representational subtypes of the *red-coloured* type where *scarlet*, *crimson* or *vermilion* subtypes are of the *red-coloured* type in that for a token representation to belong to the subtypes is for it to belong to the type. Nothing bears on this terminological nicety.

  19. 19.

    Kulvicki, for instance, seems to agree with this point when he observes that “it is easy to construct a thought that has a vertically articulate content: just conjoin concepts for properties at many levels of abstraction in thought” (Kulvicki 2007, 366).


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Verdejo, V.M. Determinability of Perception as Homogeneity of Representation. Rev.Phil.Psych. 9, 33–47 (2018).

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