Formats of Vision & Thought Workshop


May 5-6 / IN PERSON

[In-Person and Zoom options]


The Formats of Vision & Thought

May 5-6 2022 



Thursday, May 5

9am.....................Welcome & Breakfast

9:30-11:10...........Sam Clarke (Penn) 

                           comments: Jessie Munton (Cambridge)

11:20-1pm..........Mariela Aguilera (CONICET)

                            comments: Gabriel Greenberg (UCLA)


2:00-3:40...........Jake Quilty-Dunn (Wash. U)

                            comments: Bill Kowalksy (York)

4:00-5:40...........Ned Block (NYU) 

                           comments: Zed Adams (New School)

Friday, May 6


10:00-11:40.........Susan Carey (Harvard) 

                            comments: Ali Boyle (Cambridge)


1:00-2:40............Kevin Lande (York)

                            comments: Rosa Cao (Stanford)

3:00-4:40...........Elisabeth Camp (Rutgers)

                            comments: Lance Balthazar (YORK)


Jake Beck (York)

For more information contact

This event is generously supported by York University’s Department of Philosophy and Vision: Science to Applications Program, thanks in part to funding from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.



Formats of Vision & Thought

May 5 - May 6, 2022

Gladstone House Hotel, Downtown Toronto

Seeing and thinking are information-processing activities. What are the forms in which visual and cognitive information are coded? This question is of immense interest for both psychological research into the processes underlying vision and thinking and for philosophical investigation into the nature of mind and knowledge. This Workshop brings together the foremost theorists on this issue from around the world and at all career stages.

[space limited]


Mariela Aguilera (CONICET)

Journey planning: A cartography of practical reasoning


Cognitive approaches state that navigation is a process that comprises transitions over cognitive maps, graphs, and directions. In this paper, I will argue that navigating and, more specifically, journey planning – can be conceived as a process of practical reasoning, particularly an inference-based case of means-ends reasoning. On the one hand, since journey planning involves transitions between mental states and representations with different formats, I will argue that it is a hybrid inferential process. On the other hand, I want to argue that journey planning functions as an instrumental belief in means-ends reasoning. To do this, I will say that journal planning delivers an instrumental rule that plays a normative role in spatial navigation. These considerations suggest that practical reasoning involves not only transitions between different mental states – as stated in the literature – but also transitions between representations with different formats.

Elisabeth Camp

(Rutgers University)

Organization and Structure in Service of Systematicity


Extending recent work by Nick Shea, I argue that representational systems exploit structural correspondences between vehicles and contents in different ways, by distributing the burden of representation differently across systemic and local levels.  For instance, individual analog magnitude representations lack representationally significant internal structure, but are related in a way that enables the overall system to compare and aggregate multiple quantities of multiple properties. By contrast, sentences do have internally significant parts whose structural relations are representationally significant; but those parts are not themselves typically individuated in a way that has representational import.  Maps are a bit like both, potentially bearing representational significance at both systemic and local levels. Such variations in systematicity and structure matter functionally, by affecting systems’ representational capacities and vulnerabilities. And they matter theoretically, by affecting where and how we posit and test for representational mechanisms.

Sam Clarke

(University of Pennsylvania)

Aspects of the Theory of Visual Syntax


In the empirical literature, the postulation of visual representations with a pictorial format has proven highly productive. However, this ‘picture theory’ faces long-standing philosophical objections. In response, proponents of the picture theory sometimes seek to dismiss these objections, suggesting that critics assume a crude conception of pictures or the mental processes that manipulate them. I recommend an alternative style of response, arguing that the picture theory becomes eminently more plausible once we appreciate and emphasise an important difference between normal pictures and the visual images posited in the head: that while normal depictions seem to lack syntactic structure, the pictorial format of our visual representations results from a visual syntax which functions to mirror certain metaphysical constraints. After explaining why this should not amount to a rejection of the picture theory, or its collapse into a linguistic characterization of visual format, I propose that these observations help defuse prominent objections to the theory.

Jake Quilty-Dunn

(Washington University in St. Louis)

Concepts As Generative Pointers


Concepts are often taken to be rich bodies of information that underwrite categorization and inference. However, these bodies of information are messy and heterogeneous, and regularly fail to compose in the ways concepts do. An alternative approach is conceptual atomism, canonically defended by Jerry Fodor. According to conceptual atomism, a concept is an unstructured symbol with a denotation. Atomism faces two serious problems: (1) it's unclear how unstructured atoms interact with the bodies of information posited in cognitive psychology to explain categorization and inference, and (2) word meanings are typically polysemous, failing to pin down a unique denotation. This talk will sketch a version of atomism on which concepts are "generative pointers". That is, concepts are atomic symbols that address (or "point to") memory locations, and the referent of an occasion of concept deployment is modulated by the information retrieved from that location. The resulting picture aims to reconcile Fodorian atomism with polysemous word meanings and the experimental study of concepts, and opens up the possibility for sentence-sized thoughts that lack truth conditions.

Ned Block

(New York University)

Non-conceptual color perception


Infants can see and discriminate colors at nearly the adult level by age 6 months.  But they normally have no color concepts until 11 months. So there is a roughly 5 month period in which they normally have non-conceptual perception of color.  This talk explains the evidence for these claims and further evidence that adults have nonconceptual color perception.  The issue of whether perception of high-level properties is also nonconceptual and whether object perception is nonconceptual will also be discussed.

Susan Carey

(Harvard University)

A meditation on the relations between propositional content and representational format in prelinguistic thought: A Case Study of the Logical Connectives not, or, and possible


Philosophers have argued that the capacity for logically structured thought is unique to linguistically competent humans (but see Fodor for counterarguments).  One scientific case study within this debate seeks evidence for reasoning from the disjunctive syllogism (A or B, not A; therefore B) on the part of non-linguistic creatures on non-linguistic tasks. I draw on data inspired by Call’s 2-cup task, success on which is consistent with reasoning according to the disjunctive syllogism.  This task is solved by non-human animals of many species, and by human infants beginning around 17 months of age, but not before.  I present data from three extensions of Call’s paradigm that sought, and failed to find, evidence of representations of disjunction in children until age 4, providing evidence against success on the 2-cup task requiring genuine abilities involving disjunction.  I present evidence that one source of difficulty on the more sophisticated versions of Call’s task is absence of the modal concept possible until age 4.  The data I present supports the conclusion that the capacity to deploy the disjunctive syllogism in thought develops in two steps:  the capacity for negation beginning at age 17 months or so, and the capacity for disjunction beginning at age 4.  I conclude by providing evidence that learning the language of negation and possibility, respectively, coincides with these milestones, and discuss two related, but different distinctions drawn in the cognitive science literature:  first between protological and logical representations and second, between explicit and implicit representations.

Kevin Lande

(York University)

Towards a Compositional Semantics of Perception

Kevin Cambridge.jpg

According to a standard picture in cognitive science, mental activities such as perceiving, remembering, thinking, and planning involve the processing of compositionally structured mental representations. In perceiving the apple in front of me, for example, my visual system represents it as red and round. The visual system's representation characterizes the apple as red and round in virtue of having as constituents a representation of the apple's redness and a distinct representation of its roundness. It takes substantial empirical work to identify the contents of mental states and how those states are structured. A systematic semantic theory of mental representations would synthesize this empirical work, specifying the primitives of a mental representational system, the combinatorial principles by which representations form more complex representations, and the semantic import of those combinatorial principles. This paper presents an extended case study in the formulation of a semantics for perceptual representations, focusing on visual processing of the outline contours of objects.  Drawing on experimental psychology and computational modeling, I sketch a compositional accuracy-conditional semantics, indicating how the different components of this theory are responsive to empirical considerations. I then address a potential objection to the very possibility of a systematic semantics for perception: Don't “holistic” or “gestalt” phenomena entail that the whole percept cannot be analyzed in terms of its parts? I outline how such phenomena can be explained by a compositional semantics of perception. I conclude by situating the semantic theory developed here within current debates over the representational format of perception.

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