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Amodal Mind­-Perception: Combining Inferentialism and Perceptualism

Luke Roelofs, University of Toronto

[PDF of Luke Roelof’s paper]

[Jump to Jessie Munton’s commentary]
[Jump to Joel Smith’s commentary]
[Jump to Luke Roelofs’s replies]

Do we perceive the minds of others? Or do we infer that they have minds from what we do perceive, which is restricted to their bodily motions and expressions? Call a positive answer to the first question ‘perceptualism’, and a positive answer to the second ‘inferentialism’. Compelling motivations can be found for both perceptualism and inferentialism, but they have generally been taken to be incompatible. I argue that reflection on the widespread phenomenon of ‘amodal perception’ shows that these two views can in fact be combined in a way that preserves what is attractive about both. Even if behaviourism is false, our perception of other people’s behaviour can thereby also be a perception of their minds.

Here is a second question of about our knowledge of other minds: does it depend upon having mental­state concepts? Call positive and negative answers to this question ‘conceptualism’ and ‘non­conceptualism’. On the one hand, it seems that is has to, because it deploys such concepts. But there is something not quite right about restricting knowledge of other minds to subjects who possess mental­state concepts ­ for it seems both that many animal and human subjects lack mental­state concepts, and also that they are not entirely blind to the minds of others. A dog probably should not be ascribed any beliefs about its owner, or its packmate, that should be expressed by statements like ‘Owner believes that X’, but if we then conclude that it regards these others as mindless physical objects, like we regard chairs or mushrooms, we seem to be leaving out something important.[1] What is this important thing that is left out, this pre­conceptual awareness of other minds? I argue that an account of mind­perception in terms of amodal perception can illuminate this pre­conceptual awareness.

1. Inferentialism and Perceptualism

I use the term ‘inferentialism’ for a family of views about the basis for our knowledge of other minds, the most prominent of which hold that this basis is either an argument by analogy from similarities between our own behaviour and that of others, or an inference to the best explanation of observed behaviour (see Mill 1889, pp. 243–244, Russell 1948, pp.482–486, Hyslop & Jackson 1972). Both of these views agree that knowledge of other minds is separated from directly perceptual knowledge by a distinct inferential step, and that this step employs a form of inference that is also employed more generally in our empirical reasoning about non­mental things. Other views which shared these commitments might exist, and would also count as ‘inferentialist’.

There are broadly two ways to criticise inferentialism: on its own terms, as involving a weak or faulty inference, and on the grounds that rational inference is the wrong sort of process to underlie our everyday knowledge of other minds. The first way involves such objections as that an argument by analogy from one’s own case would be based on only a single instance, and thus very weak: in this paper I will not consider such objections. What I will consider instead is the objection that, even if a solid inference to other minds could be drawn, our actual relation to other minds does not seem anything like the drawing of such an inference. We do not approach other people like scientists, collecting observations and seeking to explain them by offering up hypotheses about an unobserved mechanism. We relate to other people far more immediately and directly than scientists relate to their postulate.[2]

These sorts of worries might drive one towards the rival position that I have called ‘perceptualism’, which holds that the minds of other can in some sense be right there in the content of perception. We can see people’s emotions, desires, and so forth ­ not all of them, since sometimes we do have to infer someone’s mental state, but in enough cases that when we do have to draw an inference we can recognise that situation as distinctly indirect, relative to our primary everyday awareness of others. The most famous defence of this sort of view comes from behaviourists and verificationists (Ryle 1949, pp.20­21, Malcolm 1958). but one need not necessarily be a behaviourist to accept perceptualism. Similarly, perceptualism is sometimes associated with the idea that strict deductive entailments can be drawn from behaviour to mental states, though again that is not something which all perceptualists must accept ­ and even those who do need not think that our everyday awareness of other minds is strictly deductive or infallible, since the criteria needed for a deduction might be very extensive compared to brief and limited perceptions that we typically rely upon.

The big problem for perceptualists is that, even if they do not quite accept behaviourism, they have difficulty accounting for the very intuitive idea that mental states are private: that each person’s mind is present to them in a distinctively direct way that it is not present to others. Surely it is somehow bound up with the whole idea of a subjective mental state that it is not a publicly observable thing which people can ‘just see’.[3] Once we grant that our access to other minds is somehow indirect or mediated, relying on perception of something distinct like an utterance or facial expression, we seem dangerously close to falling back into the inferentialist position, in which what we really perceive is the utterance or expression, and the mental state is then inferred.

We are left, then, in a dilemma: our knowledge of other minds is either perceptual, and thus too direct to allow for privacy, or it is inferential, and thus too indirect to do justice to our actual relationship with others. When the options are specified so sharply it may seem obvious that the solution must be somewhere in the middle ­ we know of other minds by a process that is ‘sort of perceptual’ but also ‘sort of inferential’. The challenge is to explain this in a coherent, informative, way. A supplementary challenge is to explain how this knowledge might be in some respects conceptual and in other respects pre­conceptual. In what follows I offer a way to do this.

2. Introducing Amodal Perception

It is a pervasive feature of everyday perceptual experience that we experience objects as having features beyond the immediately perceptible, and thus are perceptually aware of those features despite in some sense being unable to perceive them. The term ‘amodal perception’ has come to refer to this sort of ‘perception as unperceived’, reflecting the idea that we somehow perceive these features without sensory stimulation and thus not in any sensory modality.

The standard examples involve visual occlusion. Consider seeing three­dimensional objects with fronts and backs. At present I am looking at a coffee cup; in a narrow sense, I see only the front of it; the other side is concealed from me. In a broader sense, however, I see the cup itself, a whole with a front and back. I am in some indirect sense aware of the back of the cup, but simultaneously aware that I am not aware of it in the same sense that I am aware of the front; I perceive it amodally. Moreover, I perceive the back amodally in virtue of perceiving the front modally. Indeed, the back of the cup is in a sense seen ‘in’ the front, because I see the front as the front of something which also has a back. My awareness of the back lies in my perceiving the front as one aspect of something with other aspects. Let us say that the front is, for me, the ‘revealed aspect’, and the back the ‘concealed aspect’, and while I am aware of the former as ‘given’, I am aware of the latter only in a weaker sense, as ‘not given’.

Consider also the relation between the cup and the table it stands on. I perceive this table as having a broad, brown, unbroken surface – but part of this surface is behind the cup, where I cannot directly see it. Yet I am aware of the surface I do directly see as continuous with the surface I do not, perceiving some sections through vision and other sections ‘amodally’.[4] My perception reveals the visible surface as just a portion of a single, unbroken surface. Here the revealed and concealed aspects are two portions of a single surface, rather than two surfaces of a single object.

Other visual examples might involve conditions of poor visibility, when darkness, distance, or fog prevents us from seeing something clearly. We rarely experience the obscured object as being somehow itself fuzzy or lacking in detail – rather, we experience it as having plenty of detail, which we cannot make out. Insofar as we are aware of this detail as not visible, we could be said to perceive it amodally.[5] Here the revealed and concealed aspects are not spatially separate, but the broad outlines and fine details of a single object. The rough aspect that is given presents itself as a rough and imperfect view of an object that can be seen in better ways.

There can also be non­visual examples; for instance, Nanay (2010, p.241) discusses the tactile experience of feeling the handle of a cup as the handle of something with other, unfelt parts. Similarly, we might think of the concealed aspects of a sound or smell as the greater intensity or complexity which any given percept might yield if we moved closer, took our hats off, or sniffed harder.

In each case there is a revealed aspect and a concealed aspect, experienced as intimately connected in a single object. One aspect is given and the other is not, but in a broader sense we are aware of both. I leave unanalysed the exact meanings of ‘revealed’, ‘concealed’, ‘aspect’, and ‘connected’: they mean whatever they must to accurately describe this sort of experience. In the language of ‘seeing­as’, one might say: the revealed aspect is seen ‘as’ merely one aspect of an object with more aspects, and that object is thereby seen ‘as’ having certain concealed aspects.

Though the concealed aspect is not given to me, I do learn about it, via the revealed aspect. I may not be able to see the rear side of my coffee cup, but I can tell a fair bit about its overall size, shape, and location, just from the aspect which is revealed. I also seem to see it as having a certain colour, patterning, etc., at least if it is a familiar cup, or a cup of a familiar make. Here background information is important – an aspect may be more informative to one who knows what to look for, or how to interpret what they see.

Different authors have pursued different questions about amodal perception (e.g. Michotte 1965, Clarke 1965, Noë 2005, Matey 2013). Some have asked how we can properly account for its phenomenology, and the role this phenomenology plays in our impression of the object’s independence (Husserl 1982, Merleau­Ponty 1962, Kelly 2004). Others have focused on which representational faculty amodal perception involves – perception, cognition, imagination, or something else (Noë 2005, Nanay 2010, Briscoe 2011). But all that I will rely on is that in amodal perception we are aware of something yet also aware of its being somehow concealed from us.

3. Amodal Mind­Perception

Everyday amodal perception lets us perceive things as unperceived. But if this is possible, it might also be possible to perceive things as imperceptible ­ which is precisely our apparent, and apparently paradoxical, relationship to other minds. Thus perceptualism and inferentialism might be reconciled through the idea that we perceive people’s minds through perceiving their bodies just as we perceive their backs through perceiving their fronts: the difference being just that in the latter case we can easily come to perceive what is concealed (someone’s back) as revealed, while in the former case what is concealed (someone’s mental state) is necessarily concealed.

So for instance we might say that when we can ‘see someone’s anger’ in their face, or ‘hear the sadness’ in their voice, we experience their facial expression or spoken utterance as continuous with, and thus indicating, an emotional state which is fully revealed only to them, and not to us. Similarly, when we spontaneously interpret someone’s actions or words as expressing some desire or belief, we are perceiving their propositional attitude as concealed from us but still perceptually present in their actions or words. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the relation of ‘expression’ that obtains between a mental state and a behaviour functions, in our perception, much less the relation between different sides or different aspects of one object. Call this the ‘amodalist’ proposal.

This approach retains the major virtues of perceptualism, because it explains why other minds seem as immediately present to us as the three­dimensional nature of the objects we perceive. This captures the phenomenology of other minds and allows us to extend, to our knowledge of other minds. whatever sort of unmediated presumption of veridicality might be thought to attach to perceptual knowledge. Yet it is not behaviouristic ­ indeed it insists upon the in­principle privacy of each person’s mind, which was the great bugbear of behaviourism.

Amodalists can also take over much of the inferentialist’s account by supposing that the rational structure they identify is important to both the psychological explanation of, and epistemic justification of, our amodal perception of other minds. For it is clear in general that the content of amodal perception can vary among subjects, and can be false, and so something must explain both why we experience things as having certain concealed aspects, and also why this seeing is not systematically illusory. And the factors that play these roles might very well be the sort that inferentialists have appealed to ­ explanatory and predictive strength and success, generalisations and analogies from previous experience, and so on.

However, it would be misleading to describe amodal perception as a matter of inferring the concealed from the revealed, for two reasons. Firstly, since the amodal structure is immediately present in perceptual experience, whatever processes generate it must work so swiftly and unconsciously as to be in some significant sense ‘sub­personal’, happening below the level of what the person themselves does. Secondly, inferences involve holding the premises fixed while establishing the conclusion ­ the conclusion does not go back and alter the premises. But there seems to be a sense in which the revealed aspects of a thing are seen differently when they are seen as aspects of something with certain concealed aspects; the two sides interpenetrate in a way that conclusions and premises do not.

Perhaps there is a weak sense of ‘inference’ in which the amodalist account of knowledge of other minds still relies on inferences, and so maybe amodalism is a form of refined inferentialism. Similarly, there may be weaker and stronger senses of ‘perception’, and amodal perception may be genuinely perceptual in the former sense but not the latter. I do not think it really matters whether we classify the amodalist account as perceptualist, inferentialist, both, or neither: what matters is that it combines the virtues of both approaches.

4. Amodal Perception and Conceptualism

I have been characterising the content of amodal mind­perception as involving mental states ­ e.g. we perceive someone’s movements as expressing a ‘feeling’ or ‘desire’. It seems likely that this could be the case only for subjects who possessed mental state concepts ­ e.g. who had some idea of ‘feelings’ and ‘desires’. And if we were happy conceptualists about knowledge of other minds, then we might simply accept that result and stop here. But let us suppose that we are interested in the possibility of a non­conceptual knowledge of other minds: can we still accept the amodalist account? I believe we can, by supposing that directly perceiving the physical expressions of another being’s mental state provide us with an amodal perception of the objects of that mental state, one independent of any specifically mental idea of how the other being is related to that object.

The simplest cases of this would simply involve tracking what another can perceive: the open eye gives us an amodal perception of things that lie before it, without in the same way connecting with what lies behind it. Closely related would be the perception of attention: taking the turned face or oriented body of another as indicating a thing in a certain direction (Cf. Roessler 2005, Campbell 2005). But the proposal also allows for the perception of affective and conative states. For instance, suppose I see someone staring longingly at something. The non­conceptualist amodalist proposal is that this (modal) perception provides me with an amodal perception of ‘a desirable object’ ­ that is, in virtue of my seeing the stare, my perceptual experience contains a sense that something desirable is present (just as my in virtue of my seeing the front of a cup, my perceptual experience contains a sense that the back side of that cup is present). When I hear someone’s cry of fear, it gives me a sense that something frightening is present. And so on. This might co­exist with conceptual awareness that the person I see or hear has something called a ‘desire’ or an ‘emotion’, but does not require it: rather than mind­perception involving perception of a special sort of thing, it could simply involve perceiving things as connected to other things in a distinctive high­level pattern. Indeed, the concept of a mental state might itself be, in part, the idea of a certain connection among objects. The reaching hand that I see is not ‘ontologically’ connected with the apple it reaches for: it is not another part, or surface, or degree of detail, of the apple. Yet the perception of it somehow indicates the apple to us, even if we cannot see the apple itself, so what is this distinctive sort of connection? My suggestion here is that a subject need not have any very good idea of what this connection is in order to perceive and make use of it. Framed as an evolutionary or developmental hypothesis, the idea would be that once the apparatus for amodal perception of object’s hidden parts or surfaces or details is in place, it would be easy to tweak it to also track other being’s mental lives. Yet such tweaking would not require a fully­formed concept of intentional mental states, and in particular might remain at the level of understanding bodily behaviour and perception in distinctive ways, rather than taking it to reflect a distinctive internal state which could occur without bodily manifestation.

There are at least three immediate objections to this non­conceptualist amodalism, which I will briefly comment on.

Firstly, the proposal only seems to work for mental states that are directed onto publically observable objects, and not those that are undirected or directed inwardly. This seems basically fine to me: a pre­conceptual perceiver would only be able to make sense of some and not all mental states (Cf. Call & Tomasello 2005, pp.58­60). What is problematic here is mainly the status of particular mental states like pain or despondency that seem to be i) debatably directed onto objects, but ii) the kind of thing that pre­conceptual creatures might well have some ability to perceive. I think the appropriate response here would be to adopt analyses of those mental states that treat them as directed (e.g. pain onto a body part, despondency onto ‘things in general’), but I cannot argue for those analyses here.

Secondly, we regularly perceive someone as having a mental state directed onto some object, while also directly perceiving the object itself (as when I perceive an apple, and also perceive you as seeing, or wanting, or hoping to get, the apple). But isn’t it contradictory to say that we perceive one thing both modally and amodally? No, it is not ­ simply consider a case where we simultaneously see the front of something and also the reflection of its rear side in a mirror. What this illustrates is that it is too coarse­grained to speak simply of a subject amodally perceiving an object: we should rather speak of the relation between one ‘modally’ perceived thing and the other aspects that it is ‘amodally’ perceived as having (in other work I have used the term ‘adumbrate’ for this relation).

Thirdly, this proposal seems to impute a sort of self­other confusion to mind­perceivers: when they see someone who is visibly expressing anger, they come to perceive something as ‘outrageous’ and thereby in some degree share that anger. But I do not think this implication is necessarily a problem: indeed, an influential approach to the psychological processes underlying our understanding of other minds involves the idea that we ‘simulate’ other people’s mental states, i.e. recreate them in our own minds (see Goldman 2008, cf. Hellie 2013). I think one of the nice features of the amodalist account, in fact, is that it suggests an interesting point of connection between the idea, particularly associated with Strawson’s (1974) defence of Kant, that amodal perception is in some sense ‘infused with’ imagination, and the idea that sympathetic imagination is crucial to our understanding of other minds.

5. Conclusion

We perceive other minds, but we perceive them as imperceptible. This sounds like a contradiction, but makes sense when we see it as a form of amodal perception, an entirely routine way to perceive things as unperceived. Analysing perception of other minds as amodal perception lets us combine the virtues of perceptualist and inferentialism. Moreover, the amodalist analysis can easily be extended to allow for both conceptual and pre­conceptual knowledge of other minds, with normal adult humans having both and many other beings having only the latter.




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[1] For evidence that animals and infants have some level of mind­awareness, one could look at studies of joint attention and gaze­following (e.g. Butterworth & Jarrett 1991, Tomasello, Call, and Hare 1997, Hare & Tomasello 1999, Call & Tomasello 2005). For evidence that they do not have a grasp of mental­state concepts, one could look at habitual failures in the ‘false belief’ test (e.g. Wimmer & Perner 1983, Baron­Cohen et al. 1985, Leslie & Frith 1988). None of these data are easy to interpret, but my argument does not depend on positively endorsing the presence or absence of mental­state concepts in any particular case.

[2] I do not mean to say that inferentialists are necessarily unable to account for this sense of immediacy, but simply that they need to find some way to do so: on some construals my own proposal in section 3 could be seen as a way for them to discharge this burden.

[3] Could a non­behaviourist perceptualist rescue privacy by saying that while others may perceive my mental life, and thereby be ‘directly’ aware of it, they are fallible in so doing, while I am infallible? They could, but infallibility, unless very heavily qualified, is a fairly implausible way to spell out the sense of ‘direct knowledge’ that we have of our own minds.

[4] As Nanay (2010, pp.241) points out, similar perceptual phenomena can occur with overlapping shadows, or with partial illumination that reveals only part of an object; in neither case is there strictly occlusion.

[5] More examples like this are discussed by Merleau­Ponty 1962, pp.302­311, and subsequently by Kelly 2004, who argue that amodal perception is essential to colour and shape constancy, that is, the way that we can see an object as having a constant colour or shape which we only imperfectly sense under given viewing conditions.

11 thoughts on “Amodal Mind­-Perception: Combining Inferentialism and Perceptualism”

  1. Solving or Dissolving: Amodal perception and the far side of the mind

    The problem of how we come to have knowledge of other minds is often treated as though it posed a unique epistemic challenge: how can we have such apparently straightforward access to others’ mental states, states which are often taken to be in part defined by their privacy and inaccessibility to third parties? In contrast with this emphasis on the exceptional nature of the problem, Luke Roelof’s paper instead makes progress on it by suggesting a commonality between our access to others’ minds and another widespread phenomenon, that of amodal perception. After outlining the shortcomings of inferentialist and perceptualist accounts of our knowledge of other minds, Luke argues that reflection on amodal perception offers us a way of claiming the benefits of both. “We perceive others’ minds, but we perceive them as imperceptible” (p.16, emphasis added). In cases of amodal perception we perceive a whole object, but we do so on the basis of some partial feature of it. As a result “the revealed aspect is seen ‘as’ merely one aspect of an object with more aspects” (p.6). Luke suggests that we similarly see aspects of others’ minds as parts of a whole that has other, concealed aspects. In this way amodal mind perception potentially cuts a path through the stalemate between inferentialism and perceptualism.

    Luke’s paper offers a refreshing perspective on a vexed and intransigent problem. But it does so by bringing to bear one still-mysterious phenomenon on another. Joel Smith in his commentary focuses on some of the details of Luke’s proposal. In this commentary I want to invite reflection on some of the larger questions in the vicinity. What exactly is the problem Luke intends amodal perception to solve? And how precisely is it intended to do so? Do we know enough about amodal perception to be reassured that there is sufficient commonality between it and our knowledge of other minds, such that the former can fruitfully be brought to bear on the latter?

    Our knowledge of other minds poses not one but a series of distinct epistemological questions. Luke’s paper makes mention of two of these in particular. On the one hand, Luke describes the dispute between inferentialism and perceptualism as concerning the question of “how we get our ‘original’ knowledge of other minds” (p.2)…. “how we could first learn about the minds of others, starting ‘from scratch’” (p.2). Call this question the “acquisition question”. The mystery is not just empirical, but conceptual: how do you learn the mountain has another side when you never get the chance to walk over it? How do we learn that others have mental states like our own when our direct first person experience is limited to the latter? When it comes to others’ minds, we never get the chance to confirm that there is another side to these kinds of mountain: our access to our own and others’ mental states is taken to be via distinct routes – introspection and observation, experience and behavior, and it’s mysterious how we ever make the connection between them.

    On the other hand, Luke discusses the problem of what justifies our knowledge of other minds as though the question primarily concerns what Luke calls, “our everyday knowledge of other minds” and the puzzling ease and accuracy with which we acquire it. How is it that I am currently able to have often straightforward and apparently effortless access to what the people around me are thinking and feeling? As Luke puts it: “we are very good at ‘reading’ others’ mental states from their physical behavior. The question is how.” (p.2) We can call this the “everyday question.” How we answer the everyday question may be quite distinct from how we answer the acquisition question: the mechanisms by which I first acquired the skill of moving food from a plate into my mouth happily bear only a limited resemblance to the mechanisms by which I now accomplish the same task.

    With that distinction in hand, we are better placed to ask ourselves what sort of an answer amodal perception can offer to either of those questions. Amodal perception could offer an answer by elucidating the mechanism by which the apparently intractable ground between inferentialism and perceptualism may be broached, or by offering a metaphor or model of sorts, a kind of example intended to reassure us that such a bridging is possible even if amodal perception doesn’t provide a paradigm for the underlying mechanisms by which we gain knowledge of other minds.

    It seems that Luke doesn’t intend amodal perception to offer an example of a possible mechanism. That’s because he doesn’t seek to defend a specific view of how it works- of whether the mechanism underlying it is perceptual or cognitive, for instance (p.8). If amodal perception were supposed to give us a nuts and bolts explanation of how we solve the problem of others’ mental states, then the precise mechanism it employs might matter very much. We would need to be reassured for instance that seeing a partially concealed object, and understanding others’ minds, have enough in common that the same mechanisms could be employed to do both.

    But even if that isn’t the primary way in which amodal perception is intended to cast light on our access to other minds, it may be that we cannot so easily dismiss the question of what the mechanisms is behind it. What that mechanism turns out to be will determine the questions that amodal perception is and is not well-placed to ellucidate. Consider some of the disparate phenomena that have been grouped under the title of amodal perception. On the one hand, there are phenomena such as simple instances of amodal completion that plausibly do not rely on any kind of learning, either perceptual or cognitive, or background knowledge, but on default and potentially innate inclinations to, for instance, assume that two lines continue straight until they meet. Consider the Kanisza amodal completion figure below (fig.1). Despite the octagons on either side of it, one still naturally ‘sees’ the middle image as an irregular hexagon.

    Fig 1: Kanisza amodal completion figure, from Pylyshyn, Z. (1999). Is vision continuous with cognition? The case for cognitive impenetrability of visual perception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (3):341-365.

    Consider on the other hand the phenomenon of perceiving the front of a cup as just that- merely the front of a three-dimensional object, parts of which are obscured from us. That phenomenon by contrast is likely to rely on our prior experience with cups, our discovery that the 2D image we see from the front turns out to represent just part of a now-familiar 3-dimensional object. Whether or not you accept that description in the particular case of seeing a cup, there will be at least some instances of amodal perception that rely on prior experience, or that draw on cognitive information about the world and objects in it. But it isn’t clear how this sort of amodal perception could provide an answer to the acquisition question. Suppose I learn that a cup has another side through seeing and handling the whole object. How does that case cast light on the case of other minds, when the puzzle there springs from the way I read others’ behavior in terms of a concealed mental aspect, even though I never have the opportunity to see or handle the “the far side” of the mind for myself?

    Perhaps then we more fruitfully understand the appeal to amodal perception as at root a kind of metaphor, a demonstration that our knowledge of other minds is not unique in involving apparently immediate access to even the concealed aspects of an object only partially revealed to us. The case of amodal perception encourages us to think that such phenomena may be widespread. And their ubiquity in the perceptual case entitles us to set aside some of our unease about recognizing the apparently contradictory nature of our access to others’ minds. We can be reassured by this evidence that there is ‘an entirely routine way to perceive things as unperceived’ (p.15).

    But that still leaves unanswered the question of how the mere observation that similar phenomena occur elsewhere can explicate the nature of our relationship to other minds, if we are right to start from the position that neither perception nor inference is up to the task. A model or comparison can help us solve an apparently intransigent problem by pointing us towards missing information, or by providing an example of how the information we previously had at our disposal was in fact sufficient to answer the question in hand. But it isn’t clear how the mere fact of amodal perception does either of those things in the case of other minds. The worry, rather, is that those features of other minds that make problematic our knowledge of them in the first place also disrupt attempts to analogize them to other instances of perception, in a way that prevents whatever explains amodal perception from relevantly extending to this case. How does the phenomenon of amodal perception conjure the resources to bridge the shortfall left by both perceptual and inferentialist accounts of our knowledge of other minds?

    One possibility is that it does so not by solving the problem of our knowledge of other minds, but by undermining our reason for thinking that the problem was ever a genuine one. Underlying both the acquisition question and the everyday question is a third puzzle, which I shall call the “conceptual question”. The conceptual question asks how it could be possible to ever solve the epistemic challenge posed by other minds, given the constraints imposed by the concepts we use to frame the challenge. So long as we understand mental states as essentially private, immediately accessible only by the individual who has them, then our access to them resists description in terms of perception. Similarly, so long as we understand inference as slow and effortful, it will appear to be incompatible with access whose phenomenology is perceptual in flavor.

    Amodal perception could “solve” either the acquisition or the everyday problem, by unknotting this conceptual puzzle that underlies both. It might do so by encouraging us to make one of two adjustments. The first is to allow that mental states are the kinds of things that can be seen or known via behavior or bodies. That is to say, the problem relies on substantive commitments to what mental states are which we are not obliged to accept, and which the analogy to amodal perception arguably gives us reason to reject by encouraging us to allow that “we perceive people’s minds through perceiving their bodies” (p.8). The second is to allow that perceptual phenomenology is compatible with inferential processes, that is to say, that the dilemma between inferentialism and perceptualism, at least the most plausible forms of each, is a false one. This could again be supported by the way in which amodal perception appears to split the difference between them. As Joel Smith brings out in his commentary, reflecting on amodal perception encourages an unraveling of the notion of inference. In some forms at least, there is no incompatibility between it and perception.

    Where does this leave Luke’s paper? On the one hand the notion of amodal perception provides a powerful example of a widespread feature of our perceptual experience, of which our knowledge of other minds may be another instance. On the other hand, there is more to be said about how that example loosens the grip of the problem of other minds: does it do so by providing a missing piece of information about the process in question, or does it do so by elucidating the ways in which our previous thinking on the problem has itself been conceptually confused? Whichever of these Luke favors, it’d be interesting to hear more about the kind of solution he understands himself to have offered to the problem in question.

  2. The devil in the details: a comment on Luke Roelofs

    Since the things that we see are arranged within a three dimensional space, the majority of them are partly obscured by others. A notable fact is that such obscured objects seem to be, in some sense, visually experienced despite being strictly speaking unseen. This phenomenon is known as amodal completion: the object seems to be visually completed behind the occluder. In looking at fig. 1, one seems to be presented with a white square against a black background as seen through four circular holes (of course this case is different from the typical case of visual perception since it is, in fact, only two dimensional—there are no lines continuing behind the ‘occluder’. However, in what follows we can ignore this fact and speak as though this really is what it in fact only depicts—a square seen through four holes).

    Fig. 1: Adapted from Zhou, J. et. al. 2008. 'Better discrimination for illusory than for occluded perceptual completions'. Journal of Vision, 8:26

    (Fig. 1: Adapted from Zhou, J. et. al. 2008. ‘Better discrimination for illusory than for occluded perceptual completions’. Journal of Vision, 8:26)

    There are lots of interesting questions to ask about amodal completion. Some are sub-­‐personal and focus on the mechanisms that generate the phenomenon.

    These are, for the most part, questions for psychologists and neuroscientists. Others focus on the best way to describe the phenomenon at the personal level. Do we visually experience the occluded parts of the square, for example, or do we merely visualise (visually imagine) them? If the former, how is such visual experience appropriately described? For example, do we see the corners as corners of a square? Do we literally see the occluded parts? And so on. These are questions for, amongst others, philosophers.

    Whatever theory is defended, personal level accounts of amodal completion are attempting to account for the curious phenomenon in which a part of some perceived entity is simultaneously perceptually present yet hidden from view. What Luke Roelofs points out in his rich paper—of which my remarks here will only scratch the surface— is that a similar phenomenon seems to occur in the case of the perceptual experience of other people.

    Fig. 2: Alexis Tsipras being sworn in as Greek Prime Minister. Photo: Kostas Tsironis / Bloomberg

    (Fig. 2: Alexis Tsipras being sworn in as Greek Prime Minister. Photo: Kostas Tsironis / Bloomberg)

    Looking at fig. 2 we will typically take Tsipras to be happy. Not only that, however, it is overwhelmingly natural to say that he looks happy and this, it seems, is to say something to the effect that his happiness is perceptually present. But, of course, it is also in some sense hidden from view. His happiness is, surely, not present to vision in just the way that his mouth is, for example.

    Arguably, then, we have here a phenomenon that shares something with the case of admodal completion: others’ psychological states are, in some cases, perceptually present yet hidden.

    The above remarks will, I suspect, be accepted by a wide range of people. In particular, they can be endorsed by those committed to a number of distinct and incompatible accounts of our awareness, and knowledge, of other people’s psychological states. With Roelofs, we can distinguish between perceptualism, the view that ‘we perceive the minds of others’, and inferentialism, the view that ‘we infer that they have minds from what do perceive, namely their bodily motions and perceptions’ (p.1). Either view can accept the analogy between amodal perception and, at least some cases of, our awareness of other minds.

    Roelofs goes beyond this, claiming that the two views can be, ‘combined in a way that perserves what is attractive about both’ (p.1). In order that we may evaluate that claim we should say something a little more precise about the meanings of ‘perceptualism’ and ‘inferentialism’, since there are varieties of each. I begin with inferentialism.

    There are at least three readings of the view that our awareness of other minds is always inferential, only one of which is inconsistent with the view that on some occasions the psychological states of others seem to be perceptually present. On a what we might call a phenomenological reading, inferentialism would hold that, in every case, the judgement that another is, for example, happy is manifestly the conclusion of an inference from other believed propositions. On such a view, our judgements about the minds of others seem to be (or, are given as) the results of inferences. This view is inconsistent with the above analogy with amodal completion and is, for that reason, highly implausible. As I mentioned above, it is very natural to say that Tsipras looks happy and that, on the face of it, is inconsistent with the view that we seem to infer that he is happy from other believed propositions (e.g. that he is smiling and that people usually smile only when happy).

    Such inconsistency disappears, however, if we allow for inferential moves that are non-­‐conscious, and so not manifest to the subject of experience. On some views all perceptual experience is the output of transitions between contentful states that are inference-­‐like (Gregory 1974, Rock 1977). On what we might call the psychological reading of inferentialism the judgement that Tsipras is happy is the result of a transition of this kind. And this is consistent with the claim that the judgement is also the result of taking one’s perceptual experience at face value, for the reason that the perceptual experience itself rests on an inference.

    Even if such a picture of perceptual experience is put aside, however, it may be the case, as Mill famously pointed out, that ‘we may fancy that we see or feel what we in reality infer’ (Mill, 1891, p.4). As such, it can be pointed out that from the fact that it is natural to say that Tsipras looks happy it does not follow that it is true. In fact, we merely judge him to be happy, but that we do is not phenomenologically manifest. There are in fact, then, two psychological readings of inferentialism. On the first, it really is true that Tsipras looks happy yet this perceptual appearance is the result of a non-­‐conscious inferential transition, on the second whilst it might seem natural to say that Tsipras looks happy, really this is misleading. Rather, ‘we may fancy’ that he looks happy when actually that he is happy is something that ‘in reality we infer’ from the way that he looks.

    Finally, on an epistemic reading inferentialism is the view that the epistemic status of any judgement that another is in some psychological state depends upon the epistemic status of other beliefs of the subject’s from which it might be inferred. On such a view we need not claim that one’s judgement that Tsiras is happy is, in fact, the result of an inference. Rather, we claim that if it is justified this is because it may be inferred from other beliefs (e.g. that he is smiling and that people usually smile only when happy) that one is independently justified in believing. As with the psychological reading, this is consistent with claiming that there is an analogy between such examples and amodal completion, since for all we have said it may be that such an epistemic claim holds also for the latter.

    Since his central claim is that thinking of our awareness of other minds on the model of amodal perception allows us to combine the virtues of inferentialism and perceptualism, we need to know which variety of inferentialism Roelofs intends. On the face of it, he has the epistemic reading in mind, writing that he takes, ‘the amodalist view of other minds to be…inferentialist (in its ulimate epistemic basis)’ (p.10). In fact, he seems also to take on the psychological reading, claiming that, ‘amodalism can potentially take over much of the inferential structure the [inferentialist] identifies is important to both the psychological explanation of, and epistemic justification of, our amodal perception of other minds’ (pp.10-­‐11). On the elaborations given above, this would mean that Roelofs’ amodalist view has both an epistemic and a psychological element. The epistemic element would be that our judgement that Tsipras is happy is justified only because we are justified in believing that he is smiling and that people usually smile only when happy (or something like that). The psychological element could be spelled out in (at least two ways) claiming either that, (i) the perceptual appearance of happiness is the result of a non-­‐ conscious inference, or that (ii) whilst we suppose that there is a perceptual appearance of happiness, in fact we merely judge Tsipras to be happy based on a non-­‐conscious inference from the way he appears (i.e. smiling).

    So much for inferentialism, what of perceptualism? What are the different claims that one might be making in claiming that ‘we perceive the minds of others’? They are, at least: (1) That one can see that Tsipras is happy, (2) That one sees Tsipras as happy, (3) that one can see Tsipras’ happiness, and (4) That Tsipras looks happy to one.

    Plausibly, (1) entails that one knows that Tsipras is happy. None of the others do, however. Both (1) and (3) entail that Tsipras is happy, while neither (2) or (4) do. So neither (2) nor (4) can entail the relevant knowledge. One reason that (3) does not entail that one knows that Tsipras is happy is that one may see Tsipras’ happiness yet be unaware that one is seeing Tsipras. In fact, it is only (1) that entails that one takes any epistemically evaluable attitude (such as judgement or belief) at all towards the proposition that Tsipras is happy. The others, it would seem, are consistent with one’s having no opinion whatsoever on the matter.

    In the above discussion I primarily employed (4), the ‘looks’ formulation. This is most closely associated with the case of (2), seeing-­‐as, since both aim to characterise the way that one’s visual experience presents its object. They both aim at the claim that Tsipras’ happiness is in some sense visually present to one under that mode of presentation. This is not the case with (1) since, as has long been familiar from discussions of perceptual knowledge, one can know that a is F even if one lacks any visual experience of a (consider Dretske’s (1969) well known example of seeing that the fuel tank is empty by looking at the fuel gauge). Nor is it the case with (3), for the reason that ‘sees’ is extensional: if one sees a, and a=b, then one sees b; for the case of properties: if one sees a’s Fness, and Fness=Gness, then one sees a’s Gness. So the claim that one sees Tsipras’ happiness cannot be a way of articulating the view that Tsipras’ happiness is in some sense visually present to one under that mode of presentation, since then it would also be visually present to one as any F that is identical to happiness and that is far fetched (consider the possibility that happiness is identical to a state of the central nervous system).

    Which variety of perceptualism does Roelofs have in mind? At different points in the paper he employs different formulations. The claim that, according to perceptualism, we ‘perceive the minds of others’ (p.1) suggests view (3), since seeing is a variety of perceiving (perceiving is factive, extensional, and entails neither belief nor knowledge). In fact, Roelofs goes on to say that, ‘we can see people’s emotions and desires’ (p.4). So he certainly has (3) in mind.
    Then again, Roelofs says that, according to perceptualism, ‘the minds of others can in some sense be right there in the content of perception’ (p.3), which is at least suggestive of either (2) or (4). More than suggestive, at some points he explicitly employs the seeing-­‐as locution, claiming that the distinctive claim of the amodalist is that others minds are perceived, ‘as imperceptible’ (p.8).

    But perhaps Roelofs has (1) in mind, given his focus on knowledge of other minds (e.g. p.1), his interest in epistemic inferentialism, and at least one use of the ‘perceive that P’ to articulate what he refers to as ‘the content of perception’ (p11). This, if what I have said above is correct, would be an altogether distinct view.
    Finally, Roelofs sometimes uses another locution, one that I have not thus far mentioned: seeing-­‐in (p.9). This formulation would involve the claim that one sees happiness in Tsipras’ facial expression. I haven’t mentioned this variation on perceptualism for the reason that it adds a number of complications that I want to lay aside. It is most familiar from discussions within aesthetics, in which it is sometimes said that one can see a depicted person in a picture, or that one can see a face in a cloud, and so on. The question of whether, in these cases, one does literally see the person or face (and so its relation to 3) is a vexed one, probably not to be dealt with here (subtle differences in formulation are seemingly significant. Compare, for example: ‘I see happiness in Tsipras’ face’, ‘I see the happiness in Tsipras’ face’, ‘I see Tsipras’ happiness in his face’). For ease, I shall simply assume that the seeing-­‐as locution is a variant on (2), so seeing happiness in Tsipras’ face is equalivalent to seeing Tsipras as happy.

    Crucial, I think, to pinning down what version of perceptualism Roelofs has in mind will be understanding what he takes the virtues of the view to be, which virtues he thinks of as shared by amodalism. He writes that amodalism, explains why the minded character of other people seems as immediately present to us as the three-­‐dimensional nature of the objects we perceive. This captures the phenomenology of other minds and allows us to extend, to our knowledge of other minds, whatever sort of unmediated presumption of veridicality might be thought to attach to perceptual knowledge (p.10)

    I am unsure what Roelofs means here by an ‘unmediated presumption of veridicality’. But the general thrust of is clear enough: the primarily concern is with phenomenology. Thus, despite the occasional suggestion otherwise, we should really be concerned with either (2) or (4). The claim that we can see Tsipras’ happiness is not the real target. But Roelofs also has an interest in perceptual knowledge so, despite it not being explicit, we might also attribute to him a concern to defend something like (1).

    Given all of this, how plausible is the claim that amodalism combines the virtues of inferentialism and perceptualism? I said earlier that Roelofs seems to hold either (i) the perceptual appearance of happiness is the result of a non-­‐ conscious inference, or (ii) whilst we suppose that there is a perceptual appearance of happiness, in fact we merely judge Tsipras to be happy based on a non-­‐conscious inference from the we he appears (i.e. smiling). Given his above -­‐ mentioned concern with phenomenology and his desire to characterise one’s perceptual experience as extending to others’ psychological states, I take it that
    (ii) is not consistent with perceptualism. The type of psychological inferentialism that he endorses, then, must be (i). This, however, isn’t obviously a special feature of amodal perception since many will claim that non-­‐conscious, sub-­‐ personal inferential transitions characterise all perceptual experience.

    What of Roelofs’ epistemological inferentialism? Above I interpreted this claim as the view that our judgement that Tsipras is happy is justified only because we are justified in believing that he is smiling and that people usually smile only when happy. Is this consistent with perceptualism of either type (2) or (4)? If one sees Tsipras as happy (or, if Tsipras looks happy to one) then, unless we are given some reason to suppose otherwise, we would naturally suppose that that one’s justification for believing Tsipras to be happy is non-­‐ inferential, since all one must do is take the content of one’s visual experience at face value. That is, if perceptualism of type (1) or (3) is true, it is difficult to see what need there is for inference to play a justificatory role. The consequence, I think, is that whilst amodalism may possess the phenomenological virtues of perceptualism, it is less obvious that it shares much with any interesting form of inferentialism.

    I am very sympathetic to Roelofs’ attempt to carve out an account of our awareness of others’ psychological states based on the phenomenon of amodal completion. In fact, I have argued for a similar view myself (Smith 2010, 2013). The devil, however, is in the details. If the analogy with amodal completion is to be taken seriously, and amodalism is to provide us with an account of our awareness of other minds that does justice to the sorts of considerations that motivate inferentialists and perceptualists alike, then there is, it seems to me, much work yet to be done.


    Dretske, Fred. 1969. Seeing and Knowing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Gregory, Richard. 1974. Perceptions as Hypotheses. In Philosophy Of Psychology,
    edited by S. C. Brown. London: Macmillan.

    Mill, John Stuart. 1891. A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive. London: Longmans, Green, & co., 1906.

    Rock, Irvin. 1977. In Defense of Unconscious Inference. In Stability and Constancy in Visual Perception, edited by W. Epstein, 321–373. New York: Wiley.

    Smith, Joel. 2010. Seeing Other People. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 81:3, 731–748.

    Smith, Joel. 2013. The Phenomenology of Face to Face Mindreading. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 90:2, 274-­‐293.

    Zhou, Jiawei, Bosco Tjan, Yifeng Zhoi, & Zil Liu. 2008. Better discrimination for illusory than for occluded perceptual completions. Journal of Vision, 8:26, 1-­‐17.

  3. Mind­Perception, Amodal Perception, and Inference: Reply to Smith and Munton

    I’d like to thank Joel and Jessie for identifying several of the points in my paper that most need development. I’m going to briefly indicate how I would go about addressing their concerns in a longer paper, focusing particularly on three issues:

    • How to best theorise amodal perception;
    • How to define ‘perceptualism’;
    • How to define ‘inferentialism’.

    Jessie points out, quite rightly, that an amodalist account of knowledge of other minds will be illuminating only to the extent that we understand amodal perception itself. If amodal perception is a mystery, then we’ve just connected two mysteries together without solving either (even if that’s a minor form of progress). I do think that we have a decent pre­theoretical grasp of amodal perception, but I should say a bit about how I think it ought to be theorised.

    Put briefly, I’m attracted to an ‘imagery­based’ account of amodal perception, in which the brain generates ‘mental imagery’ (here meaning just internally generated states in a sensory format) in reaction to sensory stimulation, and projects them into the egocentric space of perception. The result is a perceptual experience that is only partly a result of sensory stimulation. Perception is, as we might say, ‘infused with imagination’.

    I think this way of understanding amodal perception is especially congenial to the amodalist account, since it dovetails with the popular idea that we understand other minds through a form of imagination, by putting ourselves in the other’s shoes and ‘simulating’ their mental states. If we understand other people’s mental lives through imagining being them, and amodal perception involves projecting imaginings into perceptual space, it makes a lot of sense to connect them: amodal mind­perception involves projecting sympathetic imaginings into perceptual space.
    That’s only a sketch, and it glosses over some of the more puzzling aspects of this imagination­based view (in particular about the differences between sensory and sympathetic imagination). I’d be happy to talk more about it in the comments, but for now hopefully it’s enough to indicate how I would respond to Jessie’s challenge.

    Joel challenges both my use of ‘perceptual’ and my use of ‘inferential’. In regard to the first, I have to admit that the contrast between identifying mental states as the objects of perception, and simply holding that the content of perception can be that a person has certain mental states, had not clearly struck me until Joel pointed out its importance. My position, though, is definitely of the latter sort: I think that mental properties feature in the content of perception, but not that mental states are necessarily objects of perception. After all, when I see something with facing and rear sides, it seems that my object is primarily the whole thing, and perhaps in some sense the facing side, but not the rear side: rather, the object is seen as having a rear side. (I have no particular view on the relationship between ‘X looks F’ and ‘I see X as F’.)

    Regarding what inferentialism means, I use the term primarily in an epistemic sense, but I think that mind­perception is also psychologically inferential. Let me say a bit about both of these senses.

    Joel points out that there’s a weak psychological sense of ‘inferential’ in which almost any perceptual belief could be called inferential, since almost all perceptions arise from complex sub­personal processes that process some information to derive other information. If this was
    the only sense in which our perceptions of other minds were psychologically inferential, it wouldn’t be very interesting. But mind­perception is psychologically inferential in a stronger sense than this, because it involves one conscious component of a perceptual experience which is derived from another conscious component. The ‘premises’ of the inference are accessible to the subject, and this distinguishes mind­perception (and amodal perception more generally) from cases like colour constancy and binocular vision: although the visual system could be said to ‘infer’ what colour and depth things are from the various different wavelengths and intensities hitting each eye, because the latter aren’t accessible to the subject, we can’t say that the subject themselves is inferring anything from them. But the perceptions of the revealed aspects of perceived objects are present to consciousness, and so is the way that perceptual awareness of the concealed aspects depends upon them. And this dependence, it seems to me, is basically rational in nature: the one provides evidence for the other. Moreover, this element of perception is to some extent under voluntary control: I can look at something, ‘tell myself’ that it has some different rear side or mental life than it actually has, and make an effort to ‘see it as such’. This effort may fail, but I can make it, in a way that I can’t make an effort to see a red thing as blue.

    Joel also suggests that if something is part of the content of perception, our justification for believing it is non­inferential, because it requires nothing more than “tak[ing] the content of one’s visual experience at face value”. I think I disagree with this as a general principle, because I think that so much of the content of perception is psychologically inferential in the way I’ve described ­ under limited voluntary influence, and derived from other consciously accessible aspects of perception. Aspects of perception which are like this seem to me to give justification for belief only on the condition that the process whereby they are inferred from other aspects of perception meet appropriate standards of rational support. Usually they will, because our minds are set up in such a way that the inferences we automatically draw are usually good ones. But suppose I look at a chair and it just seems to me very strongly that the other side of the chair, which is concealed from me, is covered in spikes, despite my having no other evidence for that being so (even from things like the chair’s shadow being spiky­shaped). My intuition is that I would have no justification for believing that there are spikes there, which supports my feeling that not all the content of perception provides automatic justification for face­value­acceptance. If that’s the case, then perceptual knowledge can also be inferential knowledge.

  4. Not unexpectedly “the other” dominates your paper.
    Does it dominate amodality?
    Can you say more about how the amodality of the perceiver/inferrer may contribute to one’s knowledge of one’s self?

    The geometrical aspects of the embodiment of amodality seem clear enough, as the way that one may perceive a cup as having a revealed aspect and a concealed aspect, could also apply to one’s own body, where certain parts of the one’s body are more easily observed and held within attention than the others…

    And yet without talking in abstract wholes, and by restricting language to geometrical terms that imply the possibility of unlimited divisibility of the world (including one’s self and others…even if this is only for the purpose of discussing perception or inferring) the aspect of the mind, and possibly the aspect of amodality that is most interesting could be lost.

    Do we become aware of ourselves and our world in the midst of an amodality that manifests as an irreducible whole?
    That is, can amodality tell one anything about the way one is aware of one’s own mind?

    Are there aspects of amodally perceiving one’s own mind that reveal the possibility of limits to self-awareness?

    And, to return to the topic of your paper, how is this ability to amodally perceive one’s self (in both the way we can and the possibility that we cannot) linked to our ability to perceive the minds of others and the difficulty in perceiving other minds?

    1. Hi Tommy. I would agree that the Other dominates my paper, in that the paper is all about how we relate to other people – not sure what’s gained by capitalising it. 🙂

      I actually think a lot about how far this ‘amodal’ structure of other-perception can be present in self-perception. What’s particularly interesting to me about amodal perception is its ‘negative’ element: you’re aware of something, but also aware of not being fully aware of it. It’s not completely wild to think that this kind of negative awareness is present in introspection sometimes: for example in the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon, when we know there’s something we’ve forgotten, or something we can’t yet bring to mind. In my more speculative moments I also think there’s an affinity here with the structure of time-consciousness: we’re aware of moments as partially given (present) and partially not-yet-given (future), and the continuity of the two makes time seem smooth and continuous.

      That said, it’s ironic that you allude to ‘indecomposable unities’. Most of my work in philosophy of mind is about trying to decompose unities, and I actually think that the negative element in experience is potentially useful for showing that some unities are less indecomposable than they may seem.

      1. Thank you Luke for your help with this:

        If something goes wrong with modal knowns, being embodied and embedded one can presumably check the material surrounds or body or whatever sensory or otherwise aesthetic means available to confirm or further investigate an absence or conflict…
        Yes, I still only appear to have two hands even though there may be infinite hands below these ones that I see here and now…it feels as if I only have two so I’m going to go with that…

        But, given that we may be amodaly more decomposable than we seem, are other people’s minds an important way of perceiving and checking up on an amodal absence or a conflict, or futher suggesting and reinforcing a view that we are more unitary from one moment to the next than we may perceive ourselves to be if left completely alone.

        Can you say more about the amodal aspects of intersubjectivity and unity or indecomposability?

  5. Hi Luke

    You say:

    “Joel also suggests that if something is part of the content of perception, our justification for believing it is non­inferential, because it requires nothing more than “tak[ing] the content of one’s visual experience at face value”. I think I disagree with this as a general principle, because I think that so much of the content of perception is psychologically inferential in the way I’ve described ­ under limited voluntary influence, and derived from other consciously accessible aspects of perception. Aspects of perception which are like this seem to me to give justification for belief only on the condition that the process whereby they are inferred from other aspects of perception meet appropriate standards of rational support.”

    The suggestion seems to be that if my perceptual experience has the content ‘a is F’, then my subsequent perceptual belief that a is F will be inferentially justified if the psychological inferences that led to the perceptual content ‘a is F’ are, well, lets say reliable (I’m not 100% sure what else you might have in mind by saying that an aspect of perceptual content ‘appropriate standards of rational support’–perhaps I missed something).

    I don’t find that compelling. Consider testimony. Suppose that you say to me ‘a is F’ and, on that basis, I come to believe that a is F. Is my justification inferential or not? On some views it is, for the reason that I must also believe that you are a reliable source. So the structure of my reasons would have to be something like this: Luke says ‘a is F’; Luke is reliable; so a is F. On other views, your reliability works more like a background condition rather than something that figures as a reason that I have and which is required as a premise in such a justificatory inference. Lets stay neutral between those views (although if pressed I’d opt for the latter), but it would be implausible, I think, to claim that my belief is inferentially justified on the grounds that your statement that a is F was the expression of a belief that is inferentially justified. That, it seems to me, is neither here nor there when it comes to my justification.

    Ditto with perception. On view would have it that my belief is inferential because I must combine the perceptual content ‘a is F’ with the belief that my perceptual system is reliable. That’s a possible view, although not an attractive one in my opinion. Alternatively, one can hold that such reliability considerations function as a background condition. In which case, my belief is non-inferential. I just take the perceptual content at face value. But I don’t find it plausible to say that the justification of my belief is inferential because my perceptual experience itself is based on an inference that may or may not be reasonable. To say that, it seems to me, is to suppose that perceptual content is itself justified (i.e. that I am justified in perceiving that a is F). That is, one would be likening the justification of perceptual beliefs to the justification of beliefs derived from one’s other beliefs – where one’s derived belief will only be justified if the belief from which it is derived is also justified. But to suggest that perceptual content it self is justified or not, to me, is a pretty wild claim.

    1. Joel says, of my response to his comments, that “The suggestion seems to be that if my perceptual experience has the content ‘a is F’, then my subsequent perceptual belief that a is F will be inferentially justified if the psychological inferences that led to the perceptual content ‘a is F’ are, well, lets say reliable.”

      I want to emphasise that I’m not suggesting that this is true of all perceptual experiences/contents (as is implied by the clause ‘if my perceptual experience has the content…’), but only those which are psychologically derived, in an inference-like way, from other perceptual experiences/contents. The way that my experience represents the facing side of an object, and the way that it represents the rear side, are importantly asymmetric in their relationship, and I think that makes a difference to the perceptual beliefs based on them.

      You’re right that it would be a striking claim if I said that perceptual experiences could be justified or unjustified, and that my attempt to recognise the inference-like relations among such experiences could seem to tend in that direction. But I don’t have to attribute justification to experiences themselves; all I’ve been attributing it to is beliefs based on experiences (unless I’ve mis-typed somewhere).

      I don’t know exactly what I’d want to say about knowledge by testimony, but I’m not sure I see the problem you’re trying to set up. Suppose we accept that ‘the structure of my reasons would have to be something like this: Luke says ‘a is F’; Luke is reliable; so a is F.’ But I would still not want to say that ‘my belief is inferentially justified on the grounds that your statement that a is F was the expression of a belief that is inferentially justified.’ That only seems to follow if we treat psychological, inferential, processes in my mind and in your mind as equivalent for how they contribute to the justification of my beliefs. And I don’t see that I’m pressed to treat them like that.

  6. Thanks, Luke, for contributing this interesting paper. Two quick thoughts:

    First, I was thinking that the analogy between amodal perception and certain kinds of mental state ascriptions might be further buttressed by empirical work. Scholl and Gao (2013), for example, argue that intention ascriptions have many paradigmatically “visual” characteristics (e.g., they are associated with activity in visual brain areas, and the processing of intentions seems to interact with other perceptual processes).

    Second, your discussion of nonconceptual mindreading made me curious to get your take on Apperly and Butterfill’s minimal theory of mind. These authors attempt to explain mindreading abilities in infants, nonhuman primates, etc. without ascribing to them full-blown concepts of propositional attitudes. Moreover, as with your account, it falls out of the view that such agents should be unable to attribute mental states concerning imperceptible objects (see, e.g., their definitions of “encounter” and “registration”).

    1. Thanks for these suggestions E.J., and thanks John for the link to that symposium. My suggestion is very close in spirit to the Butterfill/Apperly approach, in trying to get something that’s distinctively about mental states, but doesn’t commit to mental-state concepts or metarepresentations. One difference is just that I’m thinking mainly about what it’s like to deploy this kind of understanding – how the ‘minimal mind-reader’ perceives the world. Butterfill/Apperly, it seems to me, are more oriented towards finding mechanisms and evaluating them empirically.

      Relatedly, I hadn’t thought as hard as they do (especially in their reply to comments in that symposium) about how to distinguish minimal mind-reading from ‘mere behaviour-reading’. In a longer version of this paper I lean more heavily on a simulation-theoretic understanding of mindreading, which provides one way to understand the behaviour-reading/mindreading distinction: it’s mindreading when my perceptual recognition of what another organism is up to ‘draws on’ my own capacity for mental states. I’ll admit that ‘drawing on’ isn’t super-well-specified, and it would have to be something short of metarepresentation. But consider the following sort of example:

      A dog is set up so that when it sees something frightening, and feels fear, it lowers its ears and bares its teeth. It sees another dog with its ears lowered and teeth bared, and expects there to be something frightening near by. Full-strength mindreading would be representing the dog as being in an unperceived mental state of fear; mere behaviour-reading would be associating the other dog’s lowered ears and bared teeth with the presence of something frightening, simply by associationistic means (e.g. observing the two together often). The sort of in-between option I have in mind is associating the behaviour with something frightening, in virtue of a process which at some point makes use of the observing dog’s own behaviour dispositons (e.g. mirror neurones activate in the ear-flattening and tooth-baring parts of motor cortex, which are already connected with the fear-centres, leading to activation of the fear centres and thus to an expectation of something frightening).

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