Visual Spatial Awareness Probably Requires Visual Awareness of Space

Bartek Chomanski (University of Miami)

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1. Seeing “What” without Seeing “Where”

Consider the scene before your eyes. There’s probably a computer screen you see right in front of you; a coffee cup to your right, within easy reach; a wall behind the computer screen; a stack of papers to grade on your left. In a typical visual experience, you see objects at particular, egocentrically specified locations in external space. But, for broadly Kantian reasons, this (seeing objects at locations in space) doesn’t seem like a merely contingent feature of our experience. It appears unimaginable, perhaps even inconceivable, that we could ever visually experience objects without experiencing them as occupying space at all. Yet, this position has recently come under sustained attack by John Schwenkler (2012). Schwenkler enlists the results of some experiments carried out on a patient with Balint’s syndrome[1] (Friedman-Hill, Robertson, & Treisman, 1995) to show that they constitute a counterexample to the claim that the experience of space is necessary for visual spatial awareness of objects.

One of the best-studied patients with Balint’s syndrome is known in the literature as RM. RM’s performance in various experiments seems to suggest that his ability to perceive spatial objects does not require the ability to perceive “absolute space” (Schwenkler, 2012). In particular, RM seems unable to locate the objects he’s perceiving anywhere in space, and yet, he’s able to accurately identify the objects’ shapes. This has led Schwenkler to postulate that RM doesn’t perceive the objects as in space at all.

In this paper I argue that Schwenkler’s conclusion is premature. Continue reading Visual Spatial Awareness Probably Requires Visual Awareness of Space