Institut Jean Nicod

Accueil du site > Séminaires & Colloques > Séminaires > Archives > 2012-2013 > CPR > Séminaire CPR - 13 Nov. : F. Carvalho.

Conscious Attention, Demonstrative Reference and Immunity to Error Through Misidentification

Mardi 13 Novembre 16h30, salle de réunion IJN, Pavillon Jardin 29, rue d’Ulm 75005 Paris


Philosophers have long noticed that there is a tight connection between conscious attention and the way we understand, verify, and come to know propositions containing demonstrative expressions. If I point to an apple on the ground and say ‘this is red and round’, in order to understand my utterance you need to know which object I am referring to, something you can do by allocating your attention in the relevant direction and visually selecting the apple among other concurrently presented objects in the scene. And if you want to verify if other propositions are true of the apple, i.e., whether the thing which is red and round is also shiny, you redeploy the same procedure you used in order to grasp which object I was talking about –you consciously attend to it. In doing so, you come to have knowledge of a singular proposition : that this appleis red, round and shiny.

As such, it seems plausible to suppose that we can use this general point about the epistemic role of attention in order to account for an important epistemological property of perceptual demonstrative thoughts and judgments : that they are, in Sydney Shoemaker’s terms, immune to error through misidentification (henceforth IEM). After all, IEM has been traditionally explained in terms of one’s grounds for making a certain singular judgment, and if conscious attention provides us with the most important way in which we come to know about the properties of objects in our external environment, it is plausible to suppose it might also shed some light on the phenomenon of immunity to error through misidentification.

I will begin by introducing two models that seek to account for IEM phenomena in this manner : the traditional ’way of knowing’ (WOK) model, originally developed by Evans (1982) and Peacocke (1983) and the ’reference-fixing property’ (RFP) model, introduced by Campbell

(1997/1999/2002) as a theoretical alternative to WOK. According to the WOK model, IEM can be traced to the way in which you come to know that a certain visual feature F is instantiated in the scene. If you come to know that F-ness is instantiated by consciously attending to a location L where F-ness is perceived, if you then attribute F-ness to the object at L your judgment (’this is F’) will be immune to error through misidentification.

John Campbell, however, has argued that the WOK model cannot be right.

In certain circumstances, even if the conditions specified in WOK are met, the corresponding judgment ‘this is F’ may still turn out to be in error through misidentification. In its place, he proposes the RFP model, where IEM is traced to the role of the property F itself in visually selecting the object‘this’ refers to. If F is the property we exploit in order to visually select the object ‘this’ refers to, judgments of the form‘this is F’ will be IEM. And spatial location is, quite plausibly, the property we exploit in order to single out objects in our external environment. This explains why judgments of the form ‘this is there (at the attended location)’ are IEM.

I think this is a mistake, and my goal in this talk will be to defend the orthodox WOK model against Campbell’s objections. Once we have a correct understanding of IEM, it should be clear that the counter-examples Campbell deploys against the WOK model are spurious, and do not reveal errors through misidentification. But if we now grant that a wider range of properties, besides spatial location, can figure in perceptual demonstrative judgments that are IEM, the RFP model loses much of its appeal, and ends up yielding some very counter-intuitive results.

This gives us enough reasons to keep the WOK model. This model allows us to maintain Campbell’s correct insights on the role of conscious spatial attention in visual selection and demonstrative reference, without leading to the problems faced by the RFP model. In addition, the WOK model has already been successfully applied in explaining IEM in judgments made with indexicals like ‘I’ and ‘here’,so adopting it in the perceptual demonstrative case would allow us to explain the phenomenon in a uniform way.