In the philosophy of language and epistemology, debates often centre on what content a person is communicating, or representing in their mind. How that content is organised, along dimensions of salience, has received relatively little attention. I argue that salience matters. Mere change of salience patterns, without change of content, can have dramatic implications, both epistemic and moral.
Imagine two newspaper articles that offer the same information about a subject, but differ in terms of what they headline. These articles can be said to adopt different linguistic salience perspectives. Making different things salient in language is a way of making different things salient in an audience’s mind: it is a way of encouraging the audience to adopt a particular cognitive salience perspective. Building on Elisabeth Camp’s work on perspectives, and Sebastian Watzl’s work on attention, I suggest that one has a certain cognitive salience perspective in virtue of better noticing, remembering, and finding cognitively accessible certain contents over others.
Drawing on psychological research into cognitive biases and framing effects, I argue that that simply making some content salient in the mind, perhaps through first making it salient in language, can be sufficient to activate substantive cultural beliefs or ideologies associated with that content. Where those beliefs and ideologies have epistemic and moral problems, we have grounds for criticising the salience perspective that causally produced them. Besides this instrumental harm, I also suggest that certain salience perspectives can themselves constitute harm. I draw on feminist work on objectification to argue that making the wrong thing salient about a person can constitute a way of dehumanising them. A great many factors, from physical and psychological violence, to false beliefs and credibility deficits, have already been identified as potentially harming an individual or group. What is distinctive about this argument, then, is the idea that, sometimes, mere patterns of salience can be damaging in and of themselves.