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The Phenomenology of Visual Experience



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Our visual experiences of the world around us deliver information about the visible features of the objects we see. What these features are, however, is still up for debate. On the one hand, most philosophers agree that if our visual systems are functioning normally, “low-level” features such as colours, shapes, sizes, and movements undoubtedly figure in the phenomenal character of our visual experiences, or “what it is like” for us to visually experience the world. On the other, many have argued for the expansionist view that various “high-level” features figure in visual experience over and above low-level features. These include kind features (e.g. hibiscus-ness, armchair-ness), biological features (e.g. animacy), and facial expressions (e.g. surprise). The aim of this thesis is to defend the opposing restrictivist view that the visible features of objects that figure in our visual experiences are limited to low-level ones.

The first part of the thesis argues that this debate between expansionists and restrictivists should be resolved by identifying an independently-motivated criterion to determine the features that figure in visual experience. A criterion based on visual discrimination is suggested and developed, which has the result that high-level features do not figure in visual experience over and above low-level features. The second part considers the expansionist strategy of showing that high-level features must be introduced to explain how visual categorisation and recognition work. It is argued that this strategy does not succeed, and that a restrictivist account of visual recognition turns out to be better than the expansionist one. The third part focuses on the expansionist claim that objects visually appear to us to be mind-independent. It is argued that this claim is false, because the best account of mind-independence as a perceptible feature requires us to appeal to our proprioceptive sense in addition to visual perception.





Sliwa, Paulina
Crane, Tim


visual perception, visual experience, phenomenology, high-level perception, visual recognition


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge