abstract beliefs, cognitive categories, cognitive penetration, perceptual systems


Philosophers and psychologists alike have argued recently that relatively abstract beliefs or cognitive categories like those regarding race can influence the perceptual experience of relatively low-level visual features like color or lightness. Some of the proposed best empirical evidence for this claim comes from a series of experiments in which White faces were consistently judged as lighter than equiluminant Black faces, even for racially ambiguous faces that were labeled ‘White’ as opposed to ‘Black’ (Levin and Banaji 2006). The latter result is considered especially indicative of cognitive penetration, based on the reasoning that the relevant distortions were a function of lexical labeling, and hence the effect must have been mediated by categorization at the cognitive level. I argue that this reasoning is flawed, and that the assumptions on which it relies are questionable on both empirical and theoretical grounds. I propose an alternative, low-level explanation of the phenomena, which I argue is empirically more plausible and abductively preferable to the cognitive-penetration account. The upshot is that cognitively impenetrable perceptual systems may be psychologically more plastic and hence philosophically more significant than is nowadays commonly assumed.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


Adelson, Edward H. 2000. “Lightness perception and lightness illusions”. In M. Gazzaniga (ed.) The New Cognitive Neurosciences, 2nd ed., 339–351. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bruner, Jerome S. & Goodman, Cecile C. 1947. “Value and need as organizing factors in perception”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 42: 33–44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0058484

Collins, Allan M. & Loftus, Elisabeth F. 1975. “A spreading-activation theory of semantic processing”. Psychological Review 82, no. 6: 407–428. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.82.6.407

Collins, Jessica A. & Olson, Ingrid R. 2014. “Knowledge is power: How conceptual knowledge transforms visual cognition”. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 21, no. 4: 843–860. http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/s13423-013-0564-3

Cyna, Allan M. & Lang, Elvira V. 2011. “How words hurt”. In A. M. Cyna, M. I. Andrew, S. G. M. Tan, & A. F. Smith (eds.) Handbook of Communication in Anaesthesia and Critical Care: A Practical Guide to Exploring the Art, 30–37. New York: Oxford University Press.

Delk, John L. & Fillenbaum, Samuel. 1965. “Differences in perceived color as a function of characteristic color”. The American Journal of Psychology 78, no. 2: 290–293. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1420503

Deroy, Ophelia. 2013. “Object-sensitivity versus cognitive penetrability of perception”. Philosophical Studies 162: 87–107. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11098-012-9989-1

Firestone, Chaz & Scholl, Brian J. 2014. “‘Top-down’ effects where none should be found: The El Greco fallacy in perception research”. Psychological Science 25: 38–46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797613485092

–––––. forthcoming. “Can you experience ‘top-down’ effects on perception?: The case of race categories and perceived lightness”. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Fodor, Jerry A. 1975. The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

–––––. 1983. The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book.

–––––. 1985. “Précis of ‘The modularity of mind’”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8: 1–5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0001921X

–––––. 1987. Psychosemantics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book.

–––––. 1988. “A reply to Churchland’s ‘perceptual plasticity and theoretical neutrality’”. Philosophy of Science 55, no. 2: 188–198. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/289426

–––––. 2008. LOT 2: The Language of Thought Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, Jerry A. & Pylyshyn, Zenon W. 1981. “How direct is visual perception?: Some reflections on Gibson’s ‘ecological approach’”. Cognition 9, no. 2: 139–196. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(81)90009-3

Gilchrist, Alan, Kossyfidis, Christos, Bonato, Frederick, Agostini, Tiziano, Cataliotti, Joseph, Li, Xiaojun, Spehar, Branka, Annan, Vidal, & Economou, Elias. 1999. “An anchoring theory of lightness perception”. Psychological Review 106, no. 4: 795–834. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.106.4.795

Gross, Steven, Chaisilprungraun, Thitaporn, Kaplan, Elizabeth, Menendez, Jorge, & Flombaum, Jonathan. 2014. “Problems for the purported cognitive penetration of perceptual color experience and Macpherson’s proposed mechanism”. This volume.

Hugenberg, Kurt & Sacco, Donald F. 2008. “Social categorization and stereotyping: How social categorization biases person perception and face memory”. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2, no. 2: 1052–1072. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00090.x

Levin, Daniel T. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. 2006. “Distortions in the perceived lightness of faces: The role of race categories”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 135, no. 4: 501–512. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.135.4.501

Machery, Edouard. forthcoming. “Cognitive penetrability: A no-progress report”. In J. Zeimbekis & A. Raftopoulos (eds.) Cognitive Penetrability. Oxford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.135.4.501

Macpherson, Fiona. 2012. “Cognitive penetration of colour experience: Rethinking the issue in light of an indirect mechanism”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84: 24–62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00481.x

McGurk, Harry & MacDonald, John. 1976. “Hearing lips and seeing voices”. Nature 264, no. 5588: 746–748. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/264746a0

Prinz, Jesse J. 2006. “Is the mind really modular?”. In R. J. Stainton (ed.) Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science, 22–36. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Pylyshyn, Zenon, W. 1984. Computation and Cognition: Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book.

–––––. 1999. “Is vision continuous with cognition?: The case for cognitive impenetrability of visual perception”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22, no. 3: 341–365. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X99002022

–––––. 2003. Seeing and Visualizing: It’s Not What You Think. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book.

Raftopoulos, Athanassios. 2001. “Is perception informationally encapsulated?: The issue of the theory-ladenness of perception”. Cognitive Science 25, no. 3: 423–451. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog2503_4

–––––. 2014. “The cognitive impenetrability of the content of early vision is a necessary and sufficient condition for purely nonconceptual content”. Philosophical Psychology 27, no. 5: 601–620. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2012.729486

Ramachandran, Vilayanur S., Rogers-Ramachandran, Diane, & Cobb, Steve. 1995. “Touching the phantom limb”. Nature 377: 489–490. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/377489a0

Rozin, Paul, Markwith, Maureen, & Ross, Bonnie. 1990. “The sympathetic magical law of similarity, nominal realism and neglect of negatives in response to negative labels”. Psychological Science 1, no. 6: 383–384. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1990.tb00246.x

Siegel, Susanna. 2011. “Cognitive penetrability and perceptual justification”. Noûs 46, no. 2: 201–222. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0068.2010.00786.x

Stokes, Dustin. 2013. “Cognitive penetrability of perception”. Philosophy Compass 8, no. 7: 646–663. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12043

Swinney, David A. 1979. “Lexical access during sentence comprehension: (Re)consideration of context effects”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 18, no. 6: 645–659. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(79)90355-4

Toribio, Josefa. 2014. “Nonconceptualism and the cognitive impenetrability of early vision”. Philosophical Psychology 27, no. 5: 621–642. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2014.893386

Vetter, Petra & Newen, Albert. 2014. “Varieties of cognitive penetration in visual perception”. Consciousness and Cognition 27: 62–75. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2014.04.007

Witzel, Christoph, Valkova, Hanna, Hansen, Thorsten, & Gegenfurtner, Karl R. 2011. “Object knowledge modulates colour appearance”. i-Perception 2: 13–49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1068/i0396