Harmony Effects Across Language and Perception

Some Conundrums around the Unity of the Mind

by Gaetano Fiorin (Author) Denis Delfitto (Author)
©2021 Monographs 178 Pages


This book offers original insights around a fascinating idea: Perception and the rest of cognition, crucially including language, are closer to each other than the Cartesian tradition dared to dream. By combining recent results in cognitive neuroscience, the philosophy of perception, and the syntax of natural language, the book demonstrates that there is continuity between higher and lower cognition. Percepts from perceptual experience are propositional, conceptual, and they are not divorced from objective reality. Human cognition is merged with the natural world, able to reflect it in complex ways and interact with it in modalities that are since the very beginning computationally complex and rich in content.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Two views on language and perception
  • 1.1 Language and individual representationalism
  • 1.1.1 The first consequence of individual representationalism
  • 1.1.2 The second consequence of individual representationalism
  • 1.1.3 Perception, cognition and grammar
  • 1.1.4 Representing the world in language and perception
  • 1.2 Language and the ‘propositional’ view of perception
  • 1.3 Where we stand now: A look behind and a (puzzling) look forward
  • Chapter 2 A philosophical interlude on perceptual content: Percepts, concepts, representations, and propositions
  • 2.1 On the relation between perceptual experience and conceptual knowledge
  • 2.2 Cognitive penetration
  • 2.3 Modularity
  • 2.4 Perception, concepts, and categorization
  • 2.5 Perception, reference, and language
  • 2.6 Only a modest role for content? No, that’s individualism!
  • 2.7 Some conclusions on perceptual content
  • Chapter 3 The labyrinths of reference: Mirror effects in language and vision
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Reference in language and perception
  • 3.3 The conundrums around first-person reference
  • 3.4 Direct reference in the visual system
  • Chapter 4 What does grammar tell us about seeing?
  • 4.1 Syntax and ways of seeing
  • 4.2 Knowing facts (by seeing) and seeing events
  • 4.3 Events and experiences
  • 4.4 On experiencing, perceiving, and knowing
  • Appendix A. A note on language and non-conceptual seeing
  • Appendix B. Simple seeing, perceptual content, and transparency
  • Chapter 5 Does syntax tell us what propositions are?
  • 5.1 Silent nouns and relative clauses
  • 5.2 Facts and events as silent nouns
  • 5.3 Harmony and some of its effects
  • Epilogue Language as a looking-glass and grammar as a rabbit-hole
  • References
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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The inquiries into the systems of language and perception reported in this book stem from the research project on linguistic meaning and the semantics of the first-person that led to Fiorin and Delfitto (2020). This is an intermediate phase and these are intermediate results: as we continue to be fascinated by the issues of meaning that arise at the confluence of cognition, perception and experience, our endeavor is set to continue.

For the stimulating intellectual exchanges we had during the process of writing this monograph, we have a deep intellectual debt to the following friends and colleagues: Alessandro Capone, Valentina Bianchi, Lisa Cheng, Norbert Corver, Martin Everaert, Alessandra Giorgi, Giuseppe Longobardi, Chiara Melloni, Jacques Moeschler, Andrea Moro, Giuseppe Varnier, and Maria Vender.

We are especially grateful to Eric Reuland, for his detailed comments on large parts of this manuscript and his generous encouragement, and to Anne Reboul, whose challenging philosophical suggestions were the original stimulus to some of the research endeavors reported here.

Last but not least, we are grateful to Piotr Stalmaszczyk and Lukasz Galecki (Peter Lang) for their precious editorial support, and to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.

It goes without saying, usual disclaimers apply.

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The goal of this monograph is to offer some arguments in favor of the conceptual and propositional nature of perception. It argues against the Cartesian view of perception as a process of passive sensory registration. There is no ‘veil of ideas’ between the senses and the world. In fact, showing that the senses are already pervaded by the operations of reason is the best way to show that the world is not as dichotomic as an important part of our philosophical tradition would have it. There are not subjective sense-data opposed to an objective reality. There are simply biological organisms merged with the natural world, able to reflect it in complex ways and interact with it in modalities that are since the very beginning (that is, starting with the apparently most elementary operations of sensory registration) computationally complex and rich in content.

Cognitive neuroscience made us acquainted with the idea that perception and action are not divorced from the higher operations of cognition. If hearing, seeing, and acting hinge on complex processes of information extraction from analogical databases, it is then uncontroversial that they are cognitive processes. In fact, the embodiment movement (Varela et al. 1991) adds the suggestion that the traditional view of cognition as essentially abstract might be based on the wrong assumption that conceptual knowledge cannot be modality-specific. Embodied cognition is based on the insight that the necessary and possibly sufficient condition for cognition is the way in which sensorimotor capacities enable organisms to successfully interact with the environment. It follows that there is no independent need for abstract conceptual representations: these representations can be replaced by distributed networks of modality-specific sensory and motor features. Under this view, concepts are not abstracted away from sensory-motor experiences; concepts are rather identified with the process of reactivation of modality-specific experiences stored in the sensory-motor cortices (Pulvermüller 1999, Gallese and Lakoff 2005). Most typically, embodied cognition meets the mirror neurons hype, as when concepts of actions are identified with the motor patterns activated by perceiving an action. However, it has also been claimed – rightly so, we believe – that grounding cognition in sensory and motor systems is nothing else than ←13 | 14→grounding cognition in cognition, since sensation is no less computational than abstract cognition:

The output of the neuron is not a copy of its inputs. Instead its output reflects a weighted integration of its inputs. It is performing a transformation of the neural signals it receives. Neurons compute. This is information processing and it is happening in every single neuron and in every neural process whether sensory, motor, or cognitive (Hickok 2014).

In this monograph we support the view that perception is cognition. In doing so, however, we do not feel compelled to adhere to the embodied cognition view that there are no abstract representations of concepts in the brain. There is substantial evidence to the effect that (i) abstract amodal categories exist; (ii) they are actually encoded in the anterior temporal lobe; and (iii) they are justified in terms of evolutionarily-induced domain specificity (Caramazza and Mahon 2003, 2006).

What this monograph specifically emphasizes is that the lesson that perception is cognition has hardly been assimilated. The idea still resists that higher cognition is something entirely different from perception: contrary to perception, it is representational, conceptual, combinatorial, compositional, and propositional. Moreover, it is common to think that higher cognition comes in as a snowball effect: being endowed with an abstract concept means that the latter can be made itself an object of reflection; attributing a property to an object in a proposition entails that that proposition can be made itself a subject of predication. This wrong attitude is, in a nutshell, what Burge (2010) calls ‘individual representationalism,’ the tendency to believe that the capacity to entertain a given representation must be grounded in the awareness that we are entertaining that representation and in the capacity of using that representation as an ingredient of higher-order representations.

Individual representationalism, however, is wrong: the fact that a system works according to a certain set of laws does not necessarily entail that these laws must be represented within the system. Our mind works according to distinct sets of computational principles represented in different cognitive modules, and we humans, on a par with all other species, are only minimally aware of these computational principles.

It is also generally believed that higher cognition is based on properties that are not shared with perception. For instance, reference to objects and ←14 | 15→events is established in language, because it involves awareness of what objects and events are, an awareness that only arises in language. In vision – it is argued – we do not necessarily see objects as something, as for instance in Dretske’s notion of ‘simple seeing’ (Dretske 1981) and, when we do so, the suspect arises that this achievement might be an effect of cognitive penetration – the capacity of a perceptual system to compute functions that are ‘sensitive, in a semantically coherent way, to the organism’s goals and beliefs’ (Pylyshyn 1999, p. 343). However, this is a typical fallacy of the intellectual attitude that denies continuity between perception and the systems of language and thought. This monograph takes issue with this stand, arguing that some of the properties that are typically considered as a prerogative of the systems of language and thought are already found in perception, and that they are in fact no less defining of perception than they are of language.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
Cognition Semantics Philosophy Syntax Epistemology Conscious experience
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 178 pp., 1 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Gaetano Fiorin (Author) Denis Delfitto (Author)

Denis Delfitto is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Verona. His publications concern the syntax of reference, quantification and issues of language change and language impairment. He researches the human capacity for language. Gaetano Fiorin is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Logic at University College Utrecht and a researcher at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics. His research areas are theoretical linguistics, experimental linguistics and the philosophy of language.


Title: Harmony Effects Across Language and Perception
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180 pages