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Perception and cognition: what does psychology tell us about the nature of perception? (PH361-15)


This module is not running in 2017-18.


Sense-perception - the awareness of things by sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell - has been central to philosophical theorising for over two thousand years. This is because sense-perception is central to two philosophical problems: the nature of knowledge (sense-perception is the source of our knowledge of the world), and the nature of consciousness (much of our conscious experience is made up of conscious sense-experiences). Much philosophical theorising has focussed on the so-called problem of perception - how can perception provide us with a direct and immediate access to the world given that we experience illusions and hallucinations? Philosophers have provided theories of perception that attempt to answer this question. Recently, empirical studies of perception, and of visual perception in particular, have made great progress in understanding the functioning of the brain process that underlie perception. Scientists often make bold claims for the empirical theories of perception that result. Such theories are said to explain what is it to see, or why things look the way they do, or even the conscious character of experience.

The aim of this module is to understand the philosophical problems of perception, and to assess the contribution empirical theories of perception can make to solving these problems. We will begin by asking what empirical explanations of perception explain and how they explain it. Do they help answer the philosophical problems of perception? Do they solve the problem of consciousness? Are the explanations provided by vision science in competition with those of philosophy?

Empirical studies of perception have discovered a number of very puzzling phenomena. For example, that you may fail to notice very obvious changes to what is in front of you ('change blindness'); that it is possible to be a blind and yet still use vision to guide actions ('blindsight'); that what you see can substantially alter what you hear. These phenomena challenge both philosophical and common-sense assumptions about perception (that perception requires conscious awareness, that you can see what is right in front of your face, that only what affects you ears can affect what you hear). We will spend the second half of the term examining these phenomena in order to determine what they tell us about the nature of perception and of consciousness.


By the end of the module students should be able to...

  • Understand and accurately characterise the central problems of perception and the different accounts of perception that philosophers have developed in response. They should be able to identify conflicts between these views, and to evaluate arguments for and against them.
  • Recognise the nature of psychological explanation and different accounts of the relation between psychological explanations of perception and the philosophical problem of perception.
  • Understand and accurately report a range of different phenomena from cognitive psychology that shed light on different aspects of perception. They should be able to distinguish conflicting hypotheses and critically consider evidence for and against them. Students should be able to identify philosophical questions arising from such findings, and to relate them to philosophical problems of perception
  • Communicate clearly and substantively in speech and in writing on the questions addressed in the module.
  • Isolate the important claims within readings. They should be able to understand the structure of arguments, test views for strengths and weaknesses, make pertinent use of examples, and compare the substance of views consistently.

  • Pursue and organize philosophical and psychological research, to make relevant distinctions, and to critically evaluate philosophical distinctions and to engage independently in philosophical debate.


Lectures for 2014-15

2 hours of lectures for 9 weeks of term

Tuesdays 2pm-4pm F1.10

There will be no lectures during reading week (week 6)

*TERM 3 REVISION SESSION Tuesday 2pm to 3pm in S0.13 week 3*

Seminars for 2014-15

1 hour of seminar per week, for 8 weeks of term.

There will be no seminars during reading week (week 6)

Please sign up for a seminar group using tabula.


This module can be assessed in the following ways:

  • Either 1 x 2500-word essay; or
  • 1 x 2-hour exam

In addition all students must submit one 1500 word unassessed essay to the Coursework Management system in line with the 2014/15 essay deadlines schedule.