Thought ISSN 2161-2234
Seeing the Forest and the Trees: A Response
to the Identity Crowding Debate
Bryn Mawr College
In cases of identity crowding, a subject consciously sees items in a gure, even though they are
presented too closely together for her to shi attention to each item. Block (2012, 2013) uses such
cases to challenge the view that attention is necessary for consciousness. I argue that in identity
global object that contains the individual items as parts. To support this view, I provide evidence
that attention can be directed to a global object (as when we attend to the gist of a scene) or a local
object (as when we focus in on some element of that scene). My response helps to defend the view
that attention is necessary for conscious perception.
Keywords philosophy of mind; perception; attention; consciousness; psychology; crowding;
1 The identity crowding debate
A recent debate (Block 2012, 2013, 2014; Richards 2013, 2016; Taylor 2013; Tye 2014)
concerns whether cases of identity crowding provide a counterexample to the view that
object-seeing requires object-attention. Consider Figure 1. According to Block, this is an
example in which the grain of object seeing is ner than the grain of object attention.
While keeping your eyes xed on the cross, Block thinks that you can see each individual
merely the “forest but not the trees” (Cavanagh 2001). Intriligator and Cavanagh seem
to agree when they write that this gure demonstrates that “selection has a coarse grain,
much coarser than visual resolution” (2001, p. 171). If Block is right, then there are some
objects that you consciously see, even though you cannot select them via object attention.
ere are two questions at issue in the identity crowding debate. First, when presented
with a crowded gure like the one above, what exactly do we see? Do we see the individual
items in the crowd, or do we merely see the collection of items? I will suggest that we see
the items as parts of a global object, and distinguish this alternative from seeing each item
as an object (Block 2012, 2013, 2014) or seeing the items collectively (Tye 2014). While
I agree with Intriligator and Cavanagh’s claim that we “visually resolve” the items in the
crowd, I think we do so by seeing them as part of the gure, and not as objects. Second,
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20 Thought 7 (2018) 20–30 © 2018 The Thought Trust and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.