Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology

As I mentioned earlier I am sitting in on David Rosenthal’s Mental Qualities class and I wanted to jot a few things down in the wake of the class while they are fresh in my mind.

What is this class about? The title is ‘mental qualities’ but what are those? Rosenthal has been suggesting that the mental qualities are those properties of mental states that are produced by the senses. So this would include visual qualities, auditory qualities, tactile qualities, etc but also bodily sensations like pain, itches, and tickles. On this way of doing things it will be the case that there is no cognitive phenomenology.

Before we begin a little in the way of full disclosure. Those who know me, or have looked around this blog long enough, might know that I personally do think that there is cognitive phenomenology (see here). In fact I am tempted to think that what makes a mental state mental is that it has some qualitative property, and that there is thereby something that it is like for me to be in that state when it is conscious (note that is perfectly compatible with the claim that the quality can occur unconsciously and that there is nothing that it is like when it does), but leave that aside. It is controversial whether there are mental qualities associated with thoughts. Indeed, we would only need posit them if there were cognitive phenomenology and we thought there must then be some corresponding mental quality in virtue of which there was phenomenology when the quality was conscious. But why think that there is cognitive phenomenology in the first place? Can we even make sense of what it would mean for the to be cognitive phenomenology? Rosenthal doesn’t think so.

His central challenge seems to be that there is no well defined thesis worth defending in the area. We seem to have a handle on what it means to say that there is sensory phenomenology, but what do we mean when we say that there is cognitive phenomenology? If we are tempted to say, as I would be, that we mean that there is something that it is like for one to have cognitive experiences then David will reply that this phrase is useless. It is used in many different ways by many different people. So we can ask again ‘what does it means to say that there is something that it is like to think a conscious thought?’

One thing we might mean is just that thoughts can occur consciously. But if that is all that we mean, Rosenthal says, then it is not interesting. Everyone knows that thoughts can occur consciously. So we must mean more than that thoughts occur consciously. But what else do we mean? Well, that there is something that it is like to have the thought. But why think that? One line of argument is that we can find cases where the sensory qualitative properties are held constant and we vary the intentional content we get a difference in phenomenology (this line of argument was pushed by Zoe Jenkin). He admits that this can happen (and that it is common) but denies that it supports the existence of cognitive phenomenology.

So, suppose that I am looking at my dog Frankie and that I clearly see her. I thereby have a conscious visual experience as of certain shapes and colors, etc. But I also perceive that she is a dog. Rosenthal conceded that the phenomenology in this case is distinct from that of a similar experience with different intentional content. So if in one case the intentional content is ‘that there is a dog’ (or whatever) and in the other it was ‘that there is an animal of some kind’ then we would have a difference in phenomenology. But this does not show us that there is cognitive phenomenology. Phenomenologically the two properties (that is the qualitative and intentional properties) seem to be intertwined, or co-mingled, in some intimate way. In fact they are so co-mingled that one might think that it is a mistake to talk about qualitative properties without talking about intentional properties and vice versa. Since this is true in the case of perception we may be tempted to think that this is also true in the case of thoughts. This would be one way to give content to the claim that there is cognitive phenomenology. But it does not by itself give us a reason to think that the two properties are the same.

He then suggested that we have some reason to think that the two properties, though intimately intertwined, are distinct properties. He argued that since we theorize about these properties in very different ways we have prima facie reason to think that the two things are different properties. So, he concludes, treating them as the same kind of property doesn’t buy us anything theoretically.

There is a lot more to be said about all of these issues, but I’ll save that for another day.

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