Introspection, Acquaintance, and Higher-Order Representations

Over at Brains Wayne Wu has been posting about, among other things, introspection and attention. One of the interesting things to come out of the discussion was the notion of ‘cognitive attention’ which consists in directing one’s thoughts. If this is truly a kind of attention then perhaps we can see higher-order thought and AIR theories as invoking different kinds of attention while both accept the transitivity principle. I hope to come back to this issue because I think it is time to start thinking about the connections between these two theories (and especially how we might experimentally differentiate them) but I will have to put that off. In this post I want to argue that higher-order theories are compatible with the acquaintance approach (see Brie Gertler’s comment for some links to some papers on this).

Before we begin we should note a potential confound here that may result in people talking past one another. Typically introspection is thought of as producing thoughts of the form ‘I am in pain now’ or ‘pain is instantiated in me now’ (see Brie Gertler’s paper in the link above for instance). And, of course, it is exactly these kinds of thoughts that higher-orer thought theories invoke to explain phenomenal consciousness in the first place. But of course by ‘pain’ the opponent to higher-order theories simply means what we would call ‘conscious pain’ and so we should reinterpret the above introspective claims as ‘I am in conscious pain now’ or ‘conscious pain is instantiated in me now’. They take the ‘conscious pain’ bit to actually be the phenomenal property of pain itself. A large art of the project that I have been engaged in recently has been to show that there is a way of thinking of higher-order thought theory that lets us, if we want, keep all of the benefits of the first-order theorist. On this view phenomenal consciousness consists in instantiating the right kind of higher-order representation. In particular one that attributes mental states and properties to the subject of the experience. This is what I have called the HOROR theory of phenomenal consciousness and it is metaphysically neutral.

In fact it looks like Dave endorses a non-physical version of this kind of theory in his response to Benj Hellie that he mentions in the discussion. There he says,

In effect, our phenomenology involves both a foreground awareness of redness and a background acquaintance with our awareness of redness. I think the most plausible line here is that phenomenal awareness is an acquaintance-involving relation by its very nature: in virtue of the nature of awareness, to be aware of x entails being acquainted with one’s awareness of x

and in the footnote he continues,

This is a relative of higher-order representation theories of consciousness, and especially of the Brentano-style self-representational views of consciousness that have become popular in recent years (see e.g. Kriegel and Williford 20xx). Some differences: the background awareness should be understood as Russellian instance-acquaintance rather than as a standard form of representation (this immediately avoids all objections from higher-order misrepresentation as well as from oversophistication), and the view does not lend any support to reductive views of consciousness. The awareness relation that the view appeals to is irreducibly a phenomenal relation. Of course someone might attempt to turn this into a reductive theory by identifying the awareness relation by a relation understood in functional terms, say. But just as in the case of first-order representationalism (discussed in chapter 8 of TCC), this move requires an additional and independent functionalism about the phenomenal, a view that is no more plausible here than elsewhere, and which leads to an explanatory gap that is as wide as ever.

Now here he is talking about phenomenal consciousness and not introspection and I am not sure whether the view is that this entire complex gets embedded in an introspective judgement or whether introspecting involves the background awareness coming to the foreground but either way is compatible with the HOROR theory. So, consider the way that Gertler lays out the Acquaintance Approach. She sums it up in the following three theses,

[Acquaintance Approach] Some introspective knowledge consists in judgments that
(1) are directly tied to their truthmakers;
(2) depend, for their justification, only on the subject’s conscious states at the time of the judgment; and
(3) are more strongly justified than any empirical judgments that do not meet conditions (1) and (2).

To be ‘directly tied’ on her account involves demonstrative attention and though that is not a requirement of the view I am happy enough with it. So, on the HOROR theory what will be required is that we deploy demonstrative attention to the proper higher-order representation and is compatible with (1). The term ‘conscious state’ in (2) should be interpreted as the appropriate higher-order representation and so the claim is just that some introspective judgements are justified solely by certain higher-order representations, which is compatible with HOROR theory and because of (1) and (2) these judgments are more strongly justified than other that don’t meet (1) and (2).

So not only is the HOROR theory compatible with introspective acquaintance it is also compatible with ‘same-order’ acquaintance.

3 thoughts on “Introspection, Acquaintance, and Higher-Order Representations

  1. This is interesting, Richard. Just to be clear: When you say that the HOROR theory is compatible with the Acquaintance Approach, do you mean (A) HOROR is compatible with the existential claim (“Some introspective knowledge consists in judgments that meet conditions (1)-(3)”)? Or do you mean (B) compatibly with HOROR, phenomenal consciousness could consist in (or depend on) the existence of introspective judgments? My confusion about this stems from the following statement you make:

    “On this view phenomenal consciousness consists in instantiating the right kind of higher-order representation. In particular one that attributes mental states and properties to the subject of the experience.”

    — That suggests that the H-O representations that constitute phenomenal consciousness must take the form of a self-attribution. This made me wonder whether you were entertaining the possibility that these self-attributions just were the kinds of introspective judgments that meet my conditions (1)-(3).

    I should note that the account of phenomenal consciousness in (B) seems to me implausible, since forming introspective judgments that meet conditions (1)-(3) requires conceptual capacities beyond those seemed to be required for phenomenal consciousness.

    • Hi Brie thanks for this question and sorry I have taken so long to get back to you.

      I think that what you call introspective judgments and what I take to be the kind of representations that I take phenomenal consciousness to consist in have the same form. For me the issue is one of whether first-order or higher-order representations are the ones that are phenomenally conscious. But I don’t take them to be introspective judgments, just ordinary conscious experiences like seeing red or hearing a flute or thinking about philosophy.Introspection involves, on higher-order accounts involves being consciously aware of your mental life, whereas the kinds of higher0order representations I am appealing to here are unconscious (in the sense that we are not aware of ourselves as being in these representational states).Although, as an aside, I tend to think of introspection in a slightly different way as involving just a second -order representation that conceptualizes one’s relation to one’s mental life as attentive, etc…but that is another issue (I hope).

      But you are right that this approach relies heavily on concepts and their application in higher-order states. I see that as a benefit rather than a liability and I think that we have some evidence that concept application plays an important role in consciousness (from wine tasting for instance). And I would argue that animals and infants can have (some kind of impoverished version) of these kinds of representations.

      So given that I think that I would say I was opting for (a) above, but in a way it is (b) as well…does that make it clearer? Hopefully at least it doesn’t make it more mysterious :)

  2. Richard, Although not as well versed in the method of philosophical argument, but being a systems engineer helps me possibly understand the systems aspects and possible organizational aspects of brain function.

    Introspection of certain states as conscious but not phenomenally conscious may be problematic as an individual characteristic but not as a species characteristic since we are made to respond and obey certain behaviors as a group trait. Also all forms of HOT’s make sense since the brain is an evolved hierarchy. The question my be what drives the hierarchy. I’m sitting here using my new Surface RT with all of its amazing functionality. The programs which run this device are exhaustively written by hundreds of bright young programmers driven by youthful enthusiasm and emotion which hints at what drives hierarchies.

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