Cognitive Phenomenology

(cross-posted at Brains)

Via David Rosenthal-

There was a conference entitled “Theory Of Consciousness In Analytic Phenomenology And Philosophy Of Mind,”

at the University of Bern, Switzerland, May 27-29, 2009.

Podcasts of the talks are, for the next 2-3 years, at

Talks are by David M. Rosenthal, Gianfranco Soldati, Andrea Borsato, David Woodruff Smith, Eduard Marbach, Sebastian Leugger, Dan Zahavi, Uriah Kriegel, Michelle Montague, and Galen Strawson.

The program is at

I only listened to David R, Uriah, and Galen’s talks and the sound quality is a little uneven, but there is a lot of interesting stuff here…well worth the listen….

This is something that I am very glad to see. I am definitely one of those who thinks that cognitive phenomenology is real (and I think David Rosenthal is committed to it so it was interesting to hear him at this conference) though I don’t think that my view is the standard one. I, like Strawson, want to distinguish between the traditional kind of externalist content (though I, like Devitt, also allow inferential content) and the cognitive phenomenology. I take the cognitive phenomenology to go with the mental attitude that we take towards the traditional content. Let’s take belief, desire, and intention. These are the basic kinds of cognitive mental attitudes (whether there are more or if all other reduce to combinations of these three is a contentious issue…I take no stand on that here). Each one of these is really the name for a family of mental attitudes. So for belief we have a range between complete skepticism to mild doubt to probably true to complete certitude. What these have in common is a subjective sense of confidence as to whether something is actually true. To believe that p is to be subjectively certain that p is true, or to be convinced that p is true. Likewise, to doubt that p is to be subjectively uncertain that p is true. Likewise to want something is to have a subjective longing for it and to have an intention to A is to feel subjectively resolved to do A.

This explains all of the relevant data; for instance one main line of evidence for cognitive phenomenology is the experience that one has when one understands a sentence in a language one speaks. I agree that there is something that it is like for the person who understands a sentence of English but I claim that this is the result of the person coming to have some conscious mental attitude held towards the traditional content. So, when Galen tells me that the Earth weighs four times more than the Moon, I might feel surprise and wonder whether that were really true. Of course one might just ‘entertain’ the content but even here one take a qualitatively neutral mental attitude towards the content. This also allows us to explain why it is so many people dismiss cognitive phenomenology. Since my belief that 2+2=4 and my belief that New York City is on the East Coast of the United States of America are both things that I take to be beyond dispute they will feel subjectively similar when I introspect. Since I am looking for a phenomenological difference between the two thoughts I overlook their similarity. Interestingly this is supported by the reports of some schizophrenics who say that they can distinguish their delusional beliefs from their ‘normal’ ones by how they feel.

What then are we to say about unconscious beliefs, desires, and intentions? My claim is that conscious beliefs are just are the beliefs which we are conscious of ourselves as having and so is a higher-order view about consciousness. To have a conscious belief that p if just for one to have a higher-order state to the effect that one believes p. One feels subjectively certain about P just because one is conscious of oneself as believing P. When the belief is unconscious I have the same mental attitude held towards the traditional content but I am no longer conscious of myself as believing it and so there is nothing that it is like for me to believe it. I think that we can at this point give a homomorphism account of the mental attitudes. The mental attitudes come in families and there will be similarities and differences between these families that preserve the similarities and differences between the illocutionary forces of utterances used to express the mental attitude+traditional content…but that is another story….

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