Dispatches from the Ivory Tower

In celebration of my ten years in the blogosphere I have been compiling some of my past posts into thematic meta-posts. The first of these listed my posts on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness. Continuing in this theme below are links to posts I have done over the past ten years reporting on talks/conferences/classes I have attended. I wrote these mostly so that I would not forget about these sessions but they may be interesting to others as well. Sadly, there are several things I have been to in the last year or so that I have not had the tim to sit down and write about…ah well maybe some day!

  1. 09/05/07 Kripke
    • Notes on Kripke’s discussion of existence as a predicate and fiction
  2. 09/05/2007 Devitt
  3. 09/05 Devitt II
  4. 09/19/07 -Devitt on Meaning
    • Notes on Devitt’s class on semantics
  5. Flamming LIPS!
  6. Back to the Grind & Meta-Metaethics
  7. Day Two of the Yale/UConn Conference
  8. Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics
    • Notes on Singer’s talk at LaGuardia
  9. Where Am I?
    • Reflections on my talk at the American Philosophical Association talk in 2008
  10. Fodor on Natural Selection
    • Reflections on the Society of Philosophy and Psychology meeting June 2008
  11. Kripke’s Argument Against 4-Dimensionalism
    • Based on a class given at the Graduate Center
  12. Reflections on Zoombies and Shombies Or: After the Showdown at the APA
    • Reflections on my session at the American Philosophical Association in 2009
  13. Kripke on the Structure of Possible Worlds
    • Notes on a talk given at the Graduate Center in September 2009
  14. Unconscious Trait Inferences
    • Notes on social psychologist James Uleman‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  15. Attributing Mental States
    • Notes on James Dow‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  16. Busy Bees Busily Buzzing ‘Bout
  17. Shombies & Illuminati
  18. A Couple More Thoughts on Shombies and Illuminati
    • Some reflections after Kati Balog’s presentation at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group in November 2009
  19. Attention and Mental Paint
    • Notes on Ned Block’s session at the Mind and Language Seminar in January 2010
  20. HOT Damn it’s a HO Down-Showdown
    • Notes on David Rosenthal’s session at the NYU Mind and Language Seminar in March 2010
  21. The Identity Theory in 2-D
    • Some thoughts in response to theOnline Consciousness Conference in February 2010
  22. Part-Time Zombies
    • Reflections on Michael Pauen‘s Cogsci talk at CUNY in March of 2010
  23. The Singularity, Again
    • Reflections on David Chalmers’ at the NYU Mind and Language seminar in April of 2010
  24. The New New Dualism
  25. Dream a Little Dream
    • Reflections on Miguel Angel Sebastian’s cogsci talk in July of 2010
  26. Explaining Consciousness & Its Consequences
    • Reflections on my talk at the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series August 2010
  27. Levine on the Phenomenology of Thought
    • Reflections on Levine’s talk at the Graduate Center in September 2010
  28. Swamp Thing About Mary
    • Reflections on Pete Mandik’s Cogsci talk at CUNY in October 2010
  29. Burge on the Origins of Perception
    • Reflections on a workshop on the predicative structure of experience sponsored by the New York Consciousness Project in October of 2010
  30. Phenomenally HOT
    • Reflections on the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU January 2011
  31. Some Thoughts About Color
  32. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint
  33. Sid Kouider on Partial Awareness
    • a few notes about Sid Kouider’s recent presentation at the CUNY CogSci Colloquium in October 2011
  34. The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism
    • Reflections on my Tucson Talk in April 2012
  35. Peter Godfrey-Smith on Evolution And Memory
    • Notes from the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series in September 2012
  36. The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness
    • Reflections on my talk at the Graduate Center in September 2012
  37. Giulio Tononi on Consciousness as Integrated Information
    • Notes from the inaugural lecture of the new NYU Center for Mind and Brain by Giulio Tononi
  38. Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology
  39. Mental Qualities 02/21/13: Phenomenal Concepts
    • Notes/Reflections from David Rosenthal’s class in 2013
  40. The Geometrical Structure of Space and Time
    • Reflections on a session of Tim Maudlin’s course I sat in on in February 2014
  41. Towards some Reflections on the Tucson Conferences
    • Reflections on my presentations at the Tucson conferences
  42. Existentialism is a Transhumanism
    • Reflections on the NEH Seminar in Transhumanism and Technohumanism at LaGuardia I co-directed in 2015-2016

Gottlieb on Presentational Character and Higher-Order Thought Theories of Consciousness

In his paper, Presentational Character and Higher-Order Thoughts, which came out in 2015 in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Gottlieb presents a general argument against the higher-order theory of consciousness which invokes some of my work as support. His basic idea is that conscious experience has what he calls presentational character, where this is something like the immediate directness with which we experience things in the world.

Nailing down this idea is a bit tricky but we don’t need to be too precise to get the puzzle he wants. He puts it this way in the paper,

Focus on the visual case. Then, fix the concept ‘presentational character’ in purely comparative terms, between visual experiences and occurrent thoughts: ‘presentational character’ picks out that phenomenological quality, whatever it is, that marks the difference between what it is like to be aware of an object O by having an occurrent thought about O and what it is like to be aware of an object O by having a visual experience of O. That is the phenomena I am claiming to be incompatible with the traditional HOT-theoretic explanation of consciousness. And so long as one concedes there is such a difference between thinking about O and visually experiencing O, we should have enough of a fix on our phenomenon of interest.

Whether or not you agree that presentational character, as Gottlieb defines it, is a separate, distinct, component of our overall phenomenology there is clearly a difference between consciously seeing red (a visual experience) and consciously thinking about red (a cognitive experience). If the higher-order theory of consciousness were not able to explain what this difference amounted to we would have to admit a serious deficit in the theory.

But why should we think that the higher-order theory has any problem with this? Gottlieb presents his official argument as follows:

S1  If HOT is true, m*(the HOT) entirely fixes the phenomenal character of experience.

S2  HOTs are thoughts.

S3  Presentational character is a type of phenomenal character.

S4  Thoughts as such do not have presentational character.


S5 HOTs do not have presentational character.


S6 If HOTs do not have presentational character, no experience (on HOT) has presentational character.


P1 If HOT is true, no experience has presentational character.

The rest of the paper goes on to defend the argument from various moves a higher-order theorist may make but I would immediately object to premise S4. There are some thoughts, in particular a specific kind of higher-order thought, which will have presentational character. Or at least these thoughts will be able to explain the difference that Gottlieb claims can’t be explained.

Gottlieb is aware that this is the most contentious premise of his argument. This is where he appeals to the work that I have done trying to connect the cognitive phenomenology debate to the higher-order thought theory of consciousness (this is the topic of some of my earliest posts here at Philosophy Sucks!). In particular he says,

Richard Brown and Pete Mandik (2013) have argued that if HOT is true, we have can have (first-order, non-introspected) thoughts with propriety phenomenology. Suppose one first has a suitable HOT about one’s first-order pain sensation. Here, the pain will become conscious. Yet now suppose one has a suitable HOT about one’s thought that the Eiffel Tower is tall. As Brown and Mandik point out, if we deny cognitive phenomenology, one will then need to say that though the thought is conscious, there is nothing that it is like for this creature to consciously think the thought. But this would be—by the edicts of HOT itself—absurd; after all, the two higher-order states are in every relevant respect the same.

I agree that this is what we say about the traditional higher-order theory (where we take the first-order state to be made conscious by the higher-order state) but I would prefer to put this by saying that if we are talking about phenomenal consciousness (as opposed to mere-state-consciousness) then it would be the higher-order state that was conscious, but other than that this is our basic point. How does it help Gottlieb’s case?

The argument is complicated but it seems to go like this. If we accept the conclusion of the argument from Brown and Mandik then conscious thoughts and visual experiences both have phenomenology and they have different kinds of phenomenology (i.e. cognitive phenomenology is proprietary). In particular cognitive phenomenology does not have presentational character. Whatever the phenomenology of thinking is, it is not like see the thing in front of you! But now consider the case where you are seeing something red and you introspect that conscious experience. When one introspects, on the traditional higher-order view, one comes to have a third-order thought about the second order thought. So, in effect, the second-order thought becomes conscious. But we already said that cognitive phenomenology is not the kind of thing that results in presentational character, so when the second-order thought becomes conscious we should be aware of it *as a thought* and so *as the kind of thing which lacks presentational character* but that would mean that introspection is incompatible with the presentational character.

I have had similar issues with Rosenthal’s account of introspection so I am glad that Gottlieb is drawing attention to this issue. I have also explored his recommended solution of having the first-order state contribute something to the content of the higher-order state (here, and in my work with Hakwan)

I also have a talk and a draft of a paper devoted to exploring alternative accounts of introspection from the higher-order perspective. I put it up on Academia.edu but that was before I fully realized that I am not much of a fan of the way they are developing it. In fact, I forgot my login info and was locked out of seeing the paper myself for about a week! Someday I aim to revisit it. But one thing that I point out in that paper is that Rosenthal seems to talk about introspection in a very different way. Here is what he says in one relevant passage,

We sometimes have thoughts about our experiences, thoughts that sometimes characterize the experiences as the sort that visually represent red physical objects.  And to have a thought about an experience as visually representing a red object is to have a thought about the experience as representing that object qualitatively, that is, by way of its having some mental quality and it is the having of just such thoughts that make one introspectively conscious of one’s experience, (CM p. 119)

This paragraph has often been in my thoughts when I think about introspection on the higher-order theory. But it has become clear to me that a lot depends on what you mean by ‘thoughts about our experiences’.

Here is what I say in the earlier mentioned draft,

…In [Rosenthal’s Trends in Cognitive Science] paper with Lau where they respond to Rafi Malach, they characterize the introspective third-order thought as having the content ‘I am having this representation that I am seeing this red object’. I think it is interesting that they do not characterize it as having content like ‘I am having this thought that I am seeing red’. On their account we represent the second-order thought as being the kind of state that represents me as seeing physical red and we do so in a way that does not characterize it as a thought. One reason for this may be that if, as we have seen, the highest-order thought determines what it is like for you then if I am having a third-order thought with the content ‘I am having this thought that I am seeing red’ then what it will be like for me is like having a thought. But this is arguably not what happens in canonical cases of introspection (Gottlieb forthcoming makes a similar objection). Rosenthal himself in his earlier paper agued that when we introspect we are having thoughts about our experiences and that we characterize them as being the kind that qualitatively represents blue things. This is a strange way to characterize a thought.

So I agree that there seems to be a problem here for the higher-order theory but I would not construe it as a problem with the theory’s ability to explain presentational character. I think it can do that just fine. Rather what it suggests is that we should look for a different account of introspection.

When Rosenthal talks specifically about introspection he is talking about the very rare case where one ‘quote-unquote’ brackets the external world and considers one’s experience as such. So, in looking at a table I may consciously perceive it but I am focused on the table (and this translates to the claim that the concepts I employ in the higher-order thought are about the worldly properties). When I introspect I ‘bracket’ the table in the world and take my experience itself as the object of my inner awareness. The intuitive idea that Rosenthal wants to capture is that when we have conscious experience we are aware of our first-order states (as describing properties in the world) and in deliberate attentive introspection we are aware of our awareness of the first-order state. The higher-order state is unconscious and when we become aware of our awareness we make that state conscious, but, on his view, we do so in a way so as not to notice that it is a thought.

But part of me wonders about this. Don’t some people take introspection to be a matter of having a belief about one’s own experience? If so the a conscious higher-order thought would fit this bill. So there may be a notion of introspection that a third-order thought may account for. But we might also want a notion of introspection that was more directly related to focusing on what it is like for the subject. When I focus on the redness of my conscious experience it doesn’t seem as though I am having a conscious thought about the redness. It seems like I am focused on the particular nature of my conscious experience. We might describe that with something like ‘I am seeing red’ and that may sound like a conscious higher-order thought but we are here talking about being aware of the conscious experience itself. So, to capture this, I would suggest, in both cases we are aware of our first-order states. In non-introspective consciousness we are aware of the first-order state as presenting something external to us. In introspective consciousness we are aware of the first-order state as a mental state, as being a visual experience, or a seeing, etc.

I am inclined to see these two kinds of thoughts as ‘being at the same level’ in the sense that they are both thoughts about the first-order states but which have very different contents. And this amounts to the claim that they employ different kinds of concepts. But these ideas are still very much in development. Any thoughts (of whatever order) appreciated!

The Phenomenology of HOT

I am happy to announce that Pete Mandik and I have finished our co-authored paper on higher-order thought theories of consciousness and cognitive phenomenology, which is forthcoming in the issue of Philosophical Topics that features participants from the 4th Online Consciousness Conference. Check it out!

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.

The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness

Well it has been a month since I gave my talk at the Graduate Center. I have been meaning to write something on this, but have been swamped with the beginning of the semester. I will try to reconstruct some of the discussion, as I am finalizing my slides for my upcoming talk at the Metro-Area Research Group on Awareness and Meditation, which will include some of the stuff from this one (hopefully improved by the discussion of course! :))

I finally edited and uploaded a rehearsal version of the talk, which you can view below.

During the discussion there were several very interesting themes, but I will focus on the stuff relating to HOROR theory. One theme, brought up by David Chalmers, was that on my view first-order states are never phenomenally conscious. Phenomenal consciousness, on the view I was defending, just is a higher-order representation. But this seems very odd! How could a first-order pain, say, never be phenomenally conscious?!?! I agree that this is counter-intuitive. But if that is where the path of inquiry takes us, then so be it. It is also, by the way, counter-intuitive that I am currently in motion as i sit in my chair and type this, but I am. It is also counter-intuitive that there is no absolute simultaneity, but there are good reasons to think that this is the case none the less. So, I agree that if there were no evidence at all for this view then the counter-intuitiveness of it would count against it. But there is good evidence for it, at least enough to see that it is a legitimate possibility. We have philosophical evidence from thinking about overflow and misrepresentation and we have empirical evidence from Lau’s results.

Another theme, brought up by David Rosenthal and is in some ways the flip side of Dave’s worry, was that the term ‘phenomenal consciousness’ brings with it the assumption that we are talking about a first-order property. If that is the case, that is, if it is the case that ‘phenomenal consciousness’ is defined in such a way so as to guarantee that it is a first-order property, it is contradictory, or nonsensical, to argue that it is really a higher-order property. In response I think it is important that we start with a conception of the data that is neutral about these kind of metaphysical assumptions. I think it is common for people to think of phenomenal consciousness as the property of there being something that it is like for one to be in certain states. It may be true that people then go on to make the metaphysical assumption that this is a property of first-order states but that is something additional. To say that a state is phenomenally conscious is just to say that there is something that it is like for me to be in that state. It is then an open question whether this property is a property of first-order states or a property of higher-order states. We can quibble about which words to use, and for which reasons, but there is no doubt that there is something that it is like for me to have a conscious pain and we want to know the nature of that property.

This brings up another very interesting theme of the discussion, which was what reason we have for thinking that the higher-order state is the phenomenally conscious state. Why not say, as David Rosenthal does, that the phenomenally conscious state is the state that you are conscious of yourself as being in (i.e. the first-order state)? This avoids the two previous problems. I find this move hard to accept for the following reasons. First, in the case of empty higher-order states one would then have to say that the phenomenally conscious state is not the first-order state, but rather the notional state. That is pretty weird, and I have talked about the weirdness before. To say that there are phenomenally conscious states that have no neural correlates is very, very unsettling! Of course, it may still be true (counter-intuitiveness not all by itself a strike, etc). But, just to be clear it seems to me that if one says this in the empty case, then one must also say it in the normal case. Isn’t it extremely ad hoc to say that in the good case the first-order state has the property of being phenomenally conscious but in the bad case it is the notional state? So, I think it has to be the notional state in all cases, but then no first-order state is every phenomenally conscious! Only notional states are! In addition to this I think there is a good reason to think that it is the higher-order state that is phenomenally conscious (I mean, according to the higher-orde view). When we ask which state is phenomenally conscious we want to know ‘which state is it that there is something that it is like for the creature to be in?’ That is, we are looking for the state in virtue of which there is something that it is like for the subject. According to the higher-order view this is just the higher-order representation.

Related to this, Dan Shargel brought up the following worry. I identify the higher-order conception of phenomenal consciousness with mental appearances. Phenomenal consciousness just is a matter of how one’s mental life appears to one. Dan suggested that this in itself pushed towards phenomenal consciousness being a property of first-order states. If phenomenal consciousness is a matter of mental appearances, then it should be a matter of what appears to me, and what appears to me is my first-order states. To an extent this is right. When I have an appropriate higher-order representation I am conscious of myself as being in some first-order state. So, the way my mental life appears to me is as though I am in the first-order state. This is in fact why it is that it seems to us common sensically that phenomenal consciousness goes with the first-order states. And this is exactly what the higher-order representation is supposed to do! And we know (or at least suspect) that it can do this in the absence of the first-order state. This is why Rosenthal has said that it is a mistake to think of the higher-order state as conferring some new property onto the first-order state. The empty higher-order representation argument shows us this. So I agree that the higher-order representation makes it the case that it appears to me as though I am in some first-order state, and which state I appear to be in is just the content of the higher-order representation but I deny that this means that the first-order state comes to have some new property that it did not have before. If anything, the person has the new property, as Jake likes to point out, but of course the person has that property in virtue of being in the higher-order state, which is all that matters to me!

In many ways I see this debate as analogous to the debate between the representationist and the naive realist and there is a lot more to say about this and the other interesting questions (e.g. Cressida asked an interesting question about the ‘argument from concept acquisition’ (I think she asked how one picked out the sensory quality if one didn’t know what to look for, or whether acquiring the concept required having a phenomenally conscious experience in the first place) and Rosie asked about mental appearances (basically she pointed out that I phrased my argument as ‘all phenomenal consciousness is mental appearance’ but what I needed was ‘all mental appearances is phenomenal consciousness’ since without that one could hold, as Rosenthal does, that there are mental appearances that are not involved in phenomenal consciousness (e.g. HOTs about cognitive states on his view), and Peter Godfrey-Smith asked about my notion of ‘what it is likeness’ and what I would say about fish) but I have to get to work! Hopefully I can come back to those other issues at a later date…at some point I am going to write this up as a paper but that will have to wait a bit…

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

Levine on the Phenomenology of Thought

On Wednesday I attended the inaugural session of the Graduate Center’s philosophy colloquium.  The speaker was Joe Levine and he wanted to examine two of the arguments for the phenomenology of thought as given by people like David Pitt and Charles Siewert and argue that they were not up to the task that supporters thought they were.

The two arguments were what he called the self-knowledge argument and the phenomenological argument. The self-knowledge argument claims that the only way we could have genuine acquaintance-like knowledge of our cognitive states was if they had a phenomenology. Levine rejects this argument as question begging. The second argument he takes more seriously. The phenomenological argument points to several distinct kind of phenomena. So, take an ambiguous sentence like ‘visiting relatives can be boring’. When one understands it to mean that the relatives who are visiting are boring and when one understands it to mean going to visit relatives is boring there seems to be a difference and this difference intuitively seems to be phenomenal. Or take listening to someone speaking a language you don’t understand versus one that do. When people are speaking a language you do not understand it often sounds as though they are speaking really fast and that there are no spaces or pauses in their speaking but this is very different from listening to a language you do understand. The idea is supposed to be that there is a distinctive cognitive phenomenology that goes beyond any associated internal monologue or mental imagery. Levine admitted that he felt there was something to theses kinds of cases and argued that intuitively it is just as string an intuition as that there is something that it is like to see red or feel pain. I agree. The question, then, is what does this force us to conclude about the phenomenology of thought?

As a contrast Levine introduced a null hypothesis, what he called the Non-Phenomenal Functional Representation thesis. NPFR, as he calls it, is basically a standard higher-order view about self-knowledge. When one knows what one is thinking one tokens a higher-order state the content of which is that one is in the first-order state. This is why the self-knowledge argument doesn’t really pull any weight. Both camps have an explanation of how we have self-knowledge. What about the phenomenological argument?

In order to respond to this Levine distinguishes two versions of the claim that there is a phenomenology that is distinctive to thought that he calls a pure and and an impure view. On the pure view there is a phenomenal character of an occurrent thought that is not tied to any sensory state while on the impure view “attributes phenomenal character only to sensory states, but allows that cognitive states can create phenomenal distinctions among otherwise identical sensory states,” (from the handout). The pure view is the just the usual idea that there is a distinctive phenomenology for thought. The impure view is a bit harder to get ahold of but the basic idea seems to be based on an analogy with the way sensory states work. So, take the higher-order view about consciously seeing red. On the HOT view there is a first-order sensory state that has phenomenal character and then there is a higher-order state that represents oneself as being in a red sensory state. One can a higher-order thought to the effect that one is in a generic red state or that one is in a specific red state and this will determine what it is like for you to have the experience but the HOT itself has no phenomenal character. So by analogy then Levine’s impure view seems to be that we have a first-order state, say a hearing or seeing  of ‘visiting relatives can be boring’ and one’s higher-order state can then represent it as either being about the relatives coming or your going to them and this will result in a distinctive phenomenology. That is to say that on the impure view what it is like to hear the sentence will be different when one is aware of it one way or the other but there is no cognitive phenomenology. All there is is two different kinds of auditory phenomenology.

I think my own view about cognitive phenomenology is similar except that I think that this can happen in the case of a propositional attitude and not just through some sensory state. For instance when one has a conscious belief that p I claim that it will be like believing that p for you and this is because one is aware of oneself as believing that p. This makes it a version of the pure theory. So, is there any reason to prefer the impure theory to the pure one? Levine argued that the phenomenological argument supported only the impure account and so it was no reason to think that the pure view was correct. His idea seemed to be that since the data was hearing a sentence one way versus hearing it another we only had evidence that there were two different ways of hearing the argument.

At the end of his talk he introduced another distinction between transparent and opaque cognitive phenomenology. On the transparent view “what the cognitive state is about, what it is representing, constitutes the “look” of the cognitive state while on the opaque view there is only a contingent relationship between what is represented and the cognitive state. The issue here seemed to be diagnosed buy whether one thought that there was any possibility that one could find out that one was radically mistaken about what one thought. His example seemed to be the standard brain in the vat scenario. If one came to be convinced that one was a brain in the vat, or that Quinian indeterminacy of referce, were correct one might come to find out that one was radically wrong about what one thought. On some theories of mental content one wouldn’t be mistaken, but let that slide. The point he was trying to make was that we could “wrap our heads” around the idea that our cognitive states are not transparent. He compared the opaque view to Block’s view about mental paint.

During discussion Levine discussed a comparison with people like David Pitt and Sussanna Seigel. Seigel argues that the content of our perceptions is richer than we thought (e.g. it is part of our perception of a tree that it is a tree)  and in so doing end up making perception more like cognitive states while people like Pitt argue that thoughts have a phenomenal feel and thereby make thoughts more like perceptions. This led some to wonder how we might distinguish between the two states. On my own view this is wrong headed. What we should take this as is a trajectory towards a unified account of the mark of the mental.

Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness and the Phenomenology of Belief

Next week I am heading up to SUNY Freedonia to give two talks as part of the Young Philosophers Lecture Series . Here is a rehearsal of the first talk which is my most recent attempt to show that Rosenthal’s HOT theory is committed to cognitive phenomenology

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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….