Robert Alan and Kathryn Dunlevie Hayes Professor of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Rice University

Phenomenal Thought

[Numbers in brackets are linked to entries in "Publications."]

Some apply the notion of phenomenal consciousness exclusively to a kind of sensory experience that is separable from one's exercise of conceptual capacities. This then fixes the range of acceptable views about how we are to explain consciousness, and its place in our knowledge and values.

In [1] (Chapter 8) I argue that this “exclusivist” view underlying many recent treatments of consciousness is mistaken: both sensory experience and occurrent conceptual thought are phenomenal in the same sense. I have recently expanded and revised my case for this “inclusive” view of consciousness in [6]. Whether one is exclusivist or inclusivist is fundamental to one's conception of phenomenal consciousness.

We must guard against judging this issue hastily or prejudicially. And we should recognize the questionable, and relatively recent origins of the intellectual history behind exclusivist assumptions. We should acknowledge, for example, that there is nothing inevitable about defining ‘phenomenal consciousness’ in a way that confines differences in phenomenal character to differences in “sensory qualia” or our experience of them.

To help decide the question of phenomenal thought for ourselves, we need first to clarify our understanding of what phenomenal consciousness is in a way that is reasonably precise and neutral with regards to the issue. (See my research description "What is phenomenal consciousness?") Then, I urge we make a practice of critical reflection on certain types of experiences of understanding, and examine our judgments about them.

Consider cases where you first read a passage without following its meaning, and then re-read it with understanding, or where you suddenly switch interpretations of a phrase, or where you are struck by a momentarily unverbalized realization about what someone meant. Do you find these changes in what it’s like for you to think and understand always actually coincide with some change in your sense experience or imagery of a sort that could occur without conceptual understanding? And can you identify some such merely sensory changes that would, in the absence of that understanding, be phenomenally just the same for you as your actual experience—where you do understand? If you cannot, then putting this together with further considerations (partly having to do with our knowledge of how we understand what we say or hear), I argue we should be inclusive, and that “externalist” arguments regarding mental content do not provide reason to exclude thought from phenomenal consciousness.

© 2020 Charles Siewert. All Rights Reserved.