What is it like to think that



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THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF COGNITION

OR

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO THINK THAT P?

DAVID PITT



Brooklyn College, CUNY

It is a common assumption in analytic philosophy of mind that intentional states, such as believing, doubting or wondering that p, have no intrinsic phenomenal properties, and that phenomenal states, such as feeling pain, seeing red or hearing middle C, have no intrinsic intentional properties. We are, according to this view, of two metaphysically distinct minds, the intentional and the phenomenal. Both of these assumptions have been challenged in the recent literature. Block (1996), Peacocke (1992) and Tye (1995), for example, have argued that purely phenomenal, nonconceptual states have intentional (or proto-intentional) properties. And a fair number of philosophers and psychologists, e.g., Baars (1988), Chalmers (1996), Flanagan (1992), Goldman (1993), Horgan and Tiensen (Forthcoming), Jackendoff (1987), Kobes (1995), Langsam (2000), Levine (1993; 1995), Loar (1987; 1998), McGinn (1992), McCulloch (1999), Moore (1962), Peacocke (1998), Schweizer (1994), Searle (1990), Siewert (1998) and Strawson (1994), have expressed the view that conscious intentional states have qualitative character.

This paper concerns the latter thesis. It is notable that, though apparently widely endorsed, it has not been widely argued for.


1 Perhaps those who think it is true think it is simply too obvious to require argument. Yet, those who reject it tend to think it is just as obvious that it is false. Clearly, arguments on both sides are called for. Moreover, those who accept the thesis would do well to provide a way to focus attention on a few instances of the qualitative character of conscious thought – in order to forestall the Humean objection that no such argument could be sound, because no such phenomenology exists, because the objector cannot discover it within him- or herself (cf. Nelkin 1996: 142-43).

I shall be defending a rather strong version of the thesis.2 In addition to arguing that there is something it is like to think a conscious thought, I shall also argue that what it is like to think a conscious thought is distinct from what it is like to be in any other kind of conscious mental state, that what it is like to think the conscious thought that p is distinct from what it is like to think any other conscious thought, and that the phenomenology of a conscious thought is constitutive of an aspect of its content. I shall also attempt to acquaint the reader with some instances of the phenomenology of cognition.



1. Consciousness and Phenomenology

Though I do not think the thesis that there is a phenomenology of conscious thought should be assumed to be obviously true (or obviously false), I think there is a rather obvious argument for it – to wit:

(P3) If a mental state is conscious, then it has phenomenal properties

(P2) Conscious thoughts are conscious mental states; therefore,

(P1) Conscious thoughts have phenomenal properties

I take it there is no difference between the conscious occurrence of a thought and consciously thinking a thought. Thinking a thought is like having a pain, in the sense that the thinking and the having are not something in addition to the mere occurrence of the states. Hence, thinking (in the sense of entertaining) is not a propositional attitude, but merely a having-in-mind. (Compare thinking a thought (entertaining a content) and having a pain with, respectively, believing the thought (content) and disliking the pain.) (P1) should therefore be distinguished from the claim, which I do not defend here, ­­­that there is a phenomenology distinctive of consciously bearing a particular attitude to a particular content (believing that or wondering whether p, for example: cf. Flanagan 1992: 67; Goldman 1993: 23-25; Horgan and Tiensen forthcoming).

It has been objected that (P3) is true by definition, and that, consequently, the argument is trivial. To say that a state is conscious just is to say there is something it is like to be in it; and it follows immediately from the description of a thought as conscious that there is something it is like to have it.3

But this is really no objection at all. For even if (P3) is true by definition, or trivially true, it is still true. Hence, given that (P2) is true and that the argument is valid, it follows that (P1) is true as well. What this objection could show, at best, is that those inclined to deny the conclusion of the argument have missed something that ought to have been obvious.

(P3), however – though it does seem to me to be obvious (and perhaps even necessarily true) – is not true by definition. For, unconscious phenomenal states are conceivable.4 And if such states are conceivable, then it cannot be that ‘phenomenal’ is (or is part of) what ‘conscious’ means. Indeed, Eric Lormand (Lormand 1996) has argued that (P3) is false – i.e., that consciousness does not presuppose phenomenality.5

Lormand maintains that there are conscious states – in particular, thoughts and propositional attitudes – that are never phenomenal. (It is clear that Lormand is not arguing that there are states that are access-consciousness without being phenomenally conscious.) He claims that any phenomenology that might be associated with such states is the phenomenology of accompanying states of familiar kinds, such as perceptual representations, bodily sensations, images or inner utterances.

Lormand’s arguments, however, do not establish that (P3) is false. The claim that there are conscious states that are never phenomenal must be distinguished from the claim that there are conscious states that have no proprietary phenomenology. Though Lormand’s stated target is the first claim, his arguments are clearly aimed at the second one. (I consider these arguments in section 2.) In order to discredit the first claim, one would have to show that there are conscious states that can occur without any accompanying conscious states of the familiar types Lormand mentions. For it might be that such states cannot be conscious unless they occur with accompanying conscious states; and there might be distinctive accompaniments for each type of conscious thought, in which case there would be something it is like to think it consciously. But this Lormand does not do. Hence, his arguments, even if they were successful, would not show that (P3) is false.

Simple denial of the phenomenality of conscious thoughts does not constitute an argument against (P3). What is required is a reason for thinking that a mental state could be conscious without having any phenomenality at all. Given the strength of the intuition that it is impossible for mental states of so many other kinds (sensations, perceptions, proprioceptions, emotions) to be conscious but not phenomenal, to offer conscious thoughts as examples begs the question. An explanation of why conscious thoughts should be different (how they could be different) is required. Since I know of no such explanation, I shall take it that the argument of this section, obvious though it might be, does establish that there is a phenomenology of conscious thought. (Nonetheless, the argument of the next section, the conclusion of which presupposes (P1), will also serve to establish the claim that there is something it is like to think a conscious thought – though it goes far beyond this.)



2. Immediate Knowledge of Content

If there is a phenomenology of conscious thought, it remains to be determined whether it is just the phenomenology of familiar sorts (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, etc.), or a unique and distinctive sort of phenomenology, as different from the familiar sorts as they are from each other. In this section, I shall argue that what it is like consciously to think a particular thought is (1) different from what it is like to be in any other sort of conscious mental state (i.e., proprietary) and (2) different from what it is like consciously to think any other thought (i.e., distinctive). That is, any conscious token of a thought-type p has a unique, phenomenology different from that of any other sort of conscious mental state, and different from that of any other conscious thought.6

Moreover, if conscious thoughts have distinctive and proprietary phenomenologies, it becomes natural to ask whether their phenomenology bears any relation to their content – just as it is natural to ask the corresponding question with respect to the phenomenology of perceptual states. (Given that, for example, there is something it is like to hear a particular note issuing from a particular piano, what place does that phenomenology have in an account of the content of that state?7) I shall also argue in this section that (3) the phenomenology of a thought constitutes its representational content (i.e., is individuative).

All three of these claims can, I believe, be established by a single argument. Hence, I collect them in the thesis (P):

(P) Each type of conscious thought – each state of consciously thinking that p, for all thinkable contents p – has a proprietary, distinctive, individuative phenomenology.
Apart from its intrinsic interest, (P) has important consequences for the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. If it is true that conscious intentional states have a distinctive phenomenology qua intentional, then any story about them that leaves out what it is like to be in them – a story exclusively in terms of, say, neurophysiological events as presently understood – will be incomplete. It will be as unsatisfactory as an account of conscious visual perception that leaves out what it is like (cf. McCulloch 1999: 21).8 Thus, if (P) is correct, it extends the problem of qualia to a realm whose presumed immunity from it has fed hopes for a complete naturalistic theory of the cognitive mind using only the resources of current philosophy and neuroscience. (As I emphasize in section 4, it also makes trouble for a certain brand of cognitivist eliminativism about perceptual phenomenology.)

Before the argument for (P) is presented, some clarificatory remarks are in order.

(1) By the “representational content” of a thought, I mean those of its intrinsic features that are relevant to its representing the proposition it does. The proposition it represents, in contrast, I shall call its “propositional content.” (P) is a thesis about the representational contents of thoughts: it is the claim that conscious thoughts with distinct representational contents have distinct phenomenologies of a cognitively proprietary sort, and that these phenomenologies are (at least one component of) their representational contents. I do not wish, at this point, to rule out the possibility that thoughts with identical propositional contents may have distinct representational contents, or the possibility that thoughts with distinct propositional contents may have identical representational contents.9 It is in general possible for intrinsically distinct representations to represent the same thing, and for intrinsically identical representations to represent different things. Hence (given that the representational content of a conscious thought is an intrinsic property of it), it is consistent with (P) that the representational content of a thought might be different for different thinkers, or that a single thinker might have representationally distinct thoughts expressing the same proposition, and that the thought with the propositional content that p and the thought with the propositional content that q might have, for the same or for different thinkers, identical representational contents.10

Accordingly, references herein to “contents” should (unless it is otherwise specified) be taken to be to representational contents, and references to “the thought that p” should be taken to be to the thought with the representational content that p.

(2) I take it that the unique, proprietary phenomenology of an occurrent conscious thought, qua representational content, plays the role Husserl and Searle specify for their respective notions of “matter” (Husserl 1900/1970) (or “noema” (Husserl 1913/1962)) and “aspectual shape” (Searle 1990) – neither of which is, in my view, sufficiently clarified or explained by its originator. (See Pitt In Preparation.) Some readers will also no doubt be put in mind of “narrow content”; though for reasons that cannot be gone into here, I do not take cognitive phenomenology to be narrow content – at least on the most common construal of that notion.

(3) (P) does not claim, entail or presuppose that the phenomenology of a particular type of conscious thought is the same for everyone (any more than an argument for perceptual phenomenology need claim that what it is like to see an object of a particular color is the same for everyone).

(4) To say that conscious thoughts have cognitively proprietary phenomenology is not in and of itself to say that their phenomenology is exclusively of a cognitively proprietary sort. The phenomenology of a conscious thought might, for example, be partly constituted by some sort of linguistic phenomenology – e.g., auditory or visual syntactic imagery (this possibility is discussed in section 2.2.3, below). (P) does claim, however, that the phenomenology of conscious thought cannot be completely identified with any other sort of phenomenology.

(5) For convenience, I shall refer to distinct representational contents expressing the same proposition using distinct sentences that express that proposition. I do not intend by this to prejudge the issue of whether or not representational contents are internal utterances of sentences.

(6) It will no doubt occur to some readers that the claim that the representational content of a thought is its phenomenology immediately raises the issue of the representational contents of unconscious thoughts. I address this issue elsewhere (Pitt In Preparation). Here I shall only mention that I do not think the view I defend in this paper commits me to the existence of unconscious phenomenology – as noted above, I do think that consciousness and phenomenality are different properties.11

The argument for (P) is as follows.12

Normally – that is, barring confusion, inattention, impaired functioning, and the like – one is able, consciously, introspectively and non-inferentially (henceforth, “Immediately,” to do three distinct (but closely related) things: (a) to distinguish one’s occurrent conscious thoughts from one’s other occurrent conscious mental states; (b) to distinguish one’s occurrent conscious thoughts each from the others; and (c) to identify each of one’s thoughts as the thought it is (i.e., as having the content it does13). But (the argument continues), one would not be able to do these things unless each (type of) conscious thought had a phenomenology that is (1) different from that of any other type of conscious mental state (proprietary), (2) different from that of any other type of conscious thought (distinct), and (3) constitutive of its (representational) content (individuative). That is, it is only because conscious thoughts have a kind of phenomenology that is different from that of any other kind of conscious mental state that one can Immediately discriminate them from other kinds of conscious mental states; it is only because type-distinct conscious thoughts have type-distinct phenomenologies (of the cognitive sort) that one can Immediately distinguish them from each other; and it is only because the conscious thought that p has a phenomenology that constitutes its (representational) content that one can Immediately identify it as the thought it is. Hence (the argument concludes), each type of conscious thought has a proprietary, unique phenomenology, which constitutes its representational content.

In brief:

(K1) It is possible Immediately to identify one’s occurrent conscious thoughts (equivalently: one can know by acquaintance which thought a particular occurrent conscious thought is); but
(K2) It would not be possible Immediately to identify one’s conscious thoughts unless each type of conscious thought had a proprietary, distinctive, individuative phenomenology; so
(P) Each type of conscious thought – each state of consciously thinking that p, for all thinkable contents p – has a proprietary, distinctive, individuative phenomenology.

The two sorts of abilities (a) and (b) are analogous to what Dretske (1969) calls “non-epistemic seeing,” or (1979) “simple seeing,” and the ability (c) (which presupposes the other two) is analogous to what Dretske (1969) calls “epistemic seeing” (with an important qualification, to be discussed below). For Dretske, an object O is simply seen by a subject S if S differentiates O from its immediate environment (other objects) purely on the basis of how O looks to S (how it is visually experienced by S), where an object’s looking some way to S neither presupposes nor implies that S has any beliefs about it.

Dretske argues that we must suppose there is such a thing as simple seeing given that objects that cannot be visually identified may nonetheless be seen – i.e., visually discriminated from their immediate environment. One need not be able to identify what one is seeing (know what it is) in order to be able to distinguish it from its environment.

What Dretske (1969) calls “primary epistemic seeing,” in contrast, necessarily involves belief, and, Dretske argues, amounts to knowledge: one may know that an object is F by seeing that it is F. According to Dretske (id.: 79-88), S sees that an object O is F only if (i) O is F, (ii) S simply sees O, (iii) the conditions under which S simply sees O are such that it would not look to S as it does unless it were F, (iv) S believes that the conditions in (iii) obtain, and (v) S believes that O is F. When conditions (i)-(iv) are satisfied, S has a conclusive reason for believing O to be F. Hence, if condition (v) is also satisfied, S knows that O is F by seeing that O is F. (There are, of course, other ways to know that O is F.) O’s looking the way it does to S provides S (in the relevant circumstances) a conclusive reason for believing that O is F. Thus, to see that O is F is to believe that it is F because of the way it looks.14

Dretske’s account of simple and primary epistemic seeing may be generalized to other modes of perceptual experience. Just as one may see that an object is brown (or rotten), one may (though this phrasing might be uncommon) smell that it is musky (or dead), taste that it is sour (or unripe), hear that it is loud (or hollow), or feel that it is rough (or broken).15 I take it such modes of primary epistemic perception are forms of what Russell (1910-1911) calls knowledge by acquaintance, and simple perception a form of what we can call simple acquaintance (or, simply, acquaintance): knowledge by acquaintance is knowledge of the properties of an object O grounded, in the way described above, in discriminating experience of O; simple acquaintance with O is discriminating experience of O.16 Hence, in what follows I shall use the terms acquaintance and knowledge by acquaintance as general terms for, respectively, discriminative experience and the knowledge based on it in the way Dretske describes for simple seeing and primary epistemic seeing (seeing that).

The argument from Immediate knowledge of content claims that one may also have acquaintance with and knowledge by acquaintance of one’s occurrent conscious thoughts. Introspective acquaintance, which I take it is what is operative in the abilities described in (a) and (b), above, is a form of simple acquaintance, and may be understood in a way analogous to the way Dretske explains simple seeing. A subject S is introspectively acquainted with a conscious mental particular M (a state, a thought, an image, a feeling, a sensation, etc.) if S differentiates M from its mental environment purely on the basis of how it is experienced by S, where a mental particular’s being experienced in some way by S neither presupposes nor implies that S has any beliefs about it. For M to be experienced in some way by S is a matter of its qualitative properties – its phenomenology. Thus, one cannot simply introspect a conscious mental particular unless it has some definite phenomenal character – unless, that is, there is something one’s introspective experience of it is like.

I do not mean to suggest here that simple introspection is simple perception of mental particulars, nor that the experience of an occurrent conscious mental particular M is a state distinct from M. I take it that simple introspection of a conscious mental particular is simply experience of it, and that for a mental particular to be experienced is simply for it to be conscious. Simple perception is experience of external objects; simple introspection is experience of internal objects. But to say this is not to say that conscious mental particulars are the objects of introspection in the way that physical particulars are the objects of perception. A perceived external particular (one may suppose) is distinct from an experience of it. An introspected conscious mental particular, in contrast, is part of the introspective experience of it: to say that one simply introspects a conscious mental particular is to say that one has a conscious experience of which the mental particular is itself a differentiated constituent. (This is, of course, to be distinguished from introspective belief and knowledge, which are states distinct from the introspected particulars.)

We must suppose that there is such a thing as introspective acquaintance given that mental states that cannot be identified (e.g., unclassifiable, fleeting or vague moods, thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc.) may nonetheless be experienced, and experienced as different from other mental states. And this is not a matter of one having any beliefs about the states, but of the states having distinctive qualitative properties of which one may be introspectively aware.

Knowledge by acquaintance of the identity of a thought – knowing that it is the thought that p – is a form of primary epistemic introspective acquaintance. Let us call this form of (introspective) knowledge grasping. Thus, just as seeing that is the form of (perceptual) knowledge by acquaintance appropriate to visible objects (mutatis mutandis for the other sensory modalities), and feeling that is the form of (introspective) knowledge by acquaintance appropriate to conscious sensations, grasping that is the form of (introspective) knowledge by acquaintance appropriate to conscious thoughts. To Immediately identify a thought as the thought that p is to grasp that it is the thought that p (that it has the content that p).17

Grasping a thought is different from merely thinking it, in the same way that seeing that O is F is different from simply seeing O (which is F). It is also different from simple introspection. To know in this way that a thought is the thought that p is to have a (higher-order) thought about it. What is distinctive about immediate introspective knowledge of content, on this view, is that the belief that the thought t has the content that p is conclusively justified by the experience of t. The phenomenology of the experience of t grounds the ability to grasp that it has the content it does.

Thus, the argument is that Immediate identification of a thought is introspective knowledge by acquaintance (primary epistemic introspection) that it is the thought it is, and that this is not possible without simple acquaintance, which itself depends upon the introspected state having phenomenal character. Immediate identification of a particular thought requires Immediate discriminative awareness of its distinctive phenomenal properties. Since each conscious thought-type has a distinctive phenomenology, there is something it is like to entertain it; and since there is something it is like to entertain it, it is possible Immediately to identify it.

These parallel accounts of simple perception and introspection appeal to the ways perceived and introspected objects appear to the perceiver or introspector. But there are crucial differences between the appearance of perceived objects and the appearance of introspected objects. The simple perception of an object that is a necessary condition on perceiving that it is F – which is a matter of its appearing in some way to the perceiver – is not necessarily a matter of its appearing F to the perceiver. Perception that an object is F might be due to its appearing G (… F) in circumstances under which it would not appear G unless it were F. For example, an apple may look brown in circumstances under which it would not look brown unless it were rotten, and one may thereby be able to see that the apple is rotten on the basis of its looking brown. Indeed, one may be able to see that an apple is green on the basis of its looking brown in circumstances under which it would not look brown unless it were green. In general, then, perceived objects can appear to have properties that they do not have, and perceptual knowledge can be based on such false appearances.

Moreover, the relation between the ways perceived objects can appear and the way they can be is philosophically problematic. A Naive Realist would maintain that the ways perceived objects can appear are identical to ways they can be: the apparent properties of objects are not properties of experiences, but of objects. (Objects may appear to be ways that they are not in abnormal circumstances (as when a green apple appears brown); but the ways they appear in abnormal circumstances are ways they might be (apples can be brown), and the ways they appear in normal circumstances are the ways that they are (the perceived greenness of an apple in normal circumstances is a property of the apple.) Representative and Adverbial Realists, on the other hand, would maintain that the ways perceived objects can appear are properties of experiences, and, at best, functionally dependent upon the ways they can be. (For dispositional physicalists (e.g., those who identify colors with unperceivable dispositional properties of objects), objects always appear to be ways that they are not, whereas for categorical physicalists (e.g., those who identify colors with possibly independently perceivable surface properties), objects typically appear to be ways that they are not.)

But there can be no false appearances in the case of conscious mental particulars, and, hence, no introspective knowledge based on false appearances. There are no conditions under which an orange after-image does not look orange; and there are no conditions under which a painful sensation does not feel painful. Thus, introspective knowledge by acquaintance that an after-image is orange can only be based on its looking orange, and introspective knowledge by acquaintance that a sensation is painful can only be based on its feeling painful. Though one may be able to see that an apple is green on the basis of its looking brown, one cannot see that an after-image is green on the basis of its looking brown, or feel that a sensation is a pain on the basis of its feeling pleasurable. In general: necessarily, if a conscious mental particular is F then it appears F; hence, knowledge by introspective acquaintance that a conscious mental particular is F can only be based on its appearing F.

Furthermore, since there is no distinction between a conscious mental particular and the experience of it, the question of the relation between the way a conscious mental particular appears and the way it is has only one possible answer: the way it appears is the way it is. Naive Realism is the only possible view of the apparent properties of conscious mental particulars: they are properties of the particulars themselves. If an after-image looks orange, then it is orange, because its looking orange and its being orange are the same property; and if a sensation feels painful, then it is painful, because its feeling painful and its being painful are the same property.

These facts about conscious mental particulars do not, as is sometimes supposed, imply either introspective infallibility or omniscience. It simply does not follow from the fact that conscious mental particulars cannot appear other than as they are that one’s beliefs about the way they are/appear cannot be mistaken – any more than it would follow from an external object’s necessarily having the properties it appears to have that one’s knowledge of its properties is infallible. Nor do these facts about conscious particulars imply that one is omniscient about the contents of one’s conscious mind. It is perfectly consistent to suppose that one has simple introspective acquaintance with conscious mental particulars about which one has no beliefs (or knowledge) at all.

It is implied, however, that to know by introspective acquaintance that a conscious particular has a property is simply to believe that it has that property while it is conscious, and, moreover, that the properties one is acquainted with in introspection on the basis of which one knows what a conscious mental particular is (an orange after-image, a painful sensation, the thought that snow is cold) are individuative – i.e., they constitute the particular’s being the sort of particular it is.

Dretske’s conditions (i) and (ii) collapse for conscious mental particulars, since a mental particular is conscious if and only if it is consciously simply introspected, and conscious mental particulars must appear to have the phenomenal properties they have: if O (a conscious mental particular) is F, then S simply introspects O. Moreover, since conditions are always such that a conscious mental particular would not appear F unless it were F, Dretske’s condition (iii) is superfluous, and his condition (iv) drops out.18 Hence, knowledge by conscious introspective acquaintance that a mental particular is F consists in believing that it is F while it is conscious.

Furthermore, since only phenomenal properties can be conscious, and simple introspection of a mental particular is just its conscious occurrence, it follows that only the phenomenal properties of conscious mental particulars are simply introspectable. If, therefore, introspective acquaintance with a mental particular provides conclusive justification for believing that it is the particular it is, its having the phenomenal properties it does must constitute its being the particular it is: that is, its phenomenal properties must be individuative.

One can know Immediately that a mental particular is a sensation of pain or an orange after-image only because pains and orange after-images have phenomenal properties that are introspectably different from those of other type-distinct mental particulars and which make them the particulars they are. The argument from Immediate knowledge of content claims that the same is true of conscious thoughts: one can know Immediately that a mental particular is the thought that snow is cold only because thoughts that snow is cold have phenomenal properties that are introspectably different from those of other type-distinct mental particulars and which make them the particulars they are.



2.1 Objections to (K1)

The argument (K1)-(P) is obviously valid; so the way to resist its conclusion is to resist one or both of its premises.

(K1) seems very hard to deny. One does not normally have to infer what it is one is occurrently consciously thinking: one knows what one is thinking simply by attending to the contents of one’s mind. And it seems entirely inappropriate to call on someone to provide inferential justification of his attributions of self-knowledge of content.19 Hence, a very strong motivation would be needed for rejecting (K1). I shall argue in this section that there is none.

According to (K1), the identification of any occurrent conscious thought as the thought that p requires neither observation nor inference: simply by attending to it one can know which thought it is. Hence, the denial of (K1) would be that it is not possible to identify a conscious occurrent thought in this way. There are three ways to support this claim. The first is to establish that the identification of an occurrent conscious thought necessarily requires observation; the second is to establish that it necessarily requires inference; and the third is to establish that it necessarily requires both observation and inference.20

Externalist considerations are perhaps the most obvious way to try to motivate the claim that the identification of an occurrent conscious thought as the thought that p cannot be Immediate, since the identification of any thought always requires both observation and inference.21 In order to know that a thought is the thought that, e.g., water is a liquid (that arthritis is a disease), and not that twater is a liquid (that tharthritis is a disease), I must make an inference from known facts about how content is determined and about my natural (social) environment. That is, I can identify a thought only by consulting background knowledge and (together with externalist principles of content determination) drawing a conclusion from it. Moreover, since knowledge of the background environmental (social) facts that determine thought contents is not obtainable introspectively, neither is knowledge of those contents themselves. One must consult external sources for the information that determines the contents of one’s thoughts. Further, this is consistent with allowing that one’s knowledge that a conscious thought is occurring is both introspective and non-inferential: externalism only shows that knowledge that a thought is the thought that p requires observation and inference. Hence, contrary to (K1), the identification of a thought is never Immediate, but is always a complex process involving observation and inference as well as introspection and direct apprehension.

However, to base the denial of (K1) on the claim that externalism is true and implies that knowledge of content is observational and inferential is to put it on shaky ground.

There is considerable controversy over whether or not externalism has this consequence.22 Most externalists – e.g., Burge (1988), Davidson (1984) and Heil (1988) (to name just a few) – think that it does not. They hold that a thinker need not know the causal history (or any other relational properties) of a thought in order to know its content, since that history also determines the content of the thought that he is having that thought. Thus, the contents of the first- and second-order thoughts will always necessarily correspond, and the second-order thought will automatically be true.23 Since one need not know the causal history of either thought in order for their contents to correspond, neither inference nor observation is required by externalism for self-knowledge of content.

Others, however, think this response is inadequate. Boghossian (1989; 1994), for example, has argued that it can account for neither self-knowledge of thoughts not simultaneous with such second-order judgments (i.e., the object of the judgment that I just now thought that p; cf. note 25, below) nor for the ability to distinguish thoughts in virtue of their contents.24

Whether or not this controversy is eventually decided – and however it may turn out if it is – it is not at all advantageous to the opponent of (K1) to pin hopes on it now. At least at present, the claim that externalism implies that (K1) is false has, prima facie, far less going for it than (K1) itself. (Boghossian (1989) takes the incompatibility of externalism and Immediate knowledge of content to be something like a dilemma.)

In any case, the account of self-knowledge of content one would be left with if (K1) were to be abandoned is entirely unbelievable. For, surely, one’s knowledge that one is occurrently consciously thinking a thought is Immediate if anything is. However, assuming the externalism-inspired story just sketched, one could have such knowledge without having any idea which thought one is thinking, and, furthermore, be completely incapable of determining which thought it is no matter how much one introspects.

All of the other ways of objecting to (K1) seem to me to founder upon one or more of the following considerations.

It could not be the case that thought-identification is entirely observational. One’s thoughts are not (or, in any case, not entirely: some externalists believe that thoughts include external objects) in the external world to be observed. In order to know that one’s (occurrent, conscious) thought is the thought that p, one must know that it is occurring. But such knowledge could not be observational; it is essentially introspective.25 Thus, self-knowledge of content always requires at least some introspection.

Moreover, given that it is, as argued above, highly implausible to suppose that the non-inferential component of self-knowledge of content is exclusively observational, it follows that at least some self-knowledge of content must be introspective. But, I shall now argue, it cannot be that all introspective knowledge of content is inferential, on pain of vicious infinite regress.

On an inferentialist account, to know that a thought t is the thought that p I must infer the thought t is the thought that p (call this thought t') from some other thoughts, q, r, .... However, if I am to know by introspection that a thought is the thought that p, then I must also know by conscious introspection that I have performed the inference q, r, ..., therefore, t'. And I cannot know introspectively that I have performed this inference unless I can introspectively identify it. But I cannot identify the inference unless I can identify its constituent thoughts, q, r, ... and t'. And since introspective identification of thoughts requires inference, an infinite number of inferences will have to be performed in order to achieve introspective knowledge of the content of any thought. Such knowledge would therefore be impossible. But, ex hypothesi, it is not; so it must be possible to identify by introspection at least some thoughts non-inferentially.26

It may be objected that knowledge that I have drawn the primary inference (i.e., an inference of the form q, r, ...; therefore, t') is required to know that I know what the content of my thought is, but is not required for first-order knowledge. The thought that a particular thought has a particular content has to have the property of being inferred from some other thought or thoughts, but I need not know that it has this property in order for it to count as knowledge. So I need not know that I have drawn the inference, and the regress does not get started.27

But this would be introspective knowledge in name only. If introspection is to be a source of knowledge – that is, if one is to know by virtue of introspection the identity of a particular thought – then there must be introspectively accessible properties of the thought detection of which is sufficient for knowledge of its content. According to the inferentialist, however, there are no intrinsic properties (introspectable or otherwise) of a thought knowledge of which is sufficient for knowledge of its content. What is sufficient for such knowledge is that the thought t is the thought that p be inferred from some other thought or thoughts. But, then, if introspection is to deliver knowledge, and if it is not by virtue of introspective knowledge of my having made the inference, then it is not by virtue of anything. In which case I have no knowledge at all. So it follows that if conscious introspective knowledge of content is possible, then, given the inferential theory, it must be conscious introspective knowledge that an inference of the form q, r, ...; therefore, this thought is the thought that p has been made; and this leads to the regress. Hence, it cannot be the case that introspective self-knowledge of content is entirely inferential.28

Moreover, there can be no a priori restrictions on which thoughts could play an inferential role with respect to a thought to be identified. That is, it would seem that any thought might, in principle, figure inferentially in the identification of some other thought. But if this is the case, then, since at some point in a process of introspective/inferential thought identification inference-constitutive thoughts must be known non-inferentially, a non-regressive inferentialism would allow that any thought could be identified introspectively and non-inferentially – which is, of course, just what (K1) claims.

I conclude that there is no plausible way to motivate the denial of (K1).



2.2 Objections to (K2)

2.2.1. Perhaps a better objection to the argument would attack the second premise, by offering an alternative explanation of Immediate knowledge of content. (K2) claims that we could not Immediately identify and distinguish our conscious thoughts unless they had distinctive phenomenologies: the phenomenology of a conscious thought can provide immediate, conclusive justification for believing that it is the thought it is. Hence, if there is an account of how we could do it that does not appeal to phenomenology, (K2) is false. The following familiar sort of view is perhaps the best candidate.

My introspective knowledge of the content of a particular thought t is explained by appeal to a reliable process of belief formation – for example, the activity of a mechanism whose job it is to deposit a token of a thought t' with the content the content of t is that p in my “belief-box” whenever, or because, t consciously occurs. Such a state is functional/computational: to know that a thought is the thought that p (and not that q) is just to have the appropriate higher-order thought reliably tokened in one’s belief-box. Moreover, this process does not require that the thought that t have phenomenology of any kind: even supposing t did have phenonmenal properties, they would not be what justified the belief that t has the content that p.

This counts as introspective knowledge of the content of t because t is a mental state, the content of t' is that the content of t is that p, and t' plays the role characteristic of a belief due to the activity of a reliable mechanism. What justifies the belief that t is the thought that p is not the experience of t, but the etiology of the belief about t. And since this belief is caused, not inferred, such knowledge is non-inferential. Finally, when t', so caused, is conscious, knowledge of the content of t is Immediate (conscious, introspective and non-inferential).

But to think that t is the thought that p while t is occurring – even because t is occurring – is not to identify it as the thought that p. Introspective identification of occurrent thoughts is analogous to perceptual identification of objects and introspective identification of sensations: it is a form of knowledge by acquaintance. Such identifications have the basic form this [that] is (an) F; they require simple acquaintance, in the relevant mode, with the object identified. That is, the object identified – “this” – must be perceptually discriminated from its environment. And, as Dretske has pointed out, this requires that the object appear to one in some determinate way. One cannot, say, visually identify an animal as a dog (see that it is a dog) unless one has some sort of visual experience of it – that is, unless one sees the animal. Merely to think this animal is a dog when a dog is within visual range and is causing one to think that it is a dog is not to visually identify it as a dog. Likewise, merely to think that s is a pain when s is a pain, is occurring, and causing one to think that s is a pain, is not to feel that s is a pain. And merely to think that t is the thought that p when t is the thought that p, is occurring, and causing one to think that it is the thought that p, is not to grasp that (in the sense defined above) t is the thought that p.

Moreover, if the conscious occurrence of t' is not sufficient for conscious knowledge of its content, then one could consciously think it without knowing which thought it is. But if one does not know which thought it is – what its content is – then its conscious occurrence cannot explain conscious knowledge of the content of t. This is because it is supposed to be by virtue of the fact that t' is conscious (and reliably caused) that its occurrence constitutes knowledge of which thought t is. That is, t'’s conscious occurrence is supposed to constitute conscious knowledge of the content of t because (it is reliably caused and) its content is that the content of t is p. But if t'’s being conscious is not sufficient for knowledge that it has this content – i.e., if it is not sufficient for knowing which thought it is – then its being conscious does not explain the conscious introspective identification of t.

To put the point slightly differently, t'’s consciousness is supposed to make the content of t consciously known. But this is because the content of t' is that the content of t is p. Hence, if the consciousness of t' is not sufficient for knowledge of what its content is – i.e., for knowing that it says that the content of t is p – then it is not sufficient for conscious knowledge of t’s content.29

Hence, conscious occurrence of t' must, if it is to be sufficient for conscious knowledge of the content of t, be sufficient for conscious knowledge of its own content as well. Since the theory under consideration denies this, it is false.30

The issue is not how one knows what is in one’s belief box (the etiology of its occurrence might take care of that), but how one Immediately knows what is in one’s belief box – that is, how one knows what the content of one’s occurrent conscious thought is. And what I am arguing is that the object of knowledge would not be Immediately identifiable as having any property F if its Fness were not directly presented in consciousness. But if the Fness of a mental state is to be directly presentable in consciousness, it must be a property to which one may be directly sensitive in conscious introspection. And phenomenal properties are the only properties to which one could be directly sensitive in conscious introspection.

2.2.2. Perhaps one could give a deflationary account, not of the claim that there is something it is like to think that p, but of what it is like to think that p.31 On such an account, the direct presentation of a property in consciousness would not require any distinctively mental qualitative character, or quale.

I can think of two ways to develop this objection. The first models itself on the following argument (due to Harman (1990)) that no awareness of phenomenology is involved in being in a perceptual state. What one is aware of when one sees something, for example, is not visual phenomenal qualities inhering in one’s own mind, but objective qualities of the thing seen. The blueness we experience when we look at the sky is the blueness of the sky, not of our perception of it. One need not postulate subjective phenomenal characters – purely mental properties, problematically related to the objective properties of extramental objects – in order to explain the qualitative aspects of perceptual experience. So, analogously (one might argue), it is not necessary to postulate phenomenal characters in the case of introspective awareness of thought content either. What one introspects is just the contents of one’s thoughts. What distinguishes the contents of my thoughts for me is nothing about me, or my experience, but something about them. Thinking that p is distinguishable from thinking that q because the contents that p and that q are distinct – just as seeing the blue of the sky is distinguishable from seeing the green of an apple because the blue of the sky and the green of the apple are distinct. Thus, one may accept (P), but interpret it in such a way as to block the attribution of phenomenal character to thinking, and locate whatever detectable differences there are between thinking that p and thinking that q in the objects of the thinkings – i.e., the contents themselves. To quote Worley:

To have a conscious thought is to be consciously aware of the contents of the thought. There is no qualitative experience over and above the awareness of the content of the thought. ... the qualitative difference between thinking that today is Wednesday and thinking that it is Thursday ... is that one is aware of different contents in the two cases. That difference exhausts the difference between the two thoughts.32
But this move is not effective. For one thing, as noted above, there is no phenomenological distinction between a conscious thought and the experience of it, anymore than there is a difference between a conscious pain and the experience of it. But, even if there were such a difference, perception is disanalogous to introspection in a very crucial respect. The objects of perception may be mind-independent objects; but what one introspects certainly are not. When we introspect, we turn our attention inward, toward the contents of our minds – which are mental if anything is. Thus, to be a Naive Realist about introspectable properties is to recognize subjective phenomenal characters, or qualia. To deny qualitative character to conscious experiences would be like granting that there is a perceptible difference between seeing blue and seeing green, but denying that the blue and the green are in either the experience or the objects of experience. And this hardly seems credible.33

The second sort of deflationary move is more radical. It claims that what we are aware of when we are aware of the contents of our thoughts has no qualitative character whatsoever. The first deflationary strategy accepted that one introspects qualitative character, but claimed that this is the character of what is introspected, not of the experience of introspecting. I argued that this is a distinction without the desired difference. The second strategy is to say that thoughts’ being consciously distinguishable implies no qualitative character anywhere – either in what is experienced or in the experience itself. What distinguishes our thoughts qua objects of introspective awareness is just their contents: I am able to tell that a thought is the thought that p, and not that q, because the content of the thought is that p, and not that q. And that’s all there is to say about it.

This is as credible as the claim that there can be perception of, say, the colors of objects, but that perception of these involves neither objective nor subjective qualitative properties. Which is to say, not credible at all.

If my arguments so far are sound, and there is something it is uniquely like to think that p, then an objector must focus on the other claim embedded in the second premise of the argument from Immediate knowledge of content – viz., that the phenomenology of thinking that p is proprietary – i.e., that it is neither sensory, nor proprioceptive, nor emotional, etc.

2.2.3. (K2) claims that if each type of conscious thought did not have a proprietary, distinctive, individuative phenomenology, then it would not be possible Immediately to identify and distinguish one’s conscious thoughts. I have so far only considered objections to the claim that phenomenology is necessary for Immediate identification of conscious occurrent thoughts. I shall now consider three objections to the claim that such phenomenology is neither distinctive nor proprietary.

Lormand (1996) claims that conscious attitudes, thoughts and moods do not have phenomenology of a proprietary kind, since “[e]xcluding what it’s like to have accompanying [phenomenal] states, ... typically there seems to be nothing left that it’s like for one to have a conscious [thought] that snow is white” (247). But he provides no argument that the only sorts of phenomenology that could be assigned to conscious thoughts are those of the familiar sorts he lists (perceptual representations, bodily sensations, images or inner utterances); he simply asserts it. The possibility of a distinctive, cognitively proprietary kind of phenomenology is not even considered.34

Lormand offers as an explanation of the fact that conscious attitudes, moods and thoughts are not phenomenal that they exhibit neither of a pair of correlative “inner-perceptual illusions” which are necessary for phenomenality. In the “image illusion,” mental states seem to have properties of non-mental objects (they are sharp, round, red, ...). In the “appearance illusion,” non-mental objects seem to have properties of mental states (they are sweet, cold, delicious, ...). Conscious thoughts are not phenomenal because they are subject to neither of these illusions.

Though these considerations are offered by Lormand as an explanation of – not an argument for – the non-phenomenality of conscious thought, it might be thought that an argument could be based on them, viz.: If a conscious state is phenomenal, then it is subject to one of the inner-perceptual illusions; conscious thoughts are subject to neither; hence, conscious thoughts are not phenomenal. But such an argument would simply beg the question against the proponent of a proprietary cognitive phenomenality of conscious thought. The inner-perceptual illusions may apply to the familiar kinds of phenomenology; but what is the argument that they apply to any sort of phenomenology?

The second objection to (K2) grants that conscious thoughts have qualitative character, and that it is in virtue of Immediate awareness of that character that one knows what one is thinking, but denies that it is proprietary. The phenomenology of cognition is, the objection goes, that of either sensory experiences or imagery associated with characteristic linguistic modes of expressing the thought, or emotional experiences triggered by the content of the thought – or, perhaps, a particular kind of proprioceptive or other experience associated with conscious propositional attitude relations (fearing, hoping, worrying, etc.). If there is a phenomenology of thinking, it is not a content-phenomenology, but merely an associated phenomenology of some familiar kind. And if we do have knowledge of the contents of our thoughts in virtue of introspective awareness of qualitative states, it is just these kinds, none of which are distinctive of cognition per se, that explain it.

No doubt the most promising of these familiar sorts of phenomenology is the first. The claim would be that it is either phonological or orthographic imagery (or both) that we introspect when we attend to our thoughts, and that we know what we are thinking in virtue of introspective acquaintance with the phenomenal properties of such imagery. Thinking is just “hearing (or seeing) words in our heads.” (Indeed, as is well known, some philosophers have been tempted into defining thought as inner speech.35) What goes on when one thinks that p is, according to this account, among other things a replay of auditory or visual experiences of some sentence form in one’s language that expresses the content that p. There need be no proprietary cognitive phenomenology telling you what you are thinking: hearing or seeing a sentence in your head is sufficient.

But sentences in one’s head are not thoughts. One can host an inwardly tokened (natural-language) sentence without thinking the thought it conventionally expresses – or, indeed, without thinking anything at all: imagine a child of three, or a monolingual speaker of Hindi, replaying an utterance of ‘muons and neutrinos are leptons’ in her head. And if the tokening of a sentence in one’s head is not sufficient for thinking the thought it expresses, then introspective awareness of the phenomenal properties of the sentence-image cannot be sufficient for introspective awareness of what is thought. Thus, even if thoughts are, as a matter of fact, usually or even always accompanied by some kind of auditory or visual imagery (so that such imagery is part of the total phenomenology of a conscious thought) – or even if such imagery is necessary for thinking a thought – it is not identical to the thought, and it is not in virtue of introspecting such experiences that one introspectively knows what one is thinking.

A more articulated version of this objection holds that what is going on in the phenomenal mind when one has a conscious thought is a replay of phonological or orthographic imagery together with the thoughts that the imagery is imagery of a sentence in a particular language, and that that sentence has a particular meaning. One knows what thought one is thinking because one knows what sentence one is inwardly tokening, and what it means. There is no proprietary qualitative experience of “grasping” the meaning of that sentence.

But note that all of the work here is being done by knowledge of the meaning of the sentence. Since the mere inward tokening of a sentence-form does not constitute thinking the thought it conventionally expresses, Immediate identification of the phenomenal properties of the sentence-image does not constitute Immediate knowledge that one is thinking that thought. It is only in grasping what the sentence means that one knows what thought one is thinking. But grasping what the sentence means entails thinking the thought it expresses (one thinks, e.g.: the sentence ‘snow is cold’ means that snow is cold). And if such knowledge is to be Immediate, the thought must be known Immediately, as well. (Conscious introspection of the phonological/orthographic imagery alone could not deliver Immediate knowledge of the meaning of the sentence. So if conscious introspection delivers such knowledge, it must be in virtue of conscious introspective identification of the relevant thoughts.) But if this does not simply presuppose the ability to do what the account is supposed to explain, it requires still further inward utterances and content-identifications. Hence, the account is either circular or viciously regressive.

A subtler objection along these lines would claim that introspective knowledge by acquaintance that a thought is the thought that p is like perceptual knowledge by acquaintance that an apple is rotten. Rottenness need not be a distinctive perceivable property in order for an apple to be perceived to have it. To perceive that an apple is rotten is to believe that it is rotten on the basis of its appearing in ways (brown, wrinkled, pulpy, malodorous, ...) it would not appear unless it were rotten. In general, perceiving that O is F may be either direct (i.e., based on its appearing F in circumstances under which it would not appear F unless it were F) or indirect (i.e., based on its appearing G (H, I, ... (… F)) in circumstances under which it would not appear G (H, I, ...) unless it were F). Properties that are not directly perceivable (including those that are not perceivable at all) may nonetheless be indirectly perceivable; and those that are not directly perceivable may be thought of as manifesting themselves in those that are.

Likewise, introspective knowledge by acquaintance may be either direct or indirect. Hence, one need not assume that the (representational) content of a thought is itself a phenomenal property in order to explain how one could have such knowledge of it. Immediate knowledge that a thought is the thought that p could be based on the phenomenal properties of phonological/orthographic imagery in circumstances under which such imagery would not be occurring unless one were consciously thinking that p, even if the phenomenal properties of such inner utterances do not constitute representational content. One could, that is, claim that such phenomenal properties constitute the way thoughts manifest themselves in consciousness.

But this objection does not succeed either. If it is conceded that there is a phenomenology of conscious thought, then such phenomenology must be proprietary, distinctive and individuative. Since (as shown above), conscious phenomenal states in general cannot appear other than as they are, there are no conditions under which a conscious thought can appear as something else. (A pain cannot appear as pleasurable sensation, or an orange after-image, or the thought that snow is cold.) But inner utterances/inscriptions are something else, since what



appears as an inner utterance or inscription is an inner utterance or inscription, and phonological/orthographic phenomenology can occur in the absence of conscious thought. Hence, conscious thoughts cannot manifest themselves as inner utterances or inscriptions.

Moreover, as I shall now attempt to demonstrate, there is an introspectable difference between running words through one’s head and thinking.




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