Thought and Consciousness – A Crucial Contemporary Debate

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An important book came out this year. The volume ‘Cognitive Phenomenology’, edited by Tim Bayne and Michelle Montague, collects articles for and against the thesis that thought is a kind of conscious experience. This debate is both deeply strange and deeply important.

It is deeply strange as it is an argument over the very general character of human conscious experience. But each person involved in the debate is (as far as I am aware) a human, and has the power to introspect his or her own conscious experience. One would think, then, that this group of humans would be able to settle these questions just by introspecting, and finding out what human experience is like. And yet, when introspecting, the people on one side of the debate claim to find something very different from those on the other side.

Non-believers in cognitive phenomenology claim to find in introspection only sensory experience: feelings, emotions, visual and auditory imagery, etc. Believers in cognitive phenomenology claim to find, as well as these sensory aspects, a distinctive kind of thought constituting experience, for example, the experience of realising you’ve found the solution to a problem. An alien reading this volume would probably assume that Earth is populated by two very different species of intelligent life, one of which has much richer conscious experience than the other. On the assumption that this is not the case, philosophers on one side of this debate are deeply deluded about the nature of their own experience.

The debate is deeply important because the vast majority of twentieth century accounts of thought, at least in the Analytic tradition, dealt with thought in isolation from consciousness. Twentieth century Analytic philosophers thought that we could divide up human mentality into two distinct components: conscious states, defined as states such that there is ‘something that it is like’ to have them, and thoughts, defined as states with truth-conditional content. Two of the most influential accounts of thought, Jerry Fodor’s ‘language of thought’ hypothesis, and Donald Davidson’s interpretationalism, treated thought as a phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness. If thought is itself a kind of conscious experience, then all of these accounts are radically off target.

For a long time ‘consciousness’ was a bit of a dirty word, and many philosophers and scientists preferred to pretend consciousness didn’t exist; ‘feigning amnesia’ as John Searle put it. Eventually it came to be accepted that, however much certain philosophers might wish it away, consciousness is a real phenomenon, and must somehow be incorporated into a scientifically respectable world view. Nonetheless, Analytic philosophers consoled themselves with the belief that thought could be accounted for without having to worry about pesky consciousness. But if thought just is a kind of consciousness, then the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is really a hard problem of mentality in general.

If believers in cognitive phenomenology are right, and I’m inclined to think they are, then Analytic philosophers of mind are only just starting to properly focus on the phenomenon they’re supposed to have been trying to explain for the last seventy years.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.

1 Comment

  1. Kepler says

    Thanks for pointing to this work (there’s a draft online). Thoughts have some obviously different features from feelings, but considering thought therefore outside the whole domain of conscious experience seems crazy. Where do we find thoughts occurring outside the context of subjective experience? What direct access do you have to my internal thoughts? For those of us who consider consciousness to be the most fundamental and important object of study, it’s always encouraging to see its domain being potentially enlarged, however grudgingly.

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