Rio and Phenomenal Concepts

comments 3

A couple of weeks ago I attended what I believe to be the world’s first conference specifically on ‘phenomenal concepts’. It took place in Rio. It was an awful lot of fun, and extremely intellectually stimulating. It occurred to me in the airport post-conference (after a chat with Derek Ball) that there was an interesting connection between two of the themes of the conference, which I would like to share here. This is possibly the most inaccessible post I will ever make. Sorry about that.

First theme: Me and Martine Nida-Rumelin both spoke at the conference. We think physicalism can’t be true, as phenomenal concepts reveal the nature of phenomenal qualities, and they don’t reveal that nature to be physical. There was a fair amount of concern about what exactly this talk of ‘concepts revealing natures’ amounts to, especially if the information allegedly revealed is supposed to be non-propositional. I wondered after my talk whether it might have helped if I had been more explicit that talk of ‘a priori access to natures’ can easily be translated into talk of ‘a priori access to satisfaction conditions’: a concept reveals the nature of its referent (is ‘transparent’ as I like to say) just in case it reveals its satisfaction conditions. I take it that most agree that there are composite concepts that reveal their satisfaction conditions. It seems to me that those opposing me and Martine owe us an argument to the conclusion that there aren’t also basic concepts which reveal basic, and hence non-propositional, satisfaction conditions. I suggested (at 2am in a taxi home after watching samba) to David Papineau (one of the contingent suspicious of concepts ‘revealing natures’) that the concept of existence might be like this.

Second theme: At the conference Derek Ball defended a novel response to the knowledge argument. He and Michael Tye think that concepts of experiences, such as ‘what it’s like to see red’, are public language concepts. Supposing that Mary already has the public language concept ‘what it’s like to see red’ (having spoken to other concept users on the phone), Derek struggles to see how Mary could make epistemic progress when she leaves her black and white room (she can’t even learn a new concept, as phenomenal concept strategists would have it). In his talk, Torin Alter suggested in response to the Ball/Tye concerns, that Mary gains ‘full mastery’ of the concept phenomenal red. However, there is perhaps a need to clarify exactly what ‘full mastery’ amounts to. Because of this difficulty accounting for Mary’s epistemic progress, Derek reached the radical conclusion that Mary repeats a token belief she already had in the black and white room, without realising (due to some systematic irrationality) that it’s the same belief (if I understood correctly).

The connection between the two themes: If we can make sense of phenomenal concepts having non-propositional satisfaction conditions, then we can perhaps make sense of Mary’s epistemic progress in the following way. When she sees red for the first time, Mary come to understand (through her acquaintance with red) the non-propositional satisfaction conditions of a concept she already had (the public language concept ‘what it’s like to see red’ is not transparent, but is rendered transparent through acquaintance with what it’s like to see red). So Mary’s understanding grows, even though she doesn’t gain any new concepts, or come to know any new propositional knowledge.

Should probably be writing this into a paper rather than a blog entry, but I’m drowning in exam marking and teaching prep after spending the first week of term in Rio.

Here are some pictures of philosophers watching samba:


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. Torin Alter says

    Two comments. First, I very much like your suggestion. One snag for me is that I’d prefer the reply to Derek and Michael to be useful to *both* physicalists who employ the phenomenal concept strategy (despite my skepticism about the prospects of that strategy) and those who accept the knowledge argument (as sound). But it’s not immediately clear to me that the former group could accept your suggestion–though perhaps they could, depending on what’s meant by ‘acquaintance’. Second, your post contained an amusing typo: “I was an awful lot of fun, and extremely intellectually stimulating.” Yes, you were indeed!

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