, Volume 77, Issue 1, pp 149–154

Christopher Hill: Consciousness

Cambridge University Press, 2009, 264 pp., $29.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780521125215


Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s10670-012-9373-8

Cite this article as:
Demircioglu, E. Erkenn (2012) 77: 149. doi:10.1007/s10670-012-9373-8

Christopher Hill’s Consciousness is a valuable contribution to the philosophical literature on consciousness. There are many admirable features of this book. It is written with the wisdom of a man who has thought about consciousness deeply and passionately. It covers a wide range of conceptual and empirical areas in a relatively short space without losing sophistication. Of all its aspects, one which I find most praiseworthy is its intellectual honesty: it is never tired of following the logical implications of its main theses, and it is sincerely ready when there are bullets to be bitten.

The central aim of Consciousness is to provide a comprehensive Representationalist account of phenomenal experiences. It has nine chapters. In the first four chapters, Hill’s arguments are mainly destructive. He specifies six arguments for property dualism and aims to show that none of them is successful. Moreover, three non-representational views of awareness (Russellian Acquaintance, Moorean Transparency, and the Adverbial Theory) are rejected. These chapters pave the way for Hill’s positive Representationalist account, which is applied to and tested against the background of distinct types of experiences including perceptual, bodily, and emotional ones. What is more, Hill powerfully argues for the idea that introspection is always conceptual or takes the form of judgment.

I will restrict my discussion to a number of issues that are central to Hill’s novel position. Let me begin with Hill’s rejection of an influential view, conceptual dualism, which he previously endorsed. Conceptual dualism is the idea that “our concepts of qualitative states differ in kind from all of the concepts that count intuitively as standing for physical properties” (p. 50). Conceptual dualism appears to enable the physicalist to explain away the force of some famous arguments for property dualism without admitting non-physical properties. Consider Jackson’s (1982) famous Knowledge Argument. Mary knows everything there is to know about the physics of sensory perception of red but she never experienced red. The intuition is that when she experiences red, she learns something new she did not know before. But if so, says the property dualist, then since she already knew everything physical there is to know, her new knowledge is knowledge of a non-physical property (i.e., what it is like to have experiences of red). A physicalist who holds conceptual dualism might reply that her new knowledge is a matter of acquiring a new concept of a physical property she knew under a physical concept; and, since acquiring new concepts does not imply getting acquainted with new properties, no expansion of a physical ontology is required. Hill maintains that this response is successful against arguments for property dualism only if conceptual dualism is acceptable. But he now thinks “with regret” (p. 50) that there is something wrong with it. What is it?

For Hill, “the foundation of conceptual dualism” is the idea that “all awareness of qualia involves conceptualization” (p. 50); and, he argues that this idea (call it AC) is false. By “qualia,” Hill means “properties that we normally think of as subjective, in the sense that it is possible to grasp them fully only from the point of view of an experiencing subject” (p. 19). One of Hill’s reasons for the falsity of AC is from the determinacy of qualia (p. 54): either the determinacy of qualia (e.g., the particular sort of pain in my right hand now) cannot be captured by our general complex concepts (e.g., the concept pain) which stand for determinable properties or it can be captured by demonstrative concepts (e.g., this sort of pain) which “presuppose subconceptual awareness” (p. 53). Hill argues that either horn implies that AC is false.

I think that AC is indeed false. But it is not false for the reason given by Hill. A proponent of AC might respond to Hill’s objection by arguing that the determinacy of qualia is consistent with AC. She may consistently claim that even though our general concepts do not capture the determinacy of qualia, they are still involved in all awareness of qualia. The determinacy of qualia is consistent with AC but inconsistent with a claim stronger than AC, which is that all awareness of qualia is exhaustively conceptual. However, whether this strong claim is what Hill has in mind is not entirely clear from the book. Furthermore, I do not think that conceptual dualism as such requires AC. A conceptual dualist might hold that awareness of pain does not require the possession of any concepts and he might add that concepts formed on the basis of subconceptual awareness of pain differ in kind from all physical concepts. It appears that Hill’s arguments against his former position appear not to be as strong as one would like.

What is, one may wonder, Hill’s novel response to the Knowledge Argument? Given his explicit rejection, it is surprising to find that it is in the very spirit of conceptual dualism. “Because she [Mary] is using a novel representation,” Hill writes, “the appearance [“how red things look” (Hill)] would seem different to Mary even if it was a familiar physical property—say, the property of reflecting light that causes long wavelength receptors to fire more vigorously than middle wavelength receptors” (p. 119). For Hill, Mary’s epistemic progress can be explained in terms of the novel representations she acquires through having relevant experiences: Mary’s epistemic progress is not a matter of acquaintance with novel properties but forming representations which may be of good old physical properties. But, surely, this reply is substantially the same as the conceptual dualist reply. The only difference might appear to be that Hill accepts, while the conceptual dualist denies, that Mary’s novel representation is subconceptual. But the conceptual dualist might say that while the initial “experiental representation” (Hill) Mary acquires upon seeing red is subconceptual, the subsequent representation she uses to express her new knowledge is conceptual. Since Hill does not reject that Mary’s new knowledge involves a new concept, there is no substantial disagreement between him and the conceptual dualist.

Another important issue Hill addresses in Consciousness is the nature of relation between Representationalism and the transparency of experience. The transparency of experience (TE) is the thesis that when one tries to attend introspectively to a perceptual experience, one is aware only of what the experience is of or, equivalently, what the experience represents. TE does not deny that there are intrinsic qualities of experiences but denies that there are any intrinsic qualities of experiences one is introspectively aware of.

TE is deployed by a number of philosophers (e.g., Dretske (1996); Tye (1996)) to establish Representationalism, which Hill defines as the view that awareness is “essentially representational in character” (p. 69). For Hill, however, the thesis that experiences have representational contents cannot be established on the basis of TE because TE is consistent with the Relational View (Campbell (2002)), which holds that introspection provides no grounds for attributing representational features to experiences. On the Relational View, there are no representational contents one is introspectively aware of when one has an experience. Hill sides with Representationalism but, contra some of its other defenders, his reasons for holding it are not introspective. “We cannot choose between these construals on the basis of introspection alone,” Hill says, “Philosophical argument is needed” (p. 82).

Hill holds that “the deliverances of introspection are neutral between the two positions” (p. 81). But some of his remarks appear to imply that introspection favors the Relational View. For instance, he says, “It seems that introspection does not attribute a representational structure…to perceptual consciousness” (p. 85). However, if one is not aware of “a representational structure” when one introspectively attends to an experience, then rather than being neutral, introspection supports the Relational View. In fact, just because introspection supports the Relational view, we can make sense of Hill’s remark that philosophical argument is needed to justify Representationalism: if introspection revealed perceptual consciousness has “a representational structure”, then Representationalism would be (at least prima facie) justified without any need for additional philosophical arguments. But this has the surprising consequence that the friends of Representationalism who think that their position is supported by TE have been wrong all along: TE counts against their position. Accordingly, it is a thesis they have to argue against rather than citing it to support Representationalism.

Hill’s discussion of Representationalism is stimulating, and I agree that its defenders have been too quick to argue that introspection is on their side. Let me follow the implications of Hill’s idea that introspection does not reveal any perceptual representations. If this is right, then, on his version of Representationalism, perceptual representations are subpersonal in the sense that they are external to consciousness. This is simply because if they were internal to consciousness, introspection would reveal them. (A word about the internal/external distinction at hand: The phenomenal character of an experience of red is internal to perceptual consciousness but some of the brain processes that give rise to that experience are not. This intuitive distinction does not imply property dualism.) But, if so, Representationalism loses its significance because the existence of non-conscious representations is granted, or at least not necessarily rejected, by all parties. A friend of the Relational View may consistently hold that non-conscious representations (e.g., the fact that certain neurons represent (or have the function of carrying information about) certain properties of external objects) are enabling factors of conscious experiences while denying that they are any representations at the level of consciousness. A reason why friends of Representationalism generally search for conscious representations is that without them, their position is under the threat of triviality.

It may appear that there are two ways of saving Hill’s Representationalism from triviality. First, one may claim that introspection does not reveal every aspect which is internal to consciousness. Some of Hill’s remarks give the impression that this is what he has in mind (see, for instance, p. 82). But, can we make sense of the idea that introspection is limited with respect to its power to detect the internal features of perceptual consciousness? I do not think we can because there is no way of drawing the internal/external dichotomy in question other than appealing to introspection. What is internal to consciousness is what can be introspected, and what is external is what cannot. This does not mean that introspection is required for consciousness but it means that introspection is the arbiter by which we can decide what falls within and without consciousness. Hence, the idea that consciousness has some internal features which are not introspectible seems incoherent. Second, one may claim that Hill’s Representationalism is not the trivial thesis that non-conscious representational states enable conscious states but the controversial thesis that the latter are a species of the former. One may claim, for instance, that some non-conscious representational states of certain brain cells are conscious. This move saves Hill’s Representationalism from triviality; however, the only problem is that it is incoherent simply because as a matter of logic, conscious is not non-conscious. (Notice that physicalists are not committed to this incoherence: they do not claim that conscious states are non-conscious brain states but that conscious states are brain states.)

The upshot is a dilemma for Hill’s Representationalism. If, as Hill’s discussion of TE appears to imply, Representationalism is a thesis about the existence of non-conscious representations, then it loses much of its substantial character. If, on the other hand, Representationalism is the thesis that there are conscious representations that cannot be introspected or the thesis that non-conscious representational states are conscious, then it is incoherent. In either way, Representationalism is in trouble.

Finally, let me examine Hill’s discussion of pain. Hill starts with observing that our thought about pain presupposes that awareness of pain is “linked indissolubly” (p. 169) to pain itself. We are, Hill claims, naturally inclined to think that “pains do not admit of a substantive appearance/reality distinction” (p. 171): one is in pain if and only if it seems to one that one is in pain. However, according to Hill, there are also powerful reasons which seem to mandate the view that pains admit of a substantive appearance/reality distinction. Thus we have what Hill calls “the paradox of pain” (p. 171). Hill resolves “the paradox” by rejecting “the folk concept of pain” (p. 185) which does not permit an appearance/reality distinction and “revising our conceptual scheme” (p. 186) to provide room for such a distinction.

What are the reasons, for Hill, which should lead us to accept that pain is dissociable from pain awareness? Hill argues that we have good reasons to accept what he calls “the perceptual/somatic theory” of pain sensation and also that “the perceptual/somatic theory” commits us to acknowledging that there is a gap between pain and awareness of pain. The perceptual/somatic theory is characterized by two theses: (i) “awareness of pain is a form of perceptual awareness” (p. 175); and, (ii) pains are “peripheral disturbances involving actual or potential damage” (p. 177). Thesis (i) gives us the perceptual aspect of the theory, while thesis (ii) gives its somatic aspect. Hill’s main reason for (i) is that awareness of pain has certain features which are shared by paradigmatic forms of perceptual awareness (e.g., vision and olfaction). These features include (but are not confined to) having subconceptual contents, automatic attention mechanisms, and proprietary phenomenology (pp. 172–173). Furthermore, one of Hill’s main reasons for (ii) is that any other view which takes pains not to be bodily disturbances is forced to treat our awareness of pain as systematically misleading because our awareness of pain represents pains as having bodily locations. And, Hill argues, since there is a prima facie obligation to view perceptual experiences as veridical, identifying pains with bodily disturbances is prima facie justified (pp. 177–178).

According to Hill, since perceptual awareness is always representational, and since pain awareness is a form of perceptual awareness, it follows that pain awareness is representational. Moreover, since “the relationship between perceptual representations and the items they represent is always contingent” (p. 175), the relationship between the representations by which we are aware of pain and pain itself is always contingent. There may be pain without awareness of pain, and “it can seem to us that we are aware of pain when we actually are not” (p. 175). Since these are the possibilities our folk concept of pain deny, we arrive at “a paradox.”

There are some controversial steps in Hill’s articulation of “the paradox of pain.” First, one may object that while it is true that awareness of pain and paradigmatic forms of perceptual awareness share some features, those features are not the ones which license us to claim that awareness of pain is representational. In fact, I do not see why the commonalities Hill observes between awareness of pain and paradigmatic forms of perceptual awareness give us any reason to think that “awareness of pain is constituted by representations that are fundamentally perceptual in character” (pp. 174-5, italics mine). Second, one may grant that awareness of pain is representational but deny that the relationship between representations and what they represent is always contingent. Consider the judgment “I am thinking that there are elephants in Africa.” This is a judgment about my present mental state, and as such this judgment represents my present mental state. But, in order for this judgment to be made, I have to do the thinking in the first place. So, this judgment cannot fail to be true. But, if this is so, the relation between my judgment and my thinking is not contingent (see Burge 1998 for an account of self-knowledge along these lines). As far as I can tell, Hill provides no reason why the allegedly representational relationship between pain and awareness of pain should not be understood in this way. Finally, one might admit both that awareness of pain involves perceptual representations and that representational relation always contingently ties what does the representing to what is represented, but still deny that these are incompatible with our folk concept of pain which does not admit of an appearance/reality distinction. Our objector may say: “If you take pains to be bodily disturbances, then, surely, pains may occur without awareness of them. However, what we mean when we say that pains are indissolubly linked to awareness of pains is not that bodily disturbances cannot occur without awareness of bodily disturbances. What we mean is rather that subjective qualities of pain—e.g., its hurtfulness—cannot be instantiated without being experienced by the subject. So, in fact, there is no paradox of pain. The existence of a gap between bodily disturbances and awareness of bodily disturbances is consistent with the absence of a gap between subjective qualities of pain and experiencing those qualities.” The paradox dissolves if a proper distinction is drawn between subjective qualities and objective features of pain. Pain qua its objective features (e.g., bodily disturbance) admits of an appearance/reality distinction while pain qua its subjective features (e.g., hurtfulness) does not. Thus there is no inconsistency between the folk conception understood as a conception of the subjective qualities of pain and the perceptual/somatic theory understood as a theory of the objective features of pain.

On the whole, I definitely recommend Hill’s Consciousness to anybody seriously interested in what a unified Representationalist account of awareness which is sensitive to empirical findings in vision science and neuroscience may look like. This is a very rare opportunity, so it cannot be ignored by anybody worried about a promising strategy for naturalizing the mind. You may find many things in this book with which you do not agree; but this is no hinder to appreciate its scope, respect for the issues it discusses, clarity, the wealth of material it includes.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012