Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 6, pp 1563–1572 | Cite as

Drop it like it’s HOT: a vicious regress for higher-order thought theories

  • Miguel Ángel SebastiánEmail author


Higher-order thought (HOT) theories of consciousness attempt to explain what it takes for a mental state to be conscious, rather than unconscious, by means of a HOT that represents oneself as being in the state in question. Rosenthal (in: Liu, Perry (eds) Consciousness and the self: new essays, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011) stresses that the way we are aware of our own conscious states requires essentially indexical self-reference. The challenge for defenders of HOT theories is to show that there is a way to explain the required reference-fixing mechanisms that is compatible with the theory. According to Rosenthal, the reference to oneself as such is grounded in the disposition to identify the individual the HOT refers to as the individual who has that HOT. I argue that this leads to a vicious infinite regress on the more than plausible assumption that our cognitive capacities are limited. This leaves such theories without a foundation, since self-reference is thought essential to consciousness.


Consciousness Higher-order theories Essential indexical Transitivity principle Subjective character 



I am grateful to Paloma Atencia-Linares, Axel Barceló, Denis Buehler, Elvira Di Bona, Manolo Martínez, Ricardo Mena, Angélica Pena-Martínez, James Stazicker, Nils-Hennes Stear (who suggested to me the title for the paper), and Alessandro Torza for discussion and comments on a previous draft. I owe a special debt to David Rosenthal for helpful discussion of the argument presented in this paper and also to an anonymous referee of this journal. A version of this paper was presented at the Congress of the Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy. I am grateful to the participants, especially to Krisztina Orban, Michelle Palmira, Carlota Serranilla and Hong Yu Wong. Financial support for this research was provided by the Spanish Government (FFI2014-51811-P), the British Academy and the PAPIIT (IN400218).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de Investigaciones FilosóficasUniversidad Autónoma de México, UNAMMexicoMexico

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