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The idols of inner-sense


Many philosophers hold one of two extreme views about our capacity to have phenomenally conscious experience (“inner-sense”): either (i) that inner-sense enables us to know our experience and its properties infallibly or (ii) the contrary conviction that inner-sense is utterly fallible and the evidence it provides completely defeasible. Both of these are in error. This paper presents an alternative conception of inner-sense, modeled on disjunctive conceptions of perceptual awareness, that avoids both erroneous extremes, but that builds on the commonsense intuitions that motivate them.

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  1. For further discussion of the empirical evidence from the psychologist that discovered this phenomenon see (Weiskrantz 2009).

  2. See, for instance, the strong evidence for this claim in (Norman et al. 2013).

  3. An even more extreme view of the holistic structure of the field of consciousness can, on certain interpretations, be found in the work of Gurwitsch. See Chudnoff (2012).

  4. I might have tried to indicate the phenomenon of phenomenal consciousness by contrast with a deep dreamless sleep, being knocked out, or some other familiar form of unconsciousness. But what is helpful about blindsight for my purposes is that it helps one get a grip on the distinction between conscious and unconscious awareness, instead of just consciousness and unconsciousness simpliciter.

  5. Cf., e.g., Block (2002), Chalmers (1996), Levine (2001), and McGinn (1996, chap 3).

  6. For examples of non-intentional extrinsic views see Dennett (1991) and Baars (1997). Key examples of intentional extrinsic views are Kriegel (2009), Lycan (1996), and Rosenthal (2005b).

  7. It would be wrong, then, to read this as suggesting a “sixth sense,” alongside the “outer-senses” of vision, touch, taste, etc, which is just like the outer-senses except that it is directed at “internal” objects. As I am using this term here, “inner-sense” is not an organ—an inner-eye—or even a separate “module” of mind, in the sense of (Fodor 1983). Rather, the term “inner-sense” is chosen because it is suggestive of something to which all intentional extrinsic views are committed: that phenomenal consciousness is due to the proper functioning of a special cognitive capacity that produces (higher-order) intentional awareness of our individual (first-order) mental lives. I abstain from any further presumption about what this capacity is. I might just as well have used the metaphorical terminology of there being an ‘internal scanner’, an ‘internal monitor, or an ‘internal detection mechanism’. In any case, on my own view, what this mechanism is must be revealed by further philosophical and empirical research. The goal of a philosophical analysis of inner-sense, which I take up here, is to get an initial idea of what this capacity does—what its function is—so that cognitive scientists can both help clarify our conception of the capacity further and, ultimately, discover the mechanisms that are responsible for it.

  8. It is important to note that on the extrinsic intentional conception, it is not that higher-order monitoring makes the mental state that it monitors a conscious state. Higher-order monitoring is intentionality like any other. And neither intentionality nor phenomenal consciousness are a communicable properties. We don’t give a rock the property of conscious vision by looking at it. So also higher-order intentionality does not give its objects—first-order intentional states—the property of being “phenomenally conscious,” just by monitoring them. Rather, phenomenal consciousness just is the awareness that a subject has of her own mental life, made possible by the joint contributions of higher-order monitoring and the mental states that are monitored.

  9.  I should note that I do not here assume that the “evidence” provided by perception is inferential. It is not that my visual awareness of the coffee in the cup or the tactile awareness of heat are premises from which I then infer the belief that there is fresh coffee in the cup. Rather, I follow Husserl in holding the evidential relation between perception and belief (or intuition and judgment) to be much more intimate than that. The perceptual awareness is a presentation of the “thing itself”—the individual object or state of affairs—which is the object of my belief. For more on this view of perceptual evidence see (Kidd 2014).

  10. Aron Gurwitsch (1985, p. 3) expresses the idea as follows: “When an object is given in experience, the experiencing subject is conscious of the object and has an awareness of this very consciousness of the object. Perceiving a material thing, listening to a musical note, thinking of a mathematical theorem, etc., we are not only conscious of the thing, the note, the theorem, etc., but are also aware of our perceiving, listening, thinking, etc. […] When we experience an act which presents us with an object other than itself […] we are aware in being confronted with the object of our being so confronted, we are aware of our experiencing the act through which the object in question appears to consciousness.”

  11.  This sort of observation—that it is possible for it to seem to one that she is consciously seeing or feeling, when she is in fact not—is sometimes used as basis for an influential objection to extrinsic intentional theories. These objections typically assume that these sorts of inner-illusions are impossible a priori. For they assume that the reduction of phenomenal consciousness to a kind of “consciousness of” is either unintelligible or, at least, completely unmotivated (cf., Finkelstein 2003, pp. 22–23 and Siewert 1998, chap 6.3).

  12.  It is helpful to note that the intentional extrinsic conception of consciousness has impressive historical precedence. It is obviously present, for instance, in the Phenomenological tradition coming out of Brentano and Husserl, where there is a commonplace appeal to the notion of pre-reflective self-consciousness in order to articulate the categorical distinction between conscious and unconscious mental phenomena, as well as to distinguish the “consciousness of consciousness” constitutive of experience from the “consciousness of consciousness” constitutive of introspective judgment. See, e.g., the discussion see the discussion in (Kriegel and Williford (ed) 2006) and in (Gallagher and Zahavi 2010).

  13. David Finkelstein (2003, p. 23) objects that this response doesn’t answer anything. For it only replaces the claim that phenomenal consciousness is a “consciousness of” one’s own mental states with the claim that it is a “particular kind of consciousness of” one’s own mental states. Moreover, Finkelstein argues, the difference between conscious and unconscious experience “cannot be understood as the difference between learning a set of facts by one mode of perception rather than another” (p. 24). For then the extrinsic theorist would be committed to the absurd claim that what is lacking in blindsight is the “phenomenology” that inner-sense itself provides us. I respond: Formulated that way, I concede that the extrinsic intentional theory does not explain anything. However, this also betrays Finklestein’s misunderstanding of the extrinsic view. For it does not, as Finkelstein claims, hold that “Each mode of perception provides us with phenomenology as well as information” (p. 24.) It is, rather, that each mode of perception—vision, touch, taste, smell, hearing—provides us only information without “phenomenology.” The “phenomenology” is added to the information by the actualization of another capacity, the capacity of inner-sense. That is the whole point of the extrinsic conception of phenomenal consciousness. The “phenomenal character” of an intentional state is an extrinsic property of the state: it is something that the state has by virtue of its co-instantiation and connection with something else. In other words, the key theoretical commitment of the extrinsic theorist is that phenomenal consciousness is not—as is often assumed—fully dissociable from the rest of the mind and the world. For other formulations of this point in response to objections similar in character to Finklestein’s see Brown (2010) and Weisberg (2010).

  14.  While I still believe that the token reflexive structure articulated in the cited paper can help SR intelligibly deny inner-illusion, I no longer believe that a theory of phenomenal consciousness must deny such cases in order to account for the epistemic authority of the first-person perspective. The relation of this paper to my earlier work can be seen as follows: in the earlier paper, I attempted to show that SR can both maintain the epistemic privilege of phenomenal consciousness by denying the possibility of inner-illusion, while maintaining its neutrality between naturalistic and non-naturalistic accounts of phenomenal consciousness. In this paper, however, I attempt to show that SR can also save the epistemic authority of the first-person without denying the possibility of inner-illusion. Therefore, if the conclusions of this paper are correct, SR maintains key explanatory advantages over both the extrinsic HO and the intrinsic views. For, unlike these, the SR theorist has available two views of the metaphysical structure of phenomenal consciousness that are compatible with the epistemic privilege of phenomenal consciousness: the earlier model, which denies the possibility of inner-illusion, or the model put forward in this paper, which acknowledges the possibility of inner-illusion. Whereas the extrinsic HO and intrinsic models are limited to one option each. Given our rather paltry knowledge of the nature of phenomenal consciousness at this stage of philosophical and empirical research, I take this neutrality to be a virtue.

  15. Cf., Nisbett and Wilson (1977), which documents the surprisingly commonplace tendency we have to make ex post facto sense of our own behavior by self-attributing beliefs and desires that allow us to appear in a favorable light to ourselves and to others, even if these beliefs and desires are deeply delusory.

  16.  Cf., Kripke (1980, p. 151).

  17.  See also (Rosenthal 2005a, pp. 138–139, 2005c, pp. 38–39).

  18. For further discussion of this kind of SR view, and an argument that it is compatible with a naturalism, see Kidd (2011, Sects. 5–7). See also Thomasson (1999) and Simons (1982) for general discussion of the concept of dependence in ontology.

  19. This is not to say that SR theory must conceive M* as numerically distinct from M. It is still open to conceive of the representational relation as token reflexive, so that M is a state whose intentional content has two aspects: one which represents something other than M, the other which represents the state M itself (Smith 1986). However, since this strict self-representational view makes it logically impossible for the token-reflexive higher-order representational content to come apart from the existence of its object (since whatever represents itself must exist), I think its better to avoid this way of construing the relation. For discussion of other problems with the strict self-representational view, see Kriegel (2006).

  20.  As I was at Kidd (2011, p. 373).

  21. This tactic is adapted from the work of John McDowell, who applies similar considerations in motivating the priority of veridical perception over their non-veridical counterparts. See especially McDowell (1982, 2011).

  22. Rosenthal offers reasons in support of this idea at Rosenthal (2005d, p. 29) and the other works he references there.

  23.  This argument is inspired by Horgan et al. (2006).

  24.  The kind of thing I have in mind for the method of “taking up” the content of a higher-order awareness into the content of a representational state of an even higher-order level is a theory of introspective self-knowledge that exploits the semantics of indexicals (roughly, securing the reference of introspective judgment by reference to “this” experience) such as that found in Davidson (1987) or Burge (1988).

  25. See Schwitzgebel (2008) for clear and forceful motivation of the debunking approach. I get the term “debunking” explanation from Horgan et al. (2006).

  26. Cf. the distinction between Humean and Cartesian skeptical challenges to Naïve Realism about perception that one can derive from the “argument from illusion” brought out in Martin (2006, pp. 354–355).


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I would like to thank Antonio Capuano, Walter Hopp, Kelly Jolley, Guy Rohrbaugh, David Rosenthal, David Woodruff Smith, Josh Weisberg, and Ken Williford for thoughtful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay. Versions of this material were presented at the Auburn University Philosophical Society and at the Fifth Online Consciousness Conference. I would like to thank those audiences for questions, constructive discussion, and feedback. I would especially like to thank Richard Brown for his helpful comments and for the opportunity to present this paper in this collection.

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Correspondence to Chad Kidd.

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Kidd, C. The idols of inner-sense. Philos Stud 172, 1759–1782 (2015).

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  • Conscious Experience
  • Phenomenal Consciousness
  • Epistemic Authority
  • Perceptual Awareness
  • Conscious Mental State