Can phenomenology determine the content of thought?


According to a number of popular intentionalist theories in philosophy of mind, phenomenology is essentially and intrinsically intentional: phenomenal properties are identical to intentional properties of a certain type, or at least, the phenomenal character of an experience necessarily fixes a type of intentional content. These views are attractive, but it is questionable whether the reasons for accepting them generalize from sensory-perceptual experience to other kinds of experience: for example, agentive, moral, aesthetic, or cognitive experience. Meanwhile, a number of philosophers have argued for the existence of a proprietary phenomenology of thought, so-called cognitive phenomenology (CP). There are different ways of understanding the relevant sense of “proprietary,” but on one natural interpretation, phenomenology is proprietary to thought just in case enjoying an experience with that phenomenal character is inseparable from thinking an occurrent, conscious thought. While one may have instances of thought without CP experience, one will never find CP independent of thought. So the former justifiably can be said to “belong to” the latter. The purpose of this paper is to argue that these intentionalist and cognitive phenomenology views make surprisingly uncomfortable bedfellows. I contend that the combination of the two views is incompatible with our best theories of how our concepts are structured. So cognitive phenomenology cannot determine the contents of our thoughts.

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  1. 1.

    I chiefly have in mind phenomenal intentionality (Kriegel 2013a) and other similar non-reductive intentionalist (Chalmers 2004; Crane 2014) theories. I focus on these theories because proponents of cognitive phenomenology tend to adopt them.

  2. 2.

    See Chalmers (2004) and Crane (2003) and (2014, chapter 8).

  3. 3.

    Horgan and Tienson (2002), Siewert (2011), and Chudnoff (2015) discuss the relationship between CP contents and wide thought contents.

  4. 4.

    Some versions of intentionalism, in particular certain phenomenal intentionality views, would construe C-PI as the claim that CP properties “ground” intentional properties, rather than being identical to them. Much of what I go on to argue in this paper could be restated, with some inconvenience, in terms of grounding or some sort of dependence relation, rather than identity, or in terms that are neutral between the two (see Kriegel 2013b; Chudnoff 2015, chapter 6).

  5. 5.

    I understand experiences to be all and only those mental entities with phenomenology or phenomenal character (i.e. instantiating phenomenal properties).

  6. 6.

    Note that representing a thought content may fall short of thinking a thought. For the latter constitutively involves bearing some attitude to the content, and it may be that taking up the attitude involves a particular functional state, being in which is not necessitated by any phenomenal character. Not all proponents of C-PI are clear on whether propositional attitudes can be determined by CP, so I remain neutral here. Note also that although representing a thought content in a cognitive and phenomenal manner suffices for conscious awareness of that content, the latter may not suffice for the former. For one might worry about whether awareness alone can account for the “unity of the proposition”: perhaps representing a complex content as a complete thought involves an act of “synthesis” of each of its components into a propositional whole, an act for which no amount of awareness of the content is sufficient. If so, representing the content is more than just awareness of it. Actually, if I am right in what I have said up to this point, then the C-PI theorist is committed to thinking that there is a kind of awareness that suffices for consciously representing thought contents, namely cognitive phenomenal awareness. So their view seems to commit them to thinking that synthesizing distinct conceptual contents into a proposition can be accomplished by phenomenal awareness alone (this relates to fn. 10 below). But my point is that I don’t need to commit myself to this controversial position in describing their view and setting up the ensuing discussion.

  7. 7.

    Cf. Crane (2014, 159–165) and Siewert (2004).

  8. 8.

    Cf. Siewert (1998, chapter 7) and Pitt (2011, 154, fn. 12) on perceptual experience.

  9. 9.

    I understand mental contents as satisfaction conditions or conditions on extension. This conception is neutral as to whether these contents are Russellian contents, Fregean contents, sets of possible worlds, or whether our mental states should be thought of as having multiple kinds of content. For convenience, I will tend to speak of the phenomenal contents of cognitive experiences as being composed of properties, rather than as modes of presentation or possible worlds.

  10. 10.

    For some consideration of problems that are raised for phenomenal intentionality by propositional content, see Pitt (2009), Bailey and Richards (2014), Chudnoff (2015, pp. 146–147, 151, 158).

  11. 11.

    See the articles collected in Margolis and Laurence (1999) for an introduction.

  12. 12.

    There are tricky issues here related to phenomenal externalism (Lycan 2001; Tye 1998, 2015), which I leave to one side, since the proponents of C-PI typically are internalists about phenomenology. For compelling reasons to reject phenomenal externalism, see Levine (2003a, b) and Pautz (2006, 2013). Even if we countenance the possibility of phenomenal externalism, I think Atomism will still not work with C-PI, for reasons analogous to those raised against the Theory–Theory below.

  13. 13.

    For an example of the former, see Peacocke (1992), and of the latter, see Rosch and Mervis (1975).

  14. 14.

    Isomorphism: Two sets, A and B, are isomorphic if and only if there is a one-to-one map between them, and there is some relation defined over the members of A and some relation defined over the members of B such that members of A stand in the former relation if and only if the corresponding members of B stand in the latter relation (Kulvicki 2014, 196).

  15. 15.

    A homomorphism is any (partial) structure-preserving map between two sets of things, of which an isomorphism is a more demanding type. The difference between the two does not matter for our purposes.

  16. 16.

    I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for both the objection and the example.

  17. 17.

    I owe this objection to Bill Child.

  18. 18.

    Which of these two options is more attractive may depend on whether the subject in question is suitably idealized. In an idealized reasoner, it is not crazy to think CP experiences that presented a concept’s structure could ground meaning-constitutive dispositions to use that concept. With ordinary subjects, the better option for C-PI may be to deny conceptual contents depend on having the right dispositions.

  19. 19.

    On this issue, see Bayne and Montague (2011b), Carruthers and Veillet (2011), and Thompson (2010).

  20. 20.

    For a modern defense of this historically important and intuitive idea, see Prinz (2002).

  21. 21.

    See Margolis and Laurence (2014), Sect. 3.2 to get a flavor of the serious difficulties that confront concept empiricism.

  22. 22.

    It should be clear that other versions of the containment model will not help here. For instance, one might think to turn to Prototype Theory, which says that conceptual structure consists in a statistical analysis of what properties the things that fall under a concept are likely to have (Laurence and Margolis 1999, 27ff). If prototype structure consists in complete sets of prototypical features, contained in the concepts themselves, then this theory cannot avoid the problems that confront the definitional view. Similar remarks apply to Exemplar Theory (Medin and Schaffer 1978).


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I am grateful to Tim Bayne, Bill Child, Martin Davies, Michelle Montague, David Papineau, Oliver Rashbrook-Cooper, Josh Shepherd, Charles Siewert, and an anonymous referee for valuable discussion and feedback on material in this paper.

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Correspondence to Peter V. Forrest.

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Forrest, P.V. Can phenomenology determine the content of thought?. Philos Stud 174, 403–424 (2017).

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  • Cognitive phenomenology
  • Concepts
  • Phenomenal intentionality
  • Intentionalism