A psychofunctionalist argument against nonconceptualism


In this paper I present a psychofunctionalist argument for conceptualism, the thesis that conscious visual experience is a conceptual state rather than a nonconceptual state. The argument draws on the holistic character of functionalist accounts of mind, together with the “Two Visual Systems Hypothesis” notably defended by Melvyn Goodale and David Milner.

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  1. 1.

    See for instance Heck (2000, 2007), Laurier (2004), Speaks (2005) and Byrne (2005).

  2. 2.

    See for instance Cussins (1990), Bermudez (1998), Tye (2006) and Bermudez and Cahen (2011).

  3. 3.

    See Byrne (2005) and Speaks (2005). To my mind, the crucial point is that many of the central debates regarding nonconceptual content are not settled by assuming any particular view about which entities mental contents are. For instance, even if we follow Stalnaker (1998) by supposing that mental contents in general are sets of possible worlds, many of the debates in question are left unresolved.

  4. 4.

    Here and throughout I follow the convention of using all caps for terms picking out concepts. So, red is a color while RED is the concept of a color.

  5. 5.

    The discussion that follows draws on Milner and Goodale (1995/2006), (2008), (2010) and Goodale and Milner (2004).

  6. 6.

    See for instance Clark (2001), Campbell (2002), Briscoe (2009), and several of the essays in Gangopadhyay et al. (2010).

  7. 7.

    Milner and Goodale (2010: p. 73) allow that the ventral stream also can give rise to unconscious perceptual states that “potentially could reach phenomenal awareness, e.g., with slightly different stimulus parameters”.

  8. 8.

    Milner and Goodale (2010: pp. 71–72), emphasis added.

  9. 9.

    Milner and Goodale (2010: p. 73).

  10. 10.

    Further empirical evidence for the Two Visual Systems Hypothesis is provided by certain cases of visual illusions. Conscious visual experience in normal human beings is prone to certain illusions that are not reflected in motor behavior, suggesting that such behavior is being guided by a different visual system. See Milner and Goodale (1995/2006: Chapter 6).

  11. 11.

    Chalmers (1996), Jackson (1982).

  12. 12.

    Chalmers (1996: Ch. 6).

  13. 13.

    Lewis (1970) and (1972).

  14. 14.

    This sort of result holds even if we drop psychofunctionalism for the logically weaker premise that conscious states require, as a matter of law, being in the right functional state. Suppose we are Chalmers-like dualists about pain and anxiety who hold that, given the laws of our world, subjects can experience pain or anxiety only if they are in states that occupy the functional roles specified by our toy theory. It will then still follow that, as a matter of natural law, a subject must possess a stomach to be capable of pain.

  15. 15.

    For the attack, see for instance Levin (2009: section 5.1).

  16. 16.

    See for instance Illich and Walters (1997), Crook and Walters (2011). As Allen (2004) explains, assessing which nonhuman animals are capable of pain is still extremely difficult, and it is controversial whether California sea slugs make the cut. In light of this, the argument in the text can be framed in a less contentious way as follows: It is an open empirical question whether California sea slugs are capable of pain, but functionalism about pain entails that this is not an open question (it entails that they are not), therefore we should reject functionalism about pain.

  17. 17.

    Lewis (1970).

  18. 18.

    Crook and Walters (2011).

  19. 19.

    Similarly-to take up the toy example used in §3—a functionalist can hold that anxiety’s functional role specifies that it causes upset stomachs, and yet still allow that a stomachless being could suffer anxiety (and, in addition, could suffer pain, even given our assumption that pain and anxiety are interdefined), provided that anxiety’s functional role is rich enough that such a being can instantiate a near-realizer of anxiety.

  20. 20.

    For versions of the argument, see for instance Dretske (1995) and Peacocke (2001). I adopt Laurence and Margolis (2012) term for the argument.

  21. 21.

    McDowell (1994).

  22. 22.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me to consider such a view.

  23. 23.

    Versions of the argument are advanced by Evans (1982), Peacocke (1992) and Tye (2006) among others.

  24. 24.

    Tye (2006).

  25. 25.

    McDowell (1994: pp. 56–57).

  26. 26.

    McDowell’s demonstrative concept strategy has received extensive critical discussion. See for instance Heck (2000), Kelly (2001) and Roskies (2010).

  27. 27.

    See Laurence and Margolis (2012: p. 298).

  28. 28.

    Brewer (2005) provides an especially clear statement of this sort of argument.

  29. 29.

    Roskies (2008: p. 634), citing McDowell (1994) and Brewer (1999).

  30. 30.

    Clark (2001).

  31. 31.

    Clark (2001: p. 514).

  32. 32.

    Clark (2001: p. 512), citing Cussins (1990).

  33. 33.

    Clark (2001: p. 512), appealing to Peacocke (1992).

  34. 34.

    Bermudez (2007) and Toribio (2008) argue in different ways that the content view and the state view are not independent, contrary to what I (and other philosophers) have supposed. If they are right, perhaps my defense of state conceptualism does after all have implications for what sorts of entities the contents of conscious visual experiences are. I reject their arguments, but assessing them at length falls outside the scope of the present paper.


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Tiehen, J. A psychofunctionalist argument against nonconceptualism. Synthese 191, 3919–3934 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0505-3

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  • Nonconceptual content
  • Concepts
  • Functionalism
  • Two visual systems hypothesis
  • Holism