On the non-conceptual content of affective-evaluative experience


Arguments for attributing non-conceptual content to experience have predominantly been motivated by aspects of the visual perception of empirical properties. In this article, I pursue a different strategy, arguing that a specific class of affective-evaluative experiences have non-conceptual content. The examples drawn on are affective-evaluative experiences of first exposure, in which the subject has a felt valenced intentional attitude towards evaluative properties of the object of their experience, but lacks any powers of conceptual discrimination regarding those evaluative properties. I also show that by accepting this thesis we can explain relevant features of evaluative understanding.

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  1. 1.

    See McDowell (2013: p. 147).

  2. 2.

    See Evans (1982: p. 229), Peacocke (1992: Ch.3, 2001: pp. 239–264), Martin (1992: pp. 745–763), Kelly (2001a: pp. 397–420, b: pp. 601–608), Crane (1988: pp. 142–147).

  3. 3.

    See Johnston (2001: pp. 181–214), Döring (2007: pp. 363–394) and Poellner (2016: pp. 1–28). Throughout I remain uncommitted on the metaphysical standing of these evaluative properties; it is enough that such experiences seem to affectively (re)present evaluative properties of their objects (see Sect. 4.2 for more on this).

  4. 4.

    See Gunther (2003: pp. 279–288), Tappolet (2016: Ch. 1), Tye (2008: pp. 25–50) and Wringe (2015: pp. 275–297).

  5. 5.

    See Nussbaum (2001: Ch. 1).

  6. 6.

    Precisely how is matter of debate (see Deonna and Teroni 2012: Ch. 8, and Brady 2011: pp. 135–149 for scepticism).

  7. 7.

    See McDowell (1994, 2009: Ch. 7), Sedivy (1996: pp. 414–431) and Brewer (1999). Christopher Peacocke argues personal level perceptual experience involves non-conceptual content and can play a reason-giving role (see Peacocke 2001: pp. 239–264, Lerman 2010: pp. 402–426). Gareth Evans holds a similar view, although it is unclear whether the non-conceptual ‘informational states’ he takes subjects to acquire through perception are personal level experiences (see Campbell 2005). However, Evans is clear that judgements, which are conceptual, can be based on non-conceptual experiences (see Evans 1982: p. 227, cf. McDowell 1994: pp. 47–55).

  8. 8.

    Both conditions are developed in Sects. 3 and 4.

  9. 9.

    Cf. McDowell (1994: Ch. 2 and Ch. 3).

  10. 10.

    The way I am drawing the conceptual versus non-conceptual distinction concerns a difference in the type of content an intentional experience can have. The term ‘state’ is intended as a synonym for experience, rather than staking any position on ‘state non-conceptualism’. For the distinction between state versus content non-conceptualism see Heck (2000: pp. 483–523) (cf. Bermudez 2007: pp. 55–72).

  11. 11.

    See Sellars (1997: §36), McDowell (1994: Ch. 3). I focus on belief and judgement, rather than the more complex case of action (see Cussins 1990).

  12. 12.

    See McDowell (1994: Ch. 3). The idea of the conceptualist kidnapping candidates for non-conceptual content is from Luntley (2003: pp. 402–426).

  13. 13.

    Whether there is experience of causality in sense-perceptual experience is contested (see Searle 1983: Ch. 4; cf. Soteriou 2000: p. 183).

  14. 14.

    The direct caveat forestalls worries about talk of representation, where this involves awareness of epistemic intermediaries like sense-data. Representation can be replaced with presentation if preferable.

  15. 15.

    For discussion of the subpersonal level see Stich (1978: pp. 499–518), and on subpersonal non-conceptual representational content see Bermudez (1995: pp. 333–369) and Raftopoulous and Muller (2006: pp. 187–219).

  16. 16.

    See Lyons (1980: Ch. 6) and Teroni (2007: pp. 395–415). According to some phenomenological thinkers, and Kant on one of his conceptions of objectivity (cf. below), the notion of an ‘intentional object’ of an experience necessitates its content being conceptual. It is said to be a necessary condition of something being an intentional object that the subject for whom that object figures in an intentional experience possesses the ability to form corresponding judgements about that object and its properties. Arguably this requires satisfying both conditions for conceptual content specified in the Introduction, (see Husserl 1973: Section 13; Kant 1998: A68/B93, A69/B94), and so the term is co-extensive with conceptual content. If one wishes to argue certain intentional experiences have non-conceptual content, this notion of ‘intentional object’ is too demanding. For the purposes of this paper I use the term ‘object’ in less demanding sense, as that ‘something’ which is given to the mind, under a certain aspect, in an intentional experience (see Crane 1998). This less demanding sense of ‘object’ also finds expression in one of Kant’s other conceptions of objectivity (‘everything, every representation even, in so far as we are conscious of it, may be entitled object’ (Kant 1998: A 189/B 234)).

  17. 17.

    See Goldie (2000: Ch. 3).

  18. 18.

    See Mitchell (2017: pp. 57–84); Poellner (2016: pp. 13–14); Montague (2009: pp. 187–188).

  19. 19.

    See Johnston (2001: p. 182).

  20. 20.

    See Deonna and Teroni (2012: Ch. 7).

  21. 21.

    See McDowell (1994: pp. 48–52) and Evans (1982: p. 158).

  22. 22.

    Kelly (2001a: p. 414) and Martin (1992: pp. 761–762) make similar points.

  23. 23.

    Evans (1982: p. 229). The question is rhetorical, he thinks the answer is no.

  24. 24.

    Ibid: 100-5.

  25. 25.

    See McDowell (2009: Ch. 14). So understood, demonstrative concepts expressed in propositional attitudes exploit recognitional capacities, rather than being deployed in experience. For further discussion see Kelly (2001a: pp. 397–420, b: pp. 601–608), and Peacocke (2001: pp. 239–264).

  26. 26.

    McDowell (1994: p. 59).

  27. 27.

    Ibid: 57. There is room for dropping this requirement, although I am just interested in sketching this response as originally formulated by McDowell 1994, so will not consider conceptualist positions which do not require it.

  28. 28.

    McDowell (1994: p. 59). McDowell’s short-lived recognitional capacities therefore exploit memory capacities.

  29. 29.

    See Sect. 4.2 for more on re-identifiability.

  30. 30.

    McDowell uses the phrase ‘passive occurrences in which conceptual capacities are drawn into operation’ to indicate that this is not an active exercising of conceptual capacities (1994: p. 22, see also Ibid: 31).

  31. 31.

    Kelly has a different explanation of why the ability for re-identification is essential to demonstrative concept possession, that is not dependent on memory (see Kelly 2001a: pp. 403–409).

  32. 32.

    For further discussion of fineness of grain see Coliva (2003: pp. 57–70).

  33. 33.

    Luntley (2003: p. 404) (see also Gunther 2003: pp. 14–15).

  34. 34.

    See Burke (2015) and Kant (2011).

  35. 35.

    See Mendelovici (2014: pp. 135–157).

  36. 36.

    See Blackburn (1985).

  37. 37.

    See McDowell (1985: pp. 210–216) and Johnston (2001: pp. 181–214).

  38. 38.

    I thank an anonymous referee at Synthese for pressing me to consider these responses.

  39. 39.

    Sonia Sedivy similarly objects to Peacocke’s account of non-conceptual content and its reason-giving role (see Peacocke 1992: Ch. 3 and Sedivy 1996: p. 428). However, one of the conditions on non-conceptual content specified here is failure of cognitive significance. So, when Sedivy says ‘nonconceptual contents clearly do not figure in experience at the first-person perspective since at that perspective they are without use, the thinker by definition has no capacities with respect to them’ (Ibid: 428), this is only a problem for non-conceptualist views committed to cognitive significance for those contents. The response is to ask why we are not justified in positing personal level non-conceptual contents at present ‘without use’ for the subject (first exposure affective-evaluative experiences are one example of this—see Sect. 5).

  40. 40.

    This contrasts with cases of blindsight, where the subject might deny they possess non-inferential knowledge of the object of their experience (see Poellner 2003: p. 44).

  41. 41.

    See Roskies (2008: pp. 633–659) for a development of this learning argument in the standard- sense perceptual case—my discussion echoes points made there (see also Peacocke 2001: pp. 252–253). Such learning is not possible for unconscious representations at the subpersonal level.

  42. 42.

    Roskies (2008: p. 643).

  43. 43.

    I thank an anonymous referee at Synthese for pressing me on these points.

  44. 44.

    See Martin (1992: pp. 753–759). One difference between the argument presented here and Martin’s argument for non-conceptual content (aside from being about different kinds of experiences) is that my argument does not turn on a subject’s failure to notice a distinct appearance in the original perceptual experience, but a subject’s experiential awareness of unfamiliarity, which pervades first exposure experiences.

  45. 45.

    For discussion see Bermudez (1994: pp. 402–418). This raises a question about the possibility of cases of affective-evaluative experience where one does not possess the necessary means to conceptualize the experience itself, rather than just a property the experience represents. If there could be affective-evaluative experiences which satisfy the ‘autonomy thesis’ in this way, in which the subject had no conceptual capacities in play at all—even those very minimal ones of an ‘experience’ or primitive first-personal indexical concepts—it is likely the experience would not just be unfamiliar to them, but rather incomprehensible. It is difficult to say much about such cases given any conceptually articulate, introspective, report of them, would be, ex hypothesi, impossible, nonetheless they are interesting. My intuition would be that since introspective attention requires the deployment of conceptual capacities (minimally that one is having an experience of some kind), then in such cases introspection would necessarily fail, or not be possible, rather than their being any higher-order non-conceptual representations in play.

  46. 46.

    See Poellner (2003: pp. 32–57) (Section 3), for one such strategy, which draws on the intentional modes—not specified in terms of content—of ‘lived experience’ as motivating a case for non-conceptualism.

  47. 47.

    See also Roskies (2008: pp. 633–659).

  48. 48.

    See Crane (1988: pp. 142–147); Luntley (2003: pp. 402–426).

  49. 49.

    Affective-evaluative experiences of the ‘uncanny’ (if this an evaluative property) might be a related case. However, on the Freudian analysis, such experiences involve some (perhaps vague) sense of repetition or familiarity (in neurotic cases leading to repetition compulsion), while at the same time involving dissociation in relation to what is seemingly familiar. A detailed discussion is beyond my scope here, although the sense of non-conceptual content developed in Sects. 4.2 and 4.3 is not co-extensive with any affective-evaluative experience one finds ‘troubling’ or peculiar.

  50. 50.

    Deonna and Cova (2014: pp. 447–466).

  51. 51.

    Ibid: 456.

  52. 52.

    Martin (1992: p. 753).


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I am thankful to Peter Poellner, Hemdat Lerman, two anonymous reviewers from Synthese, and to audiences at University of Bath, University of Liege, and University of Warwick, for their constructive criticism and comments on previous versions of the paper.

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Mitchell, J. On the non-conceptual content of affective-evaluative experience. Synthese 197, 3087–3111 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1872-y

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  • Non-conceptual
  • Content
  • Affective
  • Evaluative
  • Conceptual