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When nothing looks blue

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A Correction to this article was published on 24 June 2021

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Pitt (Analysis 77(4):735–741, 2017) has argued that reductive representationalism entails an absurdity akin to the “paramechanical hypothesis” Ryle (The concept of mind, Hutchinson, London, 1949) attributed to Descartes. This paper focuses on one version of reductive representationalism: the property-complex theory. We contend that at least insofar as the property-complex theory goes, Pitt is wrong. The result is not just a response to Pitt, but also a clarification of the aims and structure of the property-complex theory.

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  1. As Pitt notes, whether Descartes actually held this view is irrelevant. We take no stance on the historical question here.

  2. Property-complexes, being constituted by ordinary physical properties, can be represented unconsciously. Hence why there is a need for a ‘right sort’ clause: only perceptual representations of the right sort constitute conscious experiences. While this is not essential to the PC theory itself, at least in Tye’s case, the relevant condition is that of the representation’s playing the right functional role (Tye 2014b, p. 86; cf. Tye 2000, pp. 62–63).

  3. Johnston (2004) qualifies as a property-complex theorist absent this second condition, since he denies that experiences represent.

  4. Pitt (2017, p. 738) contends that non-reductive representationalism does not face the challenges of RR, since on that view, when S has a HE as of a blue ball, the phenomenal properties that characterize S’s experience are instantiated by the experience itself. Developing non-reductive representationalism as a positive proposal is neither Pitts focus, nor is engaging with it in any meaningful way our focus here. However, if non-reductive representationalism is motivated by the purported failure of RR to adequately address hallucination, then we suggest that this motivation is merely apparent.

  5. Here we are focused on total hallucinations.

  6. Disjunctivism is a big tent. Some forms of disjunctivism classify illusions with VE’s, and some classify illusions with HE’s. Some give wholly negative treatments of HE (Martin 2006), while some give more substantive, positive account of hallucination (Logue 2013). These distinctions are irrelevant for present purposes.

  7. On the PC theory, the fact that things seem \(\varphi \) to S is just a matter of S being in a state that represents (e.g.) B. Yet \(\varphi \), i.e. how things seem to S the phenomenal character of S’s experience is just B itself.

  8. We are bracketing so-called veridical hallucinations.

  9. Although see fn. 12.

  10. Pitt says that [In HE’s] theres no place to put the property (2017, p. 737, our emphasis). We assume what he means is that the property is not locally instantiated. After all, in the case of any of the properties that in principle can be experienced, their instantiation is coextensive with them being spatiotemporally located.

  11. Pitt (2017, p. 739) floats the idea that PC theory might just collapse into a form of disjunctivism, but he thinks disjunctivism is itself untenable.

  12. What about P2? As it happens, Tye grants it:

    [I]t is a mistake to model our awareness of qualities on our awareness of particulars. When we see particulars they look various qualities but the qualities themselves do not look any way (2006, note 20)

    But it is not clear that the PC theorist must grant P2. We have been supposing that properties are universals. It is standardly assumed that properties so construed do not instantiate themselves. However, on some trope-theoretic approaches to properties (e.g., Garcia 2015), properties can instantiate themselves. Sethi (2020) argues that this metaphysical picture allows us to make sense of the idea that in hallucination there is some x that seems some way to S—a trope. So if we marry a RR approach to perceptual experience with a trope-theoretic account of properties (e.g. Nanay 2012), we then can evade Pitt’s argument by rejecting P2. This is why we described P2 as “relatively innocuous” as opposed to simply innocuous: it is potentially tenable, but it relies on a controversial view of properties. Of course, every theory of perceptual experience inevitably embraces something controversial, but since we don’t see rejecting P2 as the PC theorist’s considered move, we set it aside here.

  13. Many thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing something very much like this worry.

  14. Again, nothing here provides independent reasons—i.e. reasons independent of the PC theory—for thinking that instantiation has no phenomenal import. But once more, Pitt does not provide reasons for the contrary position either. So our point simply pertains to how phenomenal particularity might bear on these matters. That said, we think Johnston’s mimicry strategy is better than other moves on the market. For instance, Christopher Hill (2019) endorses existentialism (alternatively, ‘generalism’), where experiences have descriptive propositions as their content. On Hill’s variant, these descriptions are very fine-grained and highly determinate, which is what explains phenomenal particularity (Ibid, p. 14). It would be unwise, though, for the PC theorist to co-opt this move. Take peripheral and blurry vision. In the former, we represent coarse-grained properties (e.g. blue, not blue\(_{63}\)); in the latter, we represent highly indeterminate boundaries. Yet in both cases our experiences have phenomenal particularity. What’s diminished is their ‘vividness’ (Bourget 2017) or presentational character (Gottlieb 2018). This is the obvious but hard to articulate sense in which, unlike pure thought, perceptual experiences seem to make their objects directly there. So Hill’s proposal fails as it confuses phenomenal particularity with presentational character. The latter is gradable—experiences in peripheral vision present their objects less vividly than those in foveal vision—but the former is not.


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Correspondence to Joseph Gottlieb or Ali Rezaei.

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The original publication has been corrected. Prime marks were missing in several instances and these have been added to the following sentences: In P3a’, ‘it’ is non-referential. It does not refer to some x such that x is raining it does commit us to saying that \(\exists x(Rx)\). In P3b’, there is some x such that x is blue. In this way, P3b’ tracks P3b.

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Gottlieb, J., Rezaei, A. When nothing looks blue. Synthese 199, 2553–2561 (2021).

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