Skip to main content

Cognitive Architecture and the Epistemic Gap: Defending Physicalism without Phenomenal Concepts


The novel approach presented in this paper accounts for the occurrence of the epistemic gap and defends physicalism against anti-physicalist arguments without relying on so-called phenomenal concepts. Instead of concentrating on conceptual features, the focus is shifted to the special characteristics of experiences themselves. To this extent, the account provided is an alternative to the Phenomenal Concept Strategy. It is argued that certain sensory representations, as accessed by higher cognition, lack constituent structure. Unstructured representations could freely exchange their causal roles within a given system which entails their functional unanalysability. These features together with the encapsulated nature of low level complex processes giving rise to unstructured sensory representations readily explain those peculiarities of phenomenal consciousness which are usually taken to pose a serious problem for contemporary physicalism. I conclude that if those concepts which are related to the phenomenal character of conscious experience are special in any way, their characteristics are derivative of and can be accounted for in terms of the cognitive and representational features introduced in the present paper.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Biederman, I. (1987). Recognition-by-components: a theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review, 94, 115–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chalmers, D. (1996). The conscious mind: in search of a fundamental theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chalmers, D. (2003). Consciousness and its place in nature. In S. Stich & T. Warfield (Eds.), Blackwell guide to the philosophy of mind (pp. 102–142). Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fodor, J. (1987). Why there still has to be a language of thought. In J. Fodor (Ed.), Psychosemantics (pp. 135–154). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fodor, J. (1998). Concepts. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Fodor, J. (2008). LOT2—The language of thought revisited. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, F. (1982). Epiphenomenal Qualia. Philosophical Quarterly, 32, 127–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary Didn't Know. The Journal of Philosophy, 83, 291–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levine, J. (1983). Materialism and Qualia: the explanatory gap. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 354–361.

    Google Scholar 

  • Loar, B. (1990). Phenomenal states. In J. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical perspectives (pp. 81–108). Northridge: Ridgeview Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Margolis, E. (1999). How to acquire a concept. In E. Margolis & S. Laurence (Eds.), Concepts: core readings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marr, D. (1982). Vision. A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. New York: Freeman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nida-Rümelin, M. (1996). What Mary couldn't know. In T. Metzinger (Ed.), Phenomenal consciousness. Schoenigh: Paderborn.

    Google Scholar 

  • Papineau, D. (2002). Thinking about consciousness. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Pylyshyn, Z. (2002). Mental imagery: in search of a theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25(2), 157–237.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pylyshyn, Z. (2003). Seeing and visualizing: it's not what you think. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Bradford Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (1981). The Inverted Spectrum. Journal of Philosophy, 74(7), 357–381.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. D. (2010). Disjunctivism and Illusion. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 80(2), 384–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stoljar, D. (2005). Physicalism and Phenomenal Concepts. Mind and Language, 20, 469–494.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The present paper is an outcome of a collaboration with Zoltán Jakab. I am grateful to the University of Edinburgh College of Humanities and Social Sciences Scholarship and the Eötvös Scholarship from the Hungarian State for their generous support. Thanks to Jonas Christensen, Jesper Kallestrup, Andy Clark and an anonymous referee for their helpful comments. Special thanks to the organisers of the 2010 Rudolf Carnap Lecture and Graduate Workshop.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Fazekas.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fazekas, P. Cognitive Architecture and the Epistemic Gap: Defending Physicalism without Phenomenal Concepts. Philosophia 39, 21–29 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: