Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Epistemic and Phenomenal Consciousness

The term "conscious" is ambiguous between an epistemic and a phenomenal sense (as I'll explain shortly). So is the term "awareness". And "appears". And (in certain strained uses at least) "seems". There's a pattern here, a suspicious pattern. What's behind it?

First, the phenomenon. "Appears" is the clearest case, so let's start there. Sometimes we use the phrase "it appears to me that _____" simply to express a judgment -- a hedged judgment of a sort -- with no phenomenological implications whatsoever, that is, no implications about what's going on in one's stream of experience. If I say, "It appears to me that the Democrats are headed for defeat", ordinarily I'm merely expressing my opinion about the Democrats' prospects. I'm not attributing to myself any particular kind of conscious experience. I'm not claiming to have an image, say, of defeated Democrats, or to hear the word "defeat" ringing in my head. In contrast, if I'm looking at an illusion in a vision science textbook and I say that the top line "appears" longer, I'm not expressing any sort of judgment about the line. I know perfectly well it's not longer. I'm making, instead, it seems, a claim about my phenomenology, my visual experience.

Similarly, although the primary use of "conscious" in contemporary Anglophone philosophy is phenomenological, pertaining to the stream of experience, there's a secondary use of "conscious" in ordinary language that is more epistemic in character, on which to be "conscious" of some fact is more or less just to know it. A child becomes "conscious" of her race, and hippies seek to "raise consciousness" primarily in this epistemic sense. I am epistemically conscious of the time when I'm in a rush, even if I'm not phenomenally conscious of the time during most of my rushing around -- that is, even if I don't often (or even at all) have phenomenally experienced conscious thoughts about the time.

"Awareness" trends the other direction, with the dominant sense being epistemic and the secondary sense phenomenal. If I am aware of something, in the dominant sense, I know it. However, people sometimes use the word "awareness" to refer to the stream of experience, as when Hurlburt asks "What was in your awareness?" as a way of asking about what was being experienced.

Finally, "seems" has an epistemic use very much like "appears", but philosophers sometimes speak of "seemings" with, evidently, the intention to pick out facts about phenomenology.

Not all terms referring to consciousness are ambiguous in this way, but enough are to justify a demand for explanation.

One possibility is that consciousness has an epistemic and phenomenal aspect and these two are intimately tied. Perhaps we are always (epistemically) conscious of our (phenomenal) consciousness (as suggested by Brentano, Rosenthal, Lycan, Kriegel, and others). This might account for the blurring of the two senses in ordinary and philosophical language. Yet it would do so, I think, not in quite the right way: The epistemic/phenomenal ambiguity is not an ambiguity between having experience and being aware of that experience, the two properties that Brentano and company think travel always together. Rather, it's an ambiguity between having experience and being aware of something else, something other than the experience itself, something in the outside world.

My preferred explanation takes "looks" as a clue. "Looks" is, in fact, another term arguably with both an epistemic and phenomenal sense. Blind people use "looks". I can say that it looks bad for the Democrats or that it looks like Helen will get tenure, with no visual implications whatsoever. But, perhaps unlike the other cases, a certain etymological story is very inviting. Here's the story: Because one of the main ways we know about the world is by looking at it, we extend the visual sense of "looks" to cover other cases in which we know about something -- though the explicit reference to how things "look" hints toward the fact that appearances are sometimes misleading. The metaphor then dries out and becomes literal or almost so.

The most salient and dominant form of consciousness is sensory consciousness -- visual experience, auditory experience, tactile experience, etc. -- and when we have sensory experience of something, we generally learn about that thing. I hypothesize that, as with "looks", we metaphorically extend terms referring to sensory consciousness to general epistemic uses, and then these metaphors dry out. We bridge back in the other direction too: Terms for knowledge can start to become terms for sensory consciousness, including in the etymology of "conscious" itself (from "con" together + "sci" knowing).

Philosophers and psychologists sometimes slide between the epistemic and phenomenal senses of these terms -- as, for example, when psychologists unselfconsciously leap from conclusions about awareness in the epistemic sense (can a subject report a stimulus) to conclusions about phenomenal consciousness (was a sensation of that stimulus part of the stream of experience). And those who accept Brentanian or higher-order theories of consciousness, theories that link epistemic awareness and phenomenal conscious tightly together, are cheating if they try to defend their theory by appeal to a dry (and in this case slightly misapplied) metaphor.


Michael Metzler said...


This appears (or looks, perhaps seems even) right to me. Very helpful analysis. Although, I am not so sure metaphors of this sort "dry out", but rather remain apart of the mapping within our conceptual system (L & J). Likewise, I am not sure about a hard distinction between judgment/knowing that/linguistic assertion and our unconscious (and conscious) imagination (L). If words are merely cues for creative, on-line meaning construction (Coulson, 2001) - something I think you agree with - then there is no meaning contained within a 'proposition' underlying the linguistic item. Therefore, the epistemic and phenomenal line seems - to me - to almost vanish (I am pretty sure I just envisioned something like a line vanishing, albeit mostly unconsciously). Have you not here in this entry provided a good deal of evidence for just this - when interpreted a certain way? After all, as this entry appeared right to me, there were all sorts of conceptual blending, latent images, simulations, and activation of conceptual metaphors going on - mostly unconscious, but not completely. No content boxes containing propositions in my head, and therefore no direct propositional judgments tracking the pure linguistic forms of your entry. No?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael! I do think metaphors dry out. "Bank" used to mean table (I think) and was metaphorically extended to financial institutions (the money trader's table) and the shelf at the side of a river; obviously there is no metaphorical sense of table left in the word now though; there must have been a gradual transition. Hence, there are drier and juicier metaphors.

I'm not sure that the collapse of the epistemic and phenomenal senses of these terms follows on your picture. Wouldn't it just be two different *phenomenal* senses?

Michael Metzler said...


Thanks. I agree that linguistic metaphors dry out, but the systematic mapping between domains of visual appearance and knowledge that you provide seems to evidence a conceptual metaphor: Knowing is Seeing (L&J). I do not see an important story of etymology to be told, since any given language user does not move on from talk of immediate awareness to discovering metaphorical, novel ways to talk about understanding and knowledge. I think the philosophical arguments for conceptual metaphor are persuasive enough, but there has also been a good deal of confirming experiments. Similarly, I do not know what a "fact" is as you are here using the word. If sensory-motor mechanisms that provide conscious and unconscious simulation are employed as meaning generators cued by linguistic stimuli, then the Proposition is dead, followed by the ontology of fact. This is not to say I do not agree with your criticism of sliding between epistemic and phenomenal senses of these terms.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael: You don't think conceptual metaphors dry out, too? L&J talk about argument as battle, which makes a lot of sense but is pretty dry still, I think, in most uses. Same with knowing is seeing. When someone says, "See, listen to this transition from the major to the minor key" and I reply, "Yes, I see now", that's pretty dry. As Pinker argues, it's not clear how much our cognition is really limited or shaped by these half-dry metaphors. I think it needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Michael Metzler said...


Well, I would want to emphasize that conceptual metaphors are not literally metaphors, i.e. linguistic metaphors. ARGUMENT IS BATTLE is capitalized, often, to keep this distinction. This conceptual metaphor is merely evidenced by miriads of lingustic metaphors, such as 'I slaughtered Eric on this go around', as well as independent experimental results (the Situationsist has recently linked to a summary of some of these results in the media). One approach here is to say that our language is filled with what appear on the surface as mere dead metaphors; but saying that these systematic, ubigiutous dry or dead metaphors are just dry or dead does not explain their existence, nor give traditional philosophy a get out of jail card when it comes to a theory of language that cannot explain linguistic metaphor (novel or dead) - which comprises a large percentage of our language. Conceptual metaphor theory explains their existence and much much more.

But the theory is only 30 years old, and so not yet very wildly explored.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I completely agree, Michael, that metaphor is at the heart of language, has unrecognized power to influence our thinking, and is generally not very well handled by traditional approaches to philosophy of language! So two cheers. I withhold the third because I think the point *can* be overplayed.