Friday, May 05, 2006

Is There an Experience of Thinking?

Think of the Prince of Wales. Now consider: Was there anything it was like to have such a thought? Maybe you formed a visual image of the Prince, or you heard the words "Prince Charles" in inner speech? Neither of these is tantamount to thinking of the Prince of Wales: You might have the visual image while thinking about someone else with similar looks (the Prince's twin, say, if he had one). You might have that bit of inner speech while thinking of someone else named Prince Charles.

So consider, again, whether there was anything in particular it was like to think about Prince Charles -- some conscious experience particular to that thought, not reducible to inner speech or visual imagery (though perhaps involving them as a part)? If you're like me, you'll find the answer to that question non-obvious. I'm not sure whether there's something it's like to have that thought, whether there is a distinctive phenomenology of cognition. Philosophers and psychologists who have considered the question have gone different ways on it. Most recently, Pitt and Siewert and Horgan have defended the existence of a distinctive phenomenology of thought, while Robinson (following perhaps the dominant trend historically) has denied that there's any distinctive phenomenology apart from imagery and maybe vague feelings of various sorts.

Now, isn't it a bit weird and surprising that this question should be so difficult to answer? After all, on standard philosophical (and commonsense) views of self-knowledge, we have excellent, privileged, perhaps even infallible access to our own currently ongoing conscious experience or phenomenology. What, it seems, could be easier than noting whether there's a distinctive phenomenology of thought or not? If there is such a phenomenology, how could we miss it? If there isn't, how could one reflect and come to think there is -- that is, invent an entire category of conscious experiences that simply don't exist?

You might say: There's no dispute about the experience. The phenomenology itself is obvious. The only dispute is about how to label or categorize the experience. Yet I don't think that's how the disputants see it. And it doesn't seem that way to me, when I reflect. I don't feel that I'm just puzzled about words. The very experience itself seems, to me, difficult to think about, understand, lay a hold of.

And yet it's so close, so immediate, so constant, so readily available, one might think....

No comments: