Monday, August 06, 2007

Introspection and consciousness (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

One of the deepest disagreements about consciousness is whether the subjective character of experience is exhausted by its intentional content or whether it also has an intrinsic, non-representational component. The latter view is the traditional one, but it has come under attack in recent years from first-order representational theorists, such as Fred Dretske and Michael Tye.

Now, you would think this dispute would be easy to settle. The putative intrinsic properties of experience are very different from the properties of external objects represented in experience. The reddishness (to use Joseph Levine's term) of an experience of a red apple is a very different property from the redness of the apple itself. And if our experiences have these distinctive non-representational properties, then surely introspection should reveal this to us. (Indeed it's not clear that anything else could reveal it.)

This invites a bit of experimental philosophy, so I ran an informal survey on the philosophy discussion lists at the Open University. I asked people to pay close attention to their perceptual experiences and say whether, when they did so, they were (a) aware only of properties of the objects of the experiences, or (b) aware both of properties of the objects of the experiences and of properties of the experiences themselves. Twenty-two people replied, of whom five said (a), ten said (b), and seven objected to the way the question was posed. (Four respondents said the answer was sometimes (a) and sometimes (b), so I counted them as a half member of each of those camps.) From their comments, it appeared that some people were answering (b) because they were aware of feelings and reactions associated with their perceptual experiences, so I re-ran the survey stressing that participants should ignore such associations and focus on the character of the experiences themselves. In the event, this seemed to make little difference. Fourteen people replied, of whom three said (a), six said (b), and five questioned the question.)

Now, of course, this wasn't a serious piece of research, but the results are interesting all the same – both because of the number of people who rejected the question and because of the disagreement among those who accepted it. Why should people reject the question? Either experiences possess non–representational properties or they don't, and introspection should be the best, if not the only, way to find out. And assuming people don't have radically different inner lives, how could they differ as to the answer to the question? If experiences of red things possess reddishness, then how could even a minimally attentive introspector miss the fact? And if they don’t, then how could introspection lead us to think they do?

Of course, I'm being a bit disingenuous here. I think that introspective reports are heavily theory-laden, so I wasn't surprised by the results. But the results ought to be surprising, I think, on a very common view of consciousness, which takes the nature of the phenomenon to be an unproblematic given. ('If you have to ask, you ain't never gonna know.') What would Jackson's Mary say, I wonder, if she knew that people on the outside had such differing views about what could be learned from introspection?


Anonymous said...


Nice post.

About a year ago, I similarly informally polled people on a similar pair of questions, with similar results. Check out the posts and comments at the following two links: @Brains; @Brain Hammer

I think this lack of agreement among the folk spells trouble for all sorts of projects.

Dan Cavedon-Taylor said...

Hi Keith,

That's pretty interesting. Like yourself, I don't think the results are all that surprising though, and not just because of theory-ladenness. I mean, haven't both views of phenomenal experience, at one time or another, been put forward on purely phenomenological grounds?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the links. I think it's interesting, not only that people have different intuitions, but also that it's quite hard (at least without the use of intuition pumps) to get them to focus on what's supposed to be the key issue.

It would be good to have some serious psychological research on how people respond to differently phrased questions about the nature of experience.


Thanks for your comment. Indeed both views have been put forward as obvious from introspection -- sometimes by different time-slices of the same person!