Phenomenal Character Definition Essay

1. What is Phenomenology?

Phenomenology is commonly understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy, or as a movement in the history of philosophy.

The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. This field of philosophy is then to be distinguished from, and related to, the other main fields of philosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (the study of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (the study of right and wrong action), etc.

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy—as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology. The methods and characterization of the discipline were widely debated by Husserl and his successors, and these debates continue to the present day. (The definition of phenomenology offered above will thus be debatable, for example, by Heideggerians, but it remains the starting point in characterizing the discipline.)

In recent philosophy of mind, the term “phenomenology” is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc.: what it is like to have sensations of various kinds. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. Accordingly, in the phenomenological tradition, phenomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our “life-world”.

Phenomenology as a discipline has been central to the tradition of continental European philosophy throughout the 20th century, while philosophy of mind has evolved in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy that developed throughout the 20th century. Yet the fundamental character of our mental activity is pursued in overlapping ways within these two traditions. Accordingly, the perspective on phenomenology drawn in this article will accommodate both traditions. The main concern here will be to characterize the discipline of phenomenology, in a contemporary purview, while also highlighting the historical tradition that brought the discipline into its own.

Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something. According to classical Husserlian phenomenology, our experience is directed toward—represents or “intends”—things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean.

The basic intentional structure of consciousness, we find in reflection or analysis, involves further forms of experience. Thus, phenomenology develops a complex account of temporal awareness (within the stream of consciousness), spatial awareness (notably in perception), attention (distinguishing focal and marginal or “horizonal” awareness), awareness of one’s own experience (self-consciousness, in one sense), self-awareness (awareness-of-oneself), the self in different roles (as thinking, acting, etc.), embodied action (including kinesthetic awareness of one’s movement), purpose or intention in action (more or less explicit), awareness of other persons (in empathy, intersubjectivity, collectivity), linguistic activity (involving meaning, communication, understanding others), social interaction (including collective action), and everyday activity in our surrounding life-world (in a particular culture).

Furthermore, in a different dimension, we find various grounds or enabling conditions—conditions of the possibility—of intentionality, including embodiment, bodily skills, cultural context, language and other social practices, social background, and contextual aspects of intentional activities. Thus, phenomenology leads from conscious experience into conditions that help to give experience its intentionality. Traditional phenomenology has focused on subjective, practical, and social conditions of experience. Recent philosophy of mind, however, has focused especially on the neural substrate of experience, on how conscious experience and mental representation or intentionality are grounded in brain activity. It remains a difficult question how much of these grounds of experience fall within the province of phenomenology as a discipline. Cultural conditions thus seem closer to our experience and to our familiar self-understanding than do the electrochemical workings of our brain, much less our dependence on quantum-mechanical states of physical systems to which we may belong. The cautious thing to say is that phenomenology leads in some ways into at least some background conditions of our experience.

2. The Discipline of Phenomenology

The discipline of phenomenology is defined by its domain of study, its methods, and its main results.

Phenomenology studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from the first-person point of view, along with relevant conditions of experience. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, the way it is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world.

We all experience various types of experience including perception, imagination, thought, emotion, desire, volition, and action. Thus, the domain of phenomenology is the range of experiences including these types (among others). Experience includes not only relatively passive experience as in vision or hearing, but also active experience as in walking or hammering a nail or kicking a ball. (The range will be specific to each species of being that enjoys consciousness; our focus is on our own, human, experience. Not all conscious beings will, or will be able to, practice phenomenology, as we do.)

Conscious experiences have a unique feature: we experience them, we live through them or perform them. Other things in the world we may observe and engage. But we do not experience them, in the sense of living through or performing them. This experiential or first-person feature—that of being experienced—is an essential part of the nature or structure of conscious experience: as we say, “I see / think / desire / do …” This feature is both a phenomenological and an ontological feature of each experience: it is part of what it is for the experience to be experienced (phenomenological) and part of what it is for the experience to be (ontological).

How shall we study conscious experience? We reflect on various types of experiences just as we experience them. That is to say, we proceed from the first-person point of view. However, we do not normally characterize an experience at the time we are performing it. In many cases we do not have that capability: a state of intense anger or fear, for example, consumes all of one’s psychic focus at the time. Rather, we acquire a background of having lived through a given type of experience, and we look to our familiarity with that type of experience: hearing a song, seeing a sunset, thinking about love, intending to jump a hurdle. The practice of phenomenology assumes such familiarity with the type of experiences to be characterized. Importantly, also, it is types of experience that phenomenology pursues, rather than a particular fleeting experience—unless its type is what interests us.

Classical phenomenologists practiced some three distinguishable methods. (1) We describe a type of experience just as we find it in our own (past) experience. Thus, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty spoke of pure description of lived experience. (2) We interpret a type of experience by relating it to relevant features of context. In this vein, Heidegger and his followers spoke of hermeneutics, the art of interpretation in context, especially social and linguistic context. (3) We analyze the form of a type of experience. In the end, all the classical phenomenologists practiced analysis of experience, factoring out notable features for further elaboration.

These traditional methods have been ramified in recent decades, expanding the methods available to phenomenology. Thus: (4) In a logico-semantic model of phenomenology, we specify the truth conditions for a type of thinking (say, where I think that dogs chase cats) or the satisfaction conditions for a type of intention (say, where I intend or will to jump that hurdle). (5) In the experimental paradigm of cognitive neuroscience, we design empirical experiments that tend to confirm or refute aspects of experience (say, where a brain scan shows electrochemical activity in a specific region of the brain thought to subserve a type of vision or emotion or motor control). This style of “neurophenomenology” assumes that conscious experience is grounded in neural activity in embodied action in appropriate surroundings—mixing pure phenomenology with biological and physical science in a way that was not wholly congenial to traditional phenomenologists.

What makes an experience conscious is a certain awareness one has of the experience while living through or performing it. This form of inner awareness has been a topic of considerable debate, centuries after the issue arose with Locke’s notion of self-consciousness on the heels of Descartes’ sense of consciousness (conscience, co-knowledge). Does this awareness-of-experience consist in a kind of inner observation of the experience, as if one were doing two things at once? (Brentano argued no.) Is it a higher-order perception of one’s mind’s operation, or is it a higher-order thought about one’s mental activity? (Recent theorists have proposed both.) Or is it a different form of inherent structure? (Sartre took this line, drawing on Brentano and Husserl.) These issues are beyond the scope of this article, but notice that these results of phenomenological analysis shape the characterization of the domain of study and the methodology appropriate to the domain. For awareness-of-experience is a defining trait of conscious experience, the trait that gives experience a first-person, lived character. It is that lived character of experience that allows a first-person perspective on the object of study, namely, experience, and that perspective is characteristic of the methodology of phenomenology.

Conscious experience is the starting point of phenomenology, but experience shades off into less overtly conscious phenomena. As Husserl and others stressed, we are only vaguely aware of things in the margin or periphery of attention, and we are only implicitly aware of the wider horizon of things in the world around us. Moreover, as Heidegger stressed, in practical activities like walking along, or hammering a nail, or speaking our native tongue, we are not explicitly conscious of our habitual patterns of action. Furthermore, as psychoanalysts have stressed, much of our intentional mental activity is not conscious at all, but may become conscious in the process of therapy or interrogation, as we come to realize how we feel or think about something. We should allow, then, that the domain of phenomenology—our own experience—spreads out from conscious experience into semi-conscious and even unconscious mental activity, along with relevant background conditions implicitly invoked in our experience. (These issues are subject to debate; the point here is to open the door to the question of where to draw the boundary of the domain of phenomenology.)

To begin an elementary exercise in phenomenology, consider some typical experiences one might have in everyday life, characterized in the first person:

  • I see that fishing boat off the coast as dusk descends over the Pacific.
  • I hear that helicopter whirring overhead as it approaches the hospital.
  • I am thinking that phenomenology differs from psychology.
  • I wish that warm rain from Mexico were falling like last week.
  • I imagine a fearsome creature like that in my nightmare.
  • I intend to finish my writing by noon.
  • I walk carefully around the broken glass on the sidewalk.
  • I stroke a backhand cross-court with that certain underspin.
  • I am searching for the words to make my point in conversation.

Here are rudimentary characterizations of some familiar types of experience. Each sentence is a simple form of phenomenological description, articulating in everyday English the structure of the type of experience so described. The subject term “I” indicates the first-person structure of the experience: the intentionality proceeds from the subject. The verb indicates the type of intentional activity described: perception, thought, imagination, etc. Of central importance is the way that objects of awareness are presented or intended in our experiences, especially, the way we see or conceive or think about objects. The direct-object expression (“that fishing boat off the coast”) articulates the mode of presentation of the object in the experience: the content or meaning of the experience, the core of what Husserl called noema. In effect, the object-phrase expresses the noema of the act described, that is, to the extent that language has appropriate expressive power. The overall form of the given sentence articulates the basic form of intentionality in the experience: subject-act-content-object.

Rich phenomenological description or interpretation, as in Husserl, Merleau-Ponty et al., will far outrun such simple phenomenological descriptions as above. But such simple descriptions bring out the basic form of intentionality. As we interpret the phenomenological description further, we may assess the relevance of the context of experience. And we may turn to wider conditions of the possibility of that type of experience. In this way, in the practice of phenomenology, we classify, describe, interpret, and analyze structures of experiences in ways that answer to our own experience.

In such interpretive-descriptive analyses of experience, we immediately observe that we are analyzing familiar forms of consciousness, conscious experience of or about this or that. Intentionality is thus the salient structure of our experience, and much of phenomenology proceeds as the study of different aspects of intentionality. Thus, we explore structures of the stream of consciousness, the enduring self, the embodied self, and bodily action. Furthermore, as we reflect on how these phenomena work, we turn to the analysis of relevant conditions that enable our experiences to occur as they do, and to represent or intend as they do. Phenomenology then leads into analyses of conditions of the possibility of intentionality, conditions involving motor skills and habits, background social practices, and often language, with its special place in human affairs.

3. From Phenomena to Phenomenology

The Oxford English Dictionary presents the following definition: “Phenomenology. a. The science of phenomena as distinct from being (ontology). b. That division of any science which describes and classifies its phenomena. From the Greek phainomenon, appearance.” In philosophy, the term is used in the first sense, amid debates of theory and methodology. In physics and philosophy of science, the term is used in the second sense, albeit only occasionally.

In its root meaning, then, phenomenology is the study of phenomena: literally, appearances as opposed to reality. This ancient distinction launched philosophy as we emerged from Plato’s cave. Yet the discipline of phenomenology did not blossom until the 20th century and remains poorly understood in many circles of contemporary philosophy. What is that discipline? How did philosophy move from a root concept of phenomena to the discipline of phenomenology?

Originally, in the 18th century, “phenomenology” meant the theory of appearances fundamental to empirical knowledge, especially sensory appearances. The Latin term “Phenomenologia” was introduced by Christoph Friedrich Oetinger in 1736. Subsequently, the German term “Phänomenologia” was used by Johann Heinrich Lambert, a follower of Christian Wolff. Immanuel Kant used the term occasionally in various writings, as did Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In 1807, G. W. F. Hegel wrote a book titled Phänomenologie des Geistes (usually translated as Phenomenology of Spirit). By 1889 Franz Brentano used the term to characterize what he called “descriptive psychology”. From there Edmund Husserl took up the term for his new science of consciousness, and the rest is history.

Suppose we say phenomenology studies phenomena: what appears to us—and its appearing. How shall we understand phenomena? The term has a rich history in recent centuries, in which we can see traces of the emerging discipline of phenomenology.

In a strict empiricist vein, what appears before the mind are sensory data or qualia: either patterns of one’s own sensations (seeing red here now, feeling this ticklish feeling, hearing that resonant bass tone) or sensible patterns of worldly things, say, the looks and smells of flowers (what John Locke called secondary qualities of things). In a strict rationalist vein, by contrast, what appears before the mind are ideas, rationally formed “clear and distinct ideas” (in René Descartes’ ideal). In Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge, fusing rationalist and empiricist aims, what appears to the mind are phenomena defined as things-as-they-appear or things-as-they-are-represented (in a synthesis of sensory and conceptual forms of objects-as-known). In Auguste Comte’s theory of science, phenomena (phenomenes) are the facts (faits, what occurs) that a given science would explain.

In 18th and 19th century epistemology, then, phenomena are the starting points in building knowledge, especially science. Accordingly, in a familiar and still current sense, phenomena are whatever we observe (perceive) and seek to explain.

As the discipline of psychology emerged late in the 19th century, however, phenomena took on a somewhat different guise. In Franz Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874), phenomena are what occur in the mind: mental phenomena are acts of consciousness (or their contents), and physical phenomena are objects of external perception starting with colors and shapes. For Brentano, physical phenomena exist “intentionally” in acts of consciousness. This view revives a Medieval notion Brentano called “intentional in-existence”, but the ontology remains undeveloped (what is it to exist in the mind, and do physical objects exist only in the mind?). More generally, we might say, phenomena are whatever we are conscious of: objects and events around us, other people, ourselves, even (in reflection) our own conscious experiences, as we experience these. In a certain technical sense, phenomena are things as they are given to our consciousness, whether in perception or imagination or thought or volition. This conception of phenomena would soon inform the new discipline of phenomenology.

Brentano distinguished descriptive psychology from genetic psychology. Where genetic psychology seeks the causes of various types of mental phenomena, descriptive psychology defines and classifies the various types of mental phenomena, including perception, judgment, emotion, etc. According to Brentano, every mental phenomenon, or act of consciousness, is directed toward some object, and only mental phenomena are so directed. This thesis of intentional directedness was the hallmark of Brentano’s descriptive psychology. In 1889 Brentano used the term “phenomenology” for descriptive psychology, and the way was paved for Husserl’s new science of phenomenology.

Phenomenology as we know it was launched by Edmund Husserl in his Logical Investigations (1900–01). Two importantly different lines of theory came together in that monumental work: psychological theory, on the heels of Franz Brentano (and also William James, whose Principles of Psychology appeared in 1891 and greatly impressed Husserl); and logical or semantic theory, on the heels of Bernard Bolzano and Husserl’s contemporaries who founded modern logic, including Gottlob Frege. (Interestingly, both lines of research trace back to Aristotle, and both reached importantly new results in Husserl’s day.)

Husserl’s Logical Investigations was inspired by Bolzano’s ideal of logic, while taking up Brentano’s conception of descriptive psychology. In his Theory of Science (1835) Bolzano distinguished between subjective and objective ideas or representations (Vorstellungen). In effect Bolzano criticized Kant and before him the classical empiricists and rationalists for failing to make this sort of distinction, thereby rendering phenomena merely subjective. Logic studies objective ideas, including propositions, which in turn make up objective theories as in the sciences. Psychology would, by contrast, study subjective ideas, the concrete contents (occurrences) of mental activities in particular minds at a given time. Husserl was after both, within a single discipline. So phenomena must be reconceived as objective intentional contents (sometimes called intentional objects) of subjective acts of consciousness. Phenomenology would then study this complex of consciousness and correlated phenomena. In Ideas I (Book One, 1913) Husserl introduced two Greek words to capture his version of the Bolzanoan distinction: noesis and noema, from the Greek verb noéō (νοέω), meaning to perceive, think, intend, whence the noun nous or mind. The intentional process of consciousness is called noesis, while its ideal content is called noema. The noema of an act of consciousness Husserl characterized both as an ideal meaning and as “the object as intended”. Thus the phenomenon, or object-as-it-appears, becomes the noema, or object-as-it-is-intended. The interpretations of Husserl’s theory of noema have been several and amount to different developments of Husserl’s basic theory of intentionality. (Is the noema an aspect of the object intended, or rather a medium of intention?)

For Husserl, then, phenomenology integrates a kind of psychology with a kind of logic. It develops a descriptive or analytic psychology in that it describes and analyzes types of subjective mental activity or experience, in short, acts of consciousness. Yet it develops a kind of logic—a theory of meaning (today we say logical semantics)—in that it describes and analyzes objective contents of consciousness: ideas, concepts, images, propositions, in short, ideal meanings of various types that serve as intentional contents, or noematic meanings, of various types of experience. These contents are shareable by different acts of consciousness, and in that sense they are objective, ideal meanings. Following Bolzano (and to some extent the platonistic logician Hermann Lotze), Husserl opposed any reduction of logic or mathematics or science to mere psychology, to how people happen to think, and in the same spirit he distinguished phenomenology from mere psychology. For Husserl, phenomenology would study consciousness without reducing the objective and shareable meanings that inhabit experience to merely subjective happenstances. Ideal meaning would be the engine of intentionality in acts of consciousness.

A clear conception of phenomenology awaited Husserl’s development of a clear model of intentionality. Indeed, phenomenology and the modern concept of intentionality emerged hand-in-hand in Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1900–01). With theoretical foundations laid in the Investigations, Husserl would then promote the radical new science of phenomenology in Ideas I (1913). And alternative visions of phenomenology would soon follow.

4. The History and Varieties of Phenomenology

Phenomenology came into its own with Husserl, much as epistemology came into its own with Descartes, and ontology or metaphysics came into its own with Aristotle on the heels of Plato. Yet phenomenology has been practiced, with or without the name, for many centuries. When Hindu and Buddhist philosophers reflected on states of consciousness achieved in a variety of meditative states, they were practicing phenomenology. When Descartes, Hume, and Kant characterized states of perception, thought, and imagination, they were practicing phenomenology. When Brentano classified varieties of mental phenomena (defined by the directedness of consciousness), he was practicing phenomenology. When William James appraised kinds of mental activity in the stream of consciousness (including their embodiment and their dependence on habit), he too was practicing phenomenology. And when recent analytic philosophers of mind have addressed issues of consciousness and intentionality, they have often been practicing phenomenology. Still, the discipline of phenomenology, its roots tracing back through the centuries, came to full flower in Husserl.

Husserl’s work was followed by a flurry of phenomenological writing in the first half of the 20th century. The diversity of traditional phenomenology is apparent in the Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997, Dordrecht and Boston), which features separate articles on some seven types of phenomenology. (1) Transcendental constitutive phenomenology studies how objects are constituted in pure or transcendental consciousness, setting aside questions of any relation to the natural world around us. (2) Naturalistic constitutive phenomenology studies how consciousness constitutes or takes things in the world of nature, assuming with the natural attitude that consciousness is part of nature. (3) Existential phenomenology studies concrete human existence, including our experience of free choice or action in concrete situations. (4) Generative historicist phenomenology studies how meaning, as found in our experience, is generated in historical processes of collective experience over time. (5) Genetic phenomenology studies the genesis of meanings of things within one’s own stream of experience. (6) Hermeneutical phenomenology studies interpretive structures of experience, how we understand and engage things around us in our human world, including ourselves and others. (7) Realistic phenomenology studies the structure of consciousness and intentionality, assuming it occurs in a real world that is largely external to consciousness and not somehow brought into being by consciousness.

The most famous of the classical phenomenologists were Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. In these four thinkers we find different conceptions of phenomenology, different methods, and different results. A brief sketch of their differences will capture both a crucial period in the history of phenomenology and a sense of the diversity of the field of phenomenology.

In his Logical Investigations (1900–01) Husserl outlined a complex system of philosophy, moving from logic to philosophy of language, to ontology (theory of universals and parts of wholes), to a phenomenological theory of intentionality, and finally to a phenomenological theory of knowledge. Then in Ideas I (1913) he focused squarely on phenomenology itself. Husserl defined phenomenology as “the science of the essence of consciousness”, centered on the defining trait of intentionality, approached explicitly “in the first person”. (See Husserl, Ideas I, ¤¤33ff.) In this spirit, we may say phenomenology is the study of consciousness—that is, conscious experience of various types—as experienced from the first-person point of view. In this discipline we study different forms of experience just as we experience them, from the perspective of the subject living through or performing them. Thus, we characterize experiences of seeing, hearing, imagining, thinking, feeling (i.e., emotion), wishing, desiring, willing, and also acting, that is, embodied volitional activities of walking, talking, cooking, carpentering, etc. However, not just any characterization of an experience will do. Phenomenological analysis of a given type of experience will feature the ways in which we ourselves would experience that form of conscious activity. And the leading property of our familiar types of experience is their intentionality, their being a consciousness of or about something, something experienced or presented or engaged in a certain way. How I see or conceptualize or understand the object I am dealing with defines the meaning of that object in my current experience. Thus, phenomenology features a study of meaning, in a wide sense that includes more than what is expressed in language.

In Ideas I Husserl presented phenomenology with a transcendental turn. In part this means that Husserl took on the Kantian idiom of “transcendental idealism”, looking for conditions of the possibility of knowledge, or of consciousness generally, and arguably turning away from any reality beyond phenomena. But Husserl’s transcendental turn also involved his discovery of the method of epoché (from the Greek skeptics’ notion of abstaining from belief). We are to practice phenomenology, Husserl proposed, by “bracketing” the question of the existence of the natural world around us. We thereby turn our attention, in reflection, to the structure of our own conscious experience. Our first key result is the observation that each act of consciousness is a consciousness of something, that is, intentional, or directed toward something. Consider my visual experience wherein I see a tree across the square. In phenomenological reflection, we need not concern ourselves with whether the tree exists: my experience is of a tree whether or not such a tree exists. However, we do need to concern ourselves with how the object is meant or intended. I see a Eucalyptus tree, not a Yucca tree; I see that object as a Eucalyptus, with a certain shape, with bark stripping off, etc. Thus, bracketing the tree itself, we turn our attention to my experience of the tree, and specifically to the content or meaning in my experience. This tree-as-perceived Husserl calls the noema or noematic sense of the experience.

Philosophers succeeding Husserl debated the proper characterization of phenomenology, arguing over its results and its methods. Adolf Reinach, an early student of Husserl’s (who died in World War I), argued that phenomenology should remain allied with a realist ontology, as in Husserl’s Logical Investigations. Roman Ingarden, a Polish phenomenologist of the next generation, continued the resistance to Husserl’s turn to transcendental idealism. For such philosophers, phenomenology should not bracket questions of being or ontology, as the method of epoché would suggest. And they were not alone. Martin Heidegger studied Husserl’s early writings, worked as Assistant to Husserl in 1916, and in 1928 succeeded Husserl in the prestigious chair at the University of Freiburg. Heidegger had his own ideas about phenomenology.

In Being and Time (1927) Heidegger unfurled his rendition of phenomenology. For Heidegger, we and our activities are always “in the world”, our being is being-in-the-world, so we do not study our activities by bracketing the world, rather we interpret our activities and the meaning things have for us by looking to our contextual relations to things in the world. Indeed, for Heidegger, phenomenology resolves into what he called “fundamental ontology”. We must distinguish beings from their being, and we begin our investigation of the meaning of being in our own case, examining our own existence in the activity of “Dasein” (that being whose being is in each case my own). Heidegger resisted Husserl’s neo-Cartesian emphasis on consciousness and subjectivity, including how perception presents things around us. By contrast, Heidegger held that our more basic ways of relating to things are in practical activities like hammering, where the phenomenology reveals our situation in a context of equipment and in being-with-others.

In Being and Time Heidegger approached phenomenology, in a quasi-poetic idiom, through the root meanings of “logos” and “phenomena”, so that phenomenology is defined as the art or practice of “letting things show themselves”. In Heidegger’s inimitable linguistic play on the Greek roots, “ ‘phenomenology’ means …—to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.” (See Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927, ¦ 7C.) Here Heidegger explicitly parodies Husserl’s call, “To the things themselves!”, or “To the phenomena themselves!” Heidegger went on to emphasize practical forms of comportment or better relating (Verhalten) as in hammering a nail, as opposed to representational forms of intentionality as in seeing or thinking about a hammer. Much of Being and Time develops an existential interpretation of our modes of being including, famously, our being-toward-death.

In a very different style, in clear analytical prose, in the text of a lecture course called The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1927), Heidegger traced the question of the meaning of being from Aristotle through many other thinkers into the issues of phenomenology. Our understanding of beings and their being comes ultimately through phenomenology. Here the connection with classical issues of ontology is more apparent, and consonant with Husserl’s vision in the Logical Investigations (an early source of inspiration for Heidegger). One of Heidegger’s most innovative ideas was his conception of the “ground” of being, looking to modes of being more fundamental than the things around us (from trees to hammers). Heidegger questioned the contemporary concern with technology, and his writing might suggest that our scientific theories are historical artifacts that we use in technological practice, rather than systems of ideal truth (as Husserl had held). Our deep understanding of being, in our own case, comes rather from phenomenology, Heidegger held.

In the 1930s phenomenology migrated from Austrian and then German philosophy into French philosophy. The way had been paved in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator recounts in close detail his vivid recollections of past experiences, including his famous associations with the smell of freshly baked madeleines. This sensibility to experience traces to Descartes’ work, and French phenomenology has been an effort to preserve the central thrust of Descartes’ insights while rejecting mind-body dualism. The experience of one’s own body, or one’s lived or living body, has been an important motif in many French philosophers of the 20th century.

In the novel Nausea (1936) Jean-Paul Sartre described a bizarre course of experience in which the protagonist, writing in the first person, describes how ordinary objects lose their meaning until he encounters pure being at the foot of a chestnut tree, and in that moment recovers his sense of his own freedom. In Being and Nothingness (1943, written partly while a prisoner of war), Sartre developed his conception of phenomenological ontology. Consciousness is a consciousness of objects, as Husserl had stressed. In Sartre’s model of intentionality, the central player in consciousness is a phenomenon, and the occurrence of a phenomenon just is a consciousness-of-an-object. The chestnut tree I see is, for Sartre, such a phenomenon in my consciousness. Indeed, all things in the world, as we normally experience them, are phenomena, beneath or behind which lies their “being-in-itself”. Consciousness, by contrast, has “being-for-itself”, since each consciousness is not only a consciousness-of-its-object but also a pre-reflective consciousness-of-itself (conscience de soi). Yet for Sartre, unlike Husserl, the “I” or self is nothing but a sequence of acts of consciousness, notably including radically free choices (like a Humean bundle of perceptions).

For Sartre, the practice of phenomenology proceeds by a deliberate reflection on the structure of consciousness. Sartre’s method is in effect a literary style of interpretive description of different types of experience in relevant situations—a practice that does not really fit the methodological proposals of either Husserl or Heidegger, but makes use of Sartre’s great literary skill. (Sartre wrote many plays and novels and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Sartre’s phenomenology in Being and Nothingness became the philosophical foundation for his popular philosophy of existentialism, sketched in his famous lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1945). In Being and Nothingness Sartre emphasized the experience of freedom of choice, especially the project of choosing one’s self, the defining pattern of one’s past actions. Through vivid description of the “look” of the Other, Sartre laid groundwork for the contemporary political significance of the concept of the Other (as in other groups or ethnicities). Indeed, in The Second Sex (1949) Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s life-long companion, launched contemporary feminism with her nuanced account of the perceived role of women as Other.

In 1940s Paris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty joined with Sartre and Beauvoir in developing phenomenology. In Phenomenology of Perception (1945) Merleau-Ponty developed a rich variety of phenomenology emphasizing the role of the body in human experience. Unlike Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, Merleau-Ponty looked to experimental psychology, analyzing the reported experience of amputees who felt sensations in a phantom limb. Merleau-Ponty rejected both associationist psychology, focused on correlations between sensation and stimulus, and intellectualist psychology, focused on rational construction of the world in the mind. (Think of the behaviorist and computationalist models of mind in more recent decades of empirical psychology.) Instead, Merleau-Ponty focused on the “body image”, our experience of our own body and its significance in our activities. Extending Husserl’s account of the lived body (as opposed to the physical body), Merleau-Ponty resisted the traditional Cartesian separation of mind and body. For the body image is neither in the mental realm nor in the mechanical-physical realm. Rather, my body is, as it were, me in my engaged action with things I perceive including other people.

The scope of Phenomenology of Perception is characteristic of the breadth of classical phenomenology, not least because Merleau-Ponty drew (with generosity) on Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre while fashioning his own innovative vision of phenomenology. His phenomenology addressed the role of attention in the phenomenal field, the experience of the body, the spatiality of the body, the motility of the body, the body in sexual being and in speech, other selves, temporality, and the character of freedom so important in French existentialism. Near the end of a chapter on the cogito (Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”), Merleau-Ponty succinctly captures his embodied, existential form of phenomenology, writing:

Insofar as, when I reflect on the essence of subjectivity, I find it bound up with that of the body and that of the world, this is because my existence as subjectivity [= consciousness] is merely one with my existence as a body and with the existence of the world, and because the subject that I am, when taken concretely, is inseparable from this body and this world. [408]

In short, consciousness is embodied (in the world), and equally body is infused with consciousness (with cognition of the world).

In the years since Husserl, Heidegger, et al. wrote, phenomenologists have dug into all these classical issues, including intentionality, temporal awareness, intersubjectivity, practical intentionality, and the social and linguistic contexts of human activity. Interpretation of historical texts by Husserl et al. has played a prominent role in this work, both because the texts are rich and difficult and because the historical dimension is itself part of the practice of continental European philosophy. Since the 1960s, philosophers trained in the methods of analytic philosophy have also dug into the foundations of phenomenology, with an eye to 20th century work in philosophy of logic, language, and mind.

Phenomenology was already linked with logical and semantic theory in Husserl’s Logical Investigations. Analytic phenomenology picks up on that connection. In particular, Dagfinn Føllesdal and J. N. Mohanty have explored historical and conceptual relations between Husserl’s phenomenology and Frege’s logical semantics (in Frege’s “On Sense and Reference”, 1892). For Frege, an expression refers to an object by way of a sense: thus, two expressions (say, “the morning star” and “the evening star”) may refer to the same object (Venus) but express different senses with different manners of presentation. For Husserl, similarly, an experience (or act of consciousness) intends or refers to an object by way of a noema or noematic sense: thus, two experiences may refer to the same object but have different noematic senses involving different ways of presenting the object (for example, in seeing the same object from different sides). Indeed, for Husserl, the theory of intentionality is a generalization of the theory of linguistic reference: as linguistic reference is mediated by sense, so intentional reference is mediated by noematic sense.

More recently, analytic philosophers of mind have rediscovered phenomenological issues of mental representation, intentionality, consciousness, sensory experience, intentional content, and context-of-thought. Some of these analytic philosophers of mind hark back to William James and Franz Brentano at the origins of modern psychology, and some look to empirical research in today’s cognitive neuroscience. Some researchers have begun to combine phenomenological issues with issues of neuroscience and behavioral studies and mathematical modeling. Such studies will extend the methods of traditional phenomenology as the Zeitgeist moves on. We address philosophy of mind below.

5. Phenomenology and Ontology, Epistemology, Logic, Ethics

The discipline of phenomenology forms one basic field in philosophy among others. How is phenomenology distinguished from, and related to, other fields in philosophy?

Traditionally, philosophy includes at least four core fields or disciplines: ontology, epistemology, ethics, logic. Suppose phenomenology joins that list. Consider then these elementary definitions of field:

  • Ontology is the study of beings or their being—what is.
  • Epistemology is the study of knowledge—how we know.
  • Logic is the study of valid reasoning—how to reason.
  • Ethics is the study of right and wrong—how we should act.
  • Phenomenology is the study of our experience—how we experience.

The domains of study in these five fields are clearly different, and they seem to call for different methods of study.

Philosophers have sometimes argued that one of these fields is “first philosophy”, the most fundamental discipline, on which all philosophy or all knowledge or wisdom rests. Historically (it may be argued), Socrates and Plato put ethics first, then Aristotle put metaphysics or ontology first, then Descartes put epistemology first, then Russell put logic first, and then Husserl (in his later transcendental phase) put phenomenology first.

Consider epistemology. As we saw, phenomenology helps to define the phenomena on which knowledge claims rest, according to modern epistemology. On the other hand, phenomenology itself claims to achieve knowledge about the nature of consciousness, a distinctive kind of first-person knowledge, through a form of intuition.

Consider logic. As we saw, logical theory of meaning led Husserl into the theory of intentionality, the heart of phenomenology. On one account, phenomenology explicates the intentional or semantic force of ideal meanings, and propositional meanings are central to logical theory. But logical structure is expressed in language, either ordinary language or symbolic languages like those of predicate logic or mathematics or computer systems. It remains an important issue of debate where and whether language shapes specific forms of experience (thought, perception, emotion) and their content or meaning. So there is an important (if disputed) relation between phenomenology and logico-linguistic theory, especially philosophical logic and philosophy of language (as opposed to mathematical logic per se).

Consider ontology. Phenomenology studies (among other things) the nature of consciousness, which is a central issue in metaphysics or ontology, and one that leads into the traditional mind-body problem. Husserlian methodology would bracket the question of the existence of the surrounding world, thereby separating phenomenology from the ontology of the world. Yet Husserl’s phenomenology presupposes theory about species and individuals (universals and particulars), relations of part and whole, and ideal meanings—all parts of ontology.

Now consider ethics. Phenomenology might play a role in ethics by offering analyses of the structure of will, valuing, happiness, and care for others (in empathy and sympathy). Historically, though, ethics has been on the horizon of phenomenology. Husserl largely avoided ethics in his major works, though he featured the role of practical concerns in the structure of the life-world or of Geist (spirit, or culture, as in Zeitgeist), and he once delivered a course of lectures giving ethics (like logic) a basic place in philosophy, indicating the importance of the phenomenology of sympathy in grounding ethics. In Being and Time Heidegger claimed not to pursue ethics while discussing phenomena ranging from care, conscience, and guilt to “fallenness” and “authenticity” (all phenomena with theological echoes). In Being and Nothingness Sartre analyzed with subtlety the logical problem of “bad faith”, yet he developed an ontology of value as produced by willing in good faith (which sounds like a revised Kantian foundation for morality). Beauvoir sketched an existentialist ethics, and Sartre left unpublished notebooks on ethics. However, an explicitly phenomenological approach to ethics emerged in the works of Emannuel Levinas, a Lithuanian phenomenologist who heard Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg before moving to Paris. In Totality and Infinity (1961), modifying themes drawn from Husserl and Heidegger, Levinas focused on the significance of the “face” of the other, explicitly developing grounds for ethics in this range of phenomenology, writing an impressionistic style of prose with allusions to religious experience.

Allied with ethics are political and social philosophy. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were politically engaged in 1940s Paris, and their existential philosophies (phenomenologically based) suggest a political theory based in individual freedom. Sartre later sought an explicit blend of existentialism with Marxism. Still, political theory has remained on the borders of phenomenology. Social theory, however, has been closer to phenomenology as such. Husserl analyzed the phenomenological structure of the life-world and Geist generally, including our role in social activity. Heidegger stressed social practice, which he found more primordial than individual consciousness. Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology of the social world. Sartre continued the phenomenological appraisal of the meaning of the other, the fundamental social formation. Moving outward from phenomenological issues, Michel Foucault studied the genesis and meaning of social institutions, from prisons to insane asylums. And Jacques Derrida has long practiced a kind of phenomenology of language, seeking social meaning in the “deconstruction” of wide-ranging texts. Aspects of French “poststructuralist” theory are sometimes interpreted as broadly phenomenological, but such issues are beyond the present purview.

Classical phenomenology, then, ties into certain areas of epistemology, logic, and ontology, and leads into parts of ethical, social, and political theory.

6. Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind

It ought to be obvious that phenomenology has a lot to say in the area called philosophy of mind. Yet the traditions of phenomenology and analytic philosophy of mind have not been closely joined, despite overlapping areas of interest. So it is appropriate to close this survey of phenomenology by addressing philosophy of mind, one of the most vigorously debated areas in recent philosophy.

The tradition of analytic philosophy began, early in the 20th century, with analyses of language, notably in the works of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Then in The Concept of Mind (1949) Gilbert Ryle developed a series of analyses of language about different mental states, including sensation, belief, and will. Though Ryle is commonly deemed a philosopher of ordinary language, Ryle himself said The Concept of Mind could be called phenomenology. In effect, Ryle analyzed our phenomenological understanding of mental states as reflected in ordinary language about the mind. From this linguistic phenomenology Ryle argued that Cartesian mind-body dualism involves a category mistake (the logic or grammar of mental verbs—“believe”, “see”, etc.—does not mean that we ascribe belief, sensation, etc., to “the ghost in the machine”). With Ryle’s rejection of mind-body dualism, the mind-body problem was re-awakened: what is the ontology of mind vis-à-vis body, and how are mind and body related?

René Descartes, in his epoch-making Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), had argued that minds and bodies are two distinct kinds of being or substance with two distinct kinds of attributes or modes: bodies are characterized by spatiotemporal physical properties, while minds are characterized by properties of thinking (including seeing, feeling, etc.). Centuries later, phenomenology would find, with Brentano and Husserl, that mental acts are characterized by consciousness and intentionality, while natural science would find that physical systems are characterized by mass and force, ultimately by gravitational, electromagnetic, and quantum fields. Where do we find consciousness and intentionality in the quantum-electromagnetic-gravitational field that, by hypothesis, orders everything in the natural world in which we humans and our minds exist? That is the mind-body problem today. In short, phenomenology by any other name lies at the heart of the contemporary mind-body problem.

After Ryle, philosophers sought a more explicit and generally naturalistic ontology of mind. In the 1950s materialism was argued anew, urging that mental states are identical with states of the central nervous system. The classical identity theory holds that each token mental state (in a particular person’s mind at a particular time) is identical with a token brain state (in that person’s brain at that time). A stronger materialism holds, instead, that each type of mental state is identical with a type of brain state. But materialism does not fit comfortably with phenomenology. For it is not obvious how conscious mental states as we experience them—sensations, thoughts, emotions—can simply be the complex neural states that somehow subserve or implement them. If mental states and neural states are simply identical, in token or in type, where in our scientific theory of mind does the phenomenology occur—is it not simply replaced by neuroscience? And yet experience is part of what is to be explained by neuroscience.

In the late 1960s and 1970s the computer model of mind set in, and functionalism became the dominant model of mind. On this model, mind is not what the brain consists in (electrochemical transactions in neurons in vast complexes). Instead, mind is what brains do: their function of mediating between information coming into the organism and behavior proceeding from the organism. Thus, a mental state is a functional state of the brain or of the human (or animal) organism. More specifically, on a favorite variation of functionalism, the mind is a computing system: mind is to brain as software is to hardware; thoughts are just programs running on the brain’s “wetware”. Since the 1970s the cognitive sciences—from experimental studies of cognition to neuroscience—have tended toward a mix of materialism and functionalism. Gradually, however, philosophers found that phenomenological aspects of the mind pose problems for the functionalist paradigm too.

In the early 1970s Thomas Nagel argued in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974) that consciousness itself—especially the subjective character of what it is like to have a certain type of experience—escapes physical theory. Many philosophers pressed the case that sensory qualia—what it is like to feel pain, to see red, etc.—are not addressed or explained by a physical account of either brain structure or brain function. Consciousness has properties of its own. And yet, we know, it is closely tied to the brain. And, at some level of description, neural activities implement computation.

In the 1980s John Searle argued in Intentionality (1983) (and further in The Rediscovery of the Mind (1991)) that intentionality and consciousness are essential properties of mental states. For Searle, our brains produce mental states with properties of consciousness and intentionality, and this is all part of our biology, yet consciousness and intentionality require a “first-person” ontology. Searle also argued that computers simulate but do not have mental states characterized by intentionality. As Searle argued, a computer system has a syntax (processing symbols of certain shapes) but has no semantics (the symbols lack meaning: we interpret the symbols). In this way Searle rejected both materialism and functionalism, while insisting that mind is a biological property of organisms like us: our brains “secrete” consciousness.

The analysis of consciousness and intentionality is central to phenomenology as appraised above, and Searle’s theory of intentionality reads like a modernized version of Husserl’s. (Contemporary logical theory takes the form of stating truth conditions for propositions, and Searle characterizes a mental state’s intentionality by specifying its “satisfaction conditions”). However, there is an important difference in background theory. For Searle explicitly assumes the basic worldview of natural science, holding that consciousness is part of nature. But Husserl explicitly brackets that assumption, and later phenomenologists—including Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty—seem to seek a certain sanctuary for phenomenology beyond the natural sciences. And yet phenomenology itself should be largely neutral about further theories of how experience arises, notably from brain activity.

Since the late 1980s, and especially the late 1990s, a variety of writers working in philosophy of mind have focused on the fundamental character of consciousness, ultimately a phenomenological issue. Does consciousness always and essentially involve self-consciousness, or consciousness-of-consciousness, as Brentano, Husserl, and Sartre held (in verying detail)? If so, then every act of consciousness either includes or is adjoined by a consciousness-of-that-consciousness. Does that self-consciousness take the form of an internal self-monitoring? If so, is that monitoring of a higher order, where each act of consciousness is joined by a further mental act monitoring the base act? Or is such monitoring of the same order as the base act, a proper part of the act without which the act would not be conscious? A variety of models of this self-consciousness have been developed, some explicitly drawing on or adapting views in Brentano, Husserl, and Sartre. Two recent collections address these issues: David Woodruff Smith and Amie L. Thomasson (editors), Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind (2005), and Uriah Kriegel and Kenneth Williford (editors), Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness (2006).

The philosophy of mind may be factored into the following disciplines or ranges of theory relevant to mind:

  1. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced, analyzing the structure—the types, intentional forms and meanings, dynamics, and (certain) enabling conditions—of perception, thought, imagination, emotion, and volition and action.
  2. Neuroscience studies the neural activities that serve as biological substrate to the various types of mental activity, including conscious experience. Neuroscience will be framed by evolutionary biology (explaining how neural phenomena evolved) and ultimately by basic physics (explaining how biological phenomena are grounded in physical phenomena). Here lie the intricacies of the natural sciences. Part of what the sciences are accountable for is the structure of experience, analyzed by phenomenology.
  3. Cultural analysis studies the social practices that help to shape or serve as cultural substrate of the various types of mental activity, including conscious experience, typically manifest in embodied action. Here we study the import of language and other social practices, including background attitudes or assumptions, sometimes involving particular political systems.
  4. Ontology of mind studies the ontological type of mental activity in general, ranging from perception (which involves causal input from environment to experience) to volitional action (which involves causal output from volition to bodily movement).

This division of labor in the theory of mind can be seen as an extension of Brentano’s original distinction between descriptive and genetic psychology. Phenomenology offers descriptive analyses of mental phenomena, while neuroscience (and wider biology and ultimately physics) offers models of explanation of what causes or gives rise to mental phenomena. Cultural theory offers analyses of social activities and their impact on experience, including ways language shapes our thought, emotion, and motivation. And ontology frames all these results within a basic scheme of the structure of the world, including our own minds.

The ontological distinction among the form, appearance, and substrate of an activity of consciousness is detailed in D. W. Smith, Mind World (2004), in the essay “Three Facets of Consciousness”.

Meanwhile, from an epistemological standpoint, all these ranges of theory about mind begin with how we observe and reason about and seek to explain phenomena we encounter in the world. And that is where phenomenology begins. Moreover, how we understand each piece of theory, including theory about mind, is central to the theory of intentionality, as it were, the semantics of thought and experience in general. And that is the heart of phenomenology.

7. Phenomenology in Contemporary Consciousness Theory

Phenomenological issues, by any other name, have played a prominent role in very recent philosophy of mind. Amplifying the theme of the previous section, we note two such issues: the form of inner awareness that ostensibly makes a mental activity conscious, and the phenomenal character of conscious cognitive mental activity in thought, and perception, and action.

Ever since Nagel’s 1974 article, “What Is It Like to be a Bat?”, the notion of what-it-is-like to experience a mental state or activity has posed a challenge to reductive materialism and functionalism in theory of mind. This subjective phenomenal character of consciousness is held to be constitutive or definitive of consciousness. What is the form of that phenomenal character we find in consciousness?

A prominent line of analysis holds that the phenomenal character of a mental activity consists in a certain form of awareness of that activity, an awareness that by definition renders it conscious. Since the 1980s a variety of models of that awareness have been developed. As noted above, there are models that define this awareness as a higher-order monitoring, either an inner perception of the activity (a form of inner sense per Kant) or inner consciousness (per Brentano), or an inner thought about the activity. A further model analyzes such awareness as an integral part of the experience, a form of self-representation within the experience. (Again, see Kriegel and Williford (eds.) (2006).)

A somewhat different model comes arguably closer to the form of self-consciousness sought by Brentano, Husserl, and Sartre. On the “modal” model, inner awareness of an experience takes the form of an integral reflexive awareness of “this very experience”. That form of awareness is held to be a constitutive element of the experience that renders it conscious. As Sartre put the claim, self-consciousness is constitutive of consciousness, but that self-consciousness is “pre-reflective”. This reflexive awareness is not, then, part of a separable higher-order monitoring, but rather built into consciousness per se. On the modal model, this awareness is part of the way the experience unfolds: subjectively, phenomenally, consciously. This model is elaborated in D. W. Smith (2004), Mind World, in the essay “Return to Consciousness” (and elsewhere).

Whatever may be the precise form of phenomenal character, we would ask how that character distributes over mental life. What is phenomenal in different types of mental activity? Here arise issues of cognitive phenomenology. Is phenomenality restricted to the “feel” of sensory experience? Or is phenomenality present also in cognitive experiences of thinking such-and-such, or of perception bearing conceptual as well as sensory content, or also in volitional or conative bodily action? These issues are explored in Bayne and Montague (eds.) (2011), Cognitive Phenomenology.

A restrictive view holds that only sensory experience has a proper phenomenal character, a what-it-is-like. Seeing a color, hearing a tone, smelling an odor, feeling a pain—these types of conscious experience have a phenomenal character, but no others do, on this view. A stringent empiricism might limit phenomenal experience to pure sensations, though Hume himself presumably recognized phenomenal “ideas” beyond pure sense “impressions”. A somewhat more expansive view would hold that perceptual experience has a distinctive phenomenal character even where sensation is informed by concepts. Seeing that yellow canary, hearing that clear Middle C on a Steinway piano, smelling the sharp odor of anise, feeling a pain of the jab of the doctor’s needle in receiving an injection—these types of conscious experience have a character of what-it-is-like, a character informed by conceptual content that is also “felt”, on this view. A Kantian account of conceptual-sensory experience, or “intuition”, would endorse a phenomenal character in these types of experience. Indeed, “phenomena”, in the Kantian idiom, are precisely things as they appear in consciousness, so of course their appearance has a phenomenal character.

Now, a much more expansive view would hold that every conscious experience has a distinctive phenomenal character. Thinking that 17 is a prime number, thinking that the red in the sunset is caused by the sun’s light waves being bent by the atmosphere, thinking that Kant was more right than Hume about the grounds of knowledge, thinking that economic principles are also political—even such highly cognitive activities have a character of what-it-is-like to so think, according to this expansive view.

Classical phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty surely assumed an expansive view of phenomenal consciousness. As noted above, the “phenomena” that are the focus of phenomenology were assumed to present a rich character of lived experience. Even Heidegger, while de-emphasizing consciousness (the Cartesian sin!), dwelt on “phenomena” as what appears or shows up to us (to “Dasein”) in our everyday activities such as hammering a nail. Like Merleau-Ponty, Gurwitsch (1964) explicitly studies the “phenomenal field”, embracing all that is presented in our experience. Arguably, for these thinkers, every type of conscious experience has its distinctive phenomenal character, its “phenomenology”—and the task of phenomenology (the discipline) is to analyze that character. Note that in recent debates the phenomenal character of an experience is often called its “phenomenology”—whereas, in the established idiom, the term “phenomenology” names the discipline that studies such “phenomenology”.

Since intentionality is a crucial property of consciousness, according to Brentano, Husserl, et al., the character of intentionality itself would count as phenomenal, as part of what-it-is-like to experience a given type of intentional experience. But it is not only intentional perception and thought that have their distinctive phenomenal characters. Embodied action also would have a distinctive phenomenal character, involving “lived” characters of kinesthetic sensation as well as conceptual volitional content, say, in the feel of kicking a soccer ball. The “lived body” is precisely the body as experienced in everyday embodied volitional action such as running or kicking a ball or even speaking. Husserl wrote at length about the “lived body” (Leib), in Ideas II, and Merleau-Ponty followed suit with rich analyses of embodied perception and action, in Phenomenology of Perception. In Bayne and Montague (eds.) (2011) see the article on conative phenomenology by Terence Horgan, and in Smith and Thomasson (eds.) (2005) see articles by Charles Siewert and Sean Kelly.

But now a problems remains. Intentionality essentially involves meaning, so the question arises how meaning appears in phenomenal character. Importantly, the content of a conscious experience typically carries a horizon of background meaning, meaning that is largely implicit rather than explicit in experience. But then a wide range of content carried by an experience would not have a consciously felt phenomenal character. So it may well be argued. Here is a line of phenomenological theory for another day.


Classical Texts

  • Brentano, F., 1995, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Trans. Antos C. Rancurello, D. B. Terrell, and Linda L. McAlister, London and New York: Routledge. From the German original of 1874.

    Brentano’s development of descriptive psychology, the forerunner of Husserlian phenomenology, including Brentano’s conception of mental phenomena as intentionally directed and his analysis of inner consciousness distinguished from inner observation.

  • Heidegger, M., 1962, Being and Time, Trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row. From the German original of 1927.

    Heidegger’s magnum opus, laying out his style of phenomenology and existential ontology, including his distinction between beings and their being, as well as his emphasis on practical activity.

  • Heidegger, M., 1982, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Trans. by Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. From the German original of 1975. The text of a lecture course in 1927.

    Heidegger’s clearest presentation of his conception of phenomenology as fundamental ontology, addressing the history of the question of the meaning of being from Aristotle onward.

  • Husserl, E., 2001, Logical Investigations. Vols. One and Two, Trans. J. N. Findlay. Ed. with translation corrections and with a new Introduction by Dermot Moran. With a new Preface by Michael Dummett. London and New York: Routledge. A new and revised edition of the original English translation by J. N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970. From the Second Edition of the German. First edition, 1900–01; second edition, 1913, 1920.

    Husserl’s magnum opus, laying out his system of philosophy including philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, ontology, phenomenology, and epistemology. Here are the foundations of Husserl’s phenomenology and his theory of intentionality.

  • Husserl, E., 2001, The Shorter Logical Investigations. London and New York: Routledge.

    An abridged edition of the preceding.

  • Husserl, E., 1963, Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier Books. From the German original of 1913, originally titled Ideas pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book. Newly translated with the full title by Fred Kersten. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1983. Known as Ideas I.

    Husserl’s mature account of transcendental phenomenology, including his notion of intentional content as noema.

  • Husserl, E., 1989, Ideas pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book. Trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. From the German original unpublished manuscript of 1912, revised 1915, 1928. Known as Ideas II.

    Detailed phenomenological analyses assumed in Ideas I, including analyses of bodily awareness (kinesthesis and motility) and social awareness (empathy).

  • Merleau-Ponty, M., 2012, Phenomenology of Perception, Trans. Donald A. Landes. London and New York: Routledge. Prior translation, 1996, Phenomenology of Perception, Trans. Colin Smith. London and New York: Routledge. From the French original of 1945.

    Merleau-Ponty’s conception of phenomenology, rich in impressionistic description of perception and other forms of experience, emphasizing the role of the experienced body in many forms of consciousness.

  • Sartre, J.-P., 1956, Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press. From the French original of 1943.

    Sartre’s magnum opus, developing in detail his conception of phenomenology and his existential view of human freedom, including his analysis of consciousness-of-consciousness, the look of the Other, and much more.

  • Sartre, J.-P., 1964, Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions Publishing. From the French original of 1938).

    A novel in the first person, featuring descriptions of how things are experienced, thereby illustrating Sartre’s conception of phenomenology (and existentialism) with no technical idioms and no explicit theoretical discussion.

Contemporary Studies

  • Bayne, T., and Montague, M., (eds.), 2011, Cognitive Phenomenology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    Essays debating the extend of phenomenal consciousness.

  • Block, N., Flanagan, O., and Güzeldere, G. (eds.), 1997, The Nature of Consciusness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

    Extensive studies of aspects of consciousness, in analytic philosophy of mind, often addressing phenomenological issues, but with limited reference to phenomenology as such.

  • Chalmers, D. (ed.), 2002, Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    Core readings in philosophy of mind, largely analytic philosophy of mind, sometimes addressing phenomenological issues, with some reference to classical phenomenology, including selections from Descartes, Ryle, Brentano, Nagel, and Searle (as discussed in the present article).

  • Dreyfus, H., with Hall, H. (eds.), 1982, Husserl, Intentionality and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

    Studies of issues in Husserlian phenomenology and theory of intentionality, with connections to early models of cognitive science, including Jerry Fodor’s discussion of methodological solipsism (compare Husserl’s method of bracketing or epoché), and including Dagfinn Føllesdal’s article, “Husserl’s Notion of Noema” (1969).

  • Fricke, C., and Føllesdal, D. (eds.), 2012, Intersubjectivity and Objectivity in Adam Smith and Edmund Husserl: A Collection of Essays. Frankfurt and Paris: Ontos Verlag.

    Phenomenological studies of intersubjectivity, empathy, and sympathy in the works of Smith and Husserl.

  • Kriegel, U., and Williford, K. (eds.), 2006, Self-Representational Approaches to Consciusness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

    Essays addressing the structure of self-consciousness, or consciousness-of-consciousness, some drawing on phenomenology explicitly.

  • Mohanty, J. N., 1989, Transcendental Phenomenology: An Analytic Account. Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell.

    A study of structures of consciousness and meaning in a contemporary rendition of transcendental phenomenology, connecting with issues in analytic philosophy and its history.

  • Mohanty, J. N., 2008, The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl: A Historical Development, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

    A detailed study of the development of Husserl’s philosophy and his conception of transcendental phenomenology.

  • Mohanty, J. N.,  2011, Edmund Husserl’s Freiburg Years: 1916–1938. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

    A close study of Husserl’s late philosophy and his conception of phenomenology involving the life-world.

  • Moran, D., 2000, Introduction to Phenomenology. London and New York: Routledge.

    An extensive introductory discussion of the principal works of the classical phenomenologists and several other broadly phenomenological thinkers.

  • Moran, D., 2005, Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology. Cambridge and Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press.

    A study of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology.

  • Parsons, Charles, 2012, From Kant to Husserl: Selected Essays, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Studies of historical figures on philosophy of mathematics, including Kant, Frege, Brentano, and Husserl.

  • Petitot, J., Varela, F. J., Pachoud, B., and Roy, J.-M., (eds.), 1999, Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenmenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press (in collaboration with Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York).

    Studies of issues of phenomenology in connection with cognitive science and neuroscience, pursuing the integration of the disciplines, thus combining classical phenomenology with contemporary natural science.

  • Searle, J., 1983, Intentionality. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Searle’s analysis of intentionality, often similar in detail to Husserl’s theory of intentionality, but pursued in the tradition and style of analytic philosophy of mind and language, without overtly phenomenological methodology.

  • Smith, B., and Smith, D.W. (eds.), 1995, The Cambridge Companion to Husserl. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Detailed studies of Husserl’s work including his phenomenology, with an introduction to his overall philosophy.

  • Smith, D. W., 2013, Husserl, 2nd revised edition. London and New York: Routledge. (1st edition, 2007).

    A detailed study of Husserl’s philosophical system including logic, ontology, phenomenology, epistemology, and ethics, assuming no prior background.

  • Smith, D. W., and McIntyre, R., 1982, Husserl and Intentionality: a Study of Mind, Meaning, and Language. Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company (now Springer).

    A book-length development of analytic phenomenology, with an interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenology, his theory of intentionality, and his historical roots, and connections with issues in logical theory and analytic philosophy of language and mind, assuming no prior background.

  • Smith, D. W., and Thomasson, Amie L. (eds.), 2005, Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    Essays integrating phenomenology and analytic philosophy of mind.

  • Sokolowski, R., 2000, Introduction to Phenomenology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    A contemporary introduction to the practice of transcendental phenomenology, without historical interpretation, emphasizing a transcendental attitude in phenomenology.

  • Tieszen, R., 2005, Phenomenology, Logic, and the Philosophy of Mathematics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Essays relating Husserlian phenomenology with issues in logic and mathematics.

  • Tieszen, R., 2005, Phenomenology, Logic, and the Philosophy of Mathematics. Cambridge and New York: Camabridge University Press.

    Essays relating Husserlian phenomenology with issues in logic and mathematics.

  • Tieszen, R., 2011, After Gödel: Platonism and Rationalism in Mathematics and Logic. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    A study of Gödel’s work in relation to, inter alia, Husserlian phenomenology in the foundations of logic and mathematics.

  • Zahavi, D. (ed.), 2012, The Oxford Handbook on Contemporary Phenomenology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    A collection of contemporary essays on phenomenological themes (not primarily on historical figures).

Other Internet Resources

  • Open content source of Husserl’s writings and commentary.

1. Uses of the Term ‘Qualia’

(1) Qualia as phenomenal character. Consider your visual experience as you stare at a bright turquoise color patch in a paint store. There is something it is like for you subjectively to undergo that experience. What it is like to undergo the experience is very different from what it is like for you to experience a dull brown color patch. This difference is a difference in what is often called ‘phenomenal character’. The phenomenal character of an experience is what it is like subjectively to undergo the experience. If you are told to focus your attention upon the phenomenal character of your experience, you will find that in doing so you are aware of certain qualities. These qualities — ones that are accessible to you when you introspect and that together make up the phenomenal character of the experience are sometimes called ‘qualia’. C.S. Peirce seems to have had something like this in mind when he introduced the term ‘quale’ into philosophy in 1866 (1866/1982, para 223).

There are more restricted uses of the term ‘qualia’, however.

(2) Qualia as properties of sense data. Consider a painting of a dalmatian. Viewers of the painting can apprehend not only its content (i.e., its representing a dalmatian) but also the colors, shapes, and spatial relations obtaining among the blobs of paint on the canvas. It has sometimes been supposed that being aware or conscious of a visual experience is like viewing an inner, non-physical picture or sense-datum. So, for example, on this conception, if I see a dalmatian, I am subject to a mental picture-like representation of a dalmatian (a sense-datum), introspection of which reveals to me both its content and its intrinsic, non-representationational features (counterparts to the visual features of the blobs of paint on the canvas). These intrinsic, non-representational features have been taken by advocates of the sense-datum theory to be the sole determinants of what it is like for me to have the experience. In a second, more restricted sense of the term ‘qualia’, then, qualia are intrinsic, consciously accessible, non-representational features of sense-data and other non-physical phenomenal objects that are responsible for their phenomenal character. Historically, the term ‘qualia’ was first used in connection with the sense-datum theory by C.I. Lewis in 1929. As Lewis used the term, qualia were properties of sense-data themselves.

(3) Qualia as intrinsic non-representational properties. There is another established sense of the term ‘qualia’, which is similar to the one just given but which does not demand of qualia advocates that they endorse the sense-datum theory. However sensory experiences are ultimately analyzed — whether, for example, they are taken to involve relations to sensory objects or they are identified with neural events or they are held to be physically irreducible events — many philosophers suppose that they have intrinsic, consciously accessible features that are non-representational and that are solely responsible for their phenomenal character. These features, whatever their ultimate nature, physical or non-physical, are often dubbed ‘qualia’.

In the case of visual experiences, for example, it is frequently supposed that there is a range of visual qualia, where these are taken to be intrinsic features of visual experiences that (a) are accessible to introspection, (b) can vary without any variation in the representational contents of the experiences, (c) are mental counterparts to some directly visible properties of objects (e.g., color), and (d) are the sole determinants of the phenomenal character of the experiences. This usage of ‘qualia’ has become perhaps the most common one in recent years. Philosophers who hold or have held that there are qualia, in this sense of the term, include, for example, Nagel (1974), Peacocke (1983) and Block (1990).

(4) Qualia as intrinsic, nonphysical, ineffable properties. Some philosophers (e.g, Dennett 1987, 1991) use the term ‘qualia’ in a still more restricted way so that qualia are intrinsic properties of experiences that are also ineffable, nonphysical, and ‘given’ to their subjects incorrigibly (without the possibility of error). Philosophers who deny that there are qualia sometimes have in mind qualia as the term is used in this more restricted sense (or a similar one). It is also worth mentioning that sometimes the term ‘qualia’ is restricted to sensory experiences by definition, while on other occasions it is allowed that if thoughts and other such cognitive states have phenomenal character, then they also have qualia. Thus, announcements by philosophers who declare themselves opposed to qualia need to be treated with some caution. One can agree that there are no qualia in the last three senses I have explained, while still endorsing qualia in the standard first sense.

In the rest of this entry, we use the term ‘qualia’ in the very broad way I did at the beginning of the entry. So, we take it for granted that there are qualia. Later on, in section 8, we discuss specifically the view of qualia as intrinsic, nonrepresentational properties.

2. Which Mental States Possess Qualia?

The following would certainly be included on my own list. (1) Perceptual experiences, for example, experiences of the sort involved in seeing green, hearing loud trumpets, tasting liquorice, smelling the sea air, handling a piece of fur. (2) Bodily sensations, for example, feeling a twinge of pain, feeling an itch, feeling hungry, having a stomach ache, feeling hot, feeling dizzy. Think here also of experiences such as those present during orgasm or while running flat-out. (3) Felt reactions or passions or emotions, for example, feeling delight, lust, fear, love, feeling grief, jealousy, regret. (4) Felt moods, for example, feeling elated, depressed, calm, bored, tense, miserable. (For more here, see Haugeland 1985, pp. 230–235).

Should we include any other mental states on the list? Galen Strawson has claimed (1994) that there are such things as the experience of understanding a sentence, the experience of suddenly thinking of something, of suddenly remembering something, and so on. Moreover, in his view, experiences of these sorts are not reducible to associated sensory experiences and/or images. Strawson’s position here seems to be that thought-experience is a distinctive experience in its own right. He says, for example: “Each sensory modality is an experiential modality, and thought experience (in which understanding-experience may be included) is an experiential modality to be reckoned alongside the other experiential modalities” (p. 196). On Strawson’s view, then, some thoughts have qualia. (This is also the position of Horgan and Tienson (2002).)

This view is controversial. One response is to claim that the phenomenal aspects of understanding derive largely from linguistic (or verbal) images, which have the phonological and syntactic structure of items in the subject’s native language. These images frequently even come complete with details of stress and intonation. As we read, it is sometimes phenomenally as if we are speaking to ourselves. (Likewise when we consciously think about something without reading). We often “hear” an inner voice. Depending upon the content of the passage, we may also undergo a variety of emotions and feelings. We may feel tense, bored, excited, uneasy, angry. Once all these reactions are removed, together with the images of an inner voice and the visual sensations produced by reading, some would say (myself included) that no phenomenology remains.

In any event, images and sensations of the above sorts are not always present in thought. They are not essential to thought. Consider, for example, the thoughts involved in everyday visual recognition (or the thoughts of creatures without a natural language).

What about desires, for example, my desire for a week’s holiday in Venice? It is certainly true that in some cases, there is an associated phenomenal character. Often when we strongly desire something, we experience a feeling of being “pulled” or “tugged”. There may also be accompanying images in various modalities.

Should we include such propositional attitudes as feeling angry that the house has been burgled or seeing that the computer is missing on the list? These seem best treated as hybrid or complex states, one component of which is essentially a phenomenal state and the other (a judgment or belief) is not. Thus, in both cases, there is a constituent experience that is the real bearer of the relevant quale or qualia.

3. Are Qualia Irreducible, Non-Physical Entities?

The literature on qualia is filled with thought-experiments of one sort or another. Perhaps the most famous of these is the case of Mary, the brilliant color scientist. Mary, so the story goes (Jackson 1982), is imprisoned in a black and white room. Never having been permitted to leave it, she acquires information about the world outside from the black and white books her captors have made available to her, from the black and white television sets attached to external cameras, and from the black and white monitor screens hooked up to banks of computers. As time passes, Mary acquires more and more information about the physical aspects of color and color vision. (For a real life case of a visual scientist (Knut Nordby) who is an achromotope, see Sacks 1996, Chapter 1.) Eventually, Mary becomes the world’s leading authority on these matters. Indeed she comes to know all the physical facts pertinent to everyday colors and color vision.

Still, she wonders to herself: What do people in the outside world experience when they see the various colors? What is it like for them to see red or green? One day her captors release her. She is free at last to see things with their real colors (and free too to scrub off the awful black and white paint that covers her body). She steps outside her room into a garden full of flowers. “So, that is what it is like to experience red,” she exclaims, as she sees a red rose. “And that,” she adds, looking down at the grass, “is what it is like to experience green.”

Mary here seems to make some important discoveries. She seems to find out things she did not know before. How can that be, if, as seems possible, at least in principle, she has all the physical information there is to have about color and color vision — if she knows all the pertinent physical facts?

One possible explanation is that that there is a realm of subjective, phenomenal qualities associated with color, qualities the intrinsic nature of which Mary comes to discover upon her release, as she herself undergoes the various new color experiences. Before she left her room, she only knew the objective, physical basis of those subjective qualities, their causes and effects, and various relations of similarity and difference. She had no knowledge of the subjective qualities in themselves.

This explanation is not available to the physicalist. If what it is like for someone to experience red is one and the same as some physical quality, then Mary already knows that while in her room. Likewise, for experiences of the other colors. For Mary knows all the pertinent physical facts. What, then, can the physicalist say?

Some physicalists respond that knowing what it is like is know-how and nothing more. Mary acquires certain abilities, specifically in the case of red, the ability to recognize red things by sight alone, the ability to imagine a red expanse, the ability to remember the experience of red. She does not come to know any new information, any new facts about color, any new qualities. This is the view of David Lewis (1990) and Lawrence Nemirow (1990).

The Ability Hypothesis, as it is often called, is more resilient than many philosophers suppose (see Tye 2000, Chapter One). But it has difficulty in properly accounting for our knowledge of what it is like to undergo experiences of determinate hues while we are undergoing them. For example, I can know what it is like to experience red-17, as I stare at a rose of that color. Of course, I don’t know the hue as red-17. My conception of it is likely just that shade of red. But I certainly know what it is like to experience the hue while it is present. Unfortunately, I lack the abilities Lewis cites and so does Mary even after she leaves her cell. She is not able to recognize things that are red-17 as red-17 by sight. Given the way human memory works and the limitations on it, she lacks the concept red-17. She has no mental template that is sufficiently fine-grained to permit her to identify the experience of red-17 when it comes again. Presented with two items, one red-17 and the other red-18, in a series of tests, she cannot say with any accuracy which experience her earlier experience of the rose matches. Sometimes she picks one; at other times she picks the other. Nor is she able afterwards to imagine things as having hue, red-17, or as having that very shade of red the rose had; and for precisely the same reason.

The Ability Hypothesis appears to be in trouble. An alternative physicalist proposal is that Mary in her room lacks certain phenomenal concepts, certain ways of thinking about or mentally representing color experiences and colors. Once she leaves the room, she acquires these new modes of thought as she experiences the various colors. Even so, the qualities the new concepts pick out are ones she knew in a different way in her room, for they are physical or functional qualities like all others.

One problem this approach faces is that it seems to imply that Mary does not really make a new discovery when she says, “So, that is what it is like to experience red.” Upon reflection, however, it is far from obvious that this is really a consequence. For it is widely accepted that concepts or modes of presentation are involved in the individuation of thought-contents, given one sense of the term ‘content’ — the sense in which thought-content is whatever information that-clauses provide that suffices for the purposes of even the most demanding rationalizing explanation. In this sense, what I think, when I think that Cicero was an orator, is not what I think when I think that Tully was an orator. This is precisely why it is possible to discover that Cicero is Tully. The thought that Cicero was an orator differs from the thought that Tully was an orator not at the level of truth-conditions — the same singular proposition is partly constitutive of the content of both — but at the level of concepts or mode of presentation. The one thought exercises the concept Cicero; the other the concept Tully. The concepts have the same reference, but they present the referent in different ways and thus the two thoughts can play different roles in rationalizing explanation.

It appears then that there is no difficulty in holding both that Mary comes to know some new things upon her release, while already knowing all the pertinent real-world physical facts, even though the new experiences she undergoes and their introspectible qualities are wholly physical. In an ordinary, everyday sense, Mary’s knowledge increases. And that, it may be contended, is all the physicalist needs to answer the Knowledge Argument. (The term ‘fact’, it should be mentioned, is itself ambiguous. Sometimes it is used to pick out real-world states of affairs alone; sometimes it is used for such states of affairs under certain conceptualizations. When we speak of the physical facts above, we should be taken to refer either to physical states of affairs alone or to those states of affairs under purely physical conceptualizations. For more on ‘fact’, see Tye 1995.)

Some philosophers insist that the difference between the old and the new concepts in this case is such that there must be a difference in the world between the properties these concepts stand for or denote (Jackson 1993, Chalmers 1996). Some of these properties Mary knew in her cell; others she becomes cognizant of only upon her release. This is necessary for Mary to make a real discovery: she must come to associate with the experience of red new qualities she did not associate with it in her room. The physicalist is committed to denying this claim; for the new qualities would have to be non-physical.

The issues here are complex. What the physicalist really needs to settle the issue is a theory of phenomenal concepts (a theory, that is, of the allegedly special concepts that are deployed from the first person point of view when we recognize our experiences as being of such-and-such subjective types) which is itself compatible with physicalism. There are proposals on offer (see, for example, Hill 1991, Loar 1990, Levine 2000, Sturgeon 2000, Perry 2001, Papineau 2002, Tye, 2003), but there is as yet no agreement as to the form such a theory should take, and some philosophers contend that a proper theory of phenomenal concepts shows that no satisfactory answer can be given by the physicalist to the example of Mary’s Room (Chalmers 1999). Another possibility is that the very idea of a phenomenal concept, conceived of as a concept very different in how it functions from concepts applied elsewhere, is itself confused. On this view, physicalists who have appealed to phenomenal concepts to handle the example of Mary’s Room have been barking up the wrong tree (Tye 2009).

Another famous anti-reductionist thought-experiment concerning qualia appeals to the possibility of zombies. A philosophical zombie is a molecule by molecule duplicate of a sentient creature, a normal human-being, for example, but who differs from that creature in lacking any phenomenal consciousness. For me, as I lie on the beach, happily drinking some wine and watching the waves, I undergo a variety of visual, olfactory, and gustatory experiences. But my zombie twin experiences nothing at all. He has no phenomenal consciousness. Since my twin is an exact physical duplicate of me, his inner psychological states will be functionally isomorphic with my own (assuming he is located in an identical environment). Whatever physical stimulus is applied, he will process the stimulus in the same way as I do, and produce exactly the same behavioral responses. Indeed, on the assumption that non-phenomenal psychological states are functional states (that is, states definable in terms of their role or function in mediating between stimuli and behavior), my zombie twin has just the same beliefs, thoughts, and desires as I do. He differs from me only with respect to experience. For him, there is nothing it is like to stare at the waves or to sip wine.

The hypothesis that there can be philosophical zombies is not normally the hypothesis that such zombies are nomically possible, that their existence is consistent with the actual laws of nature. Rather the suggestion is that zombie replicas of this sort are at least imaginable and hence metaphysically possible.

Philosophical zombies pose a serious threat to any sort of physicalist view of qualia. To begin with, if zombie replicas are metaphysically possible, then there is a simple argument that seems to show that phenomenal states are not identical with internal, objective, physical states. Suppose objective, physical state P can occur without phenomenal state S in some appropriate zombie replica (in the metaphysical sense of ‘can’ noted above). Intuitively S cannot occur without S. Pain, for example, cannot be felt without pain. So, P has a modal property S lacks, namely the property of possibly occurring without S. So, by Leibniz’ Law (the law that for anything x and for anything y, if x is identical with y then x and y share all the same properties), S is not identical with P.

Secondly, if a person microphysically identical with me, located in an identical environment (both present and past), can lack any phenomenal experiences, then facts pertaining to experience and feeling, facts about qualia, are not necessarily fixed or determined by the objective microphysical facts. And this the physicalist cannot allow, even if she concedes that phenomenally conscious states are not strictly identical with internal, objective, physical states. For the physicalist, whatever her stripe, must at least believe that the microphysical facts determine all the facts, that any world that was exactly like ours in all microphysical respects (down to the smallest detail, to the position of every single boson, for example) would have to be like our world in all respects (having identical mountains, lakes, glaciers, trees, rocks, sentient creatures, cities, and so on).

One well-known physicalist reply to the case of zombies (Loar 1990) is to grant that they are conceptually possible, or at least that there is no obvious contradiction in the idea of a zombie, while denying that zombies are metaphysically possible. Since the anti-physicalist argument requires metaphysical possibility — mere conceptual possibility will not suffice — it now collapses. That conceptual possibility is too weak for the anti-physicalist’s purposes (at least without further qualification and argument) is shown by the fact that it is conceptually possible that I am not Michael Tye (that I am an impostor or someone misinformed about his past) even though, given the actual facts, it is metaphysically impossible.

4. Functionalism and Qualia

Functionalism is the view that individual qualia have functional natures, that the phenomenal character of, e.g., pain is one and the same as the property of playing such-and-such a causal or teleofunctional role in mediating between physical inputs (e.g., body damage) and physical outputs (e.g., withdrawal behavior). On this view (Lycan 1987), qualia are multiply physically realizable. Inner states that are physically very different may nonetheless feel the same. What is crucial to what it is like is functional role, not underlying hardware.

There are two famous objections to functionalist theories of qualia: the Inverted Spectrum and the Absent Qualia Hypothesis. The first move in the former objection consists in claiming that you might see red when I see green and vice-versa; likewise for the other colors so that our color experiences are phenomenally inverted. This does not suffice to create trouble for the functionalist yet. For you and I are surely representationally different here: for example, you have a visual experience that represents red when I have one that represents green. And that representational difference brings with it a difference in our patterns of causal interactions with external things (and thereby a functional difference).

This reply can be handled by the advocate of inverted qualia by switching to a case in which we both have visual experiences with the same representational contents on the same occasions while still differing phenomenally. Whether such cases are really metaphysically possible is open to dispute, however. Certainly, those philosophers who are representationalists about qualia (see Section 7) would deny their possibility. Indeed, it is not even clear that such cases are conceptually possible (Harrison 1973, Hardin 1993, Tye 1995). But leaving this to one side, it is far from obvious that there would not have to be some salient fine-grained functional differences between us, notwithstanding our gross functional identity.

Consider a computational example. For any two numerical inputs, M and N, a given computer always produces as outputs the product of M and N. There is a second computer that does exactly the same thing. In this way, they are functionally identical. Does it follow that they are running exactly the same program? Of course, not! There are all sorts of programs that will multiply together two numbers. These programs can differ dramatically. At one gross level the machines are functionally identical, but at lower levels the machines can be functionally different.

In the case of you and me, then, the opponent of inverted qualia can claim that, even if we are functionally identical at a coarse level — we both call red things ‘red’, we both believe that those things are red on the basis of our experiences, we both are caused to undergo such experiences by viewing red things, etc. — there are necessarily fine-grained differences in our internal functional organization. And that is why our experiences are phenomenally different.

Some philosophers will no doubt respond that it is still imaginable that you and I are functionally identical in all relevant respects yet phenomenally different. But this claim presents a problem at least for those philosophers who oppose functionalism but who accept physicalism. For it is just as easy to imagine that there are inverted qualia in molecule-by-molecule duplicates (in the same external, physical settings) as it is to imagine inverted qualia in functional duplicates. If the former duplicates are really metaphysically impossible, as the physicalist is committed to claiming, why not the latter? Some further convincing argument needs to be given that the two cases are disanalogous. As yet, to my mind, no such argument has been presented. (Of course, this response does not apply to those philosophers who take the view that qualia are irreducible, non-physical entities. However, these philosophers have other severe problems of their own. In particular, they face the problem of phenomenal causation. Given the causal closure of the physical, how can qualia make any difference? For more here, see Tye 1995, Chalmers 1996).

The absent qualia hypothesis is the hypothesis that functional duplicates of sentient creatures are possible, duplicates that entirely lack qualia. For example, one writer (Block 1980) asks us to suppose that a billion Chinese people are each given a two-way radio with which to communicate with one another and with an artificial (brainless) body. The movements of the body are controlled by the radio signals, and the signals themselves are made in accordance with instructions the Chinese people receive from a vast display in the sky which is visible to all of them. The instructions are such that the participating Chinese people function like individual neurons, and the radio links like synapses, so that together the Chinese people duplicate the causal organization of a human brain. Whether or not this system, if it were ever actualized, would actually undergo any feelings and experiences, it seems coherent to suppose that it might not. But if this is a real metaphysical possibility, then qualia do not have functional essences.

One standard functionalist reply to cases like the China-body system is to bite the bullet and to argue that however strange it seems, the China-body system could not fail to undergo qualia. The oddness of this view derives, according to some functionalists (Lycan 1987), from our relative size. We are each so much smaller than the China-body system that we fail to see the forest for the trees. Just as a creature the size of a neuron trapped inside a human head might well be wrongly convinced that there could not be consciousness there, so we too draw the wrong conclusion as we contemplate the China-body system. It has also been argued (e.g., by Shoemaker 1975) that any system that was a full functional duplicate of one of us would have to be subject to all the same beliefs, including beliefs about its own internal states. Thus the China-Body system would have to believe that it experiences pain; and if it had beliefs of this sort, then it could not fail to be the subject of some experiences (and hence some states with phenomenal character). If this reply is successful (for an updated version of this reply and a new related thought experiment, see Tye 2006), what it shows is that the property of having some phenomenal character or other has a functional essence. But it does not show that individual qualia are functional in nature. Thus one could accept that absent qualia are impossible while also holding that inverted spectra are possible (see, e.g., Shoemaker 1975).

5. Qualia and the Explanatory Gap

Our grasp of what it is like to undergo phenomenal states is supplied to us by introspection. We also have an admittedly incomplete grasp of what goes on objectively in the brain and the body. But there is, it seems, a vast chasm between the two. It is very hard to see how this chasm in our understanding could ever be bridged. For no matter how deeply we probe into the physical structure of neurons and the chemical transactions which occur when they fire, no matter how much objective information we come to acquire, we still seem to be left with something that we cannot explain, namely, why and how such-and-such objective, physical changes, whatever they might be, generate so-and-so subjective feeling, or any subjective feeling at all.

This is the famous “explanatory gap” for qualia (Levine 1983, 2000). Some say that the explanatory gap is unbridgeable and that the proper conclusion to draw from it is that there is a corresponding gap in the world. Experiences and feelings have irreducibly subjective, non-physical qualities (Jackson 1993; Chalmers 1996, 2005). Others take essentially the same position on the gap while insisting that this does not detract from a purely physicalist view of experiences and feelings. What it shows rather is that some physical qualities or states are irreducibly subjective entities (Searle 1992). Others hold that the explanatory gap may one day be bridged but we currently lack the concepts to bring the subjective and objective perspectives together. On this view, it may turn out that qualia are physical, but we currently have no clear conception as to how they could be (Nagel 1974). Still others adamantly insist that the explanatory gap is, in principle, bridgeable but not by us or by any creatures like us. Experiences and feelings are as much a part of the physical, natural world as life, digestion, DNA, or lightning. It is just that with the concepts we have and the concepts we are capable of forming, we are cognitively closed to a full, bridging explanation by the very structure of our minds (McGinn 1991).

Another view that has been gaining adherents of late is that there is a real, unbridgeable gap, but it has no consequences for the nature of consciousness and physicalist or functionalist theories thereof. On this view, there is nothing in the gap that should lead us to any bifurcation in the world between experiences and feelings on the one hand and physical or functional phenomena on the other. There aren’t two sorts of natural phenomena: the irreducibly subjective and the objective. The explanatory gap derives from the special character of phenomenal concepts. These concepts mislead us into thinking that the gap is deeper and more troublesome than it really is.

On one version of this view, phenomenal concepts are just indexical concepts applied to phenomenal states via introspection (see Lycan 1996). On an alternative version of the view, phenomenal concepts are very special, first-person concepts different in kind from all others (see Tye 2003). This response to the explanatory gap obviously bears affinities to the second physicalist response sketched in Section 3 to the Knowledge Argument. Unfortunately, if the appeal to phenomenal concepts by the physicalist is misguided, then it cannot be used to handle the gap.

There is no general agreement on how the gap is generated and what it shows.

6. Qualia and Introspection

In the past, philosophers have often appealed directly to introspection on behalf of the view that qualia are intrinsic, non-intentional features of experiences. Recently, a number of philosophers have claimed that introspection reveals no such qualities (Harman 1990, Dretske 1995, Tye 1995, 2000). Suppose you are facing a white wall, on which you see a bright red, round patch of paint. Suppose you are attending closely to the color and shape of the patch as well as the background. Now turn your attention from what you see out there in the world before you to your visual experience. Focus upon your awareness of the patch as opposed to the patch of which you are aware. Do you find yourself suddenly acquainted with new qualities, qualities that are intrinsic to your visual experience in the way that redness and roundness are qualities intrinsic to the patch of paint? According to some philosophers, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘No’. As you look at the patch, you are aware of certain features out there in the world. When you turn your attention inwards to your experience of those features, you are aware that you are having an experience of a certain sort but you aware of the very same features; no new features of your experience are revealed. In this way, your visual experience is transparent or diaphanous. When you try to examine it, you see right through it, as it were, to the qualities you were experiencing all along in being a subject of the experience, qualities your experience is of.

This point holds good, according to the philosophers above, even if you are hallucinating and there is no real patch of paint on the wall before you. Still you have an experience of there being a patch of paint out there with a certain color and shape. It’s just that this time your experience is a misrepresentation. And if you turn your attention inwards to your experience, you will ‘see’ right through it again to those very same qualities.

These observations suggest that qualia, conceived of as the immediately ‘felt’ qualities of experiences of which we are cognizant when we attend to them introspectively, do not really exist. The qualities of which we are aware are not qualities of experiences at all, but rather qualities that, if they are qualities of anything, are qualities of things in the world (as in the case of perceptual experiences) or of regions of our bodies (as in the case of bodily sensations). This is not to say that experiences do not have qualia. The point is that qualia are not qualities of experiences. This claim, which will be developed further in the next section, is controversial and some philosophers deny outright the thesis of transparency with respect to qualia (see Block 1991, 2000; Stoljar 2004; Nida-Rümelin 2007). According to Block, for example, qualia are not presented to us in introspection as intrinsic, non-intentional properties of our experiences. Still it does not follow from this that we are not introspectively acquainted with such properties. For we do know on the basis of introspection what it is like to undergo a visual experience of blue, say. So, if what a state is like is a matter of which intrinsic, non-intentional properties it tokens, then obviously we are introspectively aware of properties of this sort (in the de re sense of ‘of’). On this view, whether qualia are properties of experiences (in particular, intrinsic, non-intentional properties) is a theoretical matter. Introspection does not settle the matter one way or the other.

7. Representational Theories of Qualia

Talk of the ways things look and feel is intensional. If I have a red after-image as a result of a flashbulb going off, the spot I ‘see’ in front of the photographer’s face looks red, even though there is no such spot. If I live in a world in which all and only things that are purple are poisonous, it is still the case that an object that looks purple to me does not thereby look poisonous (in the phenomenal sense of ‘looks’). If I feel a pain in a leg, I need not even have a leg. My pain might be a pain in a phantom limb. Facts such as these have been taken to provide further support for the contention that some sort of representational account is appropriate for qualia.

If qualia are not qualities of experiences, as some philosophers maintain on the basis of an appeal to introspection, and the only qualities revealed in introspection are qualities represented by experiences (qualities that, in the perceptual case, if they belong to anything, belong to external things), a natural representational proposal is that qualia are really representational contents of experiences into which the represented qualities enter. This would also explain why we talk of experiences *having* qualia or *having* a phenomenal character. For the representational content of an experience is something the experience has; just as meaning is something a word has. Moreover, just as the meaning of a word is not a quality the word possesses, so the phenomenal character of an experience is not a quality the experience possesses.

If qualia are representational contents, just which contents are these? Obviously there can be differences in the representational contents of experiences without any phenomenal difference. If you and I see a telescope from the same viewing angle, for example, then even if I do not recognize it as a telescope and you do (so that our experiences differ representationally at this level), the way the telescope looks to both of us is likely pretty much the same (in the phenomenal sense of ‘looks’). Likewise, if a child is viewing the same item from the same vantage point, her experience will likely be pretty similar to yours and mine too. Phenomenally, our experiences are all very much alike, notwithstanding certain higher-level representational differences. This, according to some representationalists, is because we all have experiences that represent to us the same 3-D surfaces, edges, colors, and surface-shapes plus a myriad of other surface details.

The representation we share here has a content much like that of the 2 1/2-D sketch posited by David Marr in his famous theory of vision (1982) to which further shape and color information has been appended (for details, see Tye 1995). This content is plausibly viewed as nonconceptual. It forms the output of the early, largely modular sensory processing and the input to one or another system of higher-level cognitive processing. Representationalists sometimes claim that it is here at this level of content that qualia are to be found (see Dretske 1995, Tye 1995, 2000; for an opposing representational view, see McDowell 1994).

One worry for this view is that if qualia are to be handled in terms of representational content, then there had better be a content that is shared by veridical visual experiences and their hallucinatory counterparts. Disjunctivists have disputed the supposition that there is a common content (see, e.g., Hinton 1973, Martin 1997, Snowdon 1990). Perhaps veridical experiences have only singular contents and hallucinatory experiences have gappy contents or no content at all (for an extended discussion of visual experience and content, see Pautz 2010, Siegel 2011).

An alternative possibility is that qualia are properties represented by experiences. On this view, there need be no common content shared by veridical experiences and their hallucinatory counterparts. It suffices that the same properties be represented. Of course, such a view requires that a further account be provided of what it is that makes a property represented by an experience a quale.

Some philosophers try to ground qualia in modes of representation deployed by experiences within their representational contents. On one version of this view, visual experiences not only represent the external world but also represent themselves (for a recent collection of essays elaboarating this view, see Kriegel and Williford 2006). For example, my current visual experience of a red object not only represents the object as red (this is my focal awareness) but also represents itself as red (this is normally a kind of peripheral awareness I have of my experience). When I introspect, the experience alone provides me with awareness of itself — no higher order thought is necessary. What the experience is like for me is supposedly its redness, where this is a mode of representation my experience uses to represent real world redness.

This view is incompatible with the phenomenon of transparency (see section 6) and it is very close to the classic qualiaphile view, according to which when the subject introspects, she is aware of the token experience and its phenomenal properties. The new twist is that this awareness uses the token experience itself and one of its contents.

Representationalists about qualia are often also externalists about representational content (but not always — see, for example, Chalmers 2004). On this view, what a given experience represents is metaphysically determined at least, in part, by factors in the external environment. Thus, it is usually held, microphysical twins can differ with respect to the representational contents of their experiences. If these differences in content are of the right sort then, according to the wide representationalist, microphysical twins cannot fail to differ with respect to the phenomenal character of their experiences. What makes for a difference in representational content in microphysical duplicates is some external difference, some connection between the subjects and items in their respective environments. The generic connection is sometimes called ‘tracking’, though there is no general agreement as to in what exactly tracking consists.

On wide representationalism, qualia (like meanings) ain’t in the head. The classic, Cartesian-based picture of experience and its relation to the world is thus turned upside down. Qualia are not intrinsic qualities of inner ideas of which their subjects are directly aware, qualities that are necessarily shared by internal duplicates however different their environments may be. Rather, they are representational contents certain inner states possess, contents whose nature is fixed at least in part by certain external relations between individuals and their environments (Byrne and Tye 2006; for an opposing but still representationalist view, see Pautz 2006).

Representationalism, as presented so far, is an identity thesis with respect to qualia: qualia are supposedly one and the same as certain representational contents. Sometimes it is held instead that qualia are one and the same as certain representational properties of experiences (or properties represented in experiences); and sometimes it is is argued that these representational properties are themselves irreducible (Siewert 1998). There is also a weaker version of representationalism, according to which it is metaphysically necessary that experiences exactly alike with respect to their representational contents are exactly alike with respect to their qualia. Obviously, this supervenience thesis leaves open the further question as to the essential nature of qualia.

For further discussion, see Section 3 of the entry on representational theory of consciousness. Objections to representationalism are covered in the next section.

8. Qualia as Intrinsic, Nonrepresentational Properties of Experiences

As noted in section 1, the term ‘qualia’ is sometimes used for intrinsic nonrepresentational, consciously accessible properties of experience. Representationalists deny that there are qualia in this sense, while identifying qualia in the broad sense (that is, qualia as phenomenal character) with representational properties. However, some philosophers hold that there are qualia in the sense of intrinsic nonrepresentational properties of experience. These philosophers deny representationalism, and identify qualia in the broad sense with intrinsic nonrepresentational properties of experience. This view is the subject of the present section.

As noted earlier, some philosophers deny that experience is transparent. They claim that introspection does not show that experiences lack introspectible, intrinsic, nonrepresentational properties. Further, they insist that representationalism encounters decisive objections. These objections may be seen as making up one pillar in the main foundation for the view that experiences have qualia, conceived of now as intrinsic, nonrepresentational properties. The second pillar consists in what is sometimes called “the common kind assumption”, namely that veridical and hallucinatory experiences sometimes share the same phenomenal character (have the same qualia). This assumption is accepted by all the advocates of the views discussed so far but it is denied by advocates of relational theories of qualia (see section 9).

Objections to representational views of qualia often take the form of putative counter-examples. One class of these consists of cases in which, it is claimed, experiences have the same representational content but different phenomenal character. Christopher Peacocke adduces examples of this sort in his 1983. According to some (e.g., Block 1990, Shoemaker forthcoming), the Inverted Spectrum also supplies an example that falls into this category. Another class is made up of problem cases in which allegedly experiences have different representational contents (of the relevant sort) but the same phenomenal character. Ned Block’s Inverted Earth example (1990) is of this type. The latter cases only threaten strong representationalism, the former are intended to refute representationalism in both its strong and weaker forms. Counter-examples are also sometimes given in which supposedly experience of one sort or another is present but in which there is no state with representational content. Swampman (Davidson 1986) — the molecule by molecule replica of one of us, formed accidentally by the chemical reaction that occurs in a swamp when a partially submerged log is hit by lightning — is one such counter-example, according to some philosophers. But there are more mundane cases. Consider the exogenous feeling of depression. That, it may seem, has no representational content. Likewise, the exogenous feeling of elation. Yet these experiences certainly differ phenomenally.

There isn’t space to go through all these objections. We briefly discuss just one: Inverted Earth. Inverted Earth is an imaginary planet, on which things have complementary colors to the colors of their counterparts on Earth. The sky is yellow, grass is red, ripe tomatoes are green, and so on. The inhabitants of Inverted Earth undergo psychological attitudes and experiences with inverted intentional contents relative to those of people on Earth. They think that the sky is yellow, see that grass is red, etc. However, they call the sky ‘blue’, grass ‘green’, ripe tomatoes ‘red’, etc. just as we do. Indeed, in all respects consistent with the alterations just described, Inverted Earth is as much like Earth as possible.

In Block’s original version of the tale, mad scientists insert color-inverting lenses in your eyes and take you to Inverted Earth, where you are substituted for your Inverted Earth twin or doppelganger. Upon awakening, you are aware of no difference, since the inverting lenses neutralize the inverted colors. You think that you are still where you were before. What it is like for you when you see the sky or anything else is just what it was like on earth. But after enough time has passed, after you have become sufficiently embedded in the language and physical environment of Inverted Earth, your intentional contents will come to match those of the other inhabitants. You will come to believe that the sky is yellow, for example, just as they do. Similarly, you will come to have a visual experience that represents the sky as yellow. For the experiential state you now undergo, as you view the sky, is the one that, in you, now normally tracks yellow things. So, the later you will come to be subject to inner states that are intentionally inverted relative to the inner states of the earlier you, while the phenomenal aspects of your experiences will remain unchanged.

Perhaps the simplest reply that can be made with respect to this objection is to deny that there really is any change in normal tracking with respect to color, at least as far as your experiences go. “Normal”, after all, has both teleological and nonteleological senses. If what an experience normally tracks is what nature designed it to track, what it has as its biological purpose to track, then shifting environments from Earth to Inverted Earth will make no difference to normal tracking and hence no difference to the representational contents of your experiences. The sensory state that nature designed in your species to track blue in the setting in which your species evolved will continue to do just that even if through time, on Inverted Earth, in that alien environment, it is usually caused in you by looking at yellow things.

The suggestion that tracking is teleological in character, at least for the case of basic experiences, goes naturally with the plausible view that states like feeling pain or having a visual sensation of red are phylogenetically fixed (Dretske 1995). However, it encounters serious difficulties with respect to the Swampman case mentioned above. On a cladistic conception of species, Swampman is not human. Indeed, lacking any evolutionary history, he belongs to no species at all. His inner states play no teleological role. Nature did not design any of them to do anything. So, if phenomenal character is a certain sort of teleo-representational content, as some representationalists hold, then Swampman has no experiences and no qualia. This, for many philosophers, is very difficult to believe.

There are alternative replies available (see Lycan 1996, Tye 2000) in connection with the Inverted Earth problem. These involve either denying that qualia do remain constant with the switch to Inverted Earth or arguing that a non-teleological account of sensory content may be elaborated, under which qualia stay the same.

As noted above, the second pillar in the foundation of the view that qualia are intrinsic, nonrepresentational properties of experiences is the common kind assumption. Those philosophers who accept this assumption see it (in the perceptual case) as providing the simplest, best explanation of the fact that hallucinations and veridical perceptions sometimes seem exactly alike to their subjects. It is granted, of course, that it does not follow that there is something common between hallucinations and perceptions in such cases from the fact that they seem alike. Nonetheless, it is a challenge to those who reject this assumption (see section 9) to provide a better explanation.

9. Relational Theories of Qualia

Relational theories of qualia typically begin with the naive realist thesis that in normal circumstances perceivers are directly aware of the objects around them and various properties that they have. It is then proposed that since perceivers are also directly aware of what their experiences are like, the phenomenal character of their experiences in such cases is to be understood in terms of the relevant objects and their properties along with the viewpoint from which they are being observed. More precisely, it is urged that the phenomenal character is constituted by the objects that the perceiver sees, some of their properties and how they are arranged relative to the viewer.(Campbell 2002)

In later work, Campbell (2009) allows that the viewer’s ‘standpoint’ needs to be factored into phenomenal character too. The standpoint a perceiver occupies includes much more than just the egocentric frame of the perceiver. It includes the sense modality used to perceive, the time and place of the perceiving as well as the distance from the perceived object, the orientation of the perceiver relative to the object, and the temporal dynamics of the experience. Consciousness of an object, for Campbell, now consists in a three-place relation between a perceiver, an object, and a standpoint. With what exactly phenomenal character itself is to be identified, on this proposal, is unclear.

Bill Brewer (2011) agrees with Campbell that a third relatum is needed in naïve realist accounts of perceptual experience, where the third relatum includes the sense modality of the experience, the spatio-temporal point of view, and other relevant circumstances of perception but he does not specify what exactly these circumstances are. William Fish (2009) takes a similar position, arguing that the third element should include idiosyncracies of the perceiver’s visual system as well as attentional facts about the perceiver since two ordinary perceivers viewing the same object from the same position may nonetheless differ in the character of their visual experiences, depending upon how good their eyesight is (for example) and how they distribute their attention.

Of course, when one is (completely) hallucinating, there are no objects that one sees. So, relationism cannot allow that the phenomenal character in this case is the same as in the veridical case. Accordingly, relationists reject what was called in the last section “the common kind assumption”. One possible view consistent with relationism is that in hallucinatory cases the phenomenal character is a matter of the representational content of the experience, as is claimed on some versions of representationalism. Another view, held by some relationists, is that there is nothing more to the phenomenal character of a hallucinatory experience — for example, an experience of a red triangle — than its being indiscriminable or indistinguishable from a veridical experience of a red triangle (Martin 2004, Fish 2009). On this view, in giving a mental characterization of a hallucinatory experience, there is nothing more to be said than that it has a certain relational and epistemological property, namely that of being indiscriminable from the relevant perceptual experience.

Sometimes relationists try to motivate their view by arguing that since the seen objects are constituents of veridical visual experiences and they are not in the case of hallucinatory experiences, the experiences in the two cases must themselves be different. However, even if this is correct, it does not follow that they cannot share the same phenomenal character. What follows is rather that if they do share a common phenomenal character, then the conscious experiences are not to be individuated (solely) by that phenomenal character.

One problem facing Martin’s relational account of hallucinatory phenomenal character is that of cognitively unsophisticated perceivers. Dogs can hallucinate but they lack the cognitive wherewithal to judge that their hallucinatory experiences of bones are the same or different from their veridical experiences of squirrels. In at least one clear sense of ‘indiscriminable’, then, their hallucinatory experiences of bones are indiscriminable to them from their veridical experiences of squirrels. But the phenomenal character of these experiences is certainly different. (For a discussion of this problem and a response to it, see Martin 2004. For criticisms, see Siegel 2009.)

Another problem for the relational view is that it cannot easily handle cases of normal misperception, for example, the Muller-Lyer illusion. Campbell tells us that idiosyncrasies of the perceiver may affect phenomenal character, but he has no account to offer of cases in which something looks other than it is even to normal observers in normal circumstances. Here the scene before the eyes fails to capture the phenomenology. Brewer says that illusions are to be accounted for in terms of visually relevant similarities to paradigms of a kind of which the perceived object is not an instance. In the case of the Muller-Lyer, the paradigm is a pair of lines one longer and more distant than its plane, the other shorter and less distant. This proposal encounters various potential difficulties (Pautz 2010). For example, in the waterfall illusion, the water appears to be moving and not moving at the same time. Here there are no suitable paradigms in the real world. (See the entry on the disjunctive theory of perception.)

10. Which Creatures Undergo States with Qualia?

Do frogs have qualia? Or fish? What about honey bees? Somewhere down the phylogenetic scale phenomenal consciousness ceases. But where? It is sometimes supposed that once we begin to reflect upon much simpler beings than ourselves — snails, for example — we are left with nothing physical or structural that we could plausibly take to help us determine whether they are phenomenally conscious (Papineau 1994). There is really no way of our knowing if spiders are subject to states with qualia, as they spin their webs, or if fish undergo any phenomenal experiences, as they swim about in the sea.

Representationalism has the beginnings of an answer to the above questions. If what it is for a state to have phenomenal character is (very roughly) that it be a state that (i) carries information about certain features, internal or external, and (ii) is such that this information stands ready and available to make a direct difference to beliefs and desires (or belief- and desire-like states), then creatures that are incapable of reasoning, of changing their behavior in light of assessments they make, based upon information provided to them by sensory stimulation of one sort or another, are not phenomenally conscious. Tropistic organisms, on this view, feel and experience nothing. They have no qualia. They are full-fledged unconscious automata or zombies, rather as blindsight subjects are restricted unconscious automata or partial zombies with respect to a range of visual stimuli.

Consider, for example, the case of plants. There are many different sorts of plant behavior. Some plants climb, others eat flies, still others catapult out seeds. Many plants close their leaves at night. The immediate cause of these activities is something internal to the plants. Seeds are ejected because of the hydration or dehydration of the cell walls in seed pods. Leaves are closed because of water movement in the stems and petioles of the leaves, itself induced by changes in the temperature and light. These inner events or states are surely not phenomenal. There is nothing it is like to be a Venus Fly Trap or a Morning-Glory.

The behavior of plants is inflexible. It is genetically determined and, therefore, not modifiable by learning. Natural selection has favored the behavior, since historically it has been beneficial to the plant species. But it need not be now. If, for example, flies start to carry on their wings some substance that sickens Venus Fly Traps for several days afterwards, this will not have any effect on the plant behavior with respect to flies. Each Venus Fly Trap will continue to snap at flies as long as it has the strength to do so.

Plants do not learn from experience. They do not acquire beliefs and change them in light of things that happen to them. Nor do they have any desires. To be sure, we sometimes speak as if they do. We say that the wilting daffodils are just begging to be watered. But we recognize full well that this is a harmless façon de parler. What we mean is that the daffodils need water. There is here no goal-directed behavior, no purpose, nothing that is the result of any learning, no desire for water.

Plants, on the representational view, are not subject to any qualia. Nothing that goes on inside them is poised to make a direct difference to what they believe or desire, since they have no beliefs or desires.

Reasoning of the above sort can be used to make a case that even though qualia do not extend to plants and paramecia, qualia are very widely distributed in nature (see Tye 1997, 2000). Of course, such a case requires decisions to be made about the attribution of beliefs and desires (or belief- and desire-like states) to much simpler creatures. And such decisions are likely to be controversial in some cases. Moreover, representationalism itself is a very controversial position. The general topic of the origins of qualia is not one on which philosophers have said a great deal. (For a general, wide-ranging discussion of this issue that is neutral on the nature of qualia, see Tye 2016.)


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  • Van Gulick, R., 2007, “Functionalism and qualia,” The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, Max Velmans & Susan Schneider (eds.), Oxford: Blackwell.


The editors would like to thank Pat Hayes for bringing a corruption of the text to our attention.

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