This is the sixth of eleven papers in Ted Honderich's book On Consciousness (Edinburgh University Press and Pittsburgh University Press, 2004. It is a stage on the way to the Radical Externalism theory of consciousness. It was commented on adversely, to say the least, by Colin McGinn in his review of the book and defended by Ted Honderich in his reply.
It was back near the beginning of this book, in the discussion of the thinking of neuroscientific friends, that it was remarked that we can try to do a good deal of philosophy of mind without trying really to analyse or explain consciousness. In particular we can think of operations in or of consciousness, and in or of the brain, without seeing the general nature of consciousness. We can carry on without really analysing or explaining the ordinary, settled and obscure idea we have of consciousness or mentality. We can get through thoughts on the consciousness-brain problem too, but not without being at least nagged by the persistent problem, the prior problem.
This hardest problem has certainly not been solved during our progress, or even much advanced. It was not solved or much advanced by the alarming supposition lately made explicit, that conscious events are in the category of physical events, and physical events in heads, but are not the events of our neuroscience. This want of a solution, common as it is, must be a shortcoming of any thinking about consciousness, the mind, mind and brain, the causal or other explanation of the occurrence of mental events, their relation to the world, the explanation of action or behaviour.
As you have heard, it is at least difficult to believe that light is shed by functionalism, however elaborated in cognitive science, from which we have kept a perfectly proper philosophical distance, or in what in the end is the oddity of anti-individualism. Nor is light shed by a bluff confidence in humble truths and the like. With respect to that last hope, on reflection it is a remarkable idea that what all of us find puzzling or baffling can be seen clearly by remembering this or that common fact or collection of such facts. That is a Wittgensteinian proposition, perhaps, and none the better for that.
The following paper is like all of the rest of this book in trying actually to give an analysis of consciousness itself, necessarily a literal analysis. The paper is a first attempt. It restricts itself, like a good deal of what comes after, to what seems to be fundamental to consciousness, which is perceptual consciousness -- our being aware of things around us by sight and our other senses. There can be little doubt that perceptual consciousness not only preceded other consciousness in the development of our species, but also is prior in other ways, say in the early development of a human being, however complex that story. The facts of priority hang together, somehow, with the fact of fundamentality. It is hard or impossible to resist the idea that a real analysis of perceptual consciousness will put us well on the road to an understanding of all consciousness, the various problems about it.
With this paper, and more so with those to come, there is less need for introduction. If this inquiry has gone on decently up to now, you know where you are. Or anywhere you know where you re according to one fairly common or even very common orientation, if maybe one with attitude as well as belief in it. But that is another story.
The paper struggles persistently with matters of which you do not need to be told, all of them contributing to our uncertain sense of our consciousness. It has to do, first, with any event of perceptual consciousness involving a seeming relation of something like a subject to a content. It has to do, secondly, with the relation or relations of a content to an object or the world. It has to do, thirdly, perhaps not so familiarly, with the relation between these relations. It turns out, so to speak, that the world intrudes on these reflections.
This paper is not now the success, even the flawed success, that it once seemed to me to be. It could be OK anyway. It has the recommentation of following that policy noticed early on, mental realism, reflecting on mental events in their reality rather than allowing oneself to be distracted (p. 00). It is the opposite to the drunk's policy of not looking for the keys in the bushes where they are, because the light is bad there. It may be better than what follows it in this book. Sometimes earlier thoughts are best.
1. Subject and Content
Consider my experience of seeing the long lawn out the window, suitable for croquet. On another occasion, if my visual cortex and more of my brain were the same, but there was no lawn, my experience would nevertheless be identical, wouldn't it? So we are told. If so, no part of my experience when I see the lawn, and in particular what is commonly called its content, is actually identical with the lawn. That is the argument from illusion, as it has traditionally been known, and its conclusion. Is a different proposition not merely a commonsensical temptation?
Is content abstract, then, not in space and time? Is it, as many say, propositional, by which they partly mean not in space and time? That cannot be true of the content being considered here. Nor, by the way, can this content be 'inexistent', as Brentano said,1 if that means what it sounds like. This is so since content as it is being understood, and as it is relevantly understood in the philosophy of mind, is causal. It is part of the causal explanation of behaviour, thereby not being an anomaly in terms of natural selection. It is also an effect of such things as a croquet lawn. Both facts require that it be spatio-temporal. There are no causes and no effects, or, if you like, no standard causes and effects, which are out of space and time.
There is a related point. Nothing that will be said in what follows is intended to involve taking my experience of seeing the lawn as other than physical. There are common conceptions of the physical that tie it to present or future or completed science, and thus have clear disabilities of several kinds. A satisfactory conception, to my mind, which does make physical items possible subjects of science, takes them by definition to be either occupants of space and time that are perceived, or occupants of space and time that are causal with respect to occupants of the first category -- those that are perceived. Atoms and forces come into the second category. So does all of my experience.
This is fortunate, since otherwise it would not exist in the only clear sense I know. This is not to say experience is neural. It is not to say so even if it is true, as it seems to be, that all my mental properties are properly regarded as properties of my brain and central nervous system. They might be funny properties of those things. They would not be the first funny properties to turn up in the history of science and philosophy.
What else can be said of content? To speak of a content, surely, is already to suggest something else about an experience -- that it did not involve only a content. The idea of a content is surely the idea of something in relation to something else. That is not the contingent truth that a content is in relation to something else, as perhaps all things are. The idea of a content, rather, is a relational idea, an idea of a thing related to something else, like the idea of a passenger.
Not to depend entirely on the conceptual point, and indeed to leave it in a way open by using 'content' loosely, is a visual experience's having involved more than content established in what can be called an empirical way? Is it established, that is, by our immediate recollection of such experiences? Consider any two which we would ordinarily regard as different -- say my experiences of seeing the lawn and of seeing the portrait on the wall.
It seems there is a certain respect in which the two experiences are more or less the same. It is a respect, as needs to be added, in which all my mental events of whatever kind are more or less the same. Moreover, each of the two more or less identical items involved in the two experiences is unitary or featureless, quite unlike the respects in which the experiences differ -- that is, quite unlike those properties which are their contents. Each content, far from being unitary of featureless, typically has many features.
You may say of these two considerations, one conceptual and one empirical, that at best they do not establish that a content stands in relation to something else which is another part of an experience. You may say that the related thing is a person. Suppose you say, further, choosing not to pay any real attention to my remark about a content's seeming to be related to something that is unitary, that a person consists in one or both of a persisting body and a sequence of mental events. The sequence is such that all the events in it are related in certain ways, above all in that many are anticipations or memories of others.
It needs to be allowed that the content of an experience is related, and may perhaps be understood as being related, both to a body and to a mental sequence. The relationships to a mental sequence, some of those to which functionalism restricts itself, hold or may hold if the content is anticipated or remembered.
It is unpersuasive to say that a visual experience recollected a moment later is understood only as having its content in relation to or dependent upon a body. Also, it seems even more unpersuasive to say of the content of a piece of intellectual imagining that it is understood as body-related at all. However, it is understood as being in another relation, and surely all contents are in just this respect alike. Is this just the relation to a mental sequence?
The idea that we take contents as related only to mental sequences runs up against a third consideration. Consider a first and entirely forgotten or a last and entirely unanticipated mental event in the life of a person. It is hard to resist thinking that the content of this mental event is to be conceived as being in relation to something else. Ex hypothesi this is not other mental events. This further consideration seems to me pretty forceful. Also, there is the thought, which pertains as much to the previous idea about a content's being related to a body, that what a content goes with is somehow unitary or featureless. We are not so well supplied with intuitions in this inquiry that we can afford to discard that one.
The several considerations, to my mind, come close to showing that my experience involved more than a content. The third consideration, about a first and forgotten or a last and unanticipated mental event, comes close to showing that my experience, my mental event, had as a part something other than a content. To say it 'shows' this, however, is to presuppose that we have a wholly settled conception of an experience, about which the plain discovery in question can be made. This is doubtful. It seems to an extent open to decision whether something other than a content is part of an experience. What is needed is a decision as to how to use 'an experience', the extension of the term. I shall so use it that something other than a content is indeed part of an experience. Nothing much depends on this, but it will certainly accord better with things to come than would talk of two entities.
In sum, then, the way in which visual experiences typically differ and are many-featured gives us their contents. The different and many-featured property of each of most of our visual experiences is its content. As for the property that is more or less the same in each of our otherwise different visual experiences, and is unitary, this can be referred to as its subject. In my view all mental events can be spoken of with some reason as a matter of subject and content. That is what mental events are. The nature of the mental, of consciousness, consists in this internal duality. It is what is misdescribed or underdescribed, incidentally, by related characterizations in terms of 'qualia', or 'what something is like', or 'what it is like to be something', or 'raw feels'. It is remote from what is usually gestured at by the word dualism, if only because both content and subject are physical.
The term 'subject' is very rightly suspect. I use it for a while in place of others which perhaps are about as good. I might have spoken just of the experience and its content, or been a bit more lyrical, perhaps by way of the idea of mental space and what it contains, or tried to expand on the image that content is not inert.2 My use of 'subject' is not to be taken as conveying more than what has already been mentioned. A subject is not a self unless a self is taken to be no more than a uniform part of a mental event which is like a part of other mental events which typically are otherwise different. It is worth remembering that a subject within one of my experiences is taken as only more or less the same as the subject within another of my experiences. Whatever the fact about subjects may be, this is not to assert either qualitative or numerical identity. Nor is it to assert persistence.3
What is the relation of my visual experience to its object, the lawn? What is the relation, that is, of my visual experience to the world? Surprisingly it seems sometimes to have been confused with a relation between subject and content.4 It is, rather, that relation expressed by saying that the experience was of the lawn, or that I was aware of the lawn. At least in part that is to say that the lawn was among the causes of the experience. In what we are likely to call another part, the relation consists in the experience being somehow representative of the lawn. More particularly, it was its content that stood in these two ways to the lawn.
There is no doubt about the fact of representation here, no doubt that there is some fact or other that can have such a name. Certainly something could not be an experience without being of something, and it could not be of something without being of something in particular. Something could not be an experience of seeing the lawn if it was in no sense representative of the lawn, or, to speak in different ways of the same fact, it was in no sense true of the lawn, in no sense featured as the lawn is featured. It might be an experience caused by them, but it could not be an experience of them. Part of what makes an experience an experience of this rather than that is that it represents this rather than that.
All of the reflections so far issue in, indeed will come close to foundering on, a number of problems. They are the concern of the rest of this paper. What more can be said of and with respect to the nature of the content of an experience? What is the nature of the so-called subject? What is the relation between them? Above all, what is it for an experience to be representative of the world? How do answers to these questions bear on one another?
2. Content and World -- Relations of Representation
Suppose we try to think of the content of my experience, so far as it is representative, as being something like an image. It has a property related to the isomorphism of my actual retinal image -- the image being shape-related to the lawn. It cannot actually be an image since, it seems, the idea of content itself as actually green and dendritic seems to be against our sense of the idea. Or suppose we think of the content as involving conventions, as in the case of a word or statement. Suppose we think of its being representative in a mixture of these two ways.
Long before we get into doctrinal battles beginning in these vague suppositions, let alone try for some detail, there is a something to be settled. For plain and everyday representation, the kind of representation on which we really have a little grip, we need to be aware of what does the representing. For this plain representation where it involves an image, say a portrait of someone, I need to see the image. For representation where it involves a written word or a statement, I need to be given the word or statement. In both cases I need a representation which is itself an object of awareness. I need a representation which is an object of awareness in exactly the way in the lawn is the object of awareness of my experience.
Do we have such a thing within my experience of seeing the lawn? Some philosophers, most notably in the tradition of the representative or sense-data theory of perception, or the related theory of phenomenalism, have supposed so. In ordinary seeing, they have supposed, what I am aware of in this way is ideas in a certain sense, or sense-data, or percepts, or qualia of a kind. By one short description, these philosophers suppose there are subjective things that are objects of awareness in the way we ordinarily take the lawn to be the object of my experience. These are objects of awareness but ones that are not public, not open to several senses, and not such as to exist unperceived or outside of awareness.
The trouble is that there are no such things in ordinary perception. We know something of what it is to be aware of things in this standard way. In the case of the lawn, to repeat, it is for there to be a content that is an effect and a representation of the lawn. With respect to my experience of seeing the lawn, it contains no subjective thing such that it is an effect of and represents some other subjective thing. That is not to say my experience had no part which was its content. It is to say its content was not an object of the given kind of awareness. The only object of what we can henceforth call standard awareness in connection with my seeing the lawn is the lawn.
This confidence about there being no subjective objects of standard awareness in visual perception rests, as Hume ought to have said, on every person's experience. The claim that there are subjective objects of standard awareness is nothing other than a claim about our experience in seeing something. It is a claim to which nothing other than retrospection of experience is most relevant. None of us, just after seeing something, recollects a subjective item which is the effect and representation of another subjective item. To speculate that we are standardly aware of subjective objects can only be owed to vagueness about what it is for there to be such awareness of something.
This confidence about there being no subjective objects of standard awareness in perception is not reduced by the tradition of argument that has at least sometimes been aimed at establishing their existence. To take a recent example, it is no good saying that I do not see or do not have sensory awareness that things, say the lawn, are public, touchable, and exist unperceived. That is true, or so we can grant. But it does not follow that I do not see or am not visually aware of what has those properties. It thus does not follow either, to get to the end of this argument for the representative theory, that I must perceive or be aware of subjective objects.5 Above all, to stick to the point with which we are concerned, it does not follow that there are subjective things that are objects of awareness in the way that the lawn is ordinarily taken to be the object of my experience.
Will someone insist at this point that I am in fact in the standard way aware of the content of my experience? That can only be insistence that I am aware of the lawn, since it is the only thing I am aware of in this way. It can only be a matter of changing a definition, the definition of the term 'content', and hence the subject-matter. Our subject-matter is a perceptual mental event, not in part what I have been calling the object of that event. Should someone now reply that in her conception a mental event may include the croquet lawn, she is welcome to her different subject-matter. It is not ours. Further, if one aim of her enterprise is the explanation of behaviour, her subject-matter contains otiose parts. The lawn is no doubt part of the history of my perceptual mental event, in my sense, but they need not come into the explanation of my actions, any more than the explanation of an event by a causal circumstance or full cause requires an explanation of the causal circumstance.
To return to our question, what is to be said of the representative character of content? If we are not standardly aware of anything to do the representing, no analogue of seen picture or heard word, should we give up what was said to be beyond doubt, that content is in some way representative? It seems we cannot. I need an answer to the question of what it is that made my experience an experience of the lawn, and something about representation seems essential as part of the answer.
3. Non-Mental Representation
Many philosophers of mind, as we know, have the very estimable habit of fleeing mystery. Should we follow them? Should we take the course of not trying to think about some sort of non-standard awareness of content, which is mysterious, and turn instead to a representation that is not an object of any awareness and moreover is not mental at all? We can look to neuroscience for such a representative thing, or to various models of the mind and perception. Certainly there are things which are spoken of as non-mental representations. They are spoken of in several terminologies, one having to do with a kind of information.6 One such thing is the real image on my retinas. Shall we say that my experience's representing the lawn comes to no more than that it was caused by the lawn, and the causal sequence in question included a non-mental representation of the lawn, or more than one such representation?
On reflection, there is a pointlessness in this. What is the attraction of a retinal image when we are looking for something non-mental to which to give the name of being a representation? What is it about a retinal image that gives point to talking about it as a representation? If we do not like retinal images in this role, and choose differently, what is the attraction of some configuration of neural events which in a sense preserves information about the lawn? Ex hypothesi I do not see see the retinal image or the neural configuration, register its outline, see it as something, take it for something, interpret it, use it to refer to something, or stand to it in any other relation to it which goes with ordinary representation, representation by either image or word.
If we put aside the inclination to half-think in these mistaken ways of the non-mental representation, it is clear that its attraction is just this: each of its parts, features, properties or whatever is an effect of a part, feature, property or whatever of the object of perception, in my case the lawn. It is not just that the non-mental representation thought of as a whole can be traced to the object as a whole, but that each bit of the representation can be traced to a bit of the object. Non-mental representation stands to object as the impression in the wax stands to the seal. Hence, for what it is worth, just as it is possible to say that the impression is true to the seal, so it is possible to say that the non-mental representation is true to the object.
What this comes to is the idea, to which we shall return, that the second of the two relations in which content stands to object, the representational relation, is to be found in the first, the causal. But if this is what the relation of representation is taken to be, there is indeed a pointlessness in turning to non-mental representations. This is so because there seems no objection to taking content itself as standing in just the same causal relation, or rather causal relations, to the object. That I am not standardly aware of a content, that there are no subjective objects of such awareness -- evidently this does not entail that the lawn does not stand to the content as the seal stands to the impression in the wax. There is, with respect to a certain bit of my content, the bit of the lawn near the maple tree, and so on.
There is an additional and stronger reason for not turning away from the content itself to retinal images, neural configurations or anything else. To some, I think, the question of the nature of perceptual content is unimportant. This is so partly because their general concern is the explanation of behaviour. Further, however, they suppose in an unreflective way that an explanation can be provided in terms of objects of perception, such as the lawn, and non-mental representations. The general concern is one we must all share. No account of the mind can have attention which includes no explanation of behaviour. But what of the opinion, that we can get to such an explanation without paying attention to the nature of perceptual content?
The recommended enterprise has no chance of success, if success consists in a full explanation of behaviour. This is so since the enterprise begins from epiphenomenalism -- which doctrine is not supported by or assumed by neuroscience, as is sometimes supposed. Epiphenomenalism is one of the few things about us that really does seem false. Among criteria to be satisfied by accounts of the mind, one is the criterion of mental indispensability. My experience of seeing the lawn is an indispensable part of the explanation of my subsequent linguistic behaviour, my remark on it. It is a cause of the remark. That is not to say, exactly, that a full explanation of behaviour must include a satisfactory account of the nature of experiences, and in particular their contents, that we need to go on puzzling about them forever. What it must include is a reference to them. Still, there is not much security in a kind of mere gesturing at a part of an explanans.
That is not the only additional reason for attending to the question of the nature of perceptual content. We may actually want to know that nature, independently of our interest in the explanation of behaviour. I do, and, to be bold, I say everybody does, or anyway every philosopher of mind. Those who seem to be uninterested in what is sometimes called the ontological question are better described as put off because they see no hope of getting an answer, or simply are attracted to a research-area which intersects with a part of contemporary science. It is easy to sympathize with them, but not easy to join them.
3. Representative Content as Impression
To glance back, we began by assuming that a content stands in two relations to its object, or the world, a causal one and a representative one. The assumption in its second part was taken to require what we do not have, subjective objects of standard awareness. We then contemplated non-mental representations. But these have no greater worth, whatever it is, in preserving the idea of representation, than content itself. Their relevant character, their character of being impressions, can presumably be had by content itself.
That contents are impressions, further, like the fact that anything else is an impression, is no more than the fact that they are certain effects, no more than the fact that perceptual objects are their causes. The question to which we come, then, is this: Does a content really stand in but one relation to its object, that of being caused by it? To put the question differently, can we explain the representativeness of content just by its being an impression?
In fact the move is attractive. If we escape being mesmerized by talk of representation, and ask ourselves what real relations could hold between a lawn and a spatio-temporal content, what answer is tolerable other than causation? But can we make this move only if we also try something else? It seems so since a content's being an impression is not sufficient to explain representativeness. There are two objections to supposing that being an impression is sufficient.
First, it is plain that there is some fundamental and relevant distinction between the content of my experience and other effects of an object, say the effect of the lawn that is its photograph, or the effect it has on the subsoil, even when those effects are impressions, as in the two cases mentioned. It is a difference that drives us to say that experiences are of things, and intend by that word more than that the experiences stand to the things as impressions to causes.
More particularly, the difference puts us under pressure to say content is representative where that somehow comes to more than saying that it is the the impression of the object. As you will gather, it seems to me that we would also have been under this same pressure if we had persevered with only non-mental representations. It is not just that there is a pointlessness in turning to non-mental representations, and that it gets us into epiphenomenalism. Impressions of whatever kind are not enough.
There is a second objection with the same upshot. What we are contemplating is that the content of my experience, simply in being an impression of the lawn, is in virtue of that sufficient fact a representation of the lawn. It seems this cannot be right, as others must have noted. The content is also precisely an impression of my retinal image. Morever, it is an impression in the given sense, to speak quickly, of every cross-section of a certain causal line linking the lawn and the content. But we are trying to explain a relation just to the lawn. What the content represents is just the lawn.
Is there an overlooked argument, by the way, that content's being an impression is not even necessary to representation? It consists in the seeming fact noted at the very beginning. There is a conceivable situation, it seems, where my visual cortex etc. is the same, my experience is indistinguishable from my ordinary experience in seeing the lawn, and there is no lawn. In this extraordinary case there would certainly be the fact of representation. Some will say quickly that ex hypothesi the content is not an impression. Well, it is not an impression of a lawn there and then. Can we make it an impression of an earlier lawn or whatever? I shall not linger over this now, and not abandon the idea that representation involves causation.
5. Help From Subject and Content, and Unmediated Awareness?
What must come to mind is the idea that we try to shed light on what we have been calling the representative nature of content by reflecting on the relation of this effect to something other than its cause. We have already supposed that content does stand in another relation. The content of a visual experience is somehow related to another part of the experience, given the name of the subject. A visual experience shares this character with all mental events.
Putting aside for a time our motive for looking at this relation, what can be said of it? To take a bit further what has been said already, it seems in some way impossible that there could be a content without a subject. Also, it seems as impossible that there could be a subject without some content or other, sensory or otherwise. A mental event consists in a certain duality. At a first approximation, it consists in the interdependent existence of subject and content.
To discern only this, however, is to think of no more than a kind of necessary connection which also joins things in the non-mental world. To take the subject-content connection as nomic or lawlike, which presumably it is, is not yet to have any distinction between it and, say, the connection between properties of a gas. If I recall subject and content in my thought a moment ago of Baden, or in my sensation in my knee, there is more to it than the necessary connection.
Shall we try to conjecture at this point that the relation between subject and content is one of standard awareness? That the content is the subject's object of standard awareness? What is to be said against the conjecture is not exactly what was said earlier, that I, a person, am not aware in this way of a subjective object in seeing the lawn. A subject is not a person, and it is a conceptually possible that persons are not standardly aware of subjective objects but subjects are.
The present conjecture is to be abandoned, however, for essentially the same reason as with the earlier one. It introduces into our mental lives more than we can find there. To subject and content-as-object it adds a middle term. Also and differently, it introduces an awareness relation into the analysis of the same kind of awareness relation -- the latter exemplified by my awareness of the lawn. Finally, if we were to take awareness to require something like a person, which we have not, the conjecture would call for a series of homunculi. We need not pursue that.
Does the relation of subject to content nevertheless have something to do with awareness, some fact that can have that name? Shall we take the course of saying that subject stands to content as content stands to object? That is not in accord with what we have bravely discerned, an interdependence of a certain kind between subject and content. It is not part of what was discerned that a particular content is necessary to the existence of a subject. But if subject stood to content as content stands to object, then precisely that content would be necessary to the subject-as-content.
To take the given course would also commit us to taking subject as representative of content -- taking it to be the case that subject is image-like, word-like, an impression, or some such. That would not be in accord with what we have either. A subject is unitary or featureless. Further, in accordance with our very first conclusion about content's being related to something, making the subject into a content itself would give us another subject, and so on.
We may feel moved at this point to turn to the idea of a kind of awareness different from the standard kind with which we have been concerned. Shall we say, and try to give a certain sense to saying, that in my experience of seeing the lawn, there is unmediated awareness of content? That would be precisely not to say that there is any representation of content. On this view there is nothing, in so far as this awareness of content is concerned, as distinct from content itself, which is image-like, word-like, or an impression. The content itself is given or presented.
The idea under contemplation is that in my experience of seeing the lawn there is unmediated awareness of content. That, as you will notice, is to say less than that a subject is in this way aware of content. My reluctance to make the seemingly more precise claim is partly a fear of misconception about a self and so on, and partly apprehension about homuncularism. But there is a better if related reason. To make the seemingly more precise claim would be to presuppose that we have more of a grip on a subject than we have, a better idea than we have. That is not all. It seems all too possible that in speaking of unmediated awareness of a content we refer as effectively to the very same fact as we do by speaking of a subject and a subject-content relation. I am inclined to think that is true. Something close to the point was anticipated earlier.7
What we are contemplating is that my experience of seeing the lawn included a content that was an impression of the lawn, and, to choose one way of speaking, that there was an unmediated awareness of this content. Do we in these considerations have the hope of an analysis or explanation of the representative nature of content?
It was objected above, against taking content as representative to be no more than the fact that it is an impression, that content is an impression of many more things than just the object of the experience. Can we deal with this by supposing that what is required, for something to be a representation, is that there is unmediated awareness of it as an impression of something in particular? Is it the case that what makes the content of my experience representative is just that there is unmediated awareness of it as an effect of a particular cause?
The speculation, whatever else is said of it, might be taken to involve us in another, that my experience of seeing the lawn was in part a belief, that the experience included the unmediated belief that a content is an impression of a particular object. That seems to be wrong. The experience of seeing something, although it evidently can give rise to belief in the existence of an object, is not itself one. Various illusions give one reason for this conclusion. I do have a visual experience of lines of different lengths in the Muller-Lyer illusion, but I do not believe that they are of different lengths.8 Might it be argued that in such a case my experience nevertheless includes some belief about the cause of an impression, say the belief that two lines on the page, of whatever length, are causal? If so, consider instead a certain thought-experiment.
Suppose I am now in an extraordinary situation. I know that during each of the next ten minutes I will either be facing the window and seeing the lawn in the ordinary way, or facing the wall and subjected to such cortical stimulation that my experience is indistinguishable from my experience of seeing the lawn in the ordinary way. I also know now that I will have no way of telling, in any minute, whether I am facing window or wall. If I do know these things now, or even just believe them, I will at no time during the ten minutes believe that there is a lawn in front of me, or that they have a certain effect. I will at all times have the same experience but I will at no time have the belief we have been contemplating. It is hard to see any objection to the conclusion, so to speak, that seeing is not and does not include believing.
So we cannot suppose that my experience of seeing the lawn includes believing the content to have been caused by the lawn. If unmediated awareness is part of the story of my seeing the lawn, there must be some other characterization of it. Does it include a datum that is not a belief? That is baffling, but actually has the right ring. Suppose we were able to get a characterization. Would what we then had, unmediated awareness of a content as an impression of something in particular, be sufficient for representation?
Any inclination to say yes must be reluctant. Since the content is in fact an impression of many more things than the lawn, why should there be awareness of it as an impression of the lawn in particular? The idea seems to involve some supposition having to do with what might be called a chosen interpretation. The content is regarded as an effect of one part of its causal history as against others. Is the story not too complex? Does it not make too much of seeing the lawn? Is there not too much going on? Might it not be said that what has been called into existence -- awareness-as -- must be doubtful since it requires an explanation which we cannot give?
Let us leave these unsatisfactory reflections on representation for a time. Can we hope to get further ahead in the end by looking at our subject-matter very differently? In any case, we can feel a compulsion to do so.
6. The Givenness of the World
The tangled story we have been contemplating is that my visual experience consisted in an unmediated awareness of a content, which awareness was not a belief but was of what might be called a datum, and this awareness somehow involved the content taken as a particular impression, an impression of just the lawn.
The story can for a time seem not only unsatisfactory and tangled but in part plainly false. If I think of my experience of seeing the lawn a moment ago, I can recoil from this talk of awareness of a peculiar content as a particular impression. I can feel impelled to say that the lawn was given or presented. What was given or presented was no mental thing or fact, but the lawn. If I can manage, as it seems I can, to mingle with an ongoing visual experience the question of what it is that is given or presented, the answer to which I can feel impelled is that it is precisely the object of the experience.
It seems that if our goal is really to characterize visual experience, and in particular to get hold of the fact of representation, we cannot ignore this impulse. It is an impulse that has been fundamental to resistance to phenomenalism, resistant to the foisting of sense-data on us. . We are against phenomenalism, those many of us who are, not only because some phenomenalists have had in mind standard awareness of subjective things, and thus overpopulated the mind. We are against it because it offends against the impulse to take ourselves somehow to be given or presented with, to possess or encompass, exactly the objects of our experiences. Phenomenalism continues to offend if it is improved by having unmediated awareness of purely personal items put in the place of standard awareness. It continues to put each of us in solitary confinement, each of us alone in a personal cell.
Whatever the fact of the subjectivity of consciousness comes to, it does not come to this. The fact of subjectivity, whtever it is, must be a thing consistent with the impulse that we are in touch with things, or rather, that they are in touch with us.
It seems entirely unsatisfactory to suppose that our conviction of the givenness of objects, so to name it, is to be written off as just owed to a mistake. Hume began this tradition, with the proposition that the vulgar, and indeed all of us when we are not engaged in philosophical reflection, mistakenly identify content and object.9 Our natures are so constituted that we go in for this life-long blunder. The difficulty with this is that when we do have a clearer view of things, and see that the content of an experience cannot be identical with its object, we do with respect to ordinary circumstances persist in the conviction.
That is not the only unsatisfactory response to the conviction of the givenness of objects. There are two more.
First, it is unsatisfactory to resist the question, the seeming contradiction, raised by the conviction. We resist it by saying that the conviction about objects is a matter of subjectivity or first-person nature or of the having of a visual experience, while the awareness-of-content story we have of the experience is from an outside perspective -- from the perspective in which we take our experiences themselves as objects. In fact, as it seems to me, despite so much that is said of self-consciousness, it is only from the outside perspective that we have any view of our experience, and from this perspective we have both views, one in terms of the awareness of content, one in terms of the givenness of objects.10
Second, there can surely be no gain in supposing with William James that our conviction of the givenness of objects is somehow owed to there being a relation between content and object wholly different from anything so far mentioned.11 This would be that there really is one ur-item, a neutral thing, such that we can choose to regard it as object or as content -- as having either properties we assign to lawns or properties of contents. This comes to saying that philosophical idealism is possibly true. The supposition of idealism, it seems to me, destroys the relevant part of our conceptual scheme, destroys too much of our conceptual scheme. That is, if we try to take the ur-item to be content, we face the disaster that it is not of anything. It is not an effect of and representative of anything. Idealism doesn't merely subtract the world from what there is. It also subtracts experience itself.
The conviction of the givenness of objects can indeed give rise to thinking that the story about visual experience consisting in unmediated awareness of a content as an impression is plainly false. In fact the conviction must lead us not to abandon but to alter the story. Givenness isn't another relation. There isn't another independent story to be told of my experience of seeing the lawn. We need to enlarge or amend the story we have been contemplating in order to make it consistent with the conviction of the givenness of objects.
The conviction is that content does not get between us and the world, but is access to the world or delivers it to us -- content isn't opaque, but transparent. It seems that we can give more sense to such talk by rewriting it into three related propositions.
6. Contents as Transparent
The first is a denial of the idea that visual experience involves any awareness whatever, of any kind, of content. Content is simply not any kind of object of awareness. In particular, we need to put something else in place of the idea of unmediated awareness of content. Consider just having the thought of something, perhaps my having a thought of Baden as it was. What I think about is that village. In thinking about it, am I aware of, in any sense, anything but the village? As others will have said, it seems not. The thought occurs. It is not something of which there is then any awareness. So with the desire for a glass of wine, or a pain. Here too I just have it. Given what has been said, should we not regard the content of my experience of seeing the lawn, despite its evident difference, as being of a related character?12
That is something, but not enough. Altering our ideas in this first way removes something of the barrier we have put in the way of the world's being given to us. Content no longer has exactly a nature or role which pre-theoretically we assign to the world. But, to succumb to another metaphor, it seems possible to say the world is still located behind content. Despite what we are now supposing, object remains behind content.
I admit being attracted to a once-familiar and and obscure proposition in order to try to accomodate our resistance to what is conveyed by the metaphor. A visual content is a presentation of an object, a presentation of the world. In visual experience I have unmediated awareness of the object. To have a visual content is to be directly aware of an object. This cannot be to understand a visual content and the having of it in terms of a seeming presentation of objects or anything of the sort. This cannot be just more of ideas, sense-data, qualia and so on -- so-called subjective items. A visual content presents and thus presupposes objective reality.
For visual experience generally, such as the ordinary case of my seeing the lawn out the window, something like this seems right. Something like this seems right for almost all of our experience, which surely should strengthen our resolve. But you will of course remember the extraordinary case with which we began, and to which we returned. It seems I might have an identical experience without the lawn. It is such a fact which has led very many philosophers away from what they have been tempted to, which is the obscure and radical view that what happens when we see things is that they really are presented to us. We don't see things, where that is a matter of awareness of merely subjective or personal things, but rather we see things, where that is a matter of objects being presented, our having direct awareness of them.
Evidently there is a choice to be made. Each of two courses we can take is frustrating, but, to my mind, one is more frustrating than the other.
We take the first course by being struck by the extraordinary case and then reasoning traditionally as follows -- embracing the argument from illusion. There is something the same in the extraordinary case and the ordinary case, and in the extraordinary case there is no lawn. Hence what is the same must be something subjective. We then end up with the maximal frustration of solitary confinement in our subjective cells -- even if they are cells to which our relation is no longer conceived as any kind of awareness. We end up in phenomenalism, a futile struggle against our conviction of the givenness of objects.
The second course takes us actually to be presented with objects in the ordinary case, allows that there is something the same in the extraordinary case, and commits us to explaining how there can be presentation of objects in the extraordinary case. The enterprise, anticipated earlier (p. 00 para on impression as even necc to repn) is perhaps not so absurd as it seems at first. We can suppose something other than that there is no presentation of objects in the extraordinary case. We can suppose that there is what can be called a distorted presentation. What are the objects? We shall certainly have to do some hunting. We can look at the large category of ordinary objects which includes earlier lawn.
This sort of enterprise does have precedents. We are subject to many of what have been called illusions in the tradition of phenomenalism: the distant tower looking small, the eliptical coin, the bent stick in water, the Muller-Lyer lines, the tepid bath which is warm to the cold hand, mirages, the wax dummy seen as a person. In all or many such cases, there is the distorted presentation of an object. Is it impossible to say that in the extraordinary case, where there are no lawn, the difference is that there is more and different distortion, including temporal distortion?
Here is a reinforcing thought. At any early point in these reflections, we rejected the idea of standard awareness of subjective objects. That overpopulated the mind. We have lately abandoned unmediated awareness of subjective objects. We are left with the occurrence of content, which is something like the having of a thought, and content's being an impression of object. That seems to leave out everything in the way of awareness, and that cannot be right. We do need something like the presentation of objects. Also, and quite as important, we need something which has certain properties, say being green and dendritic.
The third proposition in our conviction of the givenness of objects is the existence of of the world. We are in fact convinced that a general scepticism about its existence is impossible. It is notable that all of us, however successful we take ourselves to be in acting on it, are under the impulse to refute global scepticism. This accords with the slight account we now have of visual experience, even if visual experience does not consist in belief.
It will not be forgotten that the main reflections in this faltering paper have been mainly directed to explaining the representativeness of content. Is there now more hope? It would be agreeable to think so. Evidently the additional hope would have most to do with the second proposition within the conviction of the givenness of objects. But it is plain that I have failed to say anything positive and useful of content conceived as a presentation of an object, content as involving direct awareness of object. What might charitably be called other loose ends remain. The world's being presented, direct awareness, is somehow a matter of what was first spoken of as the subject-content relation. But how? There is the lesser question of what, in visual experience, is to be put in place of belief.
Let me return for just a moment to the two objections to the idea that content, whatever is to be said of what was called the subject's relation to it, is to be explained as just an impression.
There is the small consolation that we can distinguish content from other impressions of the lawn, say its photograph. This we do by saying that content is an impression of which it is also true that it is had, in the way that a thought is had, and so on. Sadly, this having and what goes with it is obscure.
As for the objection that content is an impression of more things than the object, it does again seem that we have no hope of explaining particular representativeness by reflecting on just the causal line from object to content. It cannot be, so to speak, that an end itself of a causal line gives greater importance to one of its previous stages as against others. The only hope is in reflection on the having of content and the new story that goes with it.
1 Franz Brentano, Psychology From An Empirical Standpoint, ed. O. Kraus and L. McAlister, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 97. [To desk ed: repeat pub details if references to book far apart]
2 I draw the line before we get to 'act' and content. An act, presumably, requires an inner agent -- of which thing, like Hume, I have no glimpse.
3 My confidence in these propositions about a subject was reinforced by a chapter in Alastair Hannay's Human Consciousness (Routledge, 1990). Perhaps my confidence was not so determined as his when he writes that 'that there is a subject side is unquestionable'. (p. 65) But his admirable scrutiny of views more audacious than mine, some of them exhilarating, did much to persuade me that there is the subject of a subject. No doubt there is room in philosophy for a kind of inductive argument which has as its premise the existence, as distinct from exactly the truth, of a sizeable body of philosophical views.
4 In connection with the two relations, subject-content and content-object, although he does not speak explicitly of the first one, Searle writes as follows in The Rediscovery of the Mind: 'One can never just be conscious, rather when one is conscious, there must be an answer to the question 'What is one conscious of?' But the 'of' of 'conscious of' is not always the 'of' of intentionality.' (p. 84; cf. pp. 130-131) That brevity, if that is what is is, is misleading. The 'of' that has to do with a relation between subject and content is never the 'of' of intentionality, which has to do with the relation between content and object. Every conscious event involves something which prompts use of the first 'of'. Only many conscious events also or in addition involve the second 'of'.
5 See A. J. Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), pp. 80-81. The argument is considered, maybe dealt with, in part of my 'Seeing Qualia and Positing the World', in A. Phillips Griffiths, ed., A. J. Ayer Memorial Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
6 F. Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (MIT Press, 1981)
7 See above, [para 12]. Hannay's reflections on a subject in Human Consciousness do, I think, involve the hope I have been considering, that representation can have light thrown on it by ideas with respect to a subject. Perhaps a possibility of progress exists in what he has to say of a system of concepts or rules which form a subject's experiential repertoire. (p. 77) As the rest of my paper indicates, I cannot myself see a clear way forward.
8 Tim Crane, 'The Non-Conceptual Content of Perception', in The Contents of Experience: Essays on Perception, ed. Crane (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
9 A Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. 1, Pt. 4, Sect. 2.
10 Cf. J. J. Valberg, The Puzzle of Experience (Oxford University Press, 1992)
11 Essays in Radical Empiricism (Longmans Green, 1912)
12 I have struggled to say something useful of the distinctiveness of perceptual content in 'Seeing Qualia and Positing the World'.
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