Consciousness and thought: cognitive phenomenology

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

School Arts
Department Philosophy
Dates 01 October 2010 - 01 February 2011
Funder AHRC, Early Career Fellowship
Contact person Dr Michelle Montague

More about this project

The received view in the philosophy of mind has been that mental states can be divided into two distinct kinds: some are representational or intentional, they represent the world; while others are qualitative or experiential. Research in philosophy of mind accordingly pursued these two tracks of study in isolation. Representation came first, as it was thought to be the more tractable problem, often called 'the easy problem'. Then one turned to the more difficult problem of consciousness or experience, often called 'the hard problem'.

One of the conclusions of my project is that this general approach to studying the mind is unsustainable. Thinking, or cognition in general, is every bit as experiential as feeling pain or seeing the bright blue sky, and the experiential aspect of cognition possesses its own distinctive non-sensory kind of experiential phenomenology, what is now widely called 'cognitive phenomenology'. The central question of my project is, What is thinking, and I argue that cognitive phenomenology is essential for answering this question.

I begin by offering a constraint on what counts as an adequate answer to this question. An adequate theory of thinking must account for the understanding that typically accompanies our thought. We typically understand what we think when we think thoughts such as grass is green, the moon has a cratered surface, and so on. I first argue that other theories of understanding, such as 'meta-cognition', 'abilities' and 'computational' theories, fail to account for the kind of understanding that accompanies thought. I then argue that explaining what understanding is requires the postulation of an "understanding experience". Every conscious cognitive state has a distinctive kind of cognitive phenomenology, a distinctive kind of phenomenal character, and it is in virtue of one's conscious experience of that phenomenal character that one understands what one is thinking.