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Philosophy Consciousness
by
Darragh Byrne

Introduction

The psychological phenomenon that many regard as the most perplexing is consciousness, or, very roughly defined, the property of certain mental states—paradigmatically, sensations and perceptual experiences—in virtue of which (as Thomas Nagel influentially put it) there is “something it is like” to have them. These phenomenal qualities seem especially difficult to reconcile with physicalist metaphysics; at least prima facie, it is hard to believe that phenomenal properties are physical, or that science will ever explain what it is like to have a sensation or perceptual experience. This metaphysical problem is a traditional one, and it arises repeatedly, in different ways, in the entry titled “Metaphysics of Mind.” Recently, various forms of this objection to physicalism have been taxonomized more carefully than before, and three of these are explored in Anti-Physicalist Arguments. A reply to these worries that has been particularly conspicuous recently in the work of several leading physicalists is considered in Phenomenal Concepts. Although the question of reconciliation with physicalism is important, it is not the only issue here of interest to philosophers, and general theories of consciousness have been developed that attempt to go beyond it. In Representational Theories, Higher-Order Thought Theories, and Contemporary Dualism and Neo-Russellian Views, four examples of such general theories are considered.

General Overviews

As with other areas of the philosophy of mind, a great many resources exist to guide and to assist philosophical research into consciousness. Presented in this section are the eight that seem most useful. Güzeldere 1997 and Van Gulick 2009 are excellent article-length introductions, and each includes very useful suggestions for further reading. Bayne, et al. 2009, McLaughlin, et al. 2009, and Velmans and Schneider 2007 are three anthologies of specially commissioned entries. The first of these is, in effect, an encyclopedia of relevant terms and concepts, while the other two collect longer survey articles. McLaughlin, et al. 2009 is on the philosophy of mind generally, but a large section covers the philosophy of consciousness. Velmans and Schneider 2007 is entirely devoted to consciousness but covers scientific topics as well as philosophical ones. PhilPapers: Philosophy of Mind; Philosophy of Consciousness, edited by David Chalmers, and EpistemeLinks: Philosophy of Mind,edited by Thomas Stone, are useful online resources; the former is a huge register of academic papers available online on the philosophy of consciousness, while the latter is a heterogeneous directory of online resources on the philosophy of mind—many of which involve consciousness. Chalmers 2002 is merely an article and much less extensive than a book, but it is an excellent introduction to the issues.

Textbooks

Most textbooks on the philosophy of mind include a chapter or two on the philosophy of consciousness, and many such texts are available. However, although the shelves of bookshops strain under the weight of popular treatments of the science of consciousness, book-length textbooks dedicated specifically to the philosophical issues treated in this entry are thinner on the ground. Two worth seeking out are Seager 1999 and Rose 2006. Chalmers 1996, Kirk 1996, Levine 2001, Lycan 1987, McGinn 1991, and Papineau 2002 are not textbooks but rather monographs defending their respective authors’ distinctive theories; all six are clear and engaging works that do not presuppose prior knowledge on the part of the readers, and any of these would serve as a good introduction to the philosophy of consciousness. Dainton 2000 is a challenging read and not well suited as an introduction to these general issues; however, it is the best and most systematic treatment available of an important traditional issue that relates in various ways to others discussed here—the unity of consciousness.

  • Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    This is probably the most influential recent monograph on consciousness. Chalmers provoked a huge amount of discussion with his provocative attack on physicalist accounts of consciousness (and so, of the mind). Although not an easy read, this long book includes a lot of clear and systematic discussion of wider issues in the philosophy of consciousness.

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  • Dainton, Barry. Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London: Routledge, 2000.

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    A detailed study of the nature of consciousness, focusing especially on the traditional problem of how the different components of consciousness (e.g., components delivered through different sense-modalities) are experienced as a single unified state.

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  • Kirk, Robert. Raw Feeling: A Philosophical Account of the Essence of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    A useful monograph introducing the key issues in the area with admirable clarity. Defends a physicalist theory of consciousness and attempts to diagnose why reconciling consciousness with physicalism is so difficult.

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  • Levine, Joseph. Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Another dense work that ultimately defends a distinctive theory (a version of physicalism that concedes that consciousness cannot be explained by science). However, it also introduces a wide range of issues in the philosophy of consciousness in clear and accessible terms.

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  • Lycan, William. Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

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    Lycan’s main purpose in this book is to defend his version of functionalism about mental states/properties. However, Lycan regards his main challenge to this end as that of accommodating the phenomenal character of experience, and the book would serve well as a general introduction to the philosophy of consciousness.

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  • McGinn, Colin. The Problem of Consciousness. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

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    Technically a collection of essays rather than a monograph, this is another book developing a distinctive theory of consciousness (that although it is a natural phenomenon, we lack the concepts required to understand it). McGinn’s style is lively and stimulating, and this would serve intelligent readers well as an introduction to the philosophical issues.

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  • Papineau, David. Thinking about Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Still another dense work defending a particular theory (that while phenomenal properties are neural, physical properties, conscious agents enjoy special concepts of these properties that are in crucial ways dissimilar to other concepts). It would serve well as an introductory text for critical readers; it is clear and systematic and introduces a wide range of topics in the philosophy of consciousness.

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  • Rose, David. Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Neural Theories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    A general introduction to philosophical issues surrounding consciousness, informed by more scientific research than most others.

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  • Seager, William. Theories of Consciousness: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999.

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    A useful textbook on philosophical theories of consciousness.

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Anthologies

There are many good anthologies on the philosophy of mind generally, and most include a number of readings on the philosophy of consciousness. Chalmers 2002 and Lycan and Prinz 2008 are particularly useful in this regard. Block, et al. 1997 is the biggest of the anthologies exclusively devoted to the philosophy of consciousness; it covers a wide range of topics and is probably the most useful collection available. Jackson 1998 is less extensive and yet much more expensive, but a useful collection nonetheless. Davies and Humphreys 1993 is considerably shorter and a little older but also a useful resource. McLaughlin and Cohen 2007 contains three worthwhile exchanges between philosophers taking opposing positions on key issues in the metaphysics of consciousness. Smith and Jokić 2003 and Alter and Walter 2007 are specialized collections of papers by leading researchers. The papers contained in these last three collections were not previously published elsewhere; the other five anthologies featured here are made up mainly of reprints of previously published papers.

  • Alter, Torin, and Sven Walter. Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge: New Essays on Consciousness and Physicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    This is a useful collection of new essays, mainly on two ideas that have become prominent in recent work: first, that phenomenal experiences allow subjects to form concepts of a distinctive kind, and second, that they allow subjects to acquire a distinctive kind of knowledge.

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  • Block, Ned J., Owen J. Flanagan, and Güven Güzeldere, eds. The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

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    A huge collection of important contributions to a wide range of important philosophical debates about consciousness. The volume includes a detailed introductory article by Güven Güzeldere, complete with an extensive bibliography.

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

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    A large anthology of readings on the philosophy of mind, over one-third (more than 250 pages) of which is devoted to the philosophy of consciousness.

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  • Davies, Martyn, and Glyn Humphreys, eds. Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

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    A useful smaller anthology of slightly older papers.

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  • Jackson, Frank, ed. Consciousness. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998.

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    Not as expansive as Block, et al. 1997, this is nevertheless a large and useful collection. Its coverage of material on anti-physicalist arguments is particularly good.

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  • Lycan, William, and Jesse Prinz, eds. Mind and Cognition: An Anthology. 3d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

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    This is probably the biggest and most extensive of the various general philosophy of mind anthologies available. Although the part devoted to consciousness is just one of ten, it fills more than 150 pages. A rich selection of suggestions for further reading is provided.

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  • McLaughlin, Brian P., and Jonathan Cohen, eds. Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

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    This anthology is divided into sections presenting papers that take opposing views on a given topic; the sections in Part 3 are on consciousness. The papers in this anthology were not previously published elsewhere.

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  • Smith, Quentin, and Aleksandar Jokić, eds. Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

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    A useful collection of new papers by leading researchers on a variety of important topics in the philosophy of consciousness.

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Anti-Physicalist Arguments

Philosophers distinguish different notions of consciousness, but the one that has seemed most puzzling is phenomenal (state) consciousness: the feature of mental states—in particular, experiences—in virtue of which there is something it is like for a subject to have them. This fertile way of characterizing phenomenal consciousness is credited to Thomas Nagel. In Nagel 1974, he suggests that bats’ distinctive perceptual faculties seem likely to ensure that what it is like to be one is quite different from what it is like to be one of us; and he argues that it may be impossible for us ever to understand what it is like for them. Prima facie, this is an epistemic claim, not a metaphysical one, but philosophers have attempted in various ways to derive anti-physicalist metaphysical consequences from it and related considerations. One particularly important subgroup of these arguments is conceivability arguments. These typically have two stages. First, it is argued that we can conceive of creatures who share all of our physical (and functional) characteristics but lack phenomenal consciousness (zombies), and/or creatures who are phenomenally conscious but lack physical properties (angels, ghosts). Second, it is argued that since these creatures are conceivable, their existence is possible (even if non-actual) hence, since identities are, when true, necessary, physicalism is false. This style of argument has been prevalent since Descartes, and a distinctive and influential version is developed in Kripke 1980. However, the version that has become standard in contemporary philosophy is the one defended by Chalmers 1996. Gendler and Hawthorne 2002 is a useful collection of papers, mainly focusing on the abstract issues raised by the argument’s second stage, and many are critical of Chalmers. Another way in which epistemic considerations about consciousness are deployed against physicalism is exhibited in Jackson’s knowledge argument (Jackson 1982). Jackson argues first that a subject educated in an entirely monochrome environment could, in principle, come to know all of the “physical truths” about color vision (as might be codified by science in the future) but still fail to know what it is like to see something red. Second, he argues that this entails that facts about consciousness are not physical/material facts. Ludlow, et al. 2004 is a collection that includes most of the important recent papers on this argument, most of them offering responses on behalf of physicalism. A third important argument is presented in Levine 2001. Levine argues that it is not possible scientifically to explain phenomenal consciousness; any candidate leaves an unbridgeable “explanatory gap.” Commentators often present this as an anti-physicalist argument, but Levine does not intend it as such. He means only to defend the epistemic claim, and he denies that it entails the metaphysical one. The position defended in McGinn 2004 is in many ways similar. Many of the readings suggested in the following sections of this entry include further germane discussions (most defending broadly physicalist replies).

  • Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    In this important monograph, Chalmers defends the most formidable version of the conceivability (“zombie”) argument against physicalism (and pursues consequences of the argument’s conclusion in detail). Many of the papers in Gendler and Hawthorne 2002 include critical discussions of the epistemic, metaphysical, and semantic theses on which Chalmers’s analysis depends, including the technical device of two-dimensional semantics.

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  • Gendler, Tamara S., and John Hawthorne. Conceivability and Possibility. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002.

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    An invaluable collection of technical papers (none of them previously published elsewhere) on the general metaphysical, epistemic, and semantic issues relevant to conceivability arguments against materialism. Many of the papers engage explicitly with Kripke 1980 and Chalmers 1996.

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  • Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophical Quarterly (1982): 127–136.

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    This is the first of Jackson’s papers on the knowledge argument against materialism. It is widely anthologized. Jackson later renounced both the argument and its anti-materialist conclusion, however.

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  • Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

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    This classic of 20th-century analytic philosophy is mainly read for its contributions to metaphysics and the philosophy of language. However, in Lecture 3, Kripke puts some of his results to work in a “conceivability argument” against the mind-brain identity theory, which has proved highly influential in the philosophy of consciousness.

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  • Levine, Joseph. Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Levine first articulated his version of the thesis that consciousness gives rise to an unbridgeable “explanatory gap” in a series of papers the 1980s and 1990s, several of which are now widely anthologized. However, this book includes a particularly detailed articulation of the argument, and much worthwhile discussion of related issues.

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  • Ludlow, Peter, Yujin Nagaswawa, and David Stoljar, eds. There’s Something about Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

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    This collection includes practically all of the most important literature on the knowledge argument.

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  • McGinn, Colin. Consciousness and Its Objects. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

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    The papers collected here refine and develop many of the themes first presented in McGinn 1991 (cited in Textbooks). His position—closely related to those of Levine 2001, and (especially) Nagel 1974—is that even if it is possible in principle to explain consciousness, it is not possible for us to understand any such explanation.

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  • Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 435–450.

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    This influential and widely anthologized paper presents an accessible and dramatic illustration of the basic problem faced by anyone who aims to explain consciousness in scientific or physicalist terms. The source of the problem, according to Nagel, is that the objective standpoint distinctive of science conflicts with the essentially subjective character of conscious experience.

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Phenomenal Concepts

Recently, various philosophers have been exploring the idea that introspection provides subjects with a peculiarly direct mode of access to the phenomenal qualities of their experiences, and that on the basis of these modes of access, they acquire distinctive phenomenal concepts. Most of these philosophers are physicalists, and they deploy the claim about the special semantics of phenomenal concepts in responses to anti-physicalist arguments, in roughly the following way. Referring directly, phenomenal concepts lack descriptive content, and this allows us to explain the data about conceivability, knowledge, and explanation that anti-physicalists take to falsify physicalism, and it allows us to explain them in a manner consistent with (and sometimes even requiring) the assumption that the referents of phenomenal concepts are physical (or functional) properties. Loar 1997 is perhaps the definitive source of this kind of argument, but Tye 2000, Papineau 2002, and others also argue in this vein. Chalmers 2003 develops and defends a version of the semantic claim but argues that it does not help materialists to answer the anti-physicalist arguments. Alter and Walter 2007 is a useful collection of new essays on the topic by many of its preeminent advocates and critics. Tye 2009 criticizes and rejects the approach that its author advocated in Tye 2000.

  • Alter, Torin, and Sven Walter. Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge: New Essays on Consciousness and Physicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    This is a useful collection of new essays by leading theorists, many of which discuss the claims in focus here.

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  • Chalmers, David. “The Content and Epistemology of Phenomenal Belief.” In Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives. Edited by Quentin Smith and Aleksandar Jokić, 220–272. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

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    A detailed analysis of the idea that subjects enjoy directly referring phenomenal concepts and of the epistemic consequences of the idea. Chalmers resists the physicalist implications advertised by other advocates of the phenomenal concepts approach.

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  • Prinz, Jesse. “Mental Pointing: Phenomenal Knowledge without Concepts.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 14.9–10 (2007): 184–211.

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    Prinz argues that there are no phenomenal concepts, and he develops an empirically informed account of phenomenal knowledge in terms of nonconceptual “phenomenal demonstratives.” This volume (a special issue on “The Interplay between Consciousness and Concepts”) also contains other recent contributions to the debates considered in this entry.

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  • Loar, Brian. “Phenomenal States.” In The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. Edited by Ned J. Block, Owen J. Flanagan, and Güven Güzeldere, 597–616. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

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    In this refined version of a classic paper first published in 1990, Loar defends his conception of the semantics of phenomenal concepts and puts it to work in responses to influential anti-physicalist arguments involving conceivability, knowledge, and explanation.

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  • Papineau, David. Thinking about Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    In this monograph, Papineau develops his version of the claim that phenomenal concepts refer directly, and he undertakes—in terms of that claim—to explain both what is wrong with influential anti-physicalist arguments and (this part is especially distinctive) why we find physicalism about consciousness difficult to believe. Note that in his paper in Alter and Walter 2007, Papineau substantially revises the position on phenomenal concepts defended here.

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  • Tye, Michael. Consciousness, Color, and Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

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    In the second essay of this collection, “The Explanatory Gap as a Cognitive Illusion” (first published in 1999, in Mind 108, pp. 705–725), Tye develops his version of the claim that phenomenal concepts have special semantics and deploys it to answer anti-physicalist arguments.

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  • Tye, Michael. Consciousness Revisited: Materialism without Phenomenal Concepts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

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    Here, Tye renounces the “phenomenal concepts strategy” for defending physicalism, offering instead an account of conscious experience in terms of a notion of Russellian acquaintance.

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Representational Theories

The representational (or intentional) theory of consciousness—different versions of which are defended in Tye 2000 and Crane 2001—aims to explain consciousness via the striking proposal that phenomenal states are representational or intentional states. On this view, the phenomenal properties of experiences are properties that objects are represented by the experiences as having. Block 1996 and Loar 2003 challenge representationalism by offering examples of phenomenal qualities of experience that seem irrelevant to the experiences’ representational characters. Peacocke 1983 is an older source of troublesome examples. Tye 2000 includes a paper that considers and attempts to defuse many such alleged counterexamples. For a fairly comprehensive critical survey of further objections to representationalism (and responses to them) see Lycan 2008. Smith and Jokić 2003 is a collection of (mostly) new papers on consciousness generally, but as it includes five articles on representationalism by preeminent researchers, it is a particularly useful one in this context.

Higher-Order Thought Theories

According to the higher-order thought theory of consciousness, developed and defended in Rosenthal 1997 and Rosenthal 2005, conscious mental states are conscious in virtue of being the objects of appropriate higher-order thoughts. Dretske 1993 objects directly to early formulations of the view by offering what look like counterexamples: visual experiences that seem to exhibit qualitative features of which their subjects are not aware. Replies are offered by Rosenthal 2005, Byrne 1997, and Carruthers 2007. Carruthers 2000 develops a different objection to Rosenthal’s theory. Conscious experiences typically have extremely rich and complex contents, and so Rosenthal’s theory seems to make implausibly severe demands on subjects’ higher-order cognitive economies. In light of this, Carruthers 2000 advances a dispositional version of the theory, according to which conscious states are conscious in virtue of being suitably available to higher-order thought and of having a distinctive kind of (“analogue”) content. Carruthers’s view relies on a rather specific and somewhat controversial theory of this content, and so one way to attack it is to object to that component. Other criticisms are suggested in Rosenthal 2005 and Rowlands 2001.

Contemporary Dualism and Neo-Russellian Views

What options are there for philosophers impressed by anti-physicalist arguments such as those introduced in Anti-Physicalist Arguments? An obvious suggestion is dualism; however, dualism comes in a number of different versions. Substance dualists endorse the Cartesian view that mind and body are fundamentally distinct substances; property dualists (typically) believe in just one kind of “stuff” but maintain that it exhibits two fundamentally different kinds of properties: physical and phenomenal. Another distinction concerns causation: integrationist dualists attempt to accommodate the apparent fact that phenomenal properties can have physical effects; epiphenomenalist dualists maintain that they do not. See Foster 1991 for a detailed defense of interactionist substance dualism and Robinson 2004 for a recent version of epiphenomenalist property dualism. In addition, a growing number of philosophers, impressed by anti-physicalist arguments, have turned to explore a version of monist metaphysics inspired by a view that Russell 2007 developed in the 1920s. These philosophers argue that physics characterizes physical objects and properties in terms of relations and dispositions and is silent on the question of the intrinsic, categorical nature of matter. In Strawson 2008 the proposal is that these categorical properties are phenomenal properties. Stoljar 2001 balks at the threatened panpsychist implication that all matter is conscious and suggests that the intrinsic properties at issue are “proto-phenomenal” rather than phenomenal per se. Chalmers 1996 is sympathetic to both versions (and indeed, to episphenomenalist dualism too). The neo-Russellian views here are physicalist/materialist insofar as they characterize phenomenal properties as properties of matter; however, they agree with dualists that physics cannot account for such properties, even in the sense espoused by nonreductive physicalists. Strawson, et al. 2006 collects a wide range of critical responses to Strawson’s position. A serious problem facing advocates of the proto-phenomenal version of the view is whether they can account for the unity of each subject’s phenomenal consciousness.

  • Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    In chapters 4 and 8 of this important monograph, Chalmers sympathetically explores some aspects of the neo-Russellian view.

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  • Foster, John. The Immaterial Self: Defence of the Cartesian Dualist Conception of the Mind. London: Routledge, 1991.

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    A defense of interactionist substance dualism. This book includes a detailed discussion of the problem of the unity of consciousness/mind/self. Foster argues against attempts to analyze this substance.

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  • Robinson, William. Understanding Phenomenal Consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    In this defense of epiphenomenalist dualism, Robinson argues that conscious experiences are events caused by neural events in the brain but constituted by immaterial epiphenomenal properties. A distinctive theme is Robinson’s attention to complementary relations between his theory and empirical neurological research.

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  • Russell, Bertrand. The Analysis of Matter. Nottingham, UK: Spokesman, 2007.

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    First published in 1927, this is Russell’s sympathetic exploration of neutral monism, the view that there is just one kind of substance (or “stuff”), and that it is neither physical nor mental. Works from neo-Russellians—such as Stoljar 2001, Strawson 2008, and (tentatively) Chalmers 1996—appropriate Russell’s contention that physics is silent on the intrinsic nature of matter, but their view is materialist rather than neutrally monistic.

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  • Strawson, Galen. “Real Materialism.” In Real Materialism and Other Essays. By Galen Strawson, 19–52. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    First published in 2003, this essay defends Strawson’s panpsychist version of the neo-Russellian view. Strawson argues that phenomenal properties are the intrinsic properties of matter.

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  • Strawson, Galen, et al. Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? Edited by Anthony Freeman. Exeter, UK, and Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2006.

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    This volume coincides with a special issue (on realistic monism) of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (volume 13, no. 10–11) and is a colloquium on Strawson’s panpsychist version of the neo-Russellian view. It begins with a new statement of the position by Strawson, followed by a host of responses by preeminent philosophers of mind, as well as Strawson’s replies to them.

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  • Stoljar, Daniel. “Two Conceptions of the Physical.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 (2001): 253–281.

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    Presents a clear (albeit self-consciously speculative and incomplete) defense of a proto-phenomenal version of the neo-Russellian view. Available online.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0025

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