In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Phenomenal Concepts

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Anthologies
  • The Utility and Nature of Phenomenal Concepts
  • Epistemic Arguments Against Physicalism
  • Phenomenal Concepts, A Priori Connections, and Undesirable Consequences

Philosophy Phenomenal Concepts
Andreas Elpidorou
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0254


Phenomenal concepts are the concepts that we deploy when—but arguably not only when—we introspectively examine, focus on, or take notice of the phenomenal character of our experiences. They refer to phenomenal properties (or qualities) and they do so in a subjective (first-personal) and direct (non-relational) manner. It is through the use of such concepts that the phenomenal character of our experiences is made salient to us. Discourse about the nature of phenomenal concepts plays an important role in the philosophy of mind. For one, phenomenal concepts have been used to explain the epistemological relation that holds between a subject and her conscious mental states. Most prominently, however, discussions of phenomenal concepts figure in the ongoing and multifaceted debate concerning the metaphysical status of consciousness. Even though some theorists have utilized phenomenal concepts in arguments purporting to show that consciousness is ontologically distinct from physical entities and processes, most accounts of phenomenal concepts are advanced having the opposite objective in mind: a proper articulation of the nature of phenomenal concepts, it is held, can defend the view that consciousness is physical against epistemic arguments to the contrary. The present entry focuses on the nature of phenomenal concepts as this is articulated and developed in attempts to defend the contention that conscious states are identical to (realized by, metaphysically necessitated by, or supervenient upon) physical states.

Overviews and Anthologies

Works on phenomenal concepts and their role in defending physicalism abound in the literature. However, most of these works are not meant as introductions to the relevant issues since they presuppose a good deal of background knowledge, both about the current status of the physicalist–anti-physicalist debate and about the nature of phenomenal concepts. Sundström 2011 and Balog 2009 are two notable exceptions: they provide clear, accessible, and comprehensive introductions to the topic of phenomenal concepts. Chalmers 2007 offers a concise presentation of the different accounts of phenomenal concepts and the ways in which such accounts have been used to respond to epistemic arguments against physicalism. The only anthology that is partly dedicated to phenomenal concepts is Alter and Walter 2007.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195171655.001.0001

    A collection of essays on the nature of consciousness. The eight essays that comprise the second half of this volume all focus on the nature of phenomenal concepts and on what phenomenal concepts can tell us about the ontological status of consciousness.

  • Balog, Katalin. “Phenomenal Concepts.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind. Edited by McLaughlin, Brian P., Ansgar Beckermann, and Sven Walter, 292–312. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    An introductory essay on phenomenal concepts. Among other things, it discusses the nature of phenomenal concepts and distinguishes them from related concepts; it draws a distinction between basic and non-basic applications of phenomenal concepts; and it discusses how phenomenal concepts can be used in responses to anti-physicalist arguments.

  • Chalmers, David J. “Phenomenal Concepts and the Explanatory Gap.” In Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge: New Essays on Consciousness and Physicalism. Edited by Torin Alter and Sven Walter, 167–194. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195171655.001.0001

    A critique of the use of phenomenal concepts in defending physicalism from epistemic arguments. The essay also includes a helpful summary of the different articulations of the nature of phenomenal concepts.

  • Sundström, Pär. “Phenomenal Concepts.” Philosophy Compass 6.4 (2011): 267–281.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2011.00384.x

    A clear and comprehensive discussion of the nature of phenomenal concepts and their use in attempts to defend physicalism from anti-physicalist objections. The essay also considers whether we do in fact possess phenomenal concepts.

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