Philosophy Cognitive Phenomenology
Michelle Montague
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0331


The debate about cognitive phenomenology is part of a much larger debate about how to give an adequate characterization of the phenomenological or experiential character of our conscious mental lives. Phenomenology can be characterized in a familiar way as the phenomenon of there being “something it is like,” experientially, to be in a mental state; something it is like for the creature who is in the mental state. The consensus in analytic philosophy since the 1950s (at least) has been that there is no such thing as cognitive phenomenology, only sensory phenomenology. Sensory phenomenology is the kind of phenomenology we typically associate with the sensory modalities (e.g., what it’s like to see red, to hear perfect middle C, to feel suede), including phenomenology related to proprioception. The proponents of cognitive phenomenology deny that sensory phenomenology is the only kind of phenomenology there is. The term “cognitive phenomenology” was introduced to designate a kind of phenomenology that is essentially over and above and other than sensory phenomenology, and that is paradigmatically implicated in conscious thought, although it may also be present in emotion and perception. According to this view, there is something it is like to consciously think that my best friend is dead or to consciously think that American politics is a mess; something that is irreducible to any sensory phenomenology that may be associated with these thoughts. The following are some of the central questions of the cognitive phenomenology debate: Are there different cognitive-phenomenological properties associated with different types of intentional attitude? Are there different cognitive-phenomenological properties associated with different intentional contents of thoughts? Is cognitive phenomenology directly accessible to introspection? Is cognitive phenomenology necessary to account for the kind of introspective access we have to our conscious thoughts? What is the relationship between conscious perception and cognitive phenomenology? Is there an appearance of an explanatory gap with respect to cognitive-phenomenological properties and neurological/functional properties? Can thoughts be part of the stream of consciousness? Is cognitive phenomenology necessary to account for the justification of certain beliefs? Each of these questions, among others, is considered in more detail in this article.

General Overviews

Since the topic of cognitive phenomenology is relatively new to modern analytic philosophy, there are only a few general overviews. Chudnoff 2015 provides the first book-length summary of the most important arguments for and against cognitive phenomenology. Topics covered include introspection, phenomenological contrast cases, the stream of consciousness, and the relationship between cognitive phenomenology and intentional content. The book is readily accessible to beginners but also is a useful resource for advanced researchers. Bayne and Montague 2011 provides a detailed overview of many of the central arguments for and against cognitive phenomenology in its introduction. Montague 2016 also provides an article-length summary of the cognitive-phenomenology debate, focusing on whether there is a puzzle about the very existence of the cognitive-phenomenology debate and on the relationship between cognitive-phenomenological properties and intentional content of conscious thought.

  • Bayne, T., and M. Montague. “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.” In Cognitive Phenomenology. Edited by T. Bayne and M. Montague, 1–34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A thorough overview of the central arguments for and against the existence of cognitive phenomenology, including some historical context for the debate.

  • Chudnoff, E. Cognitive Phenomenology. New Problems of Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

    A clear, comprehensive, full-length book treatment of the debate on cognitive phenomenology, including a useful glossary and reading recommendations at the end of each chapter.

  • Montague, M. “Cognitive Phenomenology.” In Philosophy: Mind. Edited by B. P. McLaughlin. Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Philosophy. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2016.

    A summary of the cognitive-phenomenology debate suitable for undergraduates, with special focus on the relationships among conscious thoughts, cognitive-phenomenological properties, and intentional content.

  • Smithies, D. “The Nature of Cognitive Phenomenology.” Philosophy Compass 8.8 (2013): 744–754.

    DOI: 10.1111/phc3.12053

    Addresses two questions about the nature of cognitive phenomenology. First, the intentionality question concerns the relationship between the phenomenal character of cognition and its intentional content. Second, the reduction question concerns the relationship between the phenomenal character of cognition and the phenomenal character of sensory perception. Argues that the thesis that the phenomenal properties of cognition are intentional properties need not stand or fall with antireductionism about cognitive phenomenology.

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