Fry's phenomenologiesOver at Brains Blog Uriah Kriegel has been doing a series of posts (starting here) on some themes from his book The Varieties of Consciousness, and in particular his identification of six kinds of phenomenology.

I haven’t read the book (yet) and there may be important bits missing from the necessarily brief account given in the blog posts, but it looks very interesting. Kriegel’s starting point is that we probably launch into explaining consciousness too quickly, and would do well to spend a bit more time describing it first. There’s a lot of truth in that; consciousness is an extraordinarily complex and elusive business, yet phenomenology remains in a pretty underdeveloped state. However, in philosophy the borderline between describing and explaining is fuzzy; if you’re describing owls you can rely on your audience knowing about wings and beaks and colouration; in philosophy it may be impossible to describe what you’re getting at without hacking out some basic concepts which can hardly help but be explanatory. With that caveat, it’s a worthy project.

Part of the difficulty of exploring phenomenology may come from the difficulty of reconciling differences in the experiences of different reporters. Introspection, the process of examining our own experience, is irremediably private, and if your conclusions are different from mine, there’s very little we can do about it other than shout at each other. Some have also taken the view that introspection is radically unreliable in any case, a task like trying to watch the back of your own head; the Behaviourists, of course, concluded that it was a waste of time talking about the contents of consciousness at all: a view which hasn’t completely disappeared.

Kriegel defends introspection, albeit in a slightly half-hearted way. He rightly points out that we’ve tacitly relied on it to support all the discoveries and theorising which has been accomplished in recent decades. He accepts that we cannot any longer regard it as infallible, but he’s content if it can be regarded as more likely right than wrong.

With this mild war-cry, we set off on the exploration. There are lots of ways we can analyse consciousness, but what Kriegel sets out to do is find the varieties of phenomenal experience. He’s come up with six, but it’s a tentative haul and he’s not asserting that this is necessarily the full set. The first two phenomenologies, taken as already established, are the perceptual and the algedonic (pleasure/pain); to these Kriegel adds: cognitive phenomenology, “conative” phenomenology (to do with action and intention), the phenomenology of entertaining an idea or a proposition (perhaps we could call it ‘considerative’, though Kriegel doesn’t), and the phenomenology of imagination.

The idea that there is conative phenomenology is a sort of cousin of the idea of an ‘executive quale’ which I have espoused: it means there is something it is like to desire, to decide, and to intend. Kriegel doesn’t spend any real effort on defending the idea that these things have phenomenology at all, though it seems to me (introspectively!) that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. What he is mainly concerned to do is establish the distinction between belief and desire. In non-phenomenal terms these two are sort of staples of the study of intentionality: Bel and Des, the old couple. One way of understanding the difference is in terms of ‘direction of fit’, a concept that goes back to J.L. Austin. What this means is that if there’s a discrepancy between your beliefs and the world, then you’d better change your beliefs. If there’s a discrepancy  between your desires and the world, you try to change the world (usually: I think Andy Warhol for one suggested that learning to like what was available was a better strategy, thereby unexpectedly falling into a kind of agreement with some religious traditions that value acceptance and submission to the Divine Will).

Kriegel, anyway, takes a different direction, characterising the difference in terms of phenomenal presentation. What we desire is presented to us as good; what we believe is presented as true. This approach opens the way to a distinction between a desire and a decision: a desire is conditional (if circumstances allow, you’ll eat an ice-cream) whereas a decision is categorical (you’re going to eat an ice-cream). This all works quite well and establishes an approach which can handily be applied to other examples; if  we find that there’s presentation-as-something different going on we should suspect a unique phenomenology. (Are we perhaps straying here into something explanatory instead of merely descriptive? I don’t think it matters.) I wonder a bit about whether things we desire are presented to us as good. I think I desire some things that don’t seem good at all except in the sense that they seem desirable. That’s not much help, because if we’re reduced to saying that when I desire something it is presented to me as desirable we’re not saying all that much, especially since the idea of presentation is not particularly clarified. I have no doubt that issues like this are explored more fully in the book.
Kriegel moves on to consider the case of emotion: does it have a unique and irreducible phenomenology? If something we love is presented to us as good, then we’re back with the merely conative; and Kriegel doesn’t think presentation as beautiful is going to work either (partly because of negative cases, though I don’t see that as an insoluble probem myself; if we can have algedonia, the combined quality of pain or pleasure we can surely have an aesthetic quality that combines beauty and ugliness). In the end he suspects that emotion is about presentation as important, but he recognises that this could be seen as putting the cart before the horse; perhaps emotion directs our attention to things and what gets our attention seems to be important. Kriegel finds it impossible to decide whether emotion has an independent phenomenology and gives the decision by default in favour of the more parsimonious option, that it is reducible to other phenomenologies.
On that, it may be that taking all emotion together was just too big a bite. It seems quite likely to me that different emotions might have different phenomenologies, and perhaps tackling it that way would yield more positive results.
Anyway, a refreshing look at consciousness.

16 Comments

  1. 1. Arnold Trehub says:

    Is there any kind of phenomenology that doesn’t involve something somewhere in relation to oneself?

  2. 2. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold:”Is there any kind of phenomenology that doesn’t involve something somewhere in relation to oneself?”

    I’d say so, since location per se – the where fact about the world or the self – may not need to be represented, e.g., in having thoughts, emotions. These don’t need to be represented as having a location, so aren’t. They are simply present to the subject as part of her current consciousness, as opposed to external objects which are always located somewhere in space in our experiential rendition of them.

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom,

    Don’t you consciously experience your thoughts as inner speech or images located somewhere in your head? And don’t you experience your emotions as being within the envelope of your own body?

  4. 4. Cognicious says:

    Arnold, I have qualms about saying that I experience all my experiences as located within my body. Of course, in one sense that’s where they come from, but they don’t all feel that way. Visual perceptions seem to be “outside,” at the location of what I’m looking at. Internally generated visual images are on an imaginary, colorless screen a few inches in front of my eyes. If I recall what it was like to wade in the river in my home town at age ten, I’m almost there. If I ponder the possibility of complex life in another galaxy, however, I’m not thinking about any location in particular, and my current location is irrelevant.

    I suspect that introspection gets different results when you’re just sitting and thinking than when you’re actively engaging with the world. The difficulty with introspecting in the middle of doing something lies in catching yourself in action.

  5. 5. Arnold Trehub says:

    Cognicious,

    Exteroceptive perceptions are indeed experienced as being in the world around you. I was referring only to inner speech, images recalled from memory, and emotions.

  6. 6. Scott Bakker says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Kriegel’s posts, and I highly recommend his previous book, Sources of Intentionality. Kriegel, like Tim Bayne, has structured his approach to the problem of phenomenology in direct response to the challenges raised by Eric Schwitzgebel in his Perplexities of Consciousness, attempting to find some way to rescue introspection from the death by thousand cuts that Eric deals the venerable mode. I don’t think he (or Bayne) succeeds.

    For one, he has no answer for either of the two big questions falling out of BBT: Given that intentional cognition is adapted to the solution of problems in the absence of data regarding what is actually going on with the systems involved, why should we think that intentional cognition can tell us what is actually going on with intentional cognition?

    I actually think this question is a show-stopper when it comes to projects like the one Kriegel lays out on the Brains Blog. We’ll be arguing the ‘nature’ of belief and desire for eternity so long as we fail to take into account the kinds of information they and other intentional idioms systematically neglect.

    Insofar as Kriegel takes himself to answering “Schwitzgebel’s Challenge” he’s tackling the second big question posed by BBT: Why should we think the endogenous information available to deliberative metacognition is adequate to the kinds of categorical descriptive or explanatory claim-making philosophers, mystics, and psychologists are prone to base upon it?

    Kriegel likens introspection to olfaction, giving the analogy of smelling raspberries, and insisting, despite the low dimensional nature of this information (this is where he concedes Eric his point), that it reliably tells us that at least a raspberry is there. He then hangs his entire project on this whole ‘reliably at least’ without giving due consideration of the way this analogy actually scuttles his foundational claim. A raspberry is something we cognize multimodally via sensory channels possessing far more resolution than olfaction. The raspberry he claims to smell in our head is available to him only via introspection olfaction. If you follow through the analogy keeping this in mind, you quickly realize that far from allaying, it simply confirms Schwitzgebel’s misgivings.

    It’s been fascinating for me watching analytic philosophy retreat and retreat on their estimations of introspection. Kriegel, like Bayne, have provided what I think is a very interesting last ditch defence, but it’s ultimately futile. There’s a reason traditional intentional philosophy is a swamp of disagreements!

  7. 7. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold:

    “Don’t you consciously experience your thoughts as inner speech or images located somewhere in your head? And don’t you experience your emotions as being within the envelope of your own body?”

    Yes, but not located in any particular place like an itch or pain or external objects are usually located. Thoughts and emotions are simply tagged as mine, which is why they are experienced as being “in here,” (part of my goings-on) as opposed to “out there” (what’s not me). But it isn’t necessary for behavioral purposes that they be given a specific location in relation to the body, so they aren’t. They simply occur as contents of consciousness.

  8. 8. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom, I agree that thoughts an emotions are not experienced so sharply localized as external objects and events. But I do experience my inner speech as roughly localized within my head, and my emotions as roughly localized within my upper body. This is why they are “tagged as mine”.

  9. 9. Tom Clark says:

    Thanks Arnold. I think that this rough localization could be a function of the fact that inner speech probably involves some of the same neural pathways as actual speech, including pre-motor pathways in the head, and emotions of course involve bodily arousal to prepare for motor action. So as you say, this is why, bodily, I know they are mine. I guess it’s the propositional content of thoughts and emotions that isn’t anywhere in particular, such that if there were no pre-motor systems activated in their production, then they wouldn’t be felt to be anywhere. But then perhaps they wouldn’t be felt – tagged – as mine. Which suggests that the very sense of being me and of ownership of conscious contents is necessarily (?) a bodily, spatially represented phenomenon.

  10. 10. Cognicious says:

    William James thought that inner speech was experienced in the head because that’s where we experience actual heard sounds: between our ears.

    As I said, my visual mental images appear a few inches in front of my eyes, not *in* my head.

    Many thoughts are neither visual nor verbal, and introspection doesn’t easily track down the “felt where” of them.

  11. 11. Arnold Trehub says:

    Most of our thinking is pre-conscious. It is the product of our thinking — our inner language and images — that make up a part of our phenomenal experience.

  12. 12. Cognicious says:

    Arnold: “Most of our thinking is pre-conscious.”

    Agree!

    “It is the product of our thinking — our inner language and images — that make up a part of our phenomenal experience.” I’m noting that even limiting the discussion to conscious thoughts, many of them don’t take the form of language or images.

    If you see a puddle on the floor, do you take the trouble to articulate to yourself “I must wipe that up”? I don’t. I just go get a sponge. Some form of thought preceded my act, but I didn’t need to form a sentence or visualize any rags and sponges or a dry floor.

  13. 13. Arnold Trehub says:

    Agreed, much of our behavior is automatic, as when we drive along a familiar route.

  14. 14. ihtio says:

    Peter,
    The idea that there is conative phenomenology is a sort of cousin of the idea of an ‘executive quale’ which I have espoused: it means there is something it is like to desire, to decide, and to intend. Kriegel doesn’t spend any real effort on defending the idea that these things have phenomenology at all, though it seems to me (introspectively!) that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
    What exactly are those “things” that you speak of? “States”? “Representations”? “Act(ions)”?

    It is more likely we use a single word “decide” to describe different things – feeling the deciding (or the “decision quale”), doing an action when a set of alternatives is present, etc. I don’t see why we should think there is one thing that sometimes has and sometimes does not have phenomenology.

  15. 15. ihtio says:

    Arnold,
    People who hear voices also would say that they are “in their heads”, but that they “aren’t theirs”.
    Also, when I smell something I don’t ascribe any location to the phenomenology – not even in my head. It is easy to differentiate between for example a pain around a tooth vs a pain in a finger. It is not possible to differentiate between a smell in a hand or a smell in a head.

  16. 16. Arnold Trehub says:

    Ihto, I don’t experience a smell in my head. I experience odor in my nose. Deciding what the source of the odor might be is another matter.

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