Friday, 26 June 2015

Christopher Peacocke: Sensations and Concepts

The conceptual determination of experience (or “sensations”) is shown by an example from Christopher Peacocke:

“…we see the array

. . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

           as three columns of dots rather than as four rows.” (1983)

There's no reason, prima facie, that we shouldn’t see four rows rather than three columns. This seems to suggest that concepts (of columns, perhaps) are determining our “sensations”. I don’t know about the empirical research on this particular array; though I suspect that there must be someone who does indeed see four rows instead of three columns. The point is, however, that the sensations alone don’t determine the experience. Indeed if it were just a question of sensations alone, it wouldn’t be an experience. Experience is “under an aspect”.

The same applies to another Peacocke example.

One person may see the object which we call a “sphere”; though not apply the concept [sphere] to it. Another person will indeed apply the concept [sphere] to that same object. However, and more likely, he won’t apply the concept at all. The concept will belong (as it were) to the spherical object. He'll non-cognitively experience a sphere as a sphere. The person without the concept [sphere] will still, however, either apply a concept to the sphere or a concept will belong to the sphere (as in the other example).

Peacocke himself says that “sensational properties do not determine representational content”. No; concepts are part of the story too.

Peacocke goes on to say that “grouping properties [the arrays into columns not rows] are sensational rather than representational”. Peacocke admits that the array example

seems to suggest that we are concerned with representational, not a sensational, property: the concept of a column enters the content”.

The problem is Peacocke’s argument for saying that “grouping [is a] sensational property”. Of course “grouping” will rely on sensations; though they won't wholly determine the grouping. Peacocke is making a distinction between grouping (which I think is conceptual and he doesn’t) and sensations. Indeed he's saying that grouping isn't conceptual (or “representational”). On this particular aspect, Peacocke doesn’t go into detail. He says himself that in “switches of aspect the sensational properties…[remain] constant”.

Martin Davies spots a dualism in Peacocke's position. He says that the idea is that there's “a sensational (non-representational) substrate upon which the representational superstructure…is erected” (page 324).


>) Representational superstructure

>) Sensational (non-representational) substrate

As with Ned Block’s “access-consciousness” and "phenomenal-consciousness”, Davies quite happily accepts “non-representational properties of experience without embracing the idea of a sensational substrate”.

Colin McGinn points out the position represented by philosophers like Peacocke. They accept

prerepresentational yet intrinsic level of description of experiences: that is, a level of description that is phenomenal yet noncontentful…” (1989)

Perhaps the problem is that Peacocke thinks in terms of “protopropositional content” (1992, pg. 79) – i.e., nonconceptual content. This is almost – or indeed literally – an acceptance that content prior to “propositional judgement” can’t be conceptual. Propositions almost literally make concepts. That is why “protopropositional content” is nonconceptual content. Though if we don’t accept a necessary entirely linguistic basis for concepts, we needn't believe in Peacocke’s non-conceptual content.

Davies points out that Peacocke is obviously happy to accept the conceptualisations of “sensational properties”. He says that Peacocke shows us examples of “pairs of experience with the same sensational properties but different representational properties” (1996). Yet Peacocke also shows us “pairs of experiences with the same representational properties but different sensational properties”. Does this, however, show us that these “different sensational properties” are nonconceptual? It seems to hint at the fact (or possibility) that they aren't representing anything. Though I've attempted to show (based on my reading of his Sensations and the Content of Experience’ paper) that this doesn’t seem to work.

At least this is the case with Peacocke’s array example. The other cases are based on technical empirical psychological research on subjective experience, which is difficult to comment upon.

Peacocke, however, appears to make an obvious mistake. He says that a person “waking up in an unfamiliar position or place [will have] minimal representational content” . Unfamiliarity doesn’t entail lack of conceptual content. This person will still conceptualise his “unfamiliar position or place”. This only displays Peacocke’s linguistic or propositional bias. Of course this person may not be able to describe or form “propositional judgements” about the unfamiliar position or place; though that may be irrelevant to conceptual and/or representational content. When the place or position becomes “rich” with “representational content”, this may simply be a case of applying “descriptive labels…to the array” (Michael Tye, 1990). Propositions and propositional judgements are simply additions to the conceptual content that already exists. Tye says that “computational routines [“propositional judgements”] process this activity and assign an appropriate descriptive term”.

I suspect that Peacocke’s propositional or linguistic bias causes problems for various of his positions. However, I doubt that even Peacocke would deny his linguistic or propositional bias (though he wouldn’t use the word “bias”). The bias itself wouldn’t cause problems in his eyes. It's simply the reality of conceptual experience, I assume, to Peacocke. (Someone like Peter Geach was explicit about his propositional or linguistic bias vis-à-vis concepts. See his 1959.)

According to Tye, “phenomenal content” is by definition nonconceptual . He too gives us his own dualism between “phenomenal content” and belief:

a) “A content is classified as phenomenal only if it is nonconceptual and poised [for use by the cognitive centres].”


b) “Beliefs…lie within the conceptual arena, rather than providing inputs to it.”

This is almost foundationalist in that “phenomenal content” is seen as input to be worked upon later (if only split seconds later). Beliefs, on the other hand, are outputs. And if this is truly foundationalist, then a) above would be “the Given”. It certainly seems foundationalist when Tye makes the epistemic point that phenomenal content is “poised for use by the cognitive centres”. That is, it comes (epistemically) before such use.

Tye makes the strange point that phenomenal content is “representational”. How can this be? How can something represent “that there are such and such co-instantiated locational and nonlocational features” without concepts?


Block, Ned, ‘Begging the Question Against Phenomenal Consciousness’, from Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 15, 1992, 205-206
   - ‘On a Confusion About a Function of Consciousness’, from Behavioural and     Brain Sciences, 18, 1995
Davies, Martin, ‘Externalism and Experience’, from Philosophy and Cognitive Science: Categories, Consciousness and Reasoning, 1996
Geach, P, Mental Acts and Their objects (1957)
McGinn, Colin, Mental Content, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989
Peacocke, Christopher, A Study of Concepts, Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press, 1992
    - ‘Sensation and Content of Experience’, from Sense and Content, Oxford:     Clarendon Press, 1983
Tye, Michael, ‘A Representational Theory of Pains and Their Phenomenal Character’, from Philosophical Perspectives, Vol.9, 1990, 223-239

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