Introducing Modest Nonconceptualism

First off, I want to thank John Schwenkler for inviting me to contribute a few posts on my new book, Modest Nonconceptualism: Epistemology, Phenomenology, Content, this week.

As I’m sure readers of the Brains blog are well aware, there is an intricate debate over whether perceptual experience is conceptual or nonconceptual. I defend a particular version of nonconceptualism, viz. Modest Nonconceptualism. Instead of providing a detailed presentation of the debate or of the different options for the nonconceptualist (if you are interested in such detail, you should read the book!), let me start out with the essentials of my view:

  1. State view vs. content view

    I endorse both the state view and the content view of nonconceptualism. (See Heck (2000), Byrne (2005), among others.) That is to say, I hold that undergoing a content-bearing perceptual experience in no case requires a subject to exercise all the concepts needed to specify its content. (This is the state view: It’s about what is involved in one’s undergoing a perceptual state.)

    In addition, I claim that the content of perceptual experience is nonconceptual in that it is not, or at least never entirely, Fregean. All experiences have contents with at least some non-Fregean elements. Further, perceptual contents are non-propositional. (This is the content view: It’s concerned with the nature and structure of the contents of perceptual experience.)

  2. Concepts

    My view is pluralist with respect to the question of whether concepts are to be identified with Fregean senses, certain cognitive abilities, or mental representations (though the latter play only a minor role in the book). On the state view, ‘concept’ is most naturally understood as ‘conceptual ability’. On the content view, concepts should be thought of as Fregean senses. On any conception of concepts, it is important to secure a close connection to what it takes to posses and exercise a concept – to be able to re-identify things and to draw certain inferences, and to meet the Generality Constraint (Evans 1982).

  3. Content

    I roughly follow Peacocke’s (1992) view that the nonconceptual and non-propositional content of perceptual experience consists in scenario content, though I do allow that Fregean senses might be included in such a content. Additionally, I allow that experience has a content, externally conceived, which is the state of affairs in the world that the experience is directed at.

  4. Autonomy Thesis

    To have content-bearing perceptual experiences experiences, the subject doesn’t need any other personal-level mental states or abilities, including concepts. Rather, what is needed is a certain subpersonal architecture, which includes representations of distal features of the subject’s environment. These representations have to be available to impact the subject’s central action-guiding system.

  5. Perceptual Justification

    Perceptual experiences stand in rational relations to beliefs about the world – they justify them. This is the case when the correctness of the experience in question requires, or makes likely, the truth of the belief in question. Further I require that the subject makes the transition from experience to belief in reaction to the particular external content of the perceptual experience.

So much for the central elements of my view. You may wonder whether this brand of nonconceptualism really deserves the characterization of being ‘modest’. Here is how it does: For one, I do not propose a maximal version of nonconceptualism, which requires all experiences and their contents to be exclusively nonconceptual. For instance, to undergo a cognitively penetrated experience of the plant yarrow, a subject may have to possess or exercise the concept yarrow; its content may include the Fregean sense yarrow. Modest Nonconceptualism can grant this.

For another, the view does not aspire to provide an account of perceptual justification solely on the basis of the nonconceptual and non-propositional content of perceptual experience. Instead, it relies on an externally individuated content – the states of affairs represented – that experience and belief often have in common.

I’ll present arguments for certain aspects of my view, and for nonconceptualism generally, in the following posts. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to answer questions about details of my view in the comments.


Byrne, A. (2005), ‘Perception and Conceptual Content’, in M. Steup & E. Sosa, eds, Contemporary Debates in Epistemology, Blackwell, Malden, pp. 231–250.

Evans, G. (1982), The Varieties of Reference, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Heck, R. (2000), ‘Nonconceptual Content and the ‘Space of Reasons’’, Philosophical Review 109, 483–523.

Peacocke, C. (1992), A Study of Concepts, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.