Recently there has been a lot of interesting work (including some by one of our own) done on the epistemic status of first-personal reports on conscious states. The usual target in this tradition is the assumption of a certain kind of first-person authority concerning what consciousness is like for someone – a topic concerning which, it seems, it’s possible for a person to be quite wrong.
In a paper that I’ve got forthcoming in Mind and Language, I ask whether it’s similarly possible to be wrong not just about how consciousness is, but also about how it has to be – which is actually the main focus of the discipline of phenomenology, traditionally construed. That is, I’m concerned to understand the value of arguments to the effect that it is not possible for us to have conscious experiences of such-and-such a sort, given that they are unimaginable. My position is that it’s possible for such arguments to have some value, even if they’re not altogether unimpeachable in the way the phenomenologists seem to have thought.
The title of the paper is “Does Visual Spatial Awareness Require the Visual Awareness of Space?”, and its target is the Kantian claim that yes, it does. Here is a link to the paper, and here is the abstract:
Many philosophers have held that it is not possible to experience a
spatial object, property, or relation except against the background of
an intact awareness of a space that is somehow ‘absolute’. This paper
challenges that claim, by analyzing in detail the case of a
brain-damaged subject whose visual experiences seem to have violated
this condition: spatial objects and properties were present in his
visual experience, but space itself was not. I go on to suggest that
phenomenological argumentation can give us a kind of evidence about the nature of the mind even if this evidence is not absolutely incorrigible.
Most of my focus in this paper is on the first-order issue raised by its title: I analyze the phenomenological arguments for the impossibility claim, and then work through the neurological case that I take to undermine them. The second-order issue of how we should think about the value of phenomenological evidence in general comes up at the very end, where I distinguish two extreme positions: minimalism, which says that we cannot have any substantive non-empirical knowledge about the mind, and conservatism, which says that it’s the business of the phenomenologist to reinterpret recalcitrant empirical data to fit our best philosophical theories. My own view lies in the middle:
… phenomenological exercises and other sorts of a priori philosophical investigation can provide a kind of evidence for claims about, say, what visual experience must be like even if that evidence is not, as conservatives like Kant and the classical phenomenologists would have had it, entirely incontrovertible and so immune to empirical scrutiny. What the case of RM [i.e., the subject I discuss in my paper] should teach us is not to give up altogether on the possibility of substantive non-empirical knowledge about the nature of the mind, but rather to treat the apparent fruits of our phenomenological inquiries just as Quine taught us to treat any other putative instances of a priori knowledge: they may well warrant a place somewhere near the center of our web of belief, but are not thereby immune to revision in the light of what we learn down the line. It is by being bold in articulating the empirical phenomena that their a priori conclusions require them to predict, and meticulous in seeking out and scrutinizing findings that can disconfirm them, that practitioners of non-empirical methodologies can make genuine contributions to the study of the mind.
Thoughts on this position, or on the argument of the paper more generally? I find this topic insanely interesting.