Introspection, Acquaintance, and Higher-Order Representation

[cross-posted at Philosophy Sucks!]

Here at Brains Wayne Wu has been posting about, among other things, introspection and attention. One of the interesting things to come out of the discussion was the notion of ‘cognitive attention’ which consists in directing one’s thoughts. If this is truly a kind of attention then perhaps we can see higher-order thought and AIR theories as invoking different kinds of attention while both accept the transitivity principle. I hope to come back to this issue because I think it is time to start thinking about the connections between these two theories (and especially how we might experimentally differentiate them) but I will have to put that off. In this post I want to argue that higher-order theories are compatible with the acquaintance approach (see Brie Gertler’s comment for some links to some papers on this).

Before we begin we should note a potential confound here that may result in people talking past one another. Typically introspection is thought of as producing thoughts of the form ‘I am in pain now’ or ‘pain is instantiated in me now’ (see Brie Gertler’s paper in the link above for instance). And, of course, it is exactly these kinds of thoughts that higher-orer thought theories invoke to explain phenomenal consciousness in the first place. But of course by ‘pain’ the opponent to higher-order theories simply means what we would call ‘conscious pain’ and so we should reinterpret the above introspective claims as ‘I am in conscious pain now’ or ‘conscious pain is instantiated in me now’. They take the ‘conscious pain’ bit to actually be the phenomenal property of pain itself. A large art of the project that I have been engaged in recently has been to show that there is a way of thinking of higher-order thought theory that lets us, if we want, keep all of the benefits of the first-order theorist. On this view phenomenal consciousness consists in instantiating the right kind of higher-order representation. In particular one that attributes mental states and properties to the subject of the experience. This is what I have called the HOROR theory of phenomenal consciousness and it is metaphysically neutral.

In fact it looks like Dave endorses a non-physical version of this kind of theory in his response to Benj Hellie that he mentions in the discussion. There he says,

In effect, our phenomenology involves both a foreground awareness of redness and a background acquaintance with our awareness of redness. I think the most plausible line here is that phenomenal awareness is an acquaintance-involving relation by its very nature: in virtue of the nature of awareness, to be aware of x entails being acquainted with one’s awareness of x

and in the footnote he continues,

This is a relative of higher-order representation theories of consciousness, and especially of the Brentano-style self-representational views of consciousness that have become popular in recent years (see e.g. Kriegel and Williford 20xx). Some differences: the background awareness should be understood as Russellian instance-acquaintance rather than as a standard form of representation (this immediately avoids all objections from higher-order misrepresentation as well as from oversophistication), and the view does not lend any support to reductive views of consciousness. The awareness relation that the view appeals to is irreducibly a phenomenal relation. Of course someone might attempt to turn this into a reductive theory by identifying the awareness relation by a relation understood in functional terms, say. But just as in the case of first-order representationalism (discussed in chapter 8 of TCC), this move requires an additional and independent functionalism about the phenomenal, a view that is no more plausible here than elsewhere, and which leads to an explanatory gap that is as wide as ever.

Now here he is talking about phenomenal consciousness and not introspection and I am not sure whether the view is that this entire complex gets embedded in an introspective judgement or whether introspecting involves the background awareness coming to the foreground but either way is compatible with the HOROR theory. So, consider the way that Gertler lays out the Acquaintance Approach. She sums it up in the following three theses,

[Acquaintance Approach] Some introspective knowledge consists in judgments that
(1) are directly tied to their truthmakers;
(2) depend, for their justification, only on the subject’s conscious states at the time of the judgment; and
(3) are more strongly justified than any empirical judgments that do not meet conditions (1) and (2).

To be ‘directly tied’ on her account involves demonstrative attention and though that is not a requirement of the view I am happy enough with it. So, on the HOROR theory what will be required is that we deploy demonstrative attention to the proper higher-order representation and is compatible with (1). The term ‘conscious state’ in (2) should be interpreted as the appropriate higher-order representation and so the claim is just that some introspective judgements are justified solely by certain higher-order representations, and because of (1) and (2) these judgments are more strongly justified than other that don’t meet (1) and (2).

So not only is the HOROR theory compatible with introspective acquaintance it is also compatible with ‘same-order’ acquaintance.


  1. Josh Weisberg

    Hey Richard.

    The HOROR, the HOROR…

    I wonder if taking on an acquaintance view might do damage to your reductive ambitions. While the acquaintance folk might agree that we’re acquainted with a kind of self-awareness, but as Dave puts it, it’s a “phenomenal relation.” I take it that means that we’re acquainted with something nonfunctional, and by Brie’s condition (3), nothing empirical can mess with that.

    Also, I take it that acquaintance is supposed to show us that qualia are not homomorphic quality-space thingys or whatever. So there’s another problem. I think you’ve got to leave some space for enough fallibility to undermine these claims.

    Or maybe you’re taking all that on board? I would have thought that the appearance of acquaintance would be enough, along with an explanation of why we feel so sure we’re acquainted with qualia/self-awareness.

  2. Hi Josh and Pete, I agree that Dave and Brie’s version may be committed to non-reductivism but I don’t see why that is a necessary component of the view. I guess I take it as a phenomenal relation as well but I just also happen to think that we might be able to give a reductive account of what that phenomenal relation ultimately is in neural terms.

    And condition (3) just says that it is more justified than judgments that don’t meet conditions (1) and (2). Saying that something is ore justified doesn’t mean that it is infallible, just that we have a special kind of relation/access to the state in question.

    There is a lot to say about your last point but I’ve got to run right now…I’ll try to get back and respond soon though! Sorry about that.

  3. I should on the infallibility stuff that I do think that that the relevant judgements are infallible, but they may be rare and hard to come by. So many of our ordinary introspective judgments might be fallible…but still it seems to me that it is plausible that some should be like this and that HOROR theory can capture that.

    ok, ok, gotta go! Be back later!

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