Cognitive Phenomenology: Why Bother?

I will conclude this series of posts by saying something about why I think cognitive phenomenology is significant. The basic idea is that phenomenology in general is connected to epistemology, value theory, and semantics via the notion of awareness, and cognitive phenomenology in particular is connected to these areas via the notion of intellectual awareness.

Awareness, as I understand it, is a two-place determinable relation between a subject and an object. Examples include: seeing a flat tailed horned lizard, hearing a bird chirp, and feeling a mosquito bite. In each case, you are aware of something in part because it is phenomenally differentiated from some background. Take the flat tailed horned lizard. If the flat tailed horned lizard is camouflaged against the sand, then even though it is there and it is a direct partial cause of whatever phenomenal state you are in, you are not visually aware of it. So there is a connection between awareness and phenomenology. The connection is the one that camouflage exploits: camouflage blocks awareness by preventing this necessary phenomenal condition on awareness from obtaining.

Suppose it is not camouflaged and you are visually aware of the flat tailed horned lizard. Plausibly, because you are aware of it, three things follow. First, you can pick the lizard out in demonstrative thoughts. That is, you can entertain thoughts you might report by saying, “That is a flat tailed horned lizard,” and the demonstrative concept expressed in your use of “that” will refer to the lizard you see. This is a connection between awareness and semantics. Second, you will be in a position to make judgments about the lizard. Suppose you wonder whether there is a lizard nearby. You just don’t know. Then you see the flat tailed horned lizard. Now you do know. Because you see the flat tailed horned lizard, you know that there is a lizard nearby. This is a connection between awareness and epistemology. Third, you will be able to contemplate the lizard as an object of aesthetic appreciation. Suppose I tell you about the wonders of flat tailed horned lizards, but you never see one for yourself. Then you are informed about the wonders of flat tailed horned lizards, but you do not experience these for yourself. Visual awareness of the flat tailed horned lizard makes the difference. And insofar as experiencing wonders is a good thing, there is this connection between awareness and value theory.

The foregoing suggests that sensory phenomenology is essential to at least some thought, knowledge, and appreciation of concrete things because of its connection to sensory awareness. Plausibly, the same pattern exists in the case of cognition: cognitive phenomenology is essential to at least some thought, knowledge, and appreciation of abstract things via its connection to intellectual awareness.

Consider the following from Husserl:

A memorial consciousness—for example, of a landscape—is not originarily presentive; the landscape is not perceived as it would be in case we actually saw it. By this we do not mean to say that memorial consciousness has no competence of its own; only that it is not a “seeing” consciousness. Phenomenology brings to light an analogue of this in contrast in each of the other kinds of positing mental processes. For example: We can assert “blindly” that two plus one is equal to one plus two; but we can also make this same judgment in the manner peculiar to intellectual seeing. When we do this, the predicatively formed affair-complex, the synthetical objectivity corresponding to the judgment-synthesis, is given originarily, seized upon in an originary manner.

Husserl makes two contrasts: perception contrasts with memory; and intuition—“intellectual seeing”—contrasts with blind judgment. I might recall a landscape. I might think demonstrative thoughts about it, go over what I know about it, and appreciate its beauties. But my capacity to do these things depends on a prior perception of the landscape: it was a previous sensory awareness that enabled the demonstrative thoughts, gave me the knowledge, and put me in a position to appreciate. This is what makes perception “originary.” According to Husserl, there is a similar relationship between intuition and thoughts, knowledge, and appreciation of abstract truths such as the truth that 2 + 1 = 1 + 2 or the more general truth that addition is commutative. Suppose someone tells me that addition is commutative, but I do not “see” it for myself. Then I might very well believe that addition is commutative. But this would be judging blindly. Suppose, however, I do “see” it for myself. What does this consist in? According to Husserl it consists in seizing on the relevant “affair-complex.” What that means is that it consists in being aware of the state of affairs that addition is commutative. This is not sensory awareness. It is intellectual awareness. And just as with sensory awareness, intellectual awareness is “originary”: it is a ground of demonstrative thought, knowledge, and the position to appreciate. In this case, the objects of such thought, knowledge, and appreciation are abstract rather than concrete.

If these Husserlian thoughts about intellectual awareness are correct, and in my view they are, then cognitive phenomenology is significant for epistemology, value theory, and semantics. Intellectual awareness, like any kind of awareness, is connected to phenomenology: the objects of intellectual awareness must not be camouflaged. We tend not to use the term “camouflage” here and it sounds odd. Perhaps there are better terms for the intellectual analogue, such as “obscurity” and “confusion.” The terminology does not matter however. What is important is that just as with sensory awareness, intellectual awareness has necessary phenomenological conditions. The objects of intellectual awareness must phenomenally stand out from rather than blend into a cognitive background. In this case, however, it is implausible that the relevant phenomenology is sensory, or, rather, wholly sensory. It is clear how visual phenomenology might be so structured that in it a lizard stands out from sand and foliage. But it is not clear how visual phenomenology might be so structured that in it addition or commutativity stand out from other operations and properties such as multiplication and associativity. For that it looks like we need cognitive phenomenology.


  1. Marco Polo Camacho

    Very interesting read. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the relevance of cognitive phenomenology to areas such as epistemology, value theory and science. So, this post came at a good time. Thank you.

    I do have a concern. In the epistemic version of the lizard case, you claim we can know there is a lizard based on awareness. Yet, it seems we can be mistaken. I might claim that I know there isn’t a lizard based on awareness when there really is a lizard. Someone might say that awareness isn’t sufficient for knowledge. I hope this makes sense.

    At any rate, I’ve really enjoyed your posts — thank you!

  2. Eli

    Hi Marco,

    I was using “aware” relationally so that if one is aware of a lizard, then there is some lizard one is aware of. On that usage you wouldn’t count as aware of a lizard if there is no lizard.

    But I’m perfectly happy to talk about seeming to be aware of a lizard, where this is not relational, so that one might seem to be aware of a lizard even though there is no lizard one is aware of. Seeming awareness wouldn’t suffice for knowledge. But it might suffice for justification–i.e. if it seems to you as if you are aware of a lizard, then you thereby have some justification (defeasible and maybe misleading) for thinking there is a lizard.

  3. Dave

    Interesting article. It had me thinking of the cognitive background as the cognitive unconscious. Might there be a parallel?
    We can have a myriad of phenomenally efficacious states (emotions perhaps), but not be aware of them in the same way we are away of something more immediate in our phenomenal field (such as the fear of being chased by someone with an axe).
    If we accept the premise that there is something like the cognitive unconscious, then how are things that might be there (like the lizard) making themselves, to some degree, phenomenally present? The “lizard” is indeed there, but we don’t quite know it, but we “sense” it on the liminal level.

  4. Eli

    Hi Dave,

    Maybe an example would be the order of quantifiers in a thought. Suppose you think everyone likes someone. And suppose the thought that occurs to you is, [all x][some y] x likes y, not, [some x] [all y] x likes y. The order of the quantifiers might make a phenomenal difference, but it might not be an object of awareness w/out some further reflection.

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