Consciousness: Explanation vs. Description

A couple of months ago I got an amazing book called Owls of the World that more or less summarizes all the knowledge that humanity has gathered so far on the 250-odd species of owl inhabiting the earth. It gave me a glimpse into the kind of work a zoologist working on owls engages in. Much of it involves trying to explain owl phenomena: typical food and hunting styles, social behavior and communication, breeding habits, migration patterns, etc. Sometimes we learn things from the “deep essence/hidden nature” of the owl: recent DNA analysis, for example, suggests that owls are closer to parrots than to falcons!

But what struck me most is how much of the book – and apparently, of the owl zoologist’s workaday – is taken up with just describing owls. The heart of the book consists of 72 color plates with drawings of hundreds of different types of owls (different species, genders, and ages), with next to them descriptions of the following style

Marsh Owl Asio capensis

Grassland, marsh and moorland, from lowlands up to 3000m. Locally in NW and sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Medium-sized, long-winged and dark-eyed owl, dark brown above, with dark brown and white face, dark brown chest and somewhat paler underparts; tarsi feathered, toes bristled; bill black, eyes brown.

There are hundreds of these, by the way, making up the core of the book. On reflection, it makes perfect sense: it’s all very nice to explain X, but first you need to get clear what needs explaining. That is, before you launch into an explanatory project, you need to describe the explanandum.

It is a curious feature of philosophical work on consciousness that far away most of the “research energy” goes into explaining consciousness. Mostly what’s at issue is reductive explanation of consciousness in terms of underlying neural substrate. Sometimes there’s interest in broadly causal explanation, say of the evolution of consciousness. You’d think that before we embark on these explanatory projects, we’d take the time to put in place a sound description of the explanandum. In practice, however, we often rest content with a sentence for insiders about what it’s like to see red and/or what it’s like to feel pain and then launch into the explanatory project that’s our real interest.

The idea behind my book The Varieties of Consciousness, which John Schwenkler has kindly asked me to blog about and around, so to speak, was to pause for some 300 pages on the matter of describing consciousness. The idea is not just that getting a fuller portrait of the phenomenon up for explanation might help or reshape the explanatory project. It was also, and primarily, that the descriptive project is interesting and worth pursuing in its own right. It has not only instrumental intellectual value, but also intrinsic intellectual value.

In the book, I took for granted that there a phenomenal experience of perceiving and a phenomenal experience of pleasure and pain (“algedonic experience,” as the cool kids are calling it). Those are the paradigms that always come back. The first is a kind of sensory phenomenology, the second a kind of sensuous phenomenology. The question I raise in my book is: what if any other types of phenomenology, neither sensory nor sensuous, do we find in our conscious life? For example, there has been a lively debate for the past decade over the existence of sui generis phenomenology of thinking – so-called cognitive phenomenology. There’s also a somewhat similar debate on the phenomenology of agency. I’m going to blog about these debates and others like them in the days to come. But the general question I wanted to raise in my book is:

(Q) How many types of phenomenology do we need to posit to just be able to describe the stream of consciousness?

I actually offer an answer* in the book: six! (The asterisk is there because the answer is very tentative, and it’s offered as an answer not quite to Q above, but to a descendent of Q arrived at through some conceptual and metaphysical weed-clearing…) More specifically, I discuss four types of phenomenology, beyond the perceptual and the algedonic, that I claim are independent from each other (mutually irreducible) and indispensable for a full description of consciousness. They are: cognitive phenomenology, “conative” phenomenology, the phenomenology of entertaining an idea or a proposition, and the phenomenology of imagination.

I’ll say more about these in the coming days, but here’s just three quick notes. First, by conative phenomenology I mean a phenomenon that’s pretty close to the phenomenology of agency, but is a bit different and to my mind actually more basic. Second, I argue that the phenomenology of entertaining, properly understood, is independent from cognitive phenomenology. Third, I argue that it’s a mistake to think of the phenomenology of imagination to be the same kind as the phenomenology of perception. I’ll get back to these three ideas soon…


  1. Josh Weisberg

    Owls are pretty sweet, no doubt.

    Is your taxonomy restricted to “normal” experience? That is, what of religious or drug-induced experience? Let’s say you have the drug-induced experience of becoming one with five Mexican families (ask Ken…). Is that reducible to your categories or is that beyond the pale of the current project?

    Another question is about individual differences. What about individual differences? Some people claim to lack mental imagery and so on. One could imagine similar denials about some of the other items you list. Further, someone might claim to experience a modality you yourself do not. How do we adjudicate these sorts of things, from the descriptive taxonomic owlish perspective?

    (In other words, I haven’t read your book yet, but I look forward to it!)



  2. Uriah Kriegel

    Hi Josh!

    Yeah, good questions – thanks.

    It’s an interesting question whether the kinds of phenomenology I talk about are supposed to characterize “all possible experience,” “normal human adult experience,” or something in-between. The first option is clearly too strong, but I feel like the second one is a bit too weak. Maybe what I have in mind is this: these are the most general types of experience that it is nomologically possible for humans to have. This is consistent with some humans not having all 6 types, but inconsistent with some humans having some 7th type of experience. So take for example the phenomenology religious experience, or spiritual experience more generally. One could argue that this phenomenology is irreducible to any combination of other types of phenomenology. But another option is to say that it’s reducible to a combination of cognitive, conative, emotional*, and sometimes (in the more mystical varieties) perceptual experience. I am more tempted by this reductive approach, but I am open to being convinced otherwise. Ditto, by the way, for something like the phenomenology of the aesthetic sublime. (“Emotional” is asterisked above because I didn’t mention it in my list of 6 primitive types of phenomenology. There’s a chapter in the book where I argue, pretty tentatively, that emotional phenomenology is itself reducible to a combination of cognitive, conative, perceptual (notably proprioceptive), and algedonic phenomenology.)

    On the issue of individual differences, here’s what I think. The different phenomenal properties instantiated in our mental life are organized, inter alia, in species-genus relationships. So notice for example that I didn’t list visual phenomenology in my 6 privileged types. That’s not because I think auditory phenomenology is reducible to some other kinds of phenomenology; it’s because visual phenomenology is just a species of perceptual phenomenology. And visual phenomenology itself divides into different species, such as color phenomenology, which itself divide into subspecies, such as reddish phenomenology, and so on. Now, what I think about individual variation is basically this: the lower we are in the “taxonomic tree,” the more like individual variation is to occur; the higher we are, the less likely it is. Some people are color blind and cannot see red, but many fewer are incapable of perceptual experience altogether. Different people experience indignation or disappointment in slightly different ways, many fewer have never experienced emotional phenomenology. Most importantly, if everything works for my claim of 6 basic types of phenomenology at the right level of generality, I doubt there’s some seventh one that just some people can have – though it’s certainly a coherent idea and exciting notion…

  3. Josh Weisberg

    Interesting, given your views about consciousness, that you don’t have a distinctive phenomenology of self (or self-awareness or what have you). Is that, too, reducible? Is it not something phenomenal over-and-above active combinations of the others? People talk about “for-me-ness” and other such constructions. I would have thought that you could have all the others with or without a kind of attended “for-me-ness”. Or it accompanies all the others, but is common to every experience. Do you get into that here? (I would guess you do…)

    Anywho, cool stuff!

  4. Uriah Kriegel

    Indeed, I got some stuff in the book on the phenomenology of for-me-ness, but I don’t think of it as on the same level as perceptual phenomenology, cognitive phenomenology, etc. Here’s how I think of it. Consider this list of winks at a certain kind of phenomenal character:

    1) When I see something purple, often there is a purplish way it is like for me to see it;
    2) When I feel pain, often there is a pain-ish way it is like for me to feel it;
    3) When I realize that it’s already 9 o’clock, often there is an it’s-already-9-o’clock-ish way it is like for me to realize it;
    4) When I decide to get a beer, often there is a get-a-beer-ish way it is like for me to decide that;

    All these phenomenal characters vary in one respect and are invariant in another. The varying respect has to do with perceptual, algedonic, cognitive, and conative types of phenomenal character. The constant dimension is that the for-me-ness of all phenomenal characters.

    All this is highly controversial, I realize… But the result is that, on my view, for-me-ness is in fact a determinable of which all these other types of phenomenology are determinates: there is a perceptual-for-me, cognitive-for-me, etc. (I go into this in Ch6 of my book…)

Comments are closed.

Back to Top
%d bloggers like this: