What Is Given in Experience?

I called my book The Given (Oxford University Press, 2016) because I set out to answer the question, What is given in experience? What does one have to do in order to give an adequate characterization of how the world is given to us, an adequate characterization of how we sense, feel, and think about—live in—the world?

In providing such a characterization I focus on four fundamental notions: consciousness, phenomenology, intentionality, and content. I propose that one way to give an adequate general theory of the given—of what is given in experience—is to specify the nature of these four things and to give a correct account of their relationship. In what follows, I’ll give a broad overview of this approach.

My concern is with conscious experience, and I begin with the claim that consciousness is an essentially phenomenological phenomenon. All conscious states are conscious in virtue of having a phenomenology. Phenomenology can be characterized in a familiar way as the phenomenon of there being ‘something it is like’ experientially, to be in a mental state, something it is like, experientially, for the creature who is in the state. For example, there is something it is like to taste marmite, or feel sleepy, or faintly uneasy, or suddenly remember a missed appointment, or find something funny.

It follows that there is no such thing as non-phenomenological consciousness. So too there aren’t different fundamental kinds of consciousness: phenomenological and non-phenomenological. This is not to say that the word ‘consciousness’ has not been used to designate non-phenomenological phenomena. It has, but when it is used in this way it is not designating consciousness in the sense in which I am interested, in the sense that makes us eat another piece of chocolate because we like the way it tastes.

Sometimes philosophers have taken Ned Block’s (1995) distinction between ‘phenomenal’ consciousness and ‘access’ consciousness to be the basis of a distinction between phenomenological and non-phenomenological kinds of consciousness. I am not sure that Block meant any such thing by this distinction. In any case, the term ‘access-consciousness’ does not designate a kind of consciousness, by my lights, but rather a functional property certain conscious states have.

Our conscious experience is rich and various: our stream of consciousness involves an ever-changing flow of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, moods, and bodily sensations. I argue that capturing this variety requires at least three distinct, sui generis kinds of phenomenology. First, there is sensory phenomenology, construed to include various kinds of interoceptive bodily phenomenology as well as the phenomenology we typically associate with the five sensory modalities, e.g. what it is like to see red, to hear a piercing scream, to feel silk and so on. Second, there is cognitive phenomenology, a kind of phenomenology that is essentially over and above sensory phenomenology and is paradigmatically associated with conscious thought (although it is also present in cases of conscious perception and emotion.) On this view, there is something it is like to consciously think that the weather is depressing or to consciously think that humans are puzzling, something that is irreducible to any sensory phenomenology that may be associated with these thoughts. Finally, there is what I call ‘evaluative phenomenology’—a distinctive kind of phenomenology emotional experiences have in virtue of being experiences of value or what we take to be of value.

The liberal view I advocate stands in contrast to the dominant view in analytic philosophy according to which sensory phenomenology is the only kind of phenomenology. If we take this restrictive view of phenomenology and combine it with the claim that all conscious phenomena are phenomenological phenomena and the claim that our conscious lives consist of conscious thoughts, perceptions, and emotions, we finish up with the implausible view that reference to sensory phenomenology is sufficient to account for that in virtue of which all mental states are conscious. How boring life would be!

The two final notions required for providing a theory of the given are intentionality and content. I propose a very minimal conception of intentionality. It can be simply characterized as the phenomenon of something’s being about something or of something in the sense of ‘of’ given which a picture can be said to be of something such as a battle or a landscape. I am concerned only with mental intentional phenomena and more specifically with conscious mental intentional phenomena.

Much of the detailed discussion of intentionality has been conducted in terms of the notion of content—in terms of the notion of intentional or representational content. Traditionally philosophers have had a very narrow conception of content in mind, taking the content of a mental state to be the truth conditions or the accuracy conditions of that state.

I develop an alternative notion of content. I call it the ‘Brentanian theory of content’ because it’s inspired by Franz Brentano’s work on intentionality and consciousness. It begins with notion of experience, and with the idea that the best way to characterize the content of experience is to say that the total content of an experience is absolutely everything that one experiences in having the experience: the content of an experience is everything that is given to one, experientially, in the having of the experience, everything that one is aware of, experientially, in the having of the experience.

One important feature of this understanding of content is that it includes phenomenological features as given in experience, and thus as part of the content of experience, in addition to whatever else may given in experience, such as physical objects and their properties.


  1. Thanks for an interesting post Michelle!
    I’m trying to figure out how introspection fits into what you say.
    You say that phenomenological features are part of the content of experience. Does this imply that our awareness of them is not introspective?
    When you speak of what is given to us, experientially, does this include what introspection reveals about our experience?

  2. Michelle Montague

    Thanks for your comment, Assaf. This is a very apt question, which I try to answer in more detail in my next blog post! Short answer: the kind of awareness that features in my definition of ‘content’ should be sharply distinguished from introspection. There are many ways of distinguishing the two kinds of awareness, but I’ll just mention a few. I call the kind of awareness which features in my definition of content ‘awareness of awareness’. First, awareness of awareness is constitutive of all conscious experience, whereas only some of our mental states are introspected. Second, I believe introspection involves two distinct mental states, the introspecting state occurring shortly after the mental state which is being introspected, whereas I advocate a ‘same-order’ theory of consciousness. According to a same-order view, when one has a perceptual experience, one’s awareness of the external object (if there is one) and one’s awareness of the experience itself are so intimately and intrinsically related that they constitute a single mental state.

Comments are closed.

Back to Top