Two Conceptions of Consciousness
4:30 p.m. 31 May 2007
Approaches to understanding the nature of conscious experience can be grouped into two broad categories. Following John Campbell (Reference and Consciousness, 2002) I will refer to these approaches as “The Relational View” and “The Representational View.” The Relational View conceives of consciousness as fundamentally a matter of a relation to the world, such that: “the phenomenal content of the experience of an ordinary observer is constituted by the qualitative character of the view the observer is currently enjoying: which objects and properties are there in the scene, together with the viewpoint from which they are being observed.” (p.146) In contrast, the Representational View conceive consciousness as fundamentally a matter of having internal representational states with certain properties, such that: “the phenomenal character of your experience is constituted not by the way your surroundings are, but by the content of your representational states.” (p. 116)
Having distinguished these two conceptions of consciousness, I will briefly review the arguments presented against the Representational View by Campbell, and John McDowell (especially in “The Contents of Perceptual Experience”, 1994). These concern (the explanation of) our capacity for demonstrative thought, and the (phenomenological) correctness of a non-Cartesian view of experience. I will then outline an argument of my own against the Representational View which takes a different line, concentrating instead on the issue of the qualitative dimension of conscious experience, which has tended to be discussed in terms of the (bogus) notion of “qualia.” If this argument is successful then it represents a further blow against the Representational View. I will then suggests that some of the grounds commonly assumed to favour such a view actually provide no better support for it than there is for the Relational View. The net result is a comprehensive shifting of the burden of proof to the Representational View. Thus, in contrast to most recent work on consciousness, the Relational View of experience should be taken as the default view.