Experienced Phenomenal Properties Entail Representational Properties

In this post, I am going to focus narrowly on experienced phenomenal properties and show how they are representational. I will end with the sort of representational picture they paint. To begin, what’s a phenomenal property? These are sometimes called qualitative properties or qualia.

There are popular illustrations in the philosophy of mind that bring about what phenomenal properties are. In Frank Jackson’s argument, Mary is a neuroscientist who has a complete knowledge of the physics and physiology of perceiving color; however, she has never left her black and white laboratory. When she opens the door to the colorful, outside world for the first time, she learns something about phenomenal properties–specifically, she learns how colors feel or what it is like to see color (1). Phenomenal properties are also species-specific. As Thomas Nagel argues, we may know the complete physiology of a bat, and all of the physical properties that the bat attends to in echo-locating, but this would not automatically get to what it is like to echo-locate. In order to know this we would need a grasp of the phenomenal properties involved in echolocating (2). So phenomenal properties are this what-it-feel-like property.

I will now detail exactly how the phenomenal properties that we experience are to be understood as representational. What does representational mean? Representational means having satisfaction conditions. Representations typically show or depict that the world is a certain way, or show or depict the world as being a certain way; and so, the representation will be satisfied if and only if the world is in fact the way shown. I want to bring out how phenomenal properties are representational, by just focusing on them as such. In particular, I think it is clear that, whenever we experience them, phenomenal properties imply spatial features and a point of view from which such phenomenal properties are felt or experienced. Such spatial features will imply that phenomenal properties are spatially positioned relative to a point of view whenever they are experienced.

To begin along this route, phenomenal properties are distinguishable from one another. They are distinguishable in two ways, spatially and temporally. In perception, they are spatially distinguishable because there can be two objects seen at once, or two parts of one object. In terms of phenomenal properties , there can be two phenomenally distinguishable properties experienced at the same time, such as those from two different colors that are seen at the same time (e.g. those of a brick wall). Such a distinction implies a space from which one phenomenal property is distinguishable from the other in a moment. What’s more, phenomenal properties that are experienced imply a point of view from which they are felt or experienced. The point of view is that from which the phenomenal properties can be felt as being above or below one another, or to the right or left of one another. Some sort of depth or distance from the point of view is also implied. To bring out how depth can be involved more clearly, close your eyes and touch something with the tip of your finger with an outstretched arm, and at the same time touch your forehead with your other hand. The feelings generated on the tip of the finger will be felt as further away than those on the forehead. Thus, the phenomenal properties themselves exhibit depth as related to the point of view. Spatial relations do not require multiple types of phenomenal properties to be experienced at once, however. With phenomenal properties that are of one type, or of a singular phenomenal property, a position from which a point of view is able to experience the phenomenal property is implied.

phenomenal properties are also temporally distinguishable, with the aid of memory, I presume. For example, in cases when the phenomenal properties change (e.g. as in a change in color) and they are remembered as being a different way immediately earlier from how it is now. On very short durations, however, perhaps no memory is required, and there is just a change of the phenomenal properties themselves with no comparison made of earlier ones with later ones.

If my illustration is right, we thus have phenomenal ‘things’ that are given spatially and temporally in sensory experience. I say ‘things’ in scare quotes since I take it that it depends on whether phenomenal properties depend on a mind or not for their existence whether or not we would take such ‘things’ to be private workings of individual minds, or else a constitutive part of the regular, public objects and properties of the world. If they are a part of the regular world, then the regular world is phenomenal. If not, then we have a sort of phenomenal world, as it were, private like we take dreams to be, yet are reliably connected to the external world through our senses. ***

Taken on their own, the representational features of the phenomenal properties paint a sort of picture. The picture they paint favors externalism regarding sensory experience. Externalism just means that the phenomenal properties of sensory experience are constituents of the public, mind-independent world. Why do the phenomenal properties favor such a picture? Note that their conditions of satisfaction include that there are such phenomenal things before the one who experiences them, in the place and at the moment they are experienced. John Campbell believes that his view of sensory experience, which is external regarding phenomenal properties, is the commonsense view (3 p. 140). I agree, and I think that the representational features of the phenomenal properties that I ave just covered explain why this is. In experiencing them, the phenomenal properties indicate that they are before us in space and and at that moment. The phenomenal properties of sensory experience are representational in a way that favors externalism about them. 

Of course, when dreaming, we often think that the phenomenal properties are public objects, and that they compose our friends and so forth. All the same, dreaming feels rather different from waking, sensory life. If dreams rather are derived from sensory experience, perhaps a case is to be made that the public objects that populate our world possess the phenomenal properties.


*** A representationalist might argue that representations account for sensory experience without having to posit mind-dependent ‘things’ in addition to mind-independent ones. However, my starting point is with experienced phenomenal properties. It is on the basis of their spatial and temporal features in relation to a point of view that I conclude that they are representational. Thus, it is not some generic representation I am referring to, but one specific to the experienced phenomenal features themselves. When I say ‘things’, I mean them to be so spatially and temporally related to a point of view when experienced.


(1) Jackson, Frank. “What Mary Didn’t Know”. (1986)   http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/analytic/Jackson.pdf

(2) Nagel, Thomas. “What’s it Like to Be a Bat?”  (1974)  https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/activities/modules/ugmodules/humananimalstudies/lectures/32/nagel_bat.pdf

(3) Campbell, John. “Berkeley’s Puzzle”. (2002) pg. 140.     https://philosophy.berkeley.edu/file/70/Berkeley.pdf


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