The Rational Role of Cognitive Phenomenology

A Workshop at the University of Bergen, June 6–7, 2017.


Under the auspices of the project 'Knowing what one thinks and does: a broadly perceptual account', we invite you to attend this workshop.

Members of groups that are under-represented in philosophy are especially encouraged to attend. The workshop will be held in a wheelchair accessible venue, with an accessible toilet in the immediate vicinity, as will the workshop dinner. We will assist in organising accessible accommodation as required. We will support speakers in organising and financing child care.

Talks will be conducted in accordance with SWIP's 'Seminar Chairing Policy Suggestions'.

The programme is here.

Speakers (click for abstracts)

A common route to self-knowledge goes by articulating our thoughts in public language (e.g. in writing or inner speech). Describing our experience in this process can help illuminate the general phenomenon of self-knowledge. But rather than characterizing this process with an eye towards this goal, in this paper, I'd like to look closely at one aspect of it: the kind of reasoning that we engage in when we inquire into our thoughts, by means of language. In being struck by a thought, we're often cognizant of various attitudes that we're inclined to form in response to it: the thought may seem true or false, hopeful or alarming, frivolous or serious, and so on. In articulating a thought, we reject formulations that do not support such attitudes in any way. By examining how our grounds for rejecting such formulations could be defeated, I will show that some of these attitudes pass through a kind of normative filter, or a rapid normative evaluation. As I will try to show, understanding the character of this evaluation can shed light, from an unexpected direction, on the nature of reasoning, more generally.

This paper examines the bearing of cognitive illusions on the rational role of cognitive phenomenology. I begin by distinguishing different conceptions of cognitive phenomenology and different conceptions of rationality. With these distinctions in place, I go on to identify a number of ways in which one might appeal to cognitive phenomenology in order to account for the rational dimensions of thought. I then argue that the most interesting conception of the rational role that cognitive phenomenology is undermined by the phenomenon of cognitive illusions.

The recent literature on cognitive phenomenology has focused on phenomenal differences between sensory states and cognitive states. I propose shifting our focus to phenomenal differences within the class of cognitive states, and I explore how such an inquiry might inform debates in epistemology, specifically debates about the reliability of intuition.

Recent experimental studies raise worries about philosophical methodology: they have uncovered a series of distorting effects on people’s intuitions, which suggests that we need to reevaluate some of our practices of philosophical inquiry. Phenomenalists about intuition disagree: they suggest intuitions are a class of mental states with a very distinctive phenomenology, which experimental studies have not properly accounted for. As such, we lack reasons to believe that intuitions – i.e., those states with this distinctive phenomenology – will be skewed in the ways experimental philosophers suggest. I argue that this rejoinder from Phenomenalists fails: empirical findings from research on metacognition provide good reason to believe that the patterns of distorting effects uncovered by experimental philosophers reproduce in intuitions, as these are defined by the Phenomenalists. I propose further that empirical findings on metacognition can be helpful to reevaluate the role of intuitions in philosophy.

According to Wollheim´s (1980) formulation of the principle of Acquaintance (PA): “Judgments of aesthetic value, unlike moral judgements, must be based on first-hand experience of their objects and are not, except within very narrow limits transmissible from one person to another”. PA has been subject to an extensive debate. It is easy to come up with counterexamples to Wolhem´s original formulation of the principle. Regardless of the various debates about exactly how the principle should be formulated many philosophers agree that PA captures a genuine feature of aesthetic judgements. We tend to think that we miss something if we simply read a description of a work of art instead of actually experiencing the work.

However, according to the argument from conceptual art (CA): works of conceptual arts are counterexamples to PA, since one is just in as good a position to judge a ´piece´ of conceptual art based on a good description as one would be standing in front of it.

In this paper I defend PA against CA. I claim that there are at least some judgements about the aesthetic value of a conceptual artwork that it is impossible to make without having an experience of the work itself or an adequate surrogate of it. The experience in question is a cognitive phenomenal experience that involves grasping the meaning or the point of the work.

Deliberation is a familiar mental process. It is not just reserved for tricky moral decisions, but often occurs in trivial, everyday situations too: for instance, when I deliberate over whether to stay out or go home, or what to cook for dinner tonight.

There are many questions we can ask regarding the nature of deliberation. A familiar question concerns when we can say that an agent deliberates rationally, normally with respect to how we make choices with ethical implications qua moral agents. Another question, and one that has received much less attention, is what it is like for an agent to deliberate. I want to focus primarily on the phenomenology question, but also to show how it is linked to the rational question. The link, it turns out, concerns whether or not an agent deliberates in a way that is manifestly reasons-sensitive: this is at the bottom of both a familiar understanding of rational deliberation, as well as what sets the appropriateness conditions on certain meta-cognitive feelings which make up part of the cognitive phenomenology of deliberation.

What is the relationship between feeligns of obviousness and epistemic justification? More generally, what is the significance of cognitive phenomenology? I shall argue that, in any non-trivial sense, there is no such rational significance. Although rational agents will typically experience feelings of obviousness when considering propositions that warrant acceptance, the former will in general be no part of the explanation for the latter. Cognitive phenomenology therefore plays a role quite disanalogous to the role of sensory phenomenology in justifying perceptual beliefs.

The rational insignificance of cognitive phenomenology is motivated in part by the objectivity of many questions in rationality. Some things are rational to believe--the feeling as if they are obvious is neither sufficient nor necessary for this status. I will consider two central kinds of case studies: one involving the epistemology of the a priori, and one involving deep ideological beliefs.

Chains of conscious thinking normally involve various thoughts, some of which can lead to actions --- be them physical or mental. Here we have two examples: when entertaining the thought that one should arrive at 8 am at the train station, one is naturally inclined to calculate the time at which one should leave home in order to achieve this aim; when presented with a mathematical problem, one of the things one could do is trying to solve it. These examples, despite having relevant differences, aim at disclosing two shared elements: (i) when rationalising the action, there are reasons the subject can adduce for which she acted as she did (motivating reasons), and (ii) certain mental actions are afforded by cognitive elements. I propose to spell out (ii) as involving cognitive affordances, that is, possibilities for action provided by cognitive elements and I then argue that they are experienced and so part of the cognitive phenomenology involved in these episodes. The main claim to be presented will thus be that cognitive phenomenology provides us with motivating reasons for action in virtue of involving cognitive affordances.

What is the rational role of cognitive phenomenology? We try to give one part of the answer by investigating the role of phenomenology in conscious reasoning ('CR'). We discuss what it would minimally take for a sequence of mental goings-on to constitute an instance of CR, charactersise that minimal example in terms of jobs descriptions — tasks that the system would have to somehow carry out in order for the process as described to take place — and argue that some of these jobs can plausibly be carried out by certain types of phenomenal experience.

Cognitive phenomenology refers to the experience one has when performing cognitive actions, such as making sense of an event, planning a trip, trying to remember a name, or solving a problem. Surprisingly, this is a highly controversial research topic. If cognitive phenomenology exists (which is debated as well), does it have a sensory basis, or does it use non-sensory informational channel(s)?

An intermediate position will be defended: cognitive phenomenology includes sensory cues, but these cues relay predictive information about current epistemic activity. Because they have a graded valence and intensity, they can efficiently guide decision. To this extent, sensory cues are a mandatory part of the representational vehicles for conscious thought. On the other hand, they serve as a projection basis for multilevel predictive, graded evaluations, generated by a variety of task-specific heuristics. This explains why epistemic feelings, although embodied in proprioceptive changes, paradoxically have an intellectual feel and are task-oriented: an argument feels coherent, relevant, insightful etc. Our arguments for a projective view will be drawing on current theorizing about predictive evaluation, action modelling and metacognition.


Previous orthodoxy in philosophy of mind held that there is something it is like to perceive—perceptual experiences have a phenomenal character—but there is no phenomenology associated with thought (e.g. Braddon-Mitchell & Jackson 2007). Over the past few decades, this orthodoxy has been powerfully challenged: a number of authors have argued that there is phenomenology of thought, or cognitive phenomenology (‘CP’) (Pitt 2004; Siewert 1998; Strawson 1994; Horgan & Tienson 2002; Peacocke 1998; Kriegel 2003; Smithies 2013).

Much research on CP has focused on the question of whether it is reducible (Smithies 2013). Few deny that when a person has a thought this is associated with phenomenal experience, but many think that this fact can be explained by occurrent, remembered, or imagined perceptual experiences which are associated with the thoughts (Chudnoff 2015; Koksvik 2011).

In this workshop, we bracket the reducibility question entirely, and focus instead on the question of what the rational role of cognitive phenomenology (whether reducible or not) is. We understand ‘cognitive phenomenology’ broadly: in addition to the phenomenology of thought contents and attitudes, metacognitive feelings such as feelings of certainty or doubt, feelings of relevance or irrelevance, the sense of a thought being supported, or not, by a previous one, the sense of agency or passivity for thoughts, and so on, all count as instances. Given that thought has phenomenal character, what can this tell us about our nature as rational agents? We take serious engagement with this question often to require careful description of the nature of CP’s relevant aspects, so we particularly encourage engagements with the topic that have a substantive descriptive component.

Relevant questions for the workshop include:

  • What are the role descriptions for 'work' that needs doing by a rational agent, and which CP is a good candidate to perform?
  • How (if at all) does CP help us keep track of relevance / irrelevance in a chain of thought? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • What role (if any) does CP play in determining which thoughts form part of a coherent line of thought, and which are external to that line? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • How (if at all) does CP help us keep track of confidence-assessments of our judgements? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • How (if at all) does CP help us keep track of relations between our present thoughts and our background attitudes? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • In what ways (if any) does CP contribute to reasoning and deliberation? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • What role (if any) does CP play in self-knowledge of thoughts and attitudes? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • What significance (if any) do experiences of activity/passivity about thoughts have for rationality? What contributions can the study of pathological phenomena like thought insertion and auditory verbal hallucinations make to an understanding of that significance?
  • Is there a phenomenology of relevance? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • What (if any) impact does verbal phenomenology related to our thoughts have on the structure of our thought-processes? How does this support our rationality, and how might this support break down?
  • Is it possible to bring the rationality-supporting aspects of cognitive phenomenology into a taxonomy? Can those aspects be analyzed in terms of a limited number of basic types of experience?


The workshop will take place in the ground floor meeting room in the Department of Philosophy, which is located at Sydnesplassen 12-13, in Bergen. The building looks like this from the front. It is right next to Johanneskirken / St John's Church, a tall red building to which most people can direct you.

Helpfully, the front door to the department is locked. Therefore, please proceed through the street on the building's left-hand side (called Sydneshaugen), and in through the visitor's entrance, cleverly hidden in the atrium, like this.

       Ole Koksvik | Department of Philosophy | University of Bergen | Pb 7805| 5020 Bergen, Norway | (+47) 5558 2581