On the relation between phenomenal and

representational properties

Güven Güzeldere

Stanford University
Center for the Study of Language and Information
Stanford, CA 94305-4115
E-MAIL: guven@csli.stanford.edu


Murat Aydede
The University of Chicago
Department of Philosophy
1010 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
E-MAIL: m-aydede@uchicago.edu

Forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences as Continuing Commentary on Ned Block's target article "On a Confusion About a Concept of Consciousness," BBS (1995) 18:2.


We argue that Block's charge of fallacy remains ungrounded unless the existence of P-consciousness, as Block construes it, is independently established. However, this depends on establishing the existence of "phenomenal properties" that, according to Block, are essentially not representational, cognitive, or functional. We argue that Block fails to make a case for the existence of P-consciousness so long as he fails to make a case for the existence of phenomenal properties so construed. We conclude by suggesting that phenomenal consciousness can be accounted for in terms of a hybrid set of representational and functional properties.

Acknowledgments: We would like to thank David Chalmers and Jesse J. Prinz for their helpful suggestions.

Block thinks that there is a widespread confusion in the recent philosophy and neuropsychology literature regarding the function of consciousness. This confusion manifests itself in "a persistent fallacy involving a conflation of two very different concepts of consciousness" (p. 228): Phenomenal-consciousness and Access-consciousness.

According to Block, the (target) reasoning commits the fallacy of equivocation in concluding that consciousness has the function of initiating voluntary action based on the phenomenon of blindsight. The blindsight patients, under forced-choice conditions, succeed in making simple visual judgments in their blind fields accurately, all the while insisting that they are only guessing to please the experimenter, hence they never initiate relevant actions themselves.

On the basis of these facts, the two parties reach two different conclusions. The target reasoning concludes that "blindsighted patients never initiate activity toward the blindfield because they lack subjective awareness [phenomenal consciousness] of things in that field" (p. 242). In contrast, Block's conclusion is that it is Access-consciousness that is missing in blindsight patients (and, as such, responsible for the lack of voluntary action); Phenomenal-consciousness may or may not be missing (but that is irrelevant); and the fallacy lies in "sliding from an obvious function of A-consciousness to a non-obvious function of P-consciousness" (p. 232).

The Fallacy Claim

Clearly, the validity of Block's charge of fallacy depends critically on the validity of his distinction. Unless it is established independently that Block's distinction between A-consciousness and P-consciousness must be accepted by all, including proponents of the target reasoning, all Block's argument shows is that there is a disagreement between the notions of phenomenal consciousness he and proponents the target reasoning employs. And from a mere disagreement, a charge of fallacy does not follow.

Block discusses the work of Schacter (1989) as representative of the target reasoning. The notion of phenomenal consciousness that Schacter uses, however, happens to be much closer to Block's A-consciousness, not his P-consciousness. Schacter uses the term "phenomenal consciousness" to mean "an ongoing awareness of specific mental activity." Schacter's fundamental distinction is presented in terms of "implicit" versus "explicit" knowledge, where the former is "knowledge that is expressed in performance without subject's phenomenal awareness that they possess it," and the latter, which occurs as a result of access to consciousness, "refers to expressed knowledge that subjects are phenomenally aware that they possess" (Schacter 1989, p. 356, emphasis added).

However sketchy it may be, it is worth noting that Schacter's notion of "phenomenal consciousness" involves the sort of cognitive elements that belong to Block's A-consciousness, most notably verbal expressibility. Block's notion of P-consciousness, on the other hand, has no counterpart in Schacter's framework. But then, Block's argument that P-consciousness does not play any role in voluntary behavior runs orthogonal to the target reasoning, since the target reasoning makes no claim vis-à-vis Block's sense of P-consciousness.

Put differently, Block's fallacy charge has some purchase only when coupled with the assumption that his distinction is already established, and that his P-consciousness is the same as the target reasoning's phenomenal consciousness. Pointing out Schacter's work was one way of demonstrating that the target reasoning does not necessarily share this conceptual starting point with Block. In any case, our argument stands independent of this demonstration. Until it is established that it is Block's P-consciousness that provides the right starting place, Block and the target reasoning could only beg the question against one another on what they take "phenomenal consciousness" to be. As such, any charge of fallacy remains ungrounded.

Phenomenal versus Representational Properties

Does Block establish the validity of his distinction between A- and P-consciousness? We think not. Block tries to provide support for his distinction by presenting a number of cases that are purported to demonstrate how P-consciousness can exist in the absence of A-consciousness, and conversely. But he takes for granted a more fundamental distinction on which the plausibility of his cases rest. This is the distinction between phenomenal properties (P-properties or P-content) and representational/functional properties (R-/F-properties or content). In the rest of this commentary, we will show that Block's distinction between P- and A-consciousness is not established because the distinction between P-properties and R/F-properties is left unsubstantiated.

Block's starting point is to take "P-conscious properties distinct from any cognitive, intentional, or functional property" (p. 230). For Block, "P-consciousness, as such, is not consciousness of" (p. 232). By this, Block means that P-conscious properties are, in essence, not representational. They intrinsically constitute a kind, or type, in themselves. Echoing Kripkean intuitions, Block asserts, for example, that, "the feel of pain is a P-conscious type - every pain must have that feel" (p. 232).

But these claims are far from constituting a neutral starting point. They are rather substantially controversial philosophical theses that need to be established at the end of argument, not taken for granted at the beginning. We thus fail to see how a proponent of the target reasoning who thinks that P-properties are exhausted by R/F-properties could be expected to accept Block's fallacy charge.

In other words, the issue ultimately comes down to whether the phenomenal character of mental states can or cannot be accounted for in representational and causal/functional terms. Needless to say, there are many accounts that purport to show that it can (e.g., Dennett 1991; Dretske 1995; Tye 1995). Block thinks otherwise, especially vis-à-vis the distinction between phenomenal and representational properties (or content). (Here, we should state that by "representational content" we intend to cover both conceptualized and nonconceptualized content. We will use "intentional" to indicate conceptualized content. Thus, an R-property may be intentional or not. Roughly speaking, such a property, if intentional, is possessed by thought-like mental states; otherwise, it is a property of sensory states and the like.)[1]

Now, what precisely is Block's position on the relationship between R- and P-properties? He thinks that P-properties are essentially non-representational (and non-cognitive/non-functional), but nonetheless, "P-conscious contents can be representational" (p. 232). In other words, "P-conscious contents often have an intentional aspect, and also that P-conscious contents often represent in a primitive, non-intentional way" (p. 245, n. 4). However, "P-conscious content cannot be reduced to intentional content." That is, Block maintains, "phenomenal content need not be representational at all (my favorite example is the phenomenal content of orgasm)" (p. 234).

By this, we take Block to mean that certain phenomenal properties, even though they are in essence phenomenal, can contingently be representational as well. To clarify, consider the set, P, of all P-properties that can be associated with a conscious mental state. Consider, also, the set R of all representational properties. Now, some, e.g. Dretske (1995) and Tye (1995), think that P is just a subset of R - that is, any P-property is also an R-property (but the converse does not have to hold). Perhaps some others think that P and R are mutually exclusive (cf. Katz 1995). In contrast, Block seems to think that certain P-properties may also be R-properties, but there are (can be) also certain other elements of P that are not elements of R. That is, what Block seems to have in mind here are "purely phenomenal" properties that are not representational (not cognitive/functional) at all. Call these properties P*-properties, and their set P*. It is this set we are interested in.[2]

Block seems committed to the existence of such a set. He actually takes it as obvious and part of common sense that such a set exists, in his reply to Lycan and Harman: "As reflection on the example of the phenomenal content of orgasm should make clear, the idea that there is more to phenomenal experience than its representational content is just common sense from which it should take argument to dislodge us" (p. 279). But not everyone thinks so. Dretske and Tye would presumably think of P* as the empty set, for example. So our point, once again, is that so long as Block's fallacy charge fundamentally relies, as it does, on an unsubstantiated thesis on the relation between P- and R-properties, it remains ungrounded.[3]

A Further Problem: What is Access to P-properties?

There would also remain a further problem, even if Block could convince everyone that there was indeed a non-empty set, P*, of nonrepresentational phenomenal properties. This problem, as a number of commentators also point out (Church 1995; Kobes 1995; Levine 1995; Rey 1995) concerns specifying the nature of "access" to such "purely phenomenal" properties. Block talks about access to P-content/P-properties. But it is not clear if the notion of "access" used here is, or can be, the same as his technical notion that is definitive of Access-consciousness.

Access, as defined by Block in the technical sense, is essentially access to only R-properties: "A state is access-conscious if, in virtue of one's having the state, a representation of its content is (1) inferentially promiscuous ..., that is, poised for use as a premise in reasoning ..." (p. 231). The notion of access involved in A-consciousness is thus meant to be introduced as a technically restricted notion: The content of a certain state may be accessed in this sense insofar as the content is representational.

But what about access to non-representational P-content or P-properties? It cannot be access in the technical sense. It does not suffice for Block to say that some P-properties are also representational, for here we are interested in the non-representational P-properties that belong to the set P*. Perhaps, then, we can resort to access to non-representational properties in some undefined yet intuitive sense. But what exactly is the nature of such access?

So far as we can see, this issue remains unexplicated in Block's account. As such, given that access in the technical sense is ruled out, the idea of "access" to P-consciousness remains mysterious. This seems to be the underlying worry Rey (1995), Shepard (1995), Harman (1995), and Lycan (1995) express in their commentaries, and it explains, for instance, why Rey thinks that if the essence of a P-property is neither representational nor functional, we cannot, even in our own case, come to know whether we have P-conscious states at all.[4]

Final Remarks

In closing, we would like to leave open the question of whether all P-properties are, in fact, representational properties. But this does not necessarily leave the door open to the existence of "purely phenomenal" properties. For it may be that a hybrid set of representational, functional, and cognitive properties actually account for the phenomenal character of any given mental state.

In experiences like pain, in particular, there seems to be a natural place for each of the three kinds of properties to account for the different dimensions of its phenomenology. Roughly speaking, the representational properties can provide one with a sense of some particular type of damage occurring in a certain part of one's body (incision in the foot, burning on the fingertips), whereas the functional properties (and, in the cognitively manipulable cases of pain, cognitive properties as well) can account for the reactive/motivational aspects and the affective/emotional tone of the experience. In other words, causal/functional properties, which can account for the attractive/aversive dimensions of certain experiences in terms of an organism's special "pro-" or "con-"reaction to incoming sensory information, can, when coupled with representational and cognitive properties, constitute just the right candidate for appropriately capturing its phenomenal aspects, without leaving any peculiar and mysterious "phenomenal residue" behind.[5]


Aydede, M. (1995) An analysis of pleasure vis-à-vis pain. MS., The University of Chicago.

Church, J. (1995) Fallacies or analyses? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Dennett, D. (1991) Consciousness explained. Little Brown.

Dretske, F. (1969) Seeing and Knowing. The University of Chicago Press.

Dretske, F. (1981) Knowledge and the flow of information. MIT Press.

Dretske, F. (1995) Naturalizing the mind. MIT Press.

Harman, G. (1990) The intrinsic quality of experience. In: Philosophical perspectives, vol.4, ed. J. Tomberlin. Ridgeview.

Harman, G. (1995) Phenomenal fallacies and conflations. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Katz, L.D. (1995) On distinguishing phenomenal consciousness from the representational functions of mind. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Kobes, B.W. (1995) Access and what it is like. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Levine, J. (1995) Phenomenal Access: A moving target. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Lycan, W. (1995) We've only just begun. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Rey, G. (1995) Block's philosophical anosognosia. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Shepard, N.S. (1995) What is an agent that it experiences P-consciousness? And what is P-consciousness that it moves an agent? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18:2.

Schacter, D.L. (1989) On the relation between memory and consciousness: Dissociable interactions and conscious experience. In: Varieties of memory and consciousness: Essays in honor of Endel Tulving, ed. H. Roediger & F. Craik. Erlbaum.

Tye, M. (1995) Ten problems of consciousness: A representational theory of the phenomenal mind. MIT Press.


1 We would like to think of this position as being in accord with Block's, but his position with respect to conceptualized/nonconceptualized content is not all that clear. On the one hand, he seems to think that nonconceptualized content (as well as conceptualized content) can be representational, as, for example, in: "A perceptual experience can represent space as being filled in certain ways without representing the object perceived as falling under any concept. Thus, the experiences of a creature that does not possess the concept of a donut could represent space as being filled in a donutlike way" (p. 245, n. 4). On the other hand, in "Author's Response," he seems forced to reject that there can be any nonconceptualized content at all: "On the substance of Tye's argument: How do we know if P is preconceptual? I used the phrase "representational" to describe P-content instead of "intentional" to allow for that possibility, but I have seen no convincing argument to the effect that P-content is preconceptual" (p. 278). All in all, however, we think there is good reason not to think of Block as being committed to representational content as being only conceptualized content. As regards to the convincing argument he is seeking, we would like to suggest Dretske's long-standing work on the nonconceptual nature of (non-epistemic) perception, which is fully representational. (Dretske 1969; 1981; 1995). [go back to text1]

2 Block sometimes talks as if R-properties are properties of P-properties (i.e., second-order properties), or vice versa. This, we think, is suggested by his use of such predications as the "intentional aspects of P-content" or P-properties (e.g., p. 232; p. 245, n. 4). We do not think this is his real intention, but if it is, it is not altogether clear how he would work out the details of the ontology this would commit him to. [go back to text2]

3 Actually, things take an unexpected turn during the rest of Block's reply, as he goes on to say: "Furthermore, why should believing in phenomenal contents that are partly nonrepresentational commit one to wholly nonrepresentational phenomenal contents (of the sort Katz advocates)? Perhaps Harman and Lycan think that if a P-content is partly nonrepresentational, one can simply separate off the nonrepresentational part and think of it as a separate realm. But once the argument is made explicit it looks dubious. Consider the examples I used in my reply to Katz, say, the example of packability in the case of experiences as of squares contrasted with circles. Is it obvious that there is any separable phenomenal content of that experience that is phenomenal but not representational? I don't think so" (pp. 279-280). This is surprising. Could Block really be denying that "there is any separable phenomenal content of [an] experience that is phenomenal but not representational"? This would amount to claiming that there are no P-properties that make a state P-conscious without thereby making it a representational state - i.e., that are not also R-properties. But if all P-properties are representational, why would Block think that P-consciousness is mysterious to the extent that "no one really has any idea about what P is" (p. 279), or that current research programs "contain no theoretical perspective on what P-consciousness actually is" (p. 231). We remain puzzled. [go back to text3]

4 Some notion of "access" to non-representational P-properties seems to find its analog in sense-data theories - perhaps we simply "behold" P-content with an inner-mental-eye. But Block cannot possibly be a friend of such ideas, as he says: "I am grateful to Lycan for explicitly not supposing ... that the advocate of qualia is committed to sense-data or 'phenomenal individuals.' If any of us is committed to sense data, it is Lycan, Armstrong, Church, Kitcher, (and perhaps Harman) and other advocates of monitoring. The rest of us can agree with Harman (1990) that we look through our experiences, and that the experiences do not need to be observed in order to be phenomenally conscious." (p. 279). But then how does Block account for his access to P*? Nothing in his account caught our (mind's) eye as a promising answer. [go back to text4]

5 See Aydede (1995) for an analysis of pain and pleasure experiences along these lines. [go back to text5]