Steven Shaviro: Discognition
(S. 49 – 64)

The role of the missing half-second

Steven Shaviro


PDF, 16 Seiten

There’s a famous story in the philosophy of mind: the story of Mary. It goes something like this. Mary is the world’s greatest neuroscientist. She knows everything there is to know about the physical world, and about how our brains work to perceive and interpret the world. In particular, Mary knows everything there is to know about color and color vision: from the physics of light, to the structure of the eye and the nervous system in human beings and other organisms, to the ways that our brains recognize and distinguish particular colors, to the evolutionary origins of color vision, to the functions served in our minds by the apprehension of color, and the ways that our moods are affected by seeing one color or another. In short, Mary knows every physical and scientific fact that there is to know about color.

But there’s a catch: Mary herself has never perceived any color at all. She has lived for her entire life in a room that’s entirely black and white. She has read black-and-white textbooks, and watched black-and-white videos. And so she knows that the sky is blue, that grass is green, and that roses are red. But she has never actually seen the sky, the grass, or a rose. She has only read about them, or viewed black-and-white photos and videos of them.

The question is: what happens when Mary finally leaves her black-and-white room, goes outside, and sees a red rose for the very first time? What does it mean for her to feel, for herself, what she has previously only known about? What is it like for her to perceive the color red? Does the phenomenal experience of redness add anything to her store of knowledge about the color, and about how people respond to it? Does Mary learn something that she didn’t know before?

Our intuitions would seem to suggest that Mary does, at the very least, encounter something new when she leaves her room. Redness and blueness are what philosophers call qualia: phenomenal sensations, or “raw feels”, that seem to make up the very fabric of our mental experience. And the qualia of color vision, in particular, are precisely what Mary is missing inside her black-and-white room. Until she actually sees a red object, Mary cannot know what it is like to experience redness. But how does this square with the supposition that, while still stuck inside the room, she already knows everything that there is to know – physically, materially, and scientifically – about color?

The story of Mary was invented by the analytic philosopher Frank Jackson, and first published in 1986. Jackson calls himself a “qualia freak,” and he uses the story to argue that “there are certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes.”1 For the “information” we get by experiencing something is quite different from the “physical information” that allows us to say that we know about it, or understand it. No amount of objective physical information can tell us “about the hurtfulness of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, or about the characteristic experience of tasting a lemon, smelling a rose, hearing a loud noise or seeing the sky.”2 Jackson concludes that physicalism – the doctrine that everything in the world is physical or material – is wrong. For any description of the world in exclusively physical terms excludes qualia, and therefore is radically incomplete.

In the decades since Jackson first published the story of Mary, it has been the subject of scores of articles by analytic philosophers.3 Nearly all of these thinkers have responded to Jackson’s challenge by seeking to account for qualia and phenomenal experience in a way that does not lead to his anti-physicalist conclusion. If physicalism is true, then there must be some flaw in the logic of Jackson’s argument. Even Jackson himself has come to embrace this position. He now says, rather disparagingly, that no mere “epistemological claim,” such as he made in his story about Mary, can get in the way of the metaphysical truth of materialism. We may not know how to “deduce” the physical basis of qualitative “psychological states” from the information that we have, but it does not follow that these states are therefore devoid of any such physical basis at all.4

But there’s one serious problem. Even though nearly everyone agrees that there is something fundamentally wrong with Jackson’s argument, nobody can agree as to just where the mistake lies. Every philosopher has a different account of what is wrong. Daniel Dennett, for instance, argues that the whole story of Mary “is a bad thought experiment, an intuition pump that actually encourages us to misunderstand its premises.”5 If Mary really knew all the physical facts about color, Dennett says, then she would already know what it is like to have the sensation of seeing red. She would not learn anything new when she left the room. She would not be in the least surprised when she actually saw a red object for the first time. Nobody could trick her by, for instance, showing her a banana that was painted blue, in the hope that (since she knows from her readings that bananas are supposed to be yellow) she would mistake the qualitative feel of blue for yellow.6 The story of Mary is misconceived right from the beginning, Dennett says, because qualia don’t exist in the first place; or, at least, they don’t have the special qualities that Jackson – following common sense – attributes to them. More precisely, Dennett argues that so-called qualia are “mere complexes of mechanically accomplished dispositions to react” to various stimuli.7 There is no mystery about first-person phenomenal experience, because there is nothing more to it than such mechanistic habits.

The late David Lewis, in contrast to Dennett, accepts that Mary does in fact learn something new when she exits the black-and-white room. But he denies that what she learns is a new fact, beyond the physical facts she knew already. Mary does not gain any new propositional knowledge, Lewis says. Rather, she acquires something like “know-how,” or the instrumental ability “to remember and imagine and recognize” the color red.8 “Knowing-how” to do something is not the same as “knowing-that” something is the case. In this way, the physicalist claim that physical facts are the only facts is preserved. Lewis, unlike Dennett, concedes that Mary could not have acquired her know-how about the color red simply by studying all the facts about color from inside her black-and-white room. But he still insists that there is nothing special about experience, and that Mary could have also gotten her know-how in other ways. For instance, Mary might acquire the ability to recognize red through “precise neurosurgery, very far beyond the limits of present-day technique.”9 Such surgery would implant in her neurons the very same neural configurations, and therefore the same instrumental abilities, that exist within her when she is actually able to recognize the color red.

Michael Tye argues that, when Mary leaves her room, she actually does learn something new; and that what she learns is not just Lewis’s “know-how.” Rather, according to Tye, Mary develops a new “phenomenal concept” of red.10 This “phenomenal concept” is the knowledge of “what it is like” to experience red; it plays the “functional role” of allowing Mary to “discriminat[e] the experience of red from other color experiences in a direct and immediate manner via introspection.”11 Mary thus gains a genuinely new piece of knowledge. Despite this, however, Tye still resists Jackson’s antiphysicalist conclusions. For Tye says that Mary’s new phenomenal concept does not involve (or correspond to) any new, nonphysical facts. Rather, Mary experiences the same old physical facts about red – facts that she already knows – in a new way. Even though Mary has a new – and true – thought, “there is nothing nonphysical in the world that makes her new thought true.”12 Rather, “the new experiences she undergoes and their introspectible qualities are wholly physical.”13

I have only cited a few of the many published responses to Jackson’s tale of Mary. For someone like me, an outsider to analytic philosophy, the results are a bit discouraging. The arguments all display a tremendous amount of ingenuity, skill, and verve; they are all quite rigorously logical. And they are all more or less convincing on their own terms. Indeed, I cannot stop myself from being swayed by whichever one of the arguments I have read most recently. But unfortunately, these multiple arguments are not at all compatible with one another. Although the argument has been going on for more than thirty years now, no one has ever convinced anyone else; nothing has been resolved. The disputes seem to go on forever. Robert van Gulick14 and David Chalmers15 have even both developed schemas, delineating the logical space of all conceivable replies to Jackson’s argument, and showing which philosophers fill each slot. The phase space of the Mary question has been thoroughly explored, we might say, but no consensus has ever been reached as a result.

Given this situation, I am led to suspect that there is something wrong with the entire discussion. Indeed, Jackson’s story seems to me to involve something like a philosophical version of bait-and-switch. Our attention is captured by one thing, and then it is diverted to something completely different. What really makes the story of Mary compelling and exciting is its focus upon qualia, or real phenomenal experience. Jackson makes the radical and important suggestion that the question “what is it like to experience the color red?” might well be even more slippery and unanswerable than Thomas Nagel’s query, “what is it like to be a bat?”16 Nagel famously suggested that, although it is indeed “like something” to be a bat, we cannot find out for ourselves just “what it is like.” I will never know what a bat’s experience is like, because it is too different from my own. Jackson, however, suggests that Nagel’s question is insufficiently radical. For Nagel, Jackson says, it is just a matter of “extrapolating from knowledge of one experience to another, of imagining what an unfamiliar experience would be like on the basis of familiar ones.”17 But this is not a problem in the case of Mary; I can easily get a sense of Mary’s new experience, since I have precisely such an experience myself. I know what it is like to perceive red, and I know what it is like to perceive something for the first time. And yet, in spite of this complete familiarity, the mystery remains. Jackson’s story defamiliarizes qualitative experience per se. He shows that there is a fundamental difficulty even in describing “what it is like” for me to have my own inner sensations. Apparently, qualia cannot be grasped in objectifying terms, and cannot be known in advance. Such, at least, is my own speculative reconstruction of Jackson’s argument.

But unfortunately, Jackson himself does not quite pursue this sort of approach. He declines to speculate in the way that I wish he had. Instead, Jackson phrases his question in terms of “physical information.”18 He asserts that this sort of information – which materialists believe to be complete – is not “all the information there is to have.”19 For Jackson, qualitative experience becomes a different sort of information from the physical kind; “there is something about [such] experience, a property of it, of which we were left ignorant.”20 But Jackson never questions the equivocal notion of information itself, or of what it means to “have” a certain type of information, or of how something experiential can be described as the “property” of a certain state of affairs. As a result, his philosophical argument diverts us away from thinking about the nature of sensory experience, and towards thinking instead about something entirely different: the metaphysical claims of physicalism, and the question of whether the “properties” of experience are always “physical” ones. Instead of wondering “what it is like” to perceive the color red, we are led to consider the criteria for – as Lewis puts it – “knowing what it’s like” 21 to experience red. The story gets displaced from an affective register to a cognitive one.

It is therefore not so much that one or more of the premises of Jackson’s story are flawed (though they might well be), as that the story itself involves a basic misdirection. In other words, the whole question of physicalism – which is the crucial stake for Jackson and for all of his respondents – is actually irrelevant, and entirely beside the point. Even as Jackson argues for the specialness of qualia, and claims that they cannot be reduced to the status of “physical information,” he also takes it for granted that they do indeed have a physical basis. This distinction is important. In the passages that I have already quoted, Jackson says that qualia can be identified with “certain features of the bodily sensations especially”; and the examples he gives include “the hurtfulness of pains” and “the itchiness of itches.” Qualia thus seem to be fundamentally embodied; they arise in the course of a body’s physical activity, and its interactions with the rest of the world. For this reason, even in his first formulation of the problem, Jackson already accepts that “qualia are effects of what goes on in the brain. Qualia cause nothing physical but are caused by something physical.”22

I would add to this that qualitative experience does not and cannot take place in the absence of a body. Almost nobody today would argue anything different. Indeed, even such phenomena as phantom limb pains and out-of-body experiences – which have become privileged cases for philosophers of mind as diverse as the interactionist Alva Noë and the eliminativist Thomas Metzinger – seem to require the existence of a body in the first place.23 For it is only in relation to some lived body that these fantasmatic experiences of disembodiment or false embodiment can occur at all. I cannot have an out-of-body experience without there being a body for me to go out from. And I can only experience sensation in an inexistent phantom limb, if there is some sort of body to which that limb is supposed to be attached. Indeed, qualia or phenomenal experiences would still be physical and embodied even if my body were reduced to a brain in a vat whose neural circuitry was being manipulated by mad scientists. And these experiences would still be physical even if my mind were downloaded to a computer, and instantiated in silicon instead of carbon. Even an entirely hallucinatory, or programmed, virtual reality requires – as Bruno Latour might well remind us – a vast physical apparatus in order to be produced and maintained.

Despite Jackson’s own initial claims, therefore, nothing in the story of Mary actually casts doubt upon – or even relates in any significant way to – the actual metaphysical doctrines of physicalism, materialism, and naturalism. The problem is not one of physicalism versus something else (like dualism or supernaturalism). It is rather, more straightforwardly, a question of what we can make of phenomenal experience, or of unmediated “what-is-it-likeness” – and indeed, of how we can possibly account for such a thing. And this is the point, I think, at which the logic of analytic philosophical thought reaches its own limit, and breaks down.

We are rightly suspicious of claims for immediacy, pure presence, and so on. Qualia are defined as instances of raw phenomenal experience; but how can any experience truly be “raw”? Is there ever anything free of mediation? Isn’t the very idea of immediacy itself nothing more than a retrospective construction, as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin claim in their analysis of “remediation”?24 It is on account of such concerns that most of the commentators on the story of Mary seek to diminish, or empty out, the very idea of phenomenal experience. In Lewis’ account, for instance, Mary never actually experiences anything. When she sees something that is red, she only gains the know-how, or the ability, to recognize the color red when she encounters it again. The experience itself becomes curiously empty; it points beyond itself, to future instances, but it never “happens” on its own account. Other thinkers go even further in this direction. Dennett makes the general argument that, even though “there seems to be phenomenology […] it does not follow from this undeniable, universally attested fact that there really is phenomenology.”25 R. Scott Bakker, with his Blind Brain Theory, similarly suggests that the brain’s unavoidable blindness to its own processes entails, as a necessary consequence, “the nonexistence of things like affects, colours, and so on.”26

One obvious answer to these contentions is simple exasperation. As Galen Strawson says in response to Dennett, it makes no sense to claim that percepts and affects only seem to exist; “for there to seem to be rich phenomenology or experience just is for there to be such phenomenology or experience.”27 Phenomenal experience is a seeming; it “exists” whether its seeming contents are true or not. This assertion is a very minimalistic, bedrock version of the Cartesian cogito: even if everything that I feel is delusional, I can still say that I am feeling it. We may doubt the assignment of feeling to a stable “I”; and we may prefer a primordial sentio to an overly intellectual cogito (as Deleuze and Guattari somewhere suggest). But something still seems to be going on. Lewis, Dennett, and Bakker seem to make an unjustifiable slide from the unreliability – or even the inevitably delusional nature – of subjective experience to the assertion of its sheer nonexistence.

I think that the problem here is not one of experience, but of conceptualization. Daniel Stoljar and Yujin Nagasawa, introducing an entire volume of essays on the story of Mary, acknowledge that “everyone agrees that something happens when Mary comes out of her room.”28 But they go on to imply that the mere fact “that Mary comes to have a new experience when she comes out of her room” is nothing more than a banal “truism.”29 It doesn’t have any significance in itself. What is really important to all these thinkers, rather, is something else. Jackson wonders what “information” we can have about Mary’s new experience; Tye finds a way to subsume the experience under a “concept.” Dennett and Lewis, in their different ways, regard the experience as nothing more than a trigger, or an occasion, to demonstrate a “disposition” or a “capacity.” What unites all of these thinkers is that they all find Mary’s experience in itself to be uninteresting and unimportant; they only care about its grounds and its consequences. The experience itself doesn’t seem to matter – but only how it gets cognized or accounted for. If the modernist poet T. S. Eliot once complained that “we had the experience but missed the meaning,”30 all these analytic philosophers suffer from the opposite problem: they know all the meanings, but they have missed the experience.

In other words, when the philosophers squabble over the value and significance of phenomenal experience, and even over the question of whether it “exists” or not, they fail to address it in other than cognitive terms. This is wrong, or at least it is overly limited. For if the story of Mary demonstrates anything at all, what it shows us is that phenomenal experience is not in itself a cognitive process. To say this is to go against the explicit arguments both of Jackson and of his critics; but I think that it is demonstrated by the reductio ad absurdum of all their simultaneous and contradictory efforts to explain it. Mary may or may not learn something, when she sees red for the first time; but the event of her seeing red is not in itself a matter of knowledge, information, or cognition. We might even state this in the form of a slogan: the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to feel it.

Now, it might seem that, in enunciating such a slogan, I am making a phenomenological claim for the primacy of perception – or, even worse, a naïve-realist claim for something like a pure, primordial, unmediated experience. I shall certainly fall afoul of Wilfrid Sellars’ critique of the “myth of the given.”31 But I think that the matter is a bit more twisted and complicated than that. I am not doubting that sensory experience does indeed get cognized, or classified, or theorized, or interpreted – at least if it is to any degree remembered or retained. Indeed, such theorization is a necessity, if the experience is to be in any way described or talked about. Phenomenologists as well as cognitivists will agree with this. And we can say, as well, that such conceptualization or theorization is precisely the way that experience gets temporalized, that it is constituted as a Now, a “living present.” Such is the “timing of affect” that we have been talking about; such is the role of the “missing half-second.”

Nonetheless, this sort of thematization is not the whole of the story. We may well remember what we have experienced. And as a result, we may well have knowledge about our own phenomenal experiences, or those of others. Even if we do not explicitly remember what happened, we may well gain a sort of “know-how” as a result of these experiences. But such knowledge should not be confused with the experience that it is about, or as a result of which it has arisen. The event of remembering – even on the time scale of fractions of a second – should not be confused with the event that is thereby being remembered. I am pointing to something that is fugitive and fleeting, and that dissolves in the very act of being recalled or otherwise taken up. The impossibility of properly expressing what an experience is, or of establishing it as an objective piece of “information,” does not prevent the experience itself from taking place.

I think that the problem, like so many others in philosophy today, really goes back to Kant. In the First Critique, Kant makes the famous pronouncement that thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.32 This pronouncement still resonates today, in philosophical moves as varied as Sellars’ attack on the myth of the given, and Merleau-Ponty’s insistence that unreflective experience must itself be reflected upon, and that such reflection cannot be unaware of itself as an event.33 But as Whitehead points out, because Kant is “obsessed with the mentality of ‘intuition,’” this claim is based upon the “suppressed premise” that “intuition is never blind.”34 And this “suppressed premise” is itself false. We should say rather that intuition is always blind, first of all; it is only afterwards that it gets conceptualized.

For this reason, the aesthetic encounter cannot be understood in terms of cognition and re-cognition. Although Kant initially gives primacy to sensation as reception, such reception is ultimately relegated to the margins, of his account of experience, when the basic structures of the Transcendental Aesthetic are overwritten by those of the Categories in the Transcendental Analytic. Kant and his heirs do not eliminate aesthetic moments entirely, but they present these moments only as exceptions or incomplete cases. For instance, we might well say that aesthetic experience fits Thomas Metzinger’s neurophilosophical description of “the most subtle nuances of phenomenal content.”35 Such content, he says, “is available for attention and online motor control, but it is not available for cognition […] it evades cognitive access in principle. It is nonconceptual content.”36 There are certain sensory experiences of such “subtlety” that they “cannot, in principle, be conceptually grasped and integrated into cognitive space.”37

Metzinger’s account of this sort of perception is not incompatible with Kant’s. Metzinger, like Kant, says that a perception is “a cognitive construct” that is “functionally individuated.”38 But just as Kant says that aesthetic ideas cannot be made intelligible in language, so Metzinger sees an exceptional sort of noncognitive sensation as well. Metzinger says that what he calls the “informational content”39 of such perceptual states cannot be recognized or remembered. “The core issue is the ineffability, the introspective and cognitive impenetrability of phenomenal tokens. […] Therefore, we are not able to carry out a mental type identification for these most simple forms of sensory concepts.”40 In other words, beneath a certain threshold of cognitive discrimination, perceptual sensations lack identity criteria. Aesthetic apprehensions come and go; we cannot hold on to them or keep track of them. “To speak in Kantian terms,” Metzinger says, “on the lowest, and most subtle level of phenomenal experience, as it were, only intuition (Anschauung) and not concepts (Begriffe) exist.”41 Metzinger is of course referring to Kant’s famous pronouncement, in the First Critique, that “thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.”42

The virtue of the reductionist approaches is that they prevent us from attributing features or “properties” to blind intuition that it does not, and indeed cannot, really possess. Metzinger and Bakker are correct to say that it is categorically impossible to know the causes of one’s mental states (hence Spinozian active affects do not exist).43 But this leads, for me, to an aestheticism that is apart from any sort of understanding or cognition: Kant’s Third Critique, instead of the First. Intuitions for which no concepts are adequate. Aesthetic ideas, according to Kant, are “inner intuitions to which no concept can be completely adequate”;44 “an aesthetic idea cannot become cognition because it is an intuition (of the imagination) for which an adequate concept can never be found.”45 Aesthetics is noncognitive and precognitive.

The trouble with Metzinger’s account is that he sees such construction and individuation as more central to mental functioning than it actually is. He regards the sorts of singular experiences that I am calling aesthetic only as exceptions to our more normative modes of perception, recognition, and conceptualization. Metzinger suggests that we suffer from an “automatic limitation of our perceptual memory.”46 This limitation makes sense in evolutionary terms, since it saves energetic expense. But its downside is that we are unable to grasp our own mental processes. The seeming “transparency” of our phenomenal experience is really “a special form of darkness,”47

There are certain moments in the story of Mary, and in the cognitivist account of consciousness more generally, where this sort of thing comes up. One of these happens in Michael Tye’s account of Mary. Tye rejects Lewis’ claim that Mary only acquires an instrumental ability when she comes out from her room. This is because phenomenal perception involves a sort of overflow. Immediate experience goes beyond our ability to classify and conceptualize it, let alone to remember it. Thus there is a gap between the experience Mary has, and the ability that she gains as a result. Actual “sensory experience,” Tye says, “is far, far richer” than what is needed to provide a basis for the capacity that Lewis describes.48 This is because Mary doesn’t just see the color red; she sees one specific hue of red. She may well learn how to recognize red, in general, as a result of seeing a red rose for the first time. But she will never be able to distinguish the particular shade of red that she sees now from another, slightly different shade that she encounters at a later time. This is simply a matter of the physical capacity of human brains. We “have no stored representations in memory,” Tye says, for hues that only differ slightly from one another; “there simply isn’t enough room. My experience of red19, for instance, is phenomenally different from my experience of red21.” But in my memory, I only have the general concept of red; there are “no such concepts as the concepts red19 and red21.49 Because the subtleties of closely-related-but-not-identical hues cannot be remembered and cognized, Tye says, they cannot be translated into “know-how” in the way that the general concept of red can be. I can have the experience of seeing a particular hue, without thereby later knowing what it is like to see that hue. The experience of such a particular hue is, as Thomas Metzinger puts it, “so subtle, so volatile as it were, that it evades cognitive access in principle. It is nonconceptual content.”50

This is what David Roden calls “dark phenomenology”: In Being No One Thomas Metzinger uses Raffman’s account to motivate an argument against classic qualia. The classic quale is a simple, intrinsic, introspectable property. However, “Raffman qualia” – the simplest perceptual discriminations – cannot be introspected because they lack subjective identification conditions. Introspective concepts of classical qualia must, then, be reifications since maximally fine content fixations cannot be introspected conceptually.”51 Roden admits that “it may be possible to attend to them non-conceptually and they are presumably individuated by their distal inputs and contributions to behavior.”52 But he opposes how enactionists like Noë make the claim that such experiential contents are conceptualizable, because we conceptualize them precisely through enaction. Metzinger says that Raffman’s qualia are available for attention and for enaction, but NOT for cognition.

We are in the realm of what David Roden calls “dark phenomenology,” consisting of experiences that are not directly “intuitable,” and that “transcend […] our subjective recognitional powers.”53 For Roden, as for Metzinger, dark phenomenology marks the point at which first-person introspection fails. According to Roden, phenomenological claims are well-grounded as long as the things they describe are pre-theoretically or ‘intuitively’ given to the conscious subject.”54 But when we reach non-intuitable experience, this no longer holds. “The criteria for evaluating theories of dark phenomenology would presumably [be] those applying in other areas of empirical enquiry (instrumental efficacy, simplicity, explanatory unity within wider science).”55 Since we cannot introspect these “dark” areas of our experience, Roden says, we must turn instead to naturalistic (third-person) modes of observation and explanation.56 We can only examine these experiences objectively, from the outside.

However, I want to make precisely the inverse claim. Because dark phenomenology cannot be conceptualized from a first person perspective, it cannot be objectified in terms of third person empirical observations either. From this perspective, Roden’s “dark phenomenology” can be positioned not as epistemologically defective, but rather as ontologically primary. The whole point of aesthetic experience, for Kant, is that it is not subject to the rules of the Understanding, or to what today we would call epistemological criteria. Where Metzinger speaks of the “informational content” of aesthetic perception, we would do better to avoid the unexamined assumption that everything should be defined in terms of “information.”57 Let us say rather that the feeling of the beautiful is too intense to be cognized, or to be subsumed under a concept. Beauty defies any sort of grounding or explanation; its self-evidence is greater than that of anything that could be called upon to explain it, or account for it epistemologically.

Kantian aesthetics tries to claim universal communicability, or the assent of others, despite the fact that there is no grounding for this. But his very posing of the problem leaves room for the possibility of other approaches. We need to retain Kant’s assertion of ungroundedness, and distinctions between empirical knowledge and aesthetics, in order to avoid collapsing everything into cognition. This would mean taking a humbler approach to thought in general. Jackson backhandedly recognizes this when he proposes epiphenomenalism as a solution to the dilemma of Mary. The sensations that Mary has for the first time when she leaves the room cannot be reduced, Jackson rightly says, to the “functional role” of brain states.58 They do not serve a purpose in mental functioning, just because they themselves already are the mental processes in question.

Cognitivist theories of mind seek to provide a utilitarian, functionalist, and adaptationist account of emotional states. Metzinger, for instance, argues that emotions possess a normative character; they represent the biological or social value of a certain state of affairs to the organism as a whole […] This feature distinguishes them from all other conscious representata – although interestingly, the phenomenology of emotions tells us that they can endow perceptual and cognitive states with a certain ‘affective tone.’59

Thus Metzinger largely sees emotional responses as fallible – but nonetheless often useful – aids to cognition, because they provide rough-and-ready evaluations of the ways in which circumstances in the world might help or hinder the biological and corporeal needs of the organism. Yet at the same time, he recognizes certain exceptions to this principle. For one thing, Metzinger’s claim that emotions have “developed from an evolutionary optimization process”60 leaves open the question of the non-adaptive consequences of evolution (such as Lewontin’s and Gould’s “spandrels”). For another, Metzinger notes that his functionalist and adaptationist description of the emotions does not account for the phenomenon of “affective tone.” Indeed, “affective tone” can be aligned with many other aspects of mental functioning which are not reducible to cognitive ends. Metzinger’s largely cognitivist account of mental process and phenomenal consciousness is nonetheless filled with discussions, not only of bizarre psychological dysfunctions that demonstrate the limits of cognition, but also of the “beauty” of phenomenal states – such as “Raffman qualia”, “Lewis qualia”, “Metzinger qualia,” that are “so subtle, so volatile as it were, that [they evade] cognitive access in principle.” And Metzinger also writes about phenomena of “intensity” and of “structureless density,” which push against the limits of conceptual categorization. Even the most hard-core cognitivist accounts of mind, like Metzinger’s, are thus compelled to acknowledge the supplemental presence of “nonconceptual content.”61

What we need, therefore, is a noncognitive, and fundamentally affective, account of sentience: a theory of discognition. Cognitivist and representationalist theories of mind are confronted with elements that they can neither subsume nor exclude, but can only regard as supplemental. I suggest that these supplemental elements are in fact the primordial forms of sentience, and that they are preconditions for – without being thereby reducible to – any sort of cognition or representation whatsoever. Organisms are affective before they are cognitive, because they are systems for accumulating and dissipating energy, before they are systems for processing information. Where cognitive science and philosophy of mind have tended to assume that affect serves cognition, we should rather see cognition as a belated and occasional consequence of a more basic affectivity. There are important philosophical precedents for this line of argument. For Kant, aesthetic judgments arise from singular intuitions for which there is no adequate concept. For Whitehead, primordial “feeling” takes the form of “a ‘valuation up’ or a ‘valuation down’” that precedes, and determines, any sort of cognition or conceptualization.62 For Wittgenstein, while inner sensation “is not a something,” it is also “not a nothing either.”63 All these approaches point to a primordial form of sentience that is nonintentional, noncorrelational, and anoetic; and that is best described, in a positive sense, as autistic, affective, and aesthetic.

In general, what interests me most about analytic philosophy is its power of speculative invention. Analytic thinkers pursue their arguments by means of counterfactual speculation. They often construct the most bizarre scenarios. Jackson’s story of Mary locked in the black-and-white room is already exceedingly strange, even if we do not go on to ask what sort of sadist would subject another human being to such conditions. Then there is Dennett’s trickster who tries to deceive Mary by showing her a banana painted blue, and Lewis’s future neurosurgeons who operate on Mary to alter the wiring of her brain in order to implant in her the memory of having already seen colors. Other philosophers imagine inverted visible spectra, worlds in which water is not H2O, brains in vats being fed simulated experiences by neural stimulation, and zombies who are physically indistinguishable from actual people, except that they lack consciousness or inner experience. The lineage of this sort of speculative-fiction-as-philosophy extends back to Descartes’ hypothesis of an Evil Demon. But we are not very far from The Matrix or Philip K. Dick. Analytic philosophers, much like science fiction authors, engage in a practice of speculative extrapolation. Weird and extreme scenarios can challenge our everyday assumptions, and push actually existing conditions to their most extreme possibilities.

1 Peter Ludlow, Yujin Nagasawa, and Daniel Stoljar, eds., There’s Something About Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), p. 39.

2 Ibid., p. 39–40.

3 Martine Nida-Rümelin, “Qualia: The Knowledge Argument,” in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010). Full text available: sum2010/entries/qualia-knowledge/ (retrieved February 25, 2014).

4 Ludlow et al, There’s Something About Mary, p. 409.

5 Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Back Bay Books, 1991), p. 398.

6 Ibid., p. 399–400.

7 Ibid., p. 386.

8 Ludlow et al., There’s Something About Mary, p. 99.

9 Ibid., p. 78.

10 Ibid., p. 156.

11 Michael Tye, Consciousness, Color, and Content (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), p. 27. Ludlow et al., There’s Something About Mary, p. 156.

12 Ibid., p. 156.

13 Ibid., p. 157.

14 Ibid., p. 402

15 David Chalmers, “Consciousness and its Place in Nature,” in: Stephan Stich and Ted Warfield, eds., The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind, (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003), p. 102–142.

16 Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” in: idem, Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press), p. 165–180.

17 Ludlow et al., There’s Something About Mary, p. 45.

18 Ibid., p. 39.

19 Ibid., p. 43.

20 Ibid., p. 44.

21 Ibid., p. 131.

22 Ibid., p. 48.

23 See: Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004); Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 2004), p. 72.

24 Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).

25 Dennett, Consciousness, p. 366.

26 R. Scott Bakker, “THE Something About Mary,” (retrieved February 25, 2014).

27 Galen Strawson, Mental Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010), p. 52.

28 Ludlow et al., There’s Something About Mary, p. 16 (emphasis added).

29 Ibid., p. 18.

30 T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” in: idem, Four Quartets (New York: Mariner Books, 1968), p. 27.

31 Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Cambrigde, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

32 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 193–194; A51/B75.

33 See: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London/New York: Routledge, 2002), p. xi: “[M]y reflection cannot be unaware of itself as an event, and so it appears to itself in the light of a truly creative act, of a changed structure of consciousness.”

34 Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p.139.

35 Thomas Metzinger, Being No One (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), p.72.

36 Ibid., p. 73.

37 Ibid., p. 72.

38 Ibid., p. 73.

39 Ibid., p. 73.

40 Ibid., p. 72.

41 Ibid., p. 78.

42 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 193–194; A51/B75.

43 On Whitehead’s “blind emotion,” see: Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 162.

44 Ibid., p. 182–183.

45 Ibid., p. 215.

46 Metzinger, Being No One, p. 80.

47 Ibid., p. 169.

48 Ludlow et al., There’s Something About Mary, p. 151.

49 Ibid., p. 150–151.

50 Metzinger, Being No One, p. 73.

51 David Roden, “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology,” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 72 (July 2013): p. 169–188, here p. 179.

52 Ibid., p. 179.

53 Ibid., p. 175.

54 Ibid., p. 171.

55 Ibid., p. 173.

56 Ibid., p. 178.

57 Metzinger, Being No One, p. 73.

58 Ludlow et al., There’s Something About Mary, p. 39.

59 Metzinger, Being No One, p. 198–199.

60 Ibid., p. 199.

61 Ibid., p. 73.

62 Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 241.

63 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ed. P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulter (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), section 304.

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Steven Shaviro

is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. His work in progress involves studies of speculative realism, of post-continuity styles in contemporary cinema and music videos, and of recent science fiction and horror fiction.

Marie-Luise Angerer (Hg.), Bernd Bösel (Hg.), ...: Timing of Affect

Affect, or the process by which emotions come to be embodied, is a burgeoning area of interest in both the humanities and the sciences. For »Timing of Affect«, Marie-Luise Angerer, Bernd Bösel, and Michaela Ott have assembled leading scholars to explore the temporal aspects of affect through the perspectives of philosophy, music, film, media, and art, as well as technology and neurology. The contributions address possibilities for affect as a capacity of the body; as an anthropological inscription and a primary, ontological conjunctive and disjunctive process as an interruption of chains of stimulus and response; and as an arena within cultural history for political, media, and psychopharmacological interventions. Showing how these and other temporal aspects of affect are articulated both throughout history and in contemporary society, the editors then explore the implications for the current knowledge structures surrounding affect today.