A Moderate Representationalism

Chair: Rick Gawne, Western Michigan University

Presenter:  Matthew Ivanowich, The University of Western Ontario

Matthew’s paper or a larger version of his video


Commentator: Amy Kind, Claremont McKenna College

A larger version of Amy’s video



  1. Hi Matthew,

    I’m a bit confused by your criticism of Tye. You claim that his optimal conditions view “seems to simply collapse into the view that phenomenal experience is wholly fixed by the intrinsic properties of the subject”. But this seems wrong for two reasons: first, intrinsic duplicates could differ as regards what conditions are optimal for them; and second, intrinsic duplicates could differ with respect to what counterfactuals are true of them. Could you spell out this argument in a bit more detail? Thanks.

  2. First of all, thanks for your comments Amy (and Derek); I think they were both insightful and very helpful. The paper is still definitely a work in progress, so I appreciate the observations. Second, I apologize for the delay in my response. It’s been a rather hectic week, and I’ve only just recently got a chance to catch up on all the wonderful papers presented in this conference.

    So, if I understand you Amy, your main criticisms seem to be that:

    (1) the label ‘moderate’ is a bit misleading because:
    (a) my view is compatible with Tye’s strong metaphysical reductivism
    (b) most philosophers are externalist about intentional content.

    (2) My argument only works (if it does at all?) so long as one is already a representationalist in the first place

    As to the second point, I wholeheartedly agree. My paper is not designed to convert the nonbelievers. Rather, as you put it, it’s meant to address the debate within representationalism itself, and thus the paper is sort of a conditional – if you’re going to be a representationalist about phenomenal content, then narrow representationalism is the way to go. My discussions of representationalism in the early part of the paper and the Levine/Byrne fire engine example are only meant to be expositional, explaining the representationalist thesis rather than attempting to establish its truth.

    So then, the question is whether my argument works if one already is a representationalist. First of all, let me admit that my argument rests on the undefended assumption that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between two kinds of intentional content; narrow and wide. Assuming that the reader charitably grants me this leeway (something that I intended to avoid relying on in future drafts of this paper), my strategy is (as you rightly explain it) essentially to claim that the narrow representationalist is better equipped to deal with Block’s Inverted Earth thought experiment.

    To demonstrate why I think this is the case, let’s consider the different intuitions that Tye and I have in regards to Block’s assertion that (given enough time on inverted earth) the wide intentional content of one’s experience would change. Both Tye and I agree that the phenomenal quality of one’s experience wouldn’t change; however, I hold that the wide intentional content of one’s perceptual experience would change, whereas Tye denies this. The disagreement here essentially hinges on two different accounts of how intentional content is fixed. Tye subscribes to a causal-historical account which views causal history and selection history as the determiners of wide (and in fact all) intentional content, by way of a view of function that comes from Larry Wright (1973, 1976). I, on the other hand, take a more system-relative view of function (more along the lines of Robert Cummins (1975)), in which wide intentional content is determined by its current casual role within the system. This type of view allows entities like Davidson’s “Swampman” to have contentful intentional states; a property which is denied to such entities on the Tye/Wright view of function and intentional content.

    As I see it, this is the crucial point where my paper is most lacking. For admittedly I present no arguments which favour the Cummins-type view of function over the Wright-type view, and thus rely on intuition alone to ground my conclusions. That being said however, I think that if the Cummins-type view can be established as the better theory of content-fixation (or one’s intuitions simply happen to fall in line with my own), then narrow representational becomes a considerably more plausible—and indeed very attractive—option, precisely because we have a shift in the intentional content of an experience without a corresponding shift in phenomenal quality of that experience. Thus, if one is going to be a representationalist about phenomenal content, it seems that identifying phenomenal content with wide content simply isn’t a viable option.

    So let me turn now to point (1); namely, your critique that the term ‘moderate’ is a bit of a misleading characterization of my position. Firstly, in regards to the objection that most philosophers are of the externalist variety regarding intentional content (and thus my view is a bit more ‘radical’ when compared to the status quo), I think that you may very well be right. However, most discussions of intentionality are primarily concerned with the content of propositional attitudes or similarly concept-driven states – that is, states whose content is amenable to functional reduction (the applicability of which to the case of phenomenal states is at least problematic). Now, I certainly don’t deny that such wide externalist content exists; rather, I simply claim that it doesn’t exhaust the intentional content of perceptual conscious experiences, and that philosophers therefore have to be more cautious about distinguishing between the two kinds of content, especially in the context of discussions concerning phenomenal consciousness. However, whether this constitutes a more moderate position seems somewhat questionable, at the very least. Secondly, in regards to the objection that my view is compatible with Tye’s strong metaphysical reductivism, I think that the case is a bit stronger that my view is in fact a more moderate position. As I see the debate, Tye’s view falls at one extreme end of the spectrum, and Chalmers is positioned on the other extreme end. The view that I’m presenting is meant to occupy a bit of a middle ground between the two – it is weaker than Chalmers’ view of the metaphysical irreducibly of phenomenal content, yet it also rejects Tye’s wide externalist view of such content. But once again, perhaps that’s not an issue of moderation, as you say.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments, and I look forward to further discussion on this.

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