Experience and Content: Consequences of a Continuum Theory

Avebury (1996)
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This book is about experiential content: what it is; what kind of account can be given of it. I am concerned with identifying and attacking one main view - I call it the inferentialist proposal. This account is central to the philosophy of mind, epistemology and philosophy of science and perception. I claim, however, that it needs to be recast into something far more subtle and enriched, and I attempt to provide a better alternative in these pages. The inferentialist proposal holds that experiential content is necessarily under¬pinned by sophisticated cognitive influences. My alternative, the continuum theory, holds that these influences are relevant to experience only at certain levels of organisation and that at other levels there are contents which such features do not capture at all. Central to my account is that there are degrees to which cognitive influences affect experiential content; indeed, for the most part, experience is an amalgam of both inferential and non-inferential features. I claim that the inferentialist proposal is fundamentally flawed and deserves replacement, and I argue that my alternative fills the hollow that remains. The book is divided into four sections. In Part I, Chapter 1, I introduce two traditionally rival views of experiential content. In Chapter 2, I develop my continuum alternative. Chapter 3 assesses the relationship between experience and language, while Chapter 4 explores the relationship between beliefs and experience. The overall argument is that it has been a mistake to understand experience simply in inferential or non-inferential terms. In Part II, I examine the structure of mental content. Chapter 5 is concerned with the kinds of experiences which escape the inferentialist analysis. Chapter 6 considers Kant’s metaphysic of experience counterpointed to Lorenz’s reading of his work in the light of evolutionary biology. Chapter 7 treats animal experience in relation to the continuum view I am developing, while Chapter 8 reviews Fodor’s contribution to perceptual psychology. It is argued that the view of experiential content being developed is both consistent with empirical data on informationally local perceptual sub-systems, but also accords well with evolutionary theory and a naturalist interpretation of Kant’s taxonomy. Part III deals with inferentialism in the philosophy of science. In Chapter 9, I assess the theory dependence of observation thesis as it is advanced by Paul Feyerabend. I bring out of his account a subtle confusion concerning the importance of inference in the context of scientific inquiry. Part IV deals with the issue of experience in the philosophy of mind. In Chapter 10, I look at Wilfred Sellars’s attack on sense data theories. Chapter 11 confronts Paul Churchland’s treatment of ‘folk psychology’ while Chapter 12 isolates the issue of experiential qualia and the position of property dualism. I offer a critical review of Thomas Nagel’s work in this chapter and claim that his position can be read in a way which is consistent with the continuum account I am developing. I conclude the book in the usual fashion with a summary of the central claims.

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Martin Davies
University of Melbourne


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