Representationalism, peripheral awareness, and the transparency of experience

Document Type: 
Article Type: 
Theory of Consciousness
phenomenology, higher-order theories, representationalism, peripheral awareness, transparency of experience
Deposited by: 
Dr. Rocco J. Gennaro
Date of Issue: 
Rocco J. Gennaro
Journal/Publication Title: 
Philosophical Studies
It is an interesting and somewhat curious fact that two claims based on phenomenological observation are at the heart of contemporary defenses of some forms of representationalism. Representationalism is, generally, the view that pheneomenal consciousness can be explained in terms of the intentional features of experience. More precisely, a representationalist will typically hold that the phenomenal properties of experience (that is, the “qualia” or “phenomenal character” or “what it is like of experience”) can be explained in terms of the experiences’ representational properties. The first phenomenological assertion is that, in addition to our frequent focused (or attentional) awareness of outer objects, we also have peripheral (or inattentional) conscious experience at the “edges” of consciousness. It is often said that some kind of peripheral conscious awareness accompanies our focal consciousness. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suppose that conscious awareness is broader than those aspects of conscious experience to which one is paying conscious attention. The second claim is that there is what has been called the “transparency of experience;” namely, that when we try to introspect, say, our visual experiences we “look through them” only to find the outer objects of those experiences. I say that it is a ‘curious fact’ because many representationalists are motivated by a desire to reduce consciousness to intentionality without any reference to phenomenal terms, or at least to render consciousness explicable in naturalistic terms. This desire is often accompanied by a decided third-person approach to consciousness and sometimes even a disdain for introspective or phenomenological methods. In this paper, I will argue that these two themes are related in important ways and can shed light on each other. More specifically, after a brief outline of three kinds of representationalism, I lay out (in section three) four distinct theses on peripheral awareness and show that three of them are true. However, I then argue that a fourth thesis, commonly associated with the so-called “self-representational approach to consciousness,” is false. My criticisms stem from both methodological and phenomenological considerations. Moreover, some of my diagnosis as to why it is false and why the first three theses are true importantly involves discussion of the transparency of experience. Finally, in section four, I respond to several objections and to further attempts to show that thesis four is true. What finally emerges is that if one wishes to hold that some form of self-awareness accompanies all outer-directed conscious states (as I do), one is better off holding that such self-awareness is itself unconscious, as is held for example by standard higher-order theories of consciousness.
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