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Must Conceptually Informed Perceptual Experience Involve Non-Conceptual Content?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Sonia Sedivy*
University of Toronto Toronto, ON Canada M5S 1A1


The idea of nonconceptual contents proposes that there are mental contents at the level of the experiencing person that are individuated independently of ‘anything to do with the mind.’ Such contents are posited to meet a variety of theoretical and explanatory needs concerning concepts and conceptual mental contents which are individuated in terms having to do with the mind. So to examine the idea of nonconceptual content we need to examine whether we really need to posit such content and whether there is a coherent, viable way of doing so. I will examine the idea of nonconceptual contents by considering Christopher Peacocke's attempt, in his Study of Concepts, to posit such contents.

Three principal kinds of considerations motivate positing non-conceptual content: epistemological, phenomenological, and explanatory-psychological. A theory of knowledge might posit nonconceptual content in order to show that our experience contains the justificatory base for empirical thought as its own proper part. Non-conceptual content might also be posited in order to account for the finely detailed or determinate phenomenological character of perceptual experience.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1996

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1 Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 1992

2 The account is a pure theory of concepts in the sense that it specifies the individuation, possession, and attribution conditions for concepts in general rather than for any particular thinker in a relatively a priori manner.

3 We can still make sense of the thoughts and utterances of a thinker who has incomplete understanding and mastery of a concept since the attribution conditions for concepts can be weaker than their possession conditions so long as the thinker defers to the community use of the concept.

4 See Peacocke, 7-8. Peacocke's introductory sketch (7-8) is formulated in terms of his earlier theory of visual field sensational properties which was presented in Sense and Content (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983). I have modified the sketch so that it is more consistent with and indicative of the approach he goes on to elaborate in the current work, which is not committed to visual field sensational properties.

5 Peacocke stresses that ‘there is no requirement … that the conceptual apparatus used in specifying a way of filling out the space be an apparatus of concepts used by the perceiver himself. Any apparatus we want to use, however sophisticated, may be employed in fixing the spatial type, however primitive the conceptual resources of the perceiver with whom we are concerned. This applies both to the apparatus used in characterizing distances and directions, and to that employed in characterizing the surfaces, features, and the rest’ (63).

6 Moreover, given the non-circularity requirement, shape concepts need to be individuated in terms of non-conceptually presented geometrical features rather than concepts of those geometrical features.

7 ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,’ Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1963)

8 ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,’ 258

9 Though I cannot elaborate the details, Peacocke endorses a complex account of the link between our experiential contents and action. According to this approach, nonconceptual contents are fixed in part by their links with action and so require at least a rudimentary form of first-person concept.

10 Hence, I am suggesting that the third principal motivation for positing nonconceptual contents — namely that of providing an explanation of experiential contents in terms of subpersonal functioning — does not require us to posit nonconceptual contents at the experiential level. Nonconceptual contents might be posited at the subpersonal level as standing in a causal enabling relation to experiential conceptual contents.

Let me also indicate the way in which the second principal motivation for positing nonconceptual contents within experience — namely the richly finegrained or determinate character of perceptual experience — can be explained in terms of conceptual rather than nonconceptual contents. Though I cannot develop this position in detail, the idea is straightforward. Demonstrative thought is fully conceptual and demonstrative thought may be predicative as well as singular. That is, demonstrative concepts can pick out properties such as ‘that shade’ or ‘that shape’ just as they can pick out individuals such as ‘that person’ or ‘that mountain.’ On the view that demonstratives involve the demonstrated individual or attribute in their conditions of meaningfulness, demonstrative contents capture the exact determinate nature of the represented individuals or attributes. Hence, if I say ‘that jagged contour on that side of that mountain isn't as steep as this one on this side,’ I give linguistic expression to the fully determinate or fine-grained nature of my perceptual experience. Though descriptive contents and descriptive concepts cannot capture the character of perceptual experience, this does not show that demonstrative concepts that make-up demonstrative conceptual contents are similarly lacking.

It is important to note that Peacocke does not find fault with this proposal. Rather, he holds that while it may be true that demonstrative conceptual contents are adequate to the fine grain of perceptual experience, nonconceptual protopropositional content is required in order to explain such demonstrative conceptual contents non-circularly. But that is an application of the non-circularity constraint against which my paper has argued.