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PPR Seminar Series - Cognitive Penetration and Nonconceptual Content

Date: 18 January 2012 Time: 4.00-6.00 pm

Venue: FASS MR3

Fiona Macpherson

This paper seeks to address whether the cognitive penetration of experience is compatible with experience having nonconceptual content. Nonconceptual theorists hold that experience has either just nonconceptual content or both conceptual and nonconceptual content. If experience has both conceptual and nonconceptual content and only the conceptual content is penetrated by cognition then in a sense cognitive penetration is compatible with nonconceptual content, but that is a rather uninteresting sense. Thus, what I am interested in determining is:

(1) Assuming that experience only has nonconceptual content, can that content can be penetrated by beliefs and desires?

(2) Assuming that experience has both conceptual and nonconceptual content, can the nonconceptual content can be cognitively penetrated and remain nonconceptual?

Cognitive penetration occurs when one's beliefs or desires affect one's perceptual experience, at least in certain ways that I will make more precise in the paper. I believe that some people think, wrongly, that questions (1) and (2) should receive a negative answer. This is because they have the model of "classic" cognitive penetration in mind. I explain what this model is. I show that there are different accounts of the distinction between conceptual and nonconceptual content. I show that on one of those accounts the answers to questions (1) and (2) are positive, but on all the others it is negative.

I also argue that there is another model of cognitive penetration: cognitive penetration "lite". I outline my account of the mechanism of this form of cognitive penetration. In doing so I will draw on the work that I have done in Macpherson, F. (forthcoming) 'Cognitive Penetration of Colour Experience: Rethinking the Issue in Light of an Indirect Mechanism', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

I argue that whether one should give a positive or negative answer to questions (1) and (2) again depends on one's precise specification of the nature of nonconceptual content. However, I will show that the answers can be straightforwardly positive on two accounts of nonconceptual content. Moreover, I will argue that there is a crucial ambiguity in two further specifications of nonconceptual content on which the question of the compatibility of cognitive penetration with nonconceptual content turns. I will argue that disambiguated one way, questions (1) and (2) should receive a positive answer. Disambiguated another way, they should not. The second disambiguation, however, is equivalent to the only account of nonconceptual content according to which it is incompatible with cognitive penetration. I provide reasons to think that that specification of nonconceptual content is spurious and ought to be abandoned. Thus, I argue that cognitive penetration lite is compatible with all reasonable specifications of nonconceptual content.

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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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