What Is “The Debate About Non-Conceptual Content,” And Why Does It Matter So Damned Much?

By Robert Hanna

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse





#19: The incoherence and impossibility of personal immortality.

#18: A new argument against capital punishment.

#17: Fear, denial, and loathing in the philosophy of mind.

#16: The political aesthetics of outer space.

#15: The paradox of distributive social justice, and what is to be done?

#14: How a priori knowledge is really possible.

#13: Is a priori knowledge really possible? Yes; here’s proof.

#12: Is human free agency really possible? Yes; here’s how.

#11: What is democracy?

#10: Fear, loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas: radical agnosticism.

#9: The philosophy of policing, crime, and punishment.

#8: The philosophy of borders, immigration, and refugees.

#7: The philosophy of old age.

#6: Faces, masks, personal identity, and Teshigahara.

#5: Processualism, organicism, and the two waves of the organicist revolution.

#4: Realistic idealism: ten theses about mind-dependence.

#3: Kant, universities, The Deep(er) State, and philosophy.

#2: When Merleau-Ponty Met The Whiteheadian Kripke Monster.

#1: Introductory; The rise and fall of Analytic philosophy; Cosmopolitanism and the real philosophy of the future; How to socialize the philosophy of mind.


But occasionally, what appears on the surface to be yet another one of those glass bead games, is in fact, at a deeper level — even if many of its participants are only dimly aware of it — a serious, substantive engagement with an issue, or cluster-of-issues, of fundamental importance for understanding the nature of rational humanity and its metaphysical, moral, and existential situation in a thoroughly nonideal natural and social world, aka “the rational human condition.”

2. One such discussion is the so-called debate about non-conceptual content.

This began in mainstream Analytic philosophy of language and mind with Gareth Evans’s Varieties of Reference in 1982, but got properly underway in the early 1990s, then ran until the mid-00s.[i]

And then, from roughly 2005 to the present, the waning years of the 2010s, it became a more narrowly-focused but actually more vigorous discussion in Kant-studies about whether Kant was/is a Conceptualist or a Non-Conceptualist about human cognition, and what the implications for the Critical philosophy would be, if he were one or the other.[ii]

Characteristically, virtually all of the mainstream Analytic philosophers who had participated in the initial 15 year-long debate pretty much completely ignored the Kantian portion of the discussion.

Nevertheless, over roughly the same time-period — 30 years or so — the same discussion also spilled over into so-called “Continental” philosophy in the absolute idealist and existential-phenomenological traditions, especially including contemporary neo-Hegelian philosophy, Husserlian philosophy, and Heideggerian philosophy.[iii]

From a synoptic historico-philosophical point of view, one extremely important feature of this punctuated and — by professional academic standards — fairly multi-faceted debate is that even those recent and contemporary professional philosophers who haven’t followed the debate, or who have affected to have no knowledge of it or interest in it whatsoever, in fact are almost universally committed, although implicitly and dogmatically — as if it were simply commonsense and required no argument — to one position in the debate, namely Conceptualism, and in turn to Intellectualism about the human mind in general and about human cognition in particular.

I’ll define “Conceptualism” a little later in these notes.

But for now it’s important to see that Intellectualism views minded human animals from a “top-down” perspective that strongly emphasizes the “higher” cognitive capacities and activities (e.g., reason, reasoning or inference, contemplation or speculation, theory-building self-consciousness, judgment, belief, deliberative intentional action, knowledge, and science) at the expense of the “lower” capacities and activities (e.g., sensation, perception, imagination, affect [feeling, desire, emotion, and the passions], pre-reflective consciousness, practical know-how, and pre-reflective intentional bodily action), and also it introduces an explanatory and even ontological dualism between

(i) the “higher” powers of the mind on the one hand, and

(ii) those aspects of our mindedness inherently bound up with our animality and our living human body.

So aye, there’s the rub:

In fact, the Non-Conceptualist position is also a Non-Intellectualist position that picks out a radical, revolutionary approach to human mindedness in general and to human cognition in particular.

And in turn, this radical, revolutionary approach to human mindedness and human cognition, if adopted and internalized, introduces an existentially-loaded, affective and cognitive Gestalt-shift in our understanding of our own nature, as rational human animals.

OK: now that you have a bird’s-eye view of the big philosophical picture about “the debate about non-conceptual content,” and have a preliminary sense of what’s really at stake in it, I’ll need briefly to define some terminology and spell out some basic notions, and then offer some arguments.

3. According to a classical view in the philosophy of mind, both human and non-human minded animals inherently or innately possess a capacity to produce mental representations of objects (whether those objects are actual or merely possible, existing or non-existing), locations, events, actions or performances, other minded animals, and themselves.

This classical view runs from the “faculty psychology” of the early 18th century up through Kant’s “transcendental psychology,” and then forward again through the phenomenological, introspectivist, Gestalt, and Chomskyan/cognitivist movements in 19th and 20th century psychology, and right into mainstream contemporary cognitive science and philosophical psychology.

Whatever its particular incarnation, the classical view holds that minded animals inherently or innately possess a capacity to be directed to targets of all kinds; that is, they have the capacity for intentionality.

In turn, mental representations have mental content, also known as “intentional content,” where such content is

(i) the cognitive or practical information that is internally carried by or contained in a mental representation,

(ii) what individuates the mental act, state, or process that has this content, and

(iii) what normatively guides this mental act, state, or process by providing its truth-conditions, its accuracy-of-reference conditions, and its intentional performance success-conditions.

Mental or intentional content is shareable across minded animals, but also directly grasped on particular occasions and in particular contexts by individual minded animals.

So, at least implicitly, according to the classical view, mental contents are mental representation-types.

This means they are information-structures tokened in space and time with the following qualities: they are multiply realizable or repeatable (e.g., the same information structure “my favorite blue coffee cup” is repeated each time I represent some real-world item as such, say in sense-perception, memory, or imagination), consciously-accessible, individuating, and normatively-guiding (e.g., I represent various real-world items correctly or incorrectly as my favorite blue coffee cup, and track it more or less accurately in space and time under varying contextual conditions as I reach out for it).

Correspondingly, the inherent psychological function of mental contents, insofar as they occur as mental representation-tokens directly grasped by individual minded animals on particular occasions and in particular contexts, is to individuate the very mental acts, states, or processes in which those tokens occur, to provide normative guidance for the cognition and practical agency that occurs via those self-same mental acts, states, or processes, and to provide the information that mediates their directedness to their intentional targets.

4. In turn, there are two fundamentally different, basic kinds of mental contents:

(i) concepts, and

(ii) essentially non-conceptual contents.

Concepts are the inherently descriptive, general, contextless, veridical or non-veridical meanings of predicative or many-place relational terms in natural language (e.g., “cat(s),” “mat(s),” “moon(s),” “x is sitting on y,” etc.), that also inherently belong to two different kinds of larger meaning-complexes:

(i) “propositions” or “thoughts,” whether simple or compound, built up out of concepts and various kinds of logical operators (e.g., the “is” of predication, the “is” of identity, the “is” of assertion, “the/one and only one,” “all/every,“ “some/at least one,” the “not” of propositional/thought negation, the “non-” of predicate negation, “and,” “either … or,” “if … then,” etc.), that either correspond to actual facts in the world and are true (e.g., “Some cat is sitting on a mat”) or fail to do so and are false “Some cat is sitting on the moon”), and

(ii) arguments or inferences, which are chains or sequences of thoughts/propositions governed by laws of logical validity and soundness (e.g., “Every cat is are sitting on some mat or another. Therefore some cat is sitting on some mat”).

Essentially non-conceptual contents, by sharp contrast to concepts, are inherently non-descriptive, non-general, context-sensitive, veridical meanings of

(i) indexical terms in natural language, especially those involving spatial or temporal location or direction (“this,” “that,” “here,” “there,” “up,” “down,” “right,” “left,” “now,” “then,” “before,” “after,” etc.),

(ii) singular terms in natural language (e.g., “John,” “Jane,” “Los Angeles, CA” “15 February 2019,” etc), and

(iii) personal pronouns (e.g., “I,” “me,” “you,” “he,” “him,” “she,” “her,” “they,” “them,” “we,” “us,” etc).

Another crucial difference between concepts and essentially non-conceptual contents is that whereas concepts are always and necessarily applied or deployed, at least potentially, by means of self-conscious cognition (say, in making statements, carrying out logical inferences, or constructing theories), essentially non-conceptual contents need not be so applied or deployed, and can on the contrary be applied or deployed in a fully pre-reflective or non-self-consciously conscious way (e.g., while playing sports, walking, dancing, “spacing out,” etc.).

The basic cognitive function of a concept is to form a more-or-less general or universal , veridical or non-veridical notion of oneself, other people or animals, and things of all kinds, from an inherently allocentric, and more-or-less context-less, detached point of view, for the purposes of having a theoretical grasp of the world, whether that grasp be true or false.

By sharp contrast, the basic function of an essentially non-conceptual content is veridically to locate and track oneself, other people or animals, and things of all kinds, from an inherently egocentric, contextual, embedded, spatially- and temporally-framed point of view, for the purposes of practical know-how and pre-reflective intentional bodily action.

It’s crucial to note, before proceeding further, that although concepts and essentially non-conceptual contents are essentially distinct from one another, in that they cannot be reduced to one other and are logically independent of one another in the sense that at least one of them can occur without the other, nevertheless they are also fully compatible with one another in that they can coherently occur in the same proposition or thought (e.g., “I’m here in Los Angeles now, sitting on this mat beside that cat”), and it might also be true that at least one of them presupposes the other, perhaps asymmetrically (e.g., it might be that all concepts presuppose essentially non-conceptual contents, but not conversely).

5. Now for the philosophical main event.

The thesis of Non-Conceptualism about mental content says that not all mental contents in the intentional or representational acts or states of minded animals are necessarily or constitutively determined by their conceptual capacities, and that at least some mental contents are necessarily or constitutively determined by their non-conceptual capacities.

Non-Conceptualism is sometimes, but not always, combined with the further thesis that non-conceptual capacities and contents can be shared by rational human animals, non-rational human minded animals (and in particular, infants), and non-human minded animals alike.

But in any case, Non-Conceptualism is directly opposed to the thesis of Conceptualism about mental content, which says that all mental contents are necessarily or constitutively determined by minded animals’ conceptual capacities.

Conceptualism is also sometimes, but not always, combined with the further thesis that the psychological acts or states of infants and non-human minded animals lack mental content.

In a nutshell, Non-Conceptualism says that our cognitive access to the targets of our intentionality is neither always nor necessarily mediated by concepts, nor sufficiently determined or constituted by concepts, and therefore that our cognitive access to the targets of our intentionality is sometimes wholly unmediated by concepts, or altogether concept-free, which is the autonomy of non-conceptual content.

By sharp contrast, Conceptualism says that our cognitive access to the targets of our intentionality is always and necessarily mediated by concepts, and indeed also sufficiently determined or constituted by concepts.

The cognitive capacities generating and supporting non-conceptual content are pre-reflectively or non-self-consciousness-based, perceptual, imaginational, and more generally characteristic of human sensibility.

On the other hand, the cognitive capacities generating and supporting conceptual content are self-consciousness-based, judgmental or propositional, logical, and more generally characteristic of human discursivity (i.e., human linguistic and thoughtful activity).

Here, then, is the fundamental philosophical question that is being asked in the so-called debate about non-conceptual content:

Can we, do we, and must we, at least sometimes, and in a minimally basic way, cognitively encounter other things and ourselves directly and non-discursively, hence non-intellectually or sensibly (Non-Conceptualism), or must we always cognitively encounter them only within the framework of discursive rationality, hence only intellectually or discursively (Conceptualism)?

Again, are we, as rational animals, essentially different from other kinds of animals (Conceptualism), or do we share at least some minimally basic mental capacities with all minded animals (Non-Conceptualism)?

Or even more simply put: Is a thoroughly Intellectualist and “discursivity first” view of the rational human mind (Conceptualism) correct; or by sharp contrast is a Non-Intellectualist and “sensibility first” view of the rational human mind (Non-Conceptualism) correct?

6. As you might have already guessed, I want to argue that the “sensibility first” view is the correct one, hence I’m a card-carrying Non-Conceptualist.

— Card-carrying, yes, but neither dogmatic nor uncritical, since I do have in hand at least nine arguments for Non-Conceptualism, including two that I regard as philosophically decisive as a pair.

In the relevant “philosophical literature,” as they say, there are at least seven arguments for Non-Conceptualism, all of which I endorse:

(I) The argument from phenomenological richness: Our normal human perceptual experience is so replete with phenomenal characters and qualities that we could not possibly possess a conceptual repertoire extensive enough to capture them. Therefore normal human perceptual experience is always to some extent non-conceptual and has non-conceptual content.

(II) The argument from perceptual discrimination: It is possible for normal human cognizers to be capable of perceptual discriminations without also being capable of re-identifying the objects discriminated. But re-identification is a necessary condition of concept-possession. Therefore normal human cognizers are capable of non-conceptual cognitions with non-conceptual content.

(III) The argument from the distinction between perception (or experience) and judgment (or thought): It is possible for normal human cognizers to perceive something without also making a judgment about it. But non-judgmental cognition is non-conceptual. Therefore normal human cognizers are capable of non-conceptual perceptions with non-conceptual content.

(IV) The argument from the knowing-how vs. knowing-that (or knowing-what) distinction: It is possible for normal human subjects to know how to do something without being able to know that one is doing it and also without knowing precisely what it is one is doing. But cognition which lacks knowing-that and knowing-what is non-conceptual. Therefore normal human subjects are capable of non-conceptual knowledge-how with non-conceptual content.

(V) The argument from the theory of concept-acquisition: The best overall theory of concept-acquisition includes the thesis that simple concepts are acquired by normal human cognizers on the basis of non-conceptual perceptions of the objects falling under these concepts. Therefore normal human cognizers are capable of non-conceptual perception with non-conceptual content.

(VI) The argument from the theory of demonstratives: The best overall theory of the demonstratives ‘this’ and ‘that’ includes the thesis that demonstrative reference is fixed perceptually, essentially indexically, and therefore non-descriptively by normal human speakers. But essentially indexical, non-descriptive perception is non-conceptual. Therefore normal human speakers are capable of non-conceptual perception with non-conceptual content.

(VII) The argument from the “cognitive impenetrability” of subpersonal or subdoxastic representations: Some representational states, e.g., early vision, are not only subpersonal or sub-doxastic, but also “cognitively impenetrable,” in the sense that the information represented by these states is not available to conscious or self-conscious mental processing. But nonconscious or non-self-conscious mental representation is non-conceptual. Therefore normal human cognizers are capable of non-conceptual perception with non-conceptual content.

And here are the two arguments that I regard as philosophically decisive, as a pair.

(VIII) The argument from babes-and-beasts: Some normal human animals (e.g., normal human infants), and many normal non-human animals (e.g., normal cats) are capable of cognizing themselves, other animals, and the world, yet lack any capacity for conceptualization. And when normal human infants mature and acquire a capacity for conceptualization, they retain the capacity for cognition that they share with non-human animals. Therefore, human cognition is really possible without any concepts whatsoever: that is, concepts are not generally necessary for human (or for that matter, non-human) cognition.

(IX) The argument from enantiomorphy: Consider any object whatsoever, and all the concepts that correctly describe it. By hypothesis, we have a complete conceptual account of that object. Now consider that very object’s mirror-reflected counterpart (aka its “enantiomorph”). By hypothesis, concepts alone cannot differentiate between the object and its mirror-reflected counterpart, hence no human cognizer using concepts alone could discriminate between the object and its enantiomorph. Then consider a conscious human subject embedded within an orientable space (that is, a space with intrinsic directions, e.g., up-down, right-left, back-front, inside-outside, north-south-east-west, etc.) exactly between the two counterparts, occupying the position of the mirror. Thus one of the counterparts is on the subject’s right-hand side, and one of the counterparts is on the subject’s left-hand side. Therefore, the conscious human subject can tell the counterparts apart by essentially non-conceptual spatial representation, but by hypothesis, concepts alone are insufficient to do this: that is, concepts are not generally sufficient for human cognition.

7. To be sure, there are many attempts by Conceptualists to answer and resist these arguments, to offer independent arguments for Conceptualism, and to finesse the impact of the pro-Non-Conceptualist arguments by forming philosophical alliances with etiolated, weaker forms of Non-Conceptualism.

But rather than boring you senseless with all the moves in that dialectical glass bead game, I’ll simply point you to Cognition, Content, and the A Priori, where I’ve dealt with all those moves in loving critical detail.[iv]

8. I conclude, then, that Non-Conceptualism is true, whereas Conceptualism is false; and correspondingly, that the Non-Intellectualist and “sensibility first” view of the rational human mind is correct, whereas the thoroughly intellectualist and “discursivity first” view of the rational human mind is incorrect.

This conclusion has many profound implications; but I think that the following pair of critical insights are paramount.

First, Conceptualism and Intellectualism systematically occlude the two most important things about us, namely

(i) that we’re essentially embodied minded animals who are directly connected to the world, to ourselves, and to each other by veridical, pre-reflectively conscious, essentially non-conceptual cognition, and

(ii) that our “human, all-too-human” capacity for rationality grows right on top of and out of this dynamic and organismic cognitive, affective, and practical essentially non-conceptual foundation, without in any way being reducible to it.

Second, this Conceptualist and Intellectualist systematic occlusion of the essentially non-conceptual dimension of human nature carries an existential punch, namely that in hiding this fundamental dimension of our lives from ourselves, we’re in effect tragically refusing to face up to our own humanity.

So at the end of the philosophical day, that’s why “the debate about non-conceptual content” matters so damned much.


[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant and Nonconceptual Content,” European Journal of Philosophy 13 (2005): 247–290; R. Hanna, “Kantian Non-Conceptualism,” Philosophical Studies 137 (2008): 41–64; L. Allais, “Kant, Nonconceptual Content, and the Representation of Space,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 47 (2009): 383–413; D. Heidemann (ed.), Kant and Nonconceptual Content (London: Routledge, 2013); D. Schulting (ed.), Kantian Nonconceptualism (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016); and J. O’Shea, “Review of Kantian Nonconceptualism,” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (7 January 2019), available online at URL = https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/kantian-nonconceptualism/>.

[iii] See, e.g., J. Schear (ed.), Mind, Reason, and Being in the World (London: Routledge, 2013).

[iv] See R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 2, preview available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/35801833/The_Rational_Human_Condition_5_Cognition_Content_and_the_A_Priori_A_Study_in_the_Philosophy_of_Mind_and_Knowledge_OUP_2015_>.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 19 February 2019

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