Some philosophers (e.g John McDowell) argue that the content of perceptual experience is necessarily characterized by conceptual terms; namely - the content of the experience is entirely built of concepts possessed by the subject of experience. Others (e.g. Hubert Dreyfus) claim that there are necessarily some aspects of the perceptual experience which cannot be characterized as conceptual.

My question: To what extent the content of our perceptual experience is conceptual? Are there any examples demonstrating that some facets of perceptual experience cannot be characterized as conceptual? What do we have to assume in order to arrive at a conclusion that perceptual experience must be conceptual "all the way down" ?


(1) In light of a comment received below - let me further clarify: The notions of 'concept' and 'experience' belong to abstract and concrete realms respectively. The question I posed seeks to find out - in what ways a perceptual experience can or cannot be devoid of concepts? (The question could be seen in some way as parallel to the question of the relation between theory and observation; though the one I raised is more basic)

(2) My current tentative conjecture is that if we talk of some kind of religious experience than we have an extreme example of some possibly perceptual experience that is devoid of concepts by means that it is ineffable. But I will welcome any other directions - perhaps such that are drawn in addition from philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, phenomenology and philosophy of science.

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    How would you propose that we answer this question? As worded, it's fishing for opinions on the question rather than helping you to understand something in philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Nov 26, 2015 at 1:53
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    This sounds like "mysticism" which is a topic some people do study (in medieval philosophy inter alia). It also sounds like something William James researched as well.
    – virmaior
    Nov 27, 2015 at 7:38
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    But there's a very large amount of literature on concepts and experience more generally some of which might matter, but much depends on whether you think it's possible to have experience without concepts at all (which is what Kant denies - "concepts without precepts are empty; precepts without concepts are blind")
    – virmaior
    Nov 27, 2015 at 7:39
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    I have just recently began explore the topic - and found out that it involves philosophy of language plus philosophy of neuroscience (perception and memory) and yes - also philosophy of religion. So...it is why I find the fundamental question I raised somewhat difficult to address. Will look into William James' texts - thank you very much for this kind guidance.
    – Jordan S
    Nov 27, 2015 at 7:41
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    Try the work of Stephen Kosslyn (mental imagery), Lawrence Barsalou (perceptual symbols/imagery), Germund Hesslow (simulation), Andy Clark (good all rounder!), Rick Grush (emulation theory), Michael Anderson (neural reuse/redeployment), Thomas Metzinger (mind wandering). Also this Youtube (4 part) series with Henrik Svensson should help: youtube.com/watch?v=bCRd-G5ZzEQ. Concepts all the way down vs. precepts all the way up? Nov 27, 2015 at 22:55

1 Answer 1


I take your term "conceptual" to really be getting at representational, where information is really being represented and "deliberated" on. Allow me to give some examples:

Many studies show (as Dreyfus argues in many papers) that skilled labor actually occurs in a non-representational fashion. For example, a chess-master need not consciously deliberate on the "best" or most "rational move" in order to play well. In fact, this conscious deliberation causes people who engage in skilled labor to become more inept than they normally are. To take a mundane example, when I see someone who is angry, I don't need to actively represent some information about anger to verify that a person is indeed angry.

There is some complexity that goes into this, and I would recommend a paper called "Intelligence Without Representation," that talks about being-in-the-world and maximum grip theory very succinctly.

By contrast, even Dreyfus admits to the fact that some representation does occur. For example in self-reflection or the rational deliberation of a particular belief/propositional attitude (i.e How many people are in the U.S? should people gamble?)

However, some such as Richard Moran argue that even though information is being represented, our primary means of introspection is non-inferential/non-perceptual/immediate, meaning that propositional attitudes are actually self-constituted by introspection.

To complicate things further, take one of the tenets of the somatic marker hypothesis, which argues that some of our emotional states are actually a conscious or unconscious representation of a particular emotional body state, suggesting that some parts of phenomenal consciousness. Similarly, if part of our conscious deliberation is based on emotional content, then some parts of prop. attitudes might actually be non-representational.

Needless to day, any argument that floats around "fully conceptual" would be facile in its approach without addressing the concerns of many, many philosophers.

From an intuitive perspective, it's hard to believe that every decision we make is some rational deliberation of evidence (for example. every step you take in a particular direction) but it also feels strange to admit to the fact that all decisions don't depend on some so-called "conceptual content" or informational representation.

This is ignoring mind-extension theory, how conceptual content might alter phenomenal experience (vice versa), causal pathways in the mind, potential metaphysical reduction, self-knowledge (what kind of "concepts" exist?) and so forth.

There is a lot going on, so it is a difficult question to answer in this kind of format. I would suggest starting with that Dreyfus essay. Perhaps Moran's "Authority and Estrangement," some Ned Block David Chalmers etc., perhaps some literature on the somatic marker hypothesis. It sounds like you would also enjoy donald davidson's "mental states" and Charles Taylor.

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