There seems to be a very clean distinction between two types of experience: external stimuli, and internal experience.

The external stimuli, in one model, are qualia. Qualia are objects that may be experienced, and they represent a significant portion of those things that can be experienced.

However, I'm not sure what the view is on thoughts. In some senses, thoughts are experienced, just like qualia. Many of the thoughts that pass through my mind (like memories, thinking about stuff I need to do, etc.) are not deliberate in any way, and could be called experiences, as if I were in some metaphorical passenger seat.

Taking this view to the extreme, one may also say that a thought is a particular type of qualia. Perhaps we may imagine some beings that can experience thoughts, but no other type of qualia, and other beings which may experience external stimuli but never experience thoughts. Like other types of quale (sights, sounds, etc.) thoughts have a very distinctive feel to them.

I'll stop there. What is the current view on the subject, and what are the differing views?

  • Not everything experienced is qualia, physical objects are also experienced. The usual use of "thoughts" is that they are the sharable aspects of experience, hence not qualia, not even mental imagery that accompanies them is qualia, that too is sharable. It is only the peculiar private "feel" to thoughts or images that qualia are supposed to be, and it is not clear that their existence is not arrived at by the fallacy of reification. The same one by which one infers the existence of redness from the existence of red apples.
    – Conifold
    Oct 17, 2018 at 19:52
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    How does one experience a physical object? The physical world is entirely inferred.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 17, 2018 at 20:59
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    @Dcleve By touching it? Or are you referring to the Cartesian theater picture where the external world is first duplicated into "impressions" and only those are then experienced? And inferred from what? Inferences require premises, and "innate ideas" do not have many takers these days.
    – Conifold
    Oct 18, 2018 at 0:26
  • @Conifold -- are you asserting naive realism? The inferential nature of perception is clear enough even when just examined introspectively. But additionally all the data of neurology has further shown that there is nothing direct in ANY perception -- they are constructed artifacts. Dennett and the delusionists may not have demonstrated consciousness is a delusion -- but they have very effectively demonstrated that perceptions are NOT direct.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 18, 2018 at 5:15
  • @Dcleve Dennett is the one who came up with the "Cartesian theater" metaphor, and reification of the mental is rejected by realists and anti-realists alike. Perception is something very different from "experiencing", it is conceptually structured, for example.
    – Conifold
    Oct 18, 2018 at 18:01

1 Answer 1


Michael Tye provides a survey of qualia. He has a section examining which mental states have qualia. He lists these four:

(1) Perceptual experiences, for example, experiences of the sort involved in seeing green, hearing loud trumpets, tasting liquorice, smelling the sea air, handling a piece of fur. (2) Bodily sensations, for example, feeling a twinge of pain, feeling an itch, feeling hungry, having a stomach ache, feeling hot, feeling dizzy. Think here also of experiences such as those present during orgasm or while running flat-out. (3) Felt reactions or passions or emotions, for example, feeling delight, lust, fear, love, feeling grief, jealousy, regret. (4) Felt moods, for example, feeling elated, depressed, calm, bored, tense, miserable.

What about the mental state of having a thought? He examines this next:

Should we include any other mental states on the list? Galen Strawson has claimed (1994) that there are such things as the experience of understanding a sentence, the experience of suddenly thinking of something, of suddenly remembering something, and so on. Moreover, in his view, experiences of these sorts are not reducible to associated sensory experiences and/or images. Strawson’s position here seems to be that thought-experience is a distinctive experience in its own right. He says, for example: “Each sensory modality is an experiential modality, and thought experience (in which understanding-experience may be included) is an experiential modality to be reckoned alongside the other experiential modalities” (p. 196). On Strawson’s view, then, some thoughts have qualia. (This is also the position of Horgan and Tienson (2002).)

At least three people, Strawson, Horgan and Tienson, would agree that thoughts involve qualia. However, the position is controversial. The qualia associated with thoughts may be due to "linguistic (or verbal) images" dependent on the "subject's native language".

Once all these reactions are removed, together with the images of an inner voice and the visual sensations produced by reading, some would say (myself included) that no phenomenology remains.

If that were the case one may be able to view thought as a hybrid state and separate out the phenomenal state, with qualia, from the judgement or belief removing qualia from the component of the hybrid state involving thought. However, if Strawson, Horgan and Tienson are right, then that would not be possible.


Tye, Michael, "Qualia", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/qualia/.

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    For what its worth, I agree with Strawson, but ALSO agree that language creates other thoughts. This link provides evidence from aphasia patients that thinking is also non-verbal:tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17482620500501883 A quote from one of the patients: "It is not true that you cannot think without words. I just stood there and analyzed the situation. I was totally calm, incomprehensibly tranquil as a matter of fact, and I discovered another language, a nonverbal language, and it worked!"
    – Dcleve
    Oct 17, 2018 at 20:44
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    One of the issues is whether one is using qualia in a reductionist mode or a pragmatic mode. I think the reductionist vision of reducing all perceptions to "base qualia" is not achievable -- but the term is still useful to label perception experiences without committing to perceptual reductionism. I also think that we could not reason unless we have a set of basic reasoning concepts that our more advanced reasoning builds upon -- hence awareness of these basic reasoning concepts would also be qualia, and possible reductionist candidates. I consider all reasoning experience to be qualia.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 17, 2018 at 20:57
  • @Dcleve I agree with you and Strawson. We do not need words to think. Perhaps you can write an answer to this question as well. I think your perspective here would be valuable. Oct 17, 2018 at 21:37

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