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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

On its most common interpretation, phenomenalism maintains that statements asserting the existence of physical objects are equivalent in meaning to statements describing sensations. More specifically, the phenomenalist claims that to say that a physical object exists is to say that someone would have certain sequences of sensations were they to have certain others. For example, to say that there is something round and red behind me might be to say, in part, that if I were to have the visual, tactile and kinaesthetic (movement) sensations of turning my head I would seem to see something round and red. If I were to have the sensations of seeming to reach out and touch that thing, those sensations would be followed by the familiar tactile sensations associated with touching something round.

Rather than talk about the meanings of statements, phenomenalists might hold that the fact that something red and round exists just is the fact that a subject would have certain sequences of sensations following certain others. The phenomenalist’s primary motivation is a desire to avoid scepticism with respect to the physical world. Because many philosophers tied the meaningfulness of statements to their being potentially verifiable, some phenomenalists further argued that it is only by reducing claims about the physical world to claims about possible sensations that we can preserve the very intelligibility of talk about the physical world.

There are very few contemporary philosophers who embrace phenomenalism. Many reject the foundationalist epistemological framework which makes it so difficult to avoid scepticism without phenomenalism. But the historical rejection of the view had more to do with the difficulty of carrying out the promised programme of translation.

Citing this article:
Fumerton, Richard. Phenomenalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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