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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Consider those aspects of the world that are the way they are in virtue of how we think about them, or the way we feel about them, or how we view them. Those are the subjective aspects of the world. What makes them subjective can be understood via the notion of an intentional state. The label ‘intentional state’ is often used to refer to mental states that have intentionality. These mental states (including but not limited to thoughts, beliefs, desires and perceptual images) are representational; they represent the world as being a certain way. They are mental states with ‘aboutness’; they are about objects, features and/or states of affairs. Using ‘intentional state’ to refer to mental states with intentionality, a subjective fact about some item x may be defined as a fact that obtains in virtue of someone’s intentional states regarding x. Objective facts are those that are not subjective. So an objective fact about x may be defined as one that does not obtain by virtue of anyone’s intentional state regarding x.

Subjectivity is often mentioned in the philosophy of mind because so much of mentality is subjective, with a special brand of subjectivity present in the case of conscious experience. Whenever one has an intentional state, consciously or non-consciously, there is a subjective fact. Suppose an individual s has an intentional state directed toward some item x. Then the fact that s is representing x is, obviously, a function of s’s intentional state regarding x, which makes the fact that s is representing x a subjective fact. Assuming, also, that the intentional state is conscious, there is an additional element of subjectivity involved. Suppose you are visually perceiving a tree and your visual perception is a conscious mental state. Then not only are you representing the tree to yourself; it also seems that you are in some way aware of your representation of the tree. That this extra element of subjectivity seems to be present in the case of conscious experience is part of the reason ‘higher-order’ accounts of consciousness are so attractive. Higher-order accounts capture the intuition that if a mental state is conscious, then its host is aware of the mental state in some suitable way (while adding that the right sort of higher-order awareness is also sufficient for the target state’s being conscious).

A higher-order account arguably does capture the unique way in which conscious experience is subjective. There is the subjective, perspectival element characteristic of intentional states in general, including those that are non-conscious. And there is the special brand of subjectivity found in conscious experience, where one’s intentionality is directed toward one’s own mental states. Now suppose that mental representation can be understood purely physically; suppose there is a true and complete account in purely physical terms of what it is for a mental state to have the content it has. Then, one might think, with a higher-order theory we can close the infamous explanatory gap between the physical and the phenomenal components of consciousness.

Some have noted, however, that within the realm of the phenomenal we should distinguish between the subjective character of a conscious state and its qualitative character, where the latter is the way the mental state feels and the former is its feeling a certain way for-a-subject. There is reason to doubt that any higher-order account can explain why a mental state has the qualitative character it has, or any qualitative character at all. Yet, even if higher-order accounts fail to solve the hard problem of consciousness, by failing to close the explanatory gap between the physical and the qualitative aspects of consciousness, it is tempting to think that with a higher-order account we might be able to close the explanatory gap between its physical and its subjective character.

Citing this article:
Francescotti, Robert. Subjectivity, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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