‘What it is like’

Philosophers commonly characterise phenomenal consciousness by engaging in ‘what it is like’ talk, i.e., using phrases such as ‘what it is like’ and ‘something it is like’. But exactly what is meant when philosophers appeal to these notions is not always clear. One way of clarifying what philosophers aim to describe, investigate, or explain, when they describe, investigate or explain phenomenal consciousness is by getting clear about how we should understand these crucial notions. I have investigated this issue in a number of papers.

‘What it is like’ talk is not technical

It is sometimes claimed that ‘what it is like’ talk is technical talk, and so examining how it is used will shed no light on what it is used to talk about, namely, phenomenal consciousness. In ‘”What it is like” Talk is not Technical Talk’ I show that this claim is false. I show that there is no evidence that philosophers introduced ‘what it is like’ and ‘something it is like’ as technical terms. I also show that non-philosophers engaged in this talk and appealed to these notions in order to talk about phenomenal consciousness long before philosophers did.

The Lexical account of ‘what it is like’ talk

How, then, should we understand ‘what it is like’ talk? In ‘The Lexical Account of “What it is Like” Talk’, I give an account—the lexical account—of this talk. I explain how it is that, by using these words, in this order, we can talk about phenomenal consciousness. I argue that there is more to the underlying form of ‘what it is like’ sentences than appears on the surface, and that once this is made clear we can see that it is the presence of a particular word—a ‘phenomenal “for”’—which allows us to use these sentences to talk specifically about phenomenal consciousness. I argue that the lexical account better explains how ‘what it is like’ talk is used than do other accounts, in particular Daniel Stoljar’s affective account defended in his Mind paper.

‘What it is like’ talk and higher-order theories of consciousness

Another claim often made about ‘what it is like’ talk is that it should be understood in terms of a subject’s awareness of their own experiences. There is something it is like for Jane to be in pain, on this view, just when Jane is aware (in the right kind of way) of her being in pain. This view is popular amongst supporters of both higher-order and reflexive theories of consciousness. In ‘Higher-order Theories of Consciousness and What-it-is-Like-ness’ I describe three different pairs of ways of understanding the notions of there being something it is like to be in a mental state, and of there being an occurrence of what-it-is-like-ness associated with some mental state. I argue that although we can understand ‘what it is like’ talk in terms of awareness of our own mental states, to do so is to understand it in a non-standard way, one which is not connected to the usual way that this talk is understood as popularised by Thomas Nagel.

More on ‘what it is like’ talk

In my PhD thesis, ‘What Is It Like’ Talk: What It Is Like, I give a full account of ‘what it is like’ talk. This includes explaining how this talk is sometines used to talk about things other than phenomenal consciousness, describing the lexical account, describing and assessing other accounts (which take this talk to be meaningless, technical, idiomatic, attitudinal, metaphorical, or contextual), and refining the standard, Nagelian, definition of a phenomenally conscious state as one that there is something it is like for its subject to be in.