A simple argument for a higher-order representation theory of consciousness


Higher-order representation ('HOR') theories of conscious awareness are under considerable suspicion. (Following recent usage, I shall use the term 'HOR' to cover both higher-order perception or 'inner sense' accounts such as Armstrong's (1981) or mine (1986, 1995) and 'higher-order thought' views such as David Rosenthal's (1993).) HOR theories have been variously said to be extravagant, unmotivated, confused, and worse; for a sample, see Dretske 1993, Güzeldere 1997, and Siewert 1998.
    Yet there is a simple deductive argument for the conclusion that some HOR theory is correct. The argument is valid and each of its premises is widely accepted.
    First, the explanandum. HOR theories are theories of conscious awareness, specifically in the sense of: awareness of one's own current mental state. They are, correlatively, theories of 'conscious states', in the sense of states whose subjects are aware of being in them.1 Mental or psychological states divide into those whose subjects are aware of being in them and those whose subjects are not aware of being in them; HOR theories attempt to explain that difference, by supposing that what makes a state a conscious state in this sense is that it is itself represented by another of the subject's mental states, either a quasi-perceptual state or a thought.
    (Some critics have supposed that HOR theories have been aimed at other explananda, in particular at the sensory qualities; the critics have expressed understandable incredulity at the idea that a mere higher-order thought or even a higher-order quasi-perception could explain the original qualitative character of a sensory state. But I know of no HOR theorist who has claimed to explain anything but awareness in the sense specified above--certainly not Armstrong, myself, or Rosenthal.2)
    Now, here is the argument.

            (1) A conscious state is a mental state whose subject is aware of being in it. [Definition]
            (2) The 'of' in (1) is the 'of' of intentionality; what one is aware of is an intentional object of the awareness.
            (3) Intentionality is representation; a state has a thing as its intentional object only if it represents that thing.
            (4) Awareness of a mental state is a representation of that state. [2,3]
And therefore,
            (5) A conscious state is a state that is itself represented by another of the subject's mental states. [1,4] QED

    Premise (1) is a stipulative definition. Premise (2) seems hard to deny; I can think of no very plausible argument against it. Premise (3) we learned from Descartes, Sellars, and Jerry Fodor. (3) is not universally endorsed, but it is very widely endorsed. (N.b., for purposes of the present argument, representations need not be internal representations, though I myself think of them that way; they may be states of whole persons.)
    If one rejects all HOR theories, which premise will one abandon, (2) or (3)?

University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3125, USA

1 Important terminological note: The phrase 'conscious state' has been used in at least one entirely different sense, as by Dretske 1993. Failure to keep these senses straight can lead to much confusion.

2 Rosenthal and I have pressed our respective HOR views into service in helping to explain other things about consciousness more generally, but only by conjoining those views in an ancillary way with other, independent theoretical apparatus.


Armstrong, D.M. 1981. What is consciousness? In The Nature of Mind and Other Essays, 55-67. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Block, N., O. Flanagan and G. Güzeldere, eds. 1997. The Nature of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books / MIT Press.

Dretske, F. 1993. Conscious experience. Mind 102: 263-83; reprinted in Block, Flanagan and Güzeldere (1997), 773-88.

Güzeldere, G. 1997. Is consciousness the perception of what passes in one's own mind? In Block, Flanagan and Güzeldere (1997), 789-806.

Lycan, W.G. 1986. Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books / MIT Press.

Lycan, W.G. 1995. Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books / MIT Press.

Rosenthal, D. 1993. Thinking that one thinks. In Consciousness, ed. M. Davies and G. Humphreys, 197-223. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Siewert, C. 1998. The Significance of Consciousness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.