Neglecting description in theories of consciousness

Description’s an element, like air or water.
Charles Wright, “Black Zodiac”

An adequate theory of consciousness requires being able to describe it. This isn’t a grand metaphysical point, just an obvious fact about writing. Theories exist in discourse, and to bring mental phenomena like conscious experience into contact with theory, they too have to be described. How they are described makes all the difference to how they are theorized. So it is worth reflecting on the descriptions of experience that philosophers habitually turn to.

Many of these descriptions are embedded in the brief vignettes that are a staple of contemporary philosophical writing. Some of these belong to the unfortunately named genre of “thought experiments,” but they can include illustrations of how conceptual distinctions operate, accounts of facts to be explained, veiled attempts at persuasion, and more. Here I am interested in the role of description in these vignettes. I suggest that the conventions of philosophical description narrow the range of admissible facts and thereby make many phenomena invisible to our theorizing.

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