Cognitive Phenomenology

There is a peculiar debate in contemporary analytic philosophy about something called “cognitive phenomenology.” The debate is whether such a thing exists. I find it peculiar because it seems to me quite obvious that it does, but apparently some people find it equally obvious that it does not.

Cognitive phenomenology has to do with how cognition—thinking, reasoning, supposing, believing, etc.—appears from a first-person point of view. The disagreement is typical of first-person discourse. The first-person point of view is entirely subjective; there’s no objective way to resolve differences between one person’s findings and another’s, so the debate continues without hope of final resolution. That hasn’t stopped philosophy professors from arguing about it, and it won’t stop me either.

Phenomenology originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a theoretical discipline, one most famously expounded by Edmund Husserl. The term comes from Greek roots meaning the study of appearances. The Encyclopædia Britannica defines it as

a philosophical movement …, the primary objective of which is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions.(1)

Phenomenology is a species of introspection, but it differs from introspection done from within what Husserl calls the “natural attitude,” the naive taken-for-granted outlook on the world that most of us occupy most of the time.(2) In the natural attitude we presuppose that the objective world has factual, spatio-temporal existence. We assume that physical objects, other people, and even ideas are “just there.” We don’t question their existence; we view them as facts.

Phenomenological introspection is more rigorous. It examines first-person experience without bias (as much as possible; it’s difficult to be without bias altogether). The phenomenologist tries to set aside taken-for-granted beliefs about the objective reality of what is experienced such as physical objects, logical constructs, moral rules or whatever. Instead he or she focuses on the structure of the experience itself.

In the natural attitude, if you reflect on your experience of, say, a tree, you might notice aspects of the tree, its texture, color, height and so forth. You might know what kind of tree it is and even something about how it fits into its bioregion. You might also notice your emotional reaction to the tree as you regard it and your memories of other trees, your thoughts about trees in general. Throughout the examination you assume that the tree really exists even if you aren’t looking at it and that your emotions, memories and so forth are real, even if only in your own mind.

In the phenomenological attitude, you set aside questions of whether and in what way these things exist. You don’t assert that they don’t exist, but nor do you assert that they do. You just examine in some detail your experience of them. You might notice that in addition to the tree’s color, shape and so forth, other things are present in your experience. You have an expectation that if you walk around the tree, you will see its other side. When you move to the right or left or closer or farther away, the visual appearance of the tree changes, but you take it to be the same tree. You might focus more closely on just what constitutes this interpretation of sameness.

Cognitive phenomenology, however, is not a method of studying cognition. Recently and especially in the analytic tradition, the term “phenomenology” has been used to refer to what is studied rather than the method of studying it. In other words, to speak of someone’s phenomenology is to speak of the quality or structure or contents of that person’s experience rather than their study of their experience. To speak of cognitive phenomenology is to speak of the existence or presence in experience of cognitive phenomena.

What are cognitive phenomena? Well, that is the crux of the whole debate. Nobody doubts that we experience all sorts of phenomena, but are any of them specifically cognitive? Phenomenology as a method of inquiry can help answer this question.

We have perceptions; we see, hear, smell, taste and feel things. We feel our body through itches, tingles, cramps, pains, hunger, thirst, drowsiness and other bodily sensations. We have emotions and moods such as love, disgust, elation, despair, boredom, fear, anxiety and more. “Each of these kinds of conscious state has a distinctive phenomenal character” say Tim Bayne and Michelle Montague, the editors of a collection of essays on the subject.(3)

Galen Strawson, the author of one of those essays, says all these conscious states are types of “sense-feeling experience” and notes that

There’s a lot more to experience than sense/feeling experience. There’s also what I’ll call cognitive experience, or cognitive phenomenology. There’s meaning-experience, thought-experience, understanding-experience.(4)

Bayne and Montague give examples:

The stream of consciousness is routinely punctuated by episodes of conscious thought. We deliberate about what to have for lunch, we remember forgotten intentions, we consider how best to begin a letter or end a lecture, and we puzzle over the meaning of a friend’s remark and the implications of a newspaper headline.(5)

All these are types of cognitive experience. Oddly, however, “in analytic philosophy there is considerable resistance to the idea that anything rightly called ‘cognitive experience’ or ‘cognitive phenomenology’ exists.”(6) The issue seems to be that while instances of thinking, understanding, etc. include sensory-feeling phenomena, some say that there are no phenomena in addition to the sensory-feeling ones. Others, including Strawson, me and many others, say there are.

You would think that the question could be easily resolved. If you don’t know French, consider the sentence “Je suis deja parti.” If you don’t know German, consider the sentence “Ich bin schon gegangen.” If you don’t know Spanish, consider the sentence “Ya me fui.” Now consider the English translation, “I am already gone” or “I have already left.” (I assume you know English because otherwise you would not be reading this essay.) Is there a difference between hearing sounds in a language you don’t know and hearing sounds in a language you do know? If you find that there is, that difference is the presence of cognitive phenomena. The trick—and what makes the debate so intractable—is how to describe them.

I’ll give it a go. Following is my own phenomenological analysis. In this analysis I speak from a first-person perspective. I use “I” to mean I myself, the author, but I also mean to suggest that what I find true of my experience you will find true of yours.

Thoughts and other cognitions are objects of which I am conscious. They are not, of course, physical objects in the spatio-temporal world objectively available to all. In a sense they are only in my mind—certainly only I can be directly conscious of what I am thinking—but in a sense they are more than merely private mental objects, for they are sharable by others (others can think the same thoughts I do) and they have a certain stability and identity (I can think the same thought over and over again).

Thoughts have a two-fold nature. On the one hand they are simply there, present in experience; they are objects of which I am conscious. On the other hand they refer to something else, they are thoughts of something. I call these aspects of thoughts their material and their intentional aspect, respectively.

By “material aspect” I mean what Strawson calls sensory-feeling phenomena. I suspect that the material qualities of thoughts vary considerably from mind to mind. It is difficult for the phenomenological observer to distinguish the idiosyncratic from the general, that which is peculiar to oneself from those general structures shared by all. In my own case, I find four kinds of material qualities of thoughts: words and sounds, pictures, vague visual outlines or forms, and a kind of three-dimensional fantasy reality in which I participate as in a dream. If you are interested in the details, please refer to the appendix to this essay. I encourage you to study your own experience to see how you experience the material qualities of your thoughts.

These material qualities do not simply hover, statically, before the mind; the concrete reality is that one’s mental life is constantly in flux. Says Husserl, “Every experience is in itself a flow of becoming.”(7) Thoughts come and go, appear with vivid force and fade away, whether I am deliberately thinking them or not. Moreover, thoughts are connected or associated with each other. Thinking of something will lead me to think of something else, and that in turn to something else, whether I am idly daydreaming or thinking through a philosophical or political argument. The connections between thoughts are usually a function of their intentional aspect. (By “intentional” I mean directedness, a philosophical usage, not making plans to get something done.)

The intentional aspect is this: When I think of something, I do not simply have bare material content before my mind. I know that the thought refers to something other than itself; it is not simply an object before my mind, but a concept of something. When I think of my car, what strictly speaking I am conscious of is the material quality of the thought: words, pictures, etc., in focus or in the background. By means of the material quality of the thought I think of something else, the car.

This of-relationship is hard to grasp phenomenologically because it is not as plain and evident as the material quality of the thought. The intentional aspect of thought is found in the dimly apprehended fringe of mental objects that accompany the more vividly apprehended material qualities of thought that I focus on.

William James has captured what I am talking about. Research into the workings of the brain, the neurological substrates of perception and thought and the like has advanced greatly since his time, but his introspective account of mental life is still cogent. He says that

Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it….(8)

Connected with the focal nucleus of a thought, though at a more or less preconscious level, are associations with a large number of things, including other thoughts suggested by the focal thought, connotations, steps in reasoning, etc.; concepts of the surroundings or context of the intentional object; memories, perhaps, of having been in contact with that object and anticipations or at least imaginings of coming into contact with it again; knowledge of what the intentional object is good for, what it does, and what I can do with it; “recipes,” so to speak, for typical action relating to it, which I call latent action-schemata; and incipient impulses to action. All these things are present in the form of material contents, but in the dimly-apprehended fringe.

Now, this fringe, exactly because it is the fringe, and thus dimly apprehended, is hard to analyze in detail. It is only on occasion that I have been able evidently to “see” the fringe of a thought for what it is. Most of the time I simply have a vague feeling that the thought is a concept of its intentional object. Were that all there is to the story, my phenomenological account of intentionality would have to stop here, vague and ambiguous as it is. But there is more. In reflecting on my experience in general, taking into account evidence gained not only in strict phenomenological observation but also through thinking about the topic in other ways, I, the author, have come to agree with another observation that James makes, that the intentional aspect of thoughts consists in that they orient me to action regarding something beyond themselves, i.e., their intentional objects.

In a famous essay called “The Tigers of India,” James asks about the nature of conceptual knowledge. When we know that there are tigers in India, when, as I say, we are conscious of them in the mode “having them in mind,” James asks, “Exactly what do we mean by saying that we here know the tigers?” Most people, he says, would say that “what we mean by knowing the tigers is mentally pointing towards them as we sit here. But now what do we mean by pointing, in such a case as this?” Here is his answer:

The pointing of our thought to the tigers is known simply and solely as a procession of mental associates and motor consequences that follow on the thought, and that would lead harmoniously, if followed out, into some ideal or real context, or even into the immediate presence, of the tigers. It is known as our rejection of a jaguar, if that beast were shown us as a tiger; as our assent to a genuine tiger if so shown. It is known as our ability to utter all sorts of propositions which don’t contradict other propositions that are true of the real tigers. It is even known, if we take the tigers very seriously, as actions of ours which may terminate in directly intuited tigers, as they would if we took a voyage to India for the purpose of tiger-hunting and brought back a lot of skins of the striped rascals which we had laid low. In all this there is no self-transcendency in our mental images taken by themselves. They are one phenomenal fact; the tigers are another; and their pointing to the tigers is a perfectly commonplace intra-experiential relation . . . .(9)

The truth of James’ contention can be seen, not in simply contemplating a thought, but in following out the fringe, letting the material core of the thought fade away and be replaced by one or another of the associated ideas or of the impulses to action. The associated ideas are connected by virtue of the intentional object, not the material quality. (Some associations are not intentional. I might think of “car” and then “bar” and then “far,” but that’s not the kind of association I mean here.) Thoughts do not somehow magically have an “intentional quality” that hovers ghost-like above the material quality. On the contrary, the intentional aspect is found in the material fringe, which, if followed out, leads me to do something, either to think of it in a different context or to act toward it in some way. Thus, the specifically intentional aspect of thoughts consists in that they orient me to action regarding something beyond themselves, their intentional objects. Even when there is no question of overt action—I don’t plan, for instance, to go to India—,even when I am just contemplating, either idly musing or thinking something through, I feel that I am thinking about something, that my concepts are concepts of something. That feeling consists of immediate impulses to think more about the intentional object or related things, latent action-schemata, latent knowledge about the object or how to act regarding it, and incipient impulses to action, whether overt or just imagined, with concomitant evaluational feelings.

With this understanding of intentionality in mind, we can see the truth of James’ remark that the material qualities, the “imagery” and “mind-stuff,” don’t matter.(10) Whether I think the words, “my car,” or get a picture of my car or have it in mind by means of some other material quality, the important point is that I eventually be led to relate to the car in some other way, either by thinking about it or by dealing with it directly. It is not so much whether my thinking is primarily verbal or pictorial that is significant, but how my thoughts lead me to think of other concepts or act in the external world, and whether my concepts are shared by others, each in his or her or their own way.

This analysis allows us to understand the cognitive phenomenology controversy. What distinguishes a cognition from a mere idle phantasm is not its material quality, the sense-feeling phenomena, but the presence and function of the conceptual fringe. The conceptual fringe does have material qualities, but they are quite often dim and vague. Perhaps that’s why some think that cognitive phenomena don’t exist; they don’t perceive them. Or they do perceive them but take them to be just more sensory-feeling phenomena.

But those who think that there aren’t any distinctively cognitive phenomena because all phenomena are sensory-feeling in nature miss the point, which is that some phenomena are different. They have a characteristic way of appearing: in the penumbral fringe, not vividly in focus. And they have a specific function: they lead us to think in other ways about or to actually do something with their intentional objects. These are the cognitive phenomena. I suppose that you could lump them all together with the focally-attended-to sensory-feeling phenomena and say that they are all the same thing because they all have material qualities, i.e., they are all things we are or can become conscious of. I think it more useful to consider them separately because of their appearance and function, so I’m with those who want to put them into their own category.

And that is my take on the cognitive phenomenology controversy. I don’t suppose it will be the final word on the subject. It would be if everyone examined their own experience and came to the same conclusions. But if that happened, philosophers would have to find something else to argue about.


Appendix: The author’s introspection

Following is a description of my, the author’s, own experience. Yours might well be different. You can think of this as a report to be studied heterophenomenologically, if you like; it’s one data point to be evaluated in the context of others.(11)

In my own case, I find four kinds of material qualities of thoughts: words and sounds, pictures, vague visual outlines or forms, and a kind of fantasy or daydream reality in which I participate.

Words and sounds are exactly that; I think sentences or isolated words, or I hear tunes running through my mind. I may deliberately think them or they may be there without my having called them forth. Sometimes I say things as if to an unspecified companion. Sometimes I hear them as if spoken by someone else.

Pictures are much the same in that respect; most often I will simply have a flash of seeing something quite detailed and colorful. I find it more difficult deliberately to visualize a picture than to sound words to myself; perhaps I am simply more oriented through my ears than through my eyes. Both of these sorts of thoughts occur at varying levels of intensity and often they occur together.

It may be that I will hear clearly a phrase or a sentence, especially when I am deliberately thinking. Often, however, the sounds are fainter and harder to recognize, Sometimes I can stop and try to recognize what has just passed briefly through my mind and perhaps repeat it to myself, but sometimes it simply gets lost into oblivion. Thoughts on this level I call preverbal. “Preverbal” does not mean prior in time to the acquisition of language; it refers rather to thoughts that, were they more intense or present with more force, would be distinct words, phrases, sentences, etc.

A similar thing happens with pictures; there is a previsual level of images that aren’t quite intense enough for me to see clearly or recognize. Often, especially on the preverbal and previsual level, there occurs a sort of mixed-media thought form which consists of words and pictures together.

The ultimate vagueness of a picture is its outline or shape. Color seems to go first and then the details of the picture. Most of my visual thoughts are of this outline variety, where I will simply see geometrical shapes or lines standing out from that background. This type of thought is the way I chiefly apprehend abstract concepts. Visual gestalts like this often occur in a mixed mode with words, either explicit or preverbal. I can, for instance, visualize the shape of an argument, knowing where the argument begins and which way it moves; each part of the shape has a preverbal string of words attached to it, the words being (if I make them more distinct) the explicit verbalization of the concept involved and the visual aspect indicating the relations between the concepts. I often apprehend in this way concepts or arguments that I know well and have gone over often; I am so familiar with the ideas that this is a sort of shorthand for them. Sometimes, however, I will be working through a new idea and suddenly perceive it as related to other concepts by means of these visual gestalts. I discover things in this way. Again, there are different levels of intensity or force with which these gestalts are present. It often happens that I will have a vague intuition of such a shape and have to try to make it more clear and distinct. I can let my mind go blank and allow it to come forth, for instance, or I can go over the first couple of steps in a train of thought preverbally and hope that the rest will follow.

The final type of material quality of thought is not related to the first three in that it does not convey abstract concepts. It occurs when I imagine myself being in a real-life situation, often with other people. I get a full three-dimensional scene in which I am conscious of my surroundings and of myself, what I am doing and how I am feeling. If I didn’t know this was a fantasy I would be hallucinating. Sometimes I will imagine myself saying or doing things; sometimes I will see mostly the faces and actions of other people. This sort of thing happens in reveries and daydreams, in actual dreams, and sometimes deliberately, as when I anticipate a situation and rehearse what I shall say or do. As with the other forms, sometimes these imaginings are quite full and robust, and sometimes they are fainter and more like a mere outline.


(1) Spiegelberg and Biemel, “Phenomenology.”

(2) Husserl, Ideas, section 27, tr. Kersten, p. 51. Boyce translates the phrase natürlicher Einstellung as “natural standpoint.”

(3) Bayne and Montague, “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.”

(4) Strawson, “Cognitive Phenomenology: Real Life.”

(5) Bayne and Montague, “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.”

(6) Strawson, “Cognitive Phenomenology: Real Life.”

(7) Husserl, Ideas, section 78, tr. Gibson, p. 202.

(8) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 255.

(9) James, “The Tigers of India,” Chapter II in The Meaning of Truth.

(10) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 269.

(11) Dennett, “Who’s on first? Heterophenomenology explained.”


Bayne, Tim, and Michelle Montague. “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.” In Tim Bayne & Michelle Montague (eds.), Cognitive phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1-34. Online publication as of 9 January 2019.

Dennett, Daniel. “Who’s on first? Heterophenomenology explained.” Journal of Consciousness Studies No. 10 (9-10):19-30 (2003). Online publication as of 28 May 2021.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining To A Pure Phenomenology And To A Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction To A Pure Phenomenology. Tr. F. Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983. Online publication as of 24 October 2015.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier Books, 1967.

James, William. The Meaning of Truth. Online publication as of 9 June 2020.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication as of 16 November 2020.

Spiegelberg, Herbert, and Walter Biemel. “Phenomenology.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2017: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Online publication as of 28 May 2020.

Strawson, Galen. “Cognitive Phenomenology: Real Life.” In Tim Bayne & Michelle Montague (eds.), Cognitive phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 285-325. Online publication as of 3 April 2021.

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