What is at stake in the debate on nonconceptual content?

Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):55–72 (2007)
It is now 25 years since Gareth Evans introduced the distinction between conceptual and nonconceptual content in The Varieties of Reference. This is a fitting time to take stock of what has become a complex and extended debate both within philosophy and at the interface between philosophy and psychology. Unfortunately, the debate has become increasingly murky as it has become increasingly ramified. Much of the contemporary discussion does not do full justice to the powerful theoretical tool originally proposed by Evans and subsequently refined by theorists in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s – most effectively, I think, by Christopher Peacocke (particularly in his 1992). Even worse, significant parts of the discussion are somewhat confused. This paper makes a start on clarifying what I think ought to be the central issues in debates about nonconceptual content. I begin in §1 by pointing out how narrowly focused contemporary discussion is relative to Evans’s original discussion. We are not making as much use as we should of nonconceptual content as a tool for understanding subpersonal information processing and the complexities of its status relative to perception and thought at the personal level. In §2 I turn to what is the central focus of contemporary discussion, namely, the content of perception and identify a “master argument” for nonconceptualism based on the relation between conceptual capacities and capacities for perceptual discrimination. The aim of §3 is to clarify the relation between the claim that perception has nonconceptual content and some superficially similar claims discussed by philosophers of perception. Finally, in §4 I explain why the attention recently focused on what is sometimes called the state version of the nonconceptualist thesis seems to me to be misdirected.
Keywords content   non-conceptual content
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DOI 10.1111/j.1520-8583.2007.00120.x
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John McDowell (1994). Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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