Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018)
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An overview of higher-order representational theories of consciousness. Representational theories of consciousness attempt to reduce consciousness to “mental representations” rather than directly to neural or other physical states. This approach has been fairly popular over the past few decades. Examples include first-order representationalism (FOR) which attempts to explain conscious experience primarily in terms of world-directed (or first-order) intentional states (Tye 2005) as well as several versions of higher-order representationalism (HOR) which holds that what makes a mental state M conscious is that it is the object of some kind of higher-order mental state directed at M. The primary focus of this entry is on HOR and especially higher-order thought (HOT) theory. The key question that should be answered by any theory of consciousness is: What makes a mental state a conscious mental state? Section 1 introduces the overall representationalist approach to consciousness and briefly discuss Tye’s FOR. Section 2 presents three major versions of HOR: higher-order thought theory, dispositional higher-order thought theory, and higher-order perception theory. In section 3, a number of common and important objections and replies are presented. Section 4 briefly outlines a close connection between HOT theory and conceptualism, that is, the claim that the representational content of a perceptual experience is entirely determined by the conceptual capacities the perceiver brings to bear in her experience. Section 5 examines several hybrid higher-order and “self-representational” theories of consciousness which all hold that conscious states are self-directed in some way. Section 6 addresses the potentially damaging claim that HOT theory requires neural activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in order for one to have conscious states.



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Rocco J. Gennaro
University of Southern Indiana

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