It's language, stupid!

Phenomenal and Access Consciousness

Block (1995) distinguishes between phenomenal consciousness (PC) and access consciousness (AC). PC is the subjective experience that the human mind holds as we go about our lives. We have experiences such as the smell of coffee or the red colour of a rose. We can say that there is a certain ‘feel’ to these experiences or the what-it-is-like. AC by contrast is the conscious awareness we experience as we report on our phenomenal experiences and generate rational thought on the back of them. AC is also said to be a conscious state. It is sometimes said that there is an ‘overflow’ in PC. That is we experience more of the world in PC than we can actually report in AC.

For the metaphysical position NLI (nonrepresentational linguistic idealism) there are a number of issues regarding PC and AC which I’d like to clear up here.

Phenomenal Consciousness (PC)

For me, PC is the ineffable hum of the physical. If I experience the smell of coffee, say, then before (and if) I access this smell in AC, I experience it phenomenally and in totality in PC. But this experience is subjective. I cannot say what this experience is like because it is ineffable. As soon as my mind attempts to report on it, the experience is lost in the words. As soon as AC is engaged to report on what I am experiencing, the phenomenality of the experience collapses. This is what I term the linguistic paradox. (An analogy can be made with the collapse of the wave-function at the quantum level when an observer measures the position of a fundamental particle.) Once I access the smell of coffee and report on it, say—‘that smell is aromatic’—the ineffable hum of the smell has been lost. The phenomenality has collapsed.

The Linguistic Paradox

the use of language to report on and rationalise a phenomenal experience necessarily collapses the phenomenality of the experience

It is important to clarify what NLI is saying here since this is a critical juncture for the theory. I can continue to smell the coffee as I report on the experience. That is, my nose and olfactory neurons can continue to process the smell. What collapses, however, is the phenomenality of the experience as it is reported on in AC. In other words, the linguistic contents that appear in AC are not the the phenomenal experience. In going from PC to AC the phenomenality collapses.

Consider Block’s example of becoming conscious (AC) of a pneumatic drill sometime after being aware of it in PC (see quote below). Block has to choose his words carefully here because he is trying to denote two types of consciousness. AC is the rational description of the drill as we become consciously aware of it whereas PC is awareness of the noise of the drill.

… suppose you are engaged in intense conversation when suddenly at noon you realize that right outside your window there is- and has been for some time – a deafening pneumatic drill digging up the street. You were aware of the noise all along, but only at noon are you consciously aware of it.

Block 1995: 234, emphasis added

I do not see how we can be ‘aware’ of something at time 1 and then ‘consciously aware’ of it at time 2 and still maintain that both states are conscious. If anything, the state at time 1 is a sub-conscious awareness. Block tries to justify the choice of terms a little later:

Note that this case involves a natural use of “conscious” and “aware” for A-consciousness and P-consciousness, respectively. “Conscious” and “aware” are more or less synonymous, so calling the initial P-consciousness “awareness” makes it natural to call the later P-consciousness plus A-consciousness “conscious awareness.”

Block 1995: 234

PC for me is not a conscious state; it is just the brain being aware of something. It is just the physical being physical. My neural network that I call my brain is processing sensory information, taking in the sound waves of the pneumatic drill and being aware of them but without conscious access to them. There is no consciousness involved until AC rationalises the sound through language. What is left of the PC when we rationalise the sound vanishes but we are left with a sense that we did experience something. PC lets us know that there is something to experience but that is all it can do. It cannot yield its contents.

Access Consciousness (AC)

First off, I should say that I do not like the term ‘reporting’ to AC despite its widespread use in the literature. I do not think AC ‘reports’ on the PC per se. AC is not obligated to name the entity that is in PC. The AC has free will to choose how it reacts to PC. For example, if I see a cat in the street, my AC is not bound to report this as ‘cat’. I might report it as ‘animal’ or ‘pet’ or perhaps ‘dog’ if I am mistaken. Or I may have a rational thought such as ‘I need to get a pet’ or ‘bad luck if I cross the line’.

I would suggest that a better way to look at the relationship between PC and AC is one of ‘motivation’. PC motivates AC to some extent but does not restrict it. AC is free to access whatever content it wants from the phenomenal experience. The term ‘cat’ might be the most likely on probability terms but cannot be guaranteed.  There may also be some backward propagation from AC to PC. AC may motivate PC and cause the mind to shift focus onto something else in the local environment.

My major claim here is that AC is linguistic and can only be linguistic. This claim is based on two arguments: (i) language brings an end to the infinite regress of the physical and (ii) language is all we have to report on PC consciously. Let me explain the infinite regress argument first. If we say that AC is simply a global workspace (i.e. a theatre) in the brain where cognitive processes meet then this workspace is physical and the information is distributed in the workspace. We are no closer, however, to having conscious awareness of this physical information than when it was distributed throughout the brain. Simply having a workspace to concentrate the physical does not make the information not distributed. How then can we be aware of distributed physical information? How can the mind get inside of what is essentially a bunch of neurons firing? Only language can bring this argument to a close.

The second argument for AC being linguistic and only linguistic is that there is no other entity in the universe that could be a candidate for conscious awareness (i.e. conscious thought). A universal language of thought (Fodor 1975) has been proposed but I think this just delays the inevitable. A language of thought would need to be isomorphic with language and why propose a universal substrate to natural languages that we have no evidence for whatsoever.

Another candidate for conscious thought that has been proposed is a holistic representation. Perhaps the mind thinks holistically? However on closer inspection this argument appears to be weak. If I say that thought is holistic then this means that thought is rolled up into one without internal structure, as a ‘blob’. So we cannot be consciously aware of anything inside this blob-like structure. There is no useful information for the conscious human mind and the only way out of this is to convert the information into language.

This is not to say that the contents of the pre-linguistic global workspace and the physically distributed information in the brain can not be useful for decision making and direction. We most likely do ‘think’ and make decisions subconsciously. But we are not interested here in the subconscious workings of the mind. We are only interested in what becomes available for conscious awareness. Language is the only entity that can achieve this. Language puts a cap so to speak on the information and provides a top-down view of the contents so that we can see them from the ‘inside’, i.e. be conscious of the contents.

AC then necessarily needs to be linguistic in nature if it is to present information to us that we can consciously hold. We can thus say that the only consciousness that we have is linguistic consciousness. Access consciousness is essentially linguistic consciousness.

In post two I show how linguistic consciousness works and defines us as a human species.


Block, N (1995) On a confusion about a function of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 18, 227-287.

Fodor, J. (1975) The language of thought. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star