Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 10
  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: May 2010

Setting Things before the Mind


Listening to someone from some distance in a crowded room you may experience the following phenomenon: when looking at them speak, you may both hear and see where the source of the sounds is; but when your eyes are turned elsewhere, you may no longer be able to detect exactly where the voice must be coming from. With your eyes again fixed on the speaker, and the movement of her lips a clear sense of the source of the sound will return. This ‘ventriloquist’ effect reflects the ways in which visual cognition can dominate auditory perception. And this phenomenological observation is one what you can verify or disconfirm in your own case just by the slightest reflection on what it is like for you to listen to someone with or without visual contact with them.

A common assumption in most philosophical discussions of appearances and experience is that, when one does engage in just such reflection, the character of how things appear to one is just obvious to me. Just this assumption seems to lie behind Ned Block's comment

what is it that philosophers have called qualitative states? As Louis Armstrong said when asked what jazz is, ‘If you got to ask, you ain't never going to get to know.’

It is implicit in much of the recent debate about the problems of explaining consciousness, in particular what has come to be called phenomenal consciousness, in purely naturalistic terms: although we may not be able to explain how such consciousness can arise without a physical world, we have a clear sense of what the problematic subject matter is just by focusing on one's own case.