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Phenomenal Holism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2010

Barry Dainton
University of Liverpool


According to proponents of ‘phenomenal holism’, the intrinsic characteristics of the parts of unified conscious states are dependent to some degree on the characteristics of the wholes to which they belong. Although the doctrine can easily seem obscure or implausible, there are eminent philosophers who have defended it, amongst them Timothy Sprigge. In Stream of Consciousness (2000) I found Sprigge's case for phenomenal holism problematic on several counts; in this paper I re-assess some of these criticisms. Recent experimental work suggests cross-modal perceptual interference may be far more prevalent than expected. I argue that although these results do lend support to phenomenal holism in one of its guises, they do not support the strong form of holism espoused by Sprigge. I then move on to consider the relevance and impact of certain gestalt-related considerations, and argue that these considerations at best establish that the stronger form of holism applies to some parts of some experiential states, but not to all parts of all states, as Sprigge claims. I then consider a more promising way forward for anyone who wishes to defend an across-the-board holism of the strong variety, arguing that what is required is a form of phenomenal interdependence that is rooted solely in phenomenal unity. I conclude by outlining a case for thinking that an interdependence of this sort is a quite general feature of unified conscious states.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2010

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1 Sprigge, T. L. S., James & Bradley: American Truth and British Reality (Illinois: Open Court, 1993), 2Google Scholar.

2 Sprigge, T. L. S., The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), 218–9Google Scholar.

3 Ibid., 219.


4 Ibid., 170.


5 As will already be clear, I am focusing here on the experienced-based (or phenomenological) case for holism which Sprigge develops. It is important to note – and I am grateful to Pierfrancesco Basile for reminding me – that Sprigge also subscribes to (a form of) holism on more general metaphysical grounds: ‘I do not see how one can ever imagine two or more things related to one another in any way one likes to specify, without this being an imagining of them as forming a specific sort of whole together, or joining with other things in doing so’ (Vindication, op. cit., 208). In short, Sprigge was of the view that we cannot coherently view two items – of any kind – as being connected by a genuine relation unless they form parts of a single whole. However, the doctrine that real relations can only hold between the parts of a whole does not, in itself, entail the stronger holistic doctrine (more clearly distinguished in section 4 above) that the intrinsic characteristics of the parts of a whole are influenced, in a distinctive way, by the character of the whole to which they belong. So far as I can see, Sprigge's grounds for subscribing to this stronger form of holism are phenomenological. I should also add that, for Sprigge, the significance of these holistic considerations is not confined to our understanding of the nature of consciousness; it extends to the whole of reality: ‘I think that real relations between things can only be conceived as the way in which they join together to form a whole, and that the whole which a congeries of experiences can form is itself an experience . . . So all the experiences which fill up the world must ultimately join together as part of one great Cosmic Experience’ (Sprigge, T. L. S., ‘My Philosophy and Some Defence of It’ in Consciousness, Reality and Value, edited by Basile, P. and McHenry, L. (Ontos Verlag: Heusenstamm, 2007), 301Google Scholar). Interesting though it is, I will not be concerned with Sprigge's case for absolute idealism in what follows.

6 Dainton, B., Stream of Consciousness (London: Routledge, 2000; expanded 2nd edition, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Ibid., 194–5.


8 Ibid., 195.


9 See McGurk, H. and MacDonald, J., ‘Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices’, Nature 264 (1976), 746–8CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. There are a good many examples of the effect readily available on the web (including several on Youtube), some more effective than others.

10 Shams, L., Kamitani, Y. and Shimojo, S., ‘What You See is What You Hear’, Nature 408 (2000), 788CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

11 Violentyev, A., Shimojo, S. and Shams, L., ‘Touch-induced Visual Illusion’, Neuroreport 16:10 (2005), 11071110CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

12 Jousmaki, V. and Hari, R., ‘Parchment-skin Illusion: Sound-based Touch’, Current Biology 8:6 (2006), 190191CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Zampini, M., Guest, S. and Spence, C., ‘The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perception of Electric Toothbrushes’, Journal of Dental Research 82:11 (2003), 929–32Google Scholar. Also, Zampini, M. and Spence, C., ‘The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips’, Journal of Sensory Studies 19:5 (2009), 347–63Google Scholar.

14 Konkle, T., Wang, Q., Hayward, V. and Moore, C., ‘Motion Aftereffects Transfer between Touch and Vision’, Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.035 (2009), ScholarPubMed.

15 For further useful discussion of these matters, see O'Callaghan, C., ‘Seeing What You Hear: Cross-Modal Illusions and Perception’, Philosophical Issues 18:1 (2008), 316–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 T. L. S. Sprigge, Vindication, op. cit., 218.

17 Gurwitsch, A., Field of Consciousness (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964), 114Google Scholar; italics in the original.

18 Op. cit., §§ 8.5 and 8.6.

19 See Bayne, T., ‘Perception and the Reach of Phenomenal Content’, The Philosophical Quarterly 59 (2009), 385404Google Scholar; Siegel, S., ‘The visual experience of causation’, The Philosophical Quarterly 59 (2009), 519–40Google Scholar; Byrne, A., ‘Experience and Content’, The Philosophical Quarterly 59 (2009), 429–51Google Scholar; Pautz, A., ‘What are the Contents of Experiences?’, The Philosophical Quarterly 59 (2009), 483507Google Scholar; Price, R., ‘Aspect-switching and Visual Phenomenal Character’, The Philosophical Quarterly 59 (2009), 508–18Google Scholar. Needless to say, the issue is by no means a new one, and it divided Gestalt theorists themselves: whereas some of these theorists held that structural or aspectual features are present in our base-level sensory experience, others held that these features are to be found only in higher-level conscious acts or qualities. In a useful chapter on this topic, Smith summarises thus: ‘The fact that our experience is structured, is, according to Ehrenfels, a matter of certain special Gestalt qualities which are given in special experiences, superadded to our experiences of sensory elements. A two-level theory of this sort was … characteristic of that “Austrian” approach to complex experience which was developed by Ehrenfels, Meinong, Witasek, Benussi, Bühler, and their followers. According to the later “Berlin” approach [of Wertheimer, Koffka and Köhler], in contrast, a collection of data (or any other psychological formation) does not have a Gestalt on a second level. Rather, it is a Gestalt, a whole whose parts are themselves determined as being such that they can only exist as parts of a whole of this given kind. The significance of this distinction, or of the transition from the Austrian theory of Gestalt as quality to the Berlin theory of Gestalt as whole, cannot be overestimated’ (Smith, B., Austrian Philosophy (Illinois: Open Court, 1994), 245Google Scholar). In Stream of Consciousness, I was reluctant to extend high-level content or conceptual content to perceptual experience, but did allow that meaning is certainly to be found in our perception of speech and writing (Stream of Consciousness, op. cit., §8.7).

20 Those who subscribe to the doctrine of ‘unrestricted composition’ in the physical realm hold that every combination of material items, no matter how scattered or disparate (from the standpoint of common sense) counts as a fully legitimate physical object. In an analogous manner, I count any combination of parts in a total conscious state as ‘an experience’ – even if many of the resulting experiences are of unfamiliar kinds.

21 It is very natural to think that our own experience at any given time forms a total state defined in this way. There are those, however, who argue that a single subject at a single time could have three experiences E1, E2 and E3, which are such that E1 and E2 are co-conscious, E2 and E3 are co-conscious, but E1 and E3 are not – cf. Lockwood, M., Mind, Brain and the Quantum (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1989), chapter 6Google Scholar. If co-consciousness is a transitive relationship, as I (tentatively) argue (Stream of Consciousness, op. cit., §4.5 and The Phenomenal Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), §8.6), then experiential structures of this sort are impossible, and experiences can only partake in wholes whose parts are all mutually co-conscious.

22 To simplify matters I am overlooking here an important distinction between type-specific holism and token-specific holism – for a fuller treatment see Stream of Consciousness, op. cit., §9.2 and also The Phenomenal Self, op. cit., §9.5.

23 T. L. S. Sprigge, Vindication, op. cit., 170–1.

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