Dark Phenomenology and the Enactivist Response

Some naturalization strategies for phenomenology are hostile to the assumption that there is an ineffable richness or ‘grain’ to the phenomenal field that can never be captured in mere words.

However, a powerful naturalization gambit can be developed from an inflationary position: a super-hard realism with respect to the phenomenological grain. I want to show that if there is ineffable phenomenology, it is ‘dark’; inaccessible to the first person methodology that underpins phenomenology as a modern tradition.

While inaccessible from a first person point of view dark phenomenology may be accessible using objective techniques like the measurement of just noticeable difference thresholds (jnd’s). If we make the additional assumption that dark phenomenology is conjoined with the ‘effable’ side of our experience, then phenomenology cannot be epistemologically closed to the other sciences. An ‘objective’ third-person investigation may tell us more about what our dark side ‘is like’ than any armchair navel gazing on our part. So the existence of dark phenomenology enjoins phenomenological naturalism as a methodological principle.

Diana Raffman cites laboratory work on human pitch and colour discrimination suggesting that our capacities for pitch and colour discrimination are far more fine-grained than for pitch and colour identification. A normal listener can notice[i] around 1400 pitch differences across the auditory range, but can resolve only about 80 discrete pitch categories (Raffman 1995, 294). Analogous results are commonly cited for colour perception. The take home moral, for Raffman, is that while we can tell apart pairs of finely grained pitches and colours, we are unable to remember or recognize how they seem across experiences (Ibid. 295).

In Being-No-One Thomas Metzinger uses Raffman’s insight to motivate an argument against classic qualia. The classic quale is a simple, intrinsic, introspectable property of experience. However, ‘Raffman qualia’ – as he dubs the maximally fine-grained components of experience – cannot be introspected because they lack subjective identification conditions. Introspective concepts of classical qualia must be reifications since the maximally simple elements of experience cannot get past the bottleneck imposed by our memory capacity.

Raffman qualia, then, are dark. They are functionally distinct phenomenal states that must be accessed by means other than first-person intuition (e.g. by psychophysical measurements of jnd’s). As Metzinger quips, for such states ‘Neurophenomology is possible; phenomenology is impossible’ (Metzinger 2004, 83).

This inference has been resisted by the enactivist philosopher of perception Alva Noë. Enactivists view perception as an organism’s practical grasp of its potentialities for  action: ‘To feel a surface as flat is precisely to perceive it as impeding or shaping one’s possibilities of movement’ (Noë 2004, 104). To see an object’s shape or colour is to activate a ‘sensorimotor profile’ which, like Husserl’s perceptual noema, anticipates how it will look from different orientations (Rowlands 2009, 55).

Importantly, Noë claims that this embodied knowledge does not represent potentials for variations of occurrent qualities. Experience is ‘virtual’ all the way down: ‘Qualities’, he writes ‘are available in experience as possibilities, as potentialities, but not as givens’ (Noë 2004, 135). He argues that this conception of experience saves the Kantian claim that experience is conceptually articulated from the objection that it is too fine-grained (or dark) to be conceptualized. To experience something is to conceptualize it because a sensory profile embraces all the potential quality shades that it anticipates (Ibid. 194-5).

Noë’s argument is directed against the claim that experience is made out of occurrent qualities. But Raffman qualia don’t have to be conceived in this way. As Metzinger argues in Being-No-One they are much more adequately conceived as embodied states functionally differentiated in terms of their dynamical tendencies or potentialities rather than any intrinsic properties. Thus we can buy Noë’s enactivist phenomenology with the caveat that there may be dark virtual phenomenology whose obscure dynamism is not captured in the grosser sensory profiles that we can subjectively identify from experience to experience. This may be reflected in the fact that sensory impairments such as Anton’s Syndrome show that experience has modal possibilities that completely beggar our intuitions about what lies within the space of phenomenological possibility (Metzinger 2004, 243). Thus the enactivist response to the fineness of grain argument works only if we individuate grains qualitatively. If we individuate them dynamically, the force of the argument for dark phenomenology is undiminished.

Metzinger, Thomas (2004). Being No-One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Noe¨ A (2004) Action in perception. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Raffman, D. (1995). ‘On the persistence of phenomenology’. In T. Metzinger, ed., Conscious Experience.Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic.

Rowlands, M (2009). ‘Enactivism and the Extended Mind’. Topoi 28, 53-62.



[i] In psychology discrimination is usually defined operationally in terms of the minimal (just noticeable) difference that a subject can detect on a large proportion of exposures to successive stimuli.


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