Cognitive phenomenology through the lens of empirical research


There is a presupposition hardly in need of defending that human experience[1]In the literature, experience and phenomenology are oft used as synonyms, even though the word phenomenology is also used as “the study of human experience”. In this article, there should … Continue reading is, in large part, a sensory affair. We see, we hear, we feel, we smell, we taste (and these are just the more well known sensations). Most people should also be intimately familiar with emotive experiences, such as joy, sadness, anger, fear and so on. Although we might not be able to give a detailed theoretical account of the experiential character of each (or any) of those sensory and emotive states, we can at least appreciate a certain meaningful and unique what-it-is-like-ness about them. To put it simply: every sensory and emotive state can be ascribed a corresponding sensory or emotive experience.

Trying to do the same with cognitive states (such as thinking, believing, remembering…) – that is to ascribe a cognitive experience to a cognitive state – stirs up a degree of controversy. There are numerous authors who claim various versions of there simply not being any such experience as a cognitive experience, and that we are only aware of our own cognitive states by virtue of the sensory experiences they elicit (see for example Braddon-Mitchell & Jackson, 2007; Tye, 1995; Carruthers, 2005; Nelkin, 1989). Yet there are also numerous authors who claim the counterfactual, that there indeed is a unique way of experiencing a cognitive state which cannot be reduced to sensory or emotive experience – and which can therefore be referred to as cognitive experience (see for example Strawson, 1994; Siewert, 1998; Pitt, 2004; Horgan & Tienson, 2002). This controversy is at the heart of the so-called cognitive phenomenology debate (Bayne & Montague, 2011).

Innocent of the particularities of this theoretical debate on the nature or even (im)possibility of cognitive experience, I had started work on my doctoral project: an empirical study on human experience during the times that we hold something to be the case – i. e. that we know or believe something. The data (description of experience) gathered during the study turns out to address many of the questions raised in the cognitive phenomenology deviate. It is thus my aim in this article to present the portion of my findings which directly relates to and answers those questions. A full account of my doctoral study and its findings is currently only available in Slovene (Klauser, 2021), so this article also aims at making the insights contained therein more broadly accessible.

Firstly, I shall provide a short description of my doctoral project, followed by a focused recapitulation of the findings most relevant to the cognitive phenomenology debate. Lastly, I shall present the central questions of the debate enmeshed with an account of how my findings contribute to and answer many of those questions.

Study design, in short

The study is, in essence, a qualitative study which gathered the accounts of six subject[2]I am aware that the word „subject“ is often read as a psychology-specific term which denotes a naturally scientific perspective on a person as a source of data. This is not the connotation I … Continue reading by means of in-depth phenomenological interviews according to the SIPI method (Kordeš & Klauser, 2016). What makes this method (and by extension, study) a phenomenological one is not only its focus on human experience, but also its groundedness in the phenomenological tradition in philosophy, as is laid out by Urban Kordeš (2016), Russel Hurlburt and Sarah Akhter (2006), as well as Claire Petitmengin (2006).

The phenomenological groundedness necessitates longer and more numerous interviews, which focus on gathering detailed experiential descriptions given by the subject as they reflected on a specific moment. The moment is question focused on being aware of the location of an object or landmark within the room or within a reasonably short distance from the subject (e. g. “Where is the door?” or “Where is the library?”). The total of 35 hours of interviews were transcribed and analysed with a grounded theory approach of qualitative analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 2017).

(Pail Klee, Cacodemonic, 1916, source: WikiArt)

Findings – an experience of knowing

In the interviews, I have, upon persistent inquiry into how the subjects know what they know, eventually come upon descriptions such as the following:

“I finally have a bad answer for you, since you’re always asking me how this object or that door or whatever feels. It is a tautological answer, but the answer is: it feels like the thing itself. This is all that I can tell you.” (Ciril[3]The names of the subjects have been anonymized.)

“It feels like it tastes like the thing itself, except instead of the sense of taste it is some kind of sense that is not among the senses we know. It is some kind of seventh, eighth or twenty-fifth sense which encompasses the thing itself in its own particular way.” (Ferdinand)

Experiential reports like these have brought me to the conclusion that there is indeed a kind of experience that is wholly about the content of awareness, devoid of anything tangibly sensory (at least in terms of familiar sensory modalities). E. g. there is a kind of experience that is about an apple without at the same time being an experience of seeing an apple, tasting an apple, feeling an apple, smelling an apple, etc., or it being any imaginary equivalent of sensing an apple – i. e. visualizing an apple, imagining the taste of an apple, imagining the tactile feeling of an apple or its smell, taste, etc. The experience is simply being aware of a certain “appleness”. I have termed this kind of experience with the admittedly loaded term knowing.

While finding this type of experience in my data is, in my opinion, of great significance not only to the field of empirical phenomenology, but also the debate of cognitive phenomenology and phenomenology in general – it is by no means a new discovery. Hurlburt and Christopher Heavey (2008, 2006a, 2006b) described very similar empirical findings as unsymbolized thinking.

When speaking theoretically about this kind of experience, the object or concept that it is about is usually referred to as content. In the above example of experiencing knowing – of being aware of a certain “appleness”, this “appleness” is usually referred to as the content. This content – and by extension the experience of knowing – can manifest itself in various degrees of specificity. It can, for example, be about a very particular apple, at a particular time and place, or about that very apple disassociated of time and place, or it can be about no particular apple, just “an apple” in general. Unspecificity can go even further: the content might be just “something somewhat apple-y”, orfruity”, or “related to food”; or further still as in the experience being about “something”, but we cannot quite discern what that something is. The content can, of course, also be more specific than a particular apple – it can be about the apple as “the red apple”, or as “the red apple I reached for in the refrigerator” or any such complex notion.

Experiencing the knowing of content is meaningfully different from experiencing the illustration of content. By illustrations we refer to all the previous imagined sensory experiences that were, along with their non-imagined counterparts – excluded to delineate the experience of knowing. These experience are most notably (but not limited to) the experiences of visualizing or imagining an image and imagining a sound (and so on with the other sensory modalities). The set of illustrations also includes inner speech as a meaningfully different experience from imagining a sound. These distinctions, too, are mostly isomorphic to the types of experience described by Hurlburt and Heavey (2006a, 2006b).

However, it should not be taken as a matter of fact that an illustration of content is a different way of experiencing content compared to the knowing of content. The data from my study currently indicates that, at least in relatively everyday experience, experiencing an illustration of content is always also experiencing the knowing of content – for that is how we are aware what the illustration is about. Indeed, we might regularly experience that what the illustration is about is significantly greater that what the illustration depicts. If I, for example, imagine an apple: I see a more or less detailed mental image of an apple, all red and yellow and round. First, there is also my knowing that what this mental image depicts is the apple I am entertaining, and not a similarly shaped and coloured ball, or a drawing. But there is also more to that image than just what it depicts at that time. The image is littered with affordances – with numerous ways for me to transform and shape the experience of this mental image – from simply rotating the image to see a different face of the apple, to imagining what it would be like to touch that apple, smell it, bite into it and taste it. These affordances are there – they are what this experience is (also) about – without being depicted in the mental image.

Much like the experience of knowing can take on various degrees of specificity in terms of its content, so does the illustration of content manifest itself with various degrees of specificity, detailedness or vividness. Contrary to the relationship between knowing and its content, the experience illustration can vary in its degree of manifestation regardless of the specificity of the content that is being illustrated. I can imagine a very specific apple, the very apple I ate this morning. This content is relatively specific, and so is my experience of knowing. And yet my accompanying experience of visualizing – i. e. the illustration of that content can manifest itself either vividly as a crisp image full of sharp edges and popping colours; or as but a hint of something visual, a smear which depicts that apple only by virtue of me knowing that it does; or anything in between.

To summarize this basic structure: there is an experience of knowing, which is the awareness of a certain content of experience. This kind of experience is, by itself, not sensory in any way congruent with everyday experience. The content of experience can vary in specificity, which is reflected in the experience of knowing varying in specificity. The experience of knowing is usually (but not always) co-occurrent with the experience of illustration of content – that is a sensory experience which depicts in varying ways of varying vividness the very same content which the experience of knowing is about. At this point, it might be interesting to ponder the possibility of there being an experience of illustration without at the same time being an experience of knowing the content being depicted. However, no such experiential descriptions have been obtained during the study in question. Therefore, any such ponderings will have to stay rooted in the theoretical for now.

Cognitive phenomenology Q&A

With my relevant findings summarized above, I can now provide a rough overview of the cognitive phenomenology debate and draw a connection between the two. To do this, I shall rely on Bayne and Montague’s overview, as it is intended, “to provide newcomers to this debate with a map by means of which they might orient themselves.” (Bayne & Montague, 2011: p. 3)

On the existence of cognitive phenomenology

At the heart of the debate is the question: is there such a thing as cognitive phenomenology? Is there a “something it is like to be” for conscious thought, belief, etc., which cannot be reduced to a sensory or emotive experience? In my study, I have certainly encountered experiences – what I have termed the experience of knowing – which would need to stretch a lot of definitions to be called sensory or emotive. It might thus be sensible to proclaim it cognitive and answer the above question affirmatively.

We should keep in mind, of course, the epistemological headache we invite in proclaiming the existence of a kind of experience. For the appropriately sensitive among us, it might be more accurate to claim that there are descriptions of lived experience which we can viably categorize as cognitive phenomenology.

On the (im)purity of cognitive phenomenology

Even among the proponents for the existence of cognitive phenomenology, opinions differ on how exactly cognitive phenomenology manifests in experience. There is a view which purports cognitive phenomenology to be “impure” – that it is not something that is experienced by itself, but is an “added flavour” to sensory or emotive experience. To reiterate, in this view, there is no such thing as a cognitive experience by itself, an experience of cognition without any sensory co-occurences. Instead, sensory experience is the norm, and different cognitive states add a different twist to the sensory experience.

To put this in more graphic terms, this view denies the relationship:

            cognitive state  ←→ cognitive experience

Instead, it holds that:

            cognitive state A + sensory state ←→ sensory experience A

            cognitive state B + sensory state ←→ sensory experience B

To borrow a more worldly example from Bayne and Montague (2011: p. 12): “judging something to be (say) meat as opposed to soy changes the phenomenal character of the way that it tastes, or that recognizing someone changes the phenomenal character of one’s visual perception of them”. Such models of experience are, sadly, not something that can easily be tested, for it is nigh impossible to guarantee that the sensory state stays the same in two situations, and that only the cognitive state differs. However, we can extract the essence of the model of impure cognitive phenomenology to be, as stated above, the statement that cognitive states modify sensory experiences, and that there is no such thing as independent cognitive experience (or pure cognitive phenomenology). My findings on the experience of knowing indicate that sensory experiences can indeed by distinguished from their cognitive co-occurrences, and moreover, that there are independent and wholly non-sensory experiences of cognitive content, i. e. pure cognitive phenomenology.

(Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled, 1915, source: WikiArt)

On the structure of cognitive phenomenology

For sensory experiences, we are able to distinguish and categorize between various sensory modalities (such as sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste). Even within one modality, we can effortlessly distinguish between experiences – there are, for example, different what-it-is-likes for seeing a chair, seeing a sunset, seeing a large pine, seeing a small blueberry bush, etc. In the face of such distinctions, Bayne and Montague (2011: p. 13) present the questions: “Is there a similar kind of richness and diversity within the phenomenology of thought? If so, what are the central dimensions in terms of which it might be structured?”

The still dominant theory of the structure of thought has been laid out by Bertrant Russell (1918/1919, 1948), who proposed that thought be thought of as involving attitudes towards propositions.  In this model, believing that there is an apple on the counter entails the attitude of “believing” towards the proposition “there is an apple on the counter”. When considering cognitive phenomenology, Russell’s model supplies us with two relevant questions:

  1. Is cognitive phenomenology structured as distinguishable attitudes (e. g. that believing there is an apple on the counter is experientially different from remembering there is an apple on the counter, or desiring there is an apple on the counter, etc.)?
  2. Is cognitive phenomenology structured in terms of propositions (e. g. that believing there is an apple on the counter involves an experience of the proposition “there is an apple on the counter”)?

Regarding question number 1, it feels intuitive that it should be answered affirmatively. After all, we are able to distinguish (even if not always) between remembering something and imagining it, or believing something to be true and wishing something to be true. But as for empirical evidence in that direction, sadly, my study focused only on the experience of taking something to be true (believing) and did not delve into related phenomena such as taking something as having happened (remembering). I therefore cannot supply any comparative analysis which would elucidate whether (or how) cognitive phenomenology is structured in terms of attitudes. Although, notably, when studying the experience of knowing, there did not seem to be any explicit feeling present which would account for the experienced content being “true” or being “known”, as opposed to it being “hypothesized” or “remembered”. The content was simply present and conscious without additional qualifiers. Whether this is indicative of there not being an attitude of knowing towards the content, or of subjects simply not noticing any such attitude in absence of other attitudes to contrast with, remains an open question.

Question number 2 fares better on the empirical front, for here I can, on the basis of my findings, confidently assert that cognitive phenomenology is not structured propositionally. To understand what specifically is mean by this, let us first analyse the positive: what we would expect from a cognitive experience were we to describe it as being structured like a proposition? We would expect it to be worded – i. e. to include the experience of fully articulated words (let us generously assume that these words need not take the form of inner speaking). We would also expect that these words (in whatever form they are experienced) take on a sentence structure. Let us illustrate this with the example proposition “The door is behind me on the right.” If we assume the experience of thought to be structured propositionally, we would assume that thinking or believing that “the door is behind me on the right” would entail experiencing that proposition, or at least the words “door”, “behind me” and “on the right”.

In my study, there indeed occurred a situation in which one could ascribe the subject this very propositionally expressed belief. At the start of an interview, that subject was asked “Where is the door?” After a nigh-instant deliberation, the subject responded by pointing behind her and slightly to the right, and saying “There.” In line with a traditional approach towards the philosophy of belief (see Schwitzgebel, 2015), one would indeed say of that subject, despite her not loudly articulating her belief as such, that she hold the belief that “the door is behind her on the right”. In the interview, we then examined her experience in that moment when she made conscious that very belief. To provide an admittedly crude summary of that experiential episode: the subject experienced a physical feeling on her right shoulder, an extension of her awareness out of that spot into the space behind her (and slightly to the right) and towards a spot she knew (i. e. she had an experience of knowing) was the door, and finally a visual image of the door in question. Most notably, none of the elements, indeed not a single experiential element during that whole episode contained the experiencing of singular words as such, much less of the specific proposition “the door is behind me on the right” or any other proposition.

Additionally, the occurrence of inner speaking, inner hearing or other forms of experience containing words was very rare in my study. And even when the experience of words (in any form) did occur, it was always identified as representing, in a somewhat simplified or not quite complete form, a content that was simultaneously known. To put this differently, the only time an experience of words occurred and was examined in my study, there was an experience of knowing a certain content as a baseline, and the experience of words served as an illustration of that content. Therefore, if we take my study to be sufficiently representative, we may assert that cognitive phenomenology is not structured propositionally.

How, then, is it structured? While my study did provide enough data for me to produce a grounded theory on the structure of cognitive phenomenology, presenting this theory with all the clarity it deserves would far surpass the scope of this article. It shall therefore have to stay dormant until another time.

On the content of cognitive phenomenology

Another question arising within the cognitive phenomenology debate is: To what degree does the content of thought impact its phenomenal character?

I would argue, on the basis of my findings, that the content of thought is not only impactful on its experience, but is the very thing that defines the experience. The experience of knowing is naught but being aware of content. A follow-up question is then: How is that content structured? Bayne and Montague (2011: p. 15) offer that “some theorists conceive of intentional content in terms of objects and their properties, others conceive of it in terms of states of affairs or sets of possible worlds, and still others take content to involve modes of presentation.”

Sadly, in my study, experiential content was not under enough scrutiny to allow a more detailed analysis of its structure. I have settled only on distinguishing content as more or less specific. But if I may venture a hypothesis based on extrapolating on what I know, I would suppose that content can take any and all of the above forms. However, it might be even more useful to practice suspicion towards any kind of strictly worded conception of content, for as we have seen above, the experience of knowing and its content is not structured wordedly at all. Expressing the content of thought (which is usually performed in some kind of modality accessible to the senses, such as speaking or writing a word or proposition) is a theoretical undertaking, being closer to describing, as it were, and not simply stating the content. Indeed, not uncommonly did we observe in my study that additional gestures of awareness need to be performed by the experiencing subject so that they could put their experienced content into words. When we peruse philosophical theories on belief, thought or other cognitive phenomena, it might thus be prudent to be aware that we are dealing with approximate translations of unworded content into words and need to examine those with an appropriately critical eye.

On the controversy of cognitive phenomenology

Within the cognitive phenomenology debate, there are, of course, staunch opponents to the viewpoints I defended above. If the existence and structure of sensory phenomenology is as self-evident as we have assumed at the onset of this article (an assumption which should by no means be taken for granted), why can we not be equally as unanimous on the topic of cognitive phenomenology? Why is this topic controversial at all?

While this is not a question addressed in my study directly, it did produce relevant insights into how we examine and report on our experience – insights which might shed light on why philosophers so often arrive at different conclusions on what should be easily and uncontroversially verifiable through arm-chair introspection.

(Theo van Doesburg, Heroic Movement, 1916, source: WikiArt)

The trouble with introspection

Alas, it is by now quite well established that nothing is easily and uncontroversially verifiable through introspection, as a rich history of philosophical treatises can attest. Due to this, some philosophers of mind opt to wholly forego anything related to introspecting, while others perhaps admit with embarrassment that they dabbled in it, but dare not assign any weight to their findings. Yet others again find it not to be too troublesome, and confidently state their findings as a fact easily verifiable “if you simply pay attention” (Horgan & Tienson, 2002: pp. 522–23). Even in this latter camp, there are proponents as well as opponents to the existence of cognitive phenomenology, both arguing their point based on their own experience. The question then becomes: how come introspective evidence is so mixed? Insights gained during empirical studies of experience provides some clarification.

During my own study, what I have come to call the experience of knowing was by no means easily and readily presentable in experience. Sensory experience is just so much more vivid, familiar and describable than the experience of knowing that for many interviews, subject provided nothing but descriptions of sensory experience. However, delving deeper into their experience, subjects felt that those very descriptions lacked a certain something to make them whole – something they could not quite put into words (and when the words finally came, they described something unlike any familiar sensory experience).

What is also important to note is that not every single one of my subjects discerned this type of experience in their experiential world – 2 of the 6 subjects never reported anything which could be described as the experience of knowing. If this is indicative not of a shortcoming of the study, but an actual trend within human experience, then it might explain why there are so many prominent philosophers who, on the basis of their introspection, claim that there is no such thing one might call cognitive phenomenology (see for example Wilson, 2003; Nichols & Stich, 2003), while there also being many who, again on the basis of their introspection, argue the opposite (see for example Horgan & Tienson, 2002).

Findings similar to my own were made by Hurlburt and Akhter (2008). They, too, found that 8 out of their 30 subjects did not report on anything that could be described as “unsymbolized thinking”, reinforcing the idea that there might be an inherent interpersonal difference in our propensity towards cognitive phenomenology. Hurlburt and Akhter also reported that (among the other 22 subjects) “unsymbolized thinking” was hard to identify as such, attributing the difficulties to the ambiguity of words used to describe experience: “‘Feeling’ sometimes (usually, in fact) refers to an affective or emotional experience […]. But the word ‘feeling’ also is used in a non-emotional way, to refer to a consciousness of an inward impression or state of mind” (Hurlburt & Akhter, 2008: pp. 1368–1369). Thus, ambiguities in word-choice lead to confusion and misunderstandings regarding what is going on in our experience.

Difficulties and failures in understanding of both our own experience and the experience of others can lead us towards being wholly disappointed by introspection. As Bayne and Montague (2011: p. 28) put it: “the failure of theorists to converge on a shared conception of the phenomenal character of thought calls into question the reliability of introspection.” I posit that the problem lies not (solely) in introspection, but also in the theorists themselves – specifically in how they wield words.

A game of definitions

There is no shortage of opponents to the conclusions, thoughts and analysis provided in the above sections. If we, for a moment, dismiss those wholly unimpressed by anything relying on the admittedly imperfect process of introspection, there are also those who concede empirical data as perfectly viable, yet would oppose my interpretation of it. An example of the latter might be Michael Tye and Briggs Wright (2011), for to them, thought is by definition not something that could manifest in experience. The argument boils down to 1) anything conscious unfolds over time and 2) a thought is a state and therefore does not unfold over time. It is thus not the validity of my findings that is in question, but my choice of label. For the label “cognitive” is not compatible with their chosen definitions, and whatever I studied “should be thought of as sensory in a suitably broad sense of the term” (Bayne & Montague: p. 14). Reader beware: a game of definitions is afoot.

It is, of course, everyone’s prerogative to use the words they see fit in their own models, even if it necessitates careful translation between our models to reach mutual understanding. But in the end, it does not matter whether I label the experience of knowing as a cognitive experience, or as a new type of sensory experience. I could call it the sense of meaning or signification, perhaps, or I could call it experience type #17 or Archibald. What matters is that we understand each other and the knowledge we (co)create. Insisting on our own definitions instead of trying to understand what the other party is saying is, sadly, a universal barrier – in empirical phenomenology, in philosophy, in life.

When I say that it does not matter how exactly I name what I have happened to have named experience of knowing, that is not quite accurate. As the complicated structure of the previous sentence already exemplifies, the words we choose to describe our models can be easier or harder to understand. If I were to introduce my findings as Archibald or experience type #17, the reader would not have much of an idea of what meaning I am trying to confer. Speaking of an experience of knowing, however, hopefully nudges the reader into the general direction of where I am going. I intuit that presenting my findings under the label cognitive phenomenology is closer to my intended meaning than the label sensory phenomenology would associate. However, this assessment might change as human experience is studied further. If an experience similar enough to the experience of knowing is to be found in sensory experience, it might make sense to describe those experiences under the same label, whatever it might be, and start rethinking the usefulness of a cognitive/sensory split in our descriptors. Further studies could, of course, also present findings to excuse a strengthening of the discriminations between the cognitive and the sensory. Either way, more studies are needed so that we can learn about the varieties and commonalities in human experience and what words work best to describe them.


In this article, I have presented select findings from my empirical phenomenological study, which indicate that it might make sense to describe certain a kind of experience devoid of anything we are accustomed to call sensory, yet is present as we think, reason, judge, believe and know. I refer to this kind of experience as the experience of knowing (though it is probably not limited to that).

I have then taken my findings as a basis on which to answer some of the main questions of the cognitive phenomenology debate, affirming, first, that the term is a viable descriptor of experience. Then I have ventured into extrapolating my findings to provide answers to question regarding the purity, structure and content of cognitive phenomenology.

Lastly, I addressed some of the reasons why the debate on cognitive phenomenology is so controversial, highlighting some troubles with introspection, interpersonal differences and how the words we chose to describe our experience rarely do it justice. In light of the last point, it is important to stress again how clinging to certain definitions of words can blind us towards the meaning another person is trying to convey.

However, my modest contribution to the discourse should not be read as the ultimate answer to all its problems. Rather, it should be read as an invitation to staunch theorists to roll up their trousers and wade through the mud of empirical phenomenology; to explore each other’s experience through open dialogue; and to bracket the presuppositions of arm-chair philosophy, which, with its clear definitions and independence from lived experience, is still ever so seductive.

(Eleonora, Sketch of Experiential Episode, 2019, source: Klauser, 2021)


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*featured image: M. C. Escher, Bond of Union, 1956, source: WikiArt


1 In the literature, experience and phenomenology are oft used as synonyms, even though the word phenomenology is also used as “the study of human experience”. In this article, there should be no difficulty in distinguishing which of the two meanings of phenomenology is intended, so the word shall continue to be used synonymously with experience.
2 I am aware that the word „subject“ is often read as a psychology-specific term which denotes a naturally scientific perspective on a person as a source of data. This is not the connotation I intend to convey. Rather, I use the word subject to denote a person as a source of the subjective, an I, an experiencer. In this sense, a subject is one with priviliged epistemological access to their own life world, who might be inclined to provide descriptions thereof and engage in exploratory conversation with a researcher not as a passive source of data, but an active co-creator of knowledge.
3 The names of the subjects have been anonymized.