Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

HOT, Conscious Unity, and the Structure of Events: Extending Friesen's Critique

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

HOT, Conscious Unity, and the Structure of Events: Extending Friesen's Critique

Article excerpt

Rosenthal's (2002) theory of higher order thought is well known for its insistence that a higher order thought (HOT) is required for turning a mental state into a conscious state. In Rosenthal's view, there are two categories of mental states: (1) a mental state with the thought that one is in this state = conscious or subjective awareness, and (2), a mental state without the thought that one is in this state = unconscious. Thus, for Rosenthal (2011): ". . . a state is conscious only if one is subjectively aware of oneself as being in that state" (p. 431).

When it comes to the explaining the unity of consciousness, Friesen (2014) has argued that HOT theory is far from adequate. Friesen firstly notes that there are two basic forms of unity - synchronic and diachronic - within each of which are multiple forms:


1. Phenomenal unity, or conjoint/subsumptive phenomenology - the taste of the sip of coffee, the kitchen chair against my back, the view of table - all cohere or are subsumed in a unified experience.

2. Spatial unity - the table, chairs, walls, hanging pots, rugs etc., all cohere in a space.

3. Object unity - the form and color (white) of the coffee cup cohere.


1. Stream unity - as I walk from the kitchen to the living room, there is a flow that coheres.

2. Subject unity - I can think of the experience of reaching for the coffee cup as my own, as well as other experiences (e.g., breakfasts/coffee) in the past.

Rosenthal is proposing to explain all of these, Friesen notes, with but two basic mechanisms. The first of these is indexical. This is to say that the multiple mental states in the whole cohere by the fact that they are referenced to an "I," i.e., to a subject's sense of self. The second is co-representational. Thus, part of what unifies conscious states, per Rosenthal, is the fact that HOTs often represent many lower-order states all at once. Though Rosenthal has little to say about the precise nature of these higher-order representations, he maintains that HOTs "operate on many of our mental states not singly, but in large bunches" (2000, p. 226), i.e., a HOT can target and represent many different simultaneous mental states.

The multiple types of unity however are lost in Rosenthal's treatment, conflated into a generic "unity," and, Friesen argues, these two mechanisms - indexical and co-representational - are simply not up to the actual task, at the very least leaving Rosenthal a lot of f leshing out to do. Friesen makes numerous excellent points as he analyzes these mechanisms vis a vis the various forms of conscious unity. I will not do them all justice by far, focusing on only a few here, with the intention of showing that these arguments could have gone much deeper, so much so that any validity of the HOT theory seems to f loat on utterly inadequate attention to the nature of these "unities." The focus here will be the nature of our perceptual experience as emerging, for example, in the science of ecological psychology and the structure of events. Two secondary points will note the inattention to the relation of mind to time (an inherent problem once we talk of events and therefore stream unity), and to the profound problem within subject unity of what makes one consciously aware of previous events as part of one's past history.

Object Unity - as Events with Invariance Structure

The co-representation notion, Friesen observes, should apply even at the level of object unity, say, for a red cube. The redness (a mental state) and cubeness (a mental state) would be co-represented in the HOT, providing the unified experience of the colored object. We must presume here, he notes, that it is more than a simple conjunctive representation, e.g., "redness and cubeness," but rather at least a relational representation, to the effect, say, "cube and redness at location x."

This is the insight of Friesen that I wish to key on first, namely the requirement implicit within Rosenthal for what we can term relational HOTs to support object unity and by implication, even the unity of various aspects of an event. …

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