Toward an Objective Phenomenological Vocabulary

What is it like to be a bat?  That is the question Thomas Nagel famously poses in his article of the same name.  At the end of the article, he challenges philosophers to develop an objective phenomenological vocabulary that can describe what it is like to be a bat.  He suggests we begin by developing a vocabulary that can describe to a man blind from birth what it is like to see color.

This essay shows that Peirce’s neglected phenomenology (or phaneroscopy, the name Peirce prefers) rises to the challenge.  By isolating the structural features of experience, we can develop a vocabulary that can describe what it is like to see scarlet red by way of analogical reference to what it is like to hear a trumpet’s blare.  Moreover, we can use that same vocabulary to describe why seeing a scarlet red and hearing a trumpet’s blare are unlike feeling a pillow fall gently into one’s lap.  I corroborate the account with an appeal to research in synesthesia.

The key points of analogical reference between seeing a scarlet red and hearing a trumpet’s blare are:

  1. Quality: Both the scarlet red and the trumpet’s blare are qualities (see 2010a).
  2. Qualities of Qualities: Qualities themselves have qualities, qualities of qualities.  For colors they are hue, chroma, and luminosity.  For sounds they are pitch, timbre, and loudness (see 2014b).
  3. Relative Intensity: Each quality of quality itself has an intensity.  Scarlet reds are highly luminous, highly chromatic, and have an intense, unique hue.  Likewise, trumpet blares are highly pitched, very loud, and have an intense, unique timbre.  These are the relative intensities (see 2010a and 2012b).
  4. Mono- and Polyaxial Qualities of Qualities: Some qualities of qualities vary along one axis, such as chroma and luminosity.  Other qualities vary along several axes (such as hue, with its blue, yellow, and red axes) and timbre (a quality of quality not well understood).
  5. Total Intensity: Qualities themselves have a total intensity, which is a function of the quality’s relative intensities.  Scarlet reds and trumpet blares have high relative intensities and so have high total intensities (see 2010a and 2012b).
  6. Quantities of Qualities: Thus, qualities of qualities and qualities themselves have quantities of qualities, which is their relative or total degree of intensity.
  7. Vividness as Distinct from Intensity: Nevertheless, the vividness of seeing a scarlet red or of hearing a trumpet’s blare is not a quality of the qualities scarlet red or trumpet’s blare.  That this is so is evidenced from the fact that both a remembered scarlet red and a seen scarlet red have a high total intensity (they’re both an intense red, viz. scarlet) but the latter is much more vivid than the former.  The same can be said of remembering as opposed to hearing a trumpet’s blare.  Similarly, we can have vivid feelings of colors with low intensity and dim feelings of colors with high intensities (see 2012b).
  8. Vividness: Rather, vividness is the force of the reaction of the object, the non-ego, upon the subject, the ego (see 2008, 2012a, and 2012b).
  9. Quantity of Vividness: As such, vividness also comes in degrees, a quantity.  However, it is not a degree of a quantity of a quality but a degree of force of the non-ego on the ego (see 2008 and 2012b).

Also in this essay are: (a) a discussion of my position in relation to the notions of corporeality and altering capacity in Noë, Myin, and O’Regan; (b) comments on the history of the seeing red/ hearing a trumpet controversy in John Locke, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, and others; and (c) comments on the definitional and experiential ways of devising a vocabulary.