An Introduction to Phenomenal Conservatism

Phenomenal Conservatism (PC) is a foundationalist theory of justification that can be applied to perception as well as the a priori. Michael Huemer formulates PC like this:

PC: If it seems to S that p, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some degree of justification for believing that p (Huemer 2007).

PC takes seemings to be the epistemically relevant mental states. Seemings are appearances that something is the case, such as the appearance of a desk in front of me. It seems to me that there is a desk in front of me. Seemings are propositional attitudes: it seems to S that P is the case. For it to seem to S that P, the proposition <P> must be the content of S’s seeming. But just because seemings are propositional attitudes, it doesn’t follow that they lack a phenomenology. Seemings have a feel of veridicality; they present their contents as if they were the case. In other words, seemings have assertive content. Contents that are presented to the subject assertively have a phenomenology of, for lack of a better descriptive term, truthiness.

PC is a form of internalism about justification, which is the view that justification supervenes on the mental states of the subject, or things that are epistemically accessible. To say that justification supervenes onto the mental or the accessible is to say that there cannot be a change in mental states or what is accessible without a change in justificational status. The version of PC that takes the supervenience base to be mental states without an accessibility requirement is called mentalism, and it can be seen as a form of reductionism about justification. The version of PC that takes the base to be epistemically accessible things is called accessibilism, and is a version of non-reductionism about justification. Mentalism can give a reductive analysis of justification in terms of properties of mental states, whereas accessibilism takes access to be a primitive, epistemic notion which cannot be reductively analyzed without circularity. PC can be formulated in either way, but I take it to be a hybrid because seemings are both mental states and intrinsically accessible to the subject.

PC can be construed as either weak or strong foundationalism. If it is taken to be a version of weak foundationalism, then seemings are not sufficient for fully justified beliefs based on them. Beliefs based on seemings, on this view, would have some justification, but not enough for full blown justification. Those beliefs must also be supported by other beliefs, or other epistemically relevant states. If PC is a version of strong foundationalism, then seemings are sufficient for fully justified beliefs. Beliefs based on seemings are fully justified, absent defeaters. Huemer’s version of PC can be seen as a hybrid, where some seemings may not be sufficient for full justification, while others are. The hybrid nature of Huemer’s version of PC can be seen in the, “at least some degree of justification” clause.

Justified beliefs can be defeated by various considerations. PC allows for defeat, which means that beliefs based on seemings can lose their fully justified status. For example, if I look at a pencil submerged in a glass of water, it seems to me that the pencil is bent. Lacking background knowledge about what happens when straight objects are submerged in water, I form the belief that the pencil is bent. I now have a belief that is at least partially justified. But then I pull the pencil out of the water and see that it is not actually straight. Puzzled, I search wikipedia for an explanation, and learn about what happens when pencils are submerged in water. My belief about the pencil being bent is now defeated by counter evidence.

In some future posts I will explore objections to PC, such as the problem of cognitive penetrability, the Sellarsian dilemma, and the problem of the speckled hen. I will also examine issues related to the nature of seemings, and whether seemings form a homogeneous class of mental states, or if there are distinct kinds of seemings. Finally, I will explore the connection between PC and ethical intuitionism.

Works Cited

Huemer, Michael. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74.1 (2007): 30-55. Web.