Update3: The Higher-order Thought Theory

One of the prominent theories of consciousness is the Higher-order theory, which roughly state that a mental state is conscious because of some relation it bears with a higher order state of mind about it. Several versions of the theory were developed, here I discuss the Higher-Order Thought (HOT) theory, which roughly divides into the Actualist approach and the Dispositionalist approach.

The Actualist HOT theory (main proponent: Rosenthal) asserts that, a phenomenally conscious mental state is conscious because there exists a higher order thought about it, and the thought is not caused inferentially. For example, suppose I am having a visual experience of a chair. According to the Actualist HOT theory, my perception is conscious because there is a higher-order thought about it. As in case of unconscious mental state, suppose I felt a terrible pain in my leg this morning, but as I focused on studying philosophy and was totally absorbed in it, I completely forget about that pain now, and if I pay attention back to my leg there is the pain again. Although the sensation/feeling on a biological level exists throughout the day, I was only conscious of the pain for some time. The Actualist would explain that in the unconscious pain situation, I don’t have a higher order state of mind about the pain, and thus I am not conscious of it. The explanation seems to go along with our intuition.

There are a few more points about the theory that need to be explained. First, the higher-order thoughts are NOT introspective states. In the case in which I see a chair, my higher order thought about having seen a chair is not conscious; it is only conscious when there is a yet higher order thought about it, and then the conscious higher order thought becomes introspective state. Just to be clear, here is a table:

First order experience (A) Higher order thought T(A) Higher higher order thought T(T(A))
Conscious unconscious
Conscious Conscious Unconscious


Other important features of the Actualist theory include (1) the higher order thought is not caused inferentially (e.g. my doctor tells me that I am in pain, so I form the belief inferentially that “I am in pain”); (2) the higher order thought should be immediate (occurs roughly the same time) and (3) assertoric (not like “I may be in pain”).

One more thing that needs to be noticed is that, because thoughts require concepts, the formation of higher order thought requires the subject to have cognitive functions to understand concepts. And so it assumes that no mental state is essentially a conscious state, i.e. there could be mental state without consciousness, because some simple animals with mental states don’t have  enough cognitive capability to grasp concepts. One of the objections against Actualist is to point out that it seems intuitive to us that infants or animals like dogs are conscious, yet according to Actualist then they are not since they don’t have enough cognitive capability. (Rosenthal later replies that they could still be conscious because higher-order thoughts need not be more sophisticated than conceptually rudimentary content such as “this feeling.”

In next update I introduce objections against the actualist theory, and also a brief overview of the dispositionalist view.


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