Philosophy Word of the Day – Saving the Phenomena

When Daniel Dennett wrote the ambitiously titled Consciousness Explained, his critics complained that the book did not appear to mention consciousness as we know it very often and that, as a result, he had simply “explained consciousness away.”

Dennett was being accused of breaking a cardinal rule of philosophy: that one must always “save the phenomena.” Whatever else a philosophical explanation might do, it must account for the way things “seem like” to us. This principle presents us with a powerful tool for criticism.

A theory of ethics, for example, is inadequate if it cannot account for our experience of moral behavior and judgment.  A theory of perception is inadequate if it cannot account for our ordinary experiencing of sights and sounds.  Any philosophical doctrine that seeks to deny these phenomena will be fighting a losing battle.

The conclusions we draw from our experience can be debated, but the very event of that experience must not be sacrificed or ignored for the sake of theoretical interest.  To paraphrase the physicist Richard Feynman: if your conclusions contradict common sense, then so much for common sense; if they conflict with received philosophical opinion, then too bad for received opinion; but if they deny the very facts of our experience, then you must consign your conclusions to the flames.

From The Philosopher’s Toolkit, Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl (Blackwell, 2003), 122-123.

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