Meaningful Experiences: An Essay on Experiences of Understanding

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Robert Van Gulick


cognition, conscious experience, understanding

Subject Categories



This dissertation is about one contested case in debates about what types of conscious experience we token. It is about so-called experiences of understanding. I develop answers to some basic questions about this contested case: What is it to say that we have experiences of understanding? Are we justified in believing that some people sometimes have such experiences? When do people have such experiences, if they have them at all? Why is it philosophically significant whether we have such experiences?

In Chapter 1 I start from the two thought experiments - coined, separately, by Galen Strawson and Christopher Peacocke- that instigated debates about experiences of understanding. The idea that guides the first half of the chapter is that the first thing we ought to get clear on in these debates is what philosophers are affirming or denying when they take a stand on whether people really have experiences of understanding. I address this issue by developing a largely new conceptual grounding for the debate. In the second half of the chapter I shift from clarifying to arguing for a position in the literature. I argue for what I call Realism about experiences of understanding.

In Chapter 2 I address three problems that remain for Realism about experiences of understanding after the preceding chapter. The first problem is to show how Realism can cope with a version of the vacuity problem for ceteris paribus generalizations that it faces. The second problem is to get clearer on Realism's commitments about mental events of understanding. The third problem is to work through what Realism says about several types of cases that differ in interesting ways from the exemplar Strawson-Peacocke thought experiments.

In Chapter 3 I look at the implications of Realism about experiences of understanding for debates about cognitive experiences. Roughly put, debates about cognitive experiences concern whether we have any experiences that are neither sensory nor emotional experiences. I argue that Realism undermines three theses put forward recently as ways to deny that there is any robust sense in which we have cognitive experiences. I also draw some positive morals from Realism undermining these theses. I show that Realism implies we have cognitive experiences, on a robust way of parsing out what is sufficient for having cognitive experiences.


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