Intelligible Realism about Consciousness: A Response to Nagel's Paradox


  • Naomi Eilan

  • For extended discussion, over the years, of the issues raised here I am much indebted to Bill Brewer, Steve Butterfill, John Campbell, Quassim Cassam, Christoph Hoerl, Hemdat Lerman, Guy Longworth, Adrian Moore, Johannes Roessler and Matt Soteriou. For helpful comments on the current version of the paper I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for this journal.


Is the location of consciousness in the objectively represented world intelligible? The paper examines the grounds for Nagel's negative answer, which can be presented as a response to the following paradox. (1) We are realists about consciousness. (2) Realism about a domain of reference requires commitment to the possibility of an objective, perspective-free conception of it. (3) The phenomenal character of an experience can only be captured by means of perspectival concepts. According to Nagel, we can have either realism about consciousness or the link between realism and objectivity. He opts for the former, where this leads to the postulation of an essentially perspectivally reality inhabited by consciousness. I argue, contra Nagel, that questions about the intelligibility of locating consciousness in the objectively representable world should be asked relative the kinds of objectivity provided for by our spatial thought. Not only does this formally dissolve the paradox, as such thought allows for essential reliance on perspectival concepts; but it also shows how we do in fact make sense of the objective location of consciousness, in virtue of the link between spatial thought and something Strawson calls our ‘commonsense realism’ about physical objects, which ascribes ‘phenomenally-laden’ properties to such objects.