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Merriam Webster

PhenomenalismPhe*nom"e*nal*ism (?), n. (Metaph.) That theory which limits positive or scientific knowledge to phenomena only, whether material or spiritual.

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Phenomenalism is the view that physical objects do not exist as things in themselves but only as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli (e.g. redness, hardness, softness, sweetness, etc.) situated in time and in space. In particular, phenomenalism reduces talk about physical objects in the external world to talk about bundles of sense-data.



Phenomenalism is a radical form of empiricism and, hence, its roots as an ontological view of the nature of existence can be traced back to George Berkeley and his subjective idealism, which David Hume further elaborated.[1] John Stuart Mill had a theory of perception which is commonly referred to as classical phenomenalism. This differs from Berkeley's idealism in its account of how objects continue to exist when no one is perceiving them. Berkeley claimed that an omniscient God perceived all objects and that this was what kept them in existence, whereas Mill claimed that permanent possibilities of experience were sufficient for an object's existence. These permanent possibilities could be analysed into counterfactual conditionals, such as "if I were to have y-type sensations, then I would also have x-type sensations".

As an epistemological theory about the possibility of knowledge of objects in the external world, however, it is probable that the most easily understandable formulation of phenomenalism is to be found in the transcendental aesthetics of Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, space and time, which are the a priori forms and preconditions of all sensory experience, "refer to objects only to the extent that these are considered as phenomena, but do not represent the things in themselves". While Kant insisted that knowledge is limited to phenomena, he never denied or excluded the existence of objects which were not knowable by way of experience, the things-in-themselves or noumena, though he never proved them.

Kant's "epistemological phenomenalism", as it has been called, is therefore quite distinct from Berkeley's earlier ontological version. In Berkeley's view, the so-called "things-in-themselves" do not exist except as subjectively perceived bundles of sensations which are guaranteed consistency and permanence because they are constantly perceived by the mind of God. Hence, while Berkeley holds that objects are merely bundles of sensations (see bundle theory), Kant holds (unlike other bundle theorists) that objects do not cease to exist when they are no longer perceived by some merely human subject or mind.

In the late 19th century, an even more extreme form of phenomenalism was formulated by Ernst Mach, later developed and refined by Russell, Ayer and the logical positivists. Mach rejected the existence of God and also denied that phenomena were data experienced by the mind or consciousness of subjects. Instead, Mach held sensory phenomena to be "pure data" whose existence was to be considered anterior to any arbitrary distinction between mental and physical categories of phenomena. In this way, it was Mach who formulated the key thesis of phenomenalism, which separates it from bundle theories of objects: objects are logical constructions out of sense-data or ideas; whereas according to bundle theories, objects are made up of sets, or bundles, of actual ideas or perceptions. That is, according to bundle theory, to say that the pear before me exists is simply to say that certain properties (greenness, hardness, etc.) are being perceived at this moment. When these characteristics are no longer perceived or experienced by anyone, then the object (pear, in this case) no longer exists. Phenomenalism as formulated by Mach, in contrast, is the view that objects are logical constructions out of perceptual properties. On this view, to say there is a table in the other room when there is no one in that room to perceive it, is to say that if there were someone in that room, then that person would perceive the table. It is not the actual perception that counts, but the conditional possibility of perceiving.

Logical positivism, a movement begun as a small circle which grew around the philosopher Moritz Schlick in Vienna, inspired many philosophers in the English speaking world from the 1930s through the 1950s. Important influences on their brand of empiricism included Ernst Mach — himself holding the Chair of Inductive Sciences at the University of Vienna, a position Schlick would later hold — and the Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell. The idea of the logical positivists, such as A.J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap, was to formulate the doctrine of phenomenalism in linguistic terms, so as to define references to such entities as physical objects in the external world out of existence. Sentences which contained terms such as "table" were to be translated into sentences which referred exclusively to either actual or possible sensory experiences.

20th century American philosopher Arthur Danto asserted that "a phenomenalist, believ[es] that whatever is finally meaningful can be expressed in terms of our own [sense] experience.".[2] He claimed that "The phenomenalist really is committed to the most radical kind of empiricism: For him reference to objects is always finally a reference to sense-experience ... ."[3] To the phenomenalist, objects of any kind must be related to experience. "John Stuart Mill once spoke of physical objects as but the 'permanent possibility of experience' and this, by and large, is what the phenomenalist exploits: All we can mean, in talking about physical objects — or nonphysical objects, if there are any — is what experiences we would have in dealing with them ... ." However, phenomenalism is based on mental operations. These operations, themselves, are not known from sense experience. Such non-empirical, non-sensual operations are the "...nonempirical matters of space, time, and continuity that empiricism in all its forms and despite its structures seems to require ... ."[3]


Roderick Chisholm criticized the logical positivist version of phenomenalism in 1948.[4] C.I. Lewis had previously suggested that the physical claim "There is a doorknob in front of me" necessarily entails the sensory conditional "If I should seem to see a doorknob and if I should seem to myself to be initiating a grasping motion, then in all probability the sensation of contacting a doorknob should follow".[5] Chisholm objected that the statement "There is a doorknob..." does not entail the counterfactual statement, for if it were to do so, then it must do so without regard to the truth or falsity of any other statement; but suppose the following statement was true: "I am paralyzed from the neck down and experience hallucinations such that I seem to see myself moving toward the door". If this were true, Chisholm objected, then there could be a doorknob in front of me, I could seem to myself to see a doorknob, and I could seem to myself to be performing the correct sort of grasping motion, but with absolutely no chance of having a sensation of contacting the doorknob. Likewise, he objected that the statement that "The only book in front of me is red" does not entail the sensory statement "Redness would probably appear to me were I to seem to myself to see a book", because redness is not likely to appear under a blue light-bulb. Some[who?] have tried to avoid this problem by extending the conditions in the analysandum: instead of "There is a doorknob in front of me" one could have it that "There is a doorknob, and I am not paralyzed, etc." In response, Chisholm objects that if one complicates the analysandum, one must also complicate the analysans; in this particular case, that one must analyse in purely sensory terms what it means not to be paralyzed and so on, with respect to which the same problems would arise leading to an infinite regress.

Another common[who?] objection to phenomenalism is that in the process of eliminating material objects from language and replacing them with hypothetical propositions about observers and experiences, it seems to commit us to the existence of a new class of ontological object altogether: the sensibilia or sense-data which can exist independently of experience. Indeed, sense-data have been dismissed by some philosophers of mind, such as Donald Davidson, as mythological entities that are more troublesome than the entities that they were intended to replace.

A third common objection in the literature[who?] is that phenomenalism, in attempting to convert propositions about material objects into hypothetical propositions about sensibilia, postulates the existence of an irreducibly material observer in the antecedent of the conditional. In attempting to overcome this, some phenomenalists[who?] suggested that the first observer could be reduced by constructing a second proposition in terms of a second observer, who actually or potentially observes the body of the first observer. A third observer would observe the second and so on. In this manner we would end up with a "Chinese box series of propositions" of ever decreasing material content ascribed to the original observer. But if the final result is not the complete elimination of the materiality of the first observer, then the translational reductions that are proposed by phenomenalists cannot, even in principle, be carried out.

Another criticism is that the phenomenalist can give no satisfactory explanation of the permanent possibilities of experience. The question can be asked, "What are the counterfactual conditionals which ground the existence of objects true in virtue of?" One answer given by phenomenalists is that the conditionals are true in virtue of past regularities of experience. However, critics[who?] object that this answer leads to circularity: first our actual experience was meant to be explained by the possibility of experience, and now the possibility of experience is meant to be explained by our actual past experience. A further objection to the phenomenalist answer is that generally speaking, conditionals are not true in virtue of their past occurrences. This is because it seems that a conditional could be true even if it never actually obtained, and also past occurrences only confirm that a conditional is true, but never make it so.

R. Firth formulated another objection in 1950, stemming from perceptual relativity: White wallpaper looks white under white light and red under red light, etc. Any possible course of experience resulting from a possible course of action will apparently underdetermine our surroundings: it would determine, for example, that there is either white wallpaper under red light or red wallpaper under white light, and so on. On what basis are we to decide which of the hypotheses is the correct one if we are constrained to rely exclusively on sensibilia?[6]


  1. ^  "Phenomenalism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  2. ^ Danto, Arthur, Nietzsche as Philosopher, Ch. 3, § VI, Macmillan, 1965;
  3. ^ a b Danto, Arthur, Connections to the World, Ch. 27. Harper & Row, 1989, ISBN 0-06-015960-X
  4. ^ Chisholm, R. "The Problem of Empiricism", The Journal of Philosophy 45 (1948): 512-7.
  5. ^ C. I. Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1946), pp. 240, 248-9.
  6. ^ Firth, R. "Radical Empiricism and Perceptual Relativity", Philosophical Review. 1950


  • Fenomenismo in L'Enciclopedia Garzanti di Filosofia (eds.) Gianni Vattimo and Gaetano Chiurazzi. Third Edition. Garzanti. Milan, 2004. ISBN 88-11-50515-1
  • Berlin, Isaiah. The Refutation of Phenomenalism. The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. 2004.
  • Bolender, John. Factual Phenomenalism: a Supervenience Theory, in SORITES Issue #09. April 1998. pp. 16–31.

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