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Jean Nicod Prize & Lectures

The Jean-Nicod Prize 2013 was awarded to Ned Block although the ceremony and the lectures were delivered in Spring 2014.

(Department of Philosophy, New York University)


Ned Block is Silver Professor of Philosophy, Psychology and Neural Science at New York University.  Before that he taught at MIT for many years.   He was an undergraduate at MIT and got his PhD from Harvard.  He works in philosophy of mind and foundations of neuroscience and cognitive science. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Language and Information, a Sloan Foundation Fellow, a faculty member at two National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes and two Summer Seminars, the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Science Foundation; and a recipient of the Robert A. Muh Alumni Award in Humanities and Social Science from MIT. He is a past president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, a past Chair of the MIT Press Cognitive Science Board, and past President of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.   The Philosophers' Annual selected his papers as one of the "ten best" in 1983, 1990, 1995, 2002 and 2010. He is co-editor of The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates (MIT Press, 1997). The first of two volumes of his collected papers, Functionalism, Consciousness and Representation, MIT Press came out in 2007.  He has given the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, the Immanuel Kant Lectures at Stanford and the William James Lectures at Harvard.


Jean-Nicod Lectures


Brochure  ǀ Poster


Tuesday, May 6th, 2:30pm to 4:30 pm
Ecole normale supérieure, 45, rue d'Ulm 75005 Paris. Salle Dussane
Conscious, Preconscious, Unconscious

How can we separate the neural basis of reports of consciousness from the neural basis of consciousness itself?  Since we only find out whether subjects are conscious via the global broadcasting that leads to their reports, it would seem impossible to find an empirical wedge to separate the neural basis of consciousness from the neural basis of reported consciousness.  Some researchers have despaired, claiming that the best we can do is study access to consciousness, and this is the rationale for the global broadcasting theory of consciousness.  However, three new methodologies show us how to solve this problem, revealing a neural basis of consciousness that is independent of global broadcasting.


Ned Block will be awarded the Jean-Nicod Prize after the lecture.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2:30pm to 4:30 pm
Ecole normale supérieure, 29, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris, Salle 235B.
Seeing-as, Concepts and Non-conceptual Content

Philosophers as disparate in their points of view as Wittgenstein and Fodor have claimed that all seeing is seeing-as and that seeing-as is by its nature conceptual.  This talk argues that they are right that all seeing is seeing-as, but wrong about seeing-as necessarily being conceptual. The talk explores how to distinguish between conceptual and perceptual seeing-as and the relevance of the distinction to current controversies about the nature of perception.

Tuesday, May, 13th, 2:30pm to 4:30 pm
Ecole normale supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris, Salle Dussane
Mental Paint and the Unspecificity of Perception

Much of recent philosophy of perception is oriented towards accounting for the phenomenology of perception in a non-mentalistic way, that is, without appealing to mental objects or mental qualities. Mental qualities that are not reducible to qualities of objects (e.g. redness or squareness) or representations of such qualities of objects are derided as “mental paint”. The claim of this paper is that empirical facts about attention show that there is mental paint. The idea is that when one moves one’s attention around a scene, the phenomenology of perception can change without changing which qualities of objects one is directly aware of or the way the world is represented to be. The only way to escape this argument is to hold that perceptual content is so unspecific that differences imposed by attention do not engender non-veridicality, but the phenomenology of perception precludes such unspecific content.

Thursday, May, 15th, 2:30pm to 4:30 pm
Ecole normale supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris, Salle Dussane
Is there a joint in nature between perception and cognition?

Peripheral vision is the locus of three of the most important questions about perception: the difference between conscious and unconscious perception, the difference between attentive and inattentive perception and the difference between perceiving an object and perceiving a texture. This talk argues that in coming to grips with peripheral vision we can settle some issues about the relation between attention, consciousness and object-seeing.



"The Grain of Vision and the Grain of Attention" Thought: A Journal of Philosophy. Volume 1, Issue 3, September 2012. 
Often when there is no attention to an object, there is no conscious perception of it either, leading some to conclude that conscious perception is an attentional phenomenon. There is a well-known perceptual phenomenon—visuo-spatial crowding, in which objects are too closely packed for attention to single out one of them. This article argues that there is a variant of crowding—what I call ‘‘identity-crowding’’—in which one can consciously see a thing despite failure of attention to it. This conclusion, together with new evidence that attention to an object occurs in unconscious perception, suggests there may be a double dissociation between conscious perception of an object and attention to that object, constraining the extent to which consciousness can be constitutively attentional. The argument appeals to a comparison between the minimal resolution (or ‘‘grain’’) of object-attention and object-seeing.

"Perceptual consciousness overflows cognitive access". Trends in Cognitive Sciences, December 15, 12, 2011, p 567-575
One of the most important issues concerning the foundations of conscious perception centers on the question of whether perceptual consciousness is rich or sparse. The overflow argument uses a form of ‘iconic memory’ to argue that perceptual consciousness is richer (i.e., has a higher capacity) than cognitive access: when observing a complex scene we are conscious of more than we can report or think about. Recently, the overflow argument has been challenged both empirically and conceptually. This paper reviews the controversy, arguing that proponents of sparse perception are committed to the postulation of (i) a peculiar kind of generic conscious representation that has no independent rationale (for example, an image of a non-square rectangle that does not specify any orientation) and (ii) an unmotivated form of unconscious representation that in some cases conflicts with what we know about unconscious representation.

"The Higher Order Approach to Consciousness is Defunct", Analysis, Volume 71, No. 3, July 2011, 419-431.
Argues that there is a well-known objection to the higher order approach to consciousness that, with a slight twist, is fatal.

"Attention and Mental Paint", Philosophical Issues, 20, 2010, p. 23-63
Much of recent philosophy of perception is oriented towards accounting for the phenomenal character of perception—what it is like to perceive--in a non-mentalistic way—that is, without appealing to mental objects or mental qualities. In opposition to such views, I claim that the phenomenal character of perception of a red round object cannot be explained by or reduced to direct awareness of the object, its redness and roundness—or representation of such objects and qualities.  Qualities of perception that are not captured by direct awareness of or representation of qualities of object are instances of what Gilbert Harman has called “mental paint” (Harman, 1990, Block, 1990).   The claim of this paper is that empirical facts about attention point in the direction of mental paint.  The argument starts with the claim (later modified slightly) that when one moves one’s attention around a scene while keeping one’s eyes fixed, the phenomenology of perception can change in ways that do not reflect which qualities of objects one is directly aware of or the way the world is represented to be.  These changes in the phenomenology of perception cannot be accounted for in terms of awareness of or representation of the focus of attention because they manifest themselves in experience as differences in apparent contrast, apparent color saturation, apparent size, apparent speed, apparent time of occurrence and other apparent properties.  There is a way of coping with these phenomena in terms of vagueness or indeterminacy, but this move cannot save direct realism or representationism because the kind of vagueness or indeterminacy required clashes wth the phenomenology itself.

"Comparing the Major Theories of Consciousness", The Cognitive Neurosciences IV,  Michael Gazzaniga (ed.) MIT Press, 2009
Argues that the existence of the explanatory gap provides a reason to believe a biological account of consciousness rather than a global workspace account or a higher order account.

"Consciousness and Cognitive Access", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 108, Issue 1 pt 3 (October 2008), p. 289-317. 

"Consciousness, Accessibility and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 2007, 481-548.

How can we disentangle the neural basis of phenomenal consciousness from the neural machinery of the cognitive access that underlies reports of phenomenal consciousness?   We can see the problem in stark form if we ask how we could tell whether representations inside a Fodorian module are phenomenally conscious. The methodology would seem straightforward: find the neural natural kinds that are the basis of phenomenal consciousness in clear cases when subjects are completely confident and we have no reason to doubt their authority, and look to see whether those neural natural kinds exist within Fodorian modules.  But a puzzle arises: do we include the machinery underlying reportability within the neural natural kinds of the clear cases?  If the answer is ‘Yes’, then there can be no phenomenally conscious representations in Fodorian modules.  But how can we know the answer?  The suggested methodology requires an answer to the question it was supposed to answer! The paper argues for an abstract solution to the problem and exhibits a source of empirical data that is relevant, data that show that in a certain sense phenomenal consciousness overflows cognitive accessibility.  The paper argues that we can find a neural realizer of this overflow if assume that the neural basis of phenomenal consciousness does not include the neural basis of cognitive accessibility and that this assumption is justified (other things equal) by the explanations it allows.

"Wittgenstein and Qualia", Philosophical Perspectives, 21, 1, 2007: 73-115, edited by John Hawthorne. The version linked to here is a substantially revised version that is coming out in a volume edited by Maria Baghramian in honor of Hilary Putnam as part of Oxford University Press’s Mind Association Occasional Series
Wittgenstein (in notes published first in 1968) endorsed one kind of inverted spectrum hypothesis and rejected another. This paper argues that the kind of inverted spectrum hypothesis that Wittgenstein endorsed (the “innocuous” inverted spectrum hypothesis)  is the thin end of the wedge that precludes a Wittgensteinian critique of the kind of inverted spectrum hypothesis he rejected (the “dangerous” kind).  The danger of the dangerous kind is that it provides an argument for qualia, where qualia are (for the purposes of this paper) contents of experiential states that cannot be fully captured in natural language.  I will pinpoint the difference between the innocuous and dangerous scenarios that matters for the argument for qualia, give arguments in favor of the coherence and possibility of the dangerous scenario, and try to show that some standard arguments against inverted spectra are ineffective against the version of the dangerous scenario I will be advocating.  I will also agree with what I think is Wittgenstein’s position that the kind of inverted spectrum hypothesis he rejected lets qualia in the door.  At one crucial point, I will rely on a less controversial version of an argument I gave in Block (1999).  Wittgenstein’s views provide a convenient starting point for a paper that is much more about qualia than about Wittgenstein.

"Max Black’s Objection to Mind-Body Identity", in Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, II, edited by Dean Zimmerman with replies by John Perry and Stephen White, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 3-78.  White’s reply here.  Table of Contents here. Also in Torin Alter and Sven Walter (eds.), Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 2006, 249-306. 
The mind-body identity theorist says phenomenal property Q = brain property B. But in stating or thinking this identity claim, don’t we have to have a further, unreduced, phenomenal property that serves as a mode of presentation of Q? This paper argues that this suspicion underlies both Jackson’s Knowledge Argument and the famous glimpse of an argument that J. J. C. Smart ascribed to Max Black. The argument is presented, dissected and refuted.

"The Harder Problem of Consciousness", from The Journal of Philosophy XCIX, No. 8, August 2002, 1-35.