Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Peter Godfrey-Smith

Committee Members

Ned Block

Eric Mandelbaum

David Papineau

Jesse Prinz

Subject Categories

Cognition and Perception | Philosophy | Philosophy of Mind


Memory, Perception, Working Memory, Conceptual Short-Term Memory, Animal Cognition


Dissertation Abstract: Consciousness, Perception, and Short-Term Memory

When we engage in almost any perceptual activity – recognizing a face, listening out for a phone-call, or simply taking in a sunset – information must be briefly stored and processed in some form of short-term memory. For philosophers attempting to develop an empirically grounded account of perception and conscious experience, it is therefore crucial to engage with scientific theories of the kinds of short-term memory mechanisms that underlie our moment-to-moment retention of information about the world. To that end, in this dissertation I review recent scientific evidence for a new form of rapid but transitory memory, dubbed Conceptual Short-Term Memory (CSTM), and show how it may constitute an important missing piece in philosophical debates about the mind.

I begin in the first chapter by providing some background on past psychological work on short-term memory and the influence this work has had on the philosophy of mind. In the second chapter, I present the evidence for CSTM, and argue that it has a number of important features that make it of philosophical interest. In particular, I note that it seems to sit at the border of strictly perceptual processes and higher-level cognition, encoding incoming information quickly, effortlessly, but fleetingly in terms of basic-level concepts like ‘dog’, ‘car’, or ‘painting’.

In the following chapters, I examine in more detail how CSTM might be usefully applied to three specific debates. First, I argue that CSTM may allow us to give a powerful account of categorical perception or ‘perceiving-as’, explaining how our perceptual experience comes to be infused with awareness of the categorical identities of the things we perceive. I argue that this account could shed light on questions about how cognition can affect perceptual experience. Second, I offer a new account of consciousness that I term the Workspace-Plus account, claiming that a short-term conceptual buffer such as CSTM may serve as the constitutive basis for perceptual experience independent of higher-level cognitive mechanisms. Finally, developing this suggestion, I turn to broader questions about the evolutionary function of consciousness and its place in nature. I suggest that if we identify perceptual experience with the process of perceptual categorization mediated by a conceptual buffer like CSTM, we can offer an independently appealing account of the psychological role of consciousness, and begin to make informed inferences about the presence of subjective experience in animals. I close by examining how this account can be applied to a crucial debate at the intersection of ethics and the philosophy of mind, namely the question of how we identify experiences of suffering in animals.