(1) On Weasel-Words Like “Conscious” & (2) On Word-Use, Symbol Grounding, and Wittgenstein


ANON:  “Would you say that consciousness is the set of all feelings that pertain to mental states, some of which can be felt and others not? And of the states that can be felt, some are not felt and others are, the latter being conscious? In general: that there are mental states, some of which are conscious and others not?”


Cognition is the set of all cognitive capacities. Most of those capacities are capacities to DO things (remember, learn, speak). Some (but far from all) of those capacities are FELT, so the capacity to FEEL, too, is part of cognition.

“Consciousness” is a “state that it feels like something to be in”, i.e., a felt state.  A state that is not felt is not a conscious state. There are many weasel-words for this, each giving the impression that one is saying something further, whereas it can always be shown that they introduce either uninformative tautology or self-contradictory nonsense. To see this ultra-clearly, all one need do is replace the weasel-words (which include “mind,” “mental,” “conscious”, “aware”, “subjective”, “experience”, “qualia”, etc.)  by the straightforward f-words (in their adjective, noun, or verb forms):

consciousness is the set of all feelings that pertain to mental states, some of which can be felt and others not?”


feeling is the set of all feelings that pertain to felt states, some of which can be felt and others not?


“[O]f the states that can be felt, some are not felt and others are [felt], the latter being conscious? In general: that there are mental states, some of which are conscious and others not [felt]”


Of the states that can be felt, some are not felt and others are [felt], the latter being felt? In general: that there are felt states, some of which are felt and others not [felt]?

There is one non-weasel synonym for “feeling” and “felt” that one can use to speak of entities that are or are not capable of feeling, and that are or not currently in a felt state, or to speak of a state, in an entity, that is not a felt state, and may even co-occur with a felt state. 

That non-weasel word is sentient (and sentience). That word is needed to disambiguate “feeling” when one speaks of a “feeling” organism that is not currently in a felt state, or that is in a felt state but also in many, many simultaneous unfelt states at the same time (as sentient organisms, awake and asleep, always are, e.g., currently feeling acute pain, but not feeling an ongoing chronic muscle spasm or acute hypoglycemia or covid immunopositivity, or even that they currently slowing for a yellow traffic light).


ANON: “Sensorimotor grounding is crucial, for many reasons. Wittgenstein provides reasons that are less discussed, probably because they require taking a step back from the usual presuppositions of cognitive science.”


Wittgenstein: “For a large class of cases–though not for all–in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

Correction: “For a small class of cases [“function words” 1-5%]–though not for most [“content words”95-99%]–in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

Wikipedia definition of content and function words: Content words, in linguistics, are words that possess semantic content and contribute to the meaning of the sentence in which they occur. In a traditional approach, nouns were said to name objects and other entities, lexical verbs to indicate actions, adjectives to refer to attributes of entities, and adverbs to attributes of actions. They contrast with function words, which have very little substantive meaning and primarily denote grammatical relationships between content words, such as prepositions (in, out, under etc.), pronouns (I, you, he, who etc.) and conjunctions (and, but, till, as etc.)”.[1]

Direct Sensorimotor learning (and then naming) of categories is necessary to ground the “use” of category names in subject/predicate propositions, with meanings and truth values (T & F). Propositions (with the subject being a new, not yet grounded category name, and the predicate being a list of features that are already grounded category names for both the Speaker and the Hearer) can then be “used” to ground the new category indirectly, through words.

Blondin-Massé, Alexandre; Harnad, Stevan; Picard, Olivier; and St-Louis, Bernard (2013) Symbol Grounding and the Origin of Language: From Show to Tell. In, Lefebvre, Claire; Cohen, Henri; and Comrie, Bernard (eds.) New Perspectives on the Origins of Language. Benjamin

Harnad, S. (2021). On the (Too) Many Faces of ConsciousnessJournal of Consciousness Studies28(7-8), 61-66.

Pérez-Gay Juárez, F., Sicotte, T., Thériault, C., & Harnad, S. (2019). Category learning can alter perception and its neural correlates. PloS one14(12), e0226000.

Thériault, C., Pérez-Gay, F., Rivas, D., & Harnad, S. (2018). Learning-induced categorical perception in a neural network modelarXiv preprint arXiv:1805.04567.

Vincent-Lamarre, Philippe., Blondin Massé, Alexandre, Lopes, Marcus, Lord, Mèlanie, Marcotte, Odile, & Harnad, Stevan (2016). The Latent Structure of Dictionaries.  TopiCS in Cognitive Science  8(3) 625–659  

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