Contemporary philosophy of dreams
Contemporary philosophy of dreams
Philosophy of Dreams and Sleeping:
As is the case with all philosophy, difference between analytical and
phenomenological philosophy is clear.
The development of brain research and experimental psychology started
to provide challenges to philosophy of dreams and latest philosophy of
dreams is trying to find philosophical ways to discuss the results of
brain-research-orientated modern psychology.
The most important event in the philosophy of dreaming was Norman
Malcolm’s Dreaming (1959) which rejected traditional views. It was in
many ways counter-intuitive and received a lot of criticism.
In addition to discussing the essence of dreams, the topic of morality in
dreams and creativity in dreams have gained some attention.
Dream-argument: early 20th century views
The central problem in 20th century philosophy of dreams is related to Descartes’s
dream-argument. Some early 20th century reactions:
Henri Bergson (1859-1941)holds that contrary to waking life, dreams are a peculiar
union of memories and sensations, combined with the dreamer’s lack of will.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) argues that Descartes incorrectly suggests that dreams
occur as an apprehension of reality. For Sartre, the dream is more like the composing of a
story: ”The dreams is not fiction taken for reality, it is the odyssey of a consciousness
dedicated by itself, and in spite of itself, to build only an unreal world”
F. H. Bradley (1846-1924) is questioning whether the ”real” world is real. We assume
that the waking world is real because it is more rational and the wider and more
comprehensive of possible worlds and he accepts this assumption for practical purposes.
But philosophically we have no good reason to deny that there are other, more real
worlds that we might enter when dreaming.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) believes we have experiences in dreams, but that the sense
datea of these experiences are privata, having no objetive correlate, as opposed to the
public data of experiences in waking life.
It was common among analytic philosophers to think that it is useless to study dreams as
they cannot be verified by objective means (private sense-data), that is, dreams are not
experiences which can be shared. The phenomenologists, on the other hand, tried to
describe dreams as what they are, peculiar sort of expriences.
Norman Malcolm on dreams
Norman Malcolm (1911-1990) is the most influentical
(and controversial) analytic philosopher of dreams in
Malcolm was a student of Wittgenstein and he is
clearly influenced byWittgenstein’s later philosophy –
his approach is to study how language is used to
In the book Dreaming (1959) Malcolm opposes the
Cartesian dream argument.
Malcolm’s view was the paradigm view of the analytic
philosophy until 1970’s, but then he started to receive
a lot of criticism – a whole collection of articles called
Philosophical Essays on Dreaming, edited by Charles E.
M. Dunlop (1977) was published to critisize Malcolm.
Starting from Malcolm, there is a decline in the
interest to dreams – the reason for this is partly the
development of modern psychology and partly
because Malcolm’s devastative take on traditional
problems of philosophy of dreaming.
Malcolm’s criticism of the dream argument in a nutshell
Malcolm’s starting-point is the dream-
argument by Descartes. He thinks Descarte’s
argument, according to which one has
deceptive experiences while asleep, is
Following Russell, Malcolm argues that
dreams cannot be experiences, deceptive or
otherwise, because experiences require
awareness, that is, conscious experiences.
Furthermore, conscious experiences require
language (the capacity to declare ”I am having
this experience”), and the use of language
also shows that the speaker is awake and
therefore not dreaming. Thus there can be
only waking experiences.
Ergo: because dreams are not experiences
which can be shared, there is nothing
interesting in them and they are not worth
Malcolm’s challenge to traditional view
Malcolm’s most important influence in his criticism is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical
Investigations (1953) where he says
”…must I make some assumption about whether people [when telling their dreams] are
deceived by their memories or not; whether they really had these images while they slept,
or whether it merely seems so to them on waking? And what meaning has this question? –
And what interest? Do we ever ask ourselves this when someone is telling us his dreams?
And if not – is it because we are sure his memory won’t have deceived him? (And suppose it
were a man with a quite specially bad memory?)”
Malcolm’s article ’Dreaming and scepticism’ (Philosophical Review 65 (January):14-37
(1956))was the starting-point of the book Dreaming where he continues to elaborate the
argument in short chapters.
I will go through the basic arguments by following the presentation of Ben Spriggett
(http://www.iep.utm.edu/dreaming/#SH3b) and some other sources.
Spriggett divides Malcolm’s criticism into three arguments: 1) dream reports are
unveriable 2) sleep and dreaming have conflicting definitions 3) communication and
judgements cannot occur during sleep
One cannot verify dream reports
We cannot trust dream reports – they are insufficient to show that there is conscious dreaming taking place
during sleep. The dream reports are not the same as the dreams themselves, but there is no other way to
check the claim (of Descartes) that dreams are consciously experienced during sleep.
The most important criterion to tell us that we have been dreaming is that one awakes with an impression of
having dreamt (memory of dreaming) and then tells about the dream. However, there is no way to verify that
the memory actually corresponds with the conscious experience of seeing the dream. We can only believe
what the dream reports tell us.Therefore dreams are only grammatical illusions – they do not really exist.
The only way to verify the dream reports would be observe behavior during the sleep, but that is insufficient
to show that one is having a conscious experience in the sleeping state. In fact, it would not suffice to show
that there is any mental activity in the sleeping state.
In sum, one cannot claim ”I dreamed that I was flying” because that would mean that I had a conscious
experience in the dream that I was flying (I believed in the dream that I was flying). So we really cannot know
if we are dreaming during the sleep at all. Also, we cannot know how long the dream would take > dreaming
does not take place in space and time.
According to Malcolm, Descartes’s view is founded on the idea that when we remember dreams we recall the
same content of the earlier experience: ” Descartes thinks not only that a man might have thoughts and make
judgements while sleeping, but also that if those thoughts are clear and distinct they aretrue, regardless of
thefact that he is sleeping.” (Here he was wrong – Descartes is saying that our memories of the dreams is
fragmentary – he is not saying that we can recall the dream exactly; he is also not saying that we can have
conscious dreams; that is, make judgements – in that case the dreams would be coherent).
Sleep vs. dreaming
The Cartesian claim that dreams could
consciously occur during sleep is
incoherent or even contradictory.
Sleep is defined as lacking experiences;
dreams are said to involve conscious
This contradiction is seen when
verifying the dream reports: if one can
show that one is having a conscious
experience, one is not sleeping.
Objection: there is a storm and the
dreamer reports hearing thunder.
Malcolm: one was not fully asleep if
one was able to perceive the
environment. So Malcolm is referring
to being sound asleep by his concept
’sleeping’ where we do note what
happens around us.
Making judgements during sleep
For Malcolm, communication is required for verifying that the mental state has been
exprienced. This argument is related to two others – if we are making a judgement in
sleep that I am now flying (I believe that I am now flying) and communicate it to others, I
can show that I am having a conscious experience.
But I cannot say ”I am asleep” without the statement being false. If one talks in sleep and
says I am asleep, this is a co-incidence, not an assertion.
If the person was actually sleeping, then he would not be aware of saying the assertion.
And if he was aware of saying the assertion, he would not be sleeping. Thus Malcolm
concludes that communication between a sleeping individual and individuals who are
awake is logically impossible. Therefore Any talk about mental states that could occur
during sleep is meaningless.
Behind this view is Wittgenstein private language-argument – there cannot be a mental
state which only one individual could privately experience and understand.
And since men cannot communicate during sleep, they cannot make judgements in sleep.
One cannot judge that I am now sleeping. (compare lucid dreaming – for Malcolm that
would not be proper, sound sleeping).
In a way, Malcolm is continuing Locke’s argument: there cannot be thinking in dreams
like Descartes says.
Criticism of empiricist dream science
Malcolm discusses a study by Dement and Kleitman where they try to show that
people woken from a REM-dream could remember accurately the duration of
He thinks dream science has a wrong starting-point: ”The interest in a
physiological criterion of dreaming is due, I believe, to an error that
philosophers, psychologists and everyone who reflects on the nature of
dreaming that a dream must have a definite location and duration in physical
time.” (p. 75)
Even if dream is an event, it does not have to be in time and place in the
physical sense. The times and places in dreams are very obscure and they are
superadded to to events when people wake up (”just before”, ”right after”)
Sometimes there seems to be a time-structure, but this can be explained by
somatic reasons – for example, blanket is taken away would introduce ”then it
became very cold”.
A few quotes from Dreaming
p. 7 ”It would not occur to anyone to conclude that a man is sleeping from his
saying ’I am asleep’ any more than to conclude that he is unconscious from his
saying ’I am unconscious’, or to conclude that he is dead from his saying ’I am
dead’. He can say the words but he cannot assert that he is asleep, unconscious or
dead. If a man could assert that he is asleep, his assertion would involve a kind of
self-contradiction, since from the fact that he made the assertion it would follow
that it was false.”
p. 37 ”No physiological phenomena will be of any use as evidence that a man made
a judgement while asleep. If it were established, for example, that whenever a
person makes a judgement the electrical output of a certain region of his brain
rises or falls in some characteristic way, the occurence of this electric phenomenon
in a sleeping person would not provide any probability that the sleeper was making
a judgement.” (> compare Hobson – the content of dreams is irrelevant).
p. 51-52 ”If a man had certain thoughts and feelings in a dream it no more follows
that he had those thoughts and feelings while asleep, than it follows from his having
climbed a mountain in a dream ´that he climbed a mountain while asleep.”
Problems for Malcolm
To sum up, Malcolm thinks that what
we do when awake and when we are
sound asleep are two different things
and they cannot be compared. In sleep
we do not have the same experiences,
images, impression, thinking etc. as
Dreaming was thought to be a major
work, but it created a lot of opposition.
If its doctrines were taken for real,
philosophers should forget dreams
altogether. But they are a major part of
our lives – why should we not think
What are experiences?
For many who claim to have experiences in
dreams, Malcolm’s claims were simply
This is in fact included in the dream reports
where we run, chase, are having romantic
encounters etc. Are these not experiences?
In dream reports there can also be
conversations and their content is
remembered. In addition, there are strong
images related to these dream-images.
Thus one main counter-arguments is that
even if I am not able to communicate the
dreams to another person, that does not
mean that I am not having them. There are
even scientific evidence on behalf of this
Dream reports have also their problems. As we discussed in the beginning of the lecture series,
some are better at describing their experiences than others. Dunlop also objects that if there
are no states of consciousness in dreams, the dream reports are not descriptions of experiences
at all (as Malcolm seems to think they are). When we tell about the dreams, they usually seem
to concern experiences where we have been conscious (dialogue, for example).
Malcolm would reply perhaps that he is trying to say what dreams are not instead of saying
what they are. Malcolm would say that the question ”What is dreaming?” is simply
unintelligible. > Malcolm’sWittgensteinian background.
We can, of course, follow Malcolm’s advice and just quit: ”If we cease to ask why it is that
sometimes when people wake up they relate stories in the past tense under the influence of an
impression, then we will see dream-telling as it is – a remarkable human phenomenon, a part
of the natural history of man, something given, the foundation for the concept of dreaming.”
(Dreaming, p. 87) So dreams are like stories to be told (compare Sartre).
Another kind of objection is that one should not relate dreams with epistemology since
discussion about dreams is appropriate in the context of philosophy of mind (mental events,
mental function, mental content).
Putnam on the Conceptual Analysis of Dreaming
Hilary Putnam: “Dreaming and ‘Depth Grammar’,” in Butler (Eds.) Analytical
Philosophy Oxford: Basil & Blackwell, 1962.
According to Malcolm’s charge, supporters of the traditional view do not understand the
concept of dreaming. This was crucial for his attempt to undermine all empirical work
on dreaming. Instead of relying on an individual’s waking report scientists may now try
to infer from rapid eye movements or other physiological criteria that the individual is
asleep and dreaming. For Malcolm, these scientists are working from a new conception
of “sleep” and “dreaming” which only resembles the old one.
Putnam objects to Malcolm’s claim, stating that science updates our concepts and does
not replace them: the traditional view seeks confirmation in empirical work. In general,
concepts are always being updated by new empirical knowledge.
If Putnam’s attack is successful then the work that scientists are doing on dreaming is
about dreaming as the traditional view understands the concept, namely, conscious
experiences that occur during sleep. If Putnam is right that scientists are not invoking a
new conception of sleep and dreaming, then we can find other ways to verify our
understanding of dreaming and the traditional view is continuous with empirical work.
David Rosenthal & Consciousness
David Rosenthal: “Explaining Consciousness” in Philosophy of Mind: Classical
and Contemporary Readings, (eds) David Chalmers, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Distinction between ”creature consciousness” and ”state consciousness”: “Creature
consciousness” is what any individual or animal displays when awake and responsive to
external stimuli. “State consciousness,” on the other hand, refers to the mental state that
occurs when one has an experience. This may be either internally or externally driven.
Malcolm evidently thinks that any form of state consciousness requires some degree of
creature consciousness. But it does not seem to be conceptually confused to believe that
one can be responsive to internal stimuli (hence state conscious) without being
responsive to external stimuli (hence creature unconscious).
If, by “sleep” all we have meant is creature unconsciousness, then there is no reason to
believe that an individual cannot have state conscious at the same time. An individual can
be creature unconscious whilst having state consciousness, that is to say, an individual can
be asleep and dreaming.
Dennett: Are Dreams Experiences?
Most objections to Malcolm tend to
critisize his views rather than offer
alternative versions of philosophy of
dreaming. But there are a few.
The best known is Daniel Dennett in his
article ’Are Dreams Experiences?’(The
Philosophical Review, vol. 82, 2 (1976),
As we remember, the received view (the
traditional view) is that dreams are
experiences that occur during sleep,
experiences which we can often recall upon
waking. And Malcolm denies this. Dennett
is more or less defending the traditional
view with some new arguments while
agreeing with Malcolm in some points.
Dennett is trying to link philosophy of dreaming to the brain research: ”The most
scandalous conclusion that Malcolm attempted to draw from his analysis of the concept
of dreaming was to the effect the contemporary dream research by psychologists and
other scientists was conceptually confused, misguided, ultimately simply irrelevant to
dreaming” (p. 151; Malcolm p. 82).
His starting-point is to see how would the traditional view cope if it was seen from the
perspective of the modern scientific psychology.
First, it is clear that EEG patterns show that there are dreams during the sleep. (and
everyone has them). Dennett is optimistic that there are even some signs that in this
method there can be some understanding of the contents of the dreams [Hobson is more
careful in this respect]. ”…we might be able to predict from certain physiological events
observed during sleep that the subsequent dream reports would allude to, for example,
fear, falling from a height, eating something cold etc.” (p. 152)
Cassette-theory of Dennett
Dennett is interested in cases where the dream merges into the waking life (for
example, looking for a goat, finding one and the the Baa-aa-a of the goat
changes into the buzzing sound of the alarm clock.
Perhaps there is a library of dreams with various themes: ”Perhaps…dreams are
composed and presented very fast in the interval between bang, bump, or buzz
and full consciousness, with some short delay system postponing the full
”perception” of the noise in the dream until the presentation of the narrative is
ready for it. Or perhaps in that short interval dreams are composed, presented
and recorded backwards and them remembered front to back. Or perhaps there
is a ”library” in the brains of undreamed dreams with various indexed endings,
and the bang, or bump or buzz has the effect of retrieving an appropriate dream
and inserting it, cassette-like, in the memory mechanism.” (p. 158)
According to the cassette-theory, our pre-cognitive dreams are never dreamed
at all, but just spuriously recalled on waking.
Nature of experience
Dennett present one of these views as an
alternative to the traditional theory. If
that is right, ”dreams are not what we
took them to be – or perhaps we would
say that it turns out that there are not
dreams after all, only dream
”recollections”” (p. 158)
If the ”cassette-theory” is accepted, the
nature of experience would change.
Dream-recall is like déjá vu- it only
seems that I have experienced it before.
Once this is believed, it would no longer
seem as strongly that I am really recalling
the dream. I only have a feeling that I
have experienced something.
”Suppose we generalize the cassette theory to cover all dreams: all dream narratives are
composed directly into memory banks; which, if any, of these is available to waking
recollection depends on various factors – precedence of composition, topicality of waking
stimulus, degree of repression and so forth.” (p. 159-160)
If this is supposed, there is no representation. The dreams are just composed and showed.
Composition of dreams can take place during waking hours during a long time, even
before our birth.But more probable is that the composition takes place during the REMphase of the sleep where there is clearly a lot of brain activity.
The latter would be supported by that fact that often dreams include recent events, so
the composed dreams would have to change often.
Dennett’s explanation for lucid dreams: although the composition and recording
processes are entirely unconscious, on occasion the composition process inserts traces of
itself into the recording via the literary conceit of a dream within a dream.
Dennett thinks that this view can be challenge for the received view: it is compatible
with modern brain-research and avoids most of Malcolm’s criticism.
Cassette-theory and experience
The cassette-theorist would say that we do not
consciously experience our environment, but our
unconscious experiences are recorded for later
use (for short-term memory or composing
dreams, that is). (> compare Locke’s theory of
memory traces mixed together).
One can discuss whether these are experiences or
not and indeed it is not clear (on the basis of
sleep science) whether dreams are experiences at
all or not. If this recording is unconscious,
dreams would not be experiences.
Recurrent dreams – this would fit well to the
cassette-theory; but also in these cases the
process seems to be unconscious.
Deciding whether dreams are experiences or not
is a theoretical question and cannot be solved by
empirical data. Thus Dennett leaves the question
Problems for Dennett
Dennett takes the empirical view and does not really discuss the relation
between theoretical and empiral theories. Also, he does not allow experiences
to be conscious during sleeping, but he seems to accept it in the sense that there
Main problem: how to distinguish the cassette-theory from the traditional
theory? Dunlop: ”If ”the dream one ’recalls’ on waking was composed just
minutes earlier”, then we still have the question of how dream content managed
to merge with the waking stimulus…one possibility is that an environmental
stimulus can come to represent many different things as it is worked into dream
content.” (Dunlop (ed.), Philosophical Essays on Dreaming, p. 34-35)
Lucid dreaming: empirical tests by Stephen La Berge show that Dennett’s
explanation of lucid dreaming is not accurate – test persons were giving certain
eye-movement signs when they were having lucid dreaming and this worked in
most cases. Thus one can communicate without language contra Malcolm.
According to Paul and Patricia Churchland,terms like
belief, imagination, experience, desire and dream
belong to our everyday ”folk psychology”, which will
eventually be replaced by scientific neuropscyhology.
Thus the concept of dream will be eliminated by
science in the long run. Instead, we start thinking
about certain kind of brain activation or something
like that. The concept of dream is like the concept of
witch – it will belong to past times.
In a way this project comes to the same conclusion as
Malcolm – science should not be interested in
Against this one could say that dreams are subjective,
experienced events independently from whether they
are conscious experiences or not.
Norman Malcolm’s attack to traditional views was provocative and objecting his claims
seems to have taking strength from the philosophy of dreaming. After this discussion died
down in the end of 70’s, there are only a few new beginnings.
Sutton lists as reasons for the ongoing decline of philosophical studies in dreaming the
following: widespread suspicion of Freud, ongoing obsession with Cartesian doubt
(dream-argument), fragmentation and professionalition of the sciences of sleep
physiology (Hobson and his team etc.), which encouraged their divorce from the
psychology of dreaming, and the uneasiness about consciousness which long
characterized the cognitive sciences.
Sutton reflects that in addition the problem may just be the difficulty of the whole
enterprise. Integrated, multilevel theories of dreaming are unsusually hard to develop
because our access to the phenomena is unusually indirect, so that it is unusually difficult
to manipulate postulated mechanisms and identify the causally relevant components of
the dreaming mind or brain system.
Owen Flanagan is hoping for interdisciplinary studies for this reason and he has a larger
scale than Sutton: all kinds of different sciences can contribute to the philosophy of
Owen Flanagan’s Dreaming Souls
Flanagan’s monograph Dreaming Souls (2000) is
the only philosophical book on dreams so far to
utilize the empiral sleep science.
He says: ”My theory is neurophilosophical one. I
have tried to follow out the implications of
recent work in the sciences of the mind on the
nature and function of sleep and dreams while at
the same time trying to fit dreams into a general
philosophical theory of the conscious mind and
the nature of persons.” (p. 8)
Flanagan is especially interested in the function of
dreams with respect to consciousness and its
evolution. Thus he takes a fresh start from the
Flanagan adopts a holistic approach: he combines
the neuroscience to both analytical (development
of consciousness) and phenomenological
tradition (creativity in dreams).
Holistic theory of dreams
Flanagan is calling out for a holistic
theory of dreams in his natural method
”Anthropology, sociology, and social
psychology are also important in providing
a complete picture of dreams. This is
because the uses, if any, to which dreams
are put depend on local customs and
habits.” (p. 16-17)
”A robust theory of the nature and function
of dreams will need to bring into
equilibrium insights from philosophy,
phenomenology, neuroscience, psychology,
psychiatry, evolutionary biology, sociology,
and anthropology.” (p. 17)
Pluralist evolutionary view
In contrast to Hobson and his colleagues, Flanagan thinks that sleep and consciousness
are products of evolution.
Dreams, however, are not directly products of evolution, but consciousness during sleep
(dreaming) is merely an accident of nature, a side effect of sleep and consciousness.
”Can dreams fail to have an adaptationist evolutionary explanation but still make sense…and
thus worth attention in the process of seeking self-knowledge? The answer is yes.” (p. 25)
Thus for Flanagan, dreams do not really have any biological purpose per se, but they are
useful to human life all the same. They are a side-effect of adaptation that human beings
have learned to use in creative and helpful ways.
Dreams do matter, for they sometimes possess meaningful structure, are sometimes self-
expressive, and sometimes provide insights into one's own mind and one's relations with
others. Dreams reflect and reveal our inner selves in ways that waking thought and
behavior cannot. In dreams, we experience memories, thoughts and emotions that might
never come to the surface in waking life. Thus dreaming can be an important tool for
self-discovery and self-understanding.
Flanagan critisizes Freud in that dreams are not disguised signs, they have to be taken at
Flanagan’s physiological theory
According to Flanagan, brains work both during when we are awake and when we are
During sleep, the brain stocks up neurotransmitters that will be used the next day. By
accident, pulses that originate from this stockpiling chore (coming from the brain stem)
also reactivate more or less random parts of memory. Unaware that the body is actually
sleeping, the sensory circuits of the cerebral cortex process these signals as if they were
coming from outside and produce a chaotic flow of sensations. With an analogy from
architecture Flanagan show that dreams are just the noise the brain makes while working
Dreams can be compared to heartbeat which does not really have a biological function.
Like Malcolm, Flanagan seems to think that dreams are pointless from the point of view
of science.They are just redundant effects of brain activity. In this sense Flanagan
continues the doctrine of Locke where dreams are a product of waking state activity.
Contra modern neurophysiological view by Hobson, where dreams are seen to fullfill a
purpose of restoring the brains for the waking state, Flanagan sees them as just noise,
Objection by Revonsuo
Antti Revonsuo: “The Reinterpretation of Dreams: An Evolutionary Hypothesis of
the Function of Dreaming,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (2000), pp. 793 – 1121. )
Flanagan’s view is opposed by Antti Revonsuo who thinks that dream is an adaptation.
His threat simulation theory argues that dreams fulfill a practicing purpose in human life
– we practice for difficult situtations in waking life.
According to Revonsuo, the actual content of dreams is helpful to the survival of the
organism because dreaming enchances behaviors in waking life such as perceiving and
avoiding threat. This requires that dreaming is similar to waking life and is experienced as
waking life at the time of the dream.
Threat simulation theory is well supported by empirical tests – during REM-phase
anxiety is the most common emotion and anger third.
Flanagan answers by asking why animal-like instincts have to be continually rehearsed by
humans, but Revonsuo is emphasizing that the instinct rehearsal concerns animals (like
lab-rats). Flanagan also objects Revonsuo in arguing that if the instinct-like rehearsal is
important, why is there so few sexual dreams? Revonsuo says that survival dominates
Creativity and dreams
Dreams are wellsprings of creativity.
This because dreams are produced by
activity originating in the brainstem
that awakens stored or semi-stored
thoughts and memories that are then
put into some sort of narrative
structure by higher brain sectors that
are designed to make sense of
experience by light of day, but continue
to work, less efficiently, when the lights
While dreams sometimes don't mean
much of anything, the images and
memories activated in our sleep are our
own, and it is we ourselves who give
them narrative shape.
Dreams and self-expression
Since the content of our dreams comes primarily from within, dreaming is in
some sense the purest form of self-expressive action. Thus some dreams are
Self-expression is not directly related to personal identity. According to
Flanagan, “it is perfectly plausible that I might dream about flying to the moon
without that desire’s being a strong, central, or standing desire of mine –
perhaps without its being a desire I possess at all, just mere noise.” (p. 134)
Rather, self is conscious fiction (compare autobiography) whereas in dreams
associations are free and uncontrolled.
While many dreams are just noise, some dreams are meaningful, interpretable
and self-expressive. Although Flanagan does not agree with Freud, some dreams
can be difficult to interpret (which is in fact why they can promote our
Morality & Dreams
St. Augustine thought that dreams are happenings, not actions and one is not responsible
for involuntary thoughts in dreams.
Flanagan tends to say that only behavior can be seen as morally problematic. It does not
make much difference whether a morally evil is voluntary or involontary. This view
would avoid excessive moralism. Problem is that I can commit evil actions if no one
Flanagan thinks that dreams can be volontary. It is common to try to continue a nice
dream or stop an unpleasant dream. But there may be problems. Flanagan tells about his
pleasant dream involving Marilyn Monroe which he could continue by will. Problem is,
while it was pleasant, it also involved a notional adultery.
This kind of one’s influence to one’s dreams takes place in lucid dreaming. Certain
people can actually work on plot revisions as the dream occurs and the action unfolds.
Therefore lucid dreams are robustly voluntary.
Voluntariness marks a moral accountability or moral evaluation. Thus, we can be
immoral in dreams.
In addition, there can be morally
objectionable states of mind like hatred,
jealousy, anger etc. These can be
influenced indirectly, by developing
one’s character (comp. Plato &
Augustine), work on oneself and these
Thus, “if dreams express aspects of my
personality or character that I helped
form or could have worked to
transform, then don’t I bear some
responsibility for my dreams? I think
the answer is “yes”.” (p. 182)
John Sutton on dreaming
Sutton: ‘Dreaming’ (https://www.academia.edu/313903/Dreaming)
In his encyclopedia-article, Sutton presents the latest psychological theories on
dreaming. He also calls for original new viewpoints, of which he mentions the learning
in dream-theory of David Foulkes.
Sutton asks good questions, of which I mention here two:
1) Do individually and culturally variable beliefs about dreaming only influence dream
reports, or is the form of dreams themselves in certain aspects also malleable? In other
words: do cultural differences influence the content of dreams? In philosophical accounts
this is not usually thought to be a problem. Sometimes the age of the dreamer can be an
issue or the quality of memory, but not ethnical or racial background. Would need more
2) Most broadly, is dreaming a quasi-perceptual hallucination or an imaginative construct?
Sutton’s other question gives the dividing-lines between analytic and phenomenological
approach which he reflects a bit.
Sutton on perceptual and imaginative approach to
John Sutton asks: How clear a consensus can
we obtain about the details of the
phenomenology of dreaming? How good is
our access to our own experience? And of
course, how well can we remember our
dreams? Sutton argues (p. 538) that the
imaginative dreaming has even more gaps
and is more fragmentary that the perceptual
According to some experiments by Foulkes,
only a small number of dreams were
experienced in a “see-oneself-mode” where
“I” is the one who wittnesses or experiences.
Often in dreams we see images from other
person’s point of view (‘field memories’ vs.
‘observer memories’). These perspectives
can often change during the dream,
especially in lucid dreaming. As we saw, lucid
dreaming can be learned which enables us to
change viewpoints at will.
Dreaming as hallucination/perception
In psychological litterature dreams are thought to be hallucinations (> Descartes). As the
content of a dream reveals, we are always on the move. Apart from the bodily paralysis,
physiologically the body acts as though it perceives a real world, and continually reacting
to events in that apparently real world.The claim that dreams are hallucinations can find
support in the further claim that dreaming replicates waking consciousness.
Empirical evidence suggests that pain can be experienced in dreams, which is perceptual
in nature and which the imagination can arguably not replicate. So dreams must be
hallucinatory, according to this line of reasoning.
We seem to have real emotions during dreams which are the natural reaction to our
perceptions. According to the percept view of dreams, we dream that we are carrying
actions out in an environment, but our accompanying emotions are not dreamed and
play out alongside the rest of the dream content. The intensity of the emotions, actually
felt, is what the percept theorist will take as support for the content of the dream not
being merely imagined, but the natural response of realistic, perceptual-like experience.
Dreaming as imagination
Some philosophers (Ichikawa, Sosa, McGinn) believe that dreaming is just the imagination at work
during sleep (> Aristotle, Hobbes). Any conscious experiences during sleep are imagistic rather
McGinn: The Observational Attitude: if we are perceiving (or hallucinating), say, two individuals
having a conversation then we might need to strain our senses to hear or see what they are
discussing. During dreams of course, the body is completely relaxed and the sleeping individual
shows no interest in his or her surroundings.
Dreaming is the natural instance of shutting out all of our sensory awareness of the outside world,
arguably to entirely engage the imagination. This suggests that the dreamer is hearing with their
mind’s ear and seeing with their mind’s eye. They are entertaining images, not percepts.
Recognition in dreams. In dreams we seem to already know who all of the characters are, without
making any effort to find out who they are (without using any of our senses). This might suggest
that in dreams we are partly in control of the content (even if we fail to realize it) because we
allegedly summon up the characters that we want to. We recognize who dream characters are, such
as relatives, even when they look drastically different.
Revonsuo on modelling dreams
Revonsuo: Inner Presence (2006)
Visual awareness has been used as the model
system in consciousness research. Revonsuo
argues that dreaming should also have a
place alongside visual awareness, as a special
instance of consciousness and therefore a
worthy model to be studied. The dreaming
brain also captures consciousness in a
“theoretically interesting form”.
Agreeing with Hobbes and Locke, Revonsuo
argues that dreaming is an unusually rare
example of “pure” consciousness, being as it
is devoid of ongoing perceptual input and
therefore might deserve special status in
being scientifically investigated.
Lucid dreams are an exception, but they are
Dreaming as pure conscious experience
But it is clear that subjectivity is pure in dreams. They reveal the especially subjective nature of
consciousness: the creation of a “world-for-me”. Thus there is a phenomenological aspect to
them – one can see here an attempt to combine the analytical and phenomenological approach
Modelling dreaming can also help brain research. During dreaming the phenomenology is
demonstrably not ontologically dependent on any process missing during dreaming. Any parts
of the brain not used in dreaming can be ruled out as not being necessary to phenomenal
Malcolm had argued that dreaming was worthy of no further empirical work for the notion
was simply incoherent, and Dennett was sceptical that dreams would turn out to even involve
consciousness. The radical proposal now is that dreaming ought to be championed as an
example of conscious experience, a mascot for scientific investigation in consciousness studies.
It is alleged that dreams can recapitulate any experience from waking life and for this reason
Revonsuo concludes that the same physical or neural realization of consciousness is
instantiated in both examples of dreaming and waking experience.
A dream of a dream? Despite suggestions from Revonsuo and others, dreaming being used as a
model has simply not yet taken place. But his book is fairly new.
An alternative view on dreaming and
Windt, J. M., & Noreika, V. “How to Integrate Dreaming into a General Theory
of Consciousness—A Critical Review of Existing Positions and Suggestions for Future
Research,” Consciousness and Cognition, 20(4) (2011), pp. 1091 – 1107.
Windt & Noreika reject dreaming as a model system but suggest it will work better as a
contrast system to wakefulness. This is because there are many views on dreams, but
wakefullness is pretty self-explanatory. In addition, Scientists do not even directly work
with dreams themselves, but rather descriptions of dreams.
Revonsuo simply assumes his conception of dreaming is correct. He believes that
dreaming can be a model of waking consciousness because dreams can be identical
replicas of waking consciousness involving all possible experiences. Windt & Noreika
believe that dreams tend to be different to waking life in important ways (compare
analytical vs. phenomenological approach) > Windt & Noreika have similar suspicions as
A modest approach
The contrast analysis does not ignore dreaming, but proposes a more modest approach.
With research divided between waking consciousness, dreaming and a comparison of the
two states, this more practical approach will yield better results, argue Windt and
By using the proposed method, we can see how consciousness works both with and
without environmental input. Both are equally important. After all, both are genuine
examples of consciousness.
This approach also means that the outcome will be mutually informative as regards the
two types of consciousness with insights gained in both directions. It is important to
compare dreaming as an important example of consciousness operating with radically
changed neural processing to waking consciousness.
With the contrastive analysis there is the prospect of comparing dream consciousness to
both pathological and non-pathology waking states, and there is thereby the promise of
better understanding how waking consciousness works and how it can also malfunction.
views on dreaming
Prelude: Marcel Proust: Rememberance of Things Past 2,
p. 1013-1014 – dreaming life is very different from
“Perhaps every night we accept the risk of experiencing,
while we are asleep, sufferings which we regard as null
and void because they will be felt in the course of a sleep
which we suppose to be unconscious.”
”[sleep] has noises of its own…the time that elapses for
the sleeper, during these spells of slumber, is absolutely
different from the time in which the life of the waking
man is passed.”
”From these profound slumbers we awake in a dawn,
not knowing who we are, being nobody, newly born,
ready for anything, the brain emptied of that past which
was life until then.”
Husserl: World as a dream
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) continued the
Descartes’s scepticism provided a model of how
to suspend our natural commitment to our
epistemic beliefs in order to bring to light the
fundamental features at work in belief as such.
Descartes’s hyperbolic doubt which puts in
question the very existence of the world is
the most radical of these forms of
suspension of belief.
Similarly, for Husserl, phenomenology must be
able to cope with the most radical denial of
the world, with the challenge of the most
radical hyperbolic doubt which sees the
whole world as a dream or even as nonexistent, what Husserl calls ‘empty seeming’
or the ‘nullifying illusion’(Phänomenologie
des nichtigen Scheins).
Surrealists and dadaists
The surrealists and dadaists were consciously using
the characteristics of dreams (such as irregularity,
unpredictability, space-time discontinuity) in the
theoretical writings and artistic experiments.
Andre Breton’s Manifesto (1924) argues that dreams
are more intersting than waking life and one can
express oneself more freely when dreaming:
”Within the bounds in which they operate (or are
thought to operate), dreams, to all appearances, are
continuous and show signs of order.”
“When will there be sleeping logicians, sleeping
“Can the dream not also be applied to the solution of
life’s fundamental questions?”
“They say that every evening, before he slept, Saint-PolRoux (the Symbolist poet) used to have posted on the
door of his manor house at Camaret, a notice which
read: POET AT WORK.”
A similar view of dreams as free
expression was maintained by Jean-Paul
Sartre (1905-1980) in his L’imaginaire
Against Descartes, Sartre argued that
unlike perceptions, dreams are
associated with a special type of ”belief ”
or ”fascination without existential
Dreams are adventures like stories in
novels, close to consciousness without
an essential relation to reality.
”The dream is not fiction taken for reality,
it is the Odyssey of a consciousness
dedicated by itself, and in spite of itself, to
build only an unreal world.”
Merleau-Ponty on temporality in dreams
In Le problem de la passivite Maurice
Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) discusses
the time in dreams in a little same way
“The dream is not an act circumscribed
temporally. Hence, the ubiquity of the
dream, thanks to [its] symbolic matrices.
But it is also trans-temporal. Awakened
consciousness entails the time of
consciousness and the time of its object .
Oneiric consciousness … does not contain
this cleavage. Concerning a dream, the
question arises whether it is meaningful to
say: it began at such a moment and finished
at such a moment.”
Binswanger and Foucault on dreams and
Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966) was a Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of existential
In 1928 Wandlungen in der Auffassung und Deutung des Traumes (Transformations in the view and
interpretation of the dream) was issued and in 1930 Binswanger published a short treatise Traum und
Existenz (Dream and existence).
Binswanger was an important early influence to Michel Foucault (1926-1984) In an introduction to
Binswager’s Dream and Existence, in an essay “Dream, Imagination, and Existence” (1952) Foucault
thinks that Binswanger’s existential-psychological prioritizing of dreams is justified and completed
in the two-fold operation of first prioritizing the imagination over perception, and then founding
the imagination in dreams. We can only regain the rigorous goals of phenomenology if we recognize
that dreams, rather than being an effect of the imagination, are the source of the imagination.
Moreover, since dreams have a symbolic structure of their own, by analyzing dreams we analyze the
fundamental structures of perception.
However, the Malcolmian problem occurs: once Foucault has paired ontology with an investigation
of the imagination through dream analysis, however, he has eliminated the possibility of the
description and adequation of the contents of consciousness. The image, created in reflection and
recollection, does not present us with truth, rather it isolates us from the expressive authenticity of
the structured associations of the imagination. For truth we must turn to poetry, art, and the
imaginative play of the id.
Some postmodernist thinkers like Jean
Baudrillard (1929-2007) have argued that
reality has disappeared – there are only
fleeting images which make up a dream-like
hyperreality: neon-lights, tv-screens, social
media, movies, videos, computer games etc.
This can also be experienced in virtual
reality where our perceptions are produced
by computers and we live in synthetic
However, these takes place when we are
awake – the dream is produced artificially.
Ilkka Niiniluoto has reformulated the
Cartesian question: how do we know
whether we are just living in the real world
or in virtual reality?
Wolfson: A Dream Interpreted
Within A Dream
“In A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream, Elliot
Wolfson guides the reader through
contemporary philosophical and scientific
models to the archaic wisdom that the dream
state and waking reality are on an equal
phenomenal footing--that the phenomenal
world is the dream from which one must
awaken by waking to the dream that one is
merely dreaming that one is awake. Wolfson
draws on psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and
neuroscience to elucidate the phenomenon of
dreaming in a vast array of biblical, rabbinic,
philosophical, and kabbalistic texts. To
understand the dream, Wolfson writes, it is
necessary to embrace the paradox of the
fictional truth--a truth whose authenticity can
be gauged only from the standpoint of its
Malcolm and phenomenology
Windt and Metzinger in their paper ’The Philosophy of Dreaming and Self-
Consciousness: What Happens to the Experiential Subject during the Dream State?’
(2007) have tried to answer Malcolm from the phenomenological point of view.
They argue that from a purely phenomenological point of view, dreams are simply the
presence of the world. On the level of subjective experience, the dream world is
experienced as respresenting the here and now. And even though it is a model
constructed by the dreaming brain, it is not recognized as a model, but is experienced as
reality itself. In philosophical terms, the reality-model created by the dreaming brain is
phenomenally transparent: the fact that it is a model is invisible to the experiential
subject. (p. 3)
Dreams are very complex, not only fairytale stories as Malcolm argues. Dreams
integrate several different types of imagery into a complex, multimodal, and sequentially
organized model of the world (p. 4).
They highlight lucid dreaming which gives a full phenomenal world. At the same time, it
is conscious of itself, it realizes that it is, so to speak, in a vat.
Ethics of dreaming
We have already seen that St. Augustine
was concerned about sinful sexual
thoughts in dreams. His views were in
some respect shared by Owen Flanagan
in Dreaming Souls.
Are we morally responsible for our
actions in dreams?
Are we morally obliged to not entertain
certain thoughts, even if these thoughts
do not affect our later actions and do
not harm others?
Consequentialism vs deontologism
Empirical question for a consequentialist: are dreams, fantasies and video games are really without
behavioural consequence towards others? (Driver: dreams do have consequences, but it is a
different matter whether they can be evaluated ethically; one has to produce good systematically in
order one’s actions to be ethical – dream actions do not do this.)
Consequentialist theories may well argue that, provided that dreams really do not affect my
behaviour later, it is not morally wrong to “harm” other dream characters, even in lucid dreaming.
Deontological theories, in stark contrast to Consequential theories, believe that we have obligations
to act and think, or not act and think, in certain ways regardless of effects on other people.
According to Deontological moral theories, I have a duty to never entertain certain thoughts
because it is wrong in itself. Deontological theories see individuals as more important than mere
consequences of action.
Since dreams are often actually about real people, I am not treating that individual as an end-initself if I chose to harm their “dream representative”. The basic Deontological maxim to treat
someone as an end rather than a means to my entertainment can apply to dreams.
Julia Driver: ‘Dream Immorality’, Philosophy 82 (2007), pp. 5- 22 – supports consequentialism (in
her terms externalism in contrast to internalism)
Virtue ethics on dreaming
Follows the ancient/Augustinian view of developing one’s moral character.
This moral approach considers an individual for his or her overall life, how to make it a good one
and develop that individual’s character.
The question “can we have immoral dreams?” needs to be opened up to: “what can I get out of
dreaming to help me acquire virtuousness?”
Has also a Freudian trait as dreams arguably put us in touch with our unconscious and indirectly tell
us about our motives and habits in life (compare Flanagan)
In order to achieve happiness, fulfilment and developing virtuousness we owe it to ourselves to
recall and pay attention to our dreams.
Certain changes people make in waking life do eventually “show up” in dreams. Dreams, as
unconsciously instantiated, capture patterns of thought from waking life.
Emphasis on lucid dreaming - new modes of thinking can be introduced and this is the process by
which people learn to lucid dream. By periodically introducing thoughts about whether one is
awake or not during the day, every day for some period of time, this pattern of thinking eventually
occurs in dreams. By constantly asking “am I awake?” in the day it becomes more likely to ask
oneself in a dream, to realize that one is not awake and answer in the negative. Lucid dreaming
invokes our ability to make choices, often to the same extent as in waking life.
Future of philosophy of dreaming?
Christopher Dreisbach (’Dreams in the
History of Philosophy’, Dreaming 10, 1
(2000)) distinguishes three ways to pursue
philosophical study of dreaming:
1) Historical // we can set the past views on
dreaming into context with the help of
other disciplines and examine
contemporary thought about dreams in
light of those developments.
2) Regard dreams in the context of main areas
of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology,
ethics, aesthetics, logic). Possible topics in
metaphysics are, for example, whether God
reveals himself in dreams, dream characters
have minds, the dream world constitutes its
own universe, dream characters have
substance . In logic one could research
3) Dreaming can be researched by co-operation of various discplines such as
pscyhology, anthropolgy, theology, art and philosophy.
Four basic questions to all disciplines concerning dreaming:
a) What is the source of a dream? Is it the self or outside the self? If the self, is it the
mind? The brain? The spirit? If it is outside self, is it God? Other minds or spirits?
(cf. Rosen & Sutton, ’Self-representation and Perspectives in Dreams’, Philosophy
Compass 8/11 (2003), 1041-1053)
b) What is the location of a dream? Is it the mind or brain? Is there a dream world
to which the dreamer or part of the dreamer travels during the dream?
c) What about the content of the dream? What is the stuff of dreams? Is it physical?
Mental? What about the veracity of dreams? Are they real or ﬁction? How do
dreams differ from waking life?
d) What about the value of dreams? Do they have practical value, as many
psychotherapists argue? Do they have moral or aesthetic value?