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Philosophy of Dreams and Sleeping:

Contemporary philosophy

Markku Roinila

Some guidelines
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-researchorientated modern psychology.
The most important event in the philosophy of dreaming was
Norman Malcolms 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

The central problem in 20th century philosophy of dreams is related to Descartess

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 dreamers 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
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 20th century.
Malcolm was a student of Wittgenstein and he is
clearly influenced by Wittgensteins later
philosophy his approach is to study how language
is used to describe events.
In the book Dreaming (1959) Malcolm opposes the
Cartesian dream argument.
Malcolms view was the paradigm view of the
analytic philosophy until 1970s, 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 Malcolms devastative take on traditional
problems of philosophy of dreaming.

Malcolms criticism of the dream argument in a

Malcolms starting-point is the dream-

argument by Descartes. He thinks

Descartes argument, according to which
one has deceptive experiences while
asleep, is senseless.
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
Ergo: because dreams are not
experiences which can be shared, there
is nothing interesting in them and they
are not worth studying.

Malcolms challenge to traditional

Malcolms most important influence in his criticism is Wittgensteins

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 wont have deceived him? (And
suppose it were a man with a quite specially bad memory?)
Malcolms 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 ( and some other
Spriggett divides Malcolms 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

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, Descartess 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


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 experience.
This contradiction is seen when
verifying the dream reports: if one
can show that one is having a
conscious experience, one is not
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


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
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 Lockes argument: there cannot be thinking in
dreams like Descartes says.

Criticism of empiricist dream

Malcolm discusses a study by Dement and Kleitman

where they try to show that people woken from a REMdream could remember accurately the duration of the
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
Sometimes there seems to be a time-structure, but this
can be explained by somatic reasons for example,

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
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
when awake.
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 about them?

What are experiences?

For many who claim to have

experiences in dreams,
Malcolms claims were simply
This is in fact included in the

dream reports where we run,

chase, are having romantic
encounters etc. Are these not
In dream reports there can also

be conversations and their

content is remembered. In
addition, there are strong
images related to these dreamimages.
Thus one main counter-

arguments is that even if I am

not able to communicate the

More problems
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
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. > Malcolms
Wittgensteinian background.
We can, of course, follow Malcolms 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

Putnam on the Conceptual Analysis of

Hilary Putnam: Dreaming and Depth Grammar, in Butler

(Eds.) Analytical PhilosophyOxford: Basil & Blackwell, 1962.

According to Malcolms 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 individuals 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 Malcolms 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
If Putnams attack is successful then the work that scientists

are doing on dreaming is about dreaming as the traditional

David Rosenthal &

David Rosenthal: Explaining Consciousness in Philosophy of

Mind: Classical andContemporary 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
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

Dennett: Are Dreams

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), 151-171.
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

Dennetts approach
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

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:
Perhapsdreams 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)

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 dj vuit only seems that I have
experienced it before.
Once this is believed, it
would no longer seem as

A generalization
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 REM-phase 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.
Dennetts 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

Cassette-theory and
The cassette-theorist would say

that we do not consciously

experience our environment, but
our unconscious experiences are
recorded for later use (for shortterm memory or composing
dreams, that is). (> compare
Lockes 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

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 are dreams.
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 stimulusone
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 Dennetts explanation of lucid dreaming is not
accurate test persons were giving certain eye-

Eliminative materialism
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
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 dreams.
Against this one could say that

dreams are subjective, experienced

events independently from whether
they are conscious experiences or not.

After Malcolm
Norman Malcolms 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 70s, 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 (dreamargument), 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

Owen Flanagans Dreaming

Flanagans monograph Dreaming

Souls (2000) is the only

philosophical book on dreams so
far to utilize the empiral sleep
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 Malcolm-orientated problems.
Flanagan adopts a holistic

Holistic theory of holistic

theory of dreams in

Flanagan is calling out for a

his natural method of

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,
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 senseand 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

Flanagans physiological
According to Flanagan, brains work both during when we are

awake and when we are sleeping.

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 overnight.
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.

Objection by Revonsuo
Antti Revonsuo: The Reinterpretation of Dreams: An

Evolutionary Hypothesis of theFunction of Dreaming,

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (2000), pp. 793 1121. )
Flanagans 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

Dreams are wellsprings of

creativity. This because

Creativity and dreams

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
go out.
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 selfexpressive.
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
desires 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
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

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 notices them.
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 ones influence to ones 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

Indirect approach
In addition, there can be

morally objectionable states

of mind like hatred,
jealousy, anger etc. These
can be influenced indirectly,
by developing ones
character (comp. Plato &
Augustine), work on oneself
and these character traits.
Thus, if dreams express

aspects of my personality or
character that I helped form
or could have worked to
transform, then dont I bear
some responsibility for my
dreams? I think the answer
is yes. (p. 182)

John Sutton on dreaming

Sutton: 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 dreamtheory 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 study.
2) Most broadly, is dreaming a quasi-perceptual hallucination or
an imaginative construct?
Suttons other question gives the dividing-lines between analytic

Sutton on perceptual and imaginative approach

to dreaming
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 view.
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
persons point of view (field
memories vs. observer

Dreaming as
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

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 than
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
minds ear and seeing with their minds 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

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

Dreaming as pure conscious

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 to dreaming.
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 consciousness.
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

An alternative view on dreaming and

Windt, J. M., & Noreika, V. How to Integrate Dreaming into a

General Theory ofConsciousnessA 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 Malcolm.

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
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
With the contrastive analysis there is the prospect of

comparing dream consciousness to both pathological and non-

views on dreaming Prelude: Marcel Proust:

Rememberance of Things Past 2, p.

1013-1014 dreaming life is very
different from waking life.
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 ownthe 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 Cartesian tradition.

Descartess 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.
Descartess 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

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 Bretons 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 philosophers!
Can the dream not also be applied to
the solution of lifes fundamental
They say that every evening, before he

Jean-Paul Sartre
A similar view of dreams as

free expression was

maintained by Jean-Paul
Sartre (1905-1980) in his
Limaginaire (1940).
Against Descartes, Sartre

argued that unlike

perceptions, dreams are
associated with a special
type of belief or
fascination without
existential assumption.
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

Merleau-Ponty on temporality in
In Le problem de la

passivite Maurice MerleauPonty (1908-1961)

discusses the time in
dreams in a little same way
as Malcolm:
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

Binswanger and Foucault on dreams and

Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966) was a Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer

in the field of existential psychology.

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 Binswagers Dream and Existence, in an

essay Dream, Imagination, and Existence (1952) Foucault thinks that
Binswangers 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

Postmodernist reality

Some postmodernist thinkers

like Jean Baudrillard (19292007) have argued that reality

has disappeared there are
only fleeting images which
make up a dream-like
hyperreality: neon-lights, tvscreens, 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 cyberspace.
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
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).

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
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 ones 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
Since dreams are often actually about real people, I am not treating

that individual as an end-in-itself 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.

Virtue ethics on dreaming

Follows the ancient/Augustinian view of developing ones moral

This moral approach considers an individual for his or her overall life,

how to make it a good one and develop that individuals 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

Future of philosophy of
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
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

Interdisciplinary approach
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
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