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Max Velmans (born 27 May 1942) is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He co-founded the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society in 1994, and served as its chair from 2003 to 2006. He was appointed National Visiting Professor for 2010-2011 by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, and in 2011 was elected to the British Academy of Social Sciences.[1]

Velmans has around 100 publications in the area of consciousness studies, including Understanding Consciousness (2000). In his map of prominent theories of consciousness Francisco Varela categorises Velmans' work as non-reductionist, stressing the importance of first-person accounts of the phenomenology of consciousness,[2] as well as third-person accounts of brain states and functions, which in Velmans' work are thought of as complementary.[3]

Velmans is principally known for the theory of consciousness called "reflexive monism," in which the materialist/dualist gap is bridged by placing aspects of human consciousness in the experienced world, rather than within the brain; the theory also combines facets of realism with facets of idealism, though it falls short of avowing the necessity of perception to the existence of reality per se (the principle of "esse est percipi").[4]

Understanding Consciousness

Velmans' Understanding Consciousness (2000) is a comprehensive summary of his theoretical work, and introduces the idea of "reflexive monism."[5]

Reflexive monism presents itself as an alternative to both dualism and reductionism. It states that it does not make sense to speak of phenomenological experiences of reality as occurring within the brain, given that some of them quite clearly occur within the experienced world itself (that is, asked to point to the light they experience, almost all rational subjects would point to the light that is experienced rather than to the brain, which is where, according to dualists and reductionists, the experience actually takes place). Thus, Velmans argues, the relationship between subjects and experienced reality is reflexive: some experiences apprehended by the subject are quite clearly placed "in the world" by the perceiving mind. The contents of consciousness are, thus, not exclusively in the brain, but often in the perceived physical world itself; in fact, in terms of phenomenology, there is no clear and distinct difference between what we normally think of as the "physical world", the "phenomenal world" and the "world as perceived".[6] He writes:

This sketch of how consciousness fits into the wider universe supports a form of non-reductive, Reflexive Monism. Human minds, bodies and brains are embedded in a far greater universe. Individual conscious representations are perspectival. That is, the precise manner in which entities, events and processes are translated into experiences depends on the location in space and time of a given observer, and the exact mix of perceptual, cognitive, affective, social, cultural and historical influences which enter into the 'construction' of a given experience. In this sense, each conscious construction is private, subjective, and unique. Taken together, the contents of consciousness provide a view of the wider universe, giving it the appearance of a 3D phenomenal world. ... However, such conscious representations are not the thing-itself. In this vision, there is one universe (the thing-itself), with relatively differentiated parts in the form of conscious beings like ourselves, each with a unique, conscious view of the larger universe of which it is a part. In so far as we are parts of the universe that, in turn, experience the larger universe, we participate in a reflexive process whereby the universe experiences itself."[6]

Changing Places

The changing places thought experiment was conceived by Velmans, and discussed in Understanding Consciousness. The experiment was designed to demonstrate the difficulties in distinguishing phenomenologically between a first-person experience of an event (a subjective experience of an object) and a third-person experience of the same (that is, the observation of such an experience in a subject).

The experiment

Velmans conceives of a situation in which an experimenter ("E") is observing a subject ("S") exposed to a light stimulus. The differences between the two viewpoints, Velmans argues, is primarily derived from a difference in interest, reflected in a difference in their required activities. To explain, during the experiment S is required only to report on her experiences of the light, which she needs to communicate to E in an appropriate manner. E, on the other hand, is interested primarily in S's experience of the light, and thus E's focus is not just on the light (which he now thinks of as a "stimulus") but also on the observable events in S's brain, and on S's reports concerning what she experiences. Thus, E is interested first and foremost in the subject's experience, and how these relate to the light stimulus and brain states of S that he can observe. In such a case, E's experience of events would be considered "objective" or "public", while S's experiences are "subjective" and "private"; while E's focus is on recording the neural causes and correlates of visual experiences, S is interested only in reporting about such experiences.

However, Velmans points out that all that would be required for S and E to exchange roles is for them to change their respective foci (as he puts it "S and E merely have to turn their heads"), so that E focuses exclusively on the light and reports his experiences, while S focuses her attention not just on the light, but on the events in E's brain and his reports of the experience. In such an event, S becomes the experimenter and E becomes the subject; thus, following current conventions, "S would now be entitled to think of her observations (of the light and E's brain) as 'public and objective' and to regard E's experiences of light as 'private and subjective'."[7]

Velmans points out that this outcome is patently absurd, as the phenomenology of the light (that is, the way it is experienced) remains the same from the perspective of S or E, whether it is thought of as being an observed stimulus or a subjective experience. Nothing has changed in the nature of the light that either party can observe, save in the contextualising focus of their interests. That is, Velmans concludes, there is no phenomenological difference between publicly observed phenomena and private, subjective experiences.

Selected publications

Velmans is the author and editor of numerous books and papers on consciousness, including the following:[8]

  • Understanding Consciousness (Routledge/Psychology Press, London, 2000)
    • Understanding Consciousness, edition 2 (Routledge/Psychology Press, London, 2009)
  • The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (Blackwell, 2007)
  • The Science of Consciousness (Routledge, 1996)
  • Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness (John Benjamins, 2000)
  • How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains? (Imprint, 2003)

See also


  1. [1]
  2. Varela, F. J. (1999) Present time consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(2-3), 111-140.
  3. biem Graben, P. & Atmanspacher, H. (2009) Extending the philosophical significance of the idea of complementarity. In H. Atmanspacher and H. Primas (eds.) Recasting reality: Wolfgang Pauli’s Philosophical Ideas and Contemporary Science. Springer, pp.99-113.
    • Hoche, Hans-Ulrich (2007) Reflexive monism versus complementarism: An analysis and criticism of the conceptual groundwork of Max Velmans's reflexive model of consciousness Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (3) , pp. 389-409.
  4. Blackmore, S. (2003) Consciousness: An introduction. Hodder & Stoughton.
    • Blackmore, S. (2005) Conversations on Consciousness: Interviews with wenty minds. Oxford University Press.
    • Revonsuo, A. (2006) Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Harris, K. (2009) Review of Max Velmans Understanding Consciousness. Metapsychology, 13 (52)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Velmans, M. (2009) Understanding Consciousness, Edition 2. Routledge/Psychology Press, p. 298
  7. Velmans 2000, p. 175
  8. list of Velmans' publications on consciousness

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