This paper explicates how we might positively understand the distinctive, nonconceptual experience of our own actions and experiences by drawing on insights from a radically enactive take on phenomenal experience. We defend a late-developing relationalism about the emergence of explicit, conceptually based self-awareness, proposing that the latter develops in tandem with the mastery of self-reflective narrative practices. Focusing on the case of human newborns, Sect. 1 reviews and rejects claims that the capacities of actors to keep track of aspects of themselves—e.g. their bodies, body parts, movements, activities, actions and experiences—when coordinating what they do equates to or is best explained by positing minimal, tacit awareness of their experiences as their own. Section 2 then considers and resists more familiar arguments, based on the so-called reflexivity thesis, that take such minimal self-awareness to be implied wherever there is any kind of phenomenal experience. In place of these ideas, we promote an alternative proposal of what is involved when agents keep track of aspects of themselves, drawing on a radically enactive conception of basic experience. Section 3 concludes by proposing that our first conceptual, explicit sense of self is something that only arrives on the scene once we become able to hold our own—through the support of others—in discursive, narrative practices that give us a conceptual grip on what it is to be a temporally extended self that persists over time.
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Some theorists may be prepared to bite the bullet and treat bacteria as cognitive agents endowed with contentful representational capacties (see, e.g., Bray 2012; Perkins and Swain 2009). However, it is also possible to agree that bacterial activity is best viewed as a basic form of cognition, though one that is non-contenful in character (for longer arguments in favour of going this way see Hutto and Myin 2013, 2017).
It should be noted that there is a lack of consensus on how to read this evidence (Vincini et al. 2017). Even so, putting all of the findings together, Rochat (2011) observes that “newborns’ perception of their own body in action is anything but disorganized, meaningless, or confused” (p. 66, emphasis added). He holds that the neonatal capacity for imitation implies some capacity to map and keep track of “the body whereby region and parts of the [sic] own body are actively and systematically (as opposed to randomly) put into contact with each other” (Rochat 2011, p. 67). From these observations Rochat (2011) thinks it safe to infer that “from birth infants express a sense of their own body as a differentiated entity among other entities” (p. 64, emphasis added). He speaks of the “abundance of empirical observations demonstrating the existence of an early, if not innate experience of the body as an entity perceived by the infant as unified” (Rochat 2011, p. 66, emphases added). In sum, pooling all of the evidence together, Rochat (2011) confidently ascribes to infants “an innate sense of self in perception in action” (p. 70, emphasis added). This leads him to claim of newborns that “we now know …. there is minimal self-awareness” (Rochat 2011, p. 66).
At times, Rochat (2011) is more circumspect in drawing his conclusions. For example, at one point he makes clear that he regards “evidence of a body schema at birth provides some theoretical ground for the ascription of basic selfhood from the outset” (p. 68). Yet if we compare a similar discussion of the same evidence by Gallagher (2000), we find that latter is even more appropriately cautious about drawing strong conclusions from this evidence. Thus Gallagher (2000) writes, “For [neonatal imitation] to be possible the infant must be able to do three things: (1) distinguish between self and non-self; (2) locate and use certain parts of its own body proprioceptively, without vision; and (3) recognize that the face it sees is of the same kind as its own face (the infant will not imitate non-human objects). One possible interpretation of this finding is that … the human infant is already equipped with a minimal self that is embodied, enactive and ecologically tuned” (Gallagher 2000, p. 18, emphasis added).
To say that something is empty is to say that it lacks an independent intrinsic nature. See MacKenzie (2010) for “an account of the self as dependently originated and empty, but nevertheless real” (p. 76).
A reviewer insightfully reminded us that Jean Paul Sartre argued, contra classical phenomenology and in alignment with our stance, that the subject is not constitutive of experience per se but is rather constituted like other objects in experience.
Strawson is far from alone in taking the E/E thesis to be an inescapable truth. Others have presented close cousin formulations of the same thesis. Thus, Nida-Rümelin (2017) tells us that “we cannot even think the occurrence of an experience without thereby thinking it as involving an experiencing subject” (p. 2). Or again, Shoemaker (1986) maintains that “experiencing is necessarily an experiencing by a subject of experience, and involves a subject of experience as intimately as branch-bending involves a branch” (p. 10).
This claim is surely exaggerated and implausibly incautious, given the plethora of subtly different Buddhist views and voices, including extremely reductive and nihilistic versions of the no-self view. See, for example, Siderits et al. (2011), for one such extreme view.
On this basis Strawson (2005, p. 64) distinguishes between (i) the experience of oneself when one is considering oneself taken as a human being as a whole and (ii) the experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as an inner mental entity or self of some sort. Famously, he writes: “I will use I* to represent: that which I now experience when I’m apprehending myself specifically as an inner mental presence or self. ‘I*’ comes with a large family of cognate forms—‘me*’, ‘my*’, ‘you*’, ‘oneself*’, ‘themselves*’, and so on. The metaphysical presumption built into these terms is that they succeed in making genuine reference to an inner mental something that is reasonably called a self” (Strawson 2005, p. 68). Strawson’s view on this string-of-pearl vision of selves is notoriously problematic. What explains the stringing of these pearl-like selves together? How and why are these many selves related to the human being with which they are associated?
See Siderits et al. (2011) for an overview of those who subsribe to it in the analytical, phenomenological and Indian traditions.
As Zahavi reports, “Literally all the major figures in phenomenology defend the view that the experiential dimension is characterized by a tacit self-consciousness” (2005, p. 11). For example, a major lesson from Sartre is that, “An experience does not simply exist; it exists for itself” (Zahavi 2005, p. 12).
For a similar line of argument in the context of performance in sports, martial and performing arts see Ilundáin-Agurruza (2016), chap. 7.
The ‘body-mind’ is premised on a holistic understading of organisms. Accordingly, body and mind are not thought of as separate ‘things’ but abstractions from our dynamic, continuous, interactive experience. Thus body-mind is not an ontological claim but a phenomenological designatum (Ilundáin-Agurruza 2016, chap. 3). The notion is in line with Dewey’s continuity hypothesis, which advances continuities rather than divisions of actual processes, while still allowing us to draw meaningful demarcations (see Johnson 2007).
Froese (2009) makes a similar attempt to understand the fluid self in enactive terms, relating his anlaysis to Hume’s theory of the self.
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This study was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP170102987).
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.
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Hutto, D.D., Ilundáin-Agurruza, J. Selfless Activity and Experience: Radicalizing Minimal Self-Awareness. Topoi 39, 509–520 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-018-9573-1
- Minimal selfhood
- Minimal self-awareness
- Relationalist accounts of self
- Individualist accounts of self