Consciousness and Self-Awareness

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 205)


In having an experience, which is a conscious mental process, one has a direct awareness of the experience, and of oneself as subject of the experience. Indeed, what makes the experience conscious is just that awareness of the experience as it transpires. And it is in just that awareness that one is acquainted with one’s experience, and with oneself.


Conscious Experience Phenomenal Quality Phenomenological Description Intentional Relation Passing Experience 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. René Descartes [1641], Meditations on First Philosophy (translated by Laurence J. Lafleur; Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1951). In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (second edition, 1694), Locke wrote: “Self is that conscious thinking thing, whatever substance made up of (whether spiritual or material, simple or compounded, it matters not), which is sensible or conscious or pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.” (Chapter 27, section 17.) For Descartes the self is a substance; for Locke it is a unity of consciousness underlain by some substance or other, which may even change though the self or person does not. But the relevant notion(s) of substance are not so easily set forth in contrasting Locke and Descartes: cf. Edwin McCann, [1986], “Cartesian Selves and Lockean Substances”.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    David Hume [1739], Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, section 6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Though the terminology began with Kant, the distinctions were probably more elaborately developed by Husserl, especially in his [1931], Cartesian Meditations.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Similar conclusions are drawn from similar cases in Castañeda [1966], “‘He’: a study in the logic of Self-Consciousness” (cf. also his [1967]), Perry [1977], “Frege on Demonstratives”, and Perry [1979], “The Problem of the Essential Indexical”.Google Scholar
  5. 7a.
    It has even been argued that the word “I” is not a referring term: cf. G.E.M. Anscombe [1974], “The First Person”Google Scholar
  6. 7b.
    This sort of argument is succinctly answered in Colin McGinn [1982], The Character of Mind, pp. 102ff. Wittgenstein discusses the word “I” as well as introspection and consciousness in [1953], Philosophical Investigations, sections 403–418. The claim that “I” is not a referring term may be drawn from a Kantian argument to the effect that the fundamental “I” in the “I think”, which must be able to accompany all of one’s representations or experiences, is not a representation (specifically, an intuition) of a substantial self, but is a merely “formal” structure that is a necessary condition of the possibility of the unity of “one’s” experiences both over time and at a time. This line of argument is well detailed by Jay Rosenberg in his [1986], The Thinking Self, Chapter III; see p. 66 on the word “I”. The relevant issues of self-awareness will be discussed here below, but not within a Kantian framework of transcendental idealism.Google Scholar
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    See Frege [1918], “The Thought: a Logical Inquiry”, pp. 25–26 in the cited English translation, p. 39 in the cited German edition. Here I’ve translated the sentence a bit more directly.Google Scholar
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    See D. W. Smith [1981a], “Indexical Sense and Reference”.Google Scholar
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    Freud, [1933], p. 62. To be accurate, Freud distinguished two senses of “unconscious”. A psychic process is unconscious in the descriptive sense if it lacks the quality of consciousness, and so the subject has no knowledge or awareness of it. This is the sense that is more basic and is our primary concern. But a psychic process is unconscious in the dynamic sense if it is not only descriptively unconscious but repressed, so that it cannot easily be made conscious because it offers resistance. A psychic process that is descriptively unconscious but only latently so and not so by virtue of repression, Freud called preconscious. It is the dynamic sense of “unconscious” that is dominant in Freud’s writings and in the psychoanalytic literature, and Freud’s theory of the unconscious ultimately includes an intricate theory of how unconscious psychic states are changed as they become conscious. See Freud [1923], The Ego and the Id, pp. 3ff and the editor’s introduction, [1915] “The Unconscious”, and [1933] New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. A rich and exhaustive account of Freud’s theory of consciousness, and its surprisingly central place in Freudian theory, is developed in Natsoulas [1984-], “Freud and Consciousness”, in four parts.Google Scholar
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    Sartre [1943], Being and Nothingness, Introduction, section III.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Husserl [1913], Ideas, §§27–34, and Smith and McIntyre [1982], Chapter III, section 1.2.Google Scholar
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    On problems in grasping the ego, see: Kant [1781/1787], B 153–159; Husserl [1900–01], Logical Investigations, V, §8 (on Natorp)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Husserl [1913], Ideas, §57, Husserl [1954], Crisis, §§53–54;Google Scholar
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    Sartre [1936–1937], The Transcendence of the Ego, p. 88Google Scholar
  22. 22c.
    On the problem Kant finds in grasping the self, see Rosenberg [1986], The Thinking Self, Chapter III. In Kant’s framework, the “I” in “I think” is a purely formal structure that unifies one’s experiences — the “transcendental unity of apperception” — but is not itself a substance that actually has the experiences; indeed, one cannot grasp, or have an intuition of, the “noumenal self” that actually underlies one’s experiences, if indeed there is such a thing; one can grasp only the “empirical self”, the self-as-it-appears, which is an object-of-experience rather than, properly, a subject. Husserl’s framework is quite different: the “pure” or “transcendental” ego is indeed the subject that has experiences, and it is grasped as such, as subject, in phenomenological reflection; the “empirical” or “human” ego is the embodied psychophysical human being, and it is grasped as such in perception and empirical judgment; but these are one and the same entity, the ego, which falls under the different “regions” of Consciousness and Nature, which are high-level species, or categories, of reality (cf. Ideas, § 33). What I have called the paradox of the pure ego is an extrapolation from the problem of grasping the pure self as I understand it in Kant, Husserl, and Sartre; each, however, develops the problem (or a kindred problem) within his own framework.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Cf. Descartes [1641], Meditations on First Philosophy (translated by Laurence J. Lafleur). In the alternative translation, very suggestive for our purposes, G.E.M. Anscombe and P.T. Geach translate “cogito” as “I am conscious” rather than “I think”. Hintikka’s proposal is found in his [1965], “Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance”.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    See Kant [1781/1787], Critique of Pure Reason, B 131–133. It takes some exegetical work to draw from the text the phenomenological points relevant here. Rosenberg [1986], The Thinking Self, Chapter III, clearly separates, within Kant’s framework, the phenomenological structure “I think” from the ontological structure of a substance having the attribute of thinking. On Rosenberg’s reconstruction (cf. the summary on pp. 680, Kant’s “Paralogisms” argue three points: (i) It does not follow that if the “I” of the “I think” is a grammatical substantive, then the I is an ontological substance, (ii) If the “I” is a grammatical substantive, one can only form negative categorial predications of the I because the self is not an object of intuition, (iii) The “I” of the “I think” is not a proper grammatical substantive. “The representational form ‘I think that-’, in short, functions only as a whole, and even then only to advert to ‘inner sense,’ the mode of meta-representation” (p. 69). The analysis developed in part 4 below, with motivations preceding, differs from this Kantian analysis in important ways. First, the “I think” structure is not a second-order meta-representation, but a part of first-order representations. Second, in that structure the content “I” does function as a grammatical substantive which, if successful, picks out the subject having the representation (though its form alone does not entail its satisfaction). Third, the resulting apperception of “I” is a species of acquaintance, an intuition of the self. Thus, it is possible to avoid Kant’s stronger conclusions to the effect that no proper awareness of a substantial self is achieved in the “I think” structure — this is possible at least in a framework different from the more idealistic renderings of Kant’s transcendental idealism.Google Scholar
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    Jean-Paul Sartre [1937], Transcendence of the Ego, pp. 53–54.Google Scholar
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    For recent discussions of qualia, see: the relevant essays in Block [1981], including Thomas Nagel’s suggestive “What Is It Like to be a Bat?”; and Paul Churchland’s provocative [1985], “Reduction, Qualia, and the Direct Introspection of Brain”.Google Scholar
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    Willaim James [1890], Principles of Psychology, Vol. II, Chapter XXV, “The Emotions”.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    As Paul Churchland envisions: see Churchland [1984], Matter and Consciousness, pp. 158ff.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Sartre [1937], The Transcendence of the Ego, and also [1943], Being and Nothingness. The refrigerator simile in the text has been used in lecture by Dagfinn Føllesdal.Google Scholar

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

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