Self-consciousness, nonconceptual content and intersubjectivity

Document Type: 
ASSC Conference Item
Article Type: 
Self and Mental State Attribution
consciousness, self-consciousness, subjectivity, intersubjectivity, nonconceptual content, pre-reflexive familiarity, theory of mind, phenomenology, symmetry thesis
Deposited by: 
Kristina Musholt
Date of Issue: 
Kristina Musholt
Event Dates: 
19-22 June 2008
Event Location: 
Taipei, Taiwan
Event Title: 
12th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness
Event Type: 
ASSC Conference
Presentation Type: 
Number of Pages: 
Self-consciousness is often defined as the ability to think of oneself as oneself, an ability that is thought to require highly demanding conceptual (and linguistic) abilities and to be a uniquely human capacity (e.g. Rödl 2007). In contrast to this, it has recently been suggested that self-consciousness is a much more basic phenomenon and that there are primitive forms of self-consciousness that are pre-reflexive, non-conceptual and might be shared by non-human animals (e.g. Frank 1995/2002; Hurley 1997; Bermúdez 1998). Some (Kriegel 2004; Zahavi 2006) even argue that self-consciousness is ubiquitous, i.e., that it accompanies all states of consciousness. Candidates for non-conceptual selfconsciousness include proprioception, perspectival self-consciousness and agency, and self-specifying information that is implicit in perception. Here, I argue that while there are good reasons to believe that non-conceptual content plays an important role in the understanding of the development of self-consciousness, many of the alleged examples for non-conceptual self-consciousness fail to fulfill the criteria for genuine self-consciousness. Accordingly, it is misleading to think of self-consciousness as being ubiquitous. Rather, we have to distinguish between the subjectivity of conscious experience and genuine self-consciousness. While I agree that all conscious experience involves implicit information about the experiencing subject, this does not imply that the subject is thereby also able to explicitly self-attribute this experience. What is required for genuine self-consciousness is not just that the subject be provided with information that is in fact about itself, but an awareness of itself as itself. Self-referential information must be an explicit, not just an implicit part of the representational content of the subject’s experience for the subject to become self-conscious. I suggest that self-consciousness is a contrastive notion that has its roots in inter-subjectivity, and that self-awareness is constitutively linked to an awareness of other minds. I will only realize that my mental states are my states when I realize that they could – in theory – be the states of someone else. In other words, I need a theory of mind. While the self-specifying information that is implicit in interoceptive and exteroceptive perception allows for a distinction between self and world, it does not allow for a distinction between the own mental states and those of others, and thus does not lead to an explicit representation of the subject’s mental states as her own. This position is supported by empirical data from developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
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