The philosophy of dreaming and self-consciousness: What happens to the experiential subject during the dream state?

Document Type: 
Book Chapter
Article Type: 
Self and Mental State Attribution
dreams, consciousness, experiential state, lucid dreaming, philosophy of dreaming
Deposited by: 
Kristina Musholt
Date of Issue: 
Jennifer Michelle Windt, Thomas Metzinger
Title of Book: 
The new science of dreaming
Number of Pages: 
Praeger Imprint/Greenwood Publishers
Place of Publication: 
Estport, CT
Dreams have been a topic of philosophical inquiry ever since Aristotle’s treatise On Dreams and throughout the history of Western thought (Dreisbach 2000). Probably the most famous philosophical approach to dreaming is the problem of dream skepticism, which Descartes discussed in the first Meditation. Here, Descartes famously argued that because of the realistic quality of sensory experience during the dream state, it would never be possible to distinguish dreaming from wakefulness on empirical grounds alone (Descartes 1911/1642). In the 20th century, however, interest in the epistemological problem of how to determine whether one is dreaming or awake was reduced considerably by an anti-Cartesian argument advanced by Norman Malcolm (1956; 1959). Arguing that reports about dreaming are not publicly verifiable even in principle, Malcolm asserted that the notion of conscious awareness in sleep was contradictory on purely logical grounds. “If a person is in any state of consciousness it logically follows that he is not sound asleep” (Malcolm 1956, p. 21)—hence, according to Malcolm, dreams are not experiences at all (see also Dennett 1976; for a discussion see Metzinger 1993, pp. 146ff., pp. 194ff., and pp. 241ff.; Revonsuo 1995, pp. 36ff.). Today, based on a more differentiated understanding of both the phenomenological and the neurophysiological features of dreaming, it is possible to give a relatively straightforward and affirmative answer to the question of whether dreams are conscious experiences occurring in sleep. At the same time, these new insights into the nature of dreaming require a more nuanced perspective, which is capable of explaining the subtle differences between dreaming and waking consciousness as well. In this chapter, we will argue that these differences mainly concern the subjective quality of the dreaming experience. The interesting question, from a philosophical point of view, is not so much whether or not dreams are conscious experiences at all. Rather, one must ask in what sense dreams can be considered as conscious experiences, and what happens to the experiential subject during the dream state. Finally, in order to arrive at a more differentiated understanding of dream consciousness, we will contrast our analysis of ordinary dreams with lucid dreams, as well as with the varying degrees of lucidity and cognitive clarity seen in semi-lucid and prelucid dreams.
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