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Subjectivity and SelfhoodReview - Subjectivity and Selfhood
Investigating the First-Person Perspective
by Dan Zahavi
MIT Press, 2006
Review by Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D.
Jul 4th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 27)

Dan Zahavi, author of the book Self and Subjectivity is one of the prominent figures in the discussions of philosophical phenomenology and subjectivity. In this book, Zahavi explores a number of phenomenological analyses pertaining to the nature of consciousness, self and self-experience in light of contemporary discussions in consciousness research. This approach, as Zahavi notes, "is motivated not only by the belief that consciousness research can profit from insights to be found in phenomenology; but also by the firm conviction that phenomenology needs to engage in a more critical dialogue with other philosophical and empirical positions than is currently the case" (p. 5).

Zahavi starts his discussion by asking questions such as "what is a self? Does it exist in reality or is it a mere social construct -- or perhaps a neurologically induced illusion? If something like a self exists, what role does it play in our conscious life?" (p. 1) Countering the fact that the concept of the self has been questioned by both neuroscientists and philosophers in recent years, Zahavi argues that the notion of self is crucial for a proper understanding of consciousness. He claims that if we wish to understand what it means to be a self, we have to examine the structure of experience and self-awareness, and vise versa. Thus, he intends to investigate the relation between experience, self-awareness and selfhood, proposing that none of these notions can be properly understood in isolation. Any investigation of the self, Zahavi argues, must take the first person perspective seriously and focus on the experiential givenness of the self.

This approach is not without precedent.  Many phenomenologists have engaged the question of self by focusing on its experiential givenness and by taking the first-person perspective seriously. Philosophical phenomenology -- as developed by Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others -- not only addresses crucial issues absent from current debates over consciousness but also provides a conceptual framework for understanding subjectivity. Given some of the recent developments in cognitive science and analytical philosophy of mind, along with the upsurge of theoretical and empirical interest in the subjective or phenomenal dimension of consciousness, it is almost impossible to ignore the analyses of consciousness that phenomenology can provide.  For this reason, Zahavi aims to use phenomenological analyses to clarify issues of central importance to philosophy of mind, cognitive science, developmental psychology and psychiatry.  By engaging in a dialogue with other philosophical and empirical positions, says Zahavi, phenomenology can demonstrate its vitality and contemporary relevance.

The first chapter provides a preliminary outline of a phenomenological account of the relation between consciousness and self-awareness. In this chapter Zahavi mainly focuses on Sartre's concept of pre-reflective self-awareness and on his claim that a primitive or minimal type of self-awareness as such characterizes the experiential dimension. After contrasting Sartre's view first with a number of competing definitions of self-awareness found in developmental psychology, social philosophy and philosophy of language he then gives an account of a prevalent version of the higher-order theory of consciousness, according to which the difference between a conscious and non-conscious mental state rests on the presence or absence of a relevant meta-mental state.  Zahavi concludes the chapter by discussing whether higher-order theories can adequately account for the first-person perspective, or whether their attempt to do so gives rise to an infinite regress.

Zahavi, after setting the scene in the introductory first chapter, continues the discussion of the phenomenological analyses of the relation between self, consciousness, and self-consciousness in more detail in the next three chapters. He particularly focuses on Husserl's initial analysis of consciousness in Logische Untersuchungen (chapter 2), on his later analysis of time-consciousness (chapter 3), and on Heidegger's discussion of whether reflection can provide us with a reliable access to the experiential dimension (chapter 4).

After the detailed analyses in chapters 2-4, the central fifth chapter of the book contains an extensive discussion of subjectivity and selfhood. Zahavi begins the chapter by discussing some classical and contemporary arguments in favor a non-egological theory of consciousness and then continues with a detailed analysis of two different notions of self: 1) the self as a narrative construction and 2) the self as an experiential dimension. Zahavi favors the experiential approach, which is primarily defended by Edmund Husserl and Michel Henry who insist that an investigation of the self must necessarily involve the first-person perspective, and argues that the experiential notion of a core or minimal self is both more fundamental than, and a presupposition of, the narrative self. He concludes the chapter by discussing some of the empirical implications of this conclusion, in particular its relevance for our understanding of the disorders of self, encountered in neurological and psychiatric afflictions.

The sixth chapter provides a systematic outline of the different phenomenological approaches to intersubjectivity such as Scheler, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, and Sartre, thereby allowing for a nuanced perspective on the link between selfhood and otherness.  The point of departure is Scheler's criticism of the argument from analogy.  Our understanding of how we come to experience others as minded bodies must include a correct appreciation of how we come to experience ourselves as embodied minds.  This observation, however, which is crucial to the discussion of the theory of mind in chapter 7, is only the beginning.  Much more is at stake in the phenomenological analyses than simply a "solution" to the "traditional" problem of other minds.  According to the phenomenologists, intersubjectivity does not merely concern concrete face-to-face encounters between individuals; rather a treatment of intersubjectivity requires a simultaneous analysis of the relationship between subjectivity and the world.

In the concluding seventh chapter, Zahavi addresses the problem of selfhood and self-awareness by discussing the validity of the claim that the experience of minded beings (be it oneself or others) requires a theory of mind.  Drawing on insights and results obtained in the previous chapters, in particular the discussions of higher-order theories, of pre-reflective self-awareness, of self-disorders in schizophrenia, and of embodied intersubjectivity, and supplementing these with empirical findings from contemporary developmental psychology concerning infantile experience of self and other, Zahavi argues here that the theory-theory of mind is mistaken when it claims that a theoretical knowledge constitutes the core of what we call upon when we understand ourselves and others.

Zahavi in this very timely book Subjectivity and Selfhood fills the need -- given the recent upsurge in theoretical and empirical interest in subjectivity -- for an account of the subjective or phenomenal dimension of consciousness that is accessible to researchers and students from variety of disciplines. Zahavi, with great scholarship and clarity, provides a fresh and innovative analysis of subjectivity and selfhood. Zahavi's book is a valuable contribution to the current interdisciplinary discussions of consciousness as it shows how phenomenological philosophy can contribute to explanations of consciousness, self and intersubjectivity.

 

© 2006 Kamuran Godelek

 

Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D., Mersin University, School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy, Ciftlik Koyu, Mersin, TURKEY


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