In A Treatise of Human Nature, D. Hume denied any kind of self-awareness by writing the following words:
"After what manner therefore do they [our particular perceptions] belong to self, and how they connected with it? For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception." (Hume 1739:252)
Hume was challenging the Descartes' and Locke's idea about the necessary existence of a self (or I) behind every state of the mind. According to them, the synchronic (Descartes) and diachronic (Locke) unity of thinking and awareness asserts the necessary connection between our conscious and mental states and something that is aware of them; between I and my consciousness/thought. Against this point of view, Hume raised some kind of skepticism about our skills which permit to grasp the so called 'self'. Our impressions and perceptions, Hume says, are all particular. They constantly change. Therefore, there is nothing behind our mental states that permits identify something invariable and unified that we can call 'I'. The only thing that exists is this bundle of perceptions.
Along the centuries, several scholars were interested in defending or defeating some varieties of this skepticism. One proof is the existence of this book. All its chapters are dedicated to analyze the relationship between our conscious states and the self.
In "Awareness and identification of self", D. Rosenthal summarizes and defends his higher-order thought (HOT) theory of self-awareness. His theory about self-awareness asserts that a conscious mental state essentially belongs to the possessor of the mental state. In other words, the thought and the awareness of belonging to oneself both always happen together because there is a hierarchy in the order of mental states that forbids to have one without the other. He faces three different problems that the HOT theory about self-awareness needs to answer. First, we find the problem of essential indexical (that is, every thought about one/self refers to oneself with a first/person mode). Second, it is the problem of immunity to error through misidentification (someone cannot fails to identify herself as subject of thoughts). Then, third, Rosenthal analyzes the problem of the unity of physical and mental conditions of self-awareness. By separating HOT and a dispositional approach about consciousness, he believes that his HOT theory avoids the problems because sometimes we have thoughts that not include the unity of self, and these cases permit explain some counterexamples. Anyway, the close relationship between the first-person pronoun 'I' and the thoughts about our own mental states reflects how, in fact, the possibility to identify the same self in both cases is some kind of non-manifested disposition of self-reference.
U. Kriegel's chapter "Self-representationalism and the explanatory gap" focuses on how to solve the explanatory gap problem between mental and physical states using his self-representational theory of consciousness. Self-representationalism defends that a mental state is phenomenically conscious if and only if it represents itself. A mental state has qualitative (certain content as perceived) and subjective (the very same content as appears to me) character. Thought in this way, every mental state is a mental state for me: this is to say, the mental state and the belonging to the owner are, like in Rosenthal's account, necessarily connected. Nevertheless, unlike the HOT theorist, Kriegel thinks that they are not separate. As presented in section I, the second level thought M* which represents the experience M as a mental state for me necessarily also is a conscious mental state. Otherwise, we require another mental state M** that represents the mental state that represents the experience as a mental state for me, but this is ad infinitum return. Then, M* = M. Given that M is a complex state with two components (the qualitative and the subjective characters), the gap between neural and mental vanishes. Because, as advocated for Kriegel, the separated existence of transitive and intransitive self-consciousness captures both characters as neural implemented by visual cortex (V4) for the qualitative character and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) for the subjective one. The intransitive self-consciousness is implemented through a logical sequence. When we take a look to the complete sequence as a whole mental act, then it appears as a gappy sequence. This fact seems to construct an illusory gap between our understanding and the explanation of the phenomenon. The surprising thing is that Kriegel denies this solution and advocates for the existence of an explanatory gap. According to his view, the logical sequence gives us epistemic transparency about our mental states, but it does not render epistemic reduction.
"Thinking about the self", by J. Perry, develops the theory of self-belief. A self-belief is the belief that someone has about oneself from the perspective of the self. According to Perry, beliefs are embedded in a complete system of information. Usually, this system is internally interrelated, but the function of belief is to provide external information about the world to the agent of belief in a given context, an information that is going to be stored in the whole system and then re-used for practical reasons according to the concrete situations. Then, the beliefs have a causal role in our action, even in our perception. After all, beliefs are representational states of external facts of the world, and their content determines their truth-conditions. If these beliefs represent particular objects, they are articulated constituents. Otherwise, they are unarticulated constituents. When someone has beliefs about oneself, their content represents something about the self. These self-beliefs, then, relate the content with the possessor of the content. Then, Perry concludes, someone obtains information about oneself the same way she obtains other information about the external world.
L. O'Brien develops a different account about self-awareness. In "Ordinary self-consciousness", she says that we can be conscious about our selves as an object represented by others. This method can be called ordinary self-consciousness. In a Wittgensteinian way, this view involves two different perspectives: the perspective of the subject and the perspective of the evaluator. The crucial point in this account is that the self-awareness is placed in the own self-evaluation as something projected in others.
J. Prinz's "Waiting for the self" does not accept that we always have qualitative experiences about the self as subject because we sometimes experience the self as an object. Against several studies in neuroscience, he defends that the usual brain areas identified as the neural correlate of self-consciousness are not necessarily centralized just in this function. They are demonstrated as playing different roles in different mental activities. If we cannot find a complete correspondence between the phenomenal experiences and physical states, we have not a correspondence between the subject of experience and a conscious image of the subject as experiencing. Even if we accept an ownership theory of the self (that affirms a two-place relationship between agency and subjectivity), the self that we obtain is just an image of the possessor of mental states as object and not as subject, because the subject just is able to percept the action of possessing states, but never the possessor itself. In a Humean sense, Prinz concludes that there is not a phenomenological self after all.
In "I think I think, therefore I am – I think", F. Dretske challenges the Descartes' argument about the necessity of someone knows that she is thinking. Dretske questions the act of thinking itself when he asserts that we do not have any internal evidence about our own awareness of our thinking. The act of thinking is public, observable, and external. It is something about we can publicly find some evidence. Nothing in the subjective point of view permits to prove that someone is thinking. According to Dretske, the nature of thought simply is not internal. It is external.
A. Byrne, in "Knowing what I want", assumes that, by the principles of economy and unification, the knowledge available to our own mind is the same across different types of mental states. Using similar external epistemic rules for different propositional attitudes (BEL for belief, DES for desire, etcetera), someone can obtain some knowledge about what these attitudes are. In a similar way, the self-verifying principle permits to the subject gains some knowledge about the features of the external world that verify the truth-conditions of these attitudes. The only requisite for this self-awareness is a principle of rationality. But, is the human being so rational?
"Self-ignorance", by E. Schwitzgebel, is skeptic about the possibility of self-knowledge. Based on some contemporary empirical studies about the fallibility of the people to identify their own judgments, he concludes that we do not know a great part of the content of our own consciousness. Then, our self-awareness is massively fallible and the self, probably, an illusion.
S. Shoemaker defends a neo-Lockean view of personal identity in "Personhood and consciousness". The self, Shoemaker says, is analyzable in terms of the causal powers of our psychological features, and they determine both the synchronic and the diachronic unity of the self. Given that we have not evidence about the difference between veridical memory of past events in our phenomenological life and seeming memory (or quasi-memory) of them, we cannot trust in the veracity of our memory. The only thing that we can do is trust, against Parfit and Burge, in the external conditions that become truth our self-attribution or self-reference; the conditions under which a memory is externally determined by causal facts about the self.
Finally, O. Flanagan's "My non-narrative, non-forensic dasein: the first and second self" advocates for a Jamesian account of personhood. Someone's self cannot be completely grasps just for memories, as Lockean views assert. There are several factors that permit to capture it. As W. James said, our consciousness flows through both substantive and transitive states of mind to us and there is not an exact science that explains completely (you should read "in a reductive way") their causal role in our personhood.
The main important point of this book is the capacity of the editors to put together different accounts about self-awareness that perfectly mix traditional and contemporary points of view about conscious states and the self. The diversity of thesis and conclusions included between the different chapters permits to take a panoramic look to the actual debate in philosophy of consciousness and self-awareness.
- Hume, D. 1739. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David F. Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
© 2012 Juan J. Colomina
Juan J. Colomina, PhD, Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin and LEMA Research Group (University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain). Project: "Points of View and Temporal Structures" (FII2011-24549).