Thanks to everyone who packed into the Cafe Bar at the Gate last night for J.J. Hodge’s provocative presentation on the shortcomings of materialism. There follows the third of three posts intended to complement the theme of materialism and the mind. In the last two posts, we looked at Cartesian dualism, and then the “narrative self” theory advanced by Daniel Dennett. In this final post of the series, we introduce a different perspective, one which relates the feeling of self-consciousness, not to Descartes’ “thinking thing” (with the connotations of soul-substance that it implies), but to the body.

Dennett is proposing a view which seeks to make sense of the continuity of the self over time while also preserving David Hume’s anti-Cartesian observation about the lack of access to something like a substantial self:

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 catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.(Hume 1978/1739)


Introspection of the sort that Descartes understood as essential to inner experience is, for Hume, impossible. We never “see” our self when we reflect introspectively on what is going on “inside”. All we are aware of is a stream of particular impressions or contents. Nonetheless, it could be argued that Hume has left something out of his observation, and that is the fact that he recognises himself as being involved in trying to find his self. What does this mean?

Dennett, in speaking of narrative, depicts humans as tale-tellers and therefore as conscious of selves through the manifold reflective procedures which are involved in weaving a narrative. To tell a tale, we need to have concepts – a concept of a person, of events, of places and so on. Self-consciousness, for Dennett, is the ensemble of processes by which reflection happens. But others have argued that there are three types of selfconsciousness. There is reflective and narrative self-consciousness; there is an awareness of what it is like to have a particular experience (Hume’s observer, like Descartes’, is aware that each impression she experiences has its own idiosyncratic character – a blue wall is just this blue, and so on). But there is also the mineness of whatever is attended to in consciousness. Contrast with Hume’s observation this example from Jean-Paul Sartre:

If I count the cigarettes which are in that case, I have the impression of disclosing an objective property of this collection of cigarettes: they are a dozen. This property appears to my consciousness as a property existing in the world. It is very possible that I have no positional consciousness of counting them. Then I do not know myself as counting. Yet at the moment when these cigarettes are revealed to me as a dozen, I have a non-thetic consciousness of my adding activity. If anyone questioned me, indeed, if anyone should ask, “What are you doing there?” I should reply at once, “I am counting.”


This mineness of the activity has been called a “low-level” self consciousness, a prereflective acquaintance with myself as contrasted with the high- level, reflective selfconsciousness which narrative requires (Flanagan 1992, 194). What we are aware of changes constantly, but what remains constant alongside these changes is a “sense of ownership ”, a capacity to recognise that these shifts in awareness are in fact my shifts in awareness. Only a being with this pre-reflective awareness could form an extended concept of herself, tell stories about herself and others, form plans and be held morally responsible.

Dennett’s radical argument is that a first person perspective on oneself does not really add anything – we can treat ourselves as we treat everyone else, as characters in a narrative, and do not need some special kind of introspective access to “have selves”. But what defenders of a “phenomenological” view of self-consciousness criticise this kind of view for is its failure to appreciate that a condition of telling stories about others is the unity of the first-person perspective itself. This unity of perspective is what allows us to become conscious of ourselves as counting cigarettes, having fleeting impressions, and failing to find substantial selves. It is a form of self-experience that does not entail the apprehension of a special object (which – along with the spatial metaphors of observer and observed which it implies – give rise to the infinite regress of observers in Descartes’ theory) ; it does not involve an experience of a self which is somehow additional to other experiences. Instead, it is to be conscious of a particular quality of the stream of experience, i.e. that it is mine.

The concept of primitive self-consciousness does not therefore entail that the mind is, in some special sense, transparent to itself and that we can have special knowledge of our “true self”, considered as a special object. There are various reasons for this. First, there is the problem of preoccupation: although I ampre-reflectively self-aware of experience-as-mine, I tend to be absorbed in my everyday life in my dealings with projects and objects in the world, and as such I do not attend to the subjective dimension of my experience. Further, consciousness is irrevocably split from itself: it takes place in time, which is what Martin Heidegger expresses with the idea of “thrownness” as a basic character of human being (Heidegger 1998). We are always trying to “get behind ourselves” to understand what we have done, but every attempt to comprehend who we are is an act of reflection that itself requires to be understood. In pursuing self knowledge, there will always be something more that we want to capture through selfconscious reflection.

Further, self-acquaintance in the primitive sense is in no way disembodied: indeed, it has been widely argued that it is rooted in embodiment, the fact that the body is the medium through which the world is encountered, a condition for it becoming meaningful. Evidence from developmental psychology, for example, suggests that there is a primitive, proprioceptive form of self-consciousness already in place from birth, which becomes social and other-directed very early in life (Stern 1985). The special character of “having a body” has to be noted: for example, I may have to feel around in order to find a tool; but I generally never have to do that in regard to my body. I am tacitly aware, not only of where my hands and feet are, but also of what I can do with them. This tacit awareness of my body always registers as an “I can” (or “I can’t,” as the case may be). Pre-reflective body-awareness is not a type of object-perception, but it is an essential element of every such perception. Originally, my body is experienced, not as an object, but as a field of activity and affectivity, as a potentiality of mobility and volition, as an “I do” and “I can.” From this point of view, even Dennett’s narrative self might appear somewhat ethereal.


Flanagan, O. (1992). Consciousness Reconsidered. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hume, D. (1978/1739) A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. J. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Heidegger, M. (1998). Being and time. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stern, D. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. Karnac Books.

Enhanced by Zemanta

2 thoughts on “Mind, Brain and Identity (3): Self-consciousness and the body”

  1. Dennett’s narrative self is ethereal, and more. Gone is the human we all love and know. In its place is Dennett. Or rather what Dennett would have us think he is and everyone else is.

    Dennett’s human has no experiences. In its place is a whatever-it-is that goes by the name of Dennett and John, etc. This whatever-it-is does no more than read a script. Dennett’s life-forms are actors reading scripts. Dennett’s complaint is that the script is the wrong script. Besides the problem of determining who wrote the script (and if it is ourselves then we might ask what and why we had to observe, and why we had to translate it if we were it) my complaint is that there is no script and that there is no whatever-it-is that reads the script.

    We need not be threatened with nihilism if, against Dennett’s advice, we say that there is no script and no reader of the script. Our relationship to ourselves isn’t one of an actor reading his lines. We don’t have any observer-relationship with ourselves. This isn’t a denial of experience. It places experience and language in the immediacy of the drivers seat.

    It is Dennett who carves up the immediacy of experience and language into pseudo-objects like his whatever-it-is and a script. Folk psychology is entirely Dennett’s and science’s invention, populated as it is by unnameable entities and sourceless scripts.

  2. An interesting extension of John’s discomfort may be found in Richard Swinburne interviewed by Julian Baggini at Swinburne puts forward an anti physicalist argument: for a necessary connection between consciousness and the soul (and ultimately God). This podcast series of Baggini’s may present insights into the content and process of philosophical dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *