Conceptual issues regarding the sense of self (Day 1)


Although the notion of sense of self is seldom discussed as such, several related notions are the object of ongoing debates in contemporary philosophy of mind. According to an influential definition, a mental state is phenomenally conscious if and only if there is something it is like for someone to be in that state (Nagel, 1974). Most philosophical discussions on the topic have focused on the qualitative character of phenomenal consciousness, made up by the various qualitative properties that constitute what it is like to be in a given conscious state. For instance, if I have a visual experience of a red apple, the qualitative character of the conscious state in which I am is determined by the apple’s redness and roundness, among other qualitative properties. Such qualitative properties distinguish this particular conscious state from any others. However, several authors have recently argued that these qualitative properties are not all there is to phenomenal consciousness. Indeed, they claim that consciousness also exhibits what they call a subjective character, corresponding to the fact that there is something it is like to be in a given (token) conscious state not just for anyone, but only for me. This for-me-ness, as they also call it, would be the common denominator between all my conscious experiences (Horgan, Tienson, & George, 2006; Kriegel, 2005; Levine, 2001; Zahavi & Kriegel, 2016).

The notions of subjective character and for-me-ness are not simply intended to refer to the formal requirement that any experience belong to a subject of experience (which can itself be construed in strictly physical terms, such as an organism). Instead, it is meant to stem from a phenomenological claim about the structure of conscious experience. It is difficult, however, to find an unequivocal formulation of this claim. Some of the prominent proponents of the notion of for-me-ness go so far as to equate it with a form of self-consciousness,  characterised as “intransitive” (Kriegel, 2003) or “pre-reflective” (Zahavi, 2014). One way to understand these qualifications consists in saying that for-me-ness does not rely on a relation between a higher-order state and a lower-order state (intransitivity); nor does it rely on the ability to think about oneself and form de se thoughts (pre-reflexivity). But saying what for-me-ness is not is hardly sufficient to get a good grasp of what it is, and positive definitions the notion are not always easy to understand. For instance, it has been said that for-me-ness designates the “quality of mineness” that all my conscious experiences have in common, because they are characterised by a “first-personal givenness”; or that it refers to “the self-presentational character of experience and to the entailed experiential perspectivalness” (Zahavi, 2005, 2014; Zahavi & Kriegel, 2016).

This lexical difficulty might be partially explained by the elusive and complex nature of the topic. However, there are two sets of deeper issues related to this debate:

Set of issues #1 – disambiguation

The expressions “subjective character of consciousness”, “for-me-ness”, “sense of mineness” and “first-personal givenness”, often used as synonyms, are ambiguous, and might conflate at least three different notions, as Marie Guillot has convincingly argued (Guillot, 2016):

(a) An awareness of one’s occurrent experience (inner awareness)
(b) An awareness of one’s occurrent experience as one’s own (mineness stricto sensu)
(c) An awareness of oneself (self-awareness stricto sensu)

This disambiguation leads to the following questions:

First, how should we positively define and distinguish the notions (a)-(c)?

Second, are any of these features really part of the structure of ordinary conscious experience? Is there strong phenomenological evidence for any of them?

If so, are any of these features necessary for consciousness in general? Is there strong phenomenological evidence for any of them across anomalous/pathological cases such as thought insertion, autoscopic phenomena, full-body illusions, drug-induced states, meditative states and dreaming?

The notion of “sense of self” is often associated with a (minimal) kind of self-awareness, as in (c); therefore, a specific question regards whether or not one is minimally self-aware whenever one is conscious.

Set of issues #2 – questioning ubiquity and primitiveness

Proponents of subjective character/for-me-ness typically endorse two claims:

(Ubiquity) There are no contrast cases in which a conscious state might lack for-me-ness, such that a comparative study could reveal what for-me-ness amounts to.

(Primitiveness) For-me-ness is a primitive property of experience, which cannot be reduced to simpler aspects.

Taken together, these two claims might explain the difficulty to define for-me-ness in a way that avoids circularity. However, a different approach is possible:

  1. Against (Ubiquity), one can draw on the scientific study of empirical cases in which self-experience is disrupted, instead of simply relying on philosophical intuitions about the structure of ordinary conscious experience.
  2. Against (Primitiveness), one can favour a reductionist account, according to which “our sense of self if not the product of a single simple form of experience, but rather the joint product of several different sorts of (quite ordinary) experiences” (Dainton, 2008, p. 243).

This analysis yields the following questions:

Are there contrast cases for any of the notions (a)-(c) mentioned above?

Can any of the notions (a)-(c) be reduced to simpler components?

Can any of the notions (a)-(c) be naturalized/explained within a scientific framework?

Again, the notion of “sense of self” is typically associated with a (minimal) kind of self-awareness, as in (c); therefore, specific questions regard whether or not there are contrast cases which lack such minimal self-awareness, and whether or not such minimal self-awareness can be reduced to simpler components.