On Philosophy

March 21, 2007

Self-Representation And Representation Of The Self

Filed under: Essays,Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

It seems undeniable that we are aware of ourselves, meaning that the self is part of experience, and if everything in experience is there because it is being represented then experience is self-representational. But this is not what is claimed by the self-representational thesis about consciousness. The self-representational thesis claims that experiences represent themselves (or, more loosely, are directed at themselves). Are these two positions, that we are conscious of ourselves and that our experiences are directed at themselves, similar only in name, or does a consistent exploration of the phenomenology of the consciousness of self necessarily entail that that experience is self-representational?

Let us begin with Drummond’s account of the self. Drummond argues that the self cannot be an object of awareness in the way a tree or a book is, assuming that self-awareness is present in every experience, which is a reasonable assumption. If it was then there would be an experience of that awareness of self. And if that experience was conscious then it too would have contain an awareness of the self, leading to an infinite regress. But, on the other hand, if it was unconscious then we would be accepting a kind of higher order theory about consciousness, and higher order theories are generally accepted to be unsatisfying, since they fail to explain how this unconscious awareness of self makes the associated object directed experience conscious.

Given that we recognize that the awareness of self is unlike the awareness of objects we need a new way to talk about it that doesn’t mislead us into thinking of it as an object of awareness. Drummond proposes thinking of it as similar to the genitive case, meaning that the awareness of self is a modification of our awareness of objects, not a separate awareness. For example, when I see my arm I don’t experience “that arm in front of me” I experience “my arm”. And this can be said about any object of experience, although for many cases it does not translate well into a grammatical analogy. In Drummond’s model when I see a tree I see more than just the tree, I “see” certain properties of myself at the same time, for example my spatial relation to the tree. But to characterize this content as “my seeing the tree” is still slightly misleading, since it would seem to indicate that I am reflecting on my experience and, on reflection, am experiencing it as mine, which was not what was meant to be conveyed at all.

This is, I think, Drummond’s primary complaint with the description of the awareness of self put forward by Smith, namely that it is misleading. Obviously Drummond and Smith agree on some of the basic facts; that the subject, the I, is part of the experience itself. But Drummond thinks that the description Smith provides of this phenomena reflects the structure of experience as reported and not the structure of experience as experienced, or, in other words, that it is only something you might say truly about your experience. For example, when I say “the boy catches the ball” the boy is the subject and the ball is the object. But if I say this sentence as a report of what I am experiencing then it implies that both the boy and the ball are objects of my experience. Thus Drummond sees Smith’s formulation “Phenomenally in this very experience I see the green frog” to imply that the I is an object of experience, along with the green frog.

And there are other reasons to believe that Smith’s account reflects the structure of reports about experience more than it does the structure of pre-reflective experience as experienced. For example, in Smith’s description of experience “phenomenally, in this very experience” are part of the content of every experience as experienced. But even if they are there in every experience they are unlikely to appear to us except in reflection, because by being always present we would naturally stop paying attention to them, except possibly in reflection. But if they only appear in reflection we aren’t justified in assuming that they are part of the content of pre-reflective experience. A second reason to doubt the structure of experience as presented by Smith is that it seems to reflect a structure that comes about as a result of trying to communicate our experience to others. To communicate facts about experience I must tell them that it was my experience, instead of the experience of someone else, I must tell them that it was an experience in order to talk about the experience and not about its content, and I must tell them that it was phenomenal, instead of something that I came to know unconsciously. Thus to talk about my experience to other people in a completely unambiguous fashion I must begin descriptions of its content with “Phenomenally in this very experience I …”. But these seem to be features that are only necessary when talking about my experience, and not when I reflect silently upon it. To think about my experience of a jumping frog all I need to think about is “that seen jumping frog”. Although I might add those other descriptions when thinking at a more abstract level they aren’t necessary, and thus the fact that we use them when talking about our experience doesn’t guarantee that they reflect the structure of experience.

But Smith’s account does explain a feature of experience that Drummond’s does not, namely that we experience our selves as existing continuously. In Drummond’s account each experience reveals a self, but there is no necessary reason for these revealed selves to be experienced as a unified self. As far as the account developed above is concerned the subject could be revealed in experience as person A in one moment, B in the next, ect. To provide the needed consistency Drummond appeals to time consciousness. Drummond’s account of time consciousness involves three distinct levels of time, and thus, in my opinion, it “explains too much”. Whatever the merits of that structure is it is simply more than is needed to explain how time consciousness results in the self being experienced as temporally unified. Thus let me instead present a simpler account inspired by that provided by Zahavi. In our time consciousness our retentions and protentions are presented as ours. Just as an experience of a tree presents us by presenting us as in a certain relation to the tree our experience of retentions and protentions presents us by presenting us as in a certain relation to them, namely that we were the ones who experienced, or will experience, them. As it stands then there are still two selves in the picture. One is the self1 who is presented as in a certain relation to the current objects of experience, and as the experiencer of those protentions and retentions, and the other is the self2 that the past experience presented as in a certain relation to the objects of that experience. These collapse into a single self if we accept an additional fact, that in each experience the self is presented as the experiencer of that experience. If that is the case then in the past experience self2 is presented as the experiencer of the experience, and, as we have already established self1 is presented as the experiencer of that past experience in our current experience. Since we think of a given experience as having only a single experiencer then we can conclude that self1 is necessarily the same as self2. And thus from these facts we can see why we experience ourselves as a single, continuously existing, self.

With this consistent phenomenological analysis of the awareness of self in hand we can now return to the original question: does this account of self-awareness imply that experience necessarily represents, or is directed at, itself? Surprisingly we might seem to be forced to accept that conclusion, because in our discussion of how time consciousness gave rise to the sense of a unified self we had to invoke the fact that the self was presented in experience as the experiencer of that experience. If this fact is fundamental to experience, meaning that it is revealed to us pre-reflectively, then it would seem to be the case that our experience was self-reflexive, because each experience would be presenting fact about itself, namely that it was experienced by us.

However, I do not think that there is good reason to believe that the self is presented as the experiencer of experience pre-reflectively, or, at the very least, that we don’t have to accept that conclusion on the basis of the phenomenological account above. Under that phenomenal thesis we have accepted that the self is only presented in relation to the objects of experience. For example, the self was presented as in a certain location because the objects of experience had a location, and that location was in reference to the implied self. If experience was the object of experience it would blur the distinction between reflective experiences, where one does ponder the nature of experience themselves, either thorough memory or through introspection, from non-reflective experiences, since both would contain various experience as their object. Of course it is possible that this difference is a matter of attention, but I don’t think that such an analysis properly conveys the difference between pre-reflective and reflective experiences. Reflective experiences don’t feel like a paying attention to a different part of a pre-reflective experience, they feel like we are turning our attention to a new object. Thus it is natural to say that it is only in reflection that experience becomes an object of experience (almost by definition, since what is reflection except making experience an object of our experience). This also might seem to make retentions and protentions problematic, since they are experiences that have become part of our current experience pre-reflectively. However, I think it is perfectly consistent to treat retentions and protentions much like the self, as modifying our current experience rather than being explicit objects of it. Of course none of this proves conclusively that experience is not a pre-reflective object of experience, but it does show that we don’t have to treat it as such on the basis of our phenomenological thesis about the self. And if this is indeed the case then the self is presented as the experiencer of an experience only in reflection, which means that the self is presented as unified and temporally extended only in reflection. Hopefully this doesn’t seem like a leap of faith; it certainly seems natural to say that such abstract properties of the self appear only in reflection. And this implies that the self is not presented as the experiencer pre-reflectively, and thus that experience is not usually about, or directed at, itself.

Admittedly this proves only a limited conclusion, that there are consistent phenomenological theories about our awareness of self that don’t imply that experience is directed at itself. Although I have argued against both Smith’s account and accounts that would have the self presented as experiencer pre-reflectively I have not refuted these accounts, I have only shown that we don’t have to accept one of them, that there are other plausible accounts that seem to describe our experience. But, even so, there is, as far as I can tell, no a priori way to determine which of these phenomenological accounts is right; when we reflect on our experience we will approach what we find with different expectations, and hence may disagree as to which account is the best characterization of it (although we all will agree that certain accounts fail to reflect experience, or are impossible by being contradictory). And at such a point the matter becomes outside the domain of phenomenology. Certainly there is some fact of the matter about whether experience is directed at itself, but it can’t be settled definitively by studying how experience appears to us.


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