Today Johannes Brandl (University of Salzburg) gave an interesting talk entitled “The Relation Between Phenomenal Consciousness And Self-Awareness: A Persisting Confusion” which was quite enlightening. Below is my summary, based on the notes I took (so a condensed version). Because of my writing style it may seem as if the points I am making are my own, but they are not. Any comments of my own on the content of the talk will be in braces, (that is [like so]). Also note that my notes may contain errors and so the summary below may not be a perfect rendition of the talk; don’t rely on it if you want to seriously engage his claims.
The intertwining of consciousness and self-consciousness is something that analytic philosophy has inherited from phenomenology, resulting in the ubiquity or inseparability thesis, which claims that consciousness of any kind necessarily involves self-consciousness. But this is deeply unintuitive, intuitively these phenomena seem to require different explanations. My goal here is to defend our intuitions against the doctrines inherited by us from phenomenology and to draw a sharper distinction between reflective and pre-reflective experience, an appreciation of which can help us avoid confusions regarding consciousness and self-consciousness.
Intuitively phenomenal consciousness is simply having experiences, and self-consciousness is just awareness of the self, self-knowledge, that is grounded in experience. Intuitively then there is a difference in their cognitive requirements; phenomenal consciousness, requiring only experience, is simpler, and needn’t necessarily result in self-knowledge. Let us also keep in mind the distinction between conceptual and ontological claims. The relevant conceptual claim is that the concept of consciousness is required to understand the concept of self-consciousness. This claim seems trivially obvious, after all the word consciousness is built right into “self-consciousness”. More interesting, and worth debating, is the ontological claim, that consciousness is a more primitive property than self-consciousness, and can exist without it. It is important to keep this distinction in mind, since it is easy to confuse the two kinds of claims.
2 Phenomenological Tradition
Phenomenology is often seen a method of philosophy that is heavily dependant on intuitions, but many of its claims are deeply counter-intuitive, this particular one being a case in point. The phenomenologists claim that consciousness and self-consciousness are inseparable, a claim that has been made by Zahavi in his writings on Husserl, Heidegger, and Sarte, among others. They claim that self-consciousness is part of every experience, and required for it. This claim is an ontological one, although in some places Sarte seems to treat the claim as conceptual as well, saying that consciousness without self-consciousness is absurd. But it does not seem so absurd intuitively. So this is a claim phenomenologists need to prove. But arguments are hard to extract from phenomenologists, so instead we turn to philosophers in the analytic tradition.
3 Gennaro’s Argument
Gennaro favors a higher-order theory of consciousness, which is not a model that is in good graces with the phenomenologists. But he does argue for their inseparability thesis. To get the argument going we must first turn to the logic of consciousness favored by the higher-order theorists such as Rosenburg. The particular distinction that interests us here is between a state being conscious and being conscious of something. The higher-order theorist bases intransitive consciousness in terms of transitive consciousness; they claim that a mental state is conscious only if the subject is conscious of it. We can call this the transitive principle. Additionally higher-order theorists make the additional claim that consciousness of something, when that something is a mental state, only makes that something conscious when it is represented in the right sort of way (that sort of way being unspecified). From these two claims Gennaro’s argument follows as a kind of argument to the best explanation. He argues that since
1. A mental state is conscious because the subject is conscious of it.
2. The subject is conscious of that state in some kind of special way
3. This special way is the fact that the subject is self-consciously conscious of it.
From this argumentative strategy Gennaro claims that the best explanation of why a mental state of conscious is that the subject is self-conscious of it. Obviously each step in this argument is open to criticism though. And, moreover, we could just turn it on its head, showing that we should be intuitively motivated, by the separation of consciousness and self-consciousness, to reject higher-order theories.
4 Block’s Distinction
Before we consider a stronger argument for the inseparability of consciousness and self-consciousness we must first be clear on some distinctions that Block makes. Specifically with respect to Block’s four kinds of consciousness: phenomenal consciousness (p-consciousness), access consciousness (a-consciousness), self-consciousness, and monitoring consciousness. Some of Block’s claims about these kinds of consciousness are as follows: He claims that p-consciousness is indefinable, that it is learnt in a distinctively first person way, and that it fits with a biological conception of the mind. He claims that a-consciousness is definable, as a state that is poised to be used in reasoning, action, and speech. More controversially he claims that p-consciousness can exist without a-consciousness, based on situations where we supposedly have access to some input but aren’t phenomenally conscious of it (habituated perception), and that a-consciousness can exist without p-consciousness, which he argues for by reflecting on examples like super-blindsight.
5&6 Kriegal’s Argument
Kriegal is going to argue that Block is partly wrong, and that a proper correction of his error leads to an understanding of consciousness in which it can’t occur without self-consciousness. This argument based largely on a paper of Kriegal’s entitled “Consciousness: Phenomenal Consciousness, Access Consciousness, And Scientific Practice”. Kriegal’s premises are as follows:
K1: Let’s admit that there is a clear conceptual distinction between p-consciousness and a-consciousness; p-consciousness is not dispositional, and a-consciousness is.
K2: The phenomenal character of a conscious mental state consists of qualitative and subjective character.
K3: Let’s call the categorical basis of accessibility (a-consciousness) subjective character [the categorical basis is the properties that give something a particular disposition; in my terms (since I identify properties with causal deposition) I would instead say that subjective character is the entity, defined categorically, that explains a-consciousness as part of some theory about it].
Kreigal agrees with Block that a-consciousness can exist without p-consciousness. But he denies that p-consciousness can exist without a-consciousness. He argues that in the case of habituated perceptions both a-consciousness and p-consciousness are missing, arguing that subjective character, the basis of a-consciousness, is missing, and so a-consciousness cannot be present.
So far we understand subjective character as both a necessary part of p-consciousness, and as the basis of a-consciousness. Let us further define subjective character as the sense of our ownership of mental state, of them having a “me-ish” character. Even Block said that p-consciousness seemed “me-ish”; that “me-ish”-ness is their subjective character. Now we can argue that:
P1: That primitive self-consciousness (subjective character) is a necessary component of p-consciousness.
P2: Primitive self-consciousness (subjective character) is the categorical basis of a-consciousness.
P3: All consciousness is p-consciousness or a-consciousness.
∴ From the above it follows that all consciousness involves primitive self-consciousness.
Unfortunately the fact that we have two arguments for the conclusion that self-consciousness is a necessary part of consciousness actually weakens the position, since the arguments treat self-consciousness as something different, revealing a fundamental ambiguity in the use of the term.
7 What Is Subjective Character?
Let us investigate this subjective character a little more thoroughly. We must ask ourselves: how does experience acquire this subjective character and become conscious? Different theories will yield different explanations, three of which being:
1: higher-order theories- experience has subjective character because another thought is directed at it in the right way.
2: self-representational theories- experience has subjective character because the experience is representing itself.
3: global broadcasting theories- experience has subjective character because they are made globally available for reflection, action, ect.
And these three theories are not totally unrelated. The structures of one can be seen as building on the others. A system doing the right kind of global broadcasting could give rise to self-representational experiences. And a system with self-representational experiences might also contain higher order experiences directed at other experiences. And, furthermore, this makes the inseparability thesis ambiguous. Is it supposed to be the subjective character that is generated by higher order thought, or by self-representation, or by broadcasting that is a necessary part of consciousness?
8 Saving Our Intuitions
Going back to our original definition of self-consciousness, we defined self-consciousness as self-knowledge on the basis of experience. This would seem to indicate that it is the subjective character generated by higher order thought that is self-consciousness. The subjective character generated by self-representation and global broadcasting can be seen as being part of consciousness that is not self-conscious, saving our intuition that the two are distinct. Furthermore the distinction between self-representational subjective character and global broadcasting subjective character can be seen as lending support to a further intuitive distinction, that between reflective and pre-reflective consciousness, although perhaps that is a topic for another time.
The conclusion to draw from all of this is that the analytic arguments for the inseparability thesis backfire. They instead reveal that there are different kinds of subjective character, each equally candidates for primitive self-consciousness. And hence we can pick whichever one we like so as to best retain our intuitions.
[My impressions of this talk were favorable overall. It was very sharp, and brought a number of interesting distinctions into focus. My only quibble is with defining self-consciousness as self-knowledge. I admit that the term is ambiguous, but in my mind it is associated more closely with self-awareness, which in turn seems like access awareness to information about the self. Which happens at basically the most fundamental level (it is the basic me-ish-ness of experiences, not the structured and conceptualized me-ish-ness), and in my theory about consciousness it is required for any experience to be conscious. But this is not a point of contention about content, it is a point of contention about naming. So no matter what your opinions are about what we should label with the term “self-consciousness” it is important to take away the lesson that there are several possibilities, and that to avoid error through equivocation or vagueness you must specify what kind of subjective character you are designating with the term; don’t leave it up to the reader’s interpretation.]