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Published in Phenomenology and the cognitive sciences 1/1, 2002, 7-26.

Please quote from

published version

First-person thoughts and embodied self-awareness:

Some reflections on the relation between recent analytical philosophy and phenomenology i

Dan Zahavi
Danish University of Education

ABSTRACT: The article examines some of the main theses about self-awareness developed
in recent analytic philosophy of mind (especially the work of Bermúdez), and points to a
number of striking overlaps between these accounts and the ones to be found in
phenomenology. Given the real risk of unintended repetitions, it is argued that it would be
counterproductive for philosophy of mind to ignore already existing resources, and that both
analytical philosophy and phenomenology would profit from a more open exchange.

In recent years the issues of subjectivity, phenomenal consciousness, and selfhood have once again
become central and respectable topics in analytical philosophy. After a long period of neobehaviorist
functionalism it is nowadays almost commonplace to argue that the experiential or first-personal
dimension of consciousness must be taken seriously, since an important and non-negligible feature of
consciousness is the way in which it is experienced by the subject.
Given this realization, how and where should one start the investigation? One
possibility -- apparently favored by the first generation of analytical revivalists (Searle and Nagel) -- is
to start from scratch. That is, rather than making use of results already obtained, one attempts to
investigate the experiential dimension on one’s own (with a bit of help from common sense
psychology). While there might be something laudable about this endeavor, there is however also a
real risk involved; the risk of unintended repetition and reformulation. For example, there are themes
in Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (1986) which strongly resemble discussions in Natorp’s
Allgemeine Psychologie (1912) and in Husserl’s Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und
phänomenologischen Philosophie I (1976, original: 1913), and there is a striking resemblance
between ideas in Searle’s Intentionality (1983) and in Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen (1984,
original: 1900-1).
Lately there seems to be a growing awareness of the limitations of this approach. That is,
while it is still acknowledged that the investigation of consciousness has to take the first-person
perspective and the experiential dimension seriously, it is now realized 1) that this investigation calls
for a disciplined approach, i.e., a reliable methodology, and 2) that there are existing resources to
draw upon, which contain rich descriptive and systematic accounts of consciousness; resources
which shouldn’t be ignored. Who is it that is being rediscovered in these years? Mainly two figures:
Kant and James. Let me provide a few examples:
First, in his recent book Kant and the Mind Andrew Brook writes: “Like other philosophers,
Kant was interested primarily in four questions about the mind: What can it do? How does it do it?
What is its awareness of itself like? And what is it like? [...] Not only have Kant’s discoveries
concerning each of these issues not been superseded by more recent work on the mind, they have
not even been assimilated by it” (Brook 1994, 1). ii
As for a reappraisal of James’s significance for the contemporary study of the mind, one
might quote from Bernard Baars’s recent book In the Theater of Consciousness: “By wide consent the
foremost work on human mental processes, even today, is William James’ Principles of Psychology”
(Baars, 1997, p. 15). James’s work contains detailed analyses of such diverse topics as selective
attention, mental imagery, habits, volition, self-awareness, and the nature of the stream of
consciousness. Thus Baars continues: “On many of these topics James’ thinking is fully up to date,
and it is embarrassing but true that much of the time he is still ahead of the scientific curve” (Baars,
1997, p. 16).iii
On the one hand, such developments are very encouraging, on the other hand, there is also
something rather strange about it. Given the recent interest in phenomenal consciousness, given that
more and more people even argue for the need of giving phenomenology its due, iv and given the
growing realization that there are important resources to be found in the philosophical tradition, why
do contemporary cognitive science and analytical philosophy of mind return all the way to Kant and
James? Why do they (with the exception of a select few) bypass the continental philosophical
tradition known as phenomenology, and why do they ignore the contributions and analyses of people
like Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Henry?
One reason why a fruitful dialogue has proven so difficult is that it takes time to acquaint
oneself with phenomenology. It has evolved as an independent tradition, with its own method, topics,
and rather complex terminology. Another tremendous hindrance has undoubtedly been the persisting
propagation of stereotypic caricatures. In a recent interview, for instance, Searle described the
difference between analytical philosophy and continental philosophy by saying that whereas
continental philosophy simply regards philosophy as some kind of literature, analytical philosophy is
characterized by its search for truth, its insistence on clarity, and its emphasis on careful
argumentation (Searle, 2001). And, to mention just one further example, if one consults the entry on
Husserl in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, one will learn that Frege took Husserl’s initial work to
be characterized by an ‘impenetrable fog’, that Husserl had a penchant for an obscure terminology,
but that he is well-known for having advocated a transcendental idealism which bracketed all external
questions, and took a solipsistic, disembodied Cartesian ego as its starting point (Blackburn, 1994, p.
181). Such a (flawed) presentation might easily extinguish any initial interest.
To put it bluntly, given some of the recent developments in analytical philosophy of mind it
would simply be counterproductive to continue to ignore the rich and refined accounts of
consciousness that phenomenology can provide. The fact that subjectivity has always been of central
concern for phenomenologists, and that they have devoted much time to a close scrutiny of the first
person perspective, the structures of experience, time-consciousness, body-awareness, self-
awareness, intentionality, and so forth, makes them into obvious interlocutors.

A recent example of analytic philosophy

In the following, I wish to substantiate this claim by way of a concrete example. I have
decided to pick a recent work on self-awareness written by an analytical philosopher. I will outline
some of the main ideas developed in this work, and then turn to phenomenology in order to
demonstrate the overlap. The book I have chosen as an example of a contemporary analytical
approach is José Luis Bermúdez’s book from 1998: The Paradox of Self-Consciousness.
But before I present some of his central theses, let me briefly exemplify one of the positions
that Bermúdez is reacting against, the view namely that infants lack self-awareness. In an even more
recent work, Persons and Bodies, Lynne Rudder Baker argues that all sentient beings are subjects of
experience, they all have perspectival attitudes, and they all experience the world from their own
egocentric perspective. In doing so they show that they are in possession of what Baker calls weak
first-person phenomena (2000, pp. 60, 67). But merely having a subjective point of view is not enough
for having self-awareness. In order to be in possession of self-awareness, in order to be in
possession of what Baker calls strong first-person phenomena, one must be able to think of oneself
as oneself. It is not enough to have desires and beliefs, it is not enough to have a perspectival
attitude, it is not enough to be able to distinguish between self and nonself, one must also be able to
conceptualize this distinction. As Baker writes,

I shall reserve the term ‘first-person perspective’ for the subjects of strong first-person
phenomena. To have a first-person perspective, then, is not just to have a
phenomenological point of view in the sense of having mental episodes that ‘can be
directly apprehended in consciousness by virtue of their felt quality.’ [...] One has a
first-person perspective if and only if one has the ability to conceive of oneself as
oneself*, where this ability is signaled by the linguistic ability to attribute (as well as to
make) first-person reference to oneself. (Baker, 2000, pp. 67-68).

Since Baker takes this first-person perspective to be a necessary condition for any form of self-
awareness, she argues that self-awareness presupposes the possession of a first-person concept.
One is only self-conscious the moment one can conceive of oneself as oneself, and has the linguistic
ability to use the first-person pronoun to refer to oneself (Baker, 2000, p. 68).
Baker obviously takes self-awareness to be something that emerges in the course of a
developmental process, and to depend upon the eventual acquisition of concepts and language. But
is this position philosophically sound, and does it actually match recent findings in the psychology of
perception and developmental psychology (cf. such authors as Gibson, Stern, Butterworth, and
Neisser), or does it not rather adopt a far too cognitive and conceptual take on self-awareness? As
such, the distinction between weak and strong first-person phenomena seems felicitous. The
question, however, is why Baker takes self-awareness to be a strong first-person phenomenon?
This would probably also be the question posed by Bermúdez, who in his book sets out to
criticize what might be called the deflationary language-philosophical account of self-awareness.
According to this view all that is worth knowing about self-awareness is to be learned through a study
of the mechanisms of linguistic self-reference. When it comes to self-awareness, we consequently
have to study the use of the first-person pronoun since it is this that enables us to think ‘I’-thoughts.
But this account is faced with the following problem. It characterizes successful mastery of the first-
person pronoun, so that the speaker knows that she is referring to herself when saying ‘I’. That is, the
very mastery of the first-person pronoun presupposes possession of self-conscious thoughts. Or to
put it differently, linguistic self-reference articulates self-awareness, it doesn’t bring it about.
Given this situation, there seems to be good reasons to broaden our investigation if we wish
for a more adequate understanding of what self-awareness amounts to. This is exactly what
Bermúdez sets out to do. He argues that we need to acknowledge the existence of nonconceptual
and prelinguistic forms of self-awareness that are “logically and ontogenetically more primitive than
the higher forms of self-consciousness that are usually the focus of philosophical debate” (Bermúdez,
1998, p. 274). In other words, the task he sets himself is to demonstrate the existence of forms of self-
awareness which precede the mastery of language and the ability to form full blown rational
judgements and propositional attitudes.
How does Bermúdez set about doing this? Some evidence for the existence of prelinguistic
and preconceptual types of self-awareness can be found in developmental psychology. One example
among many is the study of the reaching behavior of young infants: There is a marked behavioral
difference between the infant’s attitude toward an object which is within its reach and an object which
is outside its reach. The infant is far less inclined to reach out for an object that is outside its reach.
Thus, the infant can discriminate between the two. But of course, for the infant to be able to make this
distinction is for the infant to be aware of the position of the object in relation to itself. That is, the
infant has to be in possession of what is known as self-specifying information (Bermúdez, 1998, p.
127). When we are confronted with the purposeful and intentional behavior of prelinguistic infants, an
inference to best explanation consequently requires that we ascribe them nonconceptual first-person
thoughts (Bermúdez, 1998, pp. 122, 271). More generally speaking, Bermúdez draws on Gibson’s
ideas about the existence of self-specifying information in exteroception. As Gibson puts it, all
perception involves a kind of self-sensitivity, all perception involves co-perception of self and of
environment. Since the very flow pattern of optical information provides us with an awareness of our
own movement and posture, even ordinary perception can be said to involve a weak form of
nonconceptual self-awareness (Gibson, 1979, pp. 111-126).
Having established this, Bermúdez continues by analyzing the nonconceptual self-awareness
to be found in somatic proprioception. When you touch a table, you are not only becoming aware of
the table, but also of yourself as a touching and moving body. Every tactile experience is both
exteroceptive and proprioceptive, it allows for an awareness of the distinction between self and non-
self, and it as well can consequently be said to entail a weak form of self-awareness (Bermúdez,
1998, p. 149). This view is further supported by the fact that our proprioception is immune to the error
of misidentification. I can see a limb and be mistaken about whether it is mine or not, but (excepting
certain neurological and psychopathological disorders) I cannot move a limb and make the same
According to Bermúdez the two primitive forms of nonconceptual self-awareness outlined so
far are in place already from birth or shortly after. They obviously do not presuppose the existence of
language-use, but can, on the contrary, serve as a foundation for more advanced types of self-
awareness. As Bermúdez writes: “If the pick-up of self-specifying information starts at the very
beginning of life, then there ceases to be so much of a problem about how entry into the first-person
perspective is achieved. In a very important sense, infants are born into the first-person perspective. It
is not something that they have to acquire ab initio.”(Bermúdez, 1998, p. 128). However, the task is
not simply to find examples of nonconceptual forms of self-awareness, but also to explain how these
forms can give rise to fully fledged conceptual types of self-awareness, thereby making the latter
comprehensible. And the two variants considered so far are still too primitive to do the job. Are there
more developed forms of nonconceptual self-awareness around, which can provide us with richer
notions of self, and thereby serve as an actual bridge to the conceptual forms? Let me just mention
the last and most advanced type discussed by Bermúdez, namely the one he calls psychological self-
awareness, which is a nonconceptual consciousness of oneself as a bearer of psychological
properties. According to Bermúdez this ability to take oneself as a distinct psychological individual
arises in and through the interaction with other psychological subjects (Bermúdez, 1998, p. 242).
Social interaction can consequently give rise to higher and more developed forms of nonconceptual
and nonlinguistic self-awareness.
Bermúdez’s main theses can be recapitulated in the following way:
1. A criticism of the idea that self-awareness is merely a question of linguistic self-reference.
2. A distinction between those forms of full-fledged self-awareness that presuppose mastery
of the first-person pronoun and those primitive forms of self-awareness that do not
presuppose any such linguistic or conceptual mastery.
3. An argument to the effect that
a. exteroception involves a weak form of prelinguistic self-awareness.
b. proprioception involves a weak form of prelinguistic self-awareness.
c. social interaction can give rise to more developed forms of prelinguistic self-
I happen to find myself in agreement with all of the proposed theses, and I also think that most
phenomenologists would agree with them. In fact, and this is obviously the point I wish to make, I do
not think that Bermúdez’s theses are all that new to people acquainted with the phenomenological
tradition. On the contrary, all of them can be found in one form or the other in the work of such
authors as Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Henry. Let me in the following section point to
some of the matching findings in phenomenology.

The phenomenology of self-awareness

First-personal self-reference and phenomenal consciousness
Phenomenologists have typically argued that self-awareness cannot be reduced to reflective
(thematic, conceptual, mediated) self-awareness. On the contrary, reflective self-awareness
presupposes prereflective (unthematic, tacit, nonconceptual, immediate) self-awareness. It is mainly
Sartre who is associated with this distinction, but it can also be found in the other phenomenologists.
In contrast to what is frequently the case, not only in psychological literature, but also in some
contemporary analytical philosophy of mind, self-awareness is not taken to be something that only
comes about the moment I realize that I am perceiving Notre-Dame de Paris, or realize that I am the
bearer of private mental states, or identify my own mirror image, or refer to myself using the first-
person pronoun. On the contrary, it is claimed that it is legitimate to speak of a primitive type of self-
awareness whenever I am conscious of my feeling of joy, or my burning thirst, or my perception of the
Cathedral of Notre-Dame. If the experience is given in a first-personal mode of presentation to me, it
is (at least tacitly) given as my experience, and can therefore count as a case of self-awareness. That
is, it is taken to be legitimate to speak of self-awareness insofar as I am not simply conscious of a
foreign object, but of my experience of the object as well, for in this case my subjectivity reveals itself
to me.
Thus, the basic distinction to be made is the distinction between the case where an object is
given (object-consciousness) and the case where consciousness itself is given (self-consciousness).
But consciousness is not only given when we reflect on it, it is already given prior to reflection, namely
whenever we undergo an experience in its first-personal mode of givenness, that is, whenever there
is a ‘what it is like’ involved with its inherent quality of ‘mineness’. This is why Sartre can write that it is
just as necessary for an experience to exist self-consciously, as it is for an extended object to exist
three-dimensionally. To use the standard example: A pain is necessarily painful. It can only exist
consciously, that is, the pain and the feeling of pain cannot be separated (Sartre, 1976, pp. 20-21,
Sartre, 1948, pp. 64-65). This reasoning, highly convincing as it is when it comes to feelings of pain or
pleasure, is such as to hold true, both Sartre and Husserl insist, of all experiences (Sartre, 1943, p.
20; Husserl, 1966a, p. 291).
Given this definition, it should be obvious that the phenomenological discussion of self-
awareness has affinities to the contemporary discussion of phenomenal consciousness. In fact,
phenomenal consciousness is precisely interpreted as a primitive form of self-awareness. To undergo
an experience necessarily means that there is something ‘it is like’ for the subject to have that
experience. But insofar as there is something it is like for the subject to have the experience, there
must be some awareness of the experience itself, in short, there must be some minimal form of self--
awareness (cf. Flanagan, 1992, p. 194). To be in possession of this type of self-awareness is
consequently simply to be conscious of one’s occurrent experience. And obviously, this type of self-
awareness is not of the reflective or linguistic type. As Husserl writes: “The actual life and lived-
experiencing is of course always conscious, but it is not therefore always thematically experienced
and known. For that a new pulse of actual life is necessary, a so-called reflective or immanently
directed experience”(Husserl, 1987, p. 89).
Let me forestall a possible objection, namely that this definition of self-awareness is too broad
and that it simply includes too much. That is, since it doesn’t match our everyday or folk-psychological
notion of self-awareness (that tends to link the notion with our ability to recognize or identify ourselves
in a thematic way) the present use of the term is inappropriate. I don’t think this objection carries a lot
of weight. From a conceptual point of view, there are no intrinsic problems whatsoever in using the
term ‘self-awareness’ to designate a situation where consciousness is aware of itself, or given to
itself. Secondly, it is a simple fact that many of the classical philosophical theories of self-awareness
as well as the more recent contributions by such thinkers as Brentano, Husserl, Sartre, Henry,
Henrich, Frank, etc. have exactly been discussions of this broad notion.
One of the characteristic features of the phenomenological discussion of self-awareness is
that it (with good reasons) combines two topics that are frequently kept apart by analytical
philosophers. On the one hand, the analysis can be seen as a contribution to the understanding of
first-person reference and perspective. Just like Castañeda, Perry, Nagel, Cassam and others in the
analytic tradition, the phenomenologists argue that the types of self-reference available from a first-
person perspective and from a third-person perspective are utterly different. They have typically
claimed that first-personal self-reference owes its uniqueness to the fact that we are acquainted with
our own subjectivity in a way that differs radically from the way in which we are acquainted with
objects. On the other hand, however, the phenomenological discussion of self-awareness is equally
concerned with the question (also raised by Dretske, Lycan, Tye, Rosenthal, and others) of what it is
that makes a mental state conscious, that is, what it is that makes it manifest itself subjectively? This
question is of course the question about phenomenal consciousness, and here the phenomenologists
have all criticized the so-called reflection-theoretical paradigm of self-awareness, which can be seen
as the precursor to the currently popular higher-order representation theories. Let me present this
criticism in some detail.v

The criticism of higher-order representation

It is customary to distinguish between two uses of the term ‘conscious’, a transitive and an
intransitive use. On the one hand, we can say of an experience that it is conscious of x, y or z. On the
other hand, we can say of an experience that it is conscious simpliciter (rather than unconscious).
According to the higher-order representation theories, intransitive consciousness is a relational
property (Rosenthal, 1997, pp. 736-737). For a mental state to be intransitively conscious is for it to
be accompanied by a suitable higher-order representation, namely a higher-order thought or
perception about that state. It is this higher-order representation that confers intransitive
consciousness on the mental state it is about. In fact "the mental state's being intransitively
conscious simply consists in one's being transitively conscious of it" (Rosenthal, 1997, pp. 739). One
implication of this position is that creatures lacking the cognitive resources to entertain these higher-
order representations, also lack conscious mental states. Thus, in the view of one of the advocates of
this approach (Carruthers, 1998, p. 216) animals as well as infants under the age of three have no
phenomenal consciousness, have no dimension of subjectivity. They are blind to the existence of their
own experiences, there is in fact nothing it is like for them to feel pain or pleasure. Although some
might take this extremely counterintuitive implication to serve by itself as a reductio ad absurdum of
the higher-order representation theories, there are other problems as well. One of the crucial
problems is connected to the following fundamental question: How can the interaction between two
otherwise unconscious processes cause one of them to become conscious? How can the fact of
being the intentional object of an unconscious second-order state confer first-personal givenness or
‘mineness’ on an otherwise unconscious first-order mental state?
The higher-order representation theories claim that a certain mental state in order to manifest
itself phenomenally (and not merely remain unconscious) must await its objectification by a
subsequent second-order thought or perception. However, it is not enough for these theories to
explain how a certain state becomes conscious. They must also explain how the state comes to be
given as my state. Why? Because when one is directly and non-inferentially conscious of an occurrent
pain, perception, or thought, the experience in question is characterized by a first-personal givenness
that immediately reveals it as being one’s own. In this sense the first-personal givenness of the
experience can be said to entail a built-in self-reference, a primitive experiential self-referentiality,
which is exactly what the higher-order representation theories have to account for. But in order for the
experience to appear as my experience, as an experience or state that I am in, it is not sufficient that
the experience in question (A) is grasped by a second-order thought or perception (B). If A is to be
given as mine, it is not enough that B is de facto about A. B must recognize itself in A. That is, the
first-order experience must be grasped as being identical with the second-order state (and since a
numerical identity is excluded, the identity in question must be that of belonging to the same subject
or being part of the same stream of consciousness). This poses a difficulty, however, for what should
enable the unconscious second-order state to realize that the first-order experience belongs to the
same subjectivity as itself? In order to identify something as oneself one has to hold something true of
it that one already knows to be true of oneself. That is, if the second-order state is to encounter
something as itself, if it is to recognize or identify something as itself, it obviously needs a prior
acquaintance with itself (Cramer, 1974, p. 563). Consequently, the second-order mental state must
await either a third-order mental state that can confer intransitive consciousness on it, in which case
we are obviously confronted with a vicious infinite regress, or it must be admitted that the second-
order mental state is itself already in possession of phenomenal consciousness from the very start.
and that, of course, would involve us in a circular explanation, presupposing that which was meant to
be explained, and implicitly rejecting the thesis of the higher-order representation theories: That all
phenomenal consciousness is brought about by a process of higher-order representation (cf. Henrich,
1970; 1982; Frank 1991).
Any convincing theory of consciousness has to account for the first-personal or egocentric
givenness of our conscious states, and has to respect the difference between our consciousness of a
foreign object, and our consciousness of our own subjectivity. Any convincing theory of
consciousness has to be able to explain the distinction between intentionality, which is characterized
by a difference between the subject and the object of experience, and self-consciousness, which
implies some form of identity. But this is exactly what the higher-order representation theories fail to
do. Thus, it is highly questionable whether one can account for the first-personal givenness of
phenomenal consciousness by sticking to a traditional model of object-consciousness and then simply
replace the external object with an internal one. When one is aware of one’s occurrent thoughts,
feelings, beliefs and desires, one is not confronted with objects of any sort, and this is exactly what
the higher-order representation theories overlook.
The general lesson to learn from this argument is that there are good reasons not to take
intransitive consciousness as a relational property, since every relation, especially the subject-object
relation, presupposes a distinction between two (or more) relata and this is exactly what generates
the problem. That is, the first-personal givenness of experience should not be taken as the result of a
higher-order representation, reflection, internal monitoring or introspection, but rather be treated as an
intrinsic quality of experience.
The criticism directed against the attempt to understand phenomenal consciousness as a
result of a higher-order representation is not meant to imply that such a higher-order representation is
impossible, or that consciousness cannot direct its intentional ‘gaze’ at itself and thereby take itself as
its own object. Rather, the point is that this form of reflective self-awareness (or ‘higher-order
representation’) is derivative, and that it always presupposes the existence of a prior unthematic, non-
objectifying, prereflective self-awareness as its condition of possibility. The first-order mental state
must already be tacitly self-conscious, since it is the fact of it being already mine, already being given
in the first-personal mode of presentation that allows me to thematize it in reflection. And the second-
order mental state must also already be prereflective self-conscious, since it is this that permits it to
recognize the first-order state as belonging to the same subjectivity as itself (Henry, 1965, pp. 76,
153). Whereas the higher-order representation theories might throw light upon explicit self-
experience, they cannot explain the origin of self-awareness as such, they cannot account for the
first-person perspective as such.
As Husserl argued in his famous lectures on inner time-consciousness: an experience is
conscious of itself at the time of its occurrence (Husserl, 1966a; see Zahavi, 1999, pp. 63-90). If we
are to avoid an infinite regress, this primitive prereflective self-awareness cannot be due to a
secondary act or reflex but must be a constitutive aspect of the experience itself. Being intentionally
aware of objects, the experience is simultaneously self-conscious through and in itself. Metaphorically
speaking, subjective experience is characterized by a certain self-luminosity. It can be compared to a
flame, which illuminates other things and itself as well.
However, and this must be repeatedly emphasized, to speak of prereflective self-awareness
is not to speak of a thematic self-consciousness (Sartre, 1988, pp. 23-24, 66; 1976, p. 19). Thus, the
self-awareness in question might well be accompanied by fundamental ignorance. Although I cannot
be unconscious of my present experience, I might very well ignore it in favor of its object, and this is of
course the natural attitude. In my everyday life, I am absorbed by and preoccupied with projects and
objects in the world, and do not single out my experiential life for special attention. Thus prereflective
self-awareness is obviously not to be understood as total self-comprehension, but is rather to be
likened to a pre-comprehension, that allows for subsequent reflection and thematization.
This critique of higher-representation theory is quite consistent with Bermúdez's analysis of
nonconceptual self-awareness, and it should be obvious that there are a number of affinities between
Bermúdez’s position and the phenomenological approach outlined above. Not only can the
phenomenological perspective on self-awareness accommodate the existence of prelinguistic and
nonconceptual forms of self-awareness. Through its criticism of the higher-order representation
theories it can also provide additional arguments for their existence. In fact, to argue that phenomenal
consciousness as such entails a primitive form of self-awareness is to make the strongest case
possible for the existence of prelinguistic and nonconceptual forms of self-awareness. Of course, this
is not to deny, that there are also more advanced forms of self-awareness which do in fact
presuppose the use of language, but the primitive self-awareness which is part and parcel of
phenomenal consciousness is independent of such conceptual sophistication.
The phenomenological analysis not only corroborates Bermúdez’s thesis, however. It also fills
in a gap in his line of argumentation, namely the conspicuous absence of any reflections on the
nature of experience and phenomenal consciousness. To illustrate: Bermúdez argues that the best
explanation of the reaching behavior of infants is to ascribe to them self-conscious mental states. But
if a specific reaching behavior is taken to be sufficient for the ascription of self-awareness, Bermúdez
is apparently faced with the unpleasant situation of also having to ascribe self-awareness to say
industrial robots. I doubt he would be prepared to do so. Why not? Because it would be natural to
argue that in order for an entity to be in possession of self-awareness, it is not enough that the entity
in question behaves in a certain way. It also has to be in possession of experiences, and it must
behave as it does because it has the experiences it has. To put it differently, any reasonable
ascription of self-awareness cannot bypass a discussion of the relationship between the experiential
dimension and self-awareness, and as we have seen this is exactly what the phenomenological
tradition can provide.

Embodied self-awareness
When it comes to the Gibsonian idea, emphasized by Bermúdez, that exteroception and
proprioception involve some weak form of self-awareness, it is also easy to find corresponding claims
in the phenomenological literature.
If we start with Husserl, a predominant feature in his analysis of perception is his reflections
concerning the adumbrational givenness of the perceptual (spatio-temporal) object. The object is
never given in its totality, but always appears from a certain perspective. That which appears
perspectivally always appears oriented. Since it also presents itself from a certain angle and at a
certain distance from the observer, the point should be obvious. Every perspectival appearance
presupposes that the experiencing subject has itself a relation to space, and since the subject only
possesses a spatial location due to its embodiment (Husserl, 1976, p. 116; 1952, p. 33; 1973a, p.
239), Husserl argues that spatial objects can only appear for embodied subjects.
These reflections concerning the body’s function as a condition of possibility for perceptual
intentionality are radicalized the moment it is realized how intrinsically intertwined perception and
movement are. Our perception is not a matter of passive reception but of active exploration. The body
does not merely function as a stable center of orientation. Its mobility is also of decisive importance.
As Gibson points out, we see with mobile eyes set in a head that can turn and is attached to a body
that can move from place to place; a stationary point of view is only the limiting case of a mobile point
of view (Gibson, 1979, pp. 53, 205). In a similar manner, Husserl calls attention to the importance of
bodily movements (the movement of the eyes, the touch of the hand, the step of the body, and so
forth) for the experience of space and spatial objects (Husserl, 1966b, p. 299). Ultimately, he claims
that perception is correlated to and accompanied by the self-sensing or self-affection of the moving
body. When I touch the surface of an apple, the apple is given in conjunction with a sensing of finger-
movement. When I watch the flight of a bird, the moving bird is given in conjunction with the sensing
of eye-movement (Husserl, 1966b, pp. 14-15).
However, Husserl’s thesis is not merely that the subject can only perceive objects and utilize
utensils if it has a body, but that it can only perceive and use objects if it is a body, i.e., if we are
dealing with an embodied subjectivity. Let us assume that I am sitting in a restaurant. I wish to begin
to eat, and so I pick up the fork. But how can I do that? In order to pick up the fork, I need to know its
position in relation to myself. That is, my perception of the object must contain some information
about myself, otherwise I would not be able to act on it (Perry, 1993, p. 205). On the dinner table, the
perceived fork is to the left (of me), the perceived knife is to the right (of me), and the perceived plate
and wineglass in front (of me). As Husserl writes, every perspectival appearance implies that the
embodied perceiver is itself co-given as the zero point, the absolute indexical ‘here’ in relation to
which every appearing object is oriented. As an experiencing, embodied subject I am the point of
reference in relation to which each and every of my perceptual objects are uniquely related. I am the
center around which and in relation to which egocentric space unfolds itself (Husserl, 1966b, p. 298;
1952, p. 159; 1962b, p. 392). Husserl consequently claims that bodily self-awareness is a condition
of possibility for the perception of and interaction with spatial objects (Husserl, 1973b, p. 540; 1962a,
p. 220; 1952, p. 56; 1971, p. 124).
Husserl occasionally speaks of the reciprocal co-dependency existing between the
constitution of spatial objects, on one hand, and the constitution of the body, on the other. The very
exploration and constitution of objects implies a simultaneous self-exploration and self-constitution.
The body is not first given for us and subsequently used to investigate the world. The world is given to
us as bodily investigated, and the body is revealed to us in its exploration of the world (Husserl, 1971,
p. 128; 1973c, p. 287). It is when we perceive that we are aware of ourselves, and it is when we are
affected that we appear to ourselves, i.e., it is exactly as exposed and self-transgressing subjects that
we are given to ourselves. To phrase it differently, we are aware of perceptual objects by being aware
of our own body and how the two interact, that is, we cannot perceive physical objects without having
an accompanying bodily self-awareness, be it thematic or unthematic (Husserl, 1952, p. 147). But the
reverse ultimately holds true as well: the body only appears to itself when it relates to something
else—or to itself as Other (Husserl, 1973a, p. 386; 1973d, p. 178; 1973c, p. 300). This reciprocity
between self-affection and hetero-affection is probably nowhere as obvious as in the tactual sphere—
the hand cannot touch without being touched and brought to givenness itself. In other words, the
touching and the touched are constituted in the same process (Husserl, 1973b, p. 75; 1973c, pp. 297,
301), and according to Husserl this holds true for our sensibility in general.
Needless to say, one can find very similar arguments in both Merleau-Ponty and Sartre as
well. When I experience the world, the body is, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, co-given in the midst of the
world as the unperceived (i.e., prereflectively experienced) relatum that all objects are turning their
front toward (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p. 97). Sartre speaks of a ‘hodological space’, that is a space
structured by references of use where the position and orientation of the individual objects are
connected to an acting subject. That the knife is lying there on the table means that I can reach and
grasp it. The body is thus present in every project and in every perception. It is our ‘point de vue’ and
‘point de départ’ (Sartre, 1976, pp. 373-374). In short, it is our take on the world. This is also why we
cannot first study the body, and next investigate it in its relation to the world. The body is not a
medium between me and the world, but our primary being-in-the-world. As Sartre puts it in L’être et le
[T]he perceptive field refers to a center objectively defined by that reference and
located in the very field which is oriented around it. Only we do not see this center as
the structure of the perceptive field considered; we are the center.[...] Thus my being-
in-the-world, by the sole fact that it realizes a world, causes itself to be indicated to
itself as a being-in-the-midst-of-the-world by the world which it realizes. The case
could not be otherwise, for my being has no other way of entering into contact with
the world except to be in the world. It would be impossible for me to realize a world in
which I was not and which would be for me a pure object of a surveying
contemplation. But on the contrary it is necessary that I lose myself in the world in
order for the world to exist and for me to be able to transcend it. Thus to say that I
have entered into the world, ‘come to the world,’ or that there is a world, or that I have
a body is one and the same thing (Sartre, 1976, pp. 365-366 [1956, pp. 317-318]. Cf.
Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p. 97; 1964, p. 177).

But how exactly is the body given? Under normal circumstances, I do not need to perceive my
arm visually in order to know where it is. If I wish to grasp the fork, I do not first have to search for the
hand, since it is always with me. Whereas I can approach or move away from any object in the world,
the body itself is always present as my very perspective on the world. That is, rather than being
simply yet another perspectivally given object, the body itself is exactly that which allows me to
perceive objects perspectivally (Sartre, 1976, p. 378; Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p. 107). The body is
present, not as a permanent perceptual object, but as myself. Originally, I do not have any
consciousness of my body as an intentional object. I am not perceiving it, I am it. As Sartre is quick to
point out: We should not let our understanding of the lived body be determined by an external
physiological perspective which is ultimately rooted in an anatomical study of the corpse (Sartre,
1976, p. 398).
Sartre even writes that the lived body is invisibly present, exactly because it is existentially lived rather
than known (1976, p. 372). Thus, my original body-awareness is not a type of object-consciousness,
is not a perception of the body as an object, but a form of immediate, prereflective, self-awareness.
This is also why Husserl again and again emphasizes how important it is to distinguish between (a)
our original unthematic prereflectively lived body awareness which accompanies and conditions every
spatial experience, and (b) the subsequent thematic experience of the body as an object (Husserl,
1973b, p. 57).
On the one hand, these analyses can corroborate Bermúdez’s theses concerning the
existence of embodied forms of nonconceptual self-awareness; on the other hand, however, they also
seem to question a basic tenet in his theory. For Bermúdez, nonconceptual self-awareness is
basically to be understood as an immediate (i.e., not conceptually mediated) awareness of the self as
an object. In contrast, the phenomenologists take prereflective self-awareness to be a question of
how (embodied) consciousness is given to itself not as an object, but as a subject. Whereas
Bermúdes claims that “somatic proprioception is a form of perception” that takes “the embodied self
as its object” (Bermúdez 1998, 132), the phenomenologists typically argue that primary body-
awareness is not a type of object-consciousness, is not a perception of the body as an object at all.vi
Much analytical philosophy operates with only one form of givenness or manifestation, namely object-
givenness, and consciousness (or self) is therefore taken to be either given as an object or not given
at all. The only remaining question (and allowed variable) is whether it is given as an object
thematically or merely marginally (peripherally). But is this distinction between thematic and marginal
consciousness really pertinent when it comes to an understanding of the relation between reflective
and prereflective consciousness? In a regular intentional act, I am directed at and preoccupied with
my intentional object. Whenever I perceive an apple, I am also prereflectively aware of my perception.
But when I am directed at and occupied with the apple, I am not thematically conscious of myself. The
question however is whether the perception remains in the background as a potential theme in the
same way as say the hum of a refrigerator? In short, is prereflective self-awareness to be equated
with a horizonal awareness of the objective background? Is it a kind of marginal, inattentive, object-
consciousness? The answer must be no. Prereflectively, consciousness is not given as a marginal
object. The entire analogy is misleading since it remains stuck in the subject-object model and is
vulnerable to the arguments presented against the higher-order representation theories.

The aim of this paper has been to demonstrate the existence of a striking overlap between
some of the claims found in contemporary analytical philosophy of mind and the phenomenological
analyses of self-awareness, as well as to indicate some areas of difference, and areas where
analytical philosophy might profit from insights found in phenomenological analysis.
Needless to say, my presentation is not meant to be exhaustive. Both traditions have much
more to offer when it comes to the problem of self-awareness than has been outlined above,vii and
there are of course many other convergences. viii
The phenomenological investigation of self-awareness has typically been set in the context of
a discussion of such diverse issues as spatiality, embodiment, temporality, intersubjectivity, attention,
and so forth. However, it is also a characteristic feature of recent analytical philosophy that an
increasing number of philosophers have distanced themselves from traditional armchair philosophy
and abandoned the attempt to capture the basic structures of mind solely by means of a priori
conceptual analysis. Instead they have started to engage in dialogue with empirical science, and to
draw upon the resources found in cognitive science, psychopathology, neuropsychology, and
developmental psychology. As a result, they have become aware of the interplay between
subjectivity, embodiment, and environment, and have reached conclusions on issues such as the
existence of prelinguistic forms of self-awareness, the bodily roots of self-experience, and the
connection between exteroception and proprioception, that all bear a striking resemblance to views
already found in phenomenology. In the face of this convergence, and given the richness of the
phenomenological descriptions of consciousness, the habitual stance of analytical philosophy towards
phenomenology -- which has ranged from complete disregard to outright hostility -- can only be
characterized as counterproductive. But just as phenomenology has something to offer analytical
philosophy, it should also be obvious that phenomenology can profit, not only from the analytical
discussions of, for instance, indexicality, the first-person perspective, internalism vs. externalism, and
the possibility of pre-linguistic experience, but also from the conceptual clarity and problem-oriented
approach found in analytical philosophy. Thus, the very attempt to engage in dialogue with analytical
philosophy might hopefully force phenomenology to become more problem-oriented and thereby
counteract what is currently one of its greatest weaknesses: its preoccupation with exegesis. One
concrete step would be for those trained in phenomenology to make more of an attempt to formulate
their reflections in a relatively non-technical manner. Much could be achieved by such a gesture. It
would be bound to facilitate constructive discussions with those figures in analytical philosophy who
more or less on their own have started to work on phenomenological themes. And it would be a pity to
miss the opportunity for dialogue that is currently at hand.
Thus to conclude, the possibilities for a fruitful exchange between phenomenology and
analytical philosophy are currently as good as ever, at least when it comes to the issue of self-
awareness. Whether these possibilities will ever be actualized remains to be seen. It will call for
openness from both sides.
Originally submitted: 31 July 2001
Accepted for publication:30 August 2001


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To some extent this evaluation seems to be shared by Gennaro, who in his work Consciousness and Self-
Consciousness seeks to support and develop Rosenthal’s HOT theory by means of Kant’s theory of mind,
thereby showing “the relevance of Kant in this contemporary debate about consciousness”(Gennaro, 1996,
p. 200).
A comparable attitude can be found in Flanagan’s Consciousness Reconsidered where Flanagan in chapter 8
and 9 sets out to defend the analysis of consciousness offered by James in Principles of Psychology (see
Flanagan, 1992, p. 153).
To give two illustrations: Flanagan (1992) argues for what he calls the natural method. If we wish to
undertake a serious investigation of consciousness we cannot make do with neuroscientific or functional
analyses, we also need to take the phenomenological aspect seriously (Flanagan, 1992, p. 11). In the
preface to the volume Conscious Experience from 1995 Metzinger writes, that one of the fascinating
things about the actual debate is that the old frontlines between phenomenology and analytical philosophy
have disappeared. Even the best analytical philosophers have accepted that subjectivity and experience are
serious philosophical topics. Yes, even advocates of a strong reductionistic approach to consciousness
have admitted that a plausible theory of mind must be phenomenologically adequate. At the same time,
many philosophers with a background in phenomenology have become interested in cognitive science.
Metzinger therefore recommends a research-strategy that seeks to combine the most recent empirical
research with a serious investigation of the first-person perspective (Metzinger, 1995, p. 26).
Although the phenomenologists were critical of the reflection theory and although they all sought for an
alternative, the systematic articulation of this criticism is due primarily to the work of a group of German
philosophers known as the Heidelberg School (Henrich, Pothast, Cramer, Frank). The following remarks
are indebted to their work.
For an extensive discussion of this alternative see Gallagher (in press).
However, for a more extensive presentation of the phenomenological analyses of self-awareness see Zahavi
1999, as well as Zahavi 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 2000, in press, and Zahavi & Parnas 1998.
Another example, to mention just one, might be the convergence between Tye’s and Dretske’s
intentionalistic interpretation of phenomenal qualities, and the type of noematic phenomenology favored
by Sartre and Gurwitsch. All of them can agree with Tye’s dictum that “phenomenology ain’t in the
head.”(Tye, 1995, p. 151). To discover what it is like, you need to look at what is being intentionally
(re)presented. Thus, as the argument goes, experiences do not have intrinsic and non-intentional qualities
of their own, rather the qualitative character of experience consists in the qualitative properties objects are
experienced as having. Or to put it differently, the phenomenal qualities are qualities of that which is