Self and Other is divided into what at first might look like three distinct parts. There are, however, a number of interlocking themes that run through the book and makes it into one interconnected whole. Let me today present some themes from the first part of the book that is entitled The Experiential Self.
If we compare the anti-realist position defended by some philosophers with the realism about self that we find in the work of various cognitive psychologists, developmental psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists, there is a striking mismatch between the self that is rejected by the skeptics and the self that is accepted by many empirical scientists. Such a finding makes it urgent carefully to distinguish different notions of self. By way of illustration, consider two very different theoretical conceptions. According to social constructivism, one cannot be a self on one’s own, but only together with others. According to a more experience-based approach, selfhood is a built-in feature of experiential life. Importantly, both of these approaches would reject the definition of the self espoused by many anti-realists, i.e., the view that the self – if it exists – must be some kind of unchanging and imperishable soul-substance.
A substantial portion of the first part of the book consists in an exploration and articulation of the experience-based, phenomenological, approach to self. Phenomenally conscious episodes, episodes characterized by a subjective what-it-is-likeness, are not merely episodes that happen to take place in a subject, regardless of whether or not the subject is aware of it. Rather, such episodes are necessarily pre-reflectively self-conscious in the weak sense that they are like something for the subject. Indeed, for every possible experience we might have, each of us can say, it is for me that it is like that to have the experience. To that extent, what-it-is-like-ness is properly speaking what-it-is-like-for-me-ness. This for-me-ness does not denote a specific experiential content; rather, it refers to the first-personal presence of experience. It refers to the fact that the experiences I am living through present themselves differently to me than to anybody else. When I have experiences, I have them minely, so to speak. The claim I am defending in the book is that this first-personal presence, this for-me-ness, amounts to a primitive and minimal form of selfhood. This is a view with a venerable phenomenological history to it. As Sartre once put it, “pre-reflective consciousness is self-consciousness. It is this same notion of self which must be studied, for it defines the very being of consciousness” (Sartre 2003: 100).
Obviously, a view like this has not gone unchallenged, and in chapter 3 and 4 of the book, I consider various objections that has been and might be raised against the notion of an experiential self. One set of objections might be seen as different versions of what might be termed the anonymity objection. They basically deny that experience per se entails subjectivity, first-personal givenness and for-me-ness. One version argues that consciousness on the pre-reflective level is so completely and fully immersed in the world that it remains oblivious to itself. There is at that stage and on that level no room for any self-consciousness, for-me-ness or mineness. On this view, experiential ownership is the outcome of a meta-cognitive operation that involves conceptual and linguistic resources. Another version denies that one is ever directly acquainted with one’s own experiences, i.e., not only pre-reflectively but also when one engages in reflection and introspection. According to those who defend the transparency thesis, phenomenal consciousness is strictly and exclusively world-presenting. It only presents us with external objects and their properties. In the book, I argue that both versions of this anonymity objection have some very unattractive implications. The first version has either to deny phenomenal consciousness to pre-linguistic creatures or it has to show that phenomenal consciousness can lack subjectivity and experiential perspectivalness altogether. The second version has difficulties distinguishing convincingly between conscious and non-conscious intentional states and has occasionally even argued that we cannot know, at least not in any direct manner, that we are not zombies (Dretske 2003).
Another set of objections does not question the existence of experiential subjectivity, but the identification of the latter with selfhood. According to one criticism, experience might indeed be characterized by subjectivity, but this in no way warrants the claim that there is also a unified self. Indeed, to interpret the intrinsically self-reflexive stream of consciousness as an enduring self-entity is, according to some Buddhist critics, to engage in an illusory reification. The assessment of this objection once again makes it clear that the current debate is complicated by the co-existence of quite different notions of self. As I see it, the self that is denied by these Buddhist critics differs markedly from the experiential self that I am defending. But this is where another objection might take over. It rejects the minimalist notion of an experiential self and argues that the self rather than simply being equated with a built-in feature of consciousness must instead be located and situated within a space of normativity. To put it differently, the requirements that must be met in order to qualify as a self are higher than those needed in order to be conscious. Who we are is not constituted by intrinsic features of experience, but by our normative commitments and endorsements. Rather than simply being a brute fact, rather than simply being something waiting to be discovered, who we are is a question of our self-interpretation, of who we take ourselves to be. I do think an exhaustive account of human selfhood would also have to include a consideration of the role played by our ongoing self-interpretation, but I would dispute that any such normative account can stand on its own. As I see it, it necessarily presupposes the dimension of selfhood that is targeted by the experience-based approach or, to put it differently, I would claim that experiential ownership remains a pre-reflective and pre-linguistic presupposition for all normative commitments and narrative self-interpretations. In recent years, this point seems to have been conceded by at least some narrativists, who now explicitly concede that any plausible account of selfhood must respect the importance of the first-personal character or subjectivity of experience (Rudd 2012).
Rather than seeing the two outlined notions of the self as alternatives that we have to choose between, it might consequently be better to see them as complementary notions that each capture something central and important. Indeed, we should not accept being forced to choose between viewing selfhood as either a socially constructed achievement or an innate and culturally invariant as a given. Who we are is both made and found. Why is there no incompatibility or straightforward contradiction involved in embracing both views? Obviously, because they target different aspects or levels of selfhood, and the minimalist notion of an experiential self is fully compatible with a more complex notion of a socially and normatively embedded self. What at first sight looked like a substantial disagreement might in the end be more of a terminological dispute that can be resolved the moment we discard the ambition of operating with only one notion of selfhood.
In the blogs that follows, I will discuss whether a commitment to a minimalist notion of selfhood impedes a plausible account of intersubjectivity and interpersonal understanding or whether the former might rather be a necessary condition for the latter.
Dretske, F. (2003). How Do You Know You Are Not a Zombie? In B. Gertler (Ed.), Privileged Access: Philosophical Accounts of Self-Knowledge (pp. 1–13). Aldershot: Ashgate.
Rudd, A. (2012). Self, Value, & Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach. Oxford University Press.
Sartre, J.-P. (2003). Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. H. E. Barnes. London and New York: Routledge.
Zahavi, D. (1999). Self-awareness and Alterity. A Phenomenological Investigation. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Zahavi, D. (2001). Husserl and Transcendental Intersubjectivity. Athens: Ohio University Press.