A guiding idea of The Given is that the notion of mental content is essentially rooted in the notion of what is given in experience. In order for something to be given in experience it must be phenomenologically present in some manner or other. That is, everything that is given in experience must be phenomenologically given. This is not to say that everything that is given in experience must itself be a phenomenological phenomenon. I take it that chairs and tables can be given in experience, but aren’t themselves phenomenological phenomena.
Two pressing questions now arise: What is phenomenologically given? How is something phenomenologically given? Answering the first question involves providing a categorization of the different kinds of mental content. Answering the second question involves providing a more detailed account of the nature of consciousness. Chapters 2 and 3 of The Given address these questions, but here I’ll discuss only the second question.
I endorse a theory of consciousness according to which every conscious experience involves an immediate kind of awareness of itself. In other terms: all conscious experience is in a certain fundamental sense ‘self-intimating’; all conscious awareness constitutively involves awareness of that very awareness. I’ll call this ‘the awareness of awareness thesis’. When I speak of ‘awareness of awareness’, then, I will always be concerned with this kind of awareness, and not, for example, with the fact that I can be aware of my past states of awareness, or of your awareness. The awareness of awareness thesis applies to any creature that is conscious, whether that creature is a human, a dog, or a spider.
I have formulated the awareness of awareness thesis in such as way as to make it clear that it is a ‘same-order’ theory of consciousness, as opposed to ‘higher-order’ theory. According to a higher-order theory of consciousness, a perceptual experience (for example) is conscious if, and only if, there is a distinct higher-order thought or perception directed at it. According to a same-order view, by contrast, when one has a perceptual experience, one’s awareness of the external object (if there is one) and one’s awareness of the experience itself are so intimately and intrinsically related that they constitute a single mental state. I continue to use the phrase ‘Brentanian theory’ for the view under discussion, as it is based on Brentano’s own (Aristotelian) view of consciousness.
I’ll sketch four fundamental claims of the Brentanian theory.
[i] representational and relational
The self-intimating nature of consciousness is a fully representational and relational phenomenon. This distinguishes the Brentanian view from Husserl-inspired same-order views of consciousness, according to which the awareness of awareness that is constitutive of experience is non-relational.
[ii] ‘nebenbei’ or ‘by the way’
Awareness of awareness is ‘non-thetic’, in the Phenomenologists’ terms: it is not explicitly in the focus of attention. In other words, when one is having a visual experience the fact that one is visually aware of the world is not in the focus of one’s attention; what is typically in the focus of attention is an external, physical object. Indeed, with Brentano and Aristotle, I believe that one’s awareness of one’s awareness of a ball (say) is essentially nebenbei or ἐν παρέργῳ, ‘by the way’, alongside and concurrent with one’s awareness of the ball, and neither is, nor can become, itself any kind of focused, directed attention.
Most agree that my veridical visual experience of a red ball is—and a fortiori involves—experience of the ball and its shape and color, but many deny that it is—or involves experience of its own phenomenological character. According to the Brentanian theory, however, there is a fundamental sense in which the visual quality of one’s seeing the ball is part of what one is aware of in having the experience. The redness and shape of the ball is after all visually presented to me. Its being presented to me visually is, accordingly, an essential part of what has to be mentioned in specifying the overall content of the experience. Its specifically visual experiential character is part of what I am aware of just in having it. The visual experience is itself, with all of its phenomenological character, given to the subject, as is the external object of the visual experience. This givenness is (obviously) an essential part of what it is to have a visual experience.
This awareness doesn’t require the possession of the concepts visual or experience. Rather, it follows immediately, from the fact that one’s awareness of the world consists partly in one’s being visually aware of the world, that one is, in having that experience, aware of the visual character of one’s experience. And the content of this awareness of one’s experience’s specifically visual experiential character can be specified only in terms of (by reference to) the sensory phenomenology associated with visual experiences, i.e. what it’s like to see colors, shapes, etc.
[iv] Awareness of awareness and phenomenology
To see how the awareness-of-awareness feature of experience and the phenomenological features of experience are related, one has to consider the overall representational and relational structure of experience. The phenomenological features of an experience are those features in virtue of which an experience is what it is, experientially, to or for the subject who has it, with the particular qualitative character that it has. The instantiation of a phenomenological property immediately reveals to one that one is having an experience (in a basic sense of ‘reveal that’ that applies even in the case of the most primitive experiencing creature); so in having an experience one is immediately aware of having an experience. And this awareness is a fully representational phenomenon. It is only by a subject’s being aware of a phenomenological property that a phenomenological property can be instantiated at all and be a property of experience with a particular qualitative character. Thus, phenomenological properties and awareness of awareness are mutually and fundamentally ‘co-constituting’. One feature is not more basic or fundamental than the other; they are aspects of the same thing.
On this view, the awareness of awareness feature of an experience and the phenomenological features of the experience cannot be prised apart in order to ask if the awareness of awareness feature has its own distinctive phenomenology. It is constitutive of phenomenology itself.
Header image: No. 14, 1960, by Mark Rothko