The Experiential Self

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.


    • Dan Zahavi

      Hi Bill,
      Well not quite. Talking of the self as something that has experiences doesn’t fully capture the experiential or phenomenological character of the proposal. I have sometimes used the following formulation: Rather than talking of the self as the subject of experiences, I talk of it as the subjectivity of experiences. As long as one talks of the subject of experiences, one might think that they can separate, and that one can encounter and examine the subject independently of its experiences and vice versa. Talking of the subjectivity of experiences is less likely to suggest this separability. So again, when I talk of the experiential self, I am really talking of a structure or dimension or feature of the experiences themselves, and not of something that has them. Hope that helps.

      • Yes, I guess it helps — but do you really mean it? You wrote, “Rather than talking of the self as the subject of experiences, I talk of it as the subjectivity of experiences.” So you are defining the self as a property rather than a thing? Is that really what you want to do? Aren’t you afraid that people will misunderstand you?

        Best regards, Bill

        • Dan Zahavi

          Hi Bill,
          I have been long enough in this line of business to know that it is hard not occasionally to be misunderstood. But indeed, I am not claiming that the self is a thing. In fact, rather than talking of the experiential self, I might also have spoken of the egoic character of consciousness (though that expression can also be misunderstood).

  1. Very interesting to hear about what’s in your book–I look forward to reading it. I teach one of your papers on this topic in my undergraduate course on the self every year, so I’d like to to push a bit more on a line of objection you mention above that often comes up (knowing that you likely address this issue in more detail in the book).

    The objection concerns our evidence for the experiential self: if one is sympathetic with Hume’s empiricism, and agrees with him that we have no “impression” of the experiential self, it becomes questionable whether there is some other basis for accepting it. One possible response would be to insist that the fact that experiences involves a subjective “mine-ness” belies Hume’s observation. I don’t think someone sympathetic with Hume needs to reject the phenomenology of subjective mine-ness, however. Rather, one could claim that the fact that each experience involves phenomenological subjectivity does not yet show that it is the same subjectivity, or subject, that persists across different experiences. I take it that something like this latter claim is what the Buddhist reductionists, along with Hume, would reject.

    If this is correct, another alternative might be to propose a phenomenological version of Kant’s transcendental argument for the minimal self. I think this is a very natural response to anti-realism, but one that isn’t dialectically effective against the anti-realist’s argument. Of course, the anti-realist would say, the mind finds it (practically) necessary to link different instances of subjective experience together, but this doesn’t constitute evidence that there is a subject that actually provides or produces the linkages (rather than some form of inference), or, pace Kant, that we are rationally required to believe in one (since there are alternative accounts of the illusion: Buddhist conventional reality, Dennett’s factionalism, etc.).

    I’m genuinely puzzled as to what the best response would be for a defender of the experiential self, so look forward to hearing from you.

    • Dan Zahavi

      Hi James,
      Thanks for your comment. I am not sure I can do full justice to the complexity of the question, but let me just say two things. First of all, I tend to agree with your reading of Hume. So rather than seeing Hume as somebody who denies the existence of the self, it might be better to see him as someone who rejects the existence of a persisting self, which would then mean that he in principle could be open to the idea that synchronic consciousness is as such characterized by for-me-ness. I have been influenced by Galen Strawson’s reading of Hume. In addition there is also a nice but older piece by J. Margolis (‘Minds, Selves, and Persons’, Topoi, 7/1: 1988, 31–45).
      The question then is how to get from synchronic selfhood to diachronic selfhood. Briefly put, my approach is to highlight the importance of time-consciousness and to insist that one cannot have a temporally non-extended experience. The question, of course, is then how extended an experiential self that will get us. This is something I discuss at length in chapter 5 of the book.

  2. Josh Weisberg


    Thanks very much for doing this! I hope to read the book soon.

    One key question, one you may be planning to answer in later posts (and no doubt one you’ve dealt with a fair bit before):

    What do you mean by “primitive” in this context? Is it phenomenologically primitive, in that it can’t be explained in terms of any other phenomenological feature? Is it more of an ontological or explanatory primitive: nothing more basic constitutes or explains this notion of self-awareness/selfhood? Both? (Perhaps neither? )

    I think I buy the phenomenological primitiveness of a “for-me-ness” in non-introspective experience, but I don’t see why this would limit the ontological/explanatory possibilities, beyond the need to account for why it seems to us in experience that things are this way. That is, beyond the need to explain why our conscious lives have this appearance.

    Please refer me to forthcoming posts if this is something you’ll take up there.


    • Dan Zahavi

      Hi Josh,
      good to see you here. Well, I definitely mean phenomenological primitive. As for the ontological question, perhaps it slightly depends on what exactly we mean by ontology. I would certainly defend the reality of the experiential self, and if we want to talk about degrees of reality, I take it to be more real than other forms or aspects of selfhood (of which I am prepared to accept quite a few – but more about than in the last blog I will post). But as I also write at one point in the book I am not concerned with the question of what kind of ‘stuff ’ a self might ultimately be made of, and I am not suggesting that a phenomenological investigation of the self can per se resolve the latter question. The same goes for explanatory mechanisms. Not really interested in those aspects. All I would say is that any attempt at trying to explain phenomenal consciousness would have to factor in the experiential self as well as part of the explanandum.

  3. Hi Dan. I’m curious as to what kind of evolutionary story your position entails. Given the prodigious biological resources required to cognize simple, external environmental systems, how could we possess the capacity to cognize our own (vastly more complicated) systems in anything but opportunistic and strategic ways? Why should anyone think the ‘self’ is anything more than a heuristic?

    As the ABC Research Group has shown, the more complicated a problem is, the more effective simple heuristics become (simply because adding parameters to our models amounts to adding guesses). Given our internal complexity, we should expect our metacognitive capacities to be thoroughly heuristic, adapted to the solution of specific problem-ecologies. On this view, we should expect to be thoroughly stumped by ourselves, capable of prodigious feats of problem-solving in narrow, practical domains, but utterly unable to decisively answer more general questions–such as ‘What is the self?’– simply for want of information. We should expect the disarray one actually finds in cognitive science.

    In other words, if we take the notion of bounded cognition seriously, how can we take phenomenology seriously?

    • Dan Zahavi

      Hi Scott,
      Interesting. I wonder whether we here have a case of conflicting intuitions about argumentative priorities. I have no specific story to tell about the evolutionary implications of my position, but should it turn out the notion of experiential selfhood is hard to reconcile with evolutionary models, I would consider that a problem for the latter’s explanatory capacities. Compare by contrast the claim that if evolutionary models were incapable of explaining phenomenal consciousness. we ought to reject the existence of the latter and become eliminativists. That is obviously also a move I would resist.
      Having said that, I should perhaps point out, that self-consciousness is an equivocal term, and that the notion I am employing and linking to experiential selfhood is a very minimalist notion. One that I consider part and parcel of phenomenal consciousness as such. So any creature possessing phenomenal consciousness would on my view also possess minimal self-consciousness and by implication experiential selfhood. Saying this obviously raises all kinds of questions regarding the relation between the position I am defending and higher-order representationalism, self-representationalism etc., and these are issues I am discussing in Self and Other (and in even further detail in two of my previous books Self-awareness and Alterity and Subjectivity and Selfhood). Let me here just make it clear that I am not referring to metacognitive capacities, nor am I suggesting that we are necessarily equipped with the capacity to deliver decisive answers to the questions of who we are. Minimalist (or pre-reflective) self-consciousness doesn’t amount to substantive self-knowledge.
      As for your last question, my view would be that even if one is disinclined to commit oneself to some of the more substantial philosophical ideas of Phenomenology, one should think twice before rejecting its descriptive findings. If nothing else, they might constitute part of the explanandum.

      • ” but should it turn out the notion of experiential selfhood is hard to reconcile with evolutionary models, I would consider that a problem for the latter’s explanatory capacities.”

        But surely the primary question regarding the ‘phenomenological self’ is whether it’s 1) something transcendent (ontological in Heidegger’s sense, say) or 2) something merely functional (simulated in Metzinger’s sense, say), or 3) something chimerical (as I now think it is–as a lapsed phenomenologist, no less!). If an empirical structural and developmental account of human metacognitive capacity suggests that the accurate (as opposed to heuristic) cognition of internal states is out and out impossible, then that strongly suggests either (2) or (3), wouldn’t you agree?

        Whether one couches the problem in evolutionary or neurobiological terms, the likelihood of metacognitive incapacity is something the phenomenologist cannot ignore. Appealing to categorical partitions between domains does nothing to alter the fact that phenomenologists claim to cognizing something. Short of magic, those (phenomenologically) cognitive acts require cognitive resources. Any argument relevant to the sufficiency of those resources is pretty clearly relevant to your project, is it not?

        Either way, for non-phenomenologists, certainly, the question of how phenomenologists could possibly cognize the things they claim to cognize is bound to be a paramount question. Invoking a priori categorical differences (as Aristotle did regarding his distinction between heavenly and earthly domains) isn’t going to carry much water this far from the beach, I fear!

        • Dan Zahavi

          Just two quick comments:
          I don’t think what is at issue here is whether phenomenologists possess special cognitive powers that allow them to unearth dimensions of the mind that are off limits to others. I have never made such a claim – which is also why there is a certain convergence between the position I am defending, and the arguments I am employing, and the view of various analytic philosophers of mind, including Kriegel and Strawson.

          Secondly, I don’t really think that our disagreement concerns whether or not there is something like an experiential self. It seems that what is really at issue here is the existence and reality of phenomenal consciousness. I am a realist about phenomenal consciousness, whereas you apparently is an eliminativist (at least that is how I understand your reference to ‘chimerical’). In Self and Other I engage argumentatively with a lot of different positions, but I admittedly do not spend much time on eliminativism, since I consider the claim that there are no experiences and no phenomenal consciousness to be a non-starter. I fail to see how anybody who claim that we are persistently and systematically mistaken whenever we assert that we are angry, sad, in pain, hungry, seeing, thinking etc. could coherently develop and defend a position of their own. Now I am sure some would say that I am simply begging the question here, but life is short, and we all have to decide which discussions we want to engage in. Eliminativism is very low on my list.

          • On the matter of sufficient resources for subjectivity, does this all hinge on the epistemological problem of bridging the gap between 1st-person and 3rd-person descriptions of conscious experience without eliminating either?

          • The question of metacognitive capacity/access applies to anyone theorizing intentional concepts/phenomena, analytic or otherwise. My particular answer to the question has troubling implications to be sure (like eliminativism), but then science consistently overthrows our prescientific conceits and intuitions. Given that you think phenomenology is a cognitive enterprise, you clearly presume that phenomenologists possess the metacognitive capacity required to answer the kinds of questions phenomenologists pose. What question could be more basic to your project? As I said, it is very hard to square phenomenology with bounded cognition. The more the heuristic, information-neglecting nature of metacognition becomes apparent, the more difficult it will become for phenomenologists to avoid providing some kind of answer. Metacognitive dogmatism is becoming increasingly untenable.

            “but I admittedly do not spend much time on eliminativism, since I consider the claim that there are no experiences and no phenomenal consciousness to be a non-starter. ”

            I know this is the way it seemed to me when I was a Heideggerean! But it only seems that way because you assume you possess the metacognitive capacity/access to make theoretical claims regarding the structure and content of experience and phenomenal consciousness. So long as you assume this, the eliminativist will seem to be denying something self-evident, as plain as the nose on our philosophical face.

            But the reasons to eschew eliminativism (as Kriegel, for instance, admits) are *abductive,* not logical. An eliminativism that cannot explain intentionality is an eliminativism stranded on the perimeter of human activity and aspiration. My own brand, I like to think, suffers no such limitation, insofar as it springs from the question of metacognitive capacity and access. It’s consequences are no less ugly, but it can offer competing interpretations of a good number phenomenological ‘discoveries.’

            Meanwhile, the question still stands! Given bounded cognition, how could you know the things you claim to know?

    • Dan Zahavi

      Sorry Arnold, but I am not familiar with your article. Don’t know whether this will be relevant, but in “Being Someone” (Psyche 11/5, 2005, 1-20), I discuss various differences and similarities between my own view and Metzingers.

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