Nonconceptual Self-Consciousness?

Recently, there have been several attempts to provide an account of our ability for self-conscious thought in terms of nonconceptual forms of (self-)representation (most prominent among these is perhaps the account offered by Bermúdez (1998)).

Proponents of nonconceptual content assume that there are ways of representing the world that are not constrained by the concepts a subject possesses. For example, some creatures, such as non-human animals and infants, show intentional behaviour, thereby indicating that they represent the world in some way, while lacking the abilities for systematic, productive and context-independent thought associated with concept possession. Of course, much more could be said about the notion of nonconceptual content (as well as about concepts). I don’t have the space to go into a lot of detail here, but as I try to argue in “Thinking about Oneself”, in further specifying how such creatures represent the world, we should appeal to their abilities for interaction with the world. That is to say, I suggest that nonconceptual content should be understood as a form of “knowledge-how”.

I take it that there are good reasons to posit the existence of representations with nonconceptual content in general. But what about nonconceptual self-consciousness?

Bermúdez (1998) argues that we can break the circularity of the linguistic approach to self-consciousness (see my previous post) if we can show that there are thoughts with nonconceptual first-person content. These are thoughts that, although nonconceptual, display the three central characteristics of self-conscious thought, namely, (1) non-accidental self-reference, (2) immediate action relevance, and (3) immunity to error through misidentification. He further argues that we find examples of these in (visual) perception and somatic proprioception. For instance, in perception the subject not only represents the objects in her environment, but she also represents herself insofar as perception provides her with information regarding her perspective on and possibilities for interacting with the world.

While I agree with Bermúdez that we should attempt to explain how self-consciousness can arise out of nonconceptual forms of representation, I disagree that the way to go about this is by showing that the self is represented in the (nonconceptual) content of experience. Indeed, it seems to me that such an approach remains implicitly committed to the misguided subject-object model of self-consciousness (see my previous post). Moreover, this approach has difficulties explaining the immunity to error through misidentification of paradigmatic forms of first-person thought. Thus, I take it that we can break the circle associated with the linguistic approach without thereby claiming that there are nonconceptual forms of self-consciousness.

The central idea that I am trying to defend in the book is that while perception and bodily experience contain implicitly self-related, or self-concerning, information, they do not represent the self.  That is, the information regarding the subject’s position relative to an object and about the subject’s possibilities for interacting with the object provided by perception, for example, is not represented as being about the subject. Rather, the fact that this information concerns the self remains implicit in the experience (i.e., as a function of the mode of experience). In other words, we can think of the self as an “unarticulated constituent” of experience. The argument builds on Perry’s (1986, 1998) thought that facts that are provided by the context do not figure as part of the explicit representational content of an utterance or an intentional state (also see Recanati 2007). Accordingly, while perception is necessarily perspectival, the very fact that the world is always perceived from the perspective of the subject obviates the need for an explicit representation of the subject herself. Indeed, it would put an unnecessary cognitive burden on the organism to represent itself explicitly if such explicit representation is not required for successful interaction with the environment. Put differently, it is one thing to have a perspective on the world, but it is quite another to represent this perspective as such, that is, to be aware of having a perspective. It follows that, pace Bermúdez, perception does not represent the self; it does not contain a self-referring component. (And the same holds for bodily experience.)

Moreover, if the self is not represented in experience, then the notion of immunity to error through misidentification has no grip here. This is because the notion of immunity requires the possibility for misrepresenting the property that is being self-ascribed while not allowing for a misrepresentation of the subject. But if the subject is not represented in the first place, the question of misrepresentation cannot even arise. Thus,  strictly speaking, it makes no sense to say that perception or bodily experience are IEM (though neither does it make sense to say that they are subject to error through misidentification).

Importantly, this is not to say that experience cannot provide the basis for judgements that are IEM. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that the self is not represented in the content of experience that can explain how a judgement that is made on the basis of this experience can be IEM; for if such a judgement is not based on a representation of the self, then there is no possibility for misrepresentation (cf. Recanati 2012). On this view,  a subject can form a first-person judgement that is IEM by making explicit the implicit self-relatedness of the information contained in experience via the application of the self-concept. Importantly, in doing so the subject need not rely on any sort of identity judgement. (Hence, this view avoids the problems associated with the subject-object model of self-consciousness.) In contrast, if the self was represented in the content of experience, it would be hard to see why it could not also be misrepresented.

Interestingly, this non-self-representational, or “no-self”, view might also be able to illuminate the notion of prereflective self-consciousness (see my previous post), at least as it is used by some phenomenologists. For many phenomenologists seem to suggest that it is possible to be prereflectively self-aware without representing the self (e.g., Legrand 2007, Zahavi 2005). One way of interpreting this claim is in terms of the view I have just sketched.

The view I propose is in some respects similar to the view recently proposed by Recanati (2007, 2012) (and, to some extent, also to the views put forward by O’Brien (2007), Rödl (2007) and Peacocke (1999)). However, what these other views do not provide is an account of how we get from the implicitly self-related information contained in (nonconceptual) experience to the explicit self-representation we find in conceptual thought. This is what the book aims to achieve in its second half, which is also the part of the book that relies more strongly on evidence from the empirical sciences (in particular developmental psychology). I will outline the ideas of this part in my next post.



Bermúdez, J.L. (1998). The paradox of self-consciousness. MIT Press

Legrand, D. (2007). Pre-reflective self-as-subject from experiential and empirical perspectives. Consciousness and Cognition, 16(3), 583-599

O’Brien (2007). Self-knowing agents. Oxford University Press

Peacocke, C. (1999). Being known. Oxford University Press

Perry, J. (1986). Thought without representation. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 60, 137-166

Perry, J. (1998). Indexicals, contexts, and unarticulated constituents. Proceedings of the 1995 CSLI-Amsterdam Logic, Language and Computation Conference, 1-16

Recanati, F. (2007). Perspectival thought: A plea for (moderate) relativism. Oxford University Press.

Recanati, F. (2012). Immunity to error through misidentification: What it is and where it comes from. In S. Prosser and F. Recanati (eds.) Immunity to error through misidentification, 180-201, Cambridge University Press.

Rödl, S. (2007). Self-consciousness. Harvard University Press

Zahavi, D. (2005) Subjectivity and selfhood: Investigating the first-person perspective. MIT Press


  1. Hi Kristina, thanks for these posts. I am really interested in hearing more about the knowledge-how idea, since in the past I’ve discerned a similar line in Evans.

    I would like to push you a bit on what you say in this paragraph and the ones before and after. As you know, I’ve argued against the claim that visual perception represents the position of the self only implicitly (see, and while I won’t press that argument here (and I admit to being unsure if it really works), I’m interested in knowing more about where the disagreements between us lie. Is your position that a view like mine (or Bermúdez’s) *can’t possibly* explain why visually-based self-ascriptions are immune to error through misidentification, as on this view the basis of these judgments involves an explicit representation of the self? Or is it rather that this view has an extra burden that yours does not, namely to explain how the self-representing contents of visual perception are IEM (whatever exactly this notion would amount to here)? A bit below you say:

    “… it is precisely the fact that the self is not represented in the content of experience that can explain how a judgement that is made on the basis of this experience can be IEM; for if such a judgement is not based on a representation of the self, then there is no possibility for misrepresentation …”

    One reading of that first clause is that you are offering *a* position that can explain how visually-based self-ascriptions are IEM, while there might be alternative ways for other positions to do this. Is that what you think, or do you want to make the stronger claim, too?

  2. Kristina Musholt

    Hi John,

    Many thanks for your comment!

    With respect to nonconceptual content and knowledge-how: I’m really just sketching that idea in the book; it’s something that is definitely in need of further work. I’m thinking of knowledge-how in terms of skilled interactions with the world, drawing my main inspiration from Cussins. But I think it would be really interesting to look for parallels in Evans’ work as well (that could be a really cool paper, and I’d love to hear more about your thinking on this!). Cussins’ view also has the the very interesting implication that we shouldn’t hold nonconceptual content to the same standards as conceptual content, i.e. while the latter is governed by the norms of truth, the former is governed by more mundane forms of normativity (i.e. the normativity of action guidance and skill). I think this raises potentially interesting connections to Ginsborg’s notion of “primitive normativity” – another issue which I only mention briefly in the book and would like to think about more.

    With respect to your question: you’re right that I’m a little cagey here. I think in the book I actually make the stronger claim, but I must admit that I’m not certain that I have a really convincing argument for that (which is why I was a little hesitant to commit to this claim in my post). I do think that the no-self view delivers a very good explanation for IEM, and I don’t see how the self-representationalist can rule out a misrepresentation of the self. But I’m not sure that I want to say that there aren’t possibly ways for other positions to explain IEM. (However, I take it that the self-representationalist view also suffers from other problems so that overall it doesn’t seem to me to be an attractive position to defend.)

    But I would also be interested in further exploring the disagreement between us. I actually briefly discuss the paper you mention in a footnote of the book. There, I write that I am not entirely sure how strong the claim is that you are making. For it seems to me that the perspectival or self-locating nature of visual experience that you appeal to in order to explain the experience of self-motion could also be accounted for in the view I hold. Why can’t one say that the experience of self-motion just is the experience of motion in a particular way, ie. via a self-specific or internal mode of presentation? This mode would then account for the particular character of the experience without requiring that the self is represented explicitly in the content of experience. What do you think?

  3. Hi Kristina,
    Does this mean that you would consider
    judgements based on the deliverances of quasi-faculties (like quasi-memory, or more appropriate here quasi-proprioception + assuming these quasi-faculties to be ‘coherent possibilities’) to be IEM? That they would be ‘ill-grounded’ rather that based on a (maybe presupposed) identification component?

    • Sorry, the first question must be: Would you consider quasi-faculties as posing no ‘threat’ to the IEM status of our judgements based on the deliverances of our ‘ordinary’ faculties (since as you say misrepresentation cannot be involved)?

      • Kristina Musholt

        Hi Jan Pieter,
        Yes, I think that’s right. Even if quasi-proprioception and other quasi-faculties are coherent possibilities, this wouldn’t imply that judgements that are based on the deliverances of our ordinary faculties are based on self-representation or -identification. Perhaps we would have to say that proprioception is not logically IEM, but I take it that for my intents and purposes we only need to be concerned about de facto immunity.

          • Sorry again for the ‘doubled’ reply.
            Maybe more clearly: how can the first person be an ‘ensured’ implicit part of or implicitly ‘ensured’ in the mode of experience when this is only a contingency (if we allow quasi-faculties & when one bases one’s judgement only on this experience/’from within’).

          • Kristina Musholt

            You’re right that the link is contingent in the sense that there are other possible worlds in which the link doesn’t hold. But why should this matter for judgements that are made by beings in this world, where the link does de facto always hold?

            Put differently, I am interested in first-person thoughts where the “I” is used “as subject”. I take it that these thoughts are not based on self-representation or self-identification. Now, you might ask whether judgements that are based on bodily experience are among those identification-free judgements. I think that they are, insofar as they are made on the basis of the fact that – at least in our world – bodily experience necessarily delivers information about the subject of experience (and hence the subject doesn’t need to be explicitly represented in the experience; rather it is implicit in the mode). The fact that there are other logically possible world where this doesn’t hold doesn’t, I think, show that for beings that are evolved in this world bodily experience involves self-representation.

            You might argue that there is a difference between the self-ascription of mental states and the self-ascription of bodily states insofar as the former are logically IEM, whereas the latter are ‘only’ contingently IEM. This difference might or might not be philosophically significant, but it doesn’t show that bodily experience cannot be a form of experiencing the self “as subject”.

            Of course, whether quasi-faculties are coherent possibilities to begin with is another question. I don’t really take a stance on this in the book, but for those who are interested, Andy Hamilton (2013) discusses some arguments to suggest that they might not be.

  4. Hi, Kristina. Thanks for closing out what has been a fantastic month on Brains (as far as my interests go!). I’m an SF novelist with no institutional orthodoxies to serve, so, aside from communicating the incredible social implications of cogsci, I take my role to be one of goosing the community with more imaginative, ‘out there’ approaches.

    “Accordingly, while perception is necessarily perspectival, the very fact that the world is always perceived from the perspective of the subject obviates the need for an explicit representation of the subject herself. Indeed, it would put an unnecessary cognitive burden on the organism to represent itself explicitly if such explicit representation is not required for successful interaction with the environment. Put differently, it is one thing to have a perspective on the world, but it is quite another to represent this perspective as such, that is, to be aware of having a perspective. It follows that, pace Bermúdez, perception does not represent the self; it does not contain a self-referring component. (And the same holds for bodily experience.)”

    I actually think the moral of this observation relies on understanding the fact that metacognition, looked at from a biomechanical view, simply must turn on a variety of ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. This actually provides an ecological/interactive way to understand the variety of deliberative metacognition we call ‘self-reflection,’ which is to say, a way to sketch out the plausible limits of such a capacity.

    What you are describing is in fact neglect (or what Metzinger would call ‘auto-epistemic closure’). If you frame the problem of self-knowledge in ‘zombie terms,’ look at it as the problem of a brain trying to incorporate hitherto inaccessible information regarding its process/functions, then it quickly becomes apparent that the brain is overmatched, that it has no way of cognizing itself for what it is (thus the need for cogsci). Since cognizing missing information (the way we do whenever we ‘see’ darkness, for example) actually requires neurocomputational capacity, the fast and frugal heuristic assumption warrants assuming that, in all likelihood, deliberative metacognition possesses no such neurocomputational capacity. As you say, taking a perspective does not amount to taking a perspective on that perspective.

    The point is, taking a heuristic neglect approach provides the resources to say quite a few things about the nature of that incapacity. When the first philosophers began repurposing our metacognitive kluges for the purposes of self-knowledge, they simply had no ‘darkness’ by which to gauge the limits of their capacity. And this suggests the probability of systematic confusion, that they would make similar kinds of errors given similar kinds of information scarcity and neglect. And this would explain the apparent systematicity of the deliverances of self-reflection, despite it’s inability to generate any interpretative consensus after 2000+ years.

    I have a thought experiment on the likely shape of “alien philosophy” you check out for an example of this approach at:


    But my question is, what warrants taking certain deliverances of self-reflection as pretheoretical explananda, when we have no way of intuiting the possible consequences of neglect? Isn’t the better approach to begin with the cognitive science of metacognition, get an idea of the kinds of limits faced by any such biological capacity, then use this to constrain how we formulate our explananda?

  5. Kristina Musholt

    Hi Scott,

    I’m not sure I completely follow what you are suggesting here, but let me try. I think you’re right that there are limits to introspection (or metacognition, as you put it) and I suspect that these limits might have something to do with the attractiveness of dualist positions. (In fact, I have a paper from 2006 co-authored with Georg Northoff, in which we discuss what we call this “auto-epistemic limitation”.

    However, my concern here is a different one. I am not concerned with metaphysical claims regarding the nature of the self here, nor with the brain’s inability to cognize itself for what it is. Rather, I’m interested in the question of whether, when we perceive a tree, for example, the content of this experience is just about the tree, or whether it also contains an explicitly self-referring component. If it doesn’t (as I claim), then how are we to understand our ability to form explicit “I”-thoughts (e.g. “I see a tree”) on the basis of perception? Put differently, I think that we are able to take a perspective on our perspective (though having a perspective and being aware of one’s perspective are not the same thing), and, as I try to argue in my next post, I take it that this has to do with the fact that we are social beings. But these questions seems to be different from the ones you refer to in your comment, if I understood you correctly.

    • Thanks for that link–I’m very keen to check your paper out.

      I fear my longwinded preamble must have scrambled my question, which was: Given that the biology underwriting our capacity to track ourselves suggests the very real possibility of systematic deception whenever we tackle projects such as your own, why not start with the biology as a way to constrain our semantic and phenomenological speculation?

      • Kristina Musholt

        I guess your question ultimately regards the relation between personal- and subpersonal-level explanations. That is a very interesting issue — both are important, and there must be some relation, even if, personally, I’m not sure how exactly to think about this relation. But I wonder whether privileging subpersonal-level explanations as somehow being “more objective/real/etc.” (as you seem to do) doesn’t rest on a kind of prejudice? Who is to say that biological or computational explanations/theories are somehow getting us closer to what is “real” than other kinds of explanations/theories?

        Also, wouldn’t the systematic deception you are worried about also affect our theorizing about the biology?

  6. Very interesting looking book, Kristina. I’ll have to pick up a copy soon. As you may know, I defend an opposing view in The Consciousness Paradox (MIT, 2012), among other places. (Recall we emailed back and forth a couple of times around then.) Part of my conceptualism is related to my defense of a version of HOT theory, but I also address animal and infant consciousness, I-thoughts, concept acquisition/innate concepts, etc. For example, it may instead be that I-thoughts come in degrees of sophistication including, at the most primitive level, a kind of bodily self-awareness. Nonetheless, these thoughts are conceptual for various reasons I get into in the book (not so easy to summarize here though). The idea that concepts are constituents of thoughts is not itself too controversial. Presenting a theory of concept possession is of course an important part of all this.

    By the way, you and other readers may also be interested in my forthcoming (October ’15) volume with MIT Press (Disturbed Consciousness: New Essays on Psychopathology and Theories of Consciousness). Some of the earlier chapters, e.g. by myself, Tim Lane, Kriegel & Billon, and others discuss IEM quite a bit as well as somatoparaphrenia and other depersonalization disorders.

    Best — Rocco

    • Kristina Musholt

      Hi Rocco,

      Thanks for your comment! As you may know, I’m not a fan of the HOT theory, and I also think that (i) I-thoughts require concept possession, and (ii) there are good reasons to restrict the notion of conceptual thought, such that it doesn’t apply to all kinds conscious experience. That being said, as I argue in the book, the dichotomy between conceptual and nonconceptual thought turns out to be too coarse-grained to do justice to the variety of cognitive phenomena found in both humans and animals. So, ultimately, you are probably right that self-consciousness comes in degrees of sophistication. I also wonder how much of our disagreement is substantial, and how much merely terminological?

      Your forthcoming volume looks very interesting – I’ll make sure to check it out!

  7. Clear! I think I am actually very sympathetic with your views. I like exchanging thoughts about these matters because I still don’t fully/satisfyingly seem to grasp why people impressed by quasi-faculties and the de facto/logical distinction would think otherwise. I am familiar with Hamilton in this context (I have a draft on the incoherence of quasi-proprioception here which is compatible with Hamilton’s position).
    Thank you for replying. I’ll read the book soon, amazon just notified me it’s in the mail..

  8. Sure, Kristina, we certainly differ on HOT theory though I do think it is sometimes useful to consider some of these issues against the backdrop of a specific theory of consciousness. Although I do think that conceptualism and HOT theory fit together very nicely in many ways, I also think that conceptualism can be independently defended against the usual arguments, e.g. you know, fineness of grain, memory based arguments, etc…

    But one useful aspect of HOT theory on point is that it offers a very natural division between at least two degrees of self-consciousness (or ‘metacognition’ or ‘I-thought’ or whatever), namely, unconscious HOTs (when a conscious state is directed at the world) and conscious HOTs (when one’s conscious state is inner-directed) or ‘introspection’. I think this also helps re: issues of infants, animals, evolution, etc., both in defending HOT theory and conceptualism. I also think that unconscious HOTs are a good way to understand the notion of “prereflective self-consciousness” which you mention as well.

    So I do think that some of our differences are substantial, e.g. my adherence to conceptualism more generally and my view that all ‘metacognitive’ or ‘higher-order states’ are conceptual. However, perhaps we do define ‘self-consciousness’ a bit differently such that part of our disagreement turns on what we mean by ‘self-consciousness’ or ‘I-thoughts’ (maybe more like your ‘implicit’ vs. ‘explicit’ self-consciousness). I’d have to look more closely at your book to be sure though. You say that “I-thoughts require concept possession” — I agree but then I take “I-thoughts” to cover more kinds of ‘metacognitive’ states than you do. I wonder if the same is true with some of Proust’s terminology.

    FYI — The TOC of my forthcoming volume is here:

    • Kristina Musholt

      “However, perhaps we do define ‘self-consciousness’ a bit differently such that part of our disagreement turns on what we mean by ‘self-consciousness’ or ‘I-thoughts’ (maybe more like your ‘implicit’ vs. ‘explicit’ self-consciousness). ”

      I think that’s probably right.

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