Awareness of Awareness: The Brentanian Theory

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.

Franz Brentano (1838-1917)

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.

[iii] non-conceptual

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


  1. “awareness of awareness … neither is, nor can become, itself any kind of focused, directed attention”

    This is an interesting claim! I have a worry about its implications:

    Only things that are the objects of focal attention enter visual working memory. So, your view apparently implies that we cannot remember phenomenal properties (because they are objects of “awareness of awareness”, which is not a kind of focal attention). This sounds problematic, isn’t it? What am I missing?

    Perhaps there is an obvious way out of this apparent problem:
    Diffused attention to a scene allows us to remember statistical properties of it (e.g., average color of the objects). So if “awareness of awareness” is a form of diffused attention, it will allow us to remember statistical properties of phenomenal properties.

  2. Michelle Montague

    Thanks for your question, Assaf.

    I’m not sure I see why only objects of focal attention can enter into visual working memory. For example, can’t I remember things I was only peripherally aware of? Perhaps you have something like peripheral awareness in mind when you mention ‘diffused attention’.

    • Thanks for the response, Michelle.

      Here is how I understand the relevant literature on visual working memory and focal attention:
      In change detection experiments, subjects can reliably detect changes in 4 objects at the most (after the computer screen goes blank for a couple of seconds), which means that visual working memory has room for no more than 4 objects. The common explanation for this is that people can focally attend to 4 objects at the most (at the same time).

      Yes, you can remember objects you do not focally attend to, but only in the sense that you remember *statistical* properties of sets of objects. You can remember, e.g., that most of the objects in a set of 20 objects, outside of focal attention, are blue, but you cannot remember that a specific individual object, outside of focal attention, is blue (you will fail to reliably detect a change in it in).

      I’m not sure how to apply this claim about remembering statistical properties to the idea that we cannot focally attend to phenomenal properties. My current impression is that it means that we can only remember statistical properties of sets of phenomenal properties; we cannot remember an individual phenomenal property. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

  3. Mark Ettinger

    Are you aware that awareness-of-awareness plays a prominent role in some (though not all) Buddhist contemplative traditions? Also, Advaita Vedanta has closely related meditations concerning awareness-of-being and investigation into the sense of “I Am.”

    Just curious if you’ve considered these related investigations from other traditions.

  4. Michelle Montague

    Dear Assaf:

    Thanks for your reply. My knowledge of the working memory literature is somewhat limited, so I would have to look at the details of the experiments to really understand what they show and don’t show, and how those results apply to the Brentanian theory.

    My claim is not that we cannot introspectively, focally attend to phenomenal properties, understanding introspection as involving two distinct mental states that do not occur simultaneously. My claim was that awareness of awareness cannot be transformed into introspective awareness. So, we cannot be introspectively aware of phenomenological properties as we are having them.

    I’m not sure what remembering a statistical property means, but if I can remember that something was blue even if it was in the periphery of attention, I will be able to introspect on ‘phenomenological blueness’.

  5. Michelle Montague

    Dear Matt

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I am aware that many of the positions on consciousness were taken up by various Buddhist and Indian philosophers, but unfortunately, that exhausts the extent of my knowledge. You may know Matt MacKenzie, a philosopher at Colorado State University, who is an expert in this area. I’ve seen him give a few talks, and I hope to read some of his work soon.

  6. Hello Michelle — Just wondering what you say about the usual infinite regress (or circularity) worry since you think (unlike HOT theory) that the “awareness of awareness” is itself conscious in some sense. As you know, I don’t think the peripheral/focal attention line works (contra Uriah Kriegel)…. Hope all is well — I’ll have to pick up a copy of your book. Best — Rocco

  7. Michelle Montague

    Hi Rocco—great to hear from you!

    I try to avoid the regress by describing the metaphysical structure of conscious experience such that the regress doesn’t arise. The idea is that the relation between phenomenology and awareness and awareness is such that the regress can’t get going. 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. It is illegitimate to prise apart the phenomenology and awareness of awareness to ask in virtue of what makes awareness of awareness phenomenological.

    And just for interest here is Brentano’s summary of the problem and his solution. (The quoted passages are Brentano).

    “When we have a presentation of a sound or another physical phenomenon and are conscious of this presentation, are we also conscious of this consciousness or not? [A]ny unbiased person will at least at first be inclined to answer this question affirmatively. He may begin to hesitate only when it is pointed out to him that in this case he would have to have a threefold consciousness, like three boxes, one inside the other, and that besides the first presentation and the presentation of the presentation he must also have a presentation of the presentation of the presentation.”

    He believes that his same-order account avoids the threat of this regress in the following way, and I quote (1874:100):

    “These results show that the consciousness of the presentation of the sound clearly occurs together with the consciousness of this consciousness, for the consciousness which accompanies the presentation of the sound is a consciousness not so much of this presentation as of the whole mental act in which the sound is presented, and in which the consciousness itself exists concomitantly. Apart from the fact that it presents the physical phenomenon of sound, the mental act of hearing becomes at the same time its own object and content, taken as a whole.”

    Brentano’s idea here, which I endorse, is that awareness of awareness is not only an awareness of the awareness [presentation] of the sound, but of the entire conscious episode, which includes awareness of awareness of itself. This self-revelatory nature of consciousness allows us to catch a glimpse of awareness of awareness, and it is this self-revelatory nature that blocks any worries about a regress.

  8. Hello Michelle — I was never really satisfied with Brentano’s view here for several reasons (some of which also apply to Sartre, perhaps also to Uriah’s view). First, if the awareness of awareness is an awareness of the “entire episode,” then the awareness of awareness is also aware of itself as part of that entire episode. Still seems to be a regress there (because there would then be an awareness of the awareness of awareness…and so on) if we’re treating all the “awareness” as conscious in some sense. Some of the puzzle could have to do with what we mean by “entire” (whole) vs. “part” etc. as well as differing views about the nature of the awareness of awareness, e.g. representational vs. some kind of acquaintance acct…

    Zahavi (1998), no friend of HOT theory, also objects to Brentano as follows using the example of hearing a sound or tone: “A [conscious] act which has a tone as its primary object is to be conscious by having itself as its secondary object. But if the latter is really to result in self-awareness, it has to comprise the entire act, and not only the part of it which is conscious of the tone. That is, the secondary object of the perception should not merely be the perception of the tone, but the perception which is aware of both the tone and itself.”

    Second, it is not clear to me that the explanation offered really answers the question: How does an unconscious mental state become a conscious state? Now, one could (perhaps like Sartre and Brentano) reject the existence of unconscious mental states, but I assume that you don’t want to go down that path. Third, and related, it seems to me that the real background issue is whether or not one thinks that a (mentalistic) reductionist approach to explaining conscious states is feasible or even desirable. I suspect that this is again where our real differences lie in the end. I get into all this much more in e.g. The Consciousness Paradox (2012) and elsewhere.

    All the best — Rocco

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