The You-I Event: Philosophy Meets Infancy Research

I state my thesis and follow it with a list of papers you can download. There is also a series of blogs, starting here.

The phenomenon of self-awareness presents an enigma. When I behold a tree, I am aware of myself beholding it. For instance, if I see it as being near or far, I take myself, wittingly or not, as the starting point for measuring. Now, the perception of the tree poses no special problem: I am here and it’s over there. But what about the awareness of my self? In its case, the one who is aware is the one it is aware of. Try picturing that. How can the one who is aware fold back on itself and be the one it is aware of?

Given the difficulty of this riddle (“impossible,” Kant called it), let’s not assume that the kind of self-awareness we enjoy as adults represents the original form. Instead we’ll mobilize recent infancy research, which has illuminated the experience of babies. It shows that they are minimally self-aware by 2 or 3 months. How might they become so? We may answer—and dispel the riddle—if we postulate this scenario:

A caregiver (carer) is gazing at a baby and vocalizing. In the baby’s awareness, the carer’s actions seem directed toward something. This is the first intimation of me. In other words, I-the-baby am nothing to myself, initially, but what your eye is gleaming at, what your voice is lilting at, what you are smiling at. When I bask in your attention, whatever seems included in your target (say, the kinesthesis of smiling) belongs to the sense of self: thus I discover my body. Your responses reflect me as the one who provokes them: I discover my will and agency. 

What happens when you stop attending to me? The things that have come to be associated with you, including my body and voice, keep you present-in-absence. I am not self-aware in the same rich sense as when you are present and responding, but the effects I make on things provide a semblance of our earlier give-and-take. I receive myself intensely from you or I get myself less intensely (more reliably, though) from the things you imbue. Amid your presences and absences, self-awareness waxes and wanes, marking a difference between what it is like to perceive you and what it is like not to. In peekaboo, for instance, your expression on each reappearance marks the fact of my seeing you. I become aware of myself as perceiver. 

In this scenario, there is no direct self-awareness and so no riddle: self-awareness comes about through awareness of you attending. I do not exist for myself apart from you. The event of becoming self-aware through an Other is termed a You-I Event.

How then does one develop the independent self-awareness of post-infancy life? Note first that the You-I Event is joyful, because the only babies to survive in epochs of tropical drought, when carers had to choose whom to feed and guard, were the ones who took joy in the Event with them. But the absolute dependence on Others is also dreadful. We escape it by playing the parts of carers toward ourselves, which we can do quite richly once we have language. For example, 2-year-old Emily, left alone after the bedtime talk with her father, soothes herself by repeating his words in his intonation: “Big kids like Emmy don’t cry.” Later in life, when an inner voice says “Don’t forget to buy coffee,” a long-played Other is addressing a self whom it conjures into presence as a carer once did. Each of us, post infancy, is a recurring, internalized You-I Event— an inner loop, or what modern philosophy calls the subject (cogito). Shorn of selfhood-bestowing power, the flesh-and-blood Other no longer appears to me-the-child as one who calls me into being, nearer to me than my I; the essential connection is lost, and she is now an object to the subject. 

Internalized others are always with us, speaking, listening, or just regarding. Thanks to them, the possibility of being abandoned can no longer threaten me with nothingness. As an adult, I feel perfectly aware of my existence when alone! And I can hardly stop talking with myself.

The You-bestowed self was a gift, and it felt like that, but the self-bestowed self feels automatic, routine, and boring. We develop, therefore, an unconscious yearning for the true Event. The yearning is stymied by unconscious dread of fulfilment, for who would want to be given over again to the mercies of others? In sum, the original structure of existence has been transformed into what we commonly know: A self-talking subject faces objects which no longer seem essential to its being, while yearning and dread lock jaws beneath the surface.

The question about life’s meaning refers to the life that we consciously know, but what motivates the question is a covert yearning for life as it was before we were able to talk with internalized others, when we depended on real others for awareness that we exist.

And yet! There are openings through which the Event re-enters our lives, albeit on a slant. In love, dreams, work, art, religion, politics, and other forms of life, our yearning for the precluded You seeks indirect fulfilment. 

The papers  

The argument sketched above is fully made in a book I may have finished, entitled: The You-I Event: Philosophy Meets Infancy Research. It is intended for a broad audience. In the background, though, are four academic papers. The first provides the basis: The You-I Event: On the genesis of self-awarenessPhenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Vol 12(4), Dec 2013, 769–790.

Beginning from the You-I event, the second paper explores the structural change that occurs at the onset of self-talk: Heidegger and the infant: A second-person alternative to the Dasein-analysisJournal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, Vol 34(4), Nov 2014, 257-274.

The third paper begins with a discussion of Husserl on time-consciousness and then seeks the origin of the latter in the You-I Event: The interactive Now: A second-person approach to time-consciousness. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Vol 47(2), 2016, 156- 182.

The fourth paper is Cogitor ergo sum: The origin of self-awareness in dyadic interaction  (Human Studies 2018: ). In addition to reinforcing the main pillar of the argument, I work out a number of topics more fully: the maintenance of self-awareness during the carer’s absence; the effect of the carer’s affect-attunements on the learning of psychological concepts; and the power of the You-I account in explaining the developmental sequence of crawling, joint attention, and language acquisition. The article does not presuppose acquaintance with the earlier ones.

More recent than Cogitor (brand new in fact)…, but not as thoroughly argued, are the first three blogs that you’ll find on this site, starting here.

Concerning the ramifications of the You-I account for love, work, art, free will, science, conscience, religion, and politics, these are traced in the book I mentioned. Please keep posted.

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