The You-I Event: 1. The enigma of self-awareness

The attention of others is essential to self-awareness. This idea breaks with common experience (I am perfectly self-aware when alone!) but in this series of blogs I shall argue its truth and importance.

Philosophers may differ about what a self is, but I hope we can agree on one aspect at least: it is a thing that experiences. Experiencing has many modes: I can sense, perceive, remember, imagine, love, and so on. Take perception as an example. Suppose I perceive a tree. I am aware of it as being near or far, so it’s not just the tree that is present to me, but also myself as the standard for measuring near or far. I may also perceive the tree as obstructing my view, as offering me shade, or perhaps as a thing of no interest to me. The point is this: I am present to myself when perceiving a tree. Self-awareness becomes explicit sometimes, but often it’s just a latent companion of perception.

By what age are humans self-aware? Judging from the findings of infancy research, I would say by 6 months at the latest (probably by 3 months, perhaps earlier). If you put heavy bracelets on the arms of a 6-month-old, typically she will hesitate to reach for things that were previously within range, apparently fearing to be thrown off balance (Rochat, The Infant’s World, 2001: 65–66). To discriminate between the reachable and the unreachable, she must know where things are vis-à-vis herself. It follows that she must be aware of herself as a bounded physical whole in relation to other such wholes on which she can act.

Self-awareness, though, is a puzzling phenomenon. When I behold a tree, I am aware of myself beholding it. 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 during this experience? In the case of the self, 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? The incoherence is annoying, and we may be tempted to shrug it off, as did the founder of psychoanalysis:

“We wish to make the ego the matter of our inquiry, our very own ego. But is that possible? After all, the ego is in its very essence a subject; how can it be made into an object? Well, there is no doubt that it can be.” (Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, SE, Vol. XXII, Hogarth Press, 58.)

That ended the matter for Freud. He who had turned so many stones, peering into forbidden depths, left this stone unturned. When we turn it, as we shall in the coming blogs, everything will change. I mean this literally, because a different structure of experience will emerge, compared to which the usual structure of subject-and-object is illusory and derivative.

J. J. Gibson provided an ingenious solution to the puzzle of self-awareness: When an animal self-locomotes, the changing appearances of stable things specify it as one who is moving among them: Egoreception accompanies exteroception like the other side of a coin (The ecological approach to visual perception, 2015, p. 116). But this explanation won’t work for infants who are not yet crawling and who are nevertheless sufficiently aware of themselves to know when a toy is beyond their reach. (For a longer discussion of Gibson’s attempt and others, see my Cogitor Ergo Sum .)

Many say that proprioception is the original form of self-awareness. Cross your legs and consider the resulting sensation. Even without looking, you know they are your legs and you know they are crossed. The sensation is distinctive. Bear in mind, however, that you were already aware of yourself when I asked you to cross them. Because of your prior self-awareness, including internal awareness of your body and its parts, there can be no question about it: in sensing your crossed legs you are sensing yourself. I ask, though: What if you had no prior self-awareness? If you happened to cross your legs, the same sensation would be present, but would it suffice to make you aware of yourself as an entity that is sensing it? I don’t see how. A sensation is just that. Nothing in it conveys information that a person exists who is sensing it.

Against this, someone might say, “The self as perceiver just is transparent to itself, and we have no choice but to accept this marvelous fact.” In the next blog I’ll show that we do have a choice.


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