The You-I Event: 2. Dispelling the enigma of self-awareness

In answer to the riddle I posed in the previous blog of this series:

Let’s not assume self-awareness is innate, because that would sweep the riddle under the rug, resigning ourselves to incoherence at the core of our being. We should at least seek a solution. Since the riddle seems “impossible” (Kant), let’s also avoid the assumption that our adult self-awareness preserves the original form. Instead, let’s look at infancy research, which has made great strides since the 1970’s in illuminating what it’s like to be a baby.

Suppose that I am a baby and you are attending to me. Although I am not yet aware of myself, I am biologically primed to be aware of you: Evolution solved the “other-minds problem” long before a philosopher thought of it (Sloman and Chrisley 2003). During the last two million years, human toddlers, unlike other apes, were cared for half the time by alloparents (maternal grandmother, father, siblings, aunts and uncles). There were long glacial ages when the polar ice caps locked up water, leading to drought in the tropics. In years of dearth, small children competed for survival (wittingly or not). Those who endeared endured. That is, those who enjoyed interaction with the alloparents, expressing their joy with smiles and laughter, were the ones who received the scarce food and protection. Theirs were the genes that got passed down. That is why our present-day babies smile in the second month (Sarah Hrdy, Mothers and Others, 31, 117, 213–14).

We return to our thought-experiment: I am the baby and you are the caregiver (henceforth carer). When our first interaction is about to begin, I have no self-awareness, but I am aware of you. You are perceived as gazing, smiling, and vocalizing. Unseen but co-present in my awareness is one toward whom these acts are aimed. That is the first intimation of me. I am nothing to myself, initially, but what your eyes are gleaming at, what your voice is lilting at, what you are smiling at. (“Or scowling at,” someone may say, but there must be a measure of benevolence or I wouldn’t survive.)

But what about my body? What about will and agency? I am more than an implicit target, an airy nothing!

True. For when I am basking in your attention, whatever is felt to be attended to belongs in the sense of self. During reciprocal smiling, for instance, the orofacial kinesthesis comes to be known as mine because it is felt to be part of what you are responding to. Indeed, the joy of being attended to is felt throughout the body, which is thereby known as mine. Furthermore, your responses reflect me as the one who provokes them. I am experienced not just as their target, me, but also as their provoker, I. The event of becoming self-aware through an Other is termed a You-I Event.

Someone objects: “But what about my continuity? What happens when you turn away? Do I cease to exist in my awareness?” The objector has grasped the idea exactly! I answer thus: When you turn away from me-the-baby, 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 the you-imbued things provide a semblance of our give-and-take. I receive myself intensely from you or I get myself less intensely from the things you imbue (more reliably, though). 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. This difference is the theme of peekaboo, which babies actively play with others from the age of 4 months (Nomikou et al. 2017, “Taking up an active role…”). When you hide behind something, pop up, hide again, and pop up again, your expression on each appearance marks the fact of my seeing you. I become aware of myself as perceiver.

To distinguish this position from that of the philosophers Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl: The original principle is not: “All consciousness is consciousness of something,” but rather, “All consciousness is consciousness of something that makes me aware of myself.”

In Cogitor ergo sum, I trace how the You-I Event is expanded and articulated to include other beings, in what is known as joint attention, aka shared attention. The phenomenon we know as world begins as the dyadic You-I Event and expands into joint attention.

That much promises to dispel the enigma of self-awareness. I am never directly aware of myself. It is you-the-carer who are perceived, not me-the-baby, but you are perceived as attending to…. You appear there, but the awareness of you makes me co-present as what you are relating to here. I appear to myself at one end of a recurring loop that includes you. This inclusive loop – and not the subject-object relation – is the original structure of human existence. That is what I meant when I said in Blog 1 that the turning of this stone will turn everything.

But why should we accept this theory? True, this solution to the riddle seems to work for infants. Yet I-the-adult am perfectly self-aware when alone! What is more, there is nothing like the You-I Event in experience as we recall it, except perhaps in moments that might be mental aberrations. Why then should we accept the idea that the You-I Event is basic to the awareness of our existence lifelong?

Because of something that happens during the acquisition of language.

That will be the topic of the next blog.

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