Summary of
The Paradox of
Self-Consciousness
(MIT Press, 1998)

by José Luis Bermúdez 


 

1     First-person thought and self-reference 

Most, if not all, of the higher forms of self-consciousness presuppose our capacity to think about ourselves. Consider, for example, self-knowledge, the capacity for moral self-evaluation and ability to construct a narrative of our past. Although much of what we think when we think about ourselves involves concepts and descriptions also available to us in our thoughts about other people and other objects, our thoughts about ourselves also involve an ability that we cannot put to work in thinking about other people and things - namely, the ability to apply those concepts and descriptions uniquely to ourselves. I shall follow convention in referring to this as the capacity to entertain 'I'-thoughts.  

'I'-thoughts of course involve self-reference, but it is self-reference of a distinctive kind. 'I'-thoughts have the property of being immune to error through misidentification, where this means (roughly) that one cannot think an 'I'-thought without knowing that it is in fact about oneself (Shoemaker 1968, Evans 1982). This feature of 'I'-thoughts is closely tied to the linguistic fact that they can only be reported in oratione recta by means of the first person pronoun, because one cannot use 'I' to refer to oneself and be mistaken about who one is referring to (as one could, for example, were one to refer to oneself using a proper name or a definite description). This suggests a deflationary account of self-consciousness characterised by the following three theses.
 

A) Once we have an account of what it is to be capable of thinking 'I'-thoughts we will have explained everything that is distinctive about self-consciousness.

B) Once we have an account of what it is to be capable of thinking thoughts that are immune to error through misidentification we will have explained everything that is distinctive about the capacity to think 'I'-thoughts.

C) Once we have explained what it is to master the semantics of the first person pronoun (e.g. via mastery of some version of the token-reflexive rule) , we will have explained everything that is distinctive about the capacity to think thoughts that are immune to error through misidentification.

The problem with the deflationary view is that first-person self-reference is itself dependent upon 'I'-thoughts in a way that creates two forms of vicious circularity which collectively I term the paradox of self-consciousness  The first type of circularity (explanatory circularity), arises because the capacity for self-conscious thought must presupposed in any satisfactory account of mastery of the first person pronoun. I cannot refer to myself as the producer of a given token of 'I' without knowing that I intend to refer to myself - knowledge which itself has a first-person content. The second type of circularity (capacity circularity) arises because this interdependence rules out the possibility of explaining how the capacity either for self-conscious thought or for linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun arises in the normal course of human development. It does not seem possible to meet the following constraint:

The Acquisition Constraint   If a given psychological capacity is psychologically real then there must be an explanation of how it is possible for an individual in the normal course of human development to acquire that capacity

Neither self-conscious thought nor linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun is innate, and yet each presupposes the other in a way that seems to imply that neither can be acquired unless the other capacity is already in place.


2     Escaping the paradox of self-consciousness 

The strategy that I employ in the book to escape the paradox of self-consciousness involves cutting the tie between content-bearing states and language mastery. The general strategy involves distinguishing those forms of full-fledged self-consciousness which presuppose mastery of the first person concept and linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun, and those forms of primitive or nonconceptual self-consciousness which do not presuppose any such linguistic or conceptual mastery. If the self-consciousness presupposed by linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun is nonconceptual rather than fully-fledged, then the two forms of circularity which create the paradox of self-consciousness will be neutralised. A non-circular analysis of full-fledged self-consciousness in terms of linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun would be available if the 'I'-thoughts presupposed by such linguistic mastery turned out to be instances, not of fully-fledged self-consciousness, but instead of nonconceptual self-consciousness. This would also provide the key to showing how linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun meets the Acquisition Constraint.

Pursuing this strategy involves rejecting what might be termed the classical view of content. In particular it involving rejecting the following thesis:

The Conceptual Requirement Principle The range of contents which it is permissible to attribute to a creature is directly determined by the concepts which that creature possesses.

Roughly speaking, it is because concepts are language-dependent and yet there exist strong reasons for ascribing thought-contents to non-linguistic creatures that we have to accept the existence of nonconceptual contents. A nonconceptual content is one that can be ascribed to a thinker without that thinker having to possess the concepts required to specify that content. I defend the claim (which I term the Priority Principle) that concepts can only be possessed by language-users. Non-linguistic thoughts can only be thoughts with nonconceptual content, because concepts are essentially linguistic phenomena.

The constitutive connection between concepts and language emerges from the conditions upon the individuation of concepts - which in turn are conditions upon what it is to possess or grasp a concept. Any acceptable account of what it is to possess a concept will have to include certain specifications of circumstances in which it is appropriate to apply that concept. But this is not all. Concepts form part of, and are individuated by their role in, the contents of propositional attitudes. Part of what it is to possess a given concept is that one should be able to recognise that certain circumstances give one good reasons to take particular attitudes to contents containing that concept. Moreover, concept mastery is also evidenced in dispositions to make and to accept as legitimate or justified certain inferential transitions between judgements.

The plausibility of the Priority Principle emerges from the constraints upon being able to appreciate rational grounds for certain inferences. It is certainly true that it is possible to be justified (or warranted) in making a certain inferential transition without being able to provide a justification (or warrant ) for that inferential transition. It is a familiar epistemological point, after all, that there is a difference between being justified in holding a belief and justifying that belief. What does not seem to be true is that it is possible to distinguish between justified and unjustified inferential transition if one is not capable of providing any justifications at all for any inferential transitions. But providing justifications is a paradigmatically linguistic activity. Providing justifications is a matter of identifying and articulating the reasons for a given classification, inference or judgement. It is because prelinguistic creatures are in principle incapable of providing such justifications that the Priority Principle is true. Mere sensitivity to the truth of inferential transitions involving a given concept is not enough for possession of that concept. Rational sensitivity is required, and rational sensitivity comes only with language mastery.

The attribution of representational states with nonconceptual content to non-linguistic creatures is an instance of inference to the best explanation. As such it is subject to the constraints associated with inference to the best explanation - that is, constraints of simplicity, explanatory power and parsimony. In particular, it is only to be entered into when simpler explanations that do not appeal to representational states are demonstrably inadequate.

Nonetheless, many philosophers would be prepared to countenance the possibility of nonconceptual content without accepting that there might be nonconceptual first person contents or 'I'-thoughts. If the theory of nonconceptual content is to solve the paradox of self-consciousness the possibility of nonconceptual first person contents, and hence the possibility of nonconceptual self-consciousness, must be independently motivated. This requires identifying forms of behaviour in prelinguistic or nonlinguistic creatures for which inference to the best understanding or explanation demands the ascription of states with nonconceptual first person contents. I carry out this strategy in four domains:

a) perceptual experience
b) somatic proprioception (bodily self-awareness)
c) self-world dualism
d) psychological interaction


3     The self of ecological optics

One of J. J. Gibson's great insights in the study of visual perception was that the very structure of visual perception contains propriospecific information about the self, as well as exterospecific information about the distal environment (Gibson 1979). This is the most primitive form of nonconceptual self-awareness, the foundation on which all other forms of self-awareness are built.

Gibson stresses certain peculiarities of the phenomenology of the field of vision. Notable among these is the fact that the field of vision is bounded. Vision reveals only a portion of the world to the perceiver at any given time (roughly half in the human case, due to the frontal position of the eyes). The boundedness of the field of vision is part of what is seen, and the field of vision is bounded in a way quite unlike the way in which spaces are bounded within the field of vision. The self appears in perception as the boundary of the visual field - a moveable boundary that is responsive to the will.

The boundedness of the visual field is not the only way in which the self becomes manifest in visual perception according to Gibson. The field of vision contains other objects that hide, or occlude, the environment. These objects are, of course, various parts of the body. The nose is a particularly obvious example, so distinctively present in just about every visual experience. The cheekbones, and perhaps the eyebrows, occupy a slightly less dominant position in the field of vision. And so too, to a still lesser extent, do the bodily extremities, hands, arms, feet and legs. They protrude into the field of vision from below in a way that occludes the environment, and yet which differs from the way in which one non-bodily physical object in the field of vision might occlude another. They are, as Gibson points out, quite peculiar objects. All objects, bodily and non-bodily, can present a range of solid angles in the field of vision (where by a solid angle is meant an angle with its apex at the eye and its base at some perceived object), and the size of those angles will of course vary according to the distance of the object from the point of observation. The further away the object is, the smaller the angle will be. This gives rise to a clear, and phenomenologically very salient, difference between bodily and non-bodily physical objects. Perceived body-parts are, according to Gibson, 'subjective objects' in the content of visual perception.

But these self-specifying structural invariants provide only a fraction of the self-specifying information available in visual perception. There are two more important types of self-specifying information. The mass of constantly changing visual information generated by the subject's motion poses an immense challenge to the perceptual systems. How can the visual experiences generated by motion be decoded so that subjects perceive that they are moving through the world? Gibson's notion of visual kinesthesis is his answer to this traditional problem. Whereas many theorists have assumed that motion perception can only be explained by the hypothesis of mechanisms which parse cues in the neutral sensations into information about movement and information about static objects, the crucial idea behind visual kinesthesis is that the patterns of flow in the optic array and the relations between the variant and invariant features make available information about the movement of the perceiver, as well as about the environment.

As an example of such a visually kinesthetic invariant, consider that the optical flow in any field of vision starts from a centre, that is itself stationary. This stationary centre specifies the point that is being approached, when the perceiver is moving. The aiming point of locomotion is at the vanishing point of optical flow.

Striking experiments have brought out the significance of visual kinesthesis. In the so-called 'moving-room' experiments, subjects are placed on the solid floors of rooms whose walls and ceilings can be made to glide over a solid and immoveable floor (Lishman and Lee 1973). If experimental subjects are prevented from seeing their feet and the floor is hidden, then moving the walls backwards and forwards on the sagittal plane creates in the subjects the illusion that they are moving back and forth. This provides strong support for the thesis that the movement of the perceiver can be detected purely visually, since visual specification of movement seems to be all that is available. An even more striking illustration emerges when young children are placed in the moving room, because they actually sway and lose their balance (Lee and Aronson 1974).

A further important form of self-specifying information available to be picked up in the field of vision, according to the theory of ecological optics. This is due to the direct perception of a class of higher-order invariants which Gibson terms affordances. It is in the theory of affordances that we find the most sustained development of the ecological view that the fundamentals of perceptual experience are dictated by the organism's need to navigate and act in its environment, because the animal and the organism are complementary. The uncontroversial premise from which the theory of affordances starts is that objects and surfaces in the environment have properties relevant to the abilities of particular animals, in virtue of which they allow different animals to act and react in different ways.

According to Gibson, information specifying affordances is available in the structure of light to be picked up by the creature as it moves around the world. The possibilities which the environment affords are not learnt through experience, and nor are they inferred. They are directly perceived as higher-order invariants. And of course, the perception of affordances is a form of self-perception - or, at least, a way in which self-specifying information is perceived. The whole notion of an affordance is that of environmental information about one's own possibilities for action and reaction.

Recognising the existence of the 'ecological self', as it has come to be known (Neisser 1988), is the first step in resolving the paradox of self-consciousness. It removes the need to explain how infants can "bootstrap" themselves into the first-person perspective. The evidence is overwhelming that nonconceptual first person contents are available more or less from the beginning of life. Illustrations are to be found in:

  • neonatal distress crying (Martin and Clark 1982)
  • neonatal imitation (Meltzoff and Moore 1977)
  • infant reaching behaviour (Field 1976, Von Hofsten 1982)
  • visual kinesthesis (Lee and Aronson 1974, Butterworth and Hicks 1977, Pope 1984)

4    Somatic proprioception and the bodily self 

The following list of the principal types of information deployed in somatic proprioception and their physiological sources is taken from the general introduction to Bermúdez, Marcel and Eilan 1995:

  • Information about pressure, temperature and friction from receptors on the skin and beneath its surface.

  • Information about the state of joints from receptors in the joints, some sensitive to static position, some to dynamic information.

  • Information about balance and posture from the vestibular system in the inner ear; the head/trunk dispositional system; and information from pressure on any parts of the body that might be in contact with a gravity-resisting surface.

  • Information about bodily disposition and volume obtained from skin-stretch.

  • Information about nutritional and other homeostatic states from receptors in the internal organs.

  • Information about muscular fatigue from receptors in the muscles.

  • Information about general fatigue from cerebral systems sensitive to blood composition.

  • Information about bodily disturbances derived from nociceptors.

These somatic information systems vary along several dimensions. Some provide information solely about the body (eg. the systems providing information about general fatigue and nutrition). The vestibular system, in contrast, is concerned with bodily balance and hence with the relation between the body and the environment. Other systems can be deployed to yield information either about the body or about the environment. Receptors in the hand sensitive to skin stretch, for example, can provide information about the hand's shape and disposition at a time, or about the shape of small objects. Similarly, receptors in joints and muscles can yield information about how the relevant limbs are distributed in space, or, through haptic exploration, about the contours and shape of large objects.

Second, not every system yields information that is consciously registered. Most information about balance and limb position, for example, feeds directly into the control of posture. There are also significant differences in the way in which different types of information come to consciousness. It is important to distinguish two different types of conscious somatic proprioception (mediate somatic proprioception and immediate somatic proprioception) distinguished according to the role played by bodily sensation. The experience of pain is a paradigm example of mediate somatic proprioception, because the sensation of pain is a constitutive part of the experience. Pain is something we feel, as are itches, tickles and so forth. But this cannot be the model for conscious somatic proprioception in general. Joint position sense is the awareness that we have of how are body parts are distributed in space and relative to each other. Kinesthetic awareness is the awareness of limb movement. Neither of these is mediated by sensations.

I count conscious somatic proprioception as a form of genuinely self-conscious thought for four reasons. First, it gives information about the embodied self that is immune to error through misidentification. It cannot be the case that one receives proprioceptive information without being aware that the information concerns one's own body. Secondly, somatic proprioceptive information has direct and immediate implications for action. Third, somatic proprioception provides a way, perhaps the most primitive way, of registering the boundary between self and non-self. Through tactile awareness we gain a direct sense of the limits of the body. Fourth, through feedback from kinesthesia, joint-position sense and the vestibular system we become aware of the body as an object responsive to the will. Proprioception gives us a sense, not just of the embodied self as spatially extended and bounded, but also as a potentiality for action.


5    Points of view 

The nonconceptual first person contents implicated in somatic proprioception and the pick-up of self-specifying information in exteroceptive perception provide very primitive forms of nonconceptual self-consciousness, albeit ones that can plausibly be viewed as in place from birth or shortly afterwards. A solution to the paradox of self-consciousness, however, requires showing how we can get from these primitive forms of self-consciousness to the fully-fledged self-consciousness that comes with linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun. This progression will have to be both logical (in a way that will solve the problem of explanatory circularity) and ontogenetic (in a way that will solve the problem of capacity circularity). Clearly, this requires that there be forms of self-consciousness which, while still counting as nonconceptual, are nonetheless more developed than those yielded by somatic proprioception and the structure of exteroceptive perception - and, moreover, that it be comprehensible how these more developed forms of nonconceptual self-consciousness should have 'emerged' out of basic nonconceptual self-consciousness.

The dimension along which forms of self-consciousness must be compared is the richness of the conception of the self which they provide. Nonetheless, a crucial element in any form of self-consciousness is the way in which it makes possible for the self-conscious subject to distinguish between self and environment - what many developmental psychologists term self-world dualism. In this sense self-consciousness is essentially a contrastive notion. One implication of this is that a proper understanding of the richness of the conception of the self which a given form of self-consciousness provides requires taking into account the richness of the conception of the environment with which it is contrasted. In the case both of somatic proprioception and of the pick-up of self-specifying information in exteroceptive perception, there is a relatively impoverished conception of the self associated with a comparably impoverished conception of the environment. One prominent limitation is that both are synchronic rather than diachronic. The distinction between self and environment which they offer is a distinction that is effective at a time but not over time. The contrast between propriospecific and exterospecific invariants in visual perception, for example, provides a way in which a creature can distinguish between itself and the world at any given moment, but this is not the same as a conception of oneself as an enduring thing distinguishable over time from an environment which also endures over time.

To capture this diachronic form of self-world dualism I introduced the notion of a nonconceptual point of view. Having a nonconceptual point of view on the world involves taking a particular route through the environment in such a way that one's perception of the world is informed by an awareness that one is taking such a route. This diachronic awareness that one is taking a particular route through the environment turned out to involve two principal components - a non-solipsistic component and a spatial awareness component. The non-solipsistic component is a subject's capacity to draw a distinction between his experiences and what those experiences are experiences of, and hence his ability to grasp that an object exists at times other than those at which it is experienced. This requires the exercise of recognitional abilities involving conscious memory and can be most primitively manifested in the feature-based recognition of places. The spatial awareness component of a nonconceptual point of view can be glossed in terms of possession of an integrated representation of the environment over time. That a creature possesses such an integrated representation of the environment is manifested in three central cognitive/navigational capacities:

  • The capacity to think about different routes to the same place
  • The capacity to keep track of changes in spatial relations between objects caused by its own movements relative to those objects
  • The capacity to think about places independently of the objects or features located at those places.

Powerful evidence from both ethology and developmental psychology indicates that these central cognitive/navigational capacities are present in both nonlinguistic and prelinguistic creatures.


6    Psychological self-awareness 

Possession of a nonconceptual point of view manifests an awareness of the self as a spatial element moving within, acting upon and being acted upon by the spatial environment. This is far richer than anything available through either somatic proprioception or the self-specifying information available in exteroceptive perception. Nonetheless, like these very primitive forms of self-consciousness, a nonconceptual point of view is largely awareness of the material self as a bearer of physical properties. This limitation raises the question of whether there can be a similarly nonconceptual awareness of the material self as a bearer of psychological properties.

In approaching the possibility of nonconceptual psychological self-consciousness we should be guided by the thought that there might be a constitutive link between a subject's psychological self-consciousness and his awareness of other minds (the Symmetry Thesis). Although rejecting the strong version of the Symmetry Thesis which holds that there can be no psychological categories which a subject can apply only to himself, I defend a weak version on which there are some psychological categories which a subject cannot apply to himself without also being able to apply them to other psychological subjects. These psychological categories are the categories which form the core of the notion of a psychological subject. This is so because a subject's recognition that he is distinct from the environment in virtue of being a psychological subject is dependent upon his ability to identify himself as a psychological subject within a contrast space of other psychological subjects - and this self-identification as a psychological subject takes place relative to a set of categories which collectively define the core of the concept of a psychological subject.

There appear to be three central psychological categories defining the core of the concept of a psychological subject - the category of perceivers, the category of agents, and the category of bearers of reactive attitudes. This, in conjunction with the Symmetry Thesis, offers a clear way of answering the question of whether psychological self-consciousness can exist in a nonconceptual form that is independent of conceptual/linguistic mastery. In line with the methodology adopted elsewhere in the book, what would settle the matter would be social interactions involving prelinguistic or nonlinguistic subjects for which inference to the best explanation requires assuming that those subjects are applying the relevant psychological categories to themselves and to others. Research on the social cognition of infants and showed that there are compelling grounds for attributing distinguishing psychological self-consciousness relative to the three key categories to prelinguistic infants in the final quarter of the first year.

Psychological self-awareness as a perceiver is manifested in the phenomenon of joint selective visual attention, where infants (a) attend to objects as a function of where they perceive the attention of others to be directed (Scaife and Bruner 1975, Bruner 1975), and (b) direct another individual's gaze to an object in which they are interested (Leung and Reinhold 1981, Stern 1985). In (b), for example, the infant tries to make the mother recognise that he, as a perceiver, is looking at a particular object, with the eventual aim that her recognition that this is what he is trying to do will cause the mother to look in the same direction.

Psychological self-awareness as an agent is manifested in the collaborative activities that infants engage in with their care-givers (coordinated joint engagement). Longitudinal studies (e.g. Trevarthen and Hubley 1978) show infants not just taking pleasure in their own agency (in the way that many infants show pleasure in the simple ability to bring about changes in the world like moving a mobile), but also taking pleasure in successfully carrying out an intention - a form of pleasure possible only for creatures aware of themselves as agents. When, as it frequently is, the intention successfully carried out is a joint intention, the pleasure shared with the other participants reflects an awareness that they too are agents.

Psychological self-awareness as a bearer of reactive attitudes is apparent in what developmental psychologists call social referencing (Klinnert et al. 1983). This occurs when infants regulate their own behaviour by investigating and being guided by the emotional reactions of others to a particular situation. The infant's willingness to tailor his own emotional reactions to those of his mother presuppose an awareness that both he and she are bearers of reactive attitudes.


7    Solving the paradox of self-consciousness 

The four types of primitive or nonconceptual self-awareness provide the materials for resolving the paradox of self-consciousness. The problem of explanatory circularity can be blunted by giving an account of what it is to have mastery of the first-person pronoun that shows how the relevant first-person thoughts implicated in such mastery can be understood at the nonconceptual level.

Consider the following plausible account of the communicative intent governing intentional self-reference by means of the first-person pronoun.

An utterer U utters 'I' to refer to himself* iff U utters 'I' in full comprehension of the token-reflexive rule that tokens of 'I' refer to their producer and with the tripartite intention:

        i) that some audience A should have their attention drawn to him*

        ii) that A should be aware of his* intention that A 's attention should be drawn to him*

        iii) that the awareness mentioned in (ii) should be part of the explanation for A's attention being drawn to him*

Each of the three clauses of the tripartite intention is a first person thought, in virtue of the presence in each of them of the indirect reflexive pronoun he* (which, following Castañeda and others, I am using to capture in oratione obliqua what would be said using 'I' in oratione recta). Each of the first-person thoughts (i) - (iii) can be understood at the nonconceptual level.

The first clause in the tripartite intention is that the utterer should utter a token of 'I' with the intention that some audience should have their attention drawn to himself*. There are two key components here. The first component is that the utterer should intend to draw another's attention to something. That this is possible at the nonconceptual level is clearly shown by the discussion of joint selective visual attention. The second component is that the utterer should be aware of himself* as a possible object of another's attention. This is largely a matter of physical self-consciousness. The materials here are provided by proprioceptive self-consciousness and the various forms of bodily self-consciousness implicated in possession of a nonconceptual point of view.

Moving on to the second clause, the requirement here is that the utterer of 'I' should intend that his audience recognise his* intention to draw their attention to him*. This is a reflexive awareness of the intention in the first clause. The real issue that it raises is one about how iterated psychological states can feature in the content of intentions. This occurs whenever there is recognition of another's intention that one should do something. Recognitional states like these play a crucial role in the cooperative games and projects that are so important in infancy after the last quarter of the first year. An important source of infants' pleasure and enjoyment is their recognition that they have successfully performed what their mothers intended them to - and this implicates an embedding of a first person content within a first-order iteration.

In the third clause the utterer of 'I' needs to understand how the satisfaction of the first clause can causally bring about the satisfaction of the second clause. The causal relation of bringing-it-about-that is integral to the notion of a nonconceptual point of view and to the self-awareness that it implicates. Possession of a nonconceptual point of view involves an awareness of the self as acting upon and being acted upon by the spatial environment. Certainly, there is a distinction to be made between physical causation and psychological causation, but both coordinated joint engagement and joint visual attention involve a comprehension that one's intentions can be effective in bringing about changes in the mental states of others.

This resolution of the problem of explanatory circularity shows also how the problem of capacity circularity may be resolved. The solution is similar in general form to the solution to the problem of explanatory circularity. Suppose we read the above specification of the communicative intent governing the correct use of the first person pronoun as offering conditions upon learning the proper use of the token reflexive rule - as opposed to an intention that must be satisfied on any occasion of successful communication. If that suggestion is accepted then the solution to the problem of explanatory circularity gives, first, a clear specification of a set of first person thoughts which must be grasped by anybody who successfully learns the first person pronoun and, second, an illustration of how those first person thoughts are of a kind that can be nonconceptual. Of course, a detailed ontogenetic story needs to be told about how the nonconceptual first-person contents implicated in mastery of the first-person pronoun can emerge from the basis of ecological and bodily self-awareness, but there is no longer a principled reason for thinking that no such story can be forthcoming.


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