About my-self: reflections on Bermúdez

by José Luis Díaz

Centro de Neurobiología
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Campus Juriquilla,

Querétaro, México

The "I" or the "self" are among the most abstract, troublesome and yet lingering concepts in psychology, philosophy, and human sciences. Different authors and schools either exalt them (Husserl, Jung, Kohut), try to exorcise them (Buddism, Hume, Ryle), or think they pose a limit in the scientific understanding (Stent, 1975). But the problem will not go away: it seems to spring constantly from our basic experience and phenomenology. The notion is as simple and powerful as our sight or visual experience: the eye (or an "I" if we follow the self-referential mirror woven by Hofstadter and Dennett in 1981) sees the world by means of attention. In a similar way we are led to the notion that an I (or a subject) experiences the world (or an object). Even if the world is the inner world of thoughts, images, or emotions, during the episodes of self-consciousness the "I" may seem to be there, nowhere, watching the show. The linguistic mastery of the first person pronoun is based on the understanding of this simple and apparent self-world dichotomy. But, is it so simple and evident? Not for the Buddha or for Hume, who do not find any "I" by careful introspection. Not either if we examine the semantics of the first person pronoun. Thus, if we look at the meaning of "I" it turns out to be a semantic beehive (Benveniste, 1981) with no fixed an obvious referent. Sometimes it seems identical to the body, other times it refers to the owner of a body. Sometimes it appears as the pilot of attention or voluntary movement, others it is the protagonist of daydreams, night dreams, and nightmares. Sometimes it designates the person who speaks, other times, a changing point of view. Even if the speaking person is taken to be the best referent of the first person pronoun, it happens that in some pathologies such as multiple personality disorder, anosognosia, somnambulism, or temporal lobe epilepsy (Apter, 1991) the personal identity becomes slippery and devoid of any stable or permanent referent. Nagel (1986) speaks of the view from nowhere and the postmodern deconstructionists claim that the subject has been demolished once and for all. Still, the problem will not go away because there is something personally and socially consequential to think and say about being an agent, a subject, a person having a point of view, and a will. Folk-psychology cannot be that wrong and maybe we can be realistic about it (Graham and Horgan, 1988).

An alternative approach to the problem is gaining ground. Perhaps the "I" or the "self" are cognitive realities, functions or representations to be understood as a set of functions or processes providing a sense of unity and continuity to a person (Strawson, 1997). The self is a person from the standpoint of that person, and the content of the "I" locution is me (Brook, 1998). We can put aside the ontological question and avoid the age-old tangle of the terms "I" and "self" by speaking of self-consciousness, a cognitive function involving self-reference. One fruitful way of thinking about self-consciousness in this framework is in terms of a high-order cognitive function composed of a set of particular lower-order functions. If this would be the case it is possible to approach the resulting function by the recognition and analyses of the lower-order functions, and especially by proposing and detecting the way in which such functions interact to produce the full-fledged cognitive ability.

This is the approach followed by José Luis Bermúdez, and it is a seminal one. He is one of those bold young philosophers who build arguments concerning consciousness drawing from neural, cognitive and behavioral science. The enterprise is sound and welcome, but dangerous. It may dissatisfy both philosophers and scientists, and yet, it is urgently needed. How does he fair in the attempt? It seems that remarkably well considering the hard subject and novel methodology. But let’s take a closer look.

Perhaps the most relevant questions that we may ask regarding self-consciousness as a high order cognitive process are the following two: Is self-consciousness a form of cognition composed of a single set of different and independent or interdependent functions and capabilities? Is it the result of a hierarchical array of ever more primitive functions? Neisser (1988) made a distinction between five types of self-knowledge (ecological, interpersonal, extended, private, and conceptual) but does not explain how they may relate to yield a single phenomenon. Bermúdez thesis seems to point out that self-referential functions could be arranged in a hierarchy of levels from the very "primitive" and non-conceptual to the most "developed" and fully linguistic.

Now, if we want to examine such capacities in some order perhaps we could apply both the biological rule and the cognitive rule. If we follow what can be called the common biological rule it would be necessary to argue or to show that these capacities have been acquired in some order of complexity through both phylogenetical evolution and ontogenetical development. This last rule corresponds to the Acquisition Constraint defined by Bermúdez as an explanation of how an individual acquires that capacity in the course of development. There is, of course, ample evidence concerning the acquisition of self-perception (Butterworth, 1988). Now, if we apply the cognitive rule it would be necessary to show and ascertain how the high-level capacity arises from underlying low-level capacities. It seems that Bermúdez’s emergence thesis is completely dependent from the possibility of showing one or both forms of causal dependence.

This emergence thesis actually implies that each capacity is born from the proper acquisition and consolidation of a previous one. Here, of course, I employ the well-known terminology used by Waddington when he refers to the basic process rules of fetal development and which were successfully applied by Jean Piaget in his celebrated model concerning the development of cognitive capacities in children. Thus, the emergence thesis requires showing how these primitive forms are involved in the construction of the higher-order ones all the way from the primitive bottom to the self-consciousness capacity attained when a linguistic mastery of the first person is fully developed. This program would be a very ambitious and painstaking endeavor. But it is possible to examine particular examples of the purported emergence and ascertain if and how they meet this particular constraint.

One such instance of this development mentioned by Bermúdez is the experience of what he calls a non-conceptual point of view and which may arise from the navigational capability of a creature. To begin with, we may wonder weather such non-conceptual point of view is dependent, identical or emergent from the navigational capability. This is how this question arises. "Point of view" in a non-linguistic creature probably may be taken to mean a focus of the perceptual field located in the head, the limbs, or a gravitational body center corresponding in some sense to Gibson’s affordances. If this is the case, the creature may not need an indexical point of view or a perceptual construction of its own body to navigate in the environment. Granted, some notion of body focus is necessary for a creature to successfully move about, but the capacity may simply be a physiological given sense of movement and space. Of course such a sense may feel somehow as a non-conceptual point of view to the creature.

The long debate of place versus map orientation in animals is relevant in this regard. The debate was resolved for the most part by the evidence that the hippocampal system of the brain provides the bases for an environmental space topology in animals, a base for a cognitive map. We may take for example the work of Bruce MacNaughton et al. (1996) using an array of several dozen microlectrodes implanted in individual neurons of the hippocampus in awake and relatively freely moving rats. It is possible to ascertain in which location and orientation the animal is within the experimental environment just by looking at the global pattern of individual discharge in such neurons. The hippocampus constructs a map of the environment and necessarily within that map, a location of the creature. This last neural function may very well serve what we may call a non conceptual point of view. But is the "point of view" an intrinsic function of the brain or do we face here another manifestation of the cumbersome duality of properties between physiology and cognition? The problem here may be the use of a highly charged expression, namely a "point of view" (which has an important role in several human disciplines such as architecture or narratology) in the context of animal physiology and behavior. Indeed, if we follow this line of reasoning one could suspect that the paradox of self-consciousness permeates down to its primitive components. So my first question concerning Bermúdez thesis and project is if we are not likely to re-encounter the paradox of self-consciousness not to mention the mind-body problem, in the way we choose to establish and denominate its primordial capacities. The peril of using terms and expressions coming from the human academic lore in relation to those coming from biological, behavioral, or physiological sciences seems particularly relevant here.

I am very aware that this confrontation is precisely what Bermúdez wants to do, and I am sure physiologists will be very grateful for his effort. But the program which needs to be fulfilled is particularly harsh and it is nothing less than showing that some deeply rooted notions of human high-order cognition, such as in this case "point of view" may be clearly defined in physiological or behavioral terms.

Perhaps a way to explore this question is to recognize the singular capacities that may participate in the conformation of self-consciousness and to list them in some order of complexity. The following list of self-referring capacities starts at the bottom with the most primitive and finish at the top with the most advanced.

  • The capacity for moral self-evaluation.
  • The ability to construct a narrative of our past (an autobiography) based upon our capacity to remember and interpret past experiences.
  • The capacity to entertain 'I'-thoughts based upon the linguistic mastery in the use of first person pronouns.
  • The awareness of one’s own states of mind.
  • The "central executive" function involved in attention and voluntary movement which leads to the experience of agency.
  • The possession of a "point of view" which is akin to our situated subjectivity and the base of the feeling of something essential of being a person.
  • The sense of self-world dualism.
  • The somatotopic map leading to the awareness of one’s own body, the possession of a "body image, and self-recognition.
  • Proprioception.

This preliminary and somewhat hasty arrangement suggests both a pyramidal structure and the emergence of each higher-order capacity from the more primitive one below. Let us take the pyramid from the bottom. Bermúdez review and comments about proprioception are very insightful. The many receptor-sensory systems providing information from the body structure, position, or chemistry cannot be collectively analyzed as simply registering the boundary between the body (or bodily self) and environment (or non-self). Each proprioceptive system yields particular and peculiar information building distinct functions that result in distinct capacities. This distinction is very important since it may imply that distinct higher level self-reference systems may arise from different prelinguistic proprioceptive systems. For example, while touch receptors may help to construct the sense of body limits, the vestibular and joint receptors are probably more involved in the construction of the image of the body as a moving geometrical and dynamic system navigating in a particular environment. This means to say that the list of functions above does not follow a simple top to bottom hierarchy, but the rules of a complex system mixed dependence. Thus, the next step in the way is to produce a model of the self-referential system architecture. It seems that a simple pyramidal structure will not do the job unless we recognize precisely what defines every step of the pyramid and exactly how it comes to be from steps below.

But the structure of self-consciousness seems to be even more complex. Let us take what seems to be a single layer, the second one from below which Bermúdez (1995) has analyzed for some time. It seems that it is not only necessary to distinguish between proprioception, which is the information incoming to the brain from bodily receptors, and its result, which is a somatotopic map corresponding to the subjective sense of the body as a limited spatial entity. It happens that an identification of such a somatotopic map with Penfield’s homunculus of the somatosensory cortex is doubtful because of the well known phantom limb phenomenon. Because of strong empirical reasons, pain scientist Ronald Melzak (1983) supposes that a neuromatrix - that is a set of brain areas involved in proprioception, emotion, and cognition - is the source of our body image and experience. The matrix does not light up just by the incoming or afferent information from the body but it activates by other means, it may even self-activate. Then one does not need a body to feel a body and the body image and the somatotopic brain map are not one and the same thing. They usually may match closely (never perfectly) but certainly not in patients with anorexia nervosa or body builders who have a body image which is far from the real structure of the body as measured by third persons or reflected in the mirror. So, the body neuromatrix may very well be not only a (moderately) distributed process, but also a plastic process. And here, once more, we find the same difficulty of superposing a cognitive ("body image") and a neural ("somatotopic map") concept.

Despite the problems that arise from the attempt to build a progressive emergence view of self-consciousness, Bermúdez’s strategy to brake the paradox of self-consciousness is quite sound and is very welcome. His effort makes very clear that there are prelinguistic or non-conceptual foundations for self recognition and that these foundations resolve the circularity arising from the capacity for self conscious thought being dependent on a mastery in the use of the first person pronoun and viceversa. Moreover, non conceptual and linguistic aspects of self-consciousness are not only different levels of explanation requiring encapsulated modules to carry the task, as it was assumed by the models of Marr, Fodor, and other classical cognitive science authors. They are different capacities interwoven in a holistic and hierarchical system more compatible with the model of malleable, mutually influencing modules of modern cognitive neuroscience. Finally, the system can be approached both conceptually and empirically.

Such an approach involves a strong interaction of philosophy, cognitive psychology, behavioral science, and neurophysiology. Bermúdez shows here that this approach can be very useful precisely in the most difficult of the cognitive functions, self-consciousness. It is true that some of the difficulties of the age-old mind body ontology still linger in this approach, but this is not only a burden in the incoming field, but an opportunity to build and polish theoretical approaches which are philosophically sound, empirically grounded, and methodologically seminal.


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Bermúdez, J.L. (1995) "Ecological perception and the notion of a nonconceptual point of view" In: The body and the self. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT press (Bermúdez, J.L., Marcel, A., Eilan, N., eds) pp153-173.

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