Kant on Self-Consciousness

At one point in “Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience,” Sellars is summarizing some “familiar Kantian theses” (279), and says: “Even our consciousness of what is going on in our own mind is a conceptual response which must be distinguished from that which evokes the response” (280, his emphasis). This fits nicely with the way I want to think about self-consciousness: a self-conscious act, on my view, is one in which, in addition to performing the act, you also come to know that you’ve performed it, and you do so precisley by performing it. So understood, the knowledge that you’ve performed the act is, in Sellars’s terms, a conceptual response to the act itself.

Unfortunately for me, Sellars continues:

Kant tends to limit this point to the introspection of sense impressions and other sensory states of the empirical self. Thus he tells us in A546 that we have knowledge ‘by pure apperception’ of our conceptual acts. Indeed, he repeatedly implies that we have (or can have) an unproblematic awareness of all acts of spontaneity or synthesis (e.g., A108, B130, B153). And in B430 he even seems to suggest that in pure apperception the mental activity known and the knowing of it are somehow one and the same.* (280)

These additional facts about Kant are unfortunate for me only because many philosophers, influenced by Kant, are inclined to except rational (“spontaneous”) acts from the scope of the above thesis, and thus say that, in the case of rational acts, the knowledge of the act is not a response to the act. Sellars, I think, is skeptical.** And so am I.

There are, at the very least, pressing questions here for Kant, and for Kantians (or at least for Kantians who want to follow Kant to the letter on this issue). Most obviously: What is pure apperception? But, just as importantly: Why think that our knowledge of our rational acts and states is different in kind (or, more carefully, different in kind in just this way) from our knowledge of our sensations? (The qualification there is just meant to register the fact that there will surely be some differences, precisely because the objects of knowledge––rational acts and sensations, respectively––will be different in kind.)

The standard answer here is that our rational acts are free.  But this doesn’t help me much. The paradigm of a free rational act is an intentional action.  Admittedly, since it’s plausible that you know what you’re doing otherwise than on the basis of observation, it’s fairly plausible that your knowledge of what you’re doing isn’t a response to your action.*** But an inference (for example) isn’t an intentional action. Do you know that (and/or what) you’re inferring otherwise than on the basis of observation? Well, that’s just the issue––though it might now depend on what exactly we mean by “observation.” Most philosophers (Quassim Cassam is, I think, an exception) don’t think you need to observe, for example, your behavior. But to say that your knowledge of your act of inference is a response to that act isn’t necessarily to say that you acquire that knowledge through perception, or anything of the kind. In fact, it seems likely that your knowledge of your inference will be acquired in the same way you acquire knowledge of your intentions. But unless the formation of an intention is a free act (can it be, on pain of regress?), the appeal to freedom now seems to be beside the point.

Okay, there’s obviously a lot more to be said about these issues. The short of it, though, is this. First, I don’t know what pure apperception is. Second, it doesn’t seem to me that we need it, because I can’t see any problem with the supposition that our knowledge of our rational acts is formed as a response to those acts themselves.

Now it may be that Kant had reasons to posit pure apperception. But are those reasons we share with him? Unfortunately, I can’t say, because I don’t even know what they are. But I’d really like to know; after all, I could just be missing something here.



*Here Sellars adds that this last thesis “is surely inconsistent with critical principles”! I’m not entirely sure Sellars is right about that, but I’m also not entirely sure I understand Kant’s critical philosophy. In any case, I think the thesis Sellars mentions here is actually correct, though I don’t think I understand it in the way most Kantians do.

**In a note attached to the passage quoted here, he says: “Kant could insist that knowledge gained by pure apperception is not knowledge of an object by arguing that the mind qua rational, i.e., qua capable of spontaneous conceptual activity, is not a part of nature” (280n10). That thesis is one Sellars would reject, for reasons he spells out in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.”

***But, then, your action isn’t something that’s merely “going on in your own mind” (as Sellars puts it) and so arguably doesn’t fall within the scope of Kant’s thesis anyway. And isn’t that relevant here?

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