Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

Here’s something that’s been bugging me for a while: when philosophers characterize conscious mental states, they often do so in terms that seem to imply that those states are self-conscious. In other words, they seem to be conflating consciousness and self-consciousness; assuming, in effect, that all conscious states are self-conscious – which, given the plausibility of the view that all self-conscious states are conscious, implies that a state is conscious just in case it’s self-conscious.

For example, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Consciousness, the first (of six) mentioned ways of understanding state consciousness (i.e., what it is for a state to be conscious) is as a state one is aware of. As it’s put there: “a conscious mental state is simply a state one is aware of being in” (accessed May 18, 2017). It’s important, of course, that some of the other mentioned ways of understanding state consciousness are radically different in this respect. But it’s still remarkable, I think, that there’s even a single understanding of state consciousness that (apparently) equates it with state self-consciousness.

Now, I don’t myself have anything particularly insightful to say about consciousness (understood now as distinct from self-consciousness). But these issues do affect things in which I have a direct interest, in particular, the distinction between occurrent and non-occurrent (“standing”) states. (On my official view, “occurrent state” is a contradiction in terms. A hint of the contradiction comes out if you notice that “occurrent” is closely related to “occurrence,” another name for an event. Or, as I like to put it: an occurrence is a happening. And a state is precisely not a happening. Of course you can extend your use of “state,” and allow yourself to talk of, say, the state of being in the process of walking across the street. But that doesn’t obviate the need for some distinction between, for example, states and processes. That is: there’s an important sense of “state” in which the state of being in the process of walking across the street just isn’t a state, precisely because it’s a process.)

These issues came up earlier this week when I was reading Gary Bartlett’s just-published paper “Occurrent States” (here). Bartlett cites a glossary entry for “occurrent beliefs” from David Braddon-Mitchell and Frank Jackson’s book Philosophy of Mind and Cognition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), according to which occurrent beliefs are “Beliefs of which one is actively aware” (303 of the book). The suggestion here isn’t just that a belief is occurrent only if it’s self-conscious. It’s that the occurrence of belief (i.e., its being occurrent, rather than non-occurrent) is to be understood in terms of self-consciousness. But to the extent that that suggestion rests on the conflation of consciousness with self-consciousness, it’s dubious. More importantly, from my perspective: if that conflation is common, it’s likely to occlude views on which the occurrence of a belief (and the occurrence states more generally) isn’t to be understood in terms of (and perhaps doesn’t even involve) self-consciousness.

I unfortunately don’t have the time right now to back this claim up with evidence, but it seems to me that this kind of conflation of consciousness and self-consciousness is fairly ubiquitous in at least some corners of the philosophy of mind (and action, actually). It’s certainly of a piece with a certain sort of methodology common in certain circles, what’s sometimes called the “first-person” methodology. (This sort of methodology is commonly adopted by those influenced by Richard Moran’s Authority and Estrangement, though I’m not entirely sure that Moran himself employs it, at least as I understand it.) The idea here is that we (for some reason) need to think of, for example, what it is to believe something from the first-person perspective, if we’re going to understand what belief is. The problem, from my perspective, is that, if you think of belief only from the first-person perspective, you’ll necessarily be thinking of specifically self-conscious belief. And so if you employ this methodology and, using it, produce arguments to the effect that all beliefs are self-conscious, or that belief is essentially self-conscious, that might be because you’ve begged the question, in the sense that your very methodology ensures that the only beliefs that will come into view for you (and so, perhaps, the only things you’ll be willing to call beliefs) will be self-conscious beliefs.

I’ll add that I’m not terribly confident in these criticisms. But they reflect considerations that make me suspicious of a lot of recent work in the philosophy of mind and action. At the very least, I’d like to hear a lot more about how philosophers like Bartlett and Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson (just to mention those I’ve mentioned here) think about the distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness.

Actually, Bartlett does, in a sense, discuss this issue (in section 4), though he does it under the guise of asking whether occurrent states can be unconscious. To me, though, it looks like these so-called unconscious states might be merely non-self-conscious, hence, perhaps, conscious. So I’d also like to know more about how these philosophers think of the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious. Or, more completely: how do we understanding the three-fold distinction between the conscious, the self-conscious, and the unconscious?



This entry was posted in Philosophical Methodology, Self-consciousness. Bookmark the permalink.