Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

(First published Sat Feb 19, 2005; substantive revision Wed Dec 24, 2014)

On the phenomenological view, a minimal form of self-consciousness is a constant structural feature of conscious experience. Experience happens for the experiencing subject in an immediate way and as part of this immediacy, it is implicitly marked as my experience. For phenomenologists, this immediate and first-personal givenness of experiential phenomena is accounted for in terms of a pre-reflective self-consciousness. In the most basic sense of the term, self-consciousness is not something that comes about the moment one attentively inspects or reflectively introspects one’s experiences, or recognizes one’s specular image in the mirror, or refers to oneself with the use of the first-person pronoun, or constructs a self-narrative. Rather, these different kinds of self-consciousness are to be distinguished from the pre-reflective self-consciousness which is present whenever I am living through or undergoing an experience, i.e., whenever I am consciously perceiving the world, whenever I am thinking an occurrent thought, whenever I am feeling sad or happy, thirsty or in pain, and so forth.

1. Pre-reflective self-consciousness

One can get a bearing on the notion of pre-reflective self-consciousness by contrasting it with reflective self-consciousness. If you ask me to give you a description of the pain I feel in my right foot, or of what I was just thinking about, I would reflect on it and thereby take up a certain perspective that was one order removed from the pain or the thought. Thus, reflective self-consciousness is at least a second-order cognition. It may be the basis for a report on one’s experience, although not all reports involve a significant amount of reflection.

In contrast, pre-reflective self-consciousness is pre-reflective in the sense that (1) it is an awareness we have before we do any reflecting on our experience; (2) it is an implicit and first-order awareness rather than an explicit or higher-order form of self-consciousness. Indeed, an explicit reflective self-consciousness is possible only because there is a pre-reflective self-awareness that is an on-going and more primary self-consciousness. Although phenomenologists do not always agree on important questions about method, focus, or even whether there is an ego or self, they are in close to unanimous agreement about the idea that the experiential dimension always involves such an implicit pre-reflective self-awareness.[1] In line with Edmund Husserl (1959, 189, 412), who maintains that consciousness always involves a self-appearance (Für-sich-selbst-erscheinens), and in agreement with Michel Henry (1963, 1965), who notes that experience is always self-manifesting, and with Maurice Merleau-Ponty who states that consciousness is always given to itself and that the word ‘consciousness’ has no meaning independently of this self-givenness (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 488), Jean-Paul Sartre writes that pre-reflective self-consciousness is not simply a quality added to the experience, an accessory; rather, it constitutes the very mode of being of the experience:

This self-consciousness we ought to consider not as a new consciousness, but as the only mode of existence which is possible for a consciousness of something (Sartre 1943, 20 [1956, liv]).
The notion of pre-reflective self-awareness is related to the idea that experiences have a subjective ‘feel’ to them, a certain (phenomenal) quality of ‘what it is like’ or what it ‘feels’ like to have them. As it is usually expressed outside of phenomenological texts, to undergo a conscious experience necessarily means that there is something it is like for the subject to have that experience (Nagel 1974; Searle 1992). This is obviously true of bodily sensations like pain. But it is also the case for perceptual experiences, experiences of desiring, feeling, and thinking. There is something it is like to taste chocolate, and this is different from what it is like to remember what it is like to taste chocolate, or to smell vanilla, to run, to stand still, to feel envious, nervous, depressed or happy, or to entertain an abstract belief. Yet, at the same time, as I live through these differences, there is something experiential that is, in some sense, the same, namely, their distinct first-personal character. All the experiences are characterized by a quality of mineness or for-me-ness, the fact that it is I who am having these experiences. All the experiences are given (at least tacitly) as my experiences, as experiences I am undergoing or living through. All of this suggests that first-person experience presents me with an immediate and non-observational access to myself, and that (phenomenal) consciousness consequently entails a (minimal) form of self-consciousness. In short, unless a mental process is pre-reflectively self-conscious there will be nothing it is like to undergo the process, and it therefore cannot be a phenomenally conscious process (Zahavi 1999, 2005, 2014). An implication of this is obviously that the self-consciousness in question can be ascribed to all creatures that are phenomenally conscious, including various non-human animals.

The mineness in question is not a quality like being scarlet, sour or soft. It doesn’t refer to a specific experiential content, to a specific what; nor does it refer to the diachronic or synchronic sum of such content, or to some other relation that might obtain between the contents in question. Rather, it refers to the distinct givenness or the how it feels of experience. It refers to the first-personal presence or character of experience. It refers to the fact that the experiences I am living through are given differently (but not necessarily better) to me than to anybody else. It could consequently be claimed that anybody who denies the for-me-ness of experience simply fails to recognize an essential constitutive aspect of experience. Such a denial would be tantamount to a denial of the first-person perspective. It would entail the view that my own mind is either not given to me at all — I would be mind- or self-blind — or is presented to me in exactly the same way as the minds of others.

There are also lines of argumentation in contemporary analytical philosophy of mind that are close to and consistent with the phenomenological conception of pre-reflective self-awareness. Alvin Goldman provides an example:

[Consider] the case of thinking about x or attending to x. In the process of thinking about x there is already an implicit awareness that one is thinking about x. There is no need for reflection here, for taking a step back from thinking about x in order to examine it…When we are thinking about x, the mind is focused on x, not on our thinking of x. Nevertheless, the process of thinking about x carries with it a non-reflective self-awareness (Goldman 1970, 96).
A similar view has been defended by Owen Flanagan, who not only argues that consciousness involves self-consciousness in the weak sense that there is something it is like for the subject to have the experience, but also speaks of the low-level self-consciousness involved in experiencing my experiences as mine (Flanagan 1992, 194). As Flanagan quite correctly points out, this primary type of self-consciousness should not be confused with the much stronger notion of self-consciousness that is in play when we are thinking about our own narrative self. The latter form of reflective self-consciousness presupposes both conceptual knowledge and narrative competence. It requires maturation and socialization, and the ability to access and issue reports about the states, traits, dispositions that make one the person one is. Bermúdez (1998), to mention one further philosopher in the analytic tradition, argues that there are a variety of nonconceptual forms of self-consciousness that are “logically and ontogenetically more primitive than the higher forms of self-consciousness that are usually the focus of philosophical debate” (1998, 274; also see Poellner 2003). This growing consensus across philosophical studies supports the phenomenological view of pre-reflective self-consciousness.

That pre-reflective self-awareness is implicit, then, means that I am not confronted with a thematic or explicit awareness of the experience as belonging to myself. Rather we are dealing with a non-observational self-acquaintance. Here is how Heidegger and Sartre put the point:


The body provides not only the egocentric spatial framework for orientation towards the world, but also the constitutive contribution of its mobility. Perception does not involve a passive reception, but an active exploration of the environment. Husserl calls attention to the importance of bodily movements (the movements of the eye, manipulations by the hand, the locomotion of the body, etc.) for the experience of space and spatial objects. He further claims that perception is correlated to and accompanied by proprioceptive-kinaesthetic self-sensation or self-affection (Husserl 1973c). Every visual or tactile appearance is given in correlation to a kinaesthetic experience. When I touch a shaped surface, it is given in conjunction with a sensation of finger movements. When I watch the flight of a bird, the moving bird is given in conjunction with the kinaesthetic sensations of eye movement and perhaps neck movement. Such kinaesthetic activation during perception produces an implicit and pervasive reference to one’s own body. The implicit self-awareness of the actual and possible movements of my body helps shape the experience that I have of the world. To be clear, however, bodily self-awareness is not an awareness of the body in isolation from the world; it is embedded in action and perception. We do not first become aware of the body and subsequently use it to engage with the world. We experience the world bodily, and the body is revealed to us in our exploration of the world. Primarily, the body attains self-awareness in action (or in our dispositions to action, or in our action possibilities) when it relates to something, uses something, or moves through the world.[4]

Bodily self-awareness, like self-consciousness more generally, has limitations. I am never fully aware of everything that is going on with my body. Indeed, my body tends to efface itself as I perceive and act in the world. When I jump to catch a ball that is thrown over my head, I certainly have a sense of what I can do, but I am not aware of my precise movements or postures—for example, that my right leg bends at a certain angle as I reach with my left hand. I can execute movements without being explicitly conscious of them, and even what I am tacitly aware of is somewhat limited—for example, I am not aware of the shape of my grasp as I reach to grab the ball. Although I may not be aware of certain details about my bodily performance, this does not mean however that I am unconscious of my body. Rather it means that the way that I am aware of my body is fully integrated with the intentional action that I am performing. I know that I am jumping to catch the ball, and implicit in that, as an immediate sense rather than an inference, is the experience of my body jumping to catch the ball. Furthermore, experiential aspects of my embodiment permeate my pre-reflective self-consciousness. There is something it is like to jump to catch a ball, and part of what it is like is that I am in fact jumping. There is something different to what it is like to sit and imagine (or remember) myself jumping to catch the ball, and at least part of that difference has to do with the fact that I am sitting rather than jumping, although none of this may be explicit in my experience.

Another way to think of this is to consider the sense of agency that is normally an aspect of pre-reflective self-awareness in action. If, as I am walking down the street, I am pushed from behind, I am instantly aware of my body moving in a way that I did not intend. The fact that I feel a loss of control over my actions suggests that there had been an implicit sense of agency or control in my walking prior to being pushed. In voluntary action, I experience the movements of my body as my own actions, and this is replaced by a feeling of loss of bodily control in the case of involuntary movement. Voluntary actions feel different from involuntary actions, and this difference depends respectively, on the experience of agency or the experience of a lack of agency—as the case may be if my body is being moved by someone else.

5. Social forms of self-consciousness
A focus on embodied self-experience inevitably leads to a decisive widening of the discussion. The externality of embodiment puts me, and my actions, in the public sphere. Self-consciousness involves not only an ability to make reflective judgments about our own beliefs and desires but also includes a sense of embodied agency. I am, as Paul Ricoeur (1950, 56–57) points out, conscious of being the author of my actions, and this kind of awareness often comes about as my actions are reflected in the presence of others. I can become aware of myself through the eyes of other people, and this can happen in a number of different ways. Thus, embodiment brings intersubjectivity and sociality into the picture, and draws attention to the question of how certain forms of self-consciousness are intersubjectively mediated, and may depend on one’s social relations to others. My awareness of myself as one person among others, an awareness that I may frame from the perspective of others, attempting to see myself as they see me, involves a change in the attitude of self-consciousness. Within this attitude, judgments that I make about myself are constrained by social expectations and cultural values. This kind of social self-consciousness is always contextualized, as I try to understand how I appear to others, both in the way I look, and in the meaning of my actions. I find myself in specific contexts, with specific capabilities and dispositions, habits and convictions, and I express myself in a way that is reflected off of others, in relevant (socially defined) roles through my language and my actions.

The role of the other in this mode of self-consciousness is not unessential. According to Husserl, I become aware of myself specifically as a human person only in such intersubjective relations (Husserl 1973b, 175; 1952, 204–05; see Hart 1992, 71; Zahavi 1999, 157ff. Also see Taylor 1989, 34–36 for a similar idea). Thus Husserl distinguishes the subject taken in its bare formality from the personalized subject and claims that the origin and status of being a person must be located in the social dimension. I am not simply a pure and formal subject of experience, but also a person, with abilities, dispositions, habits, interests, character traits, and convictions, and to focus exclusively on the first is to engage in an abstraction (Husserl 1968, 210). Given the right conditions and circumstances, the self acquires a personalizing self-apprehension, i.e., it develops into a person and as a person (cf. Husserl 1952, 265). And this development depends heavily upon social interaction (Husserl 1973b, 170–171).

This kind of self-consciousness is also the occasion for a self-alienation, famously explicated by Sartre in terms of the other’s gaze. For Sartre, because “our being, along with its being-for-itself, is also for-others; the being which is revealed to the reflective consciousness is for-itself-for-others” (1956, 282). On this view, the primary experience of the other is not that I perceive her as some kind of object in which I must find a person, but I perceive the other as a subject who perceives me as an object. My experience of the other is at the same time an experience that involves my own self-consciousness, a self-consciousness in which I am pre-reflectively aware that I am an object for another. This experience can further motivate a reflective self-consciousness, as I consider how I must appear to the other.

Merleau-Ponty (1945, 415) suggests that the other’s gaze can motivate this kind of self-consciousness only if I already have a sense of my own visibility to the other. This sense of my own visibility, however, is immediately linked with the pre-reflective, proprioceptive-kinaesthetic sense of my body, an insight that goes back to Husserl’s analysis (mentioned above), through Merleau-Ponty, who sees its connection to the infant’s capability for imitation, and forward to more recent advances in developmental psychology (see Merleau-Ponty, 1945, 165, 404-405; 2010; Gallagher and Zahavi 2008; Zahavi 1999, 171–72). In effect, we find ourselves related to others through self-conscious experience that is motivated by the other’s gaze.

This is not the place to enter into a detailed discussion of these rich and complex issues, issues that extend to analyses of phenomena such as empathy, shame, guilt, and so on (see Zahavi 2010, 2014). But it is important to realize that self-consciousness is a multifaceted concept. It is not something that can be exhaustively analyzed simply by examining the inner workings of the mind.

6. Conclusion

The notion of self-consciousness has been the subject of a rich and complex analysis in the phenomenological tradition. Aspects of the phenomenological analysis also show up in other areas of research, including feminism (Stawarska 2006; Young 2005; Heinämaa 2003), ecological psychology (Gibson 1966), and recent analyses of enactive perception (Noë 2004; Thompson 2008). The recognition of the existence of a primitive form of pre-reflective self-consciousness is an important starting point for an understanding of more elaborate forms of self-consciousness that are concept- and language-dependent. Phenomenological analyses show these processes to be more than purely mental or cognitive events since they integrally involve embodiment and intersubjective dimensions.

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