The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 5

The Experiential Self - 5.1.2
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I. The Self as Unprojected Consciousness

[2] One of the features traditionally claimed to be most characteristic of the self is its essential subjecthood. On this view, the self lies behind its experiences and apart from them, and no attempt to capture the self in experience can succeed because if it did it would make of the self an object and it cannot be an object without ceasing to be a self. On this conception the self is forever hidden from view. Hence it was in vain that Hume looked into himself for some impression of himself, for had he by chance come across anything with the required specifications he would have come across an object and not a subject.

modern expression in Buber's I and Thou111 But it can be traced back at least as far as Kant's The conception of the self as essentially subject received its noblest and most influential distinction between the transcendental self and the empirical self. 'I have no knowledge of myself as I am,' says Kant, 'but merely as I appear to

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myself.' 112 Kant's views on the nature of the transcendental self are obscure, but it is not necessary for us to pursue them in order to appreciate the relevance of his distinction to the approach to the self I am now considering. For in the very next sentence he says, 'The consciousness of self is thus very far from being a knowledge of the self . . . ' which suggests that I know that I am a self, even though I do not know what the self is. The reason Kant gives for our inability to know ourselves as we are is that any intuition I have of myself as object must of necessity be subject to the condition under which all appearances are given: namely, that they are conditioned by time. In his view this is a sufficient condition of any experience of the self being merely an appearanceof the self, and not the real self. But even had Kant not used this particular argument, his view nevertheless lends itself to the idea that the real self can never be met with in experience. 113

In the passage I quoted, Kant describes the empirical self as appearing to myself. This cannot be a reference to the empirical self, but must be a reference to the real self: i.e., the subject of the experience of the empirical self. Now if, as Kant does, one makes the assumption that every experience entails an experiencer, it will follow that whatever experience of a self I have, there must still exist a self which has that experience, which is not itself the object of the experience. It follows that we can never experience the self qua subject, because as soon as we attempt to grasp the subject-self we find that another subject-self has taken its place. If therefore the subject-self is identified as the real self, the real self forever lies just behind experiences: the experienceer cannot be found within experience.

Ryle has referred to this peculiarity of the self in always seeming to be one jump ahead of us in our efforts to experience it, as ''The Systematic Elusiveness of "I"'. He describes the apparent dilemma most evocatively:

Even if the person is, for special speculative purposes, momentarily concentrating on the Problem of the Self, he has failed and knows

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that he has failed to catch more than the flying coat-tails of that which he was pursuing. His quarry was the hunter. 114

In Ryle's view it is logically impossible for the 'I' which is the subject of experience to be at the same time its own object. Now, as I suggest, Kant did not himself adopt the position that it was logically impossible for the self to be its own object, although it would not have been difficult for him to have done so. He appears to have thought that another sort of being could conceivably intuit its real self:

'Such an intelligence [as is ours], therefore, can know itself only as it appears to itself in respect of an intuition which is not intellectual and cannot be given by the understanding itself, not as it would know itself if its intuition were intellectual.' 115

But it could be argued that even a being with such an intuitive intelligence might be forced to admit the distinction between the self that has the intellectual intuition, and the self experienced in the intellectual intuition. If he were, the systematic elusiveness of 'I' would recur to plague the intuitive intelligence as well. In any event the mere concept of a non-discursive intelligence knowing itself through an intellectual intuition does not of itself rule out the distinction in question. I am therefore inclined to side with Ryle and against Kant as far as the explanation of the systematic elusiveness of 'I' is concerned. To hope to have an experience of the experiencer, if it makes sense at all, sets going an infinite regress. No matter how many manifestations of the self are experienced, there will always be one left over which has not yet been experienced, and that one is the subject of the last experience. Experience of the self, is, in Ryle's words, 'logically condemned to eternal penultimacy'.

Now the concept of unprojected consciousness, is, as was explained in the last chapter, one of which it makes no sense to say that it could be an object of attention. Elements of unprojected consciousness can be detached and made objects of attention, but they are of necessity replaced by other elements which take their place in unprojected consciousness. It is self-contradictory to say of unprojected consciousness as a whole that it could be an object

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of attention. In this respect unprojected consciousness refers to experiential elements, but not to experiences which we encounter as objects of attention.

The attempt to experience as object of attention that which can only be experienced as background is frustrated in the same way, and for the same reason, as is the attempt to make of the subject-self its own object. From this point of view unprojected consciousness is systematically elusive. It is systematically elusive to attention. There is a parallel with the 'I' which, as Ryle has argued, is systematically elusive too in the sense that the 'I' cannot be objectified by attention.

If we now identify unprojected consciousness and the self, we explain at once how it happens that they both exhibit the same logical behaviour, and what is more, we provide ourselves with an explanation of the systematic elusiveness of 'I'. If the self is unprojected consciousness, then the self can no more become an object of attention and remain subject than an element of unprojected consciousness can become an object of attention and remain an element of unprojected consciousness. If, however, it were possible for the totality of the elements of unprojected consciousness at one instant to become the whole object of attention at the next instant, we would have a situation in which the object of attention was the empirical self as a whole. 116 But, as I have tried to make clear, there would still have to be an unprojected consciousness to back up such an object of attention even though all its elements were new: we would still not have grasped the subject-self. We can therefore envisage, as a theoretical possibility, a succession of attempts to objectify the subject-self. Each time a new subject-self takes the place of the one just objectified, becoming its experiencer. The theory I am advocating explains why this must be so, not on the purely formal ground that an experience requires an experiencer, but on the material ground that a self could not be an object of attention unless unprojected consciousness, with which I have identified the subject-self, existed.

The great attraction of the theory I am proposing can now be explained. In the first place it enables us to resist the logic of the argument according to which the phenomenon of the systematic elusiveness of 'I' drives us back to a Pure Ego: a Pure Ego, moreover, that lies beyond the bounds of experience. According to this

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logic, if every attempt to grasp the real self in experience fails, this must mean that the self must be something that cannot be experienced. Moreover, it follows that we can gain no knowledge of this self, for such knowledge would imply that we had some experience of it. Therefore, all we know of the self is that it is the subject of every experience - hence its designation as a 'pure' ego. In the second place, and in contrast with this reasoning, I am suggesting that it is indeed true that the subject-self can never itself become an object of experience, and I am maintaining that this has nothing to do with the nature of the self - transcendental or empirical. It is put down to nothing other than the way attention operates. This enables it to be asserted in all consistency both that the self as subject is experiential, and that it is never presented as an object of experience. Furthermore, it obviates the necessity of treating the self as something unknown in itself.

The theory overcomes the paradox that the self, although discoverable in experience, is never an object of experience, and in the process removes the main prop holding up The Pure Ego Theory of the Self. The essence of the matter is, on my view, that the self is experiential (i.e. is composed of elements of consciousness), but is never known as an object of experience. This is one of the factors that accounts for the view that the self lies behind its experiences. 117 It also explains why we have such a lively sense of the presence of the self, and why we are so nonplussed by denials of the self's existence.

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111. M. Buber, I and Thou, tr. R. G. Smith (Edinburgh, 1937).]
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112. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. N. Kemp Smith (London, 1953), B 158. At A 107, Kant says. 'Consciousness of self according to the determinations of our state in inner perception is merely empirical, and always changing. No fixed and abiding self can present itself in this flux of inner appearances.'
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113. I use the expression 'real self' to stand for what Kant calls 'the self as I am', in contrast to 'the self as I appear', in order to avoid embroilment in the doctrine of the Transcendental Ego. It must not be thought, however that I am thinking of 'the real self' of later British Idealists.
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114. Ryle, The Concept of Mind, p. 198.
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115. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B 159.]
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116. I shall shortly offer reasons for rejecting this as a possibility. See below, pp. 168-9.
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117. Another is given on pp. 168-9, below.
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