Reply to Evans's Review of Bermudez on Self-Consciousness

© José Luis Bermúdez, 6 Feb 2000[]

PSYCOLOQUY ‹›, February 2000
Department of Philosophy
University of Stirling
Stirling FK9 4LA


Cedric Evans's detailed and interesting comments on The Paradox of Self-Consciousness have as their central theme the distinction between first-person and third-person approaches to studying self-consciousness. He suggests that I adopt an exclusively third-person approach and argues that the project of extending the domain of self-consciousness beyond the linguistic can only be viable if the third-person approach is supplemented by a first-person perspective. In this reply I point out that there is a place for first-person investigation of self-consciousness, but not quite the one that Evans envisages.

1. In The Paradox of Self-Consciousness I stressed the importance of showing how full-fledged self-consciousness, as manifested in conceptual first-person thoughts and comprehending use of the first person pronoun, can be built up from more primitive cognitive and affective capacities. I took 'primitive' in two different ways and corresponding to these there are two different "constructive projects". One capacity can be more primitive than another in ontogenetic terms. That is to say, the more primitive a capacity is the earlier it is acquired in the normal course of human development. Corresponding to this understanding of 'primitive' there is the constructive project of showing how full-fledged self-consciousness emerges ontogenetically from the foundations provided by forms of self-consciousness that are present from the beginning of life. On the second understanding of 'primitive', one capacity is more primitive than another if and only if the first is logically prior to the second. To say that one capacity is logically prior to another is to say that the second can be analysed in terms of the first, but not vice versa. When primitiveness is taken in these terms, the constructive project becomes the project of showing how full-fledged self-consciousness can be analysed in terms of forms of self-consciousness that do not involve concept possession and mastery of the first-person pronoun.

2. Cedric Evans complains that my approach to both of these constructive projects is exclusively third-personal. I tackle the constructive project of showing how full-fledged self-consciousness emerges ontogenetically and phylogenetically by how showing how inference to the best explanation seems to require the attribution of primitive forms of self-conscious states to creature that cannot plausibly be described as self-conscious in any full-fledged sense. The primitive forms of self-consciousness thus identified serve as the basic building blocks for the analytic project.

3. Evans describes my procedure as follows:

The cardinal assumption of Bermúdez's approach to self-consciousness is that it can be studied exclusively from the point of view of a scientific observer. Even when first-person thoughts are introduced as examples of self-consciousness, it is another person's first-person thoughts he is talking about, and these are introduced in evidence according to the inferences a scientific observer may draw from them (paragraph 1).

There are several different issues here that it is important to keep separate. At no point in the book do I set myself against the suggestion that self-consciousness can be studied introspectively or first-personally. Indeed, many of the insights on which I draw in discussing visual and somatic proprioception have emerged through theorists's consideration of their own self-conscious thoughts and experiences. This is particularly clear in the case of J. J. Gibson's work on ecological perception (discussed in Chapter 5). Gibson's analysis of the way in which body parts feature in the optic array as subjective objects seems clearly to have been derived from considering the first-person phenomenology of perception - so too for his suggestive comments about the self appearing as the boundary of the visual array. The same holds for much of the work that has been done on the phenomenology of somatic proprioception by Merleau-Ponty and other philosophers working within the phenomenological tradition.

4. It is important to keep apart two different types of question. It is one thing to ask how we are to go about characterising and analysing a particular form of nonconceptual self-consciousness. The first-personal approaches of Merleau-Ponty and Gibson are answers to questions of the first kind and I am quite happy to accept that introspective and first-personal considerations will have a role in answering questions of this kind. It is quite another thing, however, to ask about the grounds on which we might go about attributing such a form of nonconceptual self-consciousness in a particular case.

5. Evans's conviction that we must approach the attribution of self-consciousness from a first-person point of view leads him to characterise my position as inconsistent. He writes (in sections 14
and 15):

The reader will reall that consciousness is approached from the outside - from the perspective of an outside observer. And yet the foundational building block of his theory of self-consciousness is the concept of a mental state with a nonconceptual content. But how could Bermudez arrive at the notion of a nonconceptual content from a third-person point of view? . . . The mental state of a neonate or animal is a hidden variable from the point of view of the scientific observer. But how could such an observer ascribe the attribute of consciousness to the neonate or animal if he did not draw on his own experience of nonconceptual contents to give meaning to the attribution?

It seems to me that Evans is running together the two different types of question I have just distinguished. It may well be that one needs to draw on one's own experience of nonconceptual contents to give meaning to an attribution. This would be a first-person approach to answering questions of the first kind. But it does not follow from this that one *must* adopt a first-personal approach to answering questions of the second kind.

6. I take it that a first-personal approach to answering questions of the second kind would involve something like the conception of attributions of propositional attitudes favoured by proponents of the simulation theory against supporters of the theory theory (Davies and Stone 1995a and 1995b). That is to say, we attribute propositional attitudes like beliefs and desire to neonates and animals by "putting ourselves in their shoes" and working out what we ourselves would do in that situation. It seems to me that any version of the simulation theory is pretty implausible for neonates and animals - since we just can't put ourselves in their shoes. It is fortunate, therefore, that it is open to us at this point to adopt, as I did in the book, a version of the theory theory, maintaining that our attributions of propositional attitudes to neonates and animals are theoretically rather than empathetically grounded.

7. As part of his campaign for first-personal approaches to self-consciousness, Evans draws a useful and important distinction between consciousness with a sense of self and consciousness of self. He makes the point that the self features in experience and thought as a subject as well as as an object. If self-consciousness is analysed exclusively in terms of consciousness of self then the role of the self as subject cannot properly be taken into account. He suggests modifying my account so that the self features in the background of all perceptual awareness. He proposes "a consciousness that includes a sense of self by containing a nonconceptual representational content which accompanies every 'content' singled out by attention as a nonrepresentational background" (section 18).

8. I am sympathetic to this proposal. I am not sure, however, that it is as radical a departure from the view put forward in my book as Evans thinks. Much of the discussion of visual proprioception in Chapter 5 was an attempt to specify just how the self is a constant presence in visual perception and to explore the correlative phenomenology. Similarly in the discussion of somatic proprioception in Chapter 6. I suspect that what is at issue between us is whether this presence of the self should be described as a representation or not. Clearly, Evans is right to point out that the self is not always the object of direct attention and hence is not always explicitly represented in the way that other objects are. Yet, against his nonrepresentational proposal, I would be inclined to point out that the self must be represented in some sense if it is to feature in the background of the perceived array - at the very least it is represented in geometrical terms as the origin of the visual angles in the optic array and as a body occupying space in a distinctive manner. These are not very complex representations. But they are representations nonetheless.