Self-Consciousness and Intersubjectivity

By Winfield, Richard Dien | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Self-Consciousness and Intersubjectivity

Winfield, Richard Dien, The Review of Metaphysics

NOTHING APPEARS LESS PROBLEMATIC than self-consciousness. Without it, no inquiry seems possible, for how can one seek knowledge unless one is aware of undertaking that quest? Moreover, consciousness of anything other than the self is always plagued with knowing something whose existence cannot lie in the consciousness of it. As Descartes observed, whenever one represents an object different from one's consciousness, it is always doubtful whether that object exists or corresponds with its representation. (1) By contrast, insofar as consciousness of one's self-consciousness is the very being of self-consciousness, the gap between object and representation here seems uniquely absent. Not only is my representation of myself as self-conscious constitutive of my being self-conscious, but nothing prevents that representation from corresponding to what it is about.

This privileged certainty, however, generates skepticism regarding knowledge of anything other than one's own consciousness, including other minds. If knowledge of self-conscious is secured by its identity of subject and object, of knowing and what knowing is knowing of, wherever that identity is lacking, cognition confronts the dilemma of bridging a gap that is insurmountable if knowing has no access to its object other than by representing it.

The yawning solipsism that attends the privileged self-certainty of self-consciousness is not mitigated by the oft alleged dependence of consciousness upon self-consciousness. To paraphrase Kant, consciousness of any object is possible only if consciousness relates itself to its own representation of the object. Otherwise, the putative knowledge belongs to no one and there is no consciousness of the represented object. If this relation of consciousness to its own representation is self-consciousness, then there can be no consciousness of an object without a simultaneous self-consciousness. (2) The problem with securing this dependency is that the privileged certainty of self-consciousness renders suspect whether consciousness can ever relate to anything but itself. So long as self-consciousness is construed to be primary, it remains doubtful whether there can be any consciousness of a non-self to accompany self-consciousness.

The solitary primacy of self-consciousness, however, is just as questionable as is how consciousness can be aware of itself.


To begin with, self-consciousness must presuppose consciousness if to be self-conscious is to be conscious of one's consciousness. In that case, consciousness must be present, relating to an object it distinguishes from itself. Consciousness may always involve self-relation in that consciousness relates to an object only by relating to its own mental content. Nonetheless, in order for this self-relation to involve intentionality, to be about something objective rather than subjective, consciousness must treat its own mental content as the determination of something independently given from which it is disengaged. Without disengaging itself from the same content to which it stands in self-relation, consciousness reverts to a preconscious psyche that feels nothing but its own feeling self, never attaining an opposition of subject and object. For this reason, the relation of consciousness to its own mental content is not equivalent to consciousness of consciousness. Consciousness's relation to its own representation is only part of consciousness, a part that must be accompanied by a relation to that content as something other to consciousness. Accordingly, consciousness does not collapse into self-consciousness.

Because mind is enabled to be conscious of something other than itself only by detaching itself from its own mental content, neither self-consciousness nor consciousness can be primary. Just as consciousness depends upon the disengagement by which self-feeling becomes sensation of something objective, so self-consciousness depends upon consciousness as the object of its own disengaged awareness. …

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