Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 657–673 | Cite as

Mirror self-recognition and symbol-mindedness



The view that mirror self-recognition (MSR) is a definitive demonstration of self-awareness is far from universally accepted, and those who do support the view need a more robust argument than the mere assumption that self-recognition implies a self-concept (e.g. Gallup in Socioecology and Psychology of Primates, Mouton, Hague, 1975; Gallup and Suarez in Psychological Perspectives on the Self, vol 3, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1986). In this paper I offer a new argument in favour of the view that MSR shows self-awareness by examining the nature of the mirror image itself. I argue, using the results of ‘symbol-mindedness’ experiments by Deloache (Trends Cogn Sci 8(2):66–70, 2004), that where self-recognition exists, the mirror image must be functioning as a symbol from the perspective of the subject and the subject must therefore be ‘symbol-minded’ and hence concept possessing. Further to this, according to the Concept Possession Hypothesis of Self-Consciousness (Savanah in Conscious Cogn 2011), concept possession alone is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of self-awareness. Thus MSR as a demonstration of symbol-mindedness implies the existence of self-awareness. I begin by defending the ‘mark test’ protocol as a robust methodology for determining self-recognition. Then follows a critical examination of the extreme views both for and against the interpretation of MSR as an indication of self-awareness: although the non-mentalistic interpretation of MSR is unconvincing, the argument presented by Gallup is also inadequate. I then present the symbol-mindedness argument to fill in the gaps in the Gallup approach.


Self-awareness Self-consciousness Mirror self-recognition Symbol Symbol-mindedness Mark test Concept 



I am grateful to the following persons for their comments on earlier versions of this paper: John Sutton, Peter Menzies, Gordon Gallup Jr., Glenn Carruthers, Liz Schier, Mitch Parsell and Stuart Palmer. I thank Judy DeLoache for her responses to my questions on symbol-mindedness. I also thank an anonymous reviewer and Kim Sterelny for helpful suggestions for improvements to the original submission.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD)Macquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia

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