Husserl Studies

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Dan Zahavi. Subjectivity and Selfhood. Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 2005, 265 pp., $21.00/£13.95 (Paper)


In the last decade or so, Dan Zahavi has established himself as the most innovative and influential philosopher working within the Husserlian tradition. One important reason for this renown is that, unlike many other Continental philosophers, Zahavi writes in a no-nonsense, unpretentious style, offering arguments and examples that makes his work readily accessible even to non-specialists. Especially when it comes to an area as difficult as Husserlian phenomenology, such clarity and accessibility can only be attained by those who really know what they are talking about and who have not only consumed but also thoroughly digested the objects of their intellectual concerns. Zahavi’s works have always been impressive and admirable in this respect, and Subjectivity and Selfhood is no exception.

Zahavi is not only a first-rate Husserl scholar with a remarkable command of the vast corpus of Husserl’s Nachlass—of which he has offered equally remarkable original interpretations—but also a philosopher doing Husserlian phenomenology in concert with analytic philosophy of mind, cognitive science, psychology and social philosophy. As his own recommendation for this kind of approach, Zahavi writes at the start of this book:

[T]he very attempt to engage in such a dialog with analytical philosophy of mind, developmental psychology, or psychopathology might force phenomenology to become more problem oriented and thereby counteract what is currently one of its greatest weaknesses: its preoccupation with exegesis (p. 6).

And the success with which Zahavi shows how Husserlian phenomenology can “become more problem oriented” in the relevant sense is what is most laudable about Subjectivity and Selfhood. While weaving seamlessly between approaches, disciplines and authors from different traditions previously regarded by many as incompatible, Zahavi identifies contemporary problems that are phenomenologically relevant, explains why they are relevant, and shows how canonical phenomenological authors—above all Husserl—can be engaged to help address these problems.

The main thesis of Subjectivity and Selfhood is this: “If we wish to understand what it means to be a self, we will have to examine the structure of experience and self-awareness” (p. 3), and “the notion of self is crucial for a proper understanding of consciousness, and consequently it is indispensable to a variety of disciplines” (p. 1). The book itself breaks down into seven chapters, which may be summarized as follows.

In Chapter 1, Zahavi argues that “higher-order theories” of consciousness—the view that there is no self-consciousness without a second-order consciousness—lead to an infinite regress. The contrary view, favored by Zahavi, is what he describes as the theory of “pre-reflective self-awareness,” the idea that consciousness is always self-consciousness independent of any intervention by reflection. Zahavi’s signature exegetical claim is that Husserl himself was a champion of the pre-reflective theory of self-consciousness, and in Chapter 2 Zahavi argues that Husserl held this view as early as the period of Logical Investigations. This exegetical claim is further pursued in Chapter 3, where Zahavi argues that Husserl’s theory of inner time-consciousness can be best understood as a further development of his pre-reflective theory of self-consciousness. In Chapter 4 Zahavi returns to the problem of higher-order theories of consciousness by introducing the “self-alienation” theory of reflection according to which the self that does the reflecting is never identical with the self that is reflected upon. Thus, rather than furnishing a consciousness of the self, reflection provides instead a distortion of that self.

In my view, the most important part of the book is Chapter 5, in which Zahavi attempts to show how one is to make sense of pre-reflective self-consciousness. According to Zahavi, one’s first-person perspective is an “invariant dimension” that persists over time, which both the reflective and reflected upon consciousness cannot help but share in common. Chapter 6 is intended to show how a theory of intersubjectivity is possible within the phenomenological framework Zahavi establishes. Finally, in Chapter 7 Zahavi considers, then dispatches, the so-called “theory-theory of mind,” which holds that in order for one to be self-aware, one must be equipped in advance with some, even if rudimentary, theory about how minds work. The explanation of how anyone is supposed to acquire such a theory without a pre-theoretical possession of mind is one that, according to Zahavi, the theory-theorist cannot provide.

At the heart of Subjectivity and Selfhood is Zahavi’s main argument, which looks like this:

(Z1) If one is conscious, then one is also self-conscious. Self-consciousness, in other words, is a necessary condition of consciousness.

(Z2) Anything can count as a self if and only if it is conscious. Z2 is not a restatement of Z1, because “to be conscious is to be conscious of itself” is different than “to be conscious is to be a personal self.”


(Z3) Anything can count as a self if and only if it is self-conscious. And Z3 may be restated more precisely as: there is a personal self, some one at all, if and only if that self is pre-reflectively self-conscious.

Much of the rest of the book consists in providing sub-arguments for Z1 and Z2. Chapters 1 through 4 provide the sub-arguments for Z1, which in turn ramify into two sets of sub-arguments, both directed against higher-order or reflective theories of self-consciousness, and both negative. The first set of sub-arguments is that higher-order or reflective theories of self-consciousness entail an infinite regress. The second set of sub-arguments is that higher-order or reflective theories of self-consciousness entail self-alienation. For this reason, such theories always fail to capture their purported quarry: i.e., some consciousness in its subjectivity. Chapter 5 presents a set of sub-arguments, this time positive, for Z2. I think this set of sub-arguments is most central for Zahavi’s project, and later I’ll say why. But first, let me go through the reductio arguments in Chapters 1 through 4.
Zahavi summarizes higher-order theories of self-consciousness in the following way:

In order to appraise this proposal let us distinguish between two uses of the term “conscious,” a transitive and an intransitive use. On the one hand, we can speak of our being conscious of something, be it x, y, or z. On the other we can speak of our being conscious simpliciter… According to higher-order theories, what makes a mental state (intransitively) conscious is the fact that it is taken as an object by a relevant higher-order state (p. 17)

In short, in order for an act to count as an act of consciousness at all, there must be another act that takes it as an object; and only thanks to this latter can the first act be said to be conscious of something. Accordingly, on the higher-order theory, “(intransitive) consciousness” is a “result of a reflection (or higher-order monitoring)” (p. 24). But such a view, according to Zahavi, entails either an infinite regress or the “explanatory vacuity” of positing a non-conscious mental state (p. 25). Zahavi dispatches the latter disjunct—that what precludes the regress is that a higher-order state need not be conscious—as follows: It is

quite unclear how a state without subjective or phenomenal qualities can be transformed into one with such qualities, that is, into an experience with first-personal givenness or mineness, by the mere relational addition of a meta-state having the first order state as its intentional object (p. 25).

If one accepts this, then higher-order theories wind up in an infinite regress, which Zahavi characterizes as follows:

If all occurrent mental states are conscious in the sense of being taken as objects by occurrent second-order mental states, then these second-order mental states must also be taken as objects by occurent third-order mental states, and so forth ad infinitum (p. 24–25).

Since an infinite regress yields no adequate explanation, higher-order theories must be rejected.

Zahavi’s second objection to the higher-order reflection theory of self-consciousness stems from Paul Natorp. It rests upon the “radical difference between subject and object” (p. 73). Briefly put, if the self is essentially a subject, and no object can count as essentially subjective, then the self cannot be any object. In reflection, however, one turns one’s self into an object for oneself and thus fails to capture the self in its subjectivity. Put another way, at the moment of reflection it is the second-order self that is the real, subjective self, while the first-order self has become a mere object and so no longer a real self. It is in this sense that Zahavi talks about the “self-alienation” of the reflection theory of self-consciousness (pp. 89–96).

As Zahavi points out, Natorp mounted this argument in his criticism of Husserl’s phenomenology—a criticism that, according to Zahavi, Heidegger simply takes over (pp. 76–85). However, as Zahavi sees it, this criticism does not get traction against Husserl at all, since despite some appearances, Husserl was not only aware of the self-alienating import of reflection, but endorsed the pre-reflective theory of self-consciousness precisely as an alternative to it. As was already mentioned, the project of Chapters 2 and 3 is to substantiate this exegetical claim.

In Chapter 2, Zahavi tries to show that, despite appearances to the contrary, even the Husserl of Logical Investigations endorses the pre-reflective theory of self-consciousness. As textual evidence, Zahavi offers this passage from the Second Investigation (p. 40):

Daß der zugehörige Belauf an Empfindungen oder Phantasmen erlebt und in diesem Sinne bewußt ist, besagt nicht und kann nicht besagen, daß er Gegenstand eines Bewußtseins in dem Sinne eines darauf gerichteten Wahrnehmens, Vorstellens, Urteilens ist (Hua XIX, p. 165).

One may wonder whether this passage is sufficient to establish Zahavi’s somewhat revisionary thesis, but we shall leave that aside for the moment.

The exegetical work of Chapter 3 is more substantial, although the interpretation is largely inferred from what Husserl says about inner time-consciousness rather than what he says about self-consciousness itself. Zahavi’s inferential interpretation boils down to this: “inner time-consciousness simply is the pre-reflective self-awareness of the stream of consciousness” (p. 65), but his argument that this is what Husserl himself thought is difficult to follow. Indeed, some of the passages that Zahavi cites are far from decisive in favor of his interpretation.

As far as I can make out, Zahavi starts the argument by pointing to Husserl’s claim that, in order for me to experience a temporally extended object—such as a melody—I must retain the preceding note and protend the subsequent note (pp. 57, 58, 68). Otherwise, I couldn’t join the notes together to synthesize the sort of unified sound we call experience of a melody. At this point Zahavi engages in a bit of exegetical intervention to argue that the retention of a preceding note just is the retention of an earlier consciousness. This consciousness of an earlier consciousness appears to be what Zahavi wants to call “self-consciousness.” Thus, since retention is necessary for the experience of a melody (or any temporally extended object), some sort of self-consciousness is necessary for the experience of temporally extended objects. But I can experience a melody without any additional, deliberate act of reflection. Therefore, if I can experience any temporally extended objects, then necessarily there must be some kind of pre-reflective self-consciousness involved.

I am not entirely sure that this is what Zahavi has in mind, since I found the whole train of argument rather difficult to follow. But if it is, then the argument would require some additional premise to the effect that the retention by a current consciousness of an earlier consciousness can count as a self-consciousness since both tokens of consciousness share something that makes them numerically identical. In Chapter 5 Zahavi appears to offer something like that additional premise, which (if I have understood him rightly) would make Chapter 5 central to the enterprise of his entire book.

Before discussing Chapter 5, let us remind ourselves why it is important for Zahavi that Husserl should advocate some pre-reflective theory of self-consciousness. The reason is that the alternative, the reflective theory of self-consciousness, winds up in an infinite regress. In order for Zahavi to claim that the retention by a later consciousness of an earlier consciousness can count as an instance of self-consciousness, he must show that the two tokens of consciousness that stand in a retentional relation have something in common, such that the retention of one consciousness by the other can count as a retention of itself, and thus as self-consciousness. In Chapter 5, Zahavi asserts that what these two tokens of consciousness have in common with one another is “an invariant dimension of first-personal experiencing” (p. 132). And it is this “invariant dimension” that allows the retention of an earlier consciousness by a later consciousness to count as an instance of self-consciousness. Furthermore, since Zahavi offers no other argument for his claim that “inner time-consciousness simply is pre-reflective self-awareness” (p. 65), the very thesis that Husserl holds a theory of pre-reflective self-awareness turns out to depend on the defense of Z2 in Chapter 5.

Let us look at how Zahavi himself spells out Z2: “the self is … closely linked to the first-person perspective, and is, in fact, identified with the very first-personal givenness of experiential phenomena” (p. 106). The first-person perspective, we might say, is exclusive. Put another way, access to that perspective is privileged: it is characterized by an ineluctable “mineness” (pp. 124–132). That is why “our experiential life is inherently individuated” (p. 128).

Although I think that this is in fact Husserl’s view, by itself it cannot suffice to establish the claim that “inner time-consciousness simply is pre-reflective self-awareness,” which is required for Z1, and consequently for Z3, namely, that to be a self is to be pre-reflectively self-aware. What is required is some argument for the following additional claim:

Whereas we live through a number of different experiences, the dimension of first-personal experiencing remains the same. In short, although the self, as an experiential dimension, does not exist in separation from the experiences, and is identified by the very first-personal givenness of the experiences, it may still be described as the invariant dimension of first-personal givenness throughout the multitude of changing experiences (p. 132).

But as far as I can make out, Zahavi does not offer a sufficient argument for the claim that the first person perspective—despite “a number of different experiences”—remains numerically identical over time. What Zahavi offers instead is the view that the denial of the numerical identity of the self amounts to a denial of the self tout court, an endorsement of the so called “non-egological theory” (pp. 99–103; 124–128).

But denial of the numerical identity of the self need not entail endorsement of the “non-egological theory.” One can embrace the view that “the self is … the very first-personal givenness of experiential phenomena” (p. 106) while denying that the first-personal givenness of experiential phenomena remains numerically identical over time. One might argue that there is no clearly discernible difference between the first-personal givenness of experiential phenomena and the experiential phenomena themselves, especially since experiential phenomena qua experiences are never anonymous. If it is thus correct to say that the self is indistinguishable from its experiences, and if, as everyone agrees, its experiences are constantly changing, then the self must also be constantly changing. So there is no numerically identical self. But if there is no numerically identical self, then the claim that “inner time-consciousness simply is pre-reflective self-awareness” has not been established, since nothing guarantees that there is anything identical between the retained consciousness and the retentive consciousness. And if Z1 is undercut in this way, Z3 does not follow either.

Whether Zahavi’s argument goes through or not, Subjectivity and Selfhood is a virtuoso performance and a model of what might be described as “contemporary Husserlian phenomenology.” It is not just a work of Husserl scholarship, nor a work of contemporary phenomenology in some vaguely Husserlian vein. Instead, what is most impressive about Zahavi’s accomplishment is that it achieves a balance between addressing contemporary issues in philosophy of mind and cognitive science from a phenomenological perspective and providing an uncompromising defense of what he claims are core Husserlian views. That Zahavi carries out this balancing act with such clarity and elegance, yet without sacrificing precision, is what makes this book, like its predecessors, exemplary.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCalifornia State UniversityLos AngelesUSA

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