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Subjectivity and Mineness


Recent work on consciousness has distinguished between the qualitative character of an experience (what a particular experience is like) and its subjective character or subjectivity (the for-me-ness of any experience). It is often suggested that subjectivity is a characteristic inner awareness subjects enjoy of their own occurrent experiences. A number of thinkers have also suggested that not only is each subject aware of her own experiences, but that in having these experiences she is aware of them as her own. This is the subjectivity-mineness thesis: necessarily, an experience which is given to its subject is given as the subject’s own experience. I shall argue against the subjectivity-mineness thesis. While I agree that experiences are characterised by inner awareness, it is questionable whether inner awareness entails an awareness of my experiences as mine. I shall offer an alternative account of inner awareness, the impersonal account. On this account the subject of the experience is not presented in the content of inner awareness, but the mode of inner awareness is such that necessarily, this awareness is an awareness of experiences which belong to this subject. This is what makes inner awareness a characteristically first-personal form of awareness.

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  1. The claim that conscious experiences are necessarily characterised by inner awareness has been contested (e.g., Schear 2009). For defence of this claim, see Zahavi (2005) (which also presents arguments from a number of thinkers in the phenomenological tradition); Zahavi and Kriegel (2015).

  2. A fourth issue is whether a reductive or noncircular explanation of consciousness can be provided by appealing to inner awareness (see, e.g., Kriegel 2009). I shall not attempt to provide such an explanation in this paper. Indeed (although I shall not argue this point) I am sceptical that such an explanation is possible.

  3. Similar claims are advanced by Goldman (1970, 95–96), Smith (1989), Flanagan (1992, 194), Rosenthal (1997, 741), Block (1997, 390), Van Gulick (2000, 299), Drummond (2006, 200), Colombetti (2011, 303), Varga (2012, 165) and Sebastián (2014, 160); for further references see Guillot (2017, 25–26). Critics of the S-M thesis include Dainton (2008, 242–243), Lane (2012, 281) and Guillot (2017).

  4. A similar point is made by Marie Guillot, who argues that there is no straightforward entailment from the notion of for-me-ness to the notion of mineness (2017, 34–36; see also Alsmith 2015, 885–886). The inflationary interpretation does not entail that the awareness of oneself in mineness is an explicit or thematic consciousness such as would be involved in focusing on oneself or judging that one is oneself the subject of this experience.

  5. An alternative understanding of this locution would be that the content of the experience of x includes a concept of ‘F-ness’ (see Strawson 2008, 293). This would also yield an inflationary interpretation of mineness.

  6. It may be objected that I am in effect accusing proponents of the S-M thesis of including the subjectivity of experience (its being an experience for me) in its qualitative character (what the experience is like). But this is what the inflationary interpretation of mineness involves, on the reading of ‘x is given as F’ which I propose.

  7. A second semantic issue is whether the impersonal account characterises inner awareness as a form of self-consciousness, i.e., awareness of the subject. This depends on how one understands ‘self-consciousness’ (see Musholt 2015, 67; Zahavi 2016). For instance, if self-consciousness is simply an awareness of states which are necessarily one’s own experiences, then on the impersonal account inner awareness is a form of self-consciousness. If self-consciousness requires an awareness of one’s experiences as one’s own, then it is not.

  8. Other possible examples have been drawn from pathological cases (Lane 2012; Guillot 2017, 41–43; for discussion see Zahavi 2014, 37–40).

  9. This example assumes that there is something it is like to consciously think such thoughts, i.e., that there is cognitive phenomenology. This assumption has been questioned: for a defence, see Strawson (1994); for discussion, see the papers in Bayne and Montague (2011). It is also worth noting that the example does not require that episodes of conscious thinking have a proprietary cognitive phenomenology, i.e., a non-sensory phenomenal character. For all I have said about the example, what it is like to think such a thought may ultimately be a sensory matter. What I am suggesting is that it is not obvious that the phenomenal character of this episode of thinking involves the subject of the episode being presented.

  10. It may be objected that if imagining is understood in terms of having a quasi-perceptual experience, one can only imagine a scene from a specific point of view. However, it is not clear that in imagining a scene in this way, the point of view from which it is imagined must be given as my own (see Williams 1973, 38).

  11. It might also be suggested that the mode of inner awareness is sui generis, in that it cannot be understood as a species of a broader mode such as perception or thought. Although I think this claim is plausible, I shall not defend it here.

  12. Of course, experiences can also be given in other ways, e.g., when one reflects on one’s experiences. But note that the features characteristic of reflection are different to the features characteristic of inner awareness (e.g., reflection is voluntary, non-ubiquitous and at least sometimes attentive). These differences suggest that reflection and inner awareness are different mode of awareness.

  13. By ‘determines’ here I mean ‘metaphysically necessitates’. That is, the mode of inner awareness metaphysically necessitates that what the subject is aware of is an experience which the subject herself has.

  14. The idea that the mode of inner awareness is distinctively first-personal is acknowledged by Gallagher and Zahavi (2014, § 1) and by Smith (1989, 98–99), though Smith uses a different terminology. Where my account goes beyond these is in making clear how the mode of inner awareness can be first-personal even if the content is not (that is, if the content of inner awareness is impersonal).

  15. This distinction between inner awareness and experiences may suggest that I am treating inner awareness as a higher-order mental state, something numerically distinct from the experience itself. This is not what I am claiming. Rather, the claim is this: a conscious experience will involve the experience itself being presented to the subject (in inner awareness) and it will often also involve something being presented to the subject (e.g., what it is the experience is an experience of). These two presentations are not identical: in most cases, they are presentations of different things. Any theory which postulates inner awareness will be committed to a difference between these two instances of awareness. It does not follow that inner awareness is a higher-order mental state (for discussion see Kriegel 2009).

  16. Note that this does not threaten the assumption that the content of the inner awareness is impersonal. This content can be expressed in first-personal terms, but it need not be: it can be fully expressed by a Lichtenbergian report.

  17. Here ‘perceptual content’ should be understood internally, i.e., as the kind of content which could belong to the experience of a subject who is hallucinating.

  18. The assumption that we can have non-inferential awareness of the experiences of other persons can be questioned, but it is crucial for the challenge considered in this section. Proponents of the S-M thesis agree that inner awareness is non-inferential (e.g., Zahavi 2005, 25–26). If we can have only inferential awareness of the experiences of others, the challenge outlined in this section could be answered very easily.

  19. Rosenthal adopts a higher-order thought theory of consciousness, hence his reference to thinking about mental states. I take it that proponents of the S-M thesis would apply the point to inner awareness more generally.

  20. Nor do they predicate anything of a particular (Strawson 1959, 214–217).

  21. Thanks to Dan Zahavi, Tom McClelland, Miguel Ángel Sebastián, Anna Bortolan, Olley Pearson, Clare MacCumhaill, Vili Lähteenmaäki and three anonymous reviewers for this journal, each of whom read and provided comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to audiences at The Subjective Structure of Consciousness conference (University of Manchester), the postgraduate seminar at the University of Leeds, and the Helsinki phenomenology research seminar.


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Correspondence to Donnchadh O’Conaill.

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O’Conaill, D. Subjectivity and Mineness. Erkenn 84, 325–341 (2019).

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