Representation and Regress


I defend a Husserlian account of self-consciousness against representationalist accounts: higher-order representationalism and self-representationalism. Of these, self-representationalism is the harder to refute since, unlike higher-order representationalism, it does not incur a regress of self-conscious acts. However, it incurs a regress of intentional contents. I consider, and reject, five strategies for avoiding this regress of contents. I conclude that the regress is inherent to self-representationalism. I close by showing how this incoherence obtrudes in what must be the self-representationalist’s account of the phenomenology of experience.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout, “consciousness” and “awareness” are synonyms. The term “intention” is reserved for acts that have intentional contents, and correlatively, intentional objects.

  2. 2.

    This assumption will be justified in Sect. 4.

  3. 3.

    Treated purely formally, the above argument has two suppressed premises, each accepted by higher-order theorists. (1) Consciousness is transitive. That is, taking “Rxy” to range over acts of consciousness belonging to the same subject, and meaning “x represents y”: ∀xyz((Rxy & Ryz) → Rxz). (2) Consciousness is asymmetrical: ∀xy(Rxy → ~Ryx). (1) and (2) are required to exclude finite representational cycles: e.g., Rab, Rbc, Rca. See Williford (2006b, p. 114).

  4. 4.

    Higher-order theorists deny that the final member, Rn, of a series of reflections, R1, R2, …, Rn, is the object of a reflection: Rn is in that sense unconscious. That is what I mean by saying that, for higher-order theorists, self-awareness is not necessary to consciousness.

  5. 5.

    Brentano claims to derive his view from Aristotle. At De Anima III.2 (425b11–7) Aristotle writes: “Since we perceive that we see and hear, it is necessarily either by means of seeing that one perceives that one sees or by another perception. But the same perception will be both of the seeing and of the colour that underlies it, with the result that either two perceptions will be of the same thing, or it will be of itself. Further, if the perception of vision is a different perception, either this will proceed to infinity or some perception will be of itself; so we ought to posit this in the first place.” (Translated by Caston 2002.)

    To this extent, Aristotle’s thought seems clear: every perception must be “of itself”. However, Aristotle’s position does not entail that experiences are aware “of themselves” as intentional objects. Although recent views (Caston 2002; Kriegel 2007) have tended to stress that Aristotle is Brentano’s progenitor, Aristotle’s (undeveloped) position is as compatible with Husserl’s position (defended below) as it is with Brentano’s.

  6. 6.

    Included in Gurwitsch’s essay, Die mitmenschlichen Begegnungen in der Milieuwelt (1931), the argument was not published until 1977.

  7. 7.

    Within analytic philosophy Kriegel has perhaps been self-representationalism’s foremost spokesman. His continued adherence to self-representationalism is evidenced by footnote 11 of Kriegel and Zahavi (2016). There Kriegel implicitly distinguishes his own view, that “we are intentionally ‘aware of’ our occurrent experiences”, from the view that self-consciousness has a “more primitive and pre-intentional character”.

  8. 8.

    It remains unclear, however, what motivates this position other than the need to avoid the regress. I suggest it can have no phenomenological motivation. I have already observed that, in self-consciousness, I am aware of my experiencing my experience, as such. Indeed, my experience of my desire might have various phenomenal features that cannot escape my awareness (for example, I might apprehend my desire with unease or irritation).

  9. 9.

    Williford no longer accepts self-representationalism (Williford 2015).

  10. 10.

    “[]” is a nominalization operator: it renders “Rab (a represents b)” as “[Rab] (a’s representing b)”.

  11. 11.

    It will not do to accept Rosenthal’s (2012) suggestion that the mine-ness of my conscious episodes is dispositional, that I am only disposed (in appropriate circumstances) to apprehend my experiences as mine. Given [Mine-ness], as soon as this alleged disposition is manifested in an episode the regress will open.

  12. 12.

    The parallel application of [Mine-ness] to the higher-order theory is obvious.

  13. 13.

    That I am aware of my experience as it qua experience is, is perfectly consistent with the claim that my experience is, say, a chemical process, and that I am not directly aware of (do not live) my experience as a chemical process. In other words, for my experience to be as it pre-reflectively appears to me does not require that my experience be nothing more than that appearance.

  14. 14.

    It would be equally correct to follow Gennaro (2008, p. 42) in describing these models as hybrids of higher-order and Brentanian models.

  15. 15.

    “Just as a perception (or […] a painting) can represent a cabinet by […] representing the cabinet’s front door, so a higher-order representation can represent a mental state by representing a part of it. In this way, M* may represent the whole of M by representing [M**].” (Kriegel 2007, p. 368).

  16. 16.

    [Neo-B1]—[Neo-B3] are not intended to exhaust the possibilities here. They serve rather to illustrate different forms that can be taken by the shared general position, that consciousness receives its self-consciousness by being represented, either by a proper part of itself, or by a state of which it forms a proper part. It is that general position that is refuted here.

  17. 17.

    Section 4, (iii).

  18. 18.

    Husserl expresses the distinction by saying that the flow of self-consciousness is at one and the same time a transversal consciousness (Querintentionalität) of experience and a longitudinal consciousness (Längsintentionalität) of itself. Longitudinal self-consciousness and transverse self-consciousness require “one another like two sides of one and the same thing, [and are] interwoven with each other in the one, unique flow of consciousness.” (Hua X, p. 381/393).

  19. 19.

    Of course, each of these representational theories holds that my pre-reflection is in fact a reflection on E.

  20. 20.

    Consider that, since [Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Rab]]], one can replace “[Ra[Ra[Rab]]]” with “[Rab]” in “[Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Ra[Rab]]]]” to yield: [Rab] = [Ra[Rab]].

  21. 21.

    In Husserl’s terms, there can be no additions to transverse and longitudinal self-awareness. Longitudinal self-awareness is not itself constituted by some distinct, more basic self-awareness: “The self-appearance of the flow does not require a second flow; on the contrary, it constitutes itself as a phenomenon in itself.” (Hua X, p. 382/393).

  22. 22.

    That solution being: to identify a conscious act with one of its representational properties (Williford 2006a, p. 7; 2006b, pp. 116–118.) That is exactly what [Lived-Subjectivity] holds: the pre-reflective act is its being conscious (of) itself as being a consciousness (of) b. The solution, however, should surely be credited to Husserl (see note 21 above).

  23. 23.

    For any of my conscious episodes, x, my conscious episode, a, is a consciousness of x, as mine, only if a is conscious of a’s being so conscious of x, as mine.

  24. 24.

    For example: Brough (1972, p. 318), Sokolowski (1974, p. 156), Gurwitsch (1985, p. 4).

  25. 25.

    It will be clear to those who have followed the Brough/Zahavi dispute that I side with Brough (1972, 2010) on the matter of whether experiences are experienced (erlebt) as inner objects. Regarding this dispute, one might wish also to consult Drummond (2006), DeRoo (2011), Brough (2011), and Zahavi (2011).


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Thanks are due to the editors and to an anonymous referee for Husserl Studies. For their remarks on an earlier expression of these thoughts, thanks are due to Alia Al-Saji, Emily Carson, David Davies and Ian Gold.

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Correspondence to Maiya Jordan.

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Jordan, M. Representation and Regress. Husserl Stud 33, 19–43 (2017).

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