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Understanding others, reciprocity, and self-consciousness


The article explores the basic conceptual relationship between social cognition, intersubjectivity and self-consciousness. A much-debated recent approach to social cognition, the so-called interaction theory, is the view that the ability to perceive, understand and interpret the behavior of others relies on interaction in the sense of mutual coordination of the embodied agents involved. It will be shown that this notion of reciprocity is too weak in order to fully account for social understanding. It will be argued that the idea of reciprocity should at least in some cases be conceived of as a stance persons adopt towards each other, which in turn presupposes that they acknowledge each other as self-conscious agents. This view is inspired by an argument originally introduced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

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  1. This is why the approach is sometimes called “direct-perception view“. For a discussion of which mental episodes may reasonably assumed to be directly perceptible, namely intentions-in-action and certain emotional states, see Spaulding (2015). Notice also that some recent approaches stress the possibility of non-inferential social perception without referring to interaction as a requirement (see, for instance, Butterfill and Apperly 2013 who argue for a “minimal Theory of Mind”).

  2. I owe the reference to the underlying structure of illocutions to an anonymous reviewer.

  3. For a critique of Moran’s claim that the interlocutor’s recognition of the speaker’s intention is sufficient for the success of a particular speech act see Heal (2013).

  4. I think we can make a similar case for various other forms of social activities which presuppose a fundamental reciprocal involvement, for instance: handing something over to somebody else (see Rödl (2014) for a more detailed description of this procedure which he calls “intentional transaction”).

  5. Note that I will bracket aspects of Fichte’s theory that would require a broader consideration of his transcendental system.

  6. It is hard to draw a unified picture of Fichte’s theory of self-consciousness based on the various versions of his “Wissenschaftslehre”. In the present context I am referring to Fichte’s notions of self-consciousness and intersubjectivity that he develops in his early and middle-period writings (the so-called “Jena period”).

  7. See also Neuhouser 1990, 81–84. Basically, what I call “pre-reflective self-awareness” refers to what Fichte calls “intellectual intuition” (intellektuelle Anschauung).

  8. See especially Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo (1796/99) (English title: Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy [1992]). Dieter Henrich famously pointed to the impossibility of establishing self-consciousness in a non-circular way if self-consciousness is conceived of as reflective consciousness (see Henrich 1967, 12). In recent discussions, pre-reflective self-consciousness is often regarded as a bodily awareness of being spatially present, of having an experiential first-person perspective (see Gallagher and Zahavi 2008, 49). As this experiential mode doesn’t give any knowledge about oneself as oneself and doesn’t presuppose linguistic abilities it most likely doesn’t require a social context for its existence (which is in line with Fichte’s idea) - especially conceived from a developmental perspective (205) (for a different view see e.g. Sokolowski 2008). Furthermore, it seems highly plausible that this basic experiential first-person perspective is at the root of, for instance, epistemic features of the use of “I” and its irreducibility.

  9. See, for instance, Musholt (2012) or Baker (2012). According to Baker, reflective self-consciousness is equivalent to having a “robust first-person perspective” or a self-concept, which is manifest in the ability to self-attribute first-person reference as expressed in sentences like “I wish I was tall” (23).

  10. Fichte’s argument is at length unfolded in §§ 1–3 of the Foundations of Natural Right. For a detailed discussion of the first part of the argument see Neuhouser 2001. Another but shorter and more scattered version can be found in Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo §§ 18–19.

  11. This idea is captured in the following quote: “The human being (like all finite beings in general) becomes a human being only among human beings” (Fichte 2000, § 3, corollary 1).

  12. The outlined concept of mutual recognition inspired by Fichte’s view seems to be close to Searle’s very brief sketch of a background sense of the other as a possible agent. Searle claims that, prior to entering in cooperative activities with others, one must suppose that the others are agents like oneself and that they have a similar awareness of oneself as an agent (see especially Searle 2002, 104 f.). He stresses that this awareness is not like a belief, it is rather like a “stance towards others” (104). Unfortunately, Searle doesn’t say anything more about this issue.

  13. Reddy identifies precursors of reflective self-consciousness in what she calls “affective self-consciousness”, which emerge through social engagement (for instance, hiding in shyness; embarrassment; showing off; see Reddy 2003, 399).

  14. Helen Steward, for instance, argues for a concept of freedom, which she calls “animal agency”, that can meaningfully be ascribed to certain non-human animals (see Steward 2012, 70–107).


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Correspondence to Katja Crone.

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Crone, K. Understanding others, reciprocity, and self-consciousness. Phenom Cogn Sci 17, 267–278 (2018).

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