What is it like to think about oneself? De Se thought and phenomenal intentionality


The topic of the paper is at the intersection of recent debates on de se thought and phenomenal intentionality. An interesting problem for phenomenal intentionality is the question of how to account for the intentional properties of de se thought-contents---i.e., thoughts about oneself as oneself. Here, I aim to describe and consider the significance of a phenomenological perspective on self-consciousness in its application to de se thought. I argue that having de se thoughts can be explained in terms of the ways that subjects consciously attend to themselves in experiences of thinking. Therefore, a strong form of first-person persectivalness, in which the subject is capable of self-directed control of the focus of conscious attention, is required for de se thought. But no constraints on the semantic content of such thoughts are required. The outcome of the question therefore bears importantly on both on the problem of self-reflexive self-reference and the wider problem of self-consciousness. My model suggests phenomenologically-derived conceptual constraints for the extension of minimal, background forms of self-awareness to robust, cognitive forms of self-awareness that have been of interest in recent empirical studies on self-consciousness. The framework therefore provides a way of operationalizing the concept of self-reflexive consciousness by deploying widely deployed notions from the empirical literature such as attention and minimal phenomenal selfhood, enabling a framework for empirically falsifiable hypotheses about the neural mechanisms underlying the structure of self-consciousness. What Is it Like to Think about Oneself? De Se Thought and Phenomenal Intentionality.

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  1. 1.

    E.g., Horgan and Tienson (2002), Loar (2003), Farkas (2008), Kriegel (2011).

  2. 2.

    By comparison, PIT is compatible with weaker views about the nature of thought. For example, a PIT theorist might hold that all thought is derivative—i.e., non-phenomenal—intentionality, or it might hold that only non-propositional thought, such as imagining a red square or visualizing Pegasus as a white winged horse, is a form of phenomenal intentionality. On the other hand, CCPT holds that episodes of propositional thought have phenomenal properties that outstrip any sensory-imagistic phenomenology, and it is constitutively in virtue of an experience instantiating this phenomenology that a subject’s thought has the propositional content it has. So CCPT represents the upperbound limit of PIT.

  3. 3.

    For more on cognitive phenomenology, see, e.g., Bayne and Montague (2011) and Breyer and Gutland (2016).

  4. 4.

    Note that Pitt (2013) addresses the problem of indexical contents for his cognitive phenomenology. However, Pitt’s concerns in that work are distinct from those addressed here. There, Pitt seeks to provide an internalist theory of content that can accomodate indexical reference. Here, I seek to explore the problem of de se contents from a cognitive-phenomenological perspective that remains neutral on the internalism/externalism debate.

  5. 5.

    The main approaches in the literature include a Fregean approach, as well as alternative approaches descending primarily from Perry (1979) and Lewis (1979). For a helpful overview, see Torre (2016, 3–11).

  6. 6.

    For literature on de se propositions, see, e.g., Lewis (1979), Perry (1979, 1993), and Garcia-Carpintero and Torre (2016).

  7. 7.

    The problem has classical roots that many trace back to the work of Frege. Frege held that there is a “special and primitive way” in which each person is presented to themselves and to none other (Frege 1892, pg. 333), and in his brief remarks on (what would later be called) de se thoughts, he employs this idea. Following up on Frege’s distinction between the thought (which includes a mode of presentation) and the extension, Frege would hypothesize that when John has the thought, “I am tired,” he grasps this content under a primitive, first-personal mode of presentation. Frege’s remarks on the matter are brief, and it would be a stretch to say that he had a considered view about de se thought. It was not until many years later that Castañeda (1967) brought the issue to the fore in discussions of self-consciousness.

  8. 8.

    It’s worth noting that the term ‘de se’ is now standard in the literature, but was not originally used by Castañeda (1967) or Perry (1979). It was introduced by Lewis (1979) to set belief de se off from belief de re and de dicto.

  9. 9.

    E.g., see Stalnaker (1981), Ninan (2010), Torre (2010), Liu and Perry (2011), Moss (2012), Gibbard (2012), Weber (2013), Garcia-Carpintero and Torre (2016).

  10. 10.

    As I will suggest later, it should not be supposed that my analysis holds phenomenological approaches as the only way of clarifying the analysis in terms of phenomenality. Rather, the phenomenological approach offers a useful, ontologically neutral way of finding certain minimal conceptual constraints that can help guide research into self-consciousness.

  11. 11.

    It is worth pointing out that Campbell is not alone in seeing a role for experiential attention and consciousness in demonstrative thought. Consider, e.g., Dickie (2011) and Smithies (2011).

  12. 12.

    Example adapted from Campbell (2002, 9).

  13. 13.

    It is possible, of course, to make demonstrative reference to objects that one is not looking at, such as when one says, “That was a beautiful piece of art” after leaving the museum. The remarks here should be understood as relevantly restricted.

  14. 14.

    Cf. Bayne and Montague (2011). For historical predecessors of the view that attention structures a wider phenomenal field including cognitive phenomenology, see, e.g., Gurwitsch (1964).

  15. 15.

    Referring back to Perry’s example of John in the supermarket at the beginning of §2 above.

  16. 16.

    For, it both plays an important role in cognition (Leech and Sharp 2014) and is instrumental in the activation of explicit forms of self-awareness of oneself as oneself (Lou et al. 2004; Newen and Vogeley 2003).

  17. 17.

    Cf. Zahavi 1999, pg. 23; McGinn 1997, pg. 298; Brentano 1874; Husserl (1963, §80).

  18. 18.

    Zahavi describes the situation like so: “Consciousness is self-luminous. It is characterized by intentionality, but being intentionally aware of objects, it is simultaneously self-aware through and in itself. Its self-awareness is not due to a secondary act or reflex but is a constitutive moment of the experience itself, and consciousness can consequently be compared to a flame, which illuminates other things, and itself as well” (1999, 34).

  19. 19.

    As Gallagher (2000, 231) argues, this is the very nature of her complaint. She is having thoughts that do not belong to her.

  20. 20.

    Note that I do not here wish to say that the account is incompatible with Lewis’ account of propositions, but that it rather remains neutral.

  21. 21.

    It is worth noting that O’Brien (2007) and Peacocke (1983) make a similar point, but they do not take the phenomenological perspective that I employ here.


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I would like to thank David Woodruff Smith and Sean Walsh for tireless discussions of cognitive phenomenology and de se semantics.An early version of this work was presented at the Rudolf-Carnap-Lectures at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany in 2018. I am gratefulto the audience, and in particular to Thomas Metzinger, for their responses that shaped the final version. Finally, I would like to thank the anonymous referees for their insightful comments.

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Banick, K. What is it like to think about oneself? De Se thought and phenomenal intentionality. Phenom Cogn Sci 18, 919–932 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-018-9607-6

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  • Phenomenal intentionality
  • Self-consciousness
  • De se semantics
  • Cognitive phenomenology
  • Pre-reflective self-consciousness