Thoughts on Selves

Looking inward, I catch myself having certain thoughts and sensations. Thinking ‘I’m having this thought’ constitutes a second order thought. Having such second and higher order thoughts is what I am inclined to call ‘consciousness’, as against ‘awareness’, or unreflective wakefulness.

By linking these higher order thoughts to the constancy of proprioception, the active communion within my body, I create the experience of ‘self’.

‘Consciousness’, according to William James (1904), “is the name of a nonentity”, “the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy”. James based this judgment upon his own looking inward, shaped by his philosophical pragmatism. He did not deny the reality of consciousness as a ‘function’, but its existence as ‘entity’ or ‘thing’, and object of scientific enquiry.

One century after James discarded it, the ‘rumor’ persists. Intuitions different from James’s (or of contemporary eliminativists) continue to inspire philosophical and psychological theories. There seems to be something irreducible in our personal phenomenology, which, apparently, calls for a conception of consciousness as an entity which (obscurely) ‘supervenes’ upon physical reality.

Having higher order thoughts depends upon an ability to represent by means of generalised systems of signification. This, I suspect, is the origin of language (rather than the other way around); and it seems to distinguish humans from other animals, which do have representations, but no powers of arbitrary generalisation.

Our ‘selves’ are the product of self-representation or consciousness. As a human creation, consciousness does not belong to the natural world. It belongs to culture, and is irreducible to biology (and hence physics) in precisely the sense that a painting, qua artwork, cannot be reduced to molecules and atoms. To say that artistic qualities ‘supervene’ upon physical properties isn’t saying much, without stipulating the processes which give rise to these qualities. That is the subject matter of aesthetics.

Unlike outer-world creations such as paintings, individual consciousness is inaccessible to anyone but ourselves. But it is doubtful whether there would be much consciousness to think of without its being embedded in sociocultural life.