“Know Thyself!”

“Know Thyself!”
Exploring self and self-consciousness from A (like Avicenna) to Z (like Zahavi)

© xaratustrah, the angling philosopher – 2021-04-14


The notion of self and self-consciousness (self-awareness) is one of the most fundamental concepts in the philosophy in general and in the philosophy of mind in particular. The presence of a self, in particular an enduring self, as a reference of first personal indexical expressions has been debated while the reality of self-consciousness has been widely accepted. Philosophers of different epochs have responded to this question with a multitude of approaches, often similar in structure or line of argumentation. In the present work, I examine the epistemological tools relevant for the study of self and self-consciousness. After studying a few current and historical examples, I will figure out how a phenomenological examination can lead to both a better understanding of the concept of self-consciousness as well as the concept of self. Finally, I will discuss the strengths and limitations of the mentioned phenomenological method.

Keywords: self, self-consciousness, self-awareness, Zahavi, Avicenna, Dignaga, phenomenology


It is common to see the catching aphorism “Know thyself!” printed on t-shirts, mugs and other goodies in souvenir shops in Greece. I had never really given much thought about it though, other than having once searched the internet to find its origin as having been the first of the three Delphic maxims inscribed at the temple of Apollo at Delphi a couple of centuries before the common era. The first thing that appeared in my mind was a respectful but rather superficial consent of the kind one usually gets when listening to the elderly teaching out of their life experience. Much later though I started to ponder about this simple sentence. Soon a plethora of questions emerged. Surely the author wants us to do something good, something that is good for me to do, with subsequent benefits that would affect me, my life and probably the life of the people with whom I interact.

But what could the author have really meant? If the author invites us to know ourselves, what exactly does she envision us to know? Who is “myself”? What is my “self”? What is the difference between my “self”, “myself” and “me”? What does knowing actually mean? What kind of knowledge is the knowledge of self? Can I know myself like I know that the fourth decimal place of the irrational number π is a five (formal knowledge), or this knowledge is of a kind, that on the Mars I can jump a bit higher than I am able here on the Earth (empirical knowledge)? What exactly is the domain of the knowledge acquired by this act of knowing, does it entail the fact that the self necessarily must exist, and all that is left to me is the last leap, which leads to the enhancement of my knowledge about it? Even if I do manage to know myself, is this knowledge something that I can share with others, or will it remain along the lines of “OK, I finally managed to know myself, but I can’t exactly tell you how or what it is, I suggest you go try knowing yourself, yourself!”. Finally if I know myself, am I then conscious of myself?

These questions are not easy to answer, neither do I plan to answer them in this work. Instead, I am hoping to sketch my brief dive into the depths of the concept of self and self-consciousness. Diving is probably the most appropriate description here due to the narrow coverage that such a short text can ever provide. After setting the scene by fixing some initial definitions and historical comments in the following section, I try to find my way to the phenomenological approach provided by Dan Zahavi and his deflationary concept of self and shall argue that his notion can lead to the more satisfying answers that can provide a firm foundation upon which further critical thought can be placed. Like a submerged free diver who always keeps close to the long safety rope hanging from the boat on the surface, I shall remain close to the reality of daily experience, and try to find back to the real world by ending on concluding remarks about possible destinations, where such a concept of self can take us to.

Setting the scene: with or without self

So what is “self”? A traditionally appealing, and historically persisting answer has been that the self is the very ego in us human beings, in other words my self is the ultimate me. It is the focal centre of my worldview, the ultimate judge of my sensory perceptions and the agent of my experiences and memories that persists through my lifetime. It is me that others get to know, describe, remember and forget. Self is the “I” that is hungry, cold, fearsome, worried, disappointed, responsible for my thoughts and actions and even that, which disagrees with “you” in a discussion about “self”! These descriptions already provide a hint to a consciousness or awareness that an individual gains about the object of her inwardly directed reflection: a possible missing link to the act of knowing in the aphorism “Know thyself!” mentioned at the beginning.

So if self exists, which at a first glance it apparently somehow does, it must be made of something and should be found somewhere. So far the human self has evaded any empirical proofs, no one has been able to locate it inside humans or for that matter in any living organism. What tradition or most religions have suggested though, is that, the self is either identical or at least a part of the human soul, an entity ultimately separate from my body. Even in philosophy, prominent figures such as Aristotle and Avicenna were not shy of talking about the human soul. So, in that respect, the self would ultimately be made of “soul-stuff”, would reside within or near our body and would accompany it during the lifetime.

Hardly any topic in the theoretical philosophy has had a comparable impact on daily life as subjectivity and selfhood. It shouldn’t have had, one might think, since life happens with or without a belief in self or a deep understanding thereof. But in fact, many ethical and social norms by themselves or by virtue of their connection to religious thoughts are affected by the notion of self. In the religious context, but also in constructing social norms, an ego is the responsible agent within human beings to which good or evil deeds can be assigned and hence, it could be construed that the concept of self is the preventer of chaos when it comes to accounting for responsibility and justification here, or for those who believe in an afterlife, over there. [1] To this day, many religious rituals as well as social norms are centered around a concept of self and thereby affect human daily life directly.

But what is the problem with having a self? In the Buddhist tradition, in fact according to the very first of the Four Noble Truths, there is suffering (Duḥkha) in this world (Saṃsāra) and human beings are affected by it. The self or ego is in a sense the source of human desires for change: her desire to know more, to be or to become someone she is not, to have more of pleasant and less of unpleasant things, more of good experiences, happiness, joyfulness and like. This deeply rooted, never ending but ever present craving or desire, which leads to further attachments, is basically the very source of suffering and pain. This suffering has been identified with the sense of attachment that comes with the self and which prevents us from gaining knowledge about the true impermanent nature of things we interact with, and that of our experiences and ultimately of what we are. There is no self (Anattā) and that, of which we think is self, is just an illusion that is distorting our relationship with the universe we inhabit. True freedom can only be achieved by detaching from this illusion and give way to a true liberation from suffering and pain for all and ever.

Meanwhile in the western tradition, philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists have started the “serious business” of studying subjectivity and selfhood, probably less motivated on religious grounds, or if at all, precisely in order to indirectly renounce them. Indeed while the dualist self-centered accounts are less en vogue these days, perhaps in specific literature on the philosophy of religion, no-self theories are enjoying a cheerful comeback in the western thought.

Historically, many have considered philosophers like Descartes as prominent figures in the philosophy of subjectivity. While this is surely true, he was certainly not its initiator. In fact, philosophical thoughts about subjectivity, self, self-consciousness and self-knowledge is nothing new. A wealth of philosophical work have been available scattered through the centuries by early and medieval philosophers in Europe, or Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers in the Islamic world and those who hailed from the Indian subcontinent. As an example of the latter, major figures such as Dignāga (6th century C.E.) and Dharmakīrti (7th century C.E.) elaborated deep concepts about self and self-awareness from within the Buddhist philosophical framework. These had an enormous influence with visible fingerprints up to the present day prominently in the so-called no-self theories, where still a lot of systematic catching-up is in progress in the western philosophy. Descartes himself acknowledges the similarity of his own cogito argument to that of Augustine’s “fallor” a couple of centuries before (Kenny, 1970, p. 84).

Also later, Avicenna, a Persian philosopher of the 11th century C.E., who wrote his seminal philosophical works, specifically The Book of Healing (Al-Shifāʾ) in Arabic, to be later translated into Latin, became an extremely influential figure in topics related to the philosophy of mind and psychology of the 13th century. [2] His “flying man” thought experiment, a key approach to the philosophy of subjectivity and self, has predated by centuries those like Descartes’ cogito and other modern approaches such as Anscombe’s sensory deprivation model (see Anscombe, 1981, p. 152). His notions of intentionality, first personal reference and the discussions of self-awareness are as significant as they are fascinating from the modern perspective.

So probably unlike the more modern topics such as ethics of self-driving cars and veganism, while studying “self” as one of the core areas in the theoretical philosophy, much can be learned from older works as these have never lost their relevance and can partly be discussed on a par with modern theories of subjectivity.

Third-person view

Identifying the “self” in “Know Thyself!”

Going back to the main question of the present work: now the question of knowing oneself, or self-knowledge can be reduced to self-consciousness or using another common expression for it, self-awareness [3]. All other facts about self, in other words, anything that can be known about oneself and can contribute to self-knowledge, is nothing other than a kind of higher order knowledge that finally can be based on or traced back to the very fact of being conscious of oneself. To put it differently, the majority of that, which constitutes self-knowledge, is an interlinked chain of facts about oneself based on a an intentional reflection on things related to the subject, such as mental states, feelings, qualities and quantities of human beings and those involved in her being-in-the-world. The intriguing part that constitutes the core of the self-knowledge is the consciousness of self, prominently the question of its existence and how it comes about.

In order to deal with these latter questions, historically an intuitive approach has been opted for, which assumes that the self can be taken as an object of human knowledge that she can reflect upon. The knowledge that is resulting from this act of reflection leads to an awareness or consciousness which finally culminates in having self-consciousness. In other words, self-consciousness is a result of an intentional turn of attention. This kind of having consciousness is always having consciousness of something, and so it involves an object of consciousness. This is known as the reflection model of self-consciousness. In the reflection model, the self-consciousness is just a special case of the consciousness of an object, that is, with self-consciousness comes a consciousness of oneself or one’s mental states that is basically not much different than that of having a consciousness of a tree (Wiesing, 2020, p. 18). Also, self-consciousness entails that I am not only conscious of something but also conscious of the fact that I am conscious of it.

As intuitive as this approach might sound, it is by no means free of contradictions. Famously, J. G. Fichte concluded that this model of self-consciousness is not capable of describing why I have a consciousness at all or how does it come about that I am a subject of my consciousness. He argued that every time you try to derive the consciousness of a subject from itself, you will end with an infinite regress, as a result of assuming something for granted that was originally intended to be proven in the first place. If I reflect on myself, then I assume that I am the one who is doing this reflection and by that, the one who has the consciousness of me, performing the act of reflection. Even higher orders of reflection won’t help much, though they may lead to self-knowledge all right as stated before, but the core problem of self-consciousness will not be covered. Another point which shows the weakness of the reflection model, that again leads to an infinite regress is, that even if it would be possible to explain self-consciousness by an act of reflection, then the explanation must finally lead to the fact that the reflecting subject and the subject that is being reflected upon are one and the same subject. In other words, the subject must have a self-consciousness of herself both as a reflecting subject and that which is being reflected upon. One question would remain: where does this meta-consciousness of the identity of these two subjects come from? If you assume that this meta-consciousness is inherent in the subject, so again, here the subject must attribute this consciousness of the identity of the two forms of subjects to herself, and thereby again assume a self-consciousness (Wiesing, 2020, pp. 17-21).

Fichte and many others who followed his line of thought nevertheless continued to search for that “thing” that is capable of providing a proper explanation and can finally overcome this infinite regress, and with that fix the inherent problem of the reflection model of self-consciousness. Many philosophers hence tried to find something for which self-consciousness is object and subject at the same time. They were in the search of a self-monitoring or a self-registration mechanism (ger. “Selbstregistrierungs-Mechanismus” (Frank, 2015, p. 7) that can explain the reality of self-consciousness without any regress, the instance that allows for a simultaneous objective and subjective consciousness of oneself, and is able to explain the constitution of “I” (Wiesing, 2020, pp. 23-25).

As if the relation of “I” or “self” with the act of consciousness is laden with too much of the subject-object dichotomy, that strongly demands for a causal interconnection, many substitutions were introduced. Fichte himself used the self-feeling (ger. “Selbstgefühl”, Fichte, 2017, p. 214) and also talked about the act of “setting”, that is self-setting, “The I [self] sets itself” (ger. “Das Ich setzt sich selbst”, ibid., p. 16, own translation) without going into detail how exactly this process of “setting” is supposed to be accomplished (Wiesing, 2020, p. 26). In a similar manner Henrich writes while explaining Fichte’s original insight, “The I [i.e. self] is setting, [the self] is that act, through which its [i.e. I’s] being-for-itself originates, [so that] the I-subject becomes aware of being an I-object” (Henrich, 1967, p. 18, own translation). Sentences like this are truly difficult to follow, and it is hardly possible to appreciate their potential contribution to the field. These suggestions are not immune to the danger of misinterpretation that lurks between every single of their constituting words. Indeed, over the course of the history, many alternatives in the manner of “self-something” emerged, such as self-acquaintance, self-realisation, self-apperception, self-inclination, self-interpretation, self-attention, self-familiarity and my personal favorite, H. N. Castañeda’s self-consubstantiation (Wiesing, 2020, p. 30). The search for this immediacy in the relationship with oneself is very much like a never ending search for a physical perpetual motion machine, that has brought up many fascinating, albeit unsuccessful solutions with regard to their pursuit (ibid., p. 31).

The very specific feature of the above approach was, that the search has been focused on an instance that is capable of describing the immediacy of the acquaintance of a person with herself, whereas the domain of the search was restricted to that region which is within the reach of the person or can be found in her intellectual surroundings. Nevertheless, regardless of the success or failure of such explanations, the approach is of a third-person nature, meaning, that it would be possible to place the explanation “out there” and it can stand for itself like a reference point. Before I go into details of an alternative approach to access knowledge from within (first-person view), in contrast to gaining knowledge from “without” (third-person view) like the approach just described, I would like to stay for a while with the latter and see whether I can explore some alternatives still down this road.

Self: giving it a chance

Some of the problems regarding self-consciousness can be solved by postulating a human soul that is independent of her body. As a full-blown dualist, Avicenna would have no problems with a human soul, on the contrary, he was persuaded that philosophy, surely unable to describe everything, indeed can at least make sense of many things in the human observation of the world. Does assuming a soul sound like avoiding hard problems by shifting the attention? Far from it. Intellectual success in philosophy has always been driven with solutions that attack a problem from diverse perspectives, and as we will discuss in the next section, a dualist view of human is neither superseded, nor outdated, but stands as before on the table of discussion competing with current theories of self and subjectivity.

Now, for Avicenna human essence is simple and undivided by itself. The essences of all other things find their multiplicity in the material world, “informing” volumes of matter with their spatial and temporal coordinates. The human soul on the other hand is immaterial, but stays in close interaction with the human body: the latter needs the former in order to be animated, the former needs the latter in order to come to being in the first place. The emergent material body is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the existence of a human soul. Whenever some composite of matter becomes suitable or eligible to receive a soul, a soul is emanated from the active intellect, where all information in the sub-lunar world originates from and which is connected through interlinked chains of spheres to God, the supreme being. The soul, like the body, is a substance, so this connection to the body is not as strong as the connection of a body to its form, but rather it is accidental. So the a disruption in the continuity of the body, i.e. death, shall not interrupt the continuity of the existence of the soul. Apart from these, the soul is the warrant of individuation of the matter and can not be connected to any other body other than the one connected to it in the first place. There is a desire for the human soul to govern its associated body as a result of this close link between the two. The soul is hence genetically connected to the body, but it co-emerges with it simultaneously [4] at a single happening (Kaukua, 2007, pp. 20-22). [5]

Now, self-awareness is a very important concept in Avicennian philosophy. Self-awareness, for Avicenna is in fact the very mode of existence of the individual immaterial human souls. In other words, if a human soul exists, it will be self-aware as a result. This self-awareness is immediate, meaning that it does not require any cognitive thought. Self-awareness is also responsible for the unity and coherence of human experiences and provides reference for the first person indexical expressions. For Avicenna, human souls continuously exist, i.e. persist without interruption throughout the lifetime (and beyond). This radical condition of continuity that Avicenna puts on human souls rules out any conception of self-awareness that makes self-awareness an emergent phenomenon, for example by means of self-reflection. So for Avicenna, self-awareness is by necessity non-reflective. A close examination of his “flying man” [6] thought experiment shows that Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness does not require any objective content of experience at all (Kaukua, 2007, pp. 99-102, 107).

This sort of primitive self-awareness that Avicenna envisions, can itself become an object of knowledge, and this is precisely what gives birth to higher order consciousness of self, which for Avicenna is the reflective self-awareness, and that he calls “awareness of awareness” which he contrasts to the primitive self-awareness “awareness of essences”. But in fact, this very primary type of self-awareness remains neglected throughout our daily interaction with the world (ibid., pp. 107, 118).

Avicenna shows us that the pre-reflective self awareness can be linked to the very mode of existence of the human soul. All experiences and first personal references hence imply the existence of a primitive self-awareness and therefore, the human soul at the core. As we move on, it becomes more and more fascinating to see striking similarities between different arguments with regard to nature of self and the reality of self-awareness.

Self: no way!

It might sound unusual, but another approach to seeking an explanation for self and the reality of self-consciousness from a third-person perspective is positing that there is just no self at all. The reason that this falls into the third-person category is simply because the given explanation stands by itself as an external fact that can be accepted or rejected. We discussed this briefly in the introduction section of the present work while examining the possible contribution of assuming an enduring self for human beings. The proponents of the no-self theory, from its beginnings in the history of Buddhism up to the 21st century have admittedly made a very attractive point: self can be just an illusion.

For Dignāga there are many different forms of perception that are different from those obtained by the five external senses. Perceptions for Dignāga are in general free from conceptual construction (kalpanāpodha), meaning that they are non-constructive, in other words they are free from any connection or association to a name or genus or the like. Being a source of direct knowledge, they are unlike any inferential cognition or understanding. Such forms of perception include the mental perception of external objects, and feelings like hatred, passion, pleasant and unpleasant feelings. For Dignāga self-awareness also falls into this category of mental perceptions: a non-conceptual mode of awareness independent of the senses (Kellner, 2010, pp. 207-208).

So Dignāga’s account reduces awareness of self to an immediate perception like fear. Surely whenever we talk about fear, we also tend to indirectly consider something which causes that fear, that is we have a fear of something. But here Dignāga’s point is that like in other cases where the existence of self is not crucial to the act of perception (e.g. fear) while the reality of the perception itself is not undermined (e.g. begin fearsome of something), there is also no need for a self as a prerequisite for the awareness of it. Simply put, you can have a self-awareness without having a self.

A similar line of thought is being pursued by recent proponents of the no-self theory. Albahari suggests that we have to distinguish between experience and reality, and that our sense of self does not guarantee its existence. Self is finally nothing but an illusion because of the lack of a connection between its appearance and its reality resulting in an illusive ontological independence (Albahari, 2006, p. 72). Also Metzinger maintains that self is just a persistent illusion created by a multitude of interrelated cognitive modules in the brain (Metzinger, 2003, pp. 370, 385, 390). In the same line of argument, Searle has argued that self can be viewed as a feature of a conscious field, so rather unlike the proposed account of being a bundle of mental states, the self is a principle of its unity (Searle, 2005, pp. 16-18). But that principle which is called the self is not a separate thing or entity, rather its postulation is rather like the postulation of a point of view. Self would be a principle of a unity when viewing things from a specific point of view, but is itself never seen (Zahavi, 2014, p. 21).

No-self theories and specifically this latter example are indeed quite appealing explanations but they all fail to realize that the self can be characterised by an experiential quality (ibid., p. 21). In order to appreciate this, we have to get our feet wet with a kind of knowledge that can be gained from a first-person perspective.

First-person view

Exploring the “know” in “Know Thyself!”

In an alternative study of our initial motivating question, it is also possible to examine the process of “knowing” and becoming “aware” of something when it comes to self-knowledge or self-awareness. Surely knowledge or awareness is always knowledge or awareness of something, so that, the deeply buried subject-object dichotomy can hardly be eliminated and comes up again and again as philosophers try to measure their standards against those of the empirical sciences.

Rapid progress in empirical sciences has nevertheless had a paramount influence on philosophical thinking, specifically in the western tradition. Having found the only alternatives in the domain of the meanwhile disliked religions, for a while, human history of thought focused on scientific credibility which in turn became the golden standard for justification of natural phenomena. And indeed science has not and does not disappoint to date with impressive achievements that further substantiate our reliance in scientific methods. The drawback has been that the application domain of natural scientific methods have often been overestimated in the modern discourse, and thereby have led to extremes such as scientism and its innate objectivism. Nevertheless all too often ideas that are long not fashionable become trendy, and time and time again it has been proven, that which evades empirical search has been all but non-existent.

Sooner or later and of course with genuine effort, time and hardship, the longed for facts are obtained in a scientific inquiry. After that, the facts can stand “out there” and speak for themselves as long as their validity has not been undermined, while providing reproducible recipes that are demonstrable by basically anyone (i.e. the masses). One feature of such facts is an inherent third-person view on phenomena. As usual it is not the humble scientist herself, rather the lay person who is easily impressed by the abundance of such third-person perspectives on the phenomenal world and who helps usher the birth of objectivism. The more such tendencies grow, the smaller becomes the threshold of reaching surety and A) it will become easier to assume that which can not be scientifically proven simply does not exist, or, B) that which is clearly there but still not scientifically describable shall certainly be covered by science someday (soon), or C) if the phenomenon still persists scientific reasoning, it must be an illusion.

Ironically, in some respect, the exaggerated reliance on scientific credibility and the third-person perspective has a lot in common with religious orthodoxy. Throughout the centuries and in almost all religious traditions, orthodoxy has provided facts “out there” from a third-person perspective to be accepted or to be forced to be accepted by the lay person. There has always been a counterculture though, that has relied on an inner access to knowledge or for that matter to the divine. Countless subcultures have spun off this way from their orthodox origins. In Islam mystic movements such as Irfan and Sufism, in Judaism kabbalistic traditions and in Christianity, Gnosticism to name a few. The latter has it even in the name, gnosis being of the Greek origin meaning knowledge or awareness. Here the knowledge is that, which is gained as a subjective experience, rather than through an objective experience of “given facts” that stand “out there” by themselves. Gnostic Christian scriptures, specifically those gospels and apocryphal texts discovered in Egypt in the middle of the 20th century, invite readers to seek (divine) knowledge by themselves, a pursuit that is highly individualistic in approach on an unknown and difficult path that is visible only to the seeker herself, featuring indescribable milestones that could otherwise help pinpoint her progress: an elitist remedy indeed that is totally unsuited for the masses. [7]

A similar turn in the history of western thought was made possible by Husserl and the start of the philosophical phenomenology, where the knowledge acquired form the first-person perspective gained significant meaning. In order to understand the relation between the world and subjectivity, phenomenology transcends the subject-object dichotomy and by that it tries to surmount the alleged difference between ontology and epistemology. The traditional epistemology clearly differentiates between the subject and the world, while trying to understand how these two are compatible. On the other hand, the traditional ontology constructs a non-perspectival view on the reality which does not consider subjectivity. The subject can only be understood in the light of its relationship with the world and vice versa, the world can have a meaning only if it could be understood by a subject. In phenomenological thinking, the reality is not a given thing independent of the context of experience but it can rather manifest itself only in an experiential perspective leading to a rejection of objectivism (Zahavi, 2007, pp. 19-20).

Phenomenology invites us to be wary of the use of the ideas and methods of sciences while considering them as absolute norms, and rejects that all sciences should use the same quantitative methods when it comes to the description of phenomena. Phenomenology critically dismisses the scientific reductionism, which, driven by principles such as Ockham’s razor, try to explain phenomena by reducing a certain ontological region to another and thereby loose the track of the real nature of the original phenomenon. In case of mental phenomena such as consciousness, same goes with the eliminativism, which instead of accepting that they are irreducible, it simply declares that these do not exist at all (ibid., pp. 26-29).

Again, here it can be seen that reductionism and eliminativism simplify the access to the phenomenal world by providing standalone third-person perspective recipes “out there” that are suitable to be processed by the masses.

Phenomenology and self-consciousness

The fact, that phenomenology offers a suitable framework for the study of self, i.e. to gain self-knowledge should be evident by now. Nevertheless, in the philosophy of the 20th century, phenomenology of self-consciousness did not enjoy much attention, mainly due to the misconception that self-consciousness is nothing but an illusive construct for which no proper phenomenological account can be given, contrary to the world in which human beings live, their imaginations, their perceptions and their very being-in-the-world. Hence, the discussions are mainly centered around what type of consciousness self-consciousness is, with the clear and often not debated result that self-consciousness is just a pre-reflexive consciousness (Wiesing, 2020, pp. 12, 55).

Now the relationship between the pre-reflexive or primitive self-consciousness with the intentional self-consciousness is of a given simultaneity. Sartre formulates the same concept, that every positional consciousness (ger. objektsetzendes Bewußtsein) of an object is simultaneously a non-positional consciousness of itself (“En d’autres termes, toute conscience positionnelle d’objet est en même temps conscience non positionnelle d’elle-même.”, Sartre, 1943, p. 19, own translation). If there is consciousness, then for the subject, there is automatically an outwardly oriented consciousness of objects and an inwardly oriented self-consciousness. Their co-existence is not a matter of causation, but a matter of correlation that is a priory given. Wiesing calls this an “a priory correlation” (ger. Korrelationsapriori, own translation), which like two sides of a coin, exist together: one can not be understood without considering the other. The kind of simultaneity described here is not of scientifically empirical type that can be measured, but by a given common origin (ger. Gleichursprünglichkeit, Wiesing, 2020, pp. 60-61, 64, own translation).

In this manner we can reach to the full definition of the problem in a phenomenological way and look at the methodical perspective of this problem definition. One should consider a self-conscious subject as a relational entity partaking in an a priori correlation, not something that exists before the self-consciousness. In other words “A subject does not have self-consciousness, a subject is self-conscious.” (Wiesing, 2020, p. 67, own translation).

So the question is how self-consciousness can be approached in a phenomenological way. One way to approach the solution of this phenomenological question is by considering the phenomenal nature of conscious states, or their what-it-is-likeness. The question of what it is like to be something has already been considered by Husserl, but it mainly received popular attention through the famous article by Thomas Nagel, in whose title he questioned what it is like to be a bat (Nagel, 1974). This question of what it is like to be something is basically asking about the perceptions of a subject as a result of being in a conscious mental state. The feeling in question is based on the given reality of conscious states and the difference that it makes for the subject while dealing with them compared to non-conscious states. It is impossible that a person claims that she sees a tree without knowing how it is to see a tree. In other words, every conscious state comes with qualities that together with simultaneous consciousness of them feel like something for the subject. As a result of the reality of consciousness follows that a subject becomes aware of oneself in a pre-reflexive manner, and as the result of this pre-reflexive awareness of oneself, it will always be like something for the subject, as long she exist (Wiesing, 2020, p. 94).

So self-consciousness and what-it-is-likeness go hand in hand. If it feels like something for a subject, there is a consciousness and if there is a consciousness, there it feels like something for a subject. In this sense, the being of a subject entails a permanent being of a what-it-is-likeness, that is, as a result of self-consciousness it will always be like something for me. It follows from the reality of my self-consciousness that it always must be like something for me. As Wiesing puts it, the being of us humans is thus defined by a mandatory perception and the fact that it will always be like something for us. As long as we exist, we are doomed (or perhaps lucky?) such that, it will permanently be like something for us (Wiesing, 2020, p. 94).

It is interesting to see how close this argument gets to that of Avicenna. Here, like in Avicenna, one can find a strong link between a mode of existence of human beings and the pre-reflexive awareness. This link to self-awareness cannot establish any further connection to the existence of self. The question is now whether it is possible to further trace the self-awareness obtained in this way, to see whether it is possible to reach to a phenomenological concept of self. This is precisely what I shall discuss in the following section.

Self: giving it a second chance

Phenomenology may not be capable of providing an answer to what a self is ultimately made of, but it can get us a bit further by providing us a first metaphysical glance at self and selfhood, that is the question of its existence and reality. In the previous section I showed that a phenomenological account of self-awareness is possible but no direct link could be established to the existence of self so far. In this section I try to demonstrate how this connection can be established.

We already saw that there is a relation between self-consciousness and the what-it-is-likeness of an experience, and that this relation was rooted in the reality of the subjectivity of experiences. Self-consciousness in fact already contains a basic dimension of selfhood. This already has been argued by Sartre and Husserl. Sartre called this basic mode of self-consciousness ipseity and Husserl related the primitive form self-consciousness (ger. Urbewusstsein, own translation) with its first-personal character and a basic form of selfhood (Zahavi, 2014, p. 12). The what-it-is-likeness of an experience is, to be precise, the phenomenal consciousness of that same experience. A state of mind, in which a subject is conscious of how something is for her, is a phenomenally conscious state. A phenomenally conscious state is characterized as such, that its presence or absence makes a difference to how it is for a subject. Again, here we are not dealing with object-consciousness, which is deeply rooted in the epistemic divide between object and subject, rather, phenomenology allows us to see conscious states as experiences that we live through (ibid., pp. 16,18).

So, the what-it-is-likeness is more precisely a what-it-is-like-for-me-ness. A subject can always identify herself between different experiences. As a subject is going through different experiences, something experiential remains the same for her, namely, their first-personal character as they appear to her. All experiences are in a sense characterized by a mineness or for-me-ness (ibid., p. 19). Mineness is an essential constitutive aspect of experiences, in other words, “The mineness refers to the distinct manner, or how, of experiencing. It refers to the first-personal presence of all my experiential content; it refers to the experiential perspectivalness of phenomenal consciousness. It refers to the fact that the experiences I am living through present themselves differently (but not necessarily better) to me than to anybody else. When I have experiences, I, so to speak, have them minely.” (ibid., p. 22) It must be noted that when the relation between the first-personal character of experience and the pre-reflective self-consciousness occurs long before the subject has gained conceptual and linguistic skills to classify the experience as her own, so there is a major difference between having a first-person perspective and being able to express it conceptually and linguistically (Zahavi, 2014, pp. 28-29).

The difference between my experiences and the experiences of another subject is in their givenness: only my experiences are given to me first-personally. The experiences of other subjects are not part of my experiential life. This experiential dimension also amounts to a mode of individuation. We can clearly differentiate between our own experiences and those of others, and this difference in acquaintance is not only given reflectively, but also lived through pre-reflexively in all of our experiences (ibid., p. 23).

Now, for Zahavi, this ubiquitous character of experiential phenomena is finally the core or the minimal self, which he denotes as the experiential self, “the self as defined from the first-person perspective” (Zahavi, 2014, p. 73). This self is not a separate existing entity, “… it is not something that exists independently of, in separation from, or in opposition to the stream of consciousness, but neither is it simply reducible to a specific experience or (sub)set of experiences, nor it is for that matter, a mere social construct that evolves through time. Rather, it is taken to be an integral part of our conscious life.” (ibid., p. 18). [8]

In a further step, it is intriguing to see whether this minimalistic concept has any diachronic persistence or whether it is temporally non-extended. In a manner similar to Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, Zahavi maintains that the experiential self has some temporal extension and that the pre-reflective self-consciousness already includes an awareness of diachronicity (ibid., p. 77). The same experiential self is present in two temporally distinct experiences if the two experiences in questions share the same dimension of mineness. Here what is needed is that the past experiential episodes are first-personally accessible to the present act of recollection (ibid., p. 72).

This concept of self is very minimalistic or as Zahavi puts it, very thin or deflationary. It must be supplemented by thicker notions that consider other aspects that are usually associated with having a self. The questions regarding a self that makes plans, decisions and promises, takes responsibilities and has values and goals remains a subject of further investigations (ibid., p. 50).


A discussion about self-consciousness often goes hand in hand with a consideration of self and selfhood. In this work I have tried to discuss how and which kind of knowledge can be gained towards these concepts. I studied the two different paths for gaining knowledge available to us, one being the third-person and the other the first-person perspective. I showed that the scientific credibility, although very much desirable, is not guaranteed to exist in all of the knowledge acquired from a third-person perspective and of course it is totally missing in the first-person knowledge. Nevertheless, there are situations that the third-person perspective fails to deliver satisfactory results through scientific methods. Here we would be left at the mercy of third-person explanations or definitions that cannot be backed up by empirical facts. A danger is lurking here, alarming us that an any-explanation-goes attitude can take us away from the domain of philosophy altogether. A natural tendency here is a complete denial of the phenomenon in question. But in fact a closer look at this latter shows that even this is a third-person knowledge that is set without supporting facts. There seems to be an epistemological circle that cannot be escaped. Fortunately, there is at least one leap possible from this dilemma. That leap is the use of first-person knowledge. First-person knowledge has a limited range because it can only help individuals attain surety. Owing to its explorative nature, it can be used to overcome the limitations of the knowledge gained by a third-person approach at least until a fact-based third-person view is available someday. In a sense, first-person and third-person modes of gaining knowledge are complimentary to each other and build the foundation of human epistemological apparatus.

The application of the above discussion to the domain of self and self-awareness should be evident by now. There is a clear lack of empirical evidence with regard to the existence of self. Alarmed by the many available and possible explanations “out there” that try to explain an enduring self at the center of every human being, around which a religious arsenal of explanations is usually constructed, a tendency exists to deny the reality of selfhood in the first place, and thereby relate self-awareness to higher level mental states that basically point to nowhere. But also here the two modes of knowledge acquisition could work hand in hand. The phenomenological first-person approach can be used to get us at least one step further, that there is a self with a minimalistic notion, which is hidden within the first-personal mode of our experiences. This is an experiential self and, if we like it or not, only so much of it is accessible through the first-personal approach. Whether there is more to self than this minimalistic notion is yet to be discovered, either down the same phenomenological road or, who knows, someday through an empirically firm foundation. So phenomenology can only help us solve the metaphysical question of whether there is a self or not, but it is and probably it will always remain inconclusive with respect to what stuff self is made of.

Zahavi’s experiential self cannot back up Avicenna’s concept of soul. Their natures remain distinctly different, at least at this level of minimalism in which the experiential self is defined. Zahavi’s experiential self is not a separate entity, Avicenna’s soul is. For both philosophers, there exists a pre-reflective self-awareness, but while for Zahavi the self is encoded in the first-personal aspect of it, for Avicenna the soul is that self-awareness. While Zahavi acknowledges the thinness of his concept of self, which needs to be extended in order to account for many other features, Avicenna’s soul is already thick enough to encompass all. In this comparison, it is indeed interesting to see how far knowledge gained from the first-person perspective can actually take us in comparison to third-person definitions or empirical findings. The question of who has self-awareness is probably a wrong question for both philosophers, but it is easy for Avicenna to tell who is self-aware. For Zahavi rather, the question of subject of experiences is replaced by the subjectivity of experience while his model of self is far too small to be able to incorporate anything further than that. Can it be that Avicenna’s soul is the thick concept of self Zahavi is hoping for, but which could possibly remain inaccessible through first-person knowledge forever? A soul whose only epistemically accessible footprint is the very mineness of the self-aware experiences that we live through? A soul whose other characteristics remain undiscovered forever, similar to Goethe’s primordial phenomena (ger. Urphänomen)?

Finally, collecting all the facts we gained through different epistemological channels presented in this work, I can summarize that there is self-awareness which is pre-reflexive by nature. Self-awareness is deeply interlinked with the human existence due to her constant being in the state of mind that it always feels like something for her. But this self-awareness does not necessarily entail the existence of self. Rather, the existence of self becomes visible through the first-personal mode of our experiences. The notion of self obtained in this way is very minimalistic and hence, we hardly know anything more about it. But it can, together with higher order facts about ourselves that we gain in individual, social and historical contexts, already amount to a good deal of answer to the main question of this work, “Know Thyself!”. The study of selfhood will remain open to both philosophical and scientific research as these two complement each other in their scope and mode of access to knowledge towards a greater understanding of the nature of us human beings.


1- I once read about the ancient Minoan civilization on the island of Crete where people had no or little interest for the afterlife, happily lived and enjoyed in the moment, whereas ancient Egyptians of roughly the same epoch were much more concerned about the afterlife and particularly their transition thither. The cultural remains and artifacts of the two civilizations clearly show the effect of the conception of an enduring self which is even capable of overcoming the transition of death.

2- Please refer to (Hasse, 2001) for more details.

3- Following common usage in the literature, also that in Zahavi’s works, I use the expressions self-consciousness and self-awareness interchangeably.

4- The co-emergent happening should already ring a bell to the ear that has gone through the material of the previous sections. But it should be clear that here this simultaneous emergence is possible due to a third principle and not by those which partake in the emergence.

5- Avicenna’s explanations related to the human soul and subjectivity is much more elaborate than that, which can be reproduced here in this work. For a very good discussion of Avicenna’s ideas on subjectivity and soul, please refer to (Kaukua, .)2007

6- A proper discussion of the “flying man” experiment would go far beyond the scope of this work, but I reproduce the paragraph here for the sake of the clarity that this nearly 1000-year-old text has:

“We say: one of us must imagine (yatawahhama) himself as created all at once and perfect but with his sight veiled from observing external things, and as created floating in the air or the void so that he would not encounter air resistance which he would have to sense, and with his limbs separate from each other in such a way that they neither meet nor touch each other. He must then reflect upon [the question] whether he would affirm the existence of his essence (wujūda dhātihi).

He would not hesitate to affirm that his essence exists (li dhātihi mawjūda), but he would not thereby affirm any of his limbs, any of his internal organs, whether heart or brain, or any of the external things. Rather, he would be affirming his essence (dhātahu) without affirming for it length, breadth or depth. And if in this state he were able to imagine (yatakhayyala) a hand or some other limb, he would not imagine it (yatakhayyalahu) as part of his essence (dhātihi) or a condition for his essence (shartan fī dhātihi).

Now, you know that what is affirmed is different from what is not affirmed and what is established (al-muqarru bihi) is different from what is not established to him (lam yuqarra bihi).108 Hence the essence (al-dhāt) whose existence he has affirmed is specific to him in that it is he himself (huwa bi caynihi), different from his body and limbs which were not affirmed.

Thus, he who is attentive (al-mutanabbih) has the means to be awakened (yatanabbahu) to the existence of the soul (wujūd al- nafs) as something different from the body – indeed, as not a body at all – and to be acquainted with and aware of it (‘annahu cārifun bihi mustashcirun lahu). If someone fails to realise this, he is in need of educative prodding.” reproduced in (Kaukua, 2007, pp. 71-72), originally at the end of the first chapter of the first book of the psychological part of the Al-Shifāʾ.

7- For a comprehensive account of the gnostic gospels and their genesis within the Christian tradition please refer to (Pagels, 2004, 2006).

8- Many philosophers, including Hegel, have argued that self might be a social phenomenon. This idea, sometimes also called social reductionism, claims that the concept of self is rooted purely in social interactions. This means that selves are not born but arise in a process of social experience and interchange. But in fact, in such accounts, there is a basic and crucial dimension of self that is missing, namely a more minimalistic account which can be considered as a precondition for any such socially constructed notion (Zahavi, 2014, pp. 10-11).


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© xaratustrah, the angling philosopher – 2021-04-14

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