The subject of self-consciousness is strewn with intellectual land mines. There is no consensus about what kind of consciousness this is or what it is that we’re conscious of when (or if) we are self-conscious. Plausible theories point in opposite directions. I regularly come across reports that crows, octopi, honeybees, or even trees are conscious and self-aware, but I am just as likely to find pieces arguing that our own selves don’t really exist.
There are problems with both positions. Arguments grounded in neurobiology or animal behavior often fail to distinguish between sentience and full-fledged self-consciousness, and it is clearly possible to have the first without the second; all of us were merely sentient in the first months of our lives, and most of us live with beings who never leave that state. Similarly, thinking that an acquaintance with one’s inner states is ipso facto an awareness of a substantive self runs up against Dieter Henrich’s “paradoxes of self-reference,”[i] and it also presumes that organisms are self-contained and independent units, which is more a product of the individualist model that dominates the Europeanized parts of the world than it is an unproblematic point of departure.
Yet there are also serious difficulties with the argument, often based in phenomenology or Buddhism, that the self of self-consciousness is an illusion. They can be seen clearly in this famous passage from Hume’s Treatise, which is often quoted by those who seek to do away with the notion of a self:
“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.”[ii]
Hume avoids the trap of conflating sentience and self-consciousness, and he also shows the inadequacy of the reflection model, the equation of self-consciousness with reflexive awareness that Dieter Henrich critiqued. But he is just too glib. The experience of having or, really, being a self is not so easily dismissed.
Glaringly, Hume doesn’t even try to account for what it is that “enters intimately into what I call myself.” Something calls something “myself,” and that something is observing, classifying, judging, and recording its experiences in sprightly prose, and if this is not David Hume I am at a loss to imagine what it could be. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in looking for the self in introspection he was—to borrow an image from Indian philosophy—trying to jump over his own shadow.
That “something” does not sound like much of a self. It is nothing but a capacity or a locus of experience. It is nevertheless not a nothing, and we could argue that such a point of unity, though otherwise without content, is essential if we are to have a coherent experience of the world instead of William James’s blooming, buzzing confusion.
This was more or less Kant’s position. As he says in the Critique of Pure Reason,
“It must be possible for [an] “I think” to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that the representation would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.”[iii]
This “transcendental unity of apperception,” while inaccessible to consciousness, is necessary for consciousness to arise in the first place: “The transcendental unity of apperception is that unity through which all the manifold given in an intuition is united in a concept of the object.”[iv] Only unified selves can live in a world of objects.
This, too, is not much of a self, but as Kant moves from theoretical to practical reason it turns out to have one significant property besides its unity. While we have no experiential acquaintance with the self as it is in itself, we know that it is free, because we stand in obligation to the moral law, and that would be absurd if we did not have the freedom to shape our actions accordingly. Kant’s self may have no other content, but this lack of content is also what grants humanity its radical freedom. An empirically-conditioned self would not be truly free to live according to the categorical imperative.
None of this, though, says anything at all about the “self” of our everyday experience—that inner realm where our most intimate thoughts and feelings stand apart from the world outside—and it is hard or impossible to derive a theory of self-experience from Kant’s own writings.[v] It is different with Fichte. A good part of his work develops a “pragmatic history” of the sense of self, and one of its more intriguing accomplishments is that it shows why other theories of self-consciousness assert either too much or too little.
Fichte did not start out to understand self-consciousness, but the subject forced itself on him as he tried to provide a unified underpinning for Kant’s ideas. He found that underpinning in a moment of visionary insight, in grasping the unconditioned nature of the self. The self does not depend on anything else, he argued, and it does not have any source. It “posits” or makes itself, and it is nothing but that act of self-fashioning.
Fichte does not dispense with Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. Through his extended investigation into that unity, though, he came to see it as an ongoing act rather than a structural precondition of self-conscious experience. Fichte’s self is like the future. It can only be made and remade. When we link those acts of making in memory we generate the sense of a persisting self, but the self is not there to be encountered, and it is not some primordial template or schema through which we subsequently categorize our sensations.[vi]
This is an insight in which all that is solid melts into air, however, because Fichte’s self is also an ungrounded claim to ownership over moments within an all-encompassing process.[vii] All activity, human and non-human, is a network of ceaseless reciprocal transformation, which in his earliest writings Fichte calls “effecting and suffering change,” Wechsel-Tun und -Leiden. We cannot separate ourselves from that process. What we can do is frame our experience as if we could, and that is what self-consciousness is. In the same moment that we posit an I we posit a Not-I that stands over and against the I, and we posit their mutual limitation, the complicated way through which a web of reciprocal interaction appears to be the life of a subject amid objects, an independent being making its way within an alien world.
This is not a form of solipsism. What lies outside the self is an essential element in Fichte’s thinking, and he often argued that his was a realism as much as it was an idealism. The real, however, lies outside what is knowable. Representations cannot arise without the separation of subject and object, and only through representations can we have language and discursive thought. Self-making thus grounds and circumscribes that realm, making it impossible to know or say anything about its context or any pre-conscious character. One might as well ask what preceded the Big Bang.
The uncompromising nature of Fichte’s argument has always been a stumbling block. He begins the introduction to his 1796 Foundations of Natural Right with the assertion that “the I is nothing other than an acting upon itself,” and he harshly criticizes those who look for a substratum which produces this act; this would have to be “something that is supposed to be an I without being one.”[viii] Yet even those who see this point clearly have granted the self-positing I a degree of empirical content. Dan Breazeale has argued that Fichte presents “a robust transcendental theory of finite subjectivity,” a description of the necessary self-understanding of “an embodied subject, a social self, and a moral agent,” circumstances which are in no way “products of the free activity of the I.”[ix] But these are all products of Fichtean self-positing, not its preconditions or parameters. We claim the body for our own, although all bodies are deeply embraided with one another and physical causation passes through the skin that we take to be our boundaries. We claim to stand aside from the activity of the whole, and thus transform the acts and agency of all others into a reified social realm that stands over and against our own wishes and goals. We close ourselves within the circle we draw in self-conscious cognition, and the one life that burgeons forth as all activity, and to us as all things, is given to us only in the universalizing mandate of the moral law.
Self-consciousness is not a product of or reflection on the state of being an individual separate from the world. It produces that state by rendering experience in those terms. Without it, though, we could not conceive of wholeness, or indeed of anything at all. Self and world really are given together. Our grasp of the entirety of things is only partial, limited by our fallacious claim to stand apart from all else, but the very idea of an entirety of things could not arise without that stance. As Fichte shows, self-conscious experience ultimately rests on an illusion, but that illusion, like a work of art, is a lie that opens us to the truth.
We are never going to get behind the activity and find a “real” self, which means that self-consciousness is an uncashable check. Even an uncashable check can be an object of value, though; its successive holders can use it to pay for things as long as none of them tries to cash it. The self of self-consciousness is a necessary and salutary delusion in something of the same way. It is the only point from which we can recognize and conceive of the interwoven movement that gives rise to all things, and the inner tensions born of its very groundlessness are what lead us to strive towards the fullness of that movement’s realization—and towards the undoing of the self itself.[x]
Whatever one’s opinion on the merits of this approach, it works as both theory and critique, suggesting a way out of Henrich’s paradoxes of self-reference while also showing why other theories of the self find it either everywhere or nowhere at all. The self is hard to think about because it is there and not there at once; like Hume, we cannot even call its reality into question unless we speak from the very perspective point that we insist is an illusion. Fichte is surely right in telling us that this problem can only be resolved if we understand how that duality comes about. Trying to come down on one side or the other gets us nowhere at all.
[i] Dieter Henrich, “Fichte’s Original Insight,” tr. Lachterman, in Contemporary German Philosophy, Volume 1 (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1982), pp.11-21.
[ii] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2d ed. [Nidditch] 1978), Book I, IV:6, p. 252.
[iii] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Kemp-Smith (London: Macmillan, 1933), 152-153, B 131–32.
[iv] Ibid., p. 157, B 139.
[v] See, e.g., Pirachula Chulanon’s critique of Katharina Kraus’s Kant on Self-Knowledge and Self-Formation (CUP, 2020), https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/kant-on-self-knowledge-and-self-formation-the-nature-of-inner-experience/
[vi] Time arises from the connection of one moment of self-consciousness with another, just as space is given with objects; Fichte therefore does away with Kant’s aesthetic just as he does the thing in itself. See the footnote in Fichte, Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre, tr. Breazeale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), p. 273 (SW I, 186).
[vii] I should caution the reader that I take seriously Fichte’s insistence that his later writings present the same theory as his earliest ones, and thus that it makes no sense to talk of a “Jena Wissenschaftslehre” as opposed to a “Berlin Wissenschaftslehre.”
[viii] Fichte, Foundations of Natural Right According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre, ed. Neuhauser, tr. Baur (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 3 (SW III, 1-2).
[ix] “The Spirit of the Early Wissenschaftslehre,” in Dan Breazeale, Thinking Through the Wissenschaftslehre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 123, emphases in original.
[x] This is the argument of Fichte’s 1798 System of Ethics and its resonance with Indic philosophies, especially non-dualist ones, is obvious.