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What does it mean to be a self? What do the words "self" or "itself" represent? Most importantly, what is self-awareness and how is it attained?

If a self is the nature or essence of an individual something, then a particular self is something which can be referred to as itself, meaning a particular individual instance of that existent. The only identity we as human beings can claim to have is in the identity of consciousness; of a particular mind integrated spatially and temporally with a particular body with a particular point of view. (What makes that point of view "yours"?) A self in the context of human beings must mean, and is described in the Ayn Rand Lexicon topic "Self" in the following way:

A man’s self is his mind—the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values.

Somehow critics of the existence of the "self" are denying this. Denying that there is a significance to the fact that in a world where most other conscious creatures fail to know themselves, a person can recognize in the mirror what that person calls "I".

The idea that self-awareness occurs when a mind or consciousness recognizes itself or it's own existence works well enough descriptively or as a definition but is harder to elucidate in terms of what conscious steps must occur for self-awareness to actually take shape. It seems to require more than just the knowledge that consciousness exists because that consciousness might be anything but one's own.

How does consciousness recognize consciousness as itself? Granted that consciousness can recognize conscious states themselves, what is it that causes "me" to feel self-aware or that all of "my" experiences are indeed "mine" and not just conscious states that belong to no-one. As an example, consider that someone is conscious of the visual image of a tree, and that the same someone is also conscious of the consciousness of the visual image of that tree, what leads from being conscious of the consciousness of seeing a tree to "I see a tree". What makes consciousness yours?

My own analysis so far is as follows:

  • Consciousness is the awareness or recognition of that which exists.
  • That which is identified to exist, including consciousness, must be identified by consciousness.
  • A mind cannot be aware of a particular conscious state from within that state, but only by having that state represented in another parallel and conjoined state of awareness. A kind of bottom-up regress of awareness in which one can only be aware of represented conscious states or other objects of consciousness unless the regress is extended to more and more inclusive states of awareness.
  • A consciousness which has access to these concurrent states must somehow see that those states comprise itself. That it is both the identified and the identifier. (This would be where self-awareness emerges).
  • When I feel self-aware though, I am just conscious of the existence of what I consider my own conscious states.

asked Jul 01 '14 at 00:44

dc32's gravatar image


There are several interrelated issues in this question or raised by it:

(1) What does "self-awareness" refer to? What does it mean to be "self-aware"? What is its genus, and what are its essential distinguishing characteristics?

(2) How can man know that he is self-aware? How can he know whether or not other animals are self-aware?

(3) How does self-awareness develop in man, from birth to fully mature consciousness?

(4) Do objective answers to (1) and (2) depend on or require an objective, fully proven answer to (3)?

(5) In general, is it objectively valid to use consciousness to prove that man is conscious and self-aware, before one has proven that consciousness itself is valid? Is such a thing even possible, since a proof that consciousness is valid would depend on a prior proof of what validity is and why? Isn't it logically circular to use the conclusion (consciousness) to prove one or more of the premises (such as validity) in a proof of consciousness? Isn't all proof, then, impossible, and all knowledge therefore uncertain and subjective?

The question provides an excerpt and reference to the topic of "Self" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Those Lexicon excerpts provide an excellent answer to issue (1), as the question acknowledges.

The answer to (2), in regard to man, is: by introspection. Refer to the Lexicon topic of "Introspection" for further details. The answer to (2) in regard to non-human species of animals is, in essence, by objective observation of whatever man is able to observe in animals. One particularly ingenious experiment that I have seen with apes (specifically chimps) is to put a spot of some kind on the animal's forehead, probably with edible paste, without the animal realizing that anyone is doing it, and then let the animal look at himself in a mirror. As soon as a chimp sees himself in the mirror, it knows it is seeing himself, it recognizes that the spot on its head isn't supposed to be there, and the animal reaches up to his own forehead, not out to the mirror, to investigate the spot further. The animal can even see himself investigating the spot in his reflection in the mirror; he can see his own arm and hand moving just as he directly wills them to move.

Of course, this is an awareness of one's physical self, not self-awareness of one's own consciousness. Man already knows that animals other than man do not have concepts; only man has concepts; and concepts may be essential in achieving self-awareness of consciousness. Concepts are certainly essential in forming the concept of self-awareness. To determine if non-human animals can achieve self-awareness in their consciousness, one would first need to explain how such self-awareness would be possible without concepts. Man's conscious self-awareness probably tends to take the form of propositions like, "I am conscious; I am conscious of something; I am conscious of being conscious of something; therefore, I am self-conscious of my consciousness (as well as of my body)." If something equivalent to that can be done without concepts, then perhaps self-awareness of consciousness would be possible in animals. Offhand, however, I am hard-pressed to see how that could be done without at least the concept of "consciousness."

Issue (3) actually pertains to the special sciences, not to philosophy. Philosophy can't answer it. The answer would need to come from a lot of specific observation (especially of infants) and generalization from what one observes.

Objectivism's answer to issue (4), in my understanding of Objectivism, is "no," answers to (1) and (2) do not depend on having a fully developed answer to (3).

Objectivism's answer to issue (5) is that consciousness is an axiomatic primary concept, not a conclusion that depends on proof for man's certainty of it. The validation of axiomatic primary concepts is direct perception. At most, one needs proof to establish that an axiomatic concept is axiomatic, not that it is true. Refer to "Axiomatic Concepts" and "Axioms" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

Man learns many things in life more or less automatically, or at least implicitly, before he reaches the stage (context) of being able to conceptualize what he has learned in explicit conceptual terms. Learning that one is self-aware -- not only of one's physical body, but also of one's own consciousness -- is one example of early learning that we find in human infants. It doesn't take long at all for a human infant to realize that others are not extensions of what he, the infant, experiences as consciousness. They are, first and foremost, separate beings, both physically and in consciousness. He learns fairly early in life that a process of communication of some kind (whether verbal or nonverbal) is needed for humans to share their own thoughts and feelings with others, and/or to exert conscious influence over non-human animals, or to be influenced by such animals (such as by pet dogs, in particular). The simple act of crying when hungry or uncomfortable (or perhaps sleepy but afraid or otherwise reluctant to relax and go so sleep) is an example of an infant communicating with its mother or other care provider. It doesn't yet identify what it is doing in conceptual terms, of course; concepts and language come later in an infant's development (though not too much later in the span of a human lifetime).

answered Jul 02 '14 at 01:02

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Jul 01 '14 at 00:44

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Last updated: Jul 02 '14 at 01:02