- Self-consciousness has fallen on hard times. Though once regarded as the very essence of mind, most philosophers and psychologists today treat it as a marginal and derivative phenomenon. It carries no weight in current psychological theory, adding merely a further wrinkle in already well-developed accounts of mind. Most cognitive, representational, and computational theories of mind discuss it as an afterthought or not at all.
- Part of the problem has been guilt by past association. The traditional Cartesian view:
- asserted a metaphysical (or ontological) dualism of mind and body,
- assumed that reflexive consciousness either defines or plays a major part in defining the domain of the mental, and
- equated self-consciousness with introspection.
- When Cartesian dualism fell and psychologists stopped relying on introspective methods, self-consciousness also went out of favor. At least since Freud, we have easily made room for unconscious thoughts, beliefs, and desires within the domain of the mental. Psychologists today posit a wide range of contentful states and mental processes that mediate behavior without being in the least introspectible.
- Materialist philosophers have found self-consciousness mostly an embarrassment. The somewhat amorphous functionalism that philosophers have come to favor has met its most persistent resistance from a group of objections involving one or another aspect of self-consciousness including qualia, the first person, and intrinsic intentionality. Functionalists have responded in two ways. They have reconstructed some limited forms of self-consciousness concerning higher-order psychological states within the functionalist framework, and dismissed what they could not reconstruct as the residue of reactionary Cartesian intuitions.
- Though this double strategy is sound, its proponents have been too modest in their reconstructions. They have been right to approach the problem in terms of the mind's higher-order understanding or awareness of itself, but they have underestimated both the extent of such meta-psychological phenomena and their explanatory value for functionalism. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, functionalists can treat self-consciousness as a pervasive and central feature of mentality. Ironically it is residual Cartesian intuitions equating self-consciousness with introspection that mask the wealth of functionalist resources available for theorizing about self-consciousness. If we free it from those shrouds, self-consciousness can play a central and illuminating role in our general theory of mind.
- The argument that follows is in four parts.
- First I explain how to think about self-consciousness in functionalist terms, contrasting the standard higher-order account with an alternative view that distinguishes self-consciousness from introspection and accords it a larger and more central role.
- I then argue for that analysis by showing how it helps to explain several important mental phenomena.
- A brief third section shows that one must be self-conscious in the relevant sense in order to have beliefs.
- Finally I defend the theory against anti-functionalist objections concerning the nature of phenomenal experience and the self.
- Extensive footnotes omitted – see the paper itself for these.
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