A Functionalist Plea for Self-Consciousness
Van Gulick (Robert)
Source: Philosophical Review, Vol. 97, No. 2, Apr., 1988, pp. 149-181
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1

  1. 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.
  2. Part of the problem has been guilt by past association. The traditional Cartesian view:
    1. asserted a metaphysical (or ontological) dualism of mind and body,
    2. assumed that reflexive consciousness either defines or plays a major part in defining the domain of the mental, and
    3. equated self-consciousness with introspection.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The argument that follows is in four parts.
    1. 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.
    2. I then argue for that analysis by showing how it helps to explain several important mental phenomena.
    3. A brief third section shows that one must be self-conscious in the relevant sense in order to have beliefs.
    4. Finally I defend the theory against anti-functionalist objections concerning the nature of phenomenal experience and the self.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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