Lesson 10  The Nature of the Conscious Subject



The vigilant mind is necessarily somebody's mind.  Who then am I insofar as I am a conscious subject?  Ordinarily, in the natural attitude, we have no doubts about our identity: ourselves.  We say : "I am me!".  Pointing at our body we say "Me!".  Yet what is this me?  We are all too ready to show our identification, to enumerate a list of attributes: I am Pierre, I am born in Paris, I am a student etc... However is this enumeration not something rather vague?

Is the subject of the mind really this me with its confuse catalogue of properties? The somebody who is conscious, who is able to say "I", we refer to as the subject.  The subject is posited at the same time as the object and in relation with it.  There are many ways in which we can represent the conscious subject.  However, the subject does not come without an object, the two arise together: subject/object is a dual concept.  From the point of view of experience, there is in the case of vigilant experience a triad, that of the subject, of the object and of the subject's experience of the object.  One can also express this as observer-observation-observed.  Or as the thinker - the ego - the act of thinking - the cogito - and that which is thought of - the cogitata.  Does this imply that the self consists solely in thinking?

Who is the subject of the mind?  Is the self that thinks a mere by-product of  thinking activity?  What is the self's consistency?  What is the self?

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A.  The mystery of the empirical self.


1) Don't we know the self from experience?  After all we spend a lot of time coddling our little self and relieving its prickled pride!  We are rather obsessed with how our self is viewed by others.  We live with a personal identity which is in constant need of assertion and this identity is how we grasp our own self.  We live dominated by a relation between our self and other selves.  How then could we ignore what the self is?  It may well be that we don't know very accurately our personal self, we don't yet know what this self really is, but we must be able to understand what the ego is on basis of our own experience.

We shall have to proceed descriptively and directly question the I-ness, the sentiment of the self or I in its different manifestations.  This is not difficult since that self cannot wait to put itself forward.  It does so through speech in the form of opinions: "As far as I am concerned, I think that...", "As for me, I consider that one should...", "I personally am the owner of..." and so on.  We all know people who put themselves forward and most of the time speak only of themselves.  Is this not what we do too?  The self is the subject insofar as it asserts itself through what is mine, through a feeling of belongingness.  Me has no meaning other than with respect to what I consider as belonging to me.  I position myself at the centre of my world like a spider at the centre of its web.  A thread is linked to each object in my world which constitues my attachment to this object.  Therefore me is also: my house, my books, my wife, my dog!  It is also my convictions, my beliefs, my aspirations, my regrets, my memories, in short everything I consider to be mine, to personally belong to me, that I feel contribute very intimately to whatever sense I give to my particular identity. There are signs you can't miss: if I lose one of the things I am attached to, the thread of my connection to it is severed and I suffer.   I lose a little of myself if an object I would have wanted to hold on to is stolen and I lose a little of myself if a person I am very attached to disappears.  The threads of attachment are stronger to people than to things and therefore one suffers more when this thread is cut.  The self is the seat of attachment.  The self's attachment not only connects it to others, but also ties others to itself, encloses them, ligots them.   The self holds on to the web of its attachments, it tends to want to maintain itself in its given form.  The self want to persevere in a constant process of acquisition and have more and more: more power, more wealth, more love, more fame, in short more recognition from other selves.  This means that the self is also the seat of self-esteem.  What is wounded is the self-esteem of the self which time or circumstances deprive of a bond.  It is always the self which is hurt by a derogatory remark and which falls off the pedestal it had climbed.  The identity of the self appears to be quite a complicated structure, yet with intelligible strategies.

What does self-esteem reveal to us?  The self gives itself a valorising self-image and wishes to be recognised as such.  Its main concern is not to be, but to appear as what it wants to be, to show itself, to show itself as the friend of X or Y, as the father of X, as a scientist, as a soccer player, an artist, a deputee, to parade its identity as Scottish, Irish etc... Without this image of the self which can be flattered and confirmed or criticised and denied, would there really be this thing commonly referred to as self-esteem?

Self-esteem shares one characteristic of the ego which consists in caring only for itself.  In a well-known passage in the Pensées Pascal states this with much lucidity: "The nature of self-esteem and of this human self is to love itself alone and have regard only for itself".  This is what we are perpetually blaming others for doing, labeling them egocentrics! "In one word, the self has two properties: it is unfair because it makes of itself the centre of everything; it is disrespectful to others because it wants to rule them; for each self is the enemy and would want to be the tyrant of all the others".  If egocentricity is unfair, it is of course because the this alleged centre is ultimately inseparable from the body of an individual and one does not see how billions of individuals could have the right to proclaim themselves centre of the world.  When the self takes itself as reference in matters of judgement or in matters of what is of interest (useful, valuable), the result is utter chaos.  My own interests are not those of everybody; if therefore I am to make decisions on the general interest, this is only possible if I put the precedence of my own interest within brackets. The self is also more than disrespectful, not only is it full of itself, but from this self-importance it draws an unquenchable will to power.  The need to dominate others is the other side of the coin of the need to increase one's influence, and this can lead the egocentric to raving megalomania.  Yet in reality this feeling of power is rather weak.  The almost desperate need to see oneself recognised in the eyes of others in order to feel important is sadly impotent.  Whoever makes big efforts to put himself forward in a discussion in order to look important is pathetically feeble!  When one needs to say "In my eyes..." it means that one is only too aware that the other person might have a different opinion, and that one's own little self is rather limited.  There is something pathetic too in the reverse of proud self-sufficiency, which is the feeling or will to powerlessness; then the self feels so tiny that it becomes self-depreciating, self-denying and harsh on itself.  Self-hatred directed against the ego is as destructive as the raving pride of self-esteem.

Undeniably there exists a sentiment of the self.  The self would be the individual consciousness minding its interests and partial in its favour.  This sentiment of the self gradually emerges in the child as it acquires its own identity.  In the adult this identity is normally more flexible and leaves some space to others as it opens up to a vaster and deeper awareness.  It is strictly connected to the need to maintain a form of definite and distinct individuality through time.  The self is temporal.  The self changes and is transformed.  For this reason it is inseparable from memory.  Who loses his memory also loses his identity.  He no longer knows who he is, which is a problem of some importance to a mind which in vigilance is focussed on the awareness of the ego.  Today's sentiment of the self rests on the past.  The ego is like a snowball rolling on the slope of a mountain.  The more it rolls the more snow it collects; as time goes on the ego collects experiences and this past weighs on the present.  The past of the self is one with its present.  If we say "me, me" it is on basis of the feeling of continuity, we think we are the same although we have changed.  This is strange.  How can I stay the same if I am changing all the time?  The something which stays constant through time we believe to be the self, a single person born at this moment in time, who has been living for so and so many years, who has had this or that experience, who carries with himself this or that memory.  These specificities make us aware that our own self is different from other selves, and that insofar as we are our self we are totally distinct from another person.

If we take psychological experience as our starting point, our idea of the self is one based on the concept of individual ascriptions. We shall call this structure of the self the empirical self.  It is at the level of the empirical self that one can distinguish the social self, characterising the ascriptions of the ego related to a role or a character, the vital self, characterising the ego as related to a body, the psychological self characterising the self's intimate relation to itself, the definition of the self, self-esteem.  At each of these levels, the self can be thought of as a form of identity that it adopts with respect to something it considers belonging to it.  This means that it is a means of self-definition for the conscious subject.  When defining myself I think of myself as having this or that particular form and can therefore claim this or that identity.  However am I a definition?

2) The question "What is the self?" is very embarrassing.  Were one to ask us "what is a turtledove?" we could always, if we don't have such an animal ready at hand, search the encyclopeadia for a photograph.  We could form a definition using a general category, that of birds, and possible using the family of birds which includes this particular one.  Yet here we are short of means.  What could we show speaking of the self?  Where is the category which could define it and to what species does it belong? One can only show things, one cannot show the subject because it is the exact opposite of a thing: the subject is precisely that which has the capacity to show things.  There is also a problem as regards the definition.  If the subject can define any object, is is able to define itself?

Can one lock the self of a person into a definition like one would a mathematical entity?  One would then speak of the self of Paul or Peter as on speaks of the "circle", saying that it is a figure the points of which are equally distant to a point called the centre.  However, a mathematical notion is an abstraction, it is a concept, it is not the living consciousness.  That very thing which enables us to define is it itself beyond all definition?


B.  The stream of consciousness and the impermanence of the self.

1) What kind of reality would the identity of the self have?  Am I like an apricot, with pulp and a kernel which would be "me"?  Can there be a permanent self? If the subject is construed at the same time as its object, then it must be as relative as this object.  As regards the object of consciousness, everything changes and is modified; there is only a muddled diversity of experiences.  There is no unity.  Could one really find something fix, stable and identical in the self?

The experience of the senses, the empirical experience which the self has, is a lot of fleeting sensations knocking into one another, it is a stream of sensations flowing through myself.  I feel cold, hot, I think of this or that.  I have a feeling, a fear, anxiety, expectations, hopes and regrets.  The sensations come and go.  Yet they can be referred to one constant: the self who has them.  Where is the unity of the self in this whirlpool of thoughts?  Hume says ironically that nowhere does one find a sensation which would reflect the kind of idea that would be that of the "self".  There is certainly a kind of experience which the sensation reflects.  The words "hot", "cold" reflect a context, and there is also a precise experience which is fear, expectation and so on.  Yet where is the experience in which we would apprehend the "self"?  Where is the sensation designating "the self"?  It is impossible to exhibit the self in anything as concrete as a sensation.  This explains the position of the phenomenism of inwardness: for Hume and the phenomenists the self is nothing more than a word, the reality is only a stream of impressions, the diversity of inner change.  The idea of a substance of the self (the kernel) seems to Hume an artefact of the imagination, something invented to give some consistence to this idea.  We wish we had a stable existence rooted in continuity, so we invent the idea of a permanent self.  Yet the truth is in the perpetual flux of the impressions.  The self, as subject of the impressions, must be changing, must be in the process of becoming.  The self at one time is therefore different from the self at another time.  It is this very experience of evanescence in change which makes Montaigne say that we are not one but many.  We are a stream of characters in time, from child to teenager to grown-up.  Because of change the self cannot remain constant, cannot remain the same.  Time sees to it that the self is always different from what it was.  The self of yesterday is no longer the self of today.  Were we only a little consistent with our idea of reality as something we can only think of through sensations, we would not have the audacity to defend the existence of a unique and identical self. Then we could not speak accurately of the self, but only of the idea of the self.  With respect to the theme of consciousness, we shall call phenomenism the doctrine founded on the relativity of the content of consciousness and refusing to go beyond that.  We find this position in Buddhism, in Montaigne, Hume and Pascal.  They defend the phenomenist idea that the self has no substance of its own. 

2) Nevertheless, if you do away with the reality of the self, you do not do justice to the feeling of identity. We do experience a deep sense of identity and this one withstands change.  From where does it arise?  Could it be after all a mere figment of the imagination?  Let's take a metaphor: a moving wheel has spokes.  The closer you are to the centre of the wheel, the less you feel its movement.  There is a dimensionless point at the centre of the wheel in which there is no movement.  This motionless point is what makes the motion of the wheel possible.  Let us say that this point represents the centre of consciousness, the I.  The ex-centered consciousness is that of the ego painstakingly attempting to secure constance in motion; yet true constance belongs to the centre of all motion.  The ego only forges a very limited knowledge of itself which is empirical knowledge.  It founds its identity on memory, which is not a very solid support.  Yet the sense of an identity is there.

In each representation, insofar as all representation is carried by consciousness, there ought to be what Kant technically calls a transcendental aperception of oneself.  A sense of the unity of consiousness through time.  This one is clearly different from the empirical aperception of the self, the one for instance arrived at through  introspection, which allows me to think of myself as shy, withdrawn, or bold and enterprising.  In the empirical ego there is only the particular: me and my story, my family, my nationality, my personal problems, my aspirations, my expectations and so on.  My individual idiosyncrasy.  This is what the introspective man attempting to describe himself in his journal is looking for. 

Yet at the same time there is also the unity which ties all the representations, all the sensations, all the diverse experiences together. All is linked to an I.  On the side of the transcendental I, there is no particular content, only consciousness in its unity, in its pure and universal value.  Were one only to consider the diversity manifest in experience, consciousness would be scattered in its representations.  It could not have the feeling of being the same, of having an identity through time.  The presence of this feeling of identity indicates that there must be some permanent factor in change and this is the pure I.  Kant speaks of the intuition of the ich denke, of the I think.  He refers to a form of "pure aperception which must be distinguished from empirical aperception or original aperception because it is this self-awareness that generates the representation I think, and that therefore must be able to accompany all other representations and be one and identical to itself in all minds." 

If we stubbornly hang on to the belief that the self is our true identity, we might conclude that this solution is not very satisfactory.  From this point of view, I am aware that I am and not what I am; this awareness is not self-knowledge for Kant .  But it implies that the mind has a unity in itself which is not empirical but transcendental.  The only thing that can be inferred from this is that the I am is consciousness.  I am consciousness, this is my true identity and maybe the highest knowledge I can obtain. Knowing all the mishaps of my own little self is not the highest form of self knowledge.


C. The discovery of the transcendental I.

What certainty does the self then possess of its own identity?  In his Pensées, Pascal has a strange intuition about the self: "I feel that I might not have been, because the self consists of my thought." Perhaps we would want to find a kind of stable centre that would be the "self".  Sometimes our reasoning supposes that there would be in our innermost self, in the core of our intimacy, a kind of precious stone which would be "our own personal self, its flaws and imperfections etc..."  This would entail that the self could exist independently of consciousness.  Does one find this self when one has a go at introspection?  The formula "my personal self" is in itself quite surprising.  To whom does this self belong? If it does belong to someone, then there is an owner other and deeper than the self who is the I who thinks and uses the formula "my own self".  Is the thinker a "self"?  Is the thinker not rather just the subject of thinking?

One answer to this problem is given to us in the famous journey of  Descartes Meditations.  Descartes enquiry aims at discovering a truth one could not doubt of, a first certainty such that we use it as foundation for all knowledge.  We have since childhood, Descartes explains, received in our mind a lot of false opinions.  Childhood is a time of credulousness; if we want our knowledge to have some clarity, it is advisable to allow doubt to purify the whole area of science.  This does not mean one should become a sceptic and try to doubt of everything in order to demolish it, but to doubt in a methodical way, in order to see if it is possible to find a foundation on which one could build a reliable knowledge.  This might seem an endless task: if we had to verify every single opinion we would never finish!  However it is enough to consider the foundations and reject as dubitable whatever contains the slightest doubt or uncertainty. 

The first step has to be taken with respect to sensations.  Effectively "everything I received until now as true and certain I have received it from the senses, or through the senses."  Do I have any reason to doubt the value of the testimony of the senses?  There are appearances that might induce me to error: the oar of the boat, when immersed in water, appears broken, yet in reality it is not.  A tower may seem round from afar and reveal itself to be square when I approach it.  The sun sometimes appears larger at the horizon than at the zenith, and yet the size of the sun does not change.  Hence the senses can be the source of error and illusions.  If one only trusts sensations then it is possible that one makes mistakes.  What guarantees us that what we perceive is exactly as we perceive it?  Since doubt is there, it is better to discard whatever is only founded on the testimony of the senses since this might induce me in error.

Yet it is the senses which tell me that I am in this lit-up room, my body is undeniably here.  To deny it seems folly.  I cannot deny that these hands are mine.  If I do so I am as deranged as the madman who takes himself to be a tree or a barrel or who fancies himself having a body of glass.  Is is reasonable to take doubting to such extremes? Well, "every night I am in the habit of sleeping and dreaming".  I may well be dreaming that I am in this room in this same place, doing the same things, while in reality I am all naked in bed.  I would have the same feeling of incarnation.  Where would the difference lie?  I could tell myself: "come on, I do feel that this table is real, I can hit it and feel pain, this is not a dream".  I could add that it now seems to me that my mind is clear and altogether alert.  Only one cannot be satisfied with "a feeling that this is real", with an impression of vigilance and clarity.  When dreaming, the dreamer believes in the reality of the dream-world as firmly as I believe in the reality of this table that I hit with my hand.  The dreamer experiences everything he dreams as absolutely real.  How awful!  Then reality might be nothing more than a well- woven dream!  What proof do we have of the contrary?  "There is no concluding evidence or sufficiently clear signs that would enable us to distinguish waking from sleeping".  My belief in the reality of my body is not trustworthy: I only know my body through modes of consciousness.  Yet the sensations I have of my hands might not necessarily reveal to me exactly what my hand is.

Nevertheless we could still say that the dream is ordinarily quite weak in comparison with the waking state: it is too confuse.  Since the dream is confuse I might conclude that in fact it is only a parody in the imagination of an order imported from the waking state.  If ever a dream were as coherent as waking then I would be in a mess.  Imagine the cobbler leading an irregular and miserable life dreaming every night that he is king with a stable and happy life.  It is certain that he would end up considering that real life is in kinghood and that he has awful nightmares every night in which he is a cobbler.  Reality goes with coherence.  Thus reality is  in fact structured by logic.  This means that reality has an order which can be accounted for.  This order is mathematical, its object is number and therefore order.  After all whether I sleep or am awake 2+3=5.  A mathematical relation is an ideality, it does not have to take our different states of consciousness into account.  Let us extend this idea and we shall arrive at the conclusion that it is Physics, Astronomy, Arithmetics and Geometry that position us in reality.  If there is to be certainty, it can only be on the side of the clear and distinct objects of thought.  These are precisely the mathematical idealities, these simple natures of thought.

Has this sorted me out? Am I now in the presence of a truth of which one cannot doubt?  Let us push the doubt a little further and propose a hyperbolic (extreme) doubt.  Were there a cosmic magician capable of everything, were there a deceitful god, then "it might well be the case that there is no earth, no heaven, no physical body, no figure, no extension, no place and yet that I would have the sensation of all these things".  Strictly speaking nothing would be changed in my perception and my representation, nothing in my so-called real world.  And yet body, figure, motion and so on would correspond to nothing in reality.  They would only be modes of my apprehension of reality.  I would therefore be deceived.  I might well be in the presence of mere fictions of my mind.  Once arrived at this conclusion, great is my anxiety: finally there is nothing certain in this world, one can doubt everything because we have reasons for doubting everything.  I can even take audacity to its extreme: after all I may myself be the author of these fictions: "maybe I am able to produce them myself".

Nevertheless this means at least that in any case I am as the subject of these fictions.  Let one invent any illusion one wants, from optical illusions to social and psychological illusions, the truth remains that these fictions all relate to the subject thinking them.  The I is the centre around which all these representations are orbiting.  It is the first certainty.  Common sense asserts that the most certain thing there is, is what one can feel with one's hand, this table here for instance.  The empirical self imagines itself to be real because it believes itself to be one thing among others.  Yet that which has the highest degree of truth is not the thing but the mind which posits the thing.  The I am is an insuperable certainty.  "Such that after thorough thinking and careful examination of all things one must conclude and hold for constant this proposition: 'I am, I exist' is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I conceive it in my mind".  This is what the philosophical tradition will retain in the expression of transcendental subject.

This first certainty of the subject, this self-awareness, does it have a definite content?  One could always say "the most difficult is not to know if one exists but what one is".  However, at this stage of our reasoning, we have discarded the idea "I am a body", we have put the testimony of the senses in brackets.  However if the identity of the self is taken to be a character with its own tendencies different from other selves, then this supposes the identification of the mind with the body other people see.  I cannot say that I am a "self".  The self is the sort of thing that is dubitable.  Neither can I say that "I am a man", since this sort of definition would oblige me to precise that I am a "rational animal".  I would then have to say what an animal is and what it is to be reasonable and so on to infinity.

We must take as our starting point the essential factor, which is the certainty of I am.  This certainty only indicates that I am comes first: I exist, I think, hence I am.  If I now am to develop my identity I say only this: I am thinking or I am mind (consciousness, awareness).  I find that "thinking is an attribute that belongs to me, that alone cannot be detached from me".  If the term were not inadequate we would say: I am " a thinking thing".  Yet what is a thinking thing?  It is a mind, an understanding, " a thing that doubts, conceives, asserts, negates, wants, does not want, imagines and feels".  This I am because these modes derive from the nature of my consciousness.  If by body " I mean everything that can be determined by some figure and that can be contained in some place and fill up some space", then I ought to say that my body, " a machine composed of bones and flesh", is of course mine, but it is not me.  I can say that I am a soul, never that I have a soul, since the soul is the ultimate subject, the ultimate seat of belongingness.  I can however say that I have a body, the body is not the mind, the body is more akin to an object than to the subject.  Thus you distinguish mind and matter, each of which Descartes identify to a separate substance, the thinking substance which comprehends the values of the mind and the extended substance which comprehends the values pertaining to matter. 

Hence the I am is a pure pulsation of consciousness as an I. It is not the empirical self.  It is known directly through thought in an evidence which is not derived from reasoning.  "When someone says 'I think therefore I am', he does not conclude to his existence from his thought as from some syllogism, but as a thing known of itself; he sees it through an inspection of the mind", an intuition. The cogito reduced to I think is the very model of certainty.  Nobody can doubt of his own existence as a mind.

This discovery will acquire a name in Descartes successors who will speak of the subject as of the transcendental I.  The cogito designates the pure identity of the thinking subject, the identity of the I.  To sum up, this discovery implies according to G. Berger "if I cannot grasp what I am in any manner, I know however that I am and I cannot doubt of being... What I have learnt, what I am now certain of, it is that I cannot take the 'I' seeking itself for the 'self' I encounter in the world.  Were I to speak with rigour I ought to say "I am I", thus expressing in these unusual terms that the 'I' is always a subject".


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When excavating in search for the "self" one finds nothing. There is never anything other than thinking which, in its course, and taking itself to be an object, could give some consistence to the idea of self.  To see it as a "substance" is merely a point of view of the mind.  The self is not a thing.  The expression "thinking thing" is absurd.  All the same thinking activity is prime, it is a time-related pulsation of an I which effectively carries in itself a oneness, the oneness of self-awareness.

The solution to our problem becomes clearer: the feeling of identity belongs to self-awareness and it is removed by the ego and superimposed to the stream of thinking to yield this illusion of a substance which makes me consider myself as one and the same preciously unique individual self. True identity transcends that of the self, it is not personal in the sense of the little somebody made of the continued flow of the ego's memories.  The identity belongs to the Self, to pure subjectivity.  The I is not a substance, it is a pulsation of pure consciousness in time in the form of thinking.  For this reason we are justified in distinguishing between the empirical subject and the transcendental subject.



  Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm