Erik Myin (2000) Direct Self-consciousness. Psycoloquy: 11(003) Self Consciousness (2)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 11(003): Direct Self-consciousness

Book Review of Bermudez on Self-Consciousness

Erik Myin
Department of Philosophy &
Artificial Intelligence Lab
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pleinlaan 2
B 1050 Brussels


One can distinguish the descriptive view of self-consciousness from the philosophical framework of the theory of nonconceptual content. Propositional attitudes can be ascribed without commitment to the existence of internal states that bear different species of content. The descriptive view can be coupled to this alternative view.


cognitive maps; concepts; content; ecological self; navigation; proprioception; self-consciousness; self-reference; visual perception


1. The bulk of Bermudez's (1998, 1999) excellent book consists of a descriptive view of the content of self-consciousness. It shows how more complicated forms of self-consciousness emerge, progressing from a mere sensitivity to Gibsonian affordances, and ultimately leading to a conception of oneself as a psychological subject in a social space shared with equally self-conscious persons. This descriptive story is full of theoretical insight and impressively informed by empirical work. Parallel to the development of this descriptive view is its integration into a philosophical theory that is concerned primarily with the existence of different species of content, and with the necessity of postulating the existence of different internal states of the mind/brain that bear these contents. In short, it is proposed that there is both conceptual and nonconceptual content, and that different kinds of states exist to carry these. In this review, I will have little to say about the descriptive view per se, if only because I fully applaud and endorse it. Instead, I will analyze some aspects of the theory of nonconceptual content. This will lead to an alternative and a demonstration of how the descriptive view can be coupled to it.


2. The philosophical backbone of the book relates to a specific interpretation of propositional attitude ascription. Consider the following successively stronger views of propositional attitude ascription A-D:

     A. Propositional attitude ascription implies (nothing more than)
     that one specifies a relation between the ascribee and a fact.

     B. Propositional attitude ascription implies that one ascribes a
     relation between the ascribee and a representational or content
     carrying state.

     C. Propositional attitude ascription implies that one ascribes
     content carrying states with a specific format.

     D. Propositional attitude ascription implies that one ascribes
     content carrying states with a propositional format.

3. The first view is clearly not considered as a serious alternative in the book. The position defended in the book is an affirmation of B and C and a denial of D. The reason A is not considered is evident from various discussions in the book. First, A does not seem to accord with the emphasis on the necessity of inferring internal information carrying states from the flexibility of behaviour and its sensitivity to what is distant in space and time. Additionally, Bermudez mentions at least once in the book that A could be equated with mere talk about dispositions. It seems to be taken for granted that the shallowness of this 'behaviourism' can be easily dismissed by reference to, for example, a paraplegic who can have mental states without having any disposition at all (cf. Footnote 25 on p. 309). So A is rejected and B preferred. Moreover, it is argued that the even stronger proposition C should be endorsed because of its emphasis on a difference in the content of perception and of belief, which is exemplified by the fact that one can perceive a fine-grained shade of colour without having a concept for that shade.

4. The question I would ask at this point is whether proposition A really should be so summarily dismissed. The distinctive thing about A is that it doesn't commit one to the non-existence of different species of content or of internal states that one has to be in, in order for one to be a proper ascribee of a propositional attitude. Indeed, A actually emerges as a denial of B and C. For if it is denied that being a propositional attitude ascribee is the same as standing in a relation to a content carrying state, then the question of what the format of that state is simply doesn't arise. Nor is there a problem with the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual content. The natural companion to the stance taken in A is a direct theory of perception, in which one is aware not of the content of a perceptual state, but directly of some fact in the world. As a result, the difference between seeing something and believing something (without having perceptual experience of the thing) does not lie in the form of the content borne by an inner state, but in different ways of being related to the same fact.

5. So, if I see a particular shade of colour in front of me, I am related differently to that shade of colour than when I nonperceptually believe that there's a shade of colour in front of me. I am related in different ways to that same fact because the perceiving and the believing come about in different ways (and only for one of them it is necessary that I have my eyes open). Also, the perceiving and believing involve different capacities. The seeing does not necessarily involve an ability to accurately describe the shade of colour, though the believing most probably will (at least in language-using creatures). This gives an alternative account of the fine-grainedness of perception versus belief, which blocks the inference to the existence of nonconceptual content. An additional advantage of the account connected with A is that it does not have what seems to be the unhappy implication of the theory of nonconceptual content: that the term 'shade of colour' has a meaning in 'I see a shade of colour in front of me' different from that in 'I believe there is a shade of colour in front of me'. So in the alternative view of content ascription and the view of perception that goes with it, both the main focus for attack (proposition D) and the main thesis defended (proposition C) simply no longer find a place.

6. How can A be applied to the case of self-conscious content? Propositional attitude ascriptions of beliefs with self-conscious content simply ascribe a relation between the ascribee and a fact in which the ascribee takes an integral place. For example, one can ascribe to one's dog that she thinks that she's about to be fed.

7. One particularly interesting class of belief is formed by higher-order beliefs. In the case of self-consciousness these come about when one is sensitive to one's lower order self-conscious beliefs (or sensitivities). It's hard to see how some kinds of behaviour could be explained without invoking this category. Take, for example, one of the finest experiments reported in the book, the case of the monkey that appears to show a sensitivity to coloured slides that it has been shown before (pp. 185-186). The interpretation along the lines laid out in A is that the animal shows an awareness of its sensitivity to certain facts.

8. The fact that higher order beliefs can be taken account of by the stance taken in A shows that A has the resources to offer an account of flexible behaviour that is sensitive to what is not immediately environmentally present. It also offers an answer to the 'paraplegic objection', if this is taken as the objection that an account of belief that does not mention inner states is invalid because only inner states can survive the absence of outer manifestation. The reason the paraplegic objection is shown to be inadequate is that higher order sensitivities can remain in place in the absence of the lower order sensitivities that are their object. A paraplegic will retain a higher order capacity, despite losing a lower order capacity which relates to it; that is, he retains a higher order capacity to want to exercise a lower order capacity.

9. Bermudez may object that the above remarks only demonstrate that while A is satisfactory from a descriptive point of view, it remains shallow as an explanation. Isn't one compelled to postulate internal states that cause sensitivities for explanatory reasons? For example, in the case of the experiment which shows the higher order sensitivity, isn't one compelled to postulate the existence of information carrying internal memory states? Isn't that also the only way one could ever hope to connect propositional attitude talk to brain talk - that is by positing content carrying states that can be identified with contents of propositional attitudes on the one hand and with neural states on the other?

10. The question is whether or not there's any real advantage in talking about states instead of talking about sensitivities to facts. Most importantly, no one has formulated a precise or detailed theory about such fundamental questions as how to relate informational states to states of the brain, let alone to accomplish this feat in such a way that one could answer questions about the identity conditions of states or how one could tell one state from another. Assuming for the sake of argument that one could solve the problem of demarcation of single states, how would one go about establishing that state S carried the same content as state S1? If one believes that states are distinct from capacities then surely one should be able to answer this question while abstracting from what kinds of capacities and sensitivities the states are involved in. The only possible solution seems to be that they would have some physical mark in common. In other words, the only option, if one accepts talk of states per se as informative, is to assume there's some kind of mapping which connects content types to physical types. I am not convinced that everyone who is sympathetic to the existence of information bearing states would want to be committed to such a radical and controversial thesis.

11. One important motivation for identifying perceiving or believing with being in a 'state' might be the desire to account for consciousness and its content. It might seem the only way to account for the occurrent character of consciousness; one cannot but postulate the occurrence of a brain state carrying the content present in consciousness. A recent paper by O'Regan and Noe both tackles this reasoning and shows how visual consciousness can be accounted for without accompanying states. They suggest that one of the most telling problems for a 'state' view of perception is that, during blinks, one remains visually conscious, while at the level of brain states, there simply is no content to be carried by candidate states (O'Regan & Noe 1999).

12. One approach that shows much more promise might be to think of the brain as an organ that enables a subject to be sensitive to facts present and past and to exercise this sensitivity in behaviour, without requiring that the 'information' the sensitivity is tuned to be carried by independently identifiable sub-personal states. This approach corresponds to work being done in the neurosciences. What are neuroscientists doing if not investigating a variety of scales for the brain's sensitivity to distinctive facts and its involvement in distinctive capacities? Moreover, with this approach there's hardly any problem for identity conditions for sensitivities or for capacities in general; what is sensitive to the same has the same sensitivity, and what does the same job is the same capacity.


13. Nothing about what I've called the descriptive view in Bermudez's book necessitates anything beyond an acceptance of proposition A. In other words, it doesn't presuppose either the existence of identifiable content carrying states, or the existence of the distinct species of conceptual and nonconceptual content 'carried' by such states. The most plausible thesis in the book, that sensitivity to Gibsonian affordances endows quite primitive creatures with a form of self consciousness, is in itself independent of the further thesis that this sensitivity shows the existence of internal states with nonconceptual content. Equally, nothing in the laudable description of the more complex contents of more developed forms of self-consciousness requires the truth of anything beyond proposition A. So, despite my caveats, none of the criticism in this piece affects the main thread running through 'The Paradox of Self-Consciousness'.


My thanks to the Flemish Community (grant CAW 96/29b) and the Free University of Brussels (VUB -project GOA 2) for financial support.


Bermudez, J. L. (1998) The Paradox of Self-Consciousness. Cambridge MA. MIT Press.

Bermudez, J. L. (1999) Precis of "The Paradox of Self- Consciousness". PSYCOLOQUY 10(35) psyc.99.10.035.self-consciousness.1.bermudez

O'Regan, J. Kevin & Noe, Alva (1999) A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. (submitted to Behavioural and Brain Sciences).

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