Consciousness and self-consciousness

Consciousness and self-consciousness

As explained in the page on the problem of consciousness, consciousness can be defined as the state of having experiences. Conscious states, or mental states, are situations in which one is having any kind of experience, be it a sensory experience, a thought, an emotion or whatever.

Self-consciousness, a particular form of consciousness, is a broad term that is used to mean different forms of awareness regarding oneself and one’s experiences. The way we understand the concept of the self depends on which meaning of self-consciousness we use. Some of the most commonly used ones are listed below.1

Different meanings of self-consciousness

  • Self-awareness, or basic self-consciousness: being aware of oneself as different from the rest of the world. That is, having the experience of being oneself.
  • Bodily (corporal) self-awareness: awareness of one’s body as different from the rest of the world.
  • Sense of ownership: awareness that when one moves a part of one’s body, it is one’s body that is being moved (related to corporal self-awareness).
  • Sense of agency: awareness that one is acting with intent.
  • Sense of oneself through time: awareness that one is a being that exists in different times and that will exist in the future.
  • Meta-self-awareness: being aware of oneself, and also being aware that one is aware, rather than simply experiencing awareness.
  • Conceptual self-consciousness: having a concept of oneself as having certain features which distinguish oneself from the rest of the world.
  • Self-concept, or narrative self: a complex concept and view in which one considers one’s situation and history in relation to others, which includes the view of one’s role in society as different from the roles of others.

The first three types of self-consciousness are sometimes referred to as pre-reflective self-consciousness, while the last five are instances of reflective self-consciousness. Pre-reflective self-consciousness requires only that there be some experience of the self in any form. Reflective self-consciousness requires some reflection, some awareness of the awareness itself. It is possible to have the capacity for reflective self-consciousness but fail to put it into practice, and thus function at the level of pre-reflective self-consciousness.2

It is sometimes claimed that a being who is conscious must also be self-conscious, that it is impossible to have one without the other. The argument is that any experience must be accompanied by the awareness of the fact that that experience is one’s own. According to this argument, although we can make a logical distinction between what it means to be merely conscious and what it means to be conscious of oneself, in practice that distinction disappears, and all those who are conscious are also self-conscious.3

The defense of this view depends on the meaning of self-consciousness used. Since, in strict terms, when the most basic forms of self-consciousness appear there is already some form of consciousness of oneself, and since many nonhuman animals clearly have an awareness of their bodies or of their own experiences, then, in a basic sense, many nonhuman animals are self-conscious. Still, it’s perfectly plausible to think there could be beings who are conscious even if they aren’t self-conscious.

It is important to note that it is only consciousness that matters when we consider which beings can be harmed or benefited. If it is possible to be conscious without being self-conscious, then self-consciousness is not relevant to whether or not a being can be harmed or benefited, though it may affect in what ways a being can be harmed. Self-consciousness has to do, in one way or another, with being aware of oneself. And that is different from simply being aware.

Further readings

Antony, M. V. (2001) “Is ‘consciousness’ ambiguous?”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8 (2), pp. 19-44.

Armstrong, D. M. (1981) “What is consciousness?”, in Armstrong, D. M. (ed.) The nature of mind and other essays, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 55-67.

Bayne, T. (2004) “Self-consciousness and the unity of consciousness”, The Monist, 87, pp. 219-236.

Block, N. (1995) “On a confusion about a function of consciousness”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 18, pp. 227-247.

Bermúdez, J. L. (1998) The paradox of self-consciousness, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cheney, D. L. & Seyfarth, R. M. (2008) Baboon metaphysics: The evolution of a social mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 205.

Gallagher, S. (2000) “Philosophical conceptions of the self: Implications for cognitive science”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, pp. 14-21.

Gallagher, S. (2005) How the body shapes the mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gennaro, R. (1995) Consciousness and self-consciousness: A defense of the higher-order thought theory of consciousness, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jeannerod, M. (1997) The cognitive neuroscience of action, Oxford: Blackwell.

Lycan, W. G. (1987) Consciousness, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Morin, A. (2006) “Levels of consciousness and self-awareness: A comparison and integration of various neurocognitive views”, Consciousness and Cognition, 15, pp. 358-371.

Morsella, E.; Bargh, J. A. & Gollwitzer, P. M. (eds.) (2009) Oxford handbook of human action, New York: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, J. & Northoff, G. (2009) “The trans-species core SELF: The emergence of active cultural and neuro-ecological agents through self-related processing within subcortical-cortical midline networks”, Consciousness and Cognition, 18, pp. 193-215.

Philippi, C. L. (2011) “The dynamic self: Exploring the critical role of the default mode network in self-referential processing”, PhD dissertation, Iowa: University of Iowa.

Roessler, J. & Eilan, N. (eds.) (2003) Agency and self-awareness, New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephens, G. L. & Graham, G. (2000) When self-consciousness breaks: Alien voices and inserted thoughts, Cambridge: MIT Press.


1 See on this: Antony, M. V. (2002) “Concepts of consciousness, kinds of consciousness, meanings of ‘consciousness’”, Philosophical Studies, 109, pp. 1-16; Ben-Artzi, E.; Mikulincer, M. & Glaubman, H. (1995) “The multifaceted nature of self-consciousness: Conceptualization, measurement, and consequences”, Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 15, pp. 17-43.

2 See Legrand, D. (2006) “The bodily self: The sensori-motor roots of pre-reflective self-consciousness”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 5, pp. 89-118.

3 This view has been defended, for instance, by Davidson, D. (1982) “Rational animals”, Dialectica, 36, pp. 317-327. It has been used to defend speciesist positions, but what we have seen above shows there are reasons to doubt it can be right.