Many philosophers have claimed that consciousness always involves self-consciousness. This is, in many ways, an ambiguous claim. On one reading of “self-consciousness”, the claim means that consciousness always involves consciousness of oneself; on another, it means that it always involves consciousness of consciousness. Somewhat confusingly, both of these readings have been associated with the idea that consciousness is somehow reflexive. According to the first reading, the relation being conscious of is “reflexive” in the following sense: in being conscious of something, the subject is (also) conscious of herself. The second reading is often said to involve reflexivity in a looser sense, transpiring in the idea that consciousness requires “consciousness of consciousness” (Sartre), or that “all consciousness involves consciousness of that very consciousness” (Galen Strawson).
This thesis disambiguates each of these two notions of self-consciousness, and examines their relation to phenomenal consciousness. Call “self-consciousness” (sensu stricto) the consciousness that the subject has of herself, and “inner consciousness” the consciousness that the subject has of her occurrent conscious mental state. One might hold that inner consciousness, or self-consciousness, or both are (a) necessary for phenomenal consciousness (Necessity Claim), (b) ubiquitous in phenomenal consciousness (Universal Claim), (c) merely characteristic of ordinary, non-pathological conscious states (Normality Claim), (d) occasionally associated with phenomenal consciousness (Existential Claim) or (e) never associated with phenomenal consciousness (Absence Claim).
Firstly, I argue against the Necessity, Universal and Normality claims with respect to inner consciousness. Subjects often have conscious mental states of which they are not conscious, if being conscious of one’s conscious mental states is intended to mean something over and beyond the fact that subjects are conscious in virtue of being in conscious mental states. Thus, a mental state M of a subject S can be a phenomenally conscious state without S being phenomenally conscious of M.
Secondly, the notion of self-consciousness sensu stricto, or consciousness of oneself, is investigated. Such self-consciousness is not necessary for phenomenal consciousness if it is merely given an epistemic or a cognitive meaning, for one can be conscious without knowing oneself or thinking about oneself. However, there is another meaning of self-consciousness, which refers to a phenomenal consciousness of oneself (henceforth phenomenal self-consciousness). By definition, phenomenal self-consciousness makes a contribution to the subject’s overall phenomenology. I reject an inflationary construal of this notion, according to which there is a sui generis “self-quale”, that is an irreducible phenomenal property whose instantiation directly acquaints me with myself. Instead, I argue that phenomenal self-consciousness is reducible to the feeling of being located in one’s environment and distinct from it.
I defend the hypothesis that this sense of self-location is a genuine aspect of normal conscious experience, and that it is grounded in the representational content of perceptual states. According to this hypothesis, the phenomenology of self-location is not a necessary component of phenomenal consciousness, and so neither is phenomenal self-consciousness. Thus, I argue for the Normality Claim with respect to this form of self-consciousness: in normal adult consciousness, one is always phenomenally self-conscious insofar as one feels located in one’s environment (and hence distinct from an external world). Conversely, I argue that there might be actual cases in which the sense of self-location goes missing, and in which subjects accordingly lack phenomenal self-consciousness. I discuss two cases which appear to fit this description, namely drug-induced ego dissolution and non-dual awareness states in meditation. “Drug-induced ego dissolution” refers to an experience provoked by high doses of certain psychoactive drugs in which subjects have the feeling of dying or not existing, associated with a loss of the sense of boundaries between oneself and the world. “Non-dual awareness” refers to a conscious state occasionally achieved by advanced meditators with a specific training, described as a selfless experience. I argue that both states are well explained by the situated account of phenomenal self-consciousness, given that (a) they are both linked to a disruption of multisensory processes linked to self-location at the subpersonal level, and (b) they both involve a loss of one’s sense of locatedness in an environment at the phenomenological level, which is typically described as a feeling of selflessness or lack of self/world distinction.