Awareness and Identification of Self

David Rosenthal is a philosopher at Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) who has made significant contributions to the philosophy of mind, particularly about consciousness, mental qualities, and the self. Rosenthal’s work extends into the related area of cognitive science and he is Coordinator of the Graduate Center’s Interdisciplinary Concentration in Cognitive Science.

I. Self-Awareness and the Self1

It is a crucial aspect of everyday mental functioning that we are in some way aware of ourselves.  But it is far from clear at first sight just what this self-awareness consists in, and indeed just what the self is that we are aware of.

It is possible to give an answer to the second question that is mundane and unproblematic. The self one is aware of in everyday life is simply the individual that walks, talks, sleeps, and eats; the self one is aware of is, to echo Aristotle’s provisional definition of the soul,2 the living, functioning creature.

I will argue in the end that something in that spirit is correct and defensible.  But many have held that this bland account of what the self is fails to capture what is important about the self, at least insofar as we are aware of that self.  Thus Descartes argued that the self is that thing the awareness of which makes its existence indubitable, even if we doubt everything about the functioning and existence of physical reality.3 And the self we are aware of is also typically taken to provide a kind of mental unity that binds together all of one’s contemporaneous mental states.  As Kant put it, for mental representations to be mine at all, they must “all belong to one self-consciousness” ([Kant 1787/1998, B132]; cf. [Shoemaker 2003, pp. 59-71]).  It is something like that idea of the self that presumably underlies Ned Block’s observation that there is a kind of “me-ishness” about at least many of one’s conscious mental states (1996, p. 235).  And the self that binds one’s mental functioning into a unity may even thereby underwrite personal identity through time.

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