Thursday, May 7, 2015

Self-Consciousness and Self-Grounding: Fichte and the Philosophy of Mind

"it is the very nature of consciousness to exist "in a circle""

In my previous post I advanced the idea that self-
consciousness might be ontologically self-grounding given its circular, self-referential structure. This circularity shows up in the fact that the self-conscious subject is not just aware of itself, it is also aware that it is aware of itself, etc. In this regard self-consciousness is like a 'magical matryoshka' (a Russian nesting doll) containing itself; or a series of such dolls where the smaller ones in turn contain the bigger ones. In my view, this self-containing structure of self-consciousness amounts to ontological self-grounding, in the sense that self-consciousness exists only because it is conscious of itself – thus it bootstraps itself into existence. In this sense we could say that it belongs to the essence of self-consciousness that it realizes itself, where "to realize" means both "to become conscious of" and "to let exist, to make real". In this way self-consciousness could function as the self-grounding ground of existence. Thus, in answer to Leibniz's famous question "Why is there something rather nothing?", we should perhaps say: because self-consciousness brings itself into existence!

Johann Gottlieb Fichte
To elaborate this self-grounding structure of self-consciousness, we must turn to the German philosopher Fichte (1762-1814), who developed the most forceful arguments for this view on self-consciousness. Here I will largely follow the influential account of Fichte's arguments given by Dieter Henrich in his classic article "Fichte's Original Insight" (1982, originally published in 1967), which has to a large extent been responsible for the current rehabilitation of Fichte as an original thinker in his own right (instead of just a footstool for Schelling and Hegel). After having set out Fichte's views on self-consciousness, I will take a closer look at Fichte's relevance to the well-known "hard problem of consciousness", i.e. the impossibility to explain consciousness in exclusively physical terms. Thereafter I will consider various arguments for and against the idea that self-consciousness can be ontologically self-grounding. My conclusion will be that a lot depends on how we think about the relation between time and causation: if we make room for non-temporal causation, then the circularity involved in self-grounding ceases to be vicious.

Fichte's critique of the reflection theory
As Dieter Henrich writes about Fichte: "[W]hat he discovered was not so much a fact, but rather a difficulty, a problem: He saw that "self-consciousness," which philosophy long before him had claimed to be the basis of knowledge, can only be conceived under conditions that had not been considered previously... Anyone seeking a suitable concept of "self-consciousness" must go back to Fichte and to the knowledge he achieved." (Henrich 1982: 15-16) The problem Fichte discovered was the inadequacy of the traditional "reflection theory" of self-consciousness, which was universally accepted among philosophers, notably in the modern tradition from Descartes to Kant. This theory – which often was not a fully explicit theory but rather an implicitly guiding model – rested on two closely interconnected assumptions. First, that the existence of the self precedes any consciousness it can have of itself, so that the self initially exists without self-consciousness. And second, that the self only achieves self-consciousness by redirecting its attention away from external objects and unto itself, so that the self comes to know itself just like it comes to know any other object (see Henrich 1982: 19). Fichte showed that if we conceptualize self-consciousness in this way, we will get stuck in all kinds of paradoxes and vicious circles.

Note, to begin with, that what distinguishes self-consciousness from all other kinds of awareness and knowledge is a strict subject-object identity: in self-consciousness, the knowing subject is identical with the known object, and it knows itself as thus one with itself. As Fichte pointed out, however, it is difficult to see how this could ever be achieved on the reflection theory without going in circles. On the reflection theory, the self as subject is originally unaware of itself until it redirects its intentionality unto itself as object. But the object thus known can never coincide with the knowing subject, precisely because the latter was originally unknown or unaware of itself. Simply put: the original subject that is unaware of itself cannot know itself as unaware of itself, since that would be an obvious contradiction. Thus, on the reflection theory, subject-object identity cannot be achieved. Furthermore, if the self starts out unaware of itself until it redirects its intentionality away from external objects unto itself, how then can it know that its new object is itself, i.e. how can it recognize itself in that object? If the self comes to know itself in the same way it comes to know external objects, how then does it know that its new object is not just an external object but is rather itself? Obviously such recognition is only possible if the self already knows that the object is itself. Thus the reflection theory can only explain self-consciousness in a circular way (Henrich 1982: 21).

This circularity of the reflection theory also shows up in other ways. For example: if the self starts out unaware of itself, then what impels it to redirect its intentionality unto itself to begin with? If the self does this with the intention to know itself, then obviously the self must already have some self-awareness, however dim. Otherwise it could not even know about itself as a possible object of knowledge. Thus the reflection theory can only explain self-consciousness by presupposing an initial level of self-consciousness on the part of the subject. It is only because the subject already vaguely knows about itself that it can be motivated to reflect on itself. Only in this way, moreover, can the earlier problem of failed subject-object identity be solved – that is to say: only if the original subject already knows about itself will the known object be identical with the knowing subject. But of course this only shows that the reflection theory cannot explain self-consciousness, since it must presuppose self-consciousness. Hence the reflection theory is inherently circular. All that the theory can hope to explain is how the subject, by turning its intentionality unto itself, can make his original self-consciousness clearer and more explicit. Reflection, then, can only be a clarification of prior self-consciousness, but not the cause of it (Henrich 1982: 20).

Fichte on self-positing
According to Henrich, Fichte was the first philosopher to recognize these paradoxes and circularities in the reflection theory and to draw the proper conclusion from them, namely, that the self cannot exist prior to and apart from its self-consciousness. The ramifications of this conclusion are surprisingly far reaching. First of all, it is important to note that although the conclusion is based on an argument about self-consciousness (the inadequacy of the reflection theory), it concerns the nature of selfhood as such. If the self cannot exist apart from its self-consciousness, then the emergence of self-consciousness is also the emergence of the self as such. In that sense "selfhood" turns out to be synonymous with "self-consciousness", such that to be a self is to be conscious of oneself as oneself. As Fichte put it: "What was I, then, before I came to self-consciousness? The natural answer to this question is: I did not exist at all, for I was not an I. The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself." (Fichte 1991: 98) This bootstrapping of the self through self-consciousness Fichte called "self-positing" ("Selbstsetzung"), saying things like: "the self begins by an absolute positing of its own existence" (Fichte 1991: 99).

It is important to note that on Fichte's account, the self ceases to be a substantial entity in the traditional sense (for example in the way Kant defined the subject as a thing-in-itself underlying empirical consciousness). With Fichte, the self becomes rather an activity (Tathandlung), a pure act of awareness. Moreover, this act of awareness has no other object than itself. Thus the self is its own self-intuition: it is the intuiting subject, the intuited object and the act of intuition all in one. As Frederick Neuhouser writes about Fichte's self-positing self: "[T]he existence of the I consists in nothing more than its awareness of itself... To be aware of oneself [...] is already to exist as an I, and to be an I consists in nothing beyond such self-awareness." (Neuhouser 1990: 109) As already noted, Fichte coined the term "self-positing" to designate this unity of self-consciousness and the existence of the self. For a correct understanding of this self-positing it is important to note that Fichte used the verb "to posit" to mean both "to affirm" and "to produce". Thus, in self-positing, the self not only affirms its own existence by being aware of it ("I exist"), it simultaneously produces that existence through this very act of affirmation (also see Tugendhat 1979: 63). In this sense the self is nothing but its own self-affirmation.

The self produces its own existence
like Escher's self-drawing hands.
This double meaning of Fichte's concept of self-positing is also noted by Frederick Beiser who writes: "This concept has two meanings. First, the I posits itself when it becomes conscious of itself, that is, when it becomes an object for itself. Second, the I posits itself when it constitutes or makes itself. Positing therefore contains an aspect of both knowing and doing, of perceiving and making. When I posit myself, I know myself; but I also make or create myself. In self-positing, self-knowing and self-making are intertwined: I know myself because I make myself; and I make myself because I know myself." (Beiser 2002: 281) What Fichte shows, then, is that we can understand self-consciousness only if we see it as ontologically self-grounding. This makes self-consciousness highly relevant when it comes to answering Leibniz's question. Hence my hypothesis: self-consciousness is the self-grounding ground of reality as such.

Hofstadter on the bootstrapping of self-consciousness
Note that the self-grounding structure of self-consciousness is not just a theoretical artifact concocted by 'obscure' German philosophers to meet some equally 'obscure' metaphysical need. In recent cognitive science the bootstrapping structure of self-consciousness has been a well-studied phenomenon, one that is commonly explained in terms of feedback processes in the brain.
A notable example of this is the work of Douglass Hofstadter, who has famously focused on self-referential structures of all kinds as offering the key to unraveling the "mystery of consciousness". Hofstadter coined the term "strange loops" to refer to such self-referential structures. In his description of self-consciousness as a strange loop, Hofstadter often sounds surprisingly similar to Fichte, as if he transposed the latter's idealist language of self-positing to the materialist language of cognitive science (see Žižek 2012: 715-737). Thus, commenting on the circular structure of self-consciousness, Hofstadter writes: "It is almost as if this slippery phenomenon called "self-consciousness" lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing." (Hofstadter 2007: xii) Note Hofstadter's reservation: "almost as if". What gets in the way of his full endorsement of the bootstrapping of self-consciousness is his scientific materialism, which forbids self-causation. Thus he takes the self-generating aspect of self-consciousness to be ultimately an illusion, a surface appearance produced by myriad micro-feedback processes in the brain, processes that obey the standard laws of physics: "The problem is that in a sense, an "I" is something created out of nothing. And since making something out of nothing is never possible, the alleged something turns out to be an illusion, in the end, but a very powerful one." (Hofstadter 2007: 292) As a scientific materialist, Hofstadter takes consciousness to be ultimately reducible to physical processes (the brain interacting with its environment). Hence his conclusion that the self-generating aspect of self-consciousness must be an illusion, because physical processes can never be absolutely self-causing.

The hard problem of consciousness
So is this the end of self-consciousness as a possible answer to Leibniz's question? Not quite. Here, I think, is where the famous "hard problem of consciousness" becomes all-important, i.e. the problem posed by the impossibility to explain consciousness entirely in physical terms. What this irreducibility of consciousness shows, I think, is that the self-producing structure of self-consciousness need not be illusory simply because it is ruled out by physics. In other words, the hard problem of consciousness leaves open the possibility that the ontological self-grounding of self-consciousness is genuine. Here I will simply presuppose the various arguments which have been given for the irreducibility of consciousness, because
developing and defending these arguments here will take us too far afield (for a general overview of these arguments, see Chalmers 1996). Nevertheless, to get a general sense of what these arguments are about, I will say a few words about one such argument, the famous "knowledge argument" which received its canonical formulation from Frank Jackson (1982). Earlier versions of this argument, however, had already been put forward by other philosophers from the analytic tradition, notably Bertrand Russell, whose particular rendering of the argument I will quote and discuss below. It testifies to Russell's particular genius that he was able to say in three lines what other philosophers say in pages.
Here is what he writes: "It is obvious that a man who can see knows things which a blind man cannot know; but a blind man can know the whole of physics. Thus the knowledge which other men have and he has not is not a part of physics." (Russell 1954: 389) In other words: even if a blind man knows all there is to know about the brain as a physical object, i.e. even if he has perfect scientific knowledge – a perfect physics – of the brain, there is still something left out, namely, what it is like for the seeing man to see. And we can generalize from this to conscious experience in general. Even if, to use Thomas Nagel's famous example, we have perfect physical knowledge of a bat's brain, we still do not know what it's like to be a bat, i.e. what the experience of a bat is like (Nagel 1974). Thus conscious experience is something over and above brain activity. Such an experience of what something is like is what philosophers call a quale (plural: qualia). Conscious experience consists of qualia, i.e. experiences of what it is like to sense, feel and think. Qualia constitute the irreducible aspect of consciousness, i.e. irreducible to physical reality.

Fichte and the intrinsic subjectivity of qualia
Why are qualia irreducible to brain states? According to one common analysis, the problem lies basically in the subjectivity of consciousness, the fact that it is first-person-dependent. On this analysis, qualia are always for a subject, and indeed only for this subject, given the fact that consciousness is inherently private, inaccessible to other subjects. How I experience redness, for example, is utterly unknowable to others. On this analysis, the hard problem of consciousness follows from the fact that this first-person-dependency is obviously missing in physical reality as described by science. Physical reality has a third-person mode of existence, it is observable for others as well (otherwise science as a public enterprise would be impossible). So the question becomes: how can the third-person realm of nature make the causal transition to the first-realm of conscious? How can the publicly observable reality described by physics give rise to essentially private experiences? There is, of course, no denying that consciousness somehow correlates causally with the brain: stimulate the brain and as a result consciousness changes. And obviously the correlation works the other way as well: a conscious exertion of the will usually results in limbs moving etc. But given the irreducibility of consciousness, we may not take this causal correlation as showing that consciousness is the brain or results from the brain's causality. Given this irreducibility, consciousness is something over and above the brain, and the relation between the two remains mysterious.

Why are qualia first-person dependent? In the philosophy of mind this remains largely a mystery, a brute fact about consciousness that defies further explanation. Note, however, that this subjectivity of consciousness follows automatically from Fichte's insight into the self-grounding nature of self-consciousness. As we have seen, Fichte shows that self-consciousness cannot be explained on the basis of a prior state where self-consciousness is lacking: self-consciousness can only be explained on the basis of itself. This principle, as Frederick Beiser points out, has important methodological consequences for the philosophy of mind: "In the methodological sense, the principle implies that any explanation of the mind must be in terms that could be given by the mind itself; in other words, we cannot understand the mind by accounting for it from some third-person standpoint, such as the laws of physics; rather we must interpret is from within [...]." (Beiser 2002: 246) If we accept Fichte's arguments for the self-grounding nature of self-consciousness, then the inherent subjectivity and irreducibility of qualia follow immediately. Qualia, we might say, are states of self-consciousness: they are what it is like to be self-conscious in different situations. Since self-consciousness can only be explained by itself, these states, too, cannot be explained in third-person terms. Hence the irreducibility of qualia. As Fichte writes: "all consciousness is determined by self-consciousness, that is, everything that occurs in consciousness is founded, given and introduced by the conditions of self-consciousness; and there is simply no ground whatever for it outside self-consciousness." (Fichte 1991: 50). This underscores the importance of Fichte's insights for contemporary philosophy of mind.

Baron von Münchhausen pulling him-
self from the swamp by his own hair.
Can self-consciousnss do the same?
Vicious circle or just the circularity of self-consciousness?
Skeptics will no doubt point out that the idea of ontological self-grounding remains paradoxical. How could anything, including self-consciousness, cause its own existence? Mustn't it already exist before it can act as the cause of anything, including its own existence? Doesn't there remain a paradoxical circularity here, which spoils the explanation? Here I am inclined to answer that this paradoxical circularity just is the circular structure of self-consciousness, its notorious self-reference and self-containment. Thus we could simply say: self-consciousness exists only because it is conscious of itself... period. We may find this circularity paradoxical, and we may not fully (or not all) understand its possibility, but that doesn't change the fact that this circularity nevertheless exists, namely, in each of us, in self-consciousness. It seems that the charge of vicious circularity against the idea of ontological self-grounding simply loses its force when we look at self-consciousness, for here we see this circularity actualized as a real self-referential activity, and thereby the circularity ceases to be vicious. To this, however, a skeptic might reply as follows: "If we can't explain the self-causing structure of self-consciousness any further, if we just have to accept it as an inexplicable given, then it's just a brute fact. And brute facts don't explain anything. Hence Leibniz's questions remains unanswered."

The inevitable 'brutishness' of the ultimate cause
In response to this, let us note that there is bound to remain some 'brutishness' in the ultimate explanation of existence, whatever it may be. For the ultimate cause is perforce something that cannot be explained in terms of prior causes, because there are none. This makes the ultimate cause, whatever it may be, very difficult to understand. Normally, after all, we make things intelligible by explaining them in terms of other things, that is, by stating their necessary and/or sufficient conditions. With the ultimate cause, however, this is impossible, simply because it cannot have any further conditions: it is by definition the unconditioned 'something' that conditions everything else. The only way in which it can be conditioned is by conditioning itself, that is, by being self-grounding. But for our normal way of understanding things, this self-grounding must always retain some level of unintelligibility, since it cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else. This seems to be unavoidable when we try to answer Leibniz's question.

Robert Nozick (1938-2002)
Nozick makes a closely related point when he argues that ontological self-grounding (or what he calls "explanatory self-subsumption") may be called a "brute fact" in two different senses – and in one sense justly so, but in the other sense not: "If a brute fact is something that cannot be explained by anything, then a self-subsuming principle isn't a brute fact [since it explains itself, PS]; but if a brute fact is something that cannot be explained by anything else, such a principle counts as a brute fact." (Nozick 1981: 120) In other words: if we can answer Leibniz's question by finding some primordial entity that explains its own existence, then – in one sense – this explanation does not invoke a brute fact. But in the other sense, even this entity is bound to remain a brute fact, because it cannot be explained in terms of anything else. Clearly, the latter kind of 'brutishness' is unavoidable. We might put this point by saying that 'a self-explanatory brute fact' is the most we can hope for when trying to answer Leibniz's question.

I think that, in light of this inherent limitation on our ability to understand the ultimate cause of reality, self-consciousness does an excellent job at being our best guess at what this ultimate cause amounts to. The important point to keep in mind is that self-consciousness has the right kind of circularity needed to make sense of ontological self-grounding. Self-consciousness exists only because it is conscious of itself; thus it bootstraps itself into existence. As Fichte showed, we cannot understand how self-consciousness is possible if we assume (as the reflection theory does) that the existence of the self precedes the awareness it has of itself. We must assume that the self only comes into existence through its self-awareness. If a critic would object to this that we really don't understand how self-consciousness can be ontologically self-grounding, that the explanatory circle remains mysterious, and that consequently the self-grounding capacity of self-consciousness remains a brute fact, then I would respond by pointing out the limitation elaborated above. That is to say: some amount of 'brutishness' is bound to remain in our understanding of the ultimate cause, whatever it may be. A 'self-explanatory brute fact' is the most we can hope for when it comes to Leibniz's question. And self-consciousness fits the job.

Self-grounding and non-temporal causation
Nevertheless, even if some 'brutishness' is unavoidable here, there is a final remark I wish to make to diminish the 'brute fact'-character of the self-grounding nature of self-consciousness. This concerns the reason why we normally balk at the circularity of self-causation. I think this has to do with the fact that most of the causal processes known to us are processes in time. And we usually assume that, as occurring in time, causes must always precede (be earlier than) their effects. Thus we think that self-causation is impossible, because if something were to be its own cause, it would have to exist before it existed – an obvious absurdity. I think, however, that we should be more careful here. Even if causation always takes place in time (which I doubt; see below), then this still does not mean that causes must always occur earlier than their effects. For
causation can also be instantaneous. Think, for example, of a locomotive pulling a train with perfect mechanical rigidity: the motion of the former will instantaneously causes the motion of the latter, such that these two processes happen simultaneously. Granting this possibility, do we still feel that self-causation is impossible? Obviously, if self-causation happens instantaneously, the self-caused entity does not have to exist before it existed.

But perhaps we should go even further and question the very assumption that causation always happens in time. Can't we make sense of non-temporal causality, i.e. causation outside of time? Just look at the laws of nature: they are not 'in time' like normal empirical objects are. The laws of nature always hold. In that sense they are eternal and outside of time. But they nevertheless have some kind of causal influence on the world in that they 'direct' all physical processes. Of course, all physical processes are in time, but the laws directing them are not. In that sense, non-temporal causation does seem to be a possibility. And if we grant this possibility, then the usual objection to self-causation – a self-causing entity must exist before it exists – loses its plausibility.

It is sometimes said that when we talk about non-temporal causality we are really talking about the logical grounding, i.e. the way a conclusion follows deductively from its premises or the way "4" follows from "2+2". Such logical and mathematical relations, after all, exist outside of time; they hold always, irrespective of when and by whom they are affirmed. Indeed, they do not have to by though by any empirical subject at all in order to be valid. Their validity is ideal in the Platonic sense. According to some philosophers and scientists, the ultimate cause of reality must be such a case of logical grounding, simply because that cause – being the cause of time as well – must be operative outside of time (see Holt 2013: 144). On such an account, the existence of reality becomes a conceptual necessity, following logically from the definition of what reality is: its existence would be implied by its essence. Maybe something like this holds for self-consciousness insofar as it is self-grounding. Note that if the existence of self-consciousness follows logically from its definition, we would have to say that self-consciousness exists eternally. In that case we would have a strong reason for believing in immortality.

Remaining questions
But if self-consciousness – because of its self-grounding nature – exists eternally, how then is it possible that we as self-conscious beings have emerged in time? There is something very problematic about the relation between self-consciousness as the self-grounding ground of existence on the one hand and us empirical selves on the other. For even if individual human self-consciousness turns out to have a self-grounding structure, then that obviously does not tell us much about the self-grounding ground of existence as such. Clearly, none of us has brought him-/herself or the universe into existence. As empirical individuals we are biologically conditioned, brought into existence by others. The self-grounding structure of self-consciousness may give us intuitive access to the kind of ontological self-grounding that can answer Leibniz's question, but to make full sense of this answer we have to generalize beyond ourselves. That is to say: we have to project self-consciousness to something that transcends us, the absolute, the very 'thing' that grounds existence as a whole, including ourselves.

What justifies this move? Where do we find the evidence that backs up this 'absolutization' of self-consciousness? Is it possible to conceive of the entire physical universe as existing only in or for some absolute self-consciousness? How to make sense of the mind-body relation within an absolute-idealist framework, where self-consciousness grounds even physical reality? And, finally, how does the self-grounding structure of individual human self-consciousness relate to the (as yet only hypothetical) absolute self-consciousness? If the latter is the ultimate self-grounding ground of existence, does that mean that – insofar as we are its effects – our individual self-consciousnesses are not truly self-grounding after all? Or can it be argued that individual self-consciousness is intrinsic to the absolute, such that the latter becomes self-aware only through the multiple self-consciousnesses of empirical individuals? These are some of the questions that have to be answered if a Fichtean answer to Leibniz's question is to make sense.

-Beiser, Frederick C. (2002), German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801. Harvard University Press: Cambridge Mass. and London.
-Chalmers, David J. (1996), The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford.  
-Fichte, J.G. (1991), Science of Knowledge with the First and Second Introductions. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Henrich, Dieter (1982), "Fichte's original insight," in: Christensen. D.E. (ed.), Contemporary German Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 15-53. The Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park and London.

-Hofstadter, Douglas (2007), I Am A Strange Loop. Basic Books: New York.
-Holt, Jim (2013), Why Does The World Exist? One Man's Quest for the Big Answer. Profile Books: London.
-Nagel, T. (1974), "What is it like to be a bat?", in: Philosophical Review 79: pp. 435-450.
-Neuhouser, Frederick (1990), Fichte's Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Nozick, Robert (1981), Philosophical Explanations. Belknap Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
-Russell, Bertrand (1954), The Analysis of Matter.
George Allen & Unwin: London.
-Tugendhat, Ernst (1979),
Selbstbewusstsein und Selbstbestimmung: Sprachanalytische Interpretationen. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main.
-Žižek, Slavoj (2012), Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Verso: London and New York.


  1. Brilliant essay!Has great purport for the "self and others" and moral debate.Can't read German,but from Copleston's offering of Fichte,I feel Fichte was a sublime writer of aesthetical philosophical architecture!Thank you for your paper!

    1. You are welcome. Thank you for your nice comment!

  2. I just started studying Fichte's writings, so thanks for sharing