Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 20 January 2007

Reflective self-consciousness & temporality

Husserl claims that we actually do perceive melodies in opposition to an earlier view of Brentano, viz., that we construct or reconstruct such unities out of a synthesis of mental acts (e.g., perception of the current note plus memoryof the past notes). This is possible only because consciousness is so structured to allow for this temporal presentation.

The temporal (retentional-impressional-protentional) structure of consciousness not only allows for the experience of temporally extended objects or intentional contents, but also entails the self-manifestation of consciousness, that is, its pre-reflective self-awareness. The retention of past notes of the melody is accomplished, not by a “real” or literal re-presentation of the notes (as if I were hearing them a second time and simultaneously with the current note), but by a retention of my just past experience of the melody. That is, the retentional structure of consciousness captures the just past qualities of intentional content only by capturing the just past experience of that intentional consciousness. This means that there is a primary and simultaneous self-awareness (an awareness of my own identity in the ongoing flow of experience) that is implicit in my experience of intentional content. At the same time that I am aware of a melody, for example, I am co-aware of my ongoing experience of the melody through the retentional structure of that very experience – and this just is the pre-reflective self-awareness of experience (cf. Zahavi 2003).

The limitations of reflective self-consciousness – that in reflection there is always something about myself that evades my reflective grasp, and that I am not completely transparent to myself – suggests that self-consciousness reveals that there is more than can be grasped. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, our temporal existence is both a condition for and an obstacle to our self-comprehension. Temporality contains an internal fracture that permits us to return to our past experiences in order to investigate them reflectively, but this very fracture also prevents us from fully coinciding with ourselves. There will always remain a difference between the lived and the understood (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 76, 397, 399, 460). Self-consciousness provides us with the sense that we are always already in play. This leads some phenomenologists to note that we are born (or “thrown” into the world) and not self-generated. We are caught up in a life that is in excess of our full comprehension (Heidegger 1986). There is always something about ourselves that we cannot fully capture in self-conscious reflection.

If reflective self-consciousness is limited in this way, this does not relieve us of a certain responsibility to exercise it. Indeed, reflective self-consciousness is a necessary condition for moral self-responsibility, as Husserl points out.

We take as our point of departure the essential ability for self-consciousness in the full sense of personal self-inspection (inspectio sui), and the ability that is based on this for taking up positions that are reflectively directed back on oneself and one’s own life, on personal acts of self-knowledge, self-evaluation, and practical acts of self-determination, self-willing, and self-formation. (Husserl 1988, 23).

Self-consciousness is, therefore, not epiphenomenal. Our ability to make reflective judgments about our own beliefs and desires also allows us to modify them.

Much of what we have said about self-consciousness may still seem overly mentalistic. It is important to note that for phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, pre-reflective self-awareness is both embodied and embedded in the world. The first-person point of view on the world is never a view from nowhere; it is always defined by the situation of the perceiver’s body, which concerns not simply location and posture, but action in pragmatic contexts and interaction with other people. The claim is not simply that the perceiver/actor is objectively embodied, but that the body is in some fashion self-given in the perception or action. It has become customary to distinguish the pre-reflective body-awareness that accompanies and shapes every spatial experience, from the reflective consciousness of the body. To capture this difference, Husserl introduced a terminological distinction between Leib and Körper, that is, between the pre-reflectively lived body, i.e., the body as an embodied first-person perspective, and the subsequent thematic experience of the body as an object (Husserl 1973a, 57).

The body provides not only the egocentric spatial framework for orientation towards the world, but also the constitutive contribution of its mobility. Perception does not involve a passive reception, but an active exploration of the environment. Husserl calls attention to the importance of bodily movements (the movements of the eye, manipulations by the hand, the locomotion of the body, etc.) for the experience of space and spatial objects. He further claims that perception is correlated to and accompanied by proprioceptive-kinaesthetic self-sensation or self-affection (Husserl 1973c). Every visual or tactile appearance is given in correlation to a kinaesthetic experience. When I touch a shaped surface, it is given in conjunction with a sensation of finger movements. When I watch the flight of a bird, the moving bird is given in conjunction with the kinaesthetic sensations of eye movement. Such kinaesthetic activation during perception produces an implicit and pervasive reference to one’s own body. This is the basis for a bodily self-awareness that provides a framework for organizing perception. The implicit self-awareness of the actual and possible movements of my body helps shape the experience that I have of the world. To be clear, however, bodily self-awareness is not an awareness of the body in isolation from the world; it is embedded in action and perception. We do not first become aware of the body and subsequently use it to investigate the world. The world is given to us as bodily investigated, and the body is revealed to us in our exploration of the world. Primarily, the body attains self-awareness in action (or disposition to action) when it relates to something, uses something, or moves through the world.

6. Conclusion

The notion of self-consciousness has been the subject of a rich and complex analysis in the phenomenological tradition. By ignoring that tradition, contemporary systematic work on the issue may miss out on important insights that in the best of circumstances end up being rediscovered decades or centuries later. The recognition of the existence of a primitive form of pre-reflective self-consciousness is an important starting point for an understanding of more elaborate forms of self-consciousness that are concept- and language-dependent. Phenomenological analyses show these processes to be more than purely mental or cognitive events since they integrally involve embodiment and intersubjective dimensions.


Gallagher, Shaun, Zahavi, Dan, “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =




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