What are the Minimal Conditions for Human Selfhood?

[Originally published on 13 November 2013.  This summarizes some of the main points of my PhD Thesis]

Have you ever wondered what makes up your sense of self?  One popular interpretation is based on the narratives we tell about ourselves and others tell about us.  This ‘narrative self,’ unsurprisingly, has a strong basis in language use.  Another recent trend to emerge is simply to declare the self an ‘illusion.’

What I have been interested in, is to go back and get at the core or foundation of what makes up ‘the Self’ – the most minimal element.  In my view, those who declare it an illusion are not so much providing an explanation, but just explaining it away.  As for the advocates for a ‘narrative self,’ I agree that an autobiographical and narrative element are vital to a mature, developed and robust sense of human self, however, I think there is something which lies behind the narrative self, something which lays the foundation for it, and once the narrative self emerges, this ‘minimal’ self remains with it, continually influencing it throughout our life.

The minimal self is the experiential subject.  The minimal self is the subjectivity of experience; it is the sense of first-person mineness which our experiential life contains. This phenomenological mineness is formed through a bodily and dynamic integration of sensorimotor coupling and affective experience. The data I use to support this draws on the primal and evolutionary basic affects (i.e. moods, feelings, and emotions) that all animals possess prior to any higher-level – or second-order – cognitive development and language use. It also draws on infant development studies and how they make sense of their world.

I want to argue that the minimal conditions of self are based in bodily movement.  Although this is now changing, for a long time the things that were emphasized as vital to selfhood were language use, and rational thought (which allow us to create the narrative stories we tell about ourselves and others). But there is something deeper.  New research is showing that: (i) Affects underly and colour our rational thinking.  (ii) Bodily movement seems to underly verbal lanuage use.  (iii) Affects and Bodily movement are interwtined.  Affects are based in Kinaesthetics (Kinaesthesia is the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation which arises from stimuli within the body), the felt process of bodily movement and engagement with the environment.

The Minimal Kinasethetic Self is at its most basic, the experiential subject.  A minimal sense of self exists whenever there is self-awareness (although much of this is pre-reflective, and lies behind our conscious awareness).  How does this self-awareness emerge?  It is formed by a bodily and dynamic integration of three components: the sensorimotor, spatial perspectivity, and affective experience.  It is, ontologically speaking, the lived body in enactive engagement with the environment.

The minimal self is the simplest structure that can exist which we can call a self. It anchors and forms the foundation for the later ‘narrative’ self, which emerges from it and which is continually influenced by it. The minimal form of selfhood is necessary but not sufficient for more complex forms of selfhood (that is, a ‘full’ or ‘robust’ self would include both the minimal self and the narrative self).  What does this mean and what is the supporting evidence?

Infant Development.  A first line of evidence comes from work done by psychobiolgists, developmental psychologists, and infant and child psychologists (e.g. Daniel Stern, Colwyn Trevarthen, Vasudevi Reddy). Studying human development from its time within the womb, to the first few years of life, have shown a developmental history which is based in affective attunement with the caregiver and a bodily exploration of its immediate environment which lays the bodily/affective foundation for later self development.

Referring to infants and our evolutionary ancestors as ‘pre-lingusitic’ or ‘proto-lingusitic’ shows a strong linguistic bias. The most important element of selfhood emerges through bodily affects produced in the processes of bodily movement (kinaesthetics). We should probably refer to our language self (or narrative self – which comes later) as ‘post-kinetic’ and make body and affects primary and language secondary. We are bodily affective beings first and language users second.

Mirror Neurons.  A second line of evidence comes from work done with mirror neurons (see Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia).  It needs to be pointed out that our understanding of mirror neurons is quite early at this point, so we need to be wary of relying too much on them for an explanation.  But at a minimum, it seems that mirror neurons can provide one of the explanatory elements for how the meaning of people’s movement is understood and interpreted by us.

Gesturing.  Developmental psychologists (such as Susan Goldin-Meadow) who study gesturing, with children, the blind, and the deaf, are providing evidence that our use of verbal language use has its basis and origins in gesturing and bodily movement.  Restrict bodily movement and development, and you will impair the person’s ability to express themselves.

Evolutionary Origins of Affects.  Affects are involved in brain processes which make up our primary sense of self.  This primary self gets elaborated upon at higher levels of cognition.  Different evolutionary layers exist in the brain (eg. the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, etc).  Affective neuroscience (see work by Jaak Panksepp) and evolutionary studies are showing us that there are primal, action-based emotions (e.g. seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic, play), which are triggered, moulded, and refined by our life experiences.  This research also shows that these primal, action-based affects are not something simply human-based, but are something we have in common with our primate and mammalian cousins.  These primal affects emerge through and with movement (e.g. ‘seeking’ involves movement that deals with our appetitive desires, such as our exploration for food; it reflects our goal-directed urges.  And ‘fear’ is manifested with body tenseness and sometimes shaking, or shivering).

Affects as Creating our Relationship to the World.

If we examine the phrase ‘the feeling of being…’ (as philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe has done), we find that the everyday usage of this term is usually completed by words and phrases such as: ‘flawed and diminished’, ‘lost’, ‘in control’, ‘empty’, ‘watched’, ‘there’, ‘abandoned’, etc.  These descriptions reflect our relationship with the world – the different ways in which the world may appear familiar/unfamiliar, real/unreal, or disant/close.  Our intentional states, one could argue, always incorporate a feeling of some kind that alters how the world and its objects appear to as meaningful or valuable.

If we look at a sufferer of severe depression, we see that they experience:

(i) A shift in bodily feeling.  A feeling of meaninglessess may ‘take up bodily occupancy in the eyelids,’ or the the heart and lungs ‘hurt’ and there is a ‘contraction of muscles involuntarily.’

(ii) Objects and situations appear different to them.  They may describe a detachment from the ‘nourishing earth.’  Happenings in the past become ‘intolerable,’ as well as all ‘the moments to come’ in the future.  Past situations are reinterpreted, and future possibilities take on a completely different character.

(iii) The person’s relationship with the world takes on a different tone.  Life itself becomes ‘meaningless.’  One’s outlook on life and the world is viewed as ‘tumbleweed’ – a weed blown about without control by the chance character of the wind – that ‘thrives on thin air.’  [Quotes taken from Andrew Solomon’s book ‘The Noonday Demon’]

Consciousness Studies.  A couple different theories of consiousness can explain how this might work:

1. Dual-Process Theory of Consciousness (see work by Keith Frankish, Peter Carruthers, Jonathan B.T. Evans).  This theory makes a distinction between what is called ‘System 1’, which encompasses an evolutionarily old, pre-relective intuitive system, and ‘System 2’, which is evolutionarily recent, conscious, reflective, and uniquely human.

2. Nested Neural Hierarchy (see Todd Feinberg).  This breaks things down into three hierarchically arranged interrelated systems: the ‘interoself,’ which deals with the homeostatic and self-preservative functions, the ‘exterosensorimotor system,’ which deals with responsiveness to the external environment, and the ‘integrative self system,’ which assimilates and mediates the organisms internal with the external environment.

All this empirical data, I think can be pulled together and united under two research paradigms – Phenomenology and Enactivism.

Phenomenology.  Phenomenology had its modern development in the early-to-mid 20th century through the work of the philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. Phenomenology is the collection of the situations which we find ourselves involved.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Most of the time this goes un-noticed, or we take it for granted. Phenomenology seeks to analyze this.  Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves in our consciousness, along with its shape and structure (as was briefly done above regarding the feeling of being severely depressed). It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.  One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world; we are agents already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

Phenomenology regarding the minimal self emphasizes the sense of givenness, ownership, and mineness that accompanies our experiences.  As Dan Zahavi says “The mineness is not something attended to, it simply figures as a subtle background presence” (Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 124).  The minimal sense of self does not stand apart from, or above our experience, the mineness experienced is pre-reflective, it lies before any attempt on our part to consider, analyze, or reflect upon what our experience is.

Enactivism.  Evan Thompson, one of the main proponents of enactivism, has proposed the following ideas that serve to characterize the view, some of these points are:

1. Living organisms “are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and…enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains…and their own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity.”

2. “[C]ognition is the exercise of skilful know-how in situated and embodied action.”

3. “[A] cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain” (Thompson, Mind in Life, 13).

Enactivism says there is a sensorimotor coupling that occurs between us and the environment in a way which modulates the dynamic patterns of our self development. The laying down of these basic patterns helps make us who we are – by giving rise to the phenomenological mineness highlighted above.  The infant studies I looked at (amongst other areas) fit within an enactive approach quite well, as we see infants, both on their own and with others developing and maintaining meaning and continuity while they also generate new and novel elements of meaningful activity.

Where phenomenology attempts to analyze the ‘structures of experience’, but falls short in explaining what those structures are or look like, I think enactivism provides a way to articulate what those phenomenological structures are.

This theory of minimal self has ethical implications as well, for if we consider someone who has extreme Alzheimer’s, and they lose *all* narrative access to their own stories of self, friends and family (i.e. they no longer remember who they are or anyone else), they may still have a minimal self, in that their basic gestures, mannerisms, posture, basic like/dislike for a certain food, etc, may remain.

Additionally, consider someone in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Their higher level functioning is gone. They no longer have higher level, narrative, cognitive thoughts at all. If you ‘pull the plug’ on them, they won’t ‘think’ anything as they die, yet they might still feel the basic, primal feeling of starving to death as the feeding tube is pulled out and their body fades away. They may no longer be a ‘full’ self or person, but they might still possess a ‘minimal’ self. And I suppose now we would have to wonder what that means – if anything – when it comes to the ethical dilemmas of a PVS patient, or a person with the worst case Alzheimer’s. Higher order language and thought is gone, but feelings and moods may still exist – a sense of ‘mineness’, perhaps. How much value should we put on this?  Does this warrant a change in our practices?

I list a few of the useful books that one could examine to get a clearer grasp on these ideas below.

Shaun Gallagher (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the Self

Shaun Gallagher ‘How the Body Shapes the Mind’

Dan Zahavi ‘Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective’

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone ‘The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader’

Daniel N. Stern ‘Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development’

Evan Thompson ‘Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and The Sciences of Mind’

Matthew Ratcliffe ‘Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry, and the Sense of Reality

What is Phenomenology?

[Originally published 26 February, 2013]

Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. The lifeworld is a core concept in phenomenology. It is the collection of all the situations in which we find ourselves involved. It is our lived world as it opens up for us in all its possibilities.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Phenomenology seeks to analyze the meaningful background for all our possible and actual actions. Most of the time this lifeworld goes un-noticed, or is taken for granted by us. Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves to our consciousness, along with its shape and structure. It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.

One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world. Instead of examining experiences as they are empirically perceived as some type of ‘real fact,’ it is concerned with examining the pure essences of experience as they are intuitively given to us in their generality. It seeks to describe the experience of meaning. There is no ‘first fact’ which is preceded by a series of other facts. Instead, our instances of consciousness are already situated in a specific circumstance. There is an emphasis on ‘intentionality’ – all of our experiences are of or about some object or state of affairs. We as agents are already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

This approach does not support the reductionistic tendencies we see in some sciences. Instead of being concerned with how things in reality actually are, it is instead focused on how we experience things in consciousness. Consciousness is our window onto the world.  All the knowledge we possess comes to us through consciousness. This is why phenomenologists give primacy to this, over how things ‘actually are in reality.’ Since, epistemologically speaking, our conscious perspective comes first, we need to be concerned about the condition of our perspectival window onto the world first, before we can attempt to understand what is outside this window.

Consider the following ‘naturalistic’ explanation of the phenomenal world, and compare it with the phenomenological description just below. First, ponder this quote from the philosopher W.V.O. Quine (from the ‘Ways of Paradox’):

“I am a physical object sitting in a physical world.  Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surface.  Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips.  I strike back, emanating concentric air waves.  These waves take the form of a torrent of discourse about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.”

Now compare that with this piece from Edmund Husserl’s Ideas:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time.  I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it.  By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.  Animate beings too – human beings, let us say – are immediately there for me: I look up; I see them; I hear their approach; I grasp their hands; talking with them I understand immediately what they mean and think, what feelings stir within them, what they wish or will.”

Edmund Husserl, instead of trying to use empirical methods, attempted to use a ‘transcendental attitude’ and implement a ‘transcendental reduction.’ He sought out the conditions of possbility for knowledge. Martin Heidegger thought that what shows itself to us is not necessarily the things in consciousness, but to some degree Being itself. He engaged in an examination of the question of the meaning of Being – fundamental ontology – via the manner in which it appears – or is hidden – to us in our experience. There is a high degree of hermeneutics (or interpretation) in phenomenology as practiced by Heiddeger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty shifted the approach and attempted to integrate phenomenology with psychology and neurology, with an emphasis on the body and our embodied existence. He drew heavily on experimental case studies to understand more clearly phenomenological experience.  He tried to bring phenomenology into the sciences to show how life is lived. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tied phenomenology in with existentialism, and Karl Jaspers put it to work in psychiatry. It’s incorporation into guiding and influencing scientific approaches, analysis, and practice, have resulted in the creation of Existential Phenomenological Counselling and Daseinanalysis, and the influence of Ecological-Embodied-Enactive Cognition in recent Cogntive Science.

Whereas early on Husserl was sceptical of phenomenology becoming ‘naturalized,’ it has progressed much since, and in recent years there have been several attempts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology. Nowadays there are three main approaches. One is ‘formalized’ phenomenology, where the phenomenological analysis of lived experience that has been done is translated into a formal (almost mathematized) language that allows areas like psychology to improve their ability to formulate experienced intersubjective shared meaning. ‘Neurophenomenology’ utilizes dynamic systems theory to try and show that we can’t just rely on explanations that are based on purely mechanical interactions of parts in isolated moments of time. Genuine interaction is non-linear, and is based on reciprocal, dynamic interaction. There is a process of self-organization and sense-making based on our brain/body/environment coupling together. To do neurophenomenology practicioners need to be trained in phenomenological methods. Lastly, we have what is called ‘front-loaded’ phenomenology. Instead of beginning with empirical results (such as ‘formalized’ phenomenology), or with training subjects (as is done in ‘neurophenomenology), front-loaded phenomenology begins with the specific design of experiments based on the insights of phenomenology.

[The above discussion drew heavily from the following books (shown below): ‘Phenomenology’, by Shaun Gallagher.  ‘Understanding Phenomenology’, by David R. Cerbone.  ‘Introduction to Phenomenology’, by Dermot Moran.]