"Waiting for the Self "


Jesse Prinz


According to one popular Cartesian view, there is a sense of self that accompanies every conscious experience. I will challenge this idea and argue that conscious experiences are, in an important sense, selfless. Following recent work in neuroscience, I acknowledge that there is a capacity to anticipate what will happen in our minds and bodies at each time step, which gives us a sense of authorship. But this is only consciously felt when things go wrong (we feel a lack of self). This thin sense of authorship helps us recognize when we are not feeling ourselves, but there is no thing, the self, that we fail to feel in such cases. In addition to authorship, there is a sense of ownership, but this, again, is not positively felt; it is at best inferred from, among other things, the perspectival nature of sensory experience, as when we recall a biographical episode (compare recalling a movie). Ownership is more about being there than me-ing there. Less experiential notions of selfhood, such as memories or self-concepts, can be brought into experience, but aren't there in the ordinary case, and they take on a sense of me-ness only in the minimal ways already mentioned (e.g., ownership of memories, authorship of values). So, like Godot, if we wait for a more substantive sense of self in consciousness, it will never come. Self is only, and ironically, strongly felt in its absence, and a minimal sense of self, which is not distinguishable from sensory experience, is always already there.