Inventing the Self


September 14th, 2013 by Jason Scaglione · 1 Comment

I’m impressed by how nuanced Antonio Damasio’s presentation of consciousness is in these writings. I must admit to expectations of a coarse materialism or scientific literalism—and I am happily corrected. I have only just progressed into his new book, but something interesting came up while reading the assigned chapter from The Feeling of What Happens that I’d like to use for my post.

This week has been especially busy for me, so at one point my girlfriend offered to read aloud to me while I finished up some chores around the apartment. She soon had begun this passage:

You are looking at this page, reading the text and constructing the meaning of my words as you go along. But concern with text and meaning hardly describes all that goes on in your mind. In parallel with representing the printed words and displaying the conceptual knowledge required to understand what I wrote, your mind also displays something else, something sufficient to indicate, moment by moment, that you rather than anyone else are doing the reading and the understanding of the text. [p10; bold added]

And this feels not quite right in the moment. To be sure, each of us has our own private experience of consciousness: her reading/representing/understanding and my hearing/representing/understanding. But the sense of ownership seems somehow in between us. We are both involved in a relation to these symbols… Oh I’m sorry, I tell her; I interrupted. I let her finish.

The sensory images of what you perceive externally, and the related images you recall, occupy most of the scope of your mind, but not all of it. Besides those images there is also this other presence that signifies you, as observer of the things imaged, owner of the things imaged, potential actor on the things imaged. There is a presence of you in a particular relationship with some object. [p10; bold added]

I generally do my best to hold awareness close to the present moment—focus down a stimulus, clarify my consciousness of that stimulus, and observe any identification with that consciousness. I am loving Damasio’s explication because it nestles right up with this recursive subject–object relationship, and as a scientist he offers such refreshingly substantial grounds for his musings.

But even if Damasio laid it all out—literally figured out how we are conscious individuals—there would be more to tell. We are not just conscious and therefore necessarily conscious of, but we are conscious together. We will come into class on Wednesday—individuated, separate—and fully attempt to share consciousness with one another by constructing external objects to which we all might relate. Is it accurate to describe the experience of such conversation or reflection as just the coeval creation of x personal consciousnesses, each creating for itself an external object to which it can relate? Do we hold the same object between us: a single locus supporting our individuated experience? Or do we truly experience together, and support as a collective some higher order consciousness, altogether above us as individuals but inextricably bound up with our individuality?

Could we know if it’s one way or another anyway?

Hm. Hah, I’ll keep reading and look forward to Wednesday.


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1 response so far ↓

  • Jason Tougaw (he/him/his) // Sep 18th 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Your excellent description sounds a little like what Susan Blackmore asks her audience to do: “I generally do my best to hold awareness close to the present moment—focus down a stimulus, clarify my consciousness of that stimulus, and observe any identification with that consciousness. ”

    But you call this a recursive process, while she uses more dramatic phrasing: “self is an illusion.” Implicitly, I think the last half of your post speaks to Kristina’s: I’d be curious to hear how you’d respond to her critique of Blackmore.

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