Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective

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The article briefly describes the relatively young field of cognitive science dedicated to the research of lived human experience — the so-called phenomenological inquiry or first-person research. With the help of an example phenomenology of thinking , the article attempts to illustrate the importance of systematic study of experience and addresses some open questions emerging from such an enterprise.

Key words: phenomenological inquiry , first-person perspective , experience , thoughts. Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems 11 4 : — The aim of the article is twofold. First, it aims to overview current empirical methods in the area of first-person research.


Such a review cannot overlook epistemological and ontological issues, but must at the same time keep in mind methodological and almost technical nature of the problem. Empirical experience research is positioned within the frame of cognitive science and the overview of approaches and techniques of empirical phenomenology is presented, together with epistemological considerations. The second aim of the paper is concerned with the future of research in the discussed area.

It suggests that in-depth, existentially liable introspection and self-inquiry should be considered as serious scientific research tools. Key words: empirical phenomenology , first-person methods , cognitive science , mindfulness. The author discusses the problem of integration of first- and third-person approaches in studying the human mind.

She critically evaluates and compares various methodologies for studying and explaining conscious experience. Common strategies that apply reductive explanation seem to be unsatisfied for explaining experience and its subjective character. There were attempts to explain experience from the first-person point of view introspectionism, philosophical phenomenology but the results were not intersubjectively verifiable. Dennett proposed heterophenomenology as a scientifically viable alternative which supposed to bridge the gap between first- and third-person perspectives. The author critically evaluates his proposal and compares it to contemporary attempts to provide first-person methods.

Any investigation of the self, Zahavi argues, must take the first person perspective seriously and focus on the experiential givenness of the self. This approach is not without precedent.

Many phenomenologists have engaged the question of self by focusing on its experiential givenness and by taking the first-person perspective seriously. Philosophical phenomenology -- as developed by Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others -- not only addresses crucial issues absent from current debates over consciousness but also provides a conceptual framework for understanding subjectivity. Given some of the recent developments in cognitive science and analytical philosophy of mind, along with the upsurge of theoretical and empirical interest in the subjective or phenomenal dimension of consciousness, it is almost impossible to ignore the analyses of consciousness that phenomenology can provide.

  1. A Philosophical Perspective on the Relation between Cortical Midline Structures and the Self.
  2. Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective.
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For this reason, Zahavi aims to use phenomenological analyses to clarify issues of central importance to philosophy of mind, cognitive science, developmental psychology and psychiatry. By engaging in a dialogue with other philosophical and empirical positions, says Zahavi, phenomenology can demonstrate its vitality and contemporary relevance. The first chapter provides a preliminary outline of a phenomenological account of the relation between consciousness and self-awareness.

Objective vs. subjective composition

In this chapter Zahavi mainly focuses on Sartre's concept of pre-reflective self-awareness and on his claim that a primitive or minimal type of self-awareness as such characterizes the experiential dimension. After contrasting Sartre's view first with a number of competing definitions of self-awareness found in developmental psychology, social philosophy and philosophy of language he then gives an account of a prevalent version of the higher-order theory of consciousness, according to which the difference between a conscious and non-conscious mental state rests on the presence or absence of a relevant meta-mental state.

Zahavi concludes the chapter by discussing whether higher-order theories can adequately account for the first-person perspective, or whether their attempt to do so gives rise to an infinite regress.

Subjectivity and Selfhood

Zahavi, after setting the scene in the introductory first chapter, continues the discussion of the phenomenological analyses of the relation between self, consciousness, and self-consciousness in more detail in the next three chapters. He particularly focuses on Husserl's initial analysis of consciousness in Logische Untersuchungen chapter 2 , on his later analysis of time-consciousness chapter 3 , and on Heidegger's discussion of whether reflection can provide us with a reliable access to the experiential dimension chapter 4.

After the detailed analyses in chapters , the central fifth chapter of the book contains an extensive discussion of subjectivity and selfhood. Zahavi begins the chapter by discussing some classical and contemporary arguments in favor a non-egological theory of consciousness and then continues with a detailed analysis of two different notions of self: 1 the self as a narrative construction and 2 the self as an experiential dimension.

Zahavi favors the experiential approach, which is primarily defended by Edmund Husserl and Michel Henry who insist that an investigation of the self must necessarily involve the first-person perspective, and argues that the experiential notion of a core or minimal self is both more fundamental than, and a presupposition of, the narrative self.

He concludes the chapter by discussing some of the empirical implications of this conclusion, in particular its relevance for our understanding of the disorders of self, encountered in neurological and psychiatric afflictions. The sixth chapter provides a systematic outline of the different phenomenological approaches to intersubjectivity such as Scheler, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, and Sartre, thereby allowing for a nuanced perspective on the link between selfhood and otherness.

The point of departure is Scheler's criticism of the argument from analogy. Our understanding of how we come to experience others as minded bodies must include a correct appreciation of how we come to experience ourselves as embodied minds. This observation, however, which is crucial to the discussion of the theory of mind in chapter 7, is only the beginning. Much more is at stake in the phenomenological analyses than simply a "solution" to the "traditional" problem of other minds.

Subjectivity And Selfhood Investigating The First Person Perspective

According to the phenomenologists, intersubjectivity does not merely concern concrete face-to-face encounters between individuals; rather a treatment of intersubjectivity requires a simultaneous analysis of the relationship between subjectivity and the world. In the concluding seventh chapter, Zahavi addresses the problem of selfhood and self-awareness by discussing the validity of the claim that the experience of minded beings be it oneself or others requires a theory of mind. Drawing on insights and results obtained in the previous chapters, in particular the discussions of higher-order theories, of pre-reflective self-awareness, of self-disorders in schizophrenia, and of embodied intersubjectivity, and supplementing these with empirical findings from contemporary developmental psychology concerning infantile experience of self and other, Zahavi argues here that the theory-theory of mind is mistaken when it claims that a theoretical knowledge constitutes the core of what we call upon when we understand ourselves and others.

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A Phenomenological Investigation. Dan Zahavi. Taking on recent discussions within both analytical philosophy Shoemaker, Castaneda, Nagel and contemporary German philosophy Henrich, Frank, Tugendhat , Zahavi argues that the phenomenological tradition has much more to offer when it comes to the problem of self-awareness than is normally assumed.