What is Self-Consciousness?

The Birth of Self-Consciousness

To a large extent, Immortal is a story about self-consciousness and how it arises, as well as the moral implications arising from self-consciousness.

I started to become interested in the question of self-consciousness after the birth of my first child. For almost a year he wouldn’t recognise his reflection in the mirror, and, just like a cat, he’d lose interest in what he found there two seconds later. For almost a year he would cry whenever he did not get immediately what he wanted­, such as a toy that was placed too high for him to reach. He cried when I or his mother left the room; as soon as he could not see us, it was as though we had walked off the stage of existence.

But a day came when he lingered in front of the mirror, mesmerised by what he saw, and when he stopped crying for things out of reach or out of sight. I think that must have been the birth of his sense of self, his self-awareness.

But why?

With the example of the mirror, my son probably discovered that the thing reflected back to him was him. He moved his arms, and the reflection responded. And with the example of crying, he must have realised that the out-of-reach toy and the temporarily absent were separate from him, with an objectivity all their own, over which he could not assert himself. In other words, this was the moment, to my mind, when he recognised the world around him was no longer just an extension of himself, but independent of him and beyond his control. From that realisation, he understood that he, too, was distinct from everything else around him.

I’m not alone in thinking this. In fact, it turns out that recognising the objectivity of the world­ (that is, the world as an object external to oneself) as a precondition for self-consciousness has the support of some pretty impressive philosophers. They argue that without the world around us, we could never arrive at an understanding of ourselves as selves.


As far as I can make out, this idea finds its origins in Aristotle’s philosophy, though he probably borrowed and developed it from somewhere. He wrote that ‘a person must, while perceiving any thing, also perceive their own existence.’ So, consciousness entails self-consciousness. You can have no awareness of yourself if you have no awareness of the external world. The objective world brings about in you the recognition that you are different and separate from it—it triggers within you the birth of your selfhood.

It must be quite a shock to the system, mustn’t it, learning that you and the world are not the same thing. You spent your first year on earth screaming for milk and were instantly served it. You cried for a cuddle and suddenly a pair of arms were around you. It was as though all you had to do was make a noise and your distress was instantly placated, just as easily as alleviating an itch with your own fingers. No wonder we start this life thinking that the world is just an extension of our own bodies and wills.

Realising that the world is separate from you comes with an advantage I suppose. You learn that if you throw an egg at the wall, it lands and breaks and causes a mess. You learn that if you press that red button, lots of interesting images appear on a screen in the front room. Awesome. You have control over the external world, and you can determine what happens in it.

But it’s also a bit of a disappointment too, knowing that your control over the world is only ever very limited, transient and fairly insignificant. The more you learn of the world’s size, of its complexities, the more you understand your own utterly helpless position in it. Suddenly, a part of you (the unconscious part) realises that actually, things were better off when you had no awareness of yourself as something different from the external world. Sure, you might be living a lie, but if you had no self-awareness, you wouldn’t be any the wiser, right? Maybe it’s better to live in the bliss of ignorance than the suffering which the self-conscious mind endures.

Jacques Lacan, a twentieth century philosopher, called this moment of self-separation ‘lack’, an unconscious acceptance of one’s eternal severance from the world. This is first broached when the child understands that his mother is separate from him; that she can withhold things he wants, that she can do things that hurt him. It must be pretty traumatic. The psychological separation that occurs with self-consciousness goes hand in hand with the physical separation that takes place when the umbilical cord with your mother is cut. You can’t substitute it. You can’t replace it. You will always be severed from her, and from that lovely, protective womb within which you’ve spent the last nine months relaxing.

In Immortal, I tried to capture this sense of abandonment and severance from the world with the character of Aeson Balleth, who wishes in many ways to return to the unconscious bliss he used to experience with his user. Like a conscious (but not self-conscious) baby, he never had to worry about his life and the life of those around him, because he never thought of himself as something with an autonomous identity different from the world. He was merely an extension of the user who possessed him. Life was much simpler.

Bad Faith

This ontological discovery gives birth to a moral conundrum. Now that you understand you are free to act within the world any way you want, you are also responsible for your life, which means being responsible for things that happen in it. You are the author of your own destiny, of your own happiness, of your victories as well as your failures. That’s pretty scary. Eric Fromm called it ‘the fear of freedom,’ and when you think about it, freedom is pretty frightening. After all, it’s easy to sit there and blame other people for the way your life has turned out; it’s easy to convince yourself you have no choice and no say. You seduce yourself into thinking that you are a slave to circumstances not of your making. Nietzsche called this ‘bad faith,’ which it really is: believing you’re a slave begets living like one.

I wanted to write about a character with such bad faith. Aeson Balleth is that character, constantly hoping to return to the womb of unconscious possession by his user. Life was so much better when someone else was making all the decisions!


I started this off talking about Aristotle, who believed that the mind depended on the world beyond it to cognise itself (or to become self-conscious).

Plato, Avicenna, and the Forbidden Experiment

But there’s another strain in Greek thought, initiated by Plato and later developed by religious thinkers of the Middle Ages, who argued that self-consciousness means ‘gaining knowledge of one’s mind through itself’.

What does that mean?

Well, your mind does not require the external world in order to understand that it is a mind.

Confusing? It’s actually pretty simple.  Let’s use a famous example of this position: Avicenna, a Persian polymath writing at the turn of the millennium (so 980-1030 AD) who constructed the ‘flying man’ experiment. Avicenna asks the following of us: imagine we created a ‘new man’ floating in a void of blackness. Imagine that this man has no senses; he cannot see anything, feel anything, taste anything, hear anything, smell anything. He never has, in fact, had any experience or any sensation at all. He has been born and exists in a state of pure abstraction, an infinite void of nothingness. To all extents and purposes he has never laid eyes on the world, has never spoken a word, and has never once been aware of the world that is something external to him.

Now. What of this man? If we assume that to have knowledge of ourselves we must have knowledge of the outside world first, then surely this flying man can have no understanding of himself as a mind, as a self-consciousness. Right?

 Wrong. For Avicenna, even with all his senses disabled, the flying man still has a mind, and is still aware of himself, because self-awareness requires no awareness of outer things. I’m not sure why he thought this was a valid argument, but it probably has something to do with God.

His ‘experiment’ and Plato’s claims proved really popular in the Middle Ages, whilst Aristotle’s ideas were largely ignored or suppressed. The biggest, baddest religious philosopher of them all, Aquinas, writing way back in the 13th century, claimed that ‘the mere presence of the mind suffices’ for someone to be self-conscious.

Oh, well if you say so Tom.

I guess Aquinas and his Christian mates were guided less by ontology and reasonable psychology than by religious considerations. If we have God inside us, which they thought we did, then we do not need to engage in the world to find God. He’s already there! Inside us! The world is a place of deception, greed, envy and sin, that only serves to take us further and further away from God. Besides, the world is just a passing thing anyway, just a moment in time as we head on up to Heaven to enjoy an eternity of sunshine. These guys were always complaining about the natural, real world, how base and filthy it was, how full of lust and sex it was, so it’s hardly a surprise they’d maintain humans did not require it for their own inner development. They hated Aristotle precisely because he was fascinated by the natural world, and they loved Plato because, like them, he placed emphasis on the realm that could not be seen, but intuited—the realm of Form.  

And under Christianity, this fascination with ideal Form at the expense of objective reality was transformed into the realm of Spirit. The aethereal realms. What angels looked like. The hierarchy and composition of Heaven, Hell, and so on. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that intelligent folk started bringing their eyes back to earth to think about the natural world as a source of philosophical and scientific study.

I’m digressing again. Sorry.

Obviously, Avicenna’s ‘flying man’ experiment is impractical and immoral, but whilst such an experiment has never been conducted, it has been discussed theoretically. It has come to be called ‘the forbidden experiment,’ which sounds awesome, until you realise it’s more like sustained torture.

Imagine carrying out this forbidden experiment. You’d have to take a new born baby, lock him/her up in the darkness, with no stimulation, no interaction, and just pass food and water under the door to them. Fast forward thirty years, and we’d find out whether this poor person has developed an awareness of themselves by existing in a vacuum. Would it really be the case that ‘the mere presence of [his] mind’ would suffice to make him aware of himself? Or would he be as unaware of himself as an animal?

Of course, such an experiment is not possible for a number of very good reasons. But there have been incidents this century and the last where something approximating this ‘forbidden experiment’ has occurred.

Take for instance, an American child known as Genie, who was born in 1957 and was a victim of severe abuse, neglect, and social isolation. When she was nearly two, her father kept her in a locked room. He strapped her into a child’s toilet, and tied her down inside a crib, so that she could not move. No-one was allowed inside to see her and talk with her, and he provided her with next to no stimulation of any kind.

As horrific as this treatment was, when she was discovered by the LA authorities in 1970, she offered psychologists and linguists an unusual opportunity to study a human being who had undergone something close to Avicenna’s ‘flying man experiment.’ Linguists tried to work with her to get her speaking, and whilst she eventually managed to say a few nouns, she was unable ever to express them within a wider grammar. When she spoke with those who studied her, it was clear that she did have a sense of herself, often referring to herself as ‘I’ and the interviewers as ‘you.’

Another example. Oxana Malaya, a Ukrainian woman who, from the age of three, was reared not by her parents but by wild dogs in the forests. When Malaya was found by the authorities, she was seven and a half years old, but she could not talk, lacked many basic skills, and physically behaved like a dog. She was running around on all fours, barking, slept on the floor, and she ate and took care of her hygiene like a dog.

These examples are the closest we can come to Avicenna’s ‘flying man experiment’. They are tragic in their own right, but they also really prove problematic to Plato’s belief that a human being can ‘gain knowledge of one’s mind through itself.’ Whilst some form of self-consciousness might be achieved without the assistance of others, as in the case of Genie, its development is so impeded that there is little to distinguish the person’s sense of selfhood from that of canines, as in the case of Oxana.

It seems to me that our own self-awareness is contingent on others. In other words, without meeting with people, engaging with them, and learning that they are their own selves independent of our will, with their own needs and desires and demands, we are not able to come to an understanding of ourselves as exactly the same. Just as in grammar, the subject of a sentence depends upon the object of a sentence to derive its meaning (‘I’ makes no sense on its own. It needs a predicate (verb) and an object (noun) to have any meaning), we too, as our own subjects, need the existence of others to make sense of ourselves.


Perhaps the most famous recognition of this conception comes from the German philosopher Georg Hegel, who was writing at the beginning of the 19th century. Hegel’s thought is really hard to crack. He expresses himself pretty poorly, uses way too many concepts that are hard to pin down, and integrates these concepts within a magisterial philosophical system that is opaque at best and downright mystical at worst.

Nevertheless, his ideas on self-consciousness are incredible. He most famously expressed them in his infamous ‘master-slave’ dialectic, which is really just a hypothetical scenario used to dramatise one’s coming to self-awareness.

For Hegel, subjects are also objects to other subjects. In other words, whilst you consider yourself a subject, I consider you as an object. And vice versa. I view myself as a subject, but for you I’m an object.

In Hegel’s view, self-consciousness is therefore the awareness of another’s awareness of oneself. We become aware of ourselves not through any internal act, and not because of the world external to us, but because of other people, whose recognition of us as a self makes us think of ourselves as such. In this sense, there is no such thing as a genuine ‘self’: expressions like ‘be yourself’ are meaningless. People act as a sort of mirror for us, whereby we view ourselves via them. We become what they see.

Enter what Hegel describes as the “struggle for recognition.” This struggle lays at the heart of self-consciousness, without which we would never emerge as self-aware beings. It is a struggle of two tendencies. On the one hand, there is the moment when the self and the other come together, which makes self-consciousness possible. I recognise you as a self, you recognise me as a self, and we in turn regard ourselves as selves! Lovely.

On the other hand, there is the moment of difference arising when one is conscious of the “otherness” of other selves vis-à-vis oneself, of their separation and strangeness from us, and vice versa. I learn of your strangeness, your separation, from me, just as a child learns of his separation from his mother, usually after his first birthday.

These two moments are what Hegel means by the “life and death struggle” for recognition, without which there would be no such thing as self-awareness. There is a moment of thesis (a coming together, or unity) and an antithesis (a breaking apart, or disunity). They are two sides of the same coin. Mutual identification and estrangement. We can see Hegel’s influence on Lacan here, for whom self-consciousness is both a liberation from the slavery of dependence but also the moment of ‘lack.’ Self-consciousness is a profoundly ambivalent thing.

For Hegel, this struggle plays out in the fields of social relations too. Everything is mediated by this dance of recognition and resistance, acceptance and rejection, sameness and otherness. You see it in the family, where the child struggles against the parent to assert his or her own subjectivity, and demands the mother and the father recognise them as independent of them. You see it in the school, where the student clashes with the teacher, demanding the latter treat them as a subject free within him or herself, whilst the teacher treats them as merely an object to teach, train, and get to pass an exam. You see it in the workplace, where the labouring subject demands rights and suitable conditions within which to work, demanding that the boss/owner/management treat him as a subject, as his own master, and not as a slave.

The point is that these relationships between selves are not static but dynamic, ever changing, and always in flux, and therefore self-consciousness is not something that is simply achieved, but rather is always in a state of becoming. Perhaps this is what is meant when we speak of some people having greater self-awareness, or of certain social groups having a higher degree of consciousness regarding their position in history, in culture, in political society.

Anyway, the whole idea of self-consciousness, for Hegel, is based on conflict. That’s the really crucial thing. It is conflict that brings people together and separates them. It is through this conflict that subjectivity is forged. Without conflict, without this master-slave dynamic which underpins all social interactions and relations, there could be only a limited development of self-consciousness, as is the case with Genie and Oxana.

Conflict is the engine not just of social development, but psychological development too. It is a good thing, a positive force, through which the subject is strengthened, hardened, and transformed into a being who understands that he and others are selves in their own right as well as objects which are strange and alien.

Big ideas. Interesting ideas. And whilst I didn’t address every single point here in Immortal, I was interested in seeing what this coming to self-awareness must be like for characters within a simulation who had had no prior experience of it. I was interested in looking into the conditions for the ascension to self-consciousness, and, like Hegel, I try to show in the novel that without conflict there is no such thing as the self.

Thanks for reading.

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