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The Storyteller: An Examination of Self-Consciousness and The Role of Language

Ian Morton's picture

We concluded the semester with the idea that the I-function, our self-consciousness, is a story-teller, which makes a best attempt to contextualize, temporalize and generally make “sense” of input to the nervous system. With this notion in mind, I was curious if we should therefore assume that language, an innate aspect of “story telling,” is necessary for self-consciousness. Or can we create a “story” of our environment and our place in it without language? In order to approach this question, we should examine the development of both language and self-consciousness. Through examining these developmental processes, can we find and correlative relationship between language and self-consciousness? Even before we analyze the relationship between the two, we must first define what is meant by self-consciousness. There are many concepts of what self-consciousness is, including the “I-function” storyteller, and which concept one believes to be true has implications on the prerequisite of language.

Language development seems to be an innate feature of neural development. During development, we internalize rules about language, which are included in three major processes of language (1). First, we develop phonological processes. Phonological processes encompass suprasegmental information about spoken language such as prosody, sentence melody, and segmental information such as phonemes, intonation or speech sounds which have relevance to a word’s meaning. Additionally, we develop lexical-semantic processes, which covers word form denotation, and syntactic processes, grammatical rules. Proper development of these processes is necessary for language comprehension and exercise.

Within the first week following birth, infants show the capacity for discerning between phonemes and can recognize the prosody of their native language vs. others. Experiments have implicated right hemispheric dominance for prosody processing, established by as young as 3 months. Prosody processing allows for the segmentation of speech input, thus allowing for comprehension of syntactic and intonation boundaries and contour of spoken language. By 9 months, infants have acquired an inventory of the phonemes and stress patterns of their native (target) language. Lexical-semantic processes at the single word level begin to manifest by as early as 12 months. At this time, children show the capacity to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar words, and by 19 to 20 months children show recognition of words that are phonetically viable for their target language. By 16 months, children have built a lexicon of around 50 to 75 words. Following this period until about 2 years of age, children show an early sensitivity to semantic anomalies at the sentential level, which becomes a faster around by 5 years of age. Syntactic processes do not begin to show neural activation until around 4 years of age (1). The question is then, when do we begin to manifest self-consciousness during development? Is there evidence of self-consciousness prior to the proper development of these linguistic processes?

Before we can address this question, it is important to first define what is meant by “self-consciousness.” There are varying concepts of what this term entails, including the notion of the I-function storyteller. It seems the predominant view is that self-consciousness is a higher-order construct that is able to hold one’s self and one’s experiences as an object. This notion of being able to represent oneself as an object is self-reference, which is how we have come to define the I-function, or narrative, self-consciousness. This can also be described as a reflective self-consciousness, which is able to reflect on one’s experiences and on one’s perception of those experiences. This ability allows us to construct an identity or apprehension of our self in relation to the world and our experiences.

If we are to accept that intrinsic to self-consciousness is the faculty for self-reference we therefore implicate the necessity of first-person conception, recognition of oneself as oneself. That is, narrative requires a linguistic capacity for the first-person pronoun (you can’t have an I-function with “I” thoughts if you cannot comprehend what “I” is). Thus we can say that self-consciousness is a result of developmental processes, including the development of linguistic capacity and social development. Evidence suggests that higher-order consciousness requires an understanding of semantics, as with humans, who possess an elaborate capacity for language including the processes outlined above. Additionally, chimpanzees, which have a limited competence for semantic comprehension, are said to possess a higher-order self-consciousness (5). The connection between self-consciousness and language gives rise to the Thought-language Principal, which is the presupposition that self-consciousness is only available to individuals who possess the capacity for language (4).

However, as Heidegger argues, while reflection may be the mode of self-apprehension, it is not the mode of self-revelation (2). Self-revelation, or the first experience of selfhood, could come far before we establish a narrative sense of self. Phenomenology reveals the possibility of such a “primitive” self-consciousness, referred to as a pre-reflective self-consciousness (2). Instead of arising from introspection and first-person narrative, phenomenal consciousness is continually present throughout experience. Experiences have phenomenal qualities that distinguish those experiences from others, referred to as qualia. Qualia is the property of an experience that gives it a notion of what it is like to have that experience vs. other experiences. Implicit in the notion of what it is like to have a particular experience is subjectivity. That is to say, there can be no conception of what it is like to have the experience the experience lacks a first-person quality (this is my experience; the fire is hurting my hand; the feather tickles me). For example, when a fire is burning one’s hand, one doesn’t need to reflect on the experience to know the fire is burning one’s own hand. Similarly, all experience gives us a non-explicit sense of being one’s own experience, a sense of self.

The difference between phenomenal consciousness and reflective consciousness is the degree to which these forms of consciousness are separated from experience (2). As stated, pre-reflective consciousness is intrinsic to the experience itself. Conversely, inherent to reflection is a degree of separation. For example, there is a difference between experiencing physical pain and describing the pain you are feeling (to yourself or to another). Further, this separation has implications of the temporality of conscious experience (2). Pre-reflective awareness of self entails a self that is continually intrinsic to experience. In other words, this sense of self is consistent through time resulting in a coherency of identity. On the other hand, a reflexive sense of self is separated from the continuous temporality of experiences. With the notion of a reflexive self, there is first the experience, and following is the experience of self. It follows that the sense of self derived from reflection therefore exists a step behind the continuous experience. Consequently, as Merleau-Ponty asserts, there will always be an insurmountable disconnect between experiences and the understanding of those experiences (2).

The sense of ownership and self that is derived from experience allows for the construction of higher forms of self-consciousness. Before we can construct a story of self and experiences, before we can hold our self as an object of perception, we must first establish the sense of self. Sartre agrees, arguing that it is the non-reflexive consciousness that makes reflection possible (2). Similarly, in his book The Paradox of Self Consciousness, Jose L. Bermudez argues for a development of self-consciousness over time (4). This begins with the capacity for sentience, which connects to the notion of a pre-reflective sense of self that comes with experience. From this, stimulus-response behaviors are born, and eventually we reach the capacity for intentional behavior, the capacity for antonymous agency. In all cases it is being suggested that while we possess a higher-order consciousness, this consciousness was built on top of a primary consciousness that was present early on in development. Following from these notions, it is suggested that there can be an awareness of self prior to language; there is a primary or primitive form of self-discovery that is present before we even begin to say our first words.

For Bermudez, the basic forms of consciousness are mental states that have nonconceptual content, an idea taken from Christopher Peacocke (4). Nonconceptual content refers to mental states that create an image of the world, but which do not require the subject to possess the concepts that put perceptual phenomena into context. Bermudez categorizes nonconceptual forms of self-awareness into four domains: perceptual experience, which again shows agreement with the notion of a pre-reflective self-consciousness, somatic proprioception, spatial self-world-dualism, and psychological interaction, all of which are present in prelinguistic individuals (6). To focus on one of these domains, proprioception, of body self-awareness, offers convincing evidence for a sense of self that is present in the absence of language.

Somatic proprioception, while defined in our class as a function to which our I-function does not have access, does entail a sense/awareness of self. This would, then, qualify as a primitive form of self-consciousness, but as I-function involvement is absent, it is not on the level of higher forms of consciousness. Studies conducted by Gallagher and Meltzoff have shown that early infants are capable of imitation and have the experience of phantom limbs in the case of congenital limb absence (3). The results of their studies suggest that infants possess a body schema to which they can reference the visible actions of others. It was observed that infants younger than an hour were capable of facial imitation, suggesting the presence of an innate body schema or body-awareness. Clearly then, as lexical-semantic processes don’t appear until after a year of development, and infants capable of facial imitation have at most a very basic reception for phonemes, language is not necessary for a basic level of self-consciousness.

We are left with an archetypical philosophic answer to our original question, “is language necessary for self-consciousness?” that answer being, both yes and no. While there is no absolute answer to this question, it is evident that what definition of self-consciousness we accept bears heavily on the implicit role of language in/for self-consciousness. If we are to define self-consciousness as a higher-order ability to perceive one’s self as an object, an explicit, reflective consciousness of self, it follows that some development of linguistic processes is a necessary precursor. However, if we accept that primary forms of implicit self-awareness, consciousness with a sense of self, language is no longer an indispensable foundation of some degree of self-consciousness, but does allow for the construction of higher order self-consciousness. So the question now becomes, “where do we draw the line in the development of consciousness for forming a definition of self-consciousness?”


1) The Neural Basis of Language Development and Its Impairment, Angela D. Friederici, Neuron, Volume 52, Issue 6, 21 December 2006, Pages 941-952.

2) Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness, Gallagher and Zahavi, 2006.

3) The Ealiest Sense of Self and Others: Merleau-Ponty and Recent Developmental Studies, Gallagher and Meltzoff, 1996. Philosophical Psychology, 9:213-236.

4) Prelinguistic Self-Consciousness, Evans, 2000. A review of Jose L. Burmudez’s book The Paradox of Self-Consciousness.

5) Naturalizing Consciousness: A theoretical framework, Edelman, Gerald, 2003. The National Academy of Sciences, 100(9):5520-5524.

6) The Paradox of Self-Consciousness (Representation and Mind), Bermudez, 1999. Précis of Bermudez’s book The Paradox of Self-Consciousness.


Robert Browne's picture

I believe language is a tool

I believe language is a tool that converts our perceptions of who or what we are into the dialogue that we have with ourselves for the duration of our life. That language involves the construction of neural networks which are both physiological, psychological, emotional, even spiritual, gives rise to the idea that language may even be superior to consciousness itself. However, language is but the sum of its parts, it's grammatical rules, syntax which of themselves mean nothing with out experience.

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on onion peeling and consciousness

Thanks to Ian for recording our conversation ... and for the thoughts they in turn gave rise to. A few clarifications and further thoughts ...

I've used the "onion peeling" metaphor for several years now, but don't think I've written about it so its nice to have incentive to do so. The basic idea isn't so much that words and concepts have "multiple definitions and associations" but that they frequently prove to have "various layers of meaning", ie that when tries to explore them empirically words/concepts often turn out to be usefully dissectable into a set of distinguishable and sequential concepts with each drawing from and contributing to the next. And that much of science (at least my kind) consists of onion peeling, of identifying the various layers inherent in words/concepts and the relationships among them.

There are lots of examples of this, in all areas of science. One that has particularly interested me for many years is the notion of "purpose" or "intentionality" (see also The Story of Evolution and From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond). Inanimate objects act in ways that reflect their own internal organization, including resisting perturbations by things outside themselves, and so may be regarded as at one level "purposeful" or "intentional." There is, though, something different between that and the behavior of living organisms, and something different in turn between the behavior of a tree and a human being. Both trees and human beings, on the other hand, share properties and origins with inanimate objects, so the meaning of "purpose/intentionality" as exemplified by a human being draws and expands on that exhibited by inanimate objects rather than being an entirely different concept.

Like Ian, I suspect the same onion peeling approach can be productive in dealing with "consciousness." Its not so much that consciousness is "multi-faceted" (though it almost certainly is) but rather that it is "layered." The problem is not only to dissect the layers (for which Ian's writing seems to me useful) but, maybe even more interestingly at this point, to understand how those layers interact both with one another and with the "unconscious" on which they in turn are built (see also Making the Unconscious Conscious and Vice Versa). I'm looking forward to more exploring/conversation along these lines

Ian Morton's picture

Peeling the Onion of "Consciousness"

In a recent discussion with Paul Grobstein, I was introduced to a notion referred to by Paul as "onion peeling." As I understand this concept, it refers to the manner in which words and concepts have multiple definitions and associations; there are various layers of meaning for any given concept. That is, onion peeling asks one to recognize that a word can have multiple meanings, each of which has its own value which contributes to the concept as a whole. The manner in which the “story teller” function of our brain works involves taking a cacophony of variables and inputs from the various regions of the brain and trying to create from them a simplified, coherent, linear story of self, the world and the relation between the two, thus operating on only a small number variables. Consequently, it logically follows that one would prefer to focus on a single definition/meaning for a given concept for the purpose of more easily fitting it into the stories one constructs.

In applying this notion of onion peeling to the concept put forth in this paper, it seems that I should reconsider the direction I am try to go with this conversation. I concluded that how we come to define "consciousness" has a bearing on the role of language for consciousness. While a fair assessment, I made the suggestion that we should move on to arrive at a single definition of consciousness. Instead, perhaps we should resist the urge to construct and use simple definitions and rather understand that just as consciousness and the brain have multiple “layers”, so too should our definition/understanding of these concepts (our grounding for further inquiry). That is, we should conceive of consciousness in terms of its multifaceted nature rather than trying to focus on a single, “right” conception of it.

Perhaps next we could inquire into the implications of a layered consciousness. What influence does the possession of both a basal (perhaps “visceral”) consciousness and a reflective consciousness have on the human condition? How do the two influence the activity of the other? If these two layers of consciousness express bidirectional affection upon one another, could language have an affect on basal consciousness, and if so, what is the nature of that relationship? What role does basal consciousness and its subsequent pre-linguistic stories play in the development of language? Are there layers of consciousness in addition to those presented here? How else might our linguistics be affected and shaped by the story-telling mechanism of our higher-order self-consciousness?