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Forthcoming in C. Durt, T. Fuchs, C. Tewes (eds.

): Embodiment, Enaction, and


Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World. MIT Press, 2017. Please
quote from published version.

Thin, thinner, thinnest: Defining the minimal self

Dan Zahavi

My initial work on the relationship between experience, self, and self-consciousness dates back to the
late nineties (cf. Zahavi 1999, 2000a), where I started defending the view that all three notions are
interconnected and that a theory of consciousness that wishes to take the subjective dimension of our
experiential life seriously also needs to operate with a minimal notion of self. Further elaboration of
this early work led to the book Subjectivity and Selfhood from 2005. During the decade that followed,
I continued to refine the position and also started to respond to various criticisms that the view
encountered (cf. Zahavi 2007, 2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2012), eventually bringing these different efforts
together in the book Self and Other which was published in 2014. The criticisms and suggested
revisions offered by Ratcliffe as well as Ciaunica and Fotopoulou in their contributions to this volume
can to some extent be seen as representing a new phase in the discussion, not only because they
engage with the recent arguments of Self and Other, but also because their criticism differs from the
criticism offered in the past by for instance advocates of a no-self view, narrativists, or phenomenal
externalists. Rather than denying the existence of the minimal self, their concern is rather with its
proper characterization and interpersonal constitution. I appreciate their revisionary ideas, and I am
grateful to the editors for having urged me to offer a response, thereby giving me the opportunity to
clarify a few aspects of my own view.

1. Ratcliffe
In his chapter Selfhood, Schizophrenia, and the Interpersonal Regulation of Experience, Ratcliffe
is not out to deny or dismiss the existence of the minimal self, nor does he want to denigrate its
significance. In fact, he readily agrees that the minimal self is integral to experience and inextricable
from the very structure of experience, and that it is more fundamental than richer conceptions of self,
including narrative accounts (Ratcliffe, this volume). No, his main aim is to argue that the minimal
self has to be re-conceptualized in interpersonal terms (Ratcliffe, this volume, introduction), and
that the most basic sense of self is developmentally dependent upon other people (ibid.), for
which reason the minimal self cannot really be distinguished from the interpersonal self.1
What is Ratcliffes central argument? Ratcliffe asks whether minimal selfhood involves
a sense of being the locus of a specific type of experience, or whether an awareness of simply being
the locus of some (unspecified) experience might be sufficient, and defends the former option. In his
view, one has to be pre-reflectively aware of experiencing x in a certain specific way, say,
perceptually or imaginatively or in recollection, etc., in order to qualify as a minimal self. Why is
that? As Ratcliffe argues, without a proper demarcation between perceiving and remembering or
perceiving and imagining, our sense of our own temporal and spatial location would break down. But
without a sense of ones spatiotemporal location, it is not obvious that one could continue to

Ultimately, Ratcliffe wants to argue that this reconceptualization has ramifications for

psychopathology, since the widespread assumption that schizophrenia is fundamentally related to a


disturbance of the minimal self must now be given as interpersonal, relational, twist. In the following
comments, however, I will not engage with this aspect of his paper (but see Parnas, Bovet, and Zahavi
2002, where it is argued that schizophrenic autism involves a simultaneous disturbance of self,
intentionality and intersubjectivity).

experience oneself as a singular, coherent locus of experience (Ratcliffe, this volume). The final move
in the argument is then to insist that the ability to make the required discriminations is interpersonally
constituted. That is, the sense of being in one kind of intentional state rather than another, depends
upon a certain way of experiencing and relating to others, both developmentally and constitutively
(ibid., section 1).
Ratcliffe is certainly right when he claims that interpersonal processes can enrich,
diminish, or transform the nature of what one perceives, remembers, or imagines (ibid., section 2).
I also think it is correct that a fuller appreciation of the distinction between different intentional acts
has ramifications for our self-understanding, and that this appreciation is facilitated (and perhaps even
enabled) by interpersonal interaction. Perhaps he is even rightthough I am somewhat less persuaded
by thisthat modalities of intentionality depend upon certain kinds of interpersonal relation for their
development and sustenance (ibid., section 5). However, I would insist that all of this is irrelevant
for the matter at hand.
A crucial element in my defense of minimal selfhood has been reflections on the firstpersonal character of phenomenal consciousness. Roughly speaking the idea is that subjectivity is a
built-in feature of experiential life. Experiential episodes are neither unconscious, nor anonymous,
rather they necessarily come with first-personal givenness or perspectival ownership. The what-it-islikeness of experience is essentially a what-it-is-like-for-me-ness (Zahavi and Kriegel 2016). More
specifically, this for-me-ness is taken to reside in the basic pre-reflective or reflexive (not reflective!),
that is, self-presentational or self-manifesting, character of experience. The experiential self is
consequently, and very importantly, not some experiential object. It is not as if there is a self-object
in addition to all the other objects in ones experiential field. Rather the claim is that all of these
objects, when experienced, are given in a distinctly first-personal way. In short, if we want to locate
the experiential self, we shouldnt look at what is being experienced, but in how it is being

experienced. It is consequently no coincidence that the idea of a minimal self grew out of
considerations concerning the relation between phenomenal consciousness and self-consciousness.
And here is the issue. When talking about minimal selfhood, I am talking of something
that is part and parcel of any experiential episode qua its experiential givenness, regardless of whether
the episode in question is (ontologically) constituted or (epistemically) recognized as a particular
intentional act-type, or not. Indeed, to claim that the experiential episode would only be selfmanifesting after such determination seems quite odd. Equally odd would be the claim that this
fundamental reflexive character of phenomenal consciousness is interpersonally constituted such that
young infants who had not yet engaged in sufficient interpersonal relations as well as all non-social
organisms would lack phenomenal consciousness and minimal selfhood. A crying newborn is not a
zombie bereft of experiences, but a creature whose crying is expressing an experience of distress. The
crying newborn is a subject of experience whatever else it might be. This is also not something
Ratcliffe is eager to deny. But the move he makes is somewhat surprising, since it ultimately changes
the nature of his challenge. Ratcliffe argues that even if selfhood might be possible without
intersubjectivity, we should avoid making the mistake of thinking that the same kind of selfexperience is preserved in unadulterated form throughout social development, as an underlying
kernel (Ratcliffe, this volume, section 1). We consequently have to construe self-development as a
transformative process. This is a both interesting and important question. Do adult language users
really have nothing in common experientially with infants and non-human animals? What we
experience will undoubtedly change through development, but will development also affect the most
fundamental structures of phenomenal consciousness? Will it also change and transform the most
basic structures of pre-reflective self-consciousness and inner time-consciousness? I have my doubts,
but regardless of what the answer might be, it should be obvious that the challenge is now different.
What is being disputed by Ratcliffe is now no longer the existence of a non-social minimal self, but

any claim to the effect that the minimal self is unchanged by development. Contrary to the (more)
minimal self of an infant, the (less) minimal self of an adult is interpersonally constituted.
Indeed, I think the best way of making sense of Ratcliffes argument is as follows: Given
his emphasis on spatiotemporal location, the minimal self that he thinks is interpersonally constituted
is a less minimal self than the one I am concerned with. If so, our respective views might be quite
compatible, since we are simply targeting different notions of self. Not surprisingly, however, I would
then claim that my thinner and more minimalist self is a condition of possibility for Ratcliffes
interpersonally constituted minimal self.

2. Ciaunica and Fotopoulou


In Self-Awareness and Alterity (1999), as well as in various writings from around that time, I defended
the interdependency of self and alterity. Indeed, as I argued in the article Alterity in self, given the
temporal and bodily character of experience, even the minimal sense of selfhood entails and depends
upon alterity (2000b, 126). Have I since changed my view? No, not at all, since what I made clear
back then, and have repeated since, is that we need to distinguish different types of otherness. There
is an alterity internal to myself, there is the alterity of the world, and there is the alterity of other
subjects. Denying that the latter kind of alterity is constitutively involved in minimal selfhood is not
to deny that there might be other forms of alterity, which is indeed constitutively involved. Why this
sudden reference to these older texts? Because it should make it clear why I find it somewhat puzzling
to be criticized by Ciaunica and Fotopoulou in their chapter The Touched Self: Psychological and
Philosophical Perspectives on Proximal Intersubjectivity and the Self for being committed to a
detached visuo-spatial model of selfhood and social understanding, and for having failed to realize
the role of worldly engagements for even minimal forms of self-awareness (Ciaunica and Fotopoulou,
this volume). Denying that the minimal self is interpersonally constituted, denying that one only

becomes a subject of experience, that our experiential life is only imbued with its pre-reflective selfpresentational character, and that phenomenal episodes only acquire for-me-ness, in virtue of ones
relations to others, in no way entails that the minimal self is a self-enclosed self. Qua subject of
intentional experience, it is inherently open to the world and others. Furthermore, nothing in the
endorsement of the minimal self, rules out that there are pre-reflective forms of sociality or that there
are other dimensions of selfhood that are intrinsically interpersonally co-constituted. The second and
third part of Self and Other was precisely devoted to an extensive argument for this.
Ciaunica and Fotopoulou also insist that my position leads to the positing of an arbitrary
gulf between experiential minimalism and social constructivism, and that my minimal understanding
of selfhood overlooks the crucial role of the open-ended construction of individuality via narratives
and language (Ciaunica and Fotopoulou, this volume). I am also puzzled by these criticisms. The
third part of Self and Other is explicitly devoted to an elaboration of an interpersonal dimension of
self, i.e., the self in its relation to and interaction with others, and I there argue that this dimension
can serve as a crucial bridge between the minimal self and the normatively enriched narrative self
(Zahavi 2014, 208, 238). Furthermore, and as I have already made clear above, the minimal notion
of self doesnt overlook the open-ended construction of individuality. On the contrary, one of the
reasons for introducing it, was precisely in order to make it comprehensible how such an open-ended
construction could take place. Thus, the minimal notion of self was never intended or presented as an
exhaustive account of selfhood. Indeed, the label minimal (or thin) was partially employed in order
to highlight how limited the notion is and how much more has to be said in order to account for the
fully and distinctly human self (Zahavi 2014, 50). Ciaunica and Fotopoulou write that their approach
echoes Merleau-Pontys view according to which one must consider the relation with others not only
as one of the contents of our experience but as an actual structure in its own right (Ciaunica and
Fotopoulou, this volume, conclusion). It is hard to see, however, why such a view, which I wholly

endorse, should spell trouble for experiential minimalism. There is nothing in the latter view that
commits one to the claim that the only role for sociality and otherness is qua content, and that others
do not have an impact on the very structure of our subjectivity as well.
Ciaunica and Fotopoulou write that interoception (the inner feelings of arousal,
wakefulness, wellness etc.) is crucial for self-experience and subjectivity, and fundamental for the
very self-other distinction (Ciaunica and Fotopoulou, this volume), and they then mount an argument
to the effect that several interoceptive modalities are dependent upon and changed by the embodied
interaction with others. More specifically, they argue that states of physiological change such as
crying, for example, become associated with and tied to both particular behaviors and responses as
well as subjectively experienced states through the social environment and embodied interpersonal
interactions. Subjective feeling states are then taken to be the outcome of this so-called process of
mentalization, for which reason such states cannot be said to preexist embodied encounters (Ciaunica
and Fotopoulou, this volume). But this whole line of argument is puzzling. Since Ciaunica and
Fotopoulou concede that experiential states are constituent parts of rather than products of the process
of mentalization, their claim cannot be that the phenomenality of these very states is interpersonally
constituted. But are they then at all targeting the position I am defending? That is what they take
themselves to be doing, since they explicitly argue that the pre-existing experiential states are too
rudimentary to support experiential minimalism. The states allegedly dont come with any self-other
distinction, they dont require any preexisting perspectival notion, and are not anchored to any notion
of self (Ciaunica and Fotopoulou, this volume). But are the features whose presence Ciaunica and
Fotopoulou want to deny really the features that I want to ascribe to phenomenal states, or are we
simply targeting different levels? What they seem to have in mind with their reference to
mentalization (and here their use differs somewhat from how the term is used not only in the Theory
of Mind literature, but also by attachment theorists like Fonagy or Gergely), is a fundamental process

of organization and schematization (Ciaunica and Fotopoulou, this volume). It is not about having
phenomenal states, but about coming to experience them as inner, as private, as mine rather than
yours, etc. As I make clear in chapter 2 of Self and Other, however, it is not a requirement for having
a first-personal experiential life that one is able to appreciate let alone conceptualize the distinctly
subjective or inner or private givenness of ones own experiences (Zahavi 2014, 2730). This is
undoubtedly a late achievement, which in all likelihood requires one to compare and contrast ones
own perspective with that of others (mine meaning not yours). What I have in mind when
referring to the subjective or first-personal character of experience is a feature of experience that it
possesses in virtue of being the phenomenally conscious state it is. To claim that this feature is
interpersonally constituted is to say that phenomenality as such is interpersonally constituted, and that
is indeed a quite radical claim. When Ciaunica and Fotopoulou write that feelings of bodily
satisfaction, pain, pleasure, and lack thereof are primarily constituted as mine only via behaviors
that engage the interacting other (Ciaunica and Fotopoulou, this volume, section 5) the question is,
in short, precisely how radical they want to go. Are they making a fairly uncontroversial claim, or are
they aligning themselves with the social constructivism of Wolfgang Prinz, who famously declared
that selves are socio-cultural constructs rather than natural givens, and that human beings, who are
deprived of the required social interaction and denied socially mediated attributions of self, would
also lack me-ness, be self-less and without consciousness, and therefore remain unconscious
zombies (Prinz 2003, 526)? I think Ciaunica and Fotopoulous text makes it clear that they shy away
from endorsing the latter position. But if so, I suspect we are talking at cross purposes. If not, Ciaunica
and Fotopoulou would have to argue that the features I am concerned with are either insufficient
(though perhaps necessary) for selfhood, or features that experiential states could lack while still
being phenomenally conscious states. Whereas the former option quickly risks reducing the
discussion to a terminological squabble (cf. Zahavi 2014, 47, 62, 89), the second option is more

theoretically interesting and challenging (cf. Zahavi 2014, 2541). But it is not one that Ciaunica and
Fotopoulou explore or defend in any real detail. To repeat, when I claim that phenomenal
consciousness is first-personal, what I mean is that we are acquainted with and presented with our
own experiential life in a way that differs from the way in which we are acquainted and presented
with the experiential life of others. This first-personal experiential givenness is manifest in the very
having of the experience. It is a givenness that obtains even when we are not explicitly aware of it,
and even when we lack the conceptual skills to articulate or appreciate it. Indeed, all of this follows
directly from the core claim namely that phenomenally conscious episodes by necessity are
experientially manifest. A conscious mental state is not merely conscious of something, its object, it
is simultaneously self-disclosing or self-revealing. This is what makes it different from any purported
non-conscious representational state. This view has had many prominent advocates in the history of
Western philosophy. It is also a view that has been defended by proponents of reflexivist or selfillumination theories in Indian philosophy. Needless to say, it is not a view that is universally
accepted, but if one wants to criticize it, one has to engage with the relevant debate in philosophy of
mind. To fail to do so, and to base ones objections, on findings in developmental psychology
concerning the childs capacity to discriminate perspectives, is to miss both the target and the point
of the argument.

Bibliography
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