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Objections to the You-I account

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6. Objections to the You-I account
Objection 1. There are more parsimonious explanations for self-awareness.

Reply: In the psychological literature there are simpler accounts of self-awareness, but these ignore its enigma: "How can I who am aware be something of which I am aware (in addition to the tree)?" For instance, some authors emphasize certain constants, such as the perfect contingency between the kinesthesis of kicking and the visible moving legs, or the constantly visible eye sockets bounding the field of vision. But these constants do not have anything about them that specifies a perceiver to whom they belong. They "provide a good reason why a subject of experience should have a very special regard for just one body, why he should think of it as unique and perhaps more important than any other. …But they do not explain why I should have the concept of myself at all, why I should ascribe my thoughts and experiences to anything" (Strawson 1959, p. 93).

One account which does take up the difficult question is the following. In touching himself, the infant becomes aware of himself simultaneously as subject (touching) and as object (touched). But this claim fails the test of experience. When I touch a part of my body, the result is a single sensation. Granted, when I touch my hand, the sensation has a special quality compared with that of touching stone, wood, or another person. But if I am not already self-aware, there is nothing in the sensation to specify a self that is touching while being touched.25

The difficult question is also addressed in the account of J. J. Gibson (1986). To review it here would take us too far afield. Let me just say that, as best I see, it only answers that question in the case of an animal which is self-locomoting: Visual data specify one who receives them (i.e., their perceiver) as being an entity in motion. They amount to what Gibson calls "visual kinesthesis." But the perceiver is only specified as a body when the visual kinesthesis is seamlessly accompanied by muscular kinesthesis—that is, when an animal moves by its own power. This cannot be a salient account for humans, who are self-aware before they crawl.26
Objection 2. For a fetus who is alone in the womb, no You-I event can occur, but there is evidence that he is self-aware: As observed through ultrasound, many fetal movements of the arms and hands seem goal-directed; from 18 weeks, the fetus reaches at different velocities to respectively different places in the womb and shapes his hand to what he encounters (Craighero et al. 2011; Sparling et al. 1999; Zoia et al. 2007). In seeking to reach a goal, one must plan and execute the reach: this requires awareness of oneself as an agent.
Reply. Barring exchanges not dreamt of in our current state of knowledge, I agree that a You-I event cannot occur for a fetus alone in the womb.27 If nonetheless he can be shown to be self-aware, then we shall need to find a different solution to the enigma. But do goal-directed reaches require self-awareness? When we adults reach, we are usually self-aware, and it is hard for us to conceive of goal-directed behavior that is not. Yet fetal reaches may reflect an evolved connection between organism and environment, requiring no self-awareness. "We all fit into the substructures of the environment in our various ways, for we were all, in fact, formed by them. We were created by the world we live in" (Gibson 1986, p. 130). A need to explore the environment may be biologically programmed. It is conceivable that a fetus who is not self-aware, on encountering by chance something new, repeats the movements recently made and learns, by further circular reactions, to adjust them to the target.28

There is an additional argument against the objection. In order to be self-aware, the fetus must encounter something that he knows to be other; the reverse holds as well: something can appear as other to the fetus only if he is self-aware. Hence, selfhood and otherness must first appear together: their differentiation is a condition for the appearance of either (Bermúdez 1996; Gallagher 1996). Now, there is abundant evidence that fetuses of a certain age react to stimuli which we observers know to be other than they, such as sounds, a bright light focused on the mother's abdomen, tastes and smells (Rochat 2011). It is easy to make the mistake of attributing our knowledge to the fetus as well. Yet what basis could he have for knowing the sound or light to be other? Just as proprioception by itself does not provide an awareness of "one's own body as one's own" (Gallagher 1996), so the sound, the light and the uterine wall do not contain marks that indicate a difference which would enable the fetus to become self-aware. In the You-I event the problem of self and other is solved. For a singleton in the womb there is nothing comparable.

The question remains as to when the You-I event first takes place. I have emphasized the period of protoconversation, but it is possible that it occurs already upon the initial fulfillment of the great new needs which arise at birth. We have seen that the newborn prefers his mother's voice and face. In the first 3 postnatal days, maternal vocalization during pauses in breastfeeding arouses vocalization from the infant, and the voices then tend to overlap (Rosenthal 1982).29 From the research on neonatal imitation, we know the strength of intermodal mapping in the oral area. In coinciding vocalizations, the sight of the mother's moving lips and tongue, coupled with the sound of her voice (familiar from the womb), could perhaps enable an approximate match. The voices do not alternate, however, and we have seen that turn-taking is essential for differentiating self from other.30

If the event occurs so early, moreover, it may be ephemeral. In his initial 4 weeks, the infant cannot maintain eye contact.31 Indeed, the only situation in which he does maintain contact is in feeding, where he engages in a burst-pause pattern that is apparently unique to humans. During a pause, the carer jiggles the baby or the bottle and the baby resumes sucking. Thus is established a regularity of interaction which may be the prelude to turn-taking (Kaye 1977). Could the jiggle single out the kinesthesis of sucking? Possibly, roughly. Yet we must allow weight to the common observation that life's first month is scarce on alert and sustained interaction with others, certainly when compared to the "revolution" that occurs in the second (Rochat 2009, p. 69; Stern 1985, p. 69).

Objection 3. Some babies get no attention and yet become self-aware.
Reply. An infant who gets no attention does not survive. Concerning feral children: there is no firm evidence about "a putative wild child's life either before or during the period of isolation" (Saxe 2006). Where severely deprived or isolated children have been rehabilitated, imitation by carers has played a crucial role (Hundeide 2007, p. 251; Hunt et al. 1976).

If need be, infants will wait months for relationship. In studies of Romanian orphans who were severely deprived of human contact (some were even fed with propped bottles), Rutter et al. (2004) found that an infant can be neglected and nevertheless catch up cognitively and socially, if he is adopted into a responsive family before having lived 6 months in the orphanage. Those who are not adopted in time may nonetheless get enough response from each other to develop self-awareness.32

7. Further questions

The results of infancy research and brain research have helped us raise a new possibility for the genesis of human self-awareness. Yet basic questions remain. Attempts to answer them would take us beyond the bounds of a single paper, but I shall briefly indicate, for each, a direction in which we may look.

1. How can the infant remain self-aware when the You goes absent or attends to something else, or when the infant attends to mere things, not persons?

When the carer goes absent, things remain behind which are associated with her. From the age of 4 months, the infant can get effects from some of these things, just as he got responses from her. By way of present things, the You-I event with the absent carer can continue in a modified form.

2. How can continuity be maintained, given the fact that in the course of time, a child encounters more than one potential You?

After becoming attached to a particular You, the infant wants the specific relationship to continue without interruption from other potential You-I relations. The ongoing unconditional relation with a beloved You, present or absent, affords him a measure of independence from others, enabling him to condition each new relationship on the stranger's behavior. The number of You-I relationships is therefore limited. Yet the primary You becomes, consciously or unconsciously, the lifelong model of what a person is.

3. How does the original You-I event of infancy develop into the solitary self-awareness of the adult?

"At the end of infancy and in early childhood, children duplicate social roles: behaving 'as if' they were mommy, acting from a mommy-like perspective, and expressing mommy-like desires and beliefs, even if they are not the child’s own" (Meltzoff & Moore 1994). In particular, as the child acquires language, he becomes capable of taking the role of the carer toward himself, especially by talking to himself, i.e., talking as if he were the carer and listening as himself, or talking as if to the carer and listening as if he were she. As a result, he no longer needs a flesh-and-blood You for self-awareness.33

Such "identification" brings about a major change in the structure of experience. People and things lose much of their original importance because they are no longer required to make one self-aware. Identification produces the "subject," containing a chattering "inside," who relates to external "objects" without feeling an essential connection to them. Life with others is now more secure but less interesting, less enchanting, and what was once a law of life becomes a moral commandment (Waldenfels, above). Beneath the inner chatter, consequently, there persists a longing for the banished You. The longing is accompanied by dread, because fulfillment would entail surrender of control. After identification, then, the pure You-I event occurs rarely, while longing for the banished You achieves alternative expression in cultural forms.


My gratitude to Nancy Mangum McCaslin for her keen and unflagging eye. Likewise to Daniel Price and the two anonymous reviewers for their many productive criticisms and suggestions.


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