Transcript: 242. Therese Cory on Self-Awareness in Albert and Aquinas

Therese Cory tells Peter what 13th century philosophers thought about self-awareness.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about self-awareness in these two great 13th century thinkers, and before getting on to what they thought about self-awareness, I thought it might be a good idea if we said something about what self-awareness is. Obviously, people might think of themselves as being aware of themselves in some sort of vague way, but as a philosophical issue, how are you going to be using this notion of self-awareness?

Therese Cory: Yeah, so it's helpful to think about self-awareness as something that's pre-philosophical and very concrete, very experiential - so it's not some sort of abstract analysis, 'what is the self' or 'what is the mind,' and it's self-awareness because it's got some sort of first personal content. So when I say, "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired," right, this implies some sort of self-awareness. And we can think about the different kinds of phenomena that self-awareness encompasses. So sometimes if you're learning a new language and you're trying to speak grammatically correctly and you suddenly start to have this horrible sense that you're standing outside yourself watching yourself make all these grammatical mistakes, that's a kind of unfortunate kind of self-awareness that blocks you from speaking another language. But there's much friendlier kinds of self-awareness. So if you're sitting on a beach watching a sunset, your attention might be totally drawn to the sunset, but you still have sort of a halo of self-awareness around that experience. You're aware of where your body is in space and you're aware of yourself as sort of seeing the sunset from a perspective, even though you're not really thinking about that. And you can easily turn your attention to yourself and say, 'wow, I'm really enjoying this vacation. I really feel relaxed.' Right? So self-awareness can imply different sort of grades of attention.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, it seems interesting that you can be more or less self-aware, as you were just saying, to the point where you can be what we might call self-conscious, which is like the 'I'm trying to learn a language' case, all the way down to something like 'I'm totally immersed in what I'm doing and not thinking about myself at all.' Are you saying though that even in a case like that, there's this, what you call the halo of self-awareness? So that even if I'm not actively thinking about myself as having a first person perspective on the world, I'd still be self-aware all the time, no matter what?

Therese Cory: Well, it depends. It depends who we're talking about. If we look at the history of philosophy - and we'll see a little bit later on that Aquinas definitely would say, yes, there is this kind of halo of self-awareness. No matter what I'm thinking about, I'm still somehow present to myself and my acts. Yeah. So, but there's sort of a problem with self-awareness in a way - because philosophically it's very interesting because when you reflect on your experiences of self-awareness, you're able to gather information about how the mind works. And so that's very helpful for the philosophy of mind. But, you know, it's a good source of information, but it's, but it's not a great source of information. And so you've got this, this problem that when you really reflect on yourself, you say, you know, I'm the person who is the most familiar with myself, right? You, there's this sort of feeling of privileged access to yourself, but then when you start to sort of dig a little bit deeper, you realize that you're very obscure to yourself in ways that aren't immediately apparent. So you might do something and then say, 'well, gosh, I'm not even sure why I did that. What was my motivation?' And you have a hard time answering that question. Or, you know, you might even something like so simple as a mood. You might say, 'well, am I really angry at that person? Or am I just tired or hungry?' And those things are, they seem like they should be such easy questions to answer because I am myself, but yet somehow I don't manage to answer them.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. It's like sometimes you ask someone, "how are you feeling?" And they say, "I'm not sure." Yes. And what they mean is something like, 'I'm not sure whether I'm getting ill' or something like that, but I'm always tempted to say, "what do you mean you're not sure? Of course you know how you feel. This is how you feel. Who else could know better?" And actually Augustine says something like this, doesn't he? Doesn't he say that there's a paradox about the fact that you're the closest thing to yourself and yet you're such a mystery to yourself?

Therese Cory: Yes. And he's a big source for the medieval debate in fact, which centers exactly on this problem of being obscure to yourself, even though you are yourself. Because in a way that poses a big puzzle, right? I mean, I have a great excuse for why I don't understand kangaroos very well. I can say, 'oh, well, I'm not a kangaroo. Sorry, I can't answer that question.' But then I don't have that excuse about myself. And in Augustine in particular, there's a sort of tradition of thought that develops that, that I think he's a key representative of that wants to say, 'well, okay, you have no excuse. In fact, you are yourself. The mind is a self-knowing thing. And so you should be able to know yourself. And in fact, you do know yourself all the time in some sort of hidden way outside the realm of consciousness.' And then it's only in later turning your attention to yourself that you're able to sort of bring that self-knowing that you already have to the surface of consciousness. And it seems like a little bit of a weird theory, but maybe it helps to think about how Augustine backs into this idea. He gives the example of the inscription "know thyself." And he says, so, 'okay, the inscription tells me to know myself, but if I don't know myself already, how am I going to know that the inscription applies to me? But if I know myself already, then the description doesn't apply to me.' So it seems like it both applies to me and doesn't apply to me.

Peter Adamson: So you've got this sort of sort of pointless command because either I already know myself in which case why bother telling me to know myself or I don't know myself. And then how would I get started? It's like Mino's paradox. Mino's paradox applied to the self. I guess the main source that you have in mind here is On the Trinity. Is that right? Because this is a text where Augustine tries to use the mind's relationships to itself to articulate the structure of the Trinity and seeing humans as a mirror or image of the Trinity. And then I suppose that another obvious source for them would be Avicenna, because when I think about self-awareness and medieval philosophy, I think about Avicenna's Flying Man argument. So this is his idea: it's kind of a thought experiment where you imagine God creating someone who's not enjoying any sensory access to the world around him. And then Avicenna claims that this man who would be created in midair, not seeing or hearing or smelling anything, he would still be aware of his own existence. Is this an important source for the 13th century debate on self-awareness?

Absolutely. And in fact, I think Avicenna's Flying Man is such a vivid example that it catalyzes, it seems to me, the debate about this problem of how we are able to know ourselves and yet we have so much trouble knowing ourselves. Because when you think about this flying man example, what it gives you in giving this hypothetical idea of a man who does not have any sensory input but nevertheless knows himself - it leads very naturally to the conclusion, 'well, maybe we're all like that.' If we could just strip away the sensory distractions, we would discover that at the core of the soul, there's a kind of self-knowing that's just always on. And so I think this image, and they see the same idea in Augustine, and this forms very powerful impetus for early 13th century thinkers to say, 'okay, well, we're confused and obscure to ourselves but that's because our sensory input or sensory stimuli is competing for attention with the soul itself.' And the soul is always self-knowing, it's sort of responsible. In the core of its being, it's always knowing itself. And the reason we're not able to tap into that is we're distracted. And so we have to turn the gaze away from the outside and into the inside so we can recover that self-knowing that we already had. And I call that a super conscious self-knowing because it's sort of outside the realm of consciousness but it's an activity that's always happening sort of in the depths of the soul.

Peter Adamson: It's a paradox that there's something that you've known all the time but your attention has to be called to it. And I would say the ultimate forefather of this must be Plotinus. Because he's got this idea that the soul is always connected to intellect and the job of philosophy is to alert you to the fact that your soul is always engaging in intellectual knowledge and of course he's a common source for both Avicenna and Augustine. Okay, so that's the kind of deep historical background. What was being done with these ideas in the early 13th century before we get to Albert?

Therese Cory: Yeah, so one thing I remember about the early 13th century is that in discussing self-awareness from a psychological perspective, asking the question 'how do we know ourselves,' that's really a kind of new thing that's being done philosophically. Because if you go back into the 12th century you discover that self-awareness is described, or self-knowledge is described, much more as an ethical kind of activity. And there's an ethical imperative to the soul. You have to turn your attention inward, recover your true dignity and recognize that you are an immaterial substance. And by having your mind led to this sort of concept of what the soul is in its inner core, then you'll have this access to the realm of the immaterial and you'll be able to sort of, your mind will then approach the divine. So there's a sort of trajectory of ethical purification that self-awareness is part of. And it's really in the beginning of the 13th century that we then start to see discussions of how exactly the mind knows itself. You know, what are the psychological mechanisms that make this phenomenon of self-awareness even possible? And as you can imagine at the beginning of any sort of trend like this, it takes a while even to sort out what are the different kinds of self-awareness that we're talking about? So they spend quite a lot of time, someone like William of Auvergne for instance, he's going to take the Avicennian and Augustinian line all the way down and say, 'yes, the soul is in fact super consciously self-knowing all the time. And we contrast that basic kind of essential self-knowing with moments at which the soul turns its attention inward and then is able to discover what it already knew.'

Peter Adamson: You basically have two levels of self-knowing. The permanent super conscious self-knowing, this paradoxical thing where I know myself without knowing that I know myself. And then there are these moments where I actually attend to that.

Therese Cory: Yeah. And so you've got these two kinds of self-awareness that are kind of being differentiated out very clearly and they go over and over and over this. But it's a little bit frustrating because they haven't quite taken the step at this point to then say, okay, you know, how do these kinds of self-knowing work?

Peter Adamson: Do they connect it a lot with metaphysical features of the self or the soul? I mean, is there an idea that the reason you're able to do this, to reflect on yourself, is because you're an immaterial soul? So that's something that a body wouldn't be able to do, but an immaterial soul could for some reason?

Therese Cory: Yeah. And that's actually, there's texts in Avicenna that give them this idea, and also in the Liber De Causis, that say that since you're immaterial, you should have some sort of ability to be present or be evident to yourself. And that's why this problem of the obscurity of your own conscious states - where you're not sure about your motivations or your moods or the nature of the mind - that's why it's so problematic in a view like this, because they want to say, 'look, if the soul is an immaterial entity, it should have all of this available to it.' Right? And the mere fact that it can reflect on itself and regain an awareness of what's happening within itself or the nature of the mind itself, that's sort of evidence for the immateriality of the soul in these thinkers.

Peter Adamson: Right. Because Avicenna actually says that things are automatically intelligible unless matter gets in the way. So what he would say is, 'well, given that your soul is immaterial, there's nothing to stop it from being known.' And in a way he's almost forced to say that you have super conscious self-knowledge, because otherwise he'd have to explain why you weren't knowing yourself, even though you're not material. So what does Albert do with all these ideas? I mean, he's a very careful reader of Avicenna among others. So does he also follow this Avicennan line that we find in William of Auvergne and other earlier 13th century thinkers?

Therese Cory: Yes. So, well, Albert's very eclectic in his own way. So he takes on board as many of the sources as he possibly can. And so we do see in him these theories similar to what we see in the earlier 13th century. So he posits his super conscious self-knowing. And then he says, well, sometimes the soul is able to turn its attention inward and think about itself. Right. But then he's also going to take another tradition on board, which is a sort of Aristotelian way of thinking about self-awareness. And in the Aristotelian tradition, the soul is aware of itself or the intellect is aware of itself, in its acts or in being activated thinking about something else. Right. And so in this tradition, there's no conflict between your awareness of the world and your self-awareness. In fact, your awareness is strengthened by your self-awareness. And you can see what kinds of things they sort of have in mind. If you think about the moments in your life that you remember yourself most clearly in, they tend to be the moments in which you had the strongest and most intense experience of something else. So, you know, we say 'everybody knows where they were on September 11th.' Right. They can tell you 'what was I thinking - who was I talking to - how did I feel - how did I react?' This huge sort of very intense, memorable self-awareness, but in an experience that's very, very outwardly focused. So in this tradition, the two, the awareness and the self-awareness have come along with each other. And Albert takes that on board as well. So, you know, so he just puts all of these traditions together.

Peter Adamson: So he would actually have three kinds of self-awareness. So there's super conscious self-knowing in the background. I'm always knowing myself. There's then becoming aware of that. 'Oh, I've been knowing myself the whole time!' And then there's this other self-awareness that happens when I know about something else or I'm aware of it. Is that supposed to be a separate activity? I mean, when I know myself in knowing what a giraffe is, for example, is the idea that when I know what a giraffe is, I just get some kind of self-awareness or self-knowledge for free along with it? Or is it more like I have to then reflect on the fact in a kind of second order way, reflect on the fact that I'm knowing what a giraffe is?

Therese Cory: Yeah. So the way Albert's able to integrate all of these different themes and different traditions is he considers them each as representing a different sort of, or accounting for a different kind of phenomenon. Right. And so for him, the Aristotelian tradition is describing what you describe as getting self-awareness for free while you're knowing a giraffe. Right. You're automatically aware of yourself as the one who's knowing the giraffe. But then turning your attention to yourself, he says, yeah, that's exactly what the Augustinians and the Avicennians talk about. Right. You turn your attention inward. And then in addition to all that, there's a kind of activity on the ground floor, or we could say the top floor of the soul outside the realm of consciousness where the soul is always active and always knowing itself in some diffuse way.

Peter Adamson: Okay. In that case, it seems like this is an example of Albert's eclecticism leading him to maybe even a better philosophical position. I mean, he's drawing on all these different sources and that actually leads him to articulate, or at least put his finger on a bunch of, I would say genuinely real psychological phenomena - although I'm not totally convinced that this super conscious self-awareness is always there. And I guess that Aquinas isn't either. And I guess that, I mean, if we think about Aquinas - who I haven't covered yet in the podcast, but I will be soon - usually when people think about him and his psychology or his epistemology, they think about him as being a thoroughgoing Aristotelian and hence some sort of empiricist. And empiricists usually think that the soul is a kind of blank slate. There's nothing there until you have experience. And he would then build intellectual knowledge on sense experience. I'll get to all this in a future episode, but let's just pretend that that's what he thinks. Yeah. Because it's sort of what he thinks. Wouldn't that mean that the only kind of self-awareness he can accept is the kind that you get through knowing something that's outside you because you couldn't get some kind of 'built in' self-awareness if you're just a blank slate.

Therese Cory: Yes. And here I think you see really, there's a key difference between Albert and Aquinas. Even though Aquinas is Albert's student, he's going to reject Albert's view on super conscious self-knowing. And he's going to insist that in a properly empiricist way, all our knowledge - even our self-awareness comes to us originating in some way in sense perception. And here's where I think we have to be a little bit careful though, because it's very easy to misinterpret Aquinas on this point to say that somehow we have to pretend like the intellect is a sense object and feed it through some sort of process that's designed for bringing us intellectual knowledge of sensory objects. So for instance, if we think about how that process works, right, when you know a frog, you have the sensory impression of the frog and then your imagination sort of puts together an image. I'm sure you're going to get into this in a later episode.

Peter Adamson: I'll probably use a giraffe instead of a frog, but yeah.

Therese Cory: Oh, I'm a little partial to frogs. So you can use a giraffe later. So then you have an image of the frog in your imagination. So even if the frog goes away in the senses, you still have that image there and then from that image, you're able to abstract a concept of 'what is a frog,' Intellectually understood. And some interpreters of Aquinas have said, well, he must think that something similar is of the intellect. If you haven't had a sensory experience of something, you have to start immediately at the level of the imagination and put together a sort of picture and then abstract a concept from that imaginative picture. So you would say, well, I somehow picture what an intellect might be, and then I abstract an image from it. And that's absolutely not what Aquinas means. What he wants to say is that the intellect, the human intellect, being a blank slate is only activated when it receives this information about objects from the outside world. And in that activation, it's then manifested to itself. So it's not as though it has to process information about itself. It's just present to itself instantly, intuitively, when it's engaged in knowing anything at all.

Peter Adamson: Basically, that just spells out something I said in a kind of vague way when I said you get it for free. Does he actually have arguments against the other option though? I mean, does he say, well, 'these other people have this idea of super conscious self knowing, but that's wrong because...?'

Therese Cory: Yes, he does. And it's one of the views that he frequently rejects. In fact, he never mentions Albert, when he does this.

Peter Adamson: That would be impolite.

Therese Cory: It would. It really would. But sort of to get a sense of what's at stake here, I think it's helpful to sort of, you could make an analogy for Albert's view of super conscious self knowing and Aquinas's view of sort of self knowing that's free, Or self awareness is free when you know anything at all. And you can think of this using the sort of classic example of 'the mind is a place that lights things up,' right? And Albert's view is very much like this idea that we know that we talk about outer space as dark, but in fact, we know that sunlight is streaming through it all the time. And the only reason we don't see it is that there's not anything for it to reflect off of to really then have an object to be visible. So sunlight isn't sort of a thing that we can see until it's reflected off of something. But nevertheless, we know that it's passing through space. And for Albert, this is exactly how the mind is. There's a sort of light in the mind, and the mind is always sort of filled with light, but in a kind of diffuse way when we're not thinking about anything. And he says that's what the super conscious self knowing is, is a kind of activity the mind is always on, but there's nothing to focus its attention on to make it visible to itself, but nevertheless, it's sort of present to itself.

Peter Adamson: And that's why you wouldn't notice that you're knowing yourself.

Therese Cory: Exactly. By definition, you can't notice because there's nothing to focus your attention on. And for Aquinas, he thinks of the mind instead as a kind of room that's hermetically sealed. It's absolutely dark. There's no activity in it at all. There's no light, nothing. And the moment at which the object - let's say, you know, like a raging frog comes crashing through the door, and two things happen at once. When the frog comes in, the light is sort of suddenly present in the room, lighting up the frog and the room. And so they have to be there together for Aquinas.

Peter Adamson: You mean the light that's coming in for the door? Yes. In your analogy.

Therese Cory: It's not, it's not the most, you know, perfect analogy, but at least it gets, gets to the root of what the difference is between Albert and Aquinas.

Peter Adamson: And so if I was going to distill that down into an objection to Albert, I guess what he would say is, well, 'if you're born in a state of bare potentiality, then why would this actuality always be there for you?' I think though that the Albert/Avicenna/Augustine position in the metaphysical picture that they're all working with is more plausible. I mean, it's one thing to say, 'well, you're your brain and you know, when you're born, your brain hasn't started to do anything of any interest yet. So how can you say that you're already self-knowing as a newborn baby?' But if you think that you are your immortal, immaterial soul, I would say there's a lot more reason to think that a soul like that should have a kind of built in actuality of its own rather than just being a mere potentiality, because a mere potentiality is nothing.

Therese Cory: Yeah. And that's why I think Aquinas is really, as far as I can tell, the first person in the 13th century to reject this notion of super conscious self-knowing because it just seems so intuitive, right? If you're going to accept the existence of an immaterial soul, then why not super conscious? Like how could it, how could it be ignorant of itself? But I think we have to remember for Aquinas that what's driving his rejection of super conscious self-knowing is ultimately his anthropology. And he's very committed to a notion of human nature as being essentially embodied. And embodiment is something positive. It's something that contributes to our knowledge, even though he defends existence of an immaterial soul, we're immaterial souls in an embodied way. And that means we have to be knowers and self-knowers in an embodied way. So his worry about Avicenna and Albert on this particular issue is that it makes the soul too active in a way that's independent from the body. And to him, that sounds too much like saying that the soul is a kind of angelic substance that's united to a body. It's not really validating the importance of embodiment and sensory perception in our ordinary knowing, even our knowing of ourselves. And I think also for him - and we can see this especially in light of the historical background - if the soul is always super consciously self-knowing and yet we're not able to tap into that on a regular basis - you start to get the sense that, especially when you read William of Auvergne, it's your fault, right? You're the one who's been distracted by your sensory environment. And if you focused a little harder and turned your attention inward, you would be able to sort of start acting like a soul. And for Aquinas, I think that's particularly distasteful because it suggests that the sensory environment somehow detracts from our knowing, or provides a kind of disadvantage in our doing the kind of thing that a knower does - knowing ourselves. And I think that is why he's so attracted to this more Aristotelian tradition of saying that the soul's self - any kind of self-knowing - has to be predicated on the activation of the intellect that comes originating in sense perception.

Peter Adamson: You don't perfect the soul by turning away from the bodily world. You perfect the soul by investigating it. So it's a kind of Aristotelian anti-Neoplatonist move.

Therese Cory: In a way you could say, well, you discover who you really are in your interactions with the world.

Peter Adamson: I guess in that way, Aquinas's position might seem to be a better fit then for what will happen later with the enlightenment and maybe even nowadays. And so I wonder whether you think that Aquinas's views on self-awareness resonate with later views on self-awareness. So like what happened in the 14th century, even nowadays in terms of contemporary debates on self-awareness.

Therese Cory: So I think Aquinas is often put in connection with Descartes on the one hand, and Hume on the other. And Descartes and Hume are now sort of thought to represent two poles on self-awareness. Descartes sort of thinks that you can - very much in a way like Avicenna - you can sort of have this awareness of yourself independently of any sensory perception, or at least that seems to be what he thinks. And Hume sort of takes the opposite view and says, 'no, you can only be aware of your acts.' Right. So I'm aware if I really think about it, I'm aware of thoughts, but I can't really get at any sort of thinker. I'm not really aware of any sort of thinker. I'm just sort of positing or postulating that there's a thinker behind all those acts. And so there's a lot of debate in the literature: is Aquinas closer to Descartes or closer to Hume? And I think in a way he does something very clever that allows him to carve out a middle ground between the two of them. And he says that the human intellect isn't just aware of thoughts as though they're kind of objects in the mind - so this is against Hume. And we often talk, I think - and for Aquinas, this would be incorrect - to talk about a thought as a thing or a feeling or an insight. He would much prefer to construe these in terms of verbs. It's me thinking, me feeling, me discovering. And for him, the situation is very much similar to any sort of sensory experience in which you see an agent performing an action. You don't have some sort of experience of the action and then an experience of the agent. I don't see running and then a runner. I see the runner precisely as running and I perceive running as the runner running. And so they're indissociable. And he sees the mind in exactly the same way: I don't perceive a bare mind and I don't perceive just thoughts. I perceive myself thinking and that's part of this sort of Aristotelian idea that 'I'm always revealed to myself as acting in some way.'

Peter Adamson: And if one were to try to connect this to contemporary debates about the philosophy of mind, I suppose that a lot of people nowadays would say that consciousness is some sort of second order reflection on, or just background awareness of, one's psychological states or something like that. And I take it from what you're saying that Aquinas would reject that, right? Because he doesn't think of self-awareness as second order. He thinks of it as somehow already present in the first order.

Therese Cory: Yeah. So he would defend what we would call now, I think, a 'same order' theory of conscious, well, in this case, self-consciousness precisely. So a second order theory might say, 'well, you have these kinds of first order acts that are focused on objects in the world and then second order acts are focused on those acts.' So first order act: I'm knowing the frog. Second order act: I'm knowing that I know the frog. I know my act knowing the frog. And for Aquinas, there aren't - I think he explains self-awareness in such a way that there aren't two separate acts. There's only one act, your act of knowing the frog. And it's from the inside of that act that the mind is lit up to itself. And what's great about a theory like this, I think, or an advantage of a theory like this, is that it's a little easier to explain first person phenomena from this kind of perspective. Because when you've got a second order act focused on a first order act, it immediately raises the question, 'well, I'm perceiving an act. How do I know whose act this is?' Where Aquinas can simply say, well, you're aware of yourself on the inside of the act. And so there's never any sort of question of how, whose act is this? Because you're perceiving it from the inside rather than from the outside.

Peter Adamson: Right. So if you got angry and I got angry, and if I was aware of your being angry, I should be able to know that that's not the same thing as my being angry. And his explanation for that would be that part of what it is for me to get angry is to be aware that it's me who's getting angry. And thus there's no problem about how I tell the difference.

Therese Cory: Yes. Because you're aware of your getting angry from the inside of that act. Right? Because you're aware of my getting angry from the outside. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.