On Awareness of Awareness
by Alexandria Ham

This paper was written by a student at the University of Hawaii as part of an Infinity Foundation sponsored project.

1. Introduction: The Issues

To be conscious is to be aware of the world or of one's self and yet, how aware are we concerning our own consciousness? When consciousness itself becomes the object of epistemological investigation, knowledge becomes self-appraising. In pursuing an undertaking of this nature I must effectively question the knowledge I have pertaining to my means of obtaining knowledge. The difficulty which arises in this line of questioning is apparent: how can I discover the limitations of my knowledge concerning my own means to knowledge? To use an analogy from the Nyaya Sutras: how can one expect to judge the accuracy of a weighing scale by the same scale? In order to arrive at an answer to this central question, several preliminary questions must be answered:

1. Am I capable of knowing all my own cognitive states and mental processes? To answer this question in the affirmative would entail that I am virtually omniscient with respect to my own awareness.

2. What form of knowledge do I have concerning my own cognitive states: is it perceptual, direct, inferential or indirect?

3. Is it possible that I could be mistaken about my own current cognitive state? There are four distinct types of mistakes possible in this regard: three errors of assessment – pertaining to the type, context or intensity of cognition – and one error in linguistic usage, a cognitive error due solely to an error in the use of language.

4. What is the structure of self-awareness? More precisely: is cognition self intimating or is a second act of cognition required for cognition to become the object of self-awareness?

This last concern, will be at the forefront of the present investigation. This is also the question which grounds the debate between reflexivism and irreflexivism. The primary objective of this paper will be to determine, from what one can know about one's own awareness, whether the structure of awareness is self-illuminating (reflexivism) or requires a second act of awareness to illuminate it (irreflexivism).

As will become evident in the course of this paper, these questions are intimately interwoven; depending upon the order in which these questions are addressed, the answer for one may logically pre-determine the answers for the rest of the set. Accordingly, as the methodology of this paper reflects, sometimes direct questions are only answerable by multiple – if not seemingly round about – ways. In this manner, this paper will navigate through different approaches in attempting to bring to light the nature of consciousness, especially whether it is self-intimating or not.

The debate between reflexivism and irreflexivism has a long history and continues to flourish in contemporary philosophy. Indeed, one of the most striking features of this debate is the seeming timelessness of it. Perhaps the richest, and certainly the earliest, formulation of this debate took place in Indian philosophy between the Naiyayikas and the Prabhakaras. This is not, however, to imply that the debate between the Nyaya and the Prabhakara schools is ancient history, far from it. As the present paper serves to illustrate, this classical Indian debate is not only alive and well but pertinent and illuminating to current issues in the philosophy of mind.

The present investigation into the nature of consciousness will address two major debates in the philosophy of mind: the internalism-externalism debate and the reflexivism-irreflexivism debate previously mentioned. From this preliminary investigation, dealing also with memories of the past, the current inquiry will then focus on the problems these theories of awareness encounter when attempting to account for the human capacity to make inferences. Moving away from the nature of inference, the arguments concerning linguistic utterances will be addressed as an additional avenue for determining the knowledge we have concerning our own cognitive states and the mode of awareness available to us for determining these states. Any account of language requires an account of knowledge and no account of knowledge is possible without an account of its opposites: uncertainty and mistake. Hence the next section will deal with the things that fail to be knowledge: doubt and error. This section is particularly pertinent in regard to two of our preliminary questions: do I have full knowledge of my current cognitive state and could I be mistaken. The final section will deal with our concepts of self and the compatibility or incompatibility of these concepts with the views of reflexivism and irreflexivism.

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About the Author

Alexandria Ham received her undergraduate degree in philosophy, religion and psychology with honors in both philosophy and religion from The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa in 2000 and was also awarded the Interfaith Scholarship for the year 2000. Alexandria began her graduate studies in philosophy in 2001 at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and received a Master's degree in May 2003. In Hawai'i, she has been a recipient of the Infinity Foundation Grant for the academic years 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. Her main interests are in Indian philosophy of language and metaphysics.