Self-consciousness is the mental activity through which the subject feels a sense of being or existing as a unique and total individual. Although it does not obviate the idea of the unconscious, this notion comes out of reflexive philosophy and its derivatives that hold that the human faculty of consciousness, apparent to itself and having itself as its object, marks the primacy of consciousness in the definition of the human psyche. This sense of identity, this initial subjective stance, is established gradually, being linked with the general development of the human mind in its relationship to itself and the outside world.
This notion has taken on different forms throughout intellectual history, beginning with René Descartes's insistence on the primacy of consciousness in the human mind. In the nineteenth century, after Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's work but before that of Edmund Husserl, Franz von Brentano posited self-consciousness as being secondary to consciousness or intentionality toward the object. Husserl inverted that order, positing a reflective unit that is the mental locus of the relationship between subject and world, a pro-nominal form in which the subject, through discourse, identifies with what it believes it is or would like to be. This internal perception is also linked to the specular image of the body.
Finally, this notion is found in the work of Ludovic Dugas, a late-nineteenth-century semiologist. Drawing from the work of Hippolyte Taine and Théodule Ribot, Dugas approached the idea of self-consciousness from a negative perspective by looking at its dysfunction: "state[s] in which the subject feels estranged from his being and from things and begins to doubt that all that he is feeling is real." Such states entail alienation and the ego's inner loss of meaning—a loss of the immediate grasp of the ego's own inner states and the sense of existing. This sense of self-estrangement when the subject, in a state of indifference, feels his acts and emotions eluding him, is called depersonalization or loss of self-consciousness.
The idea of mental activity that supposedly situates the individual as being self-present and in an unmediated state in relation to himself, first attacked by Friedrich Nietzsche, was to be further diminished by Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan showed how Freud's discoveries decentered the subject from the self-consciousness heretofore upheld by Hegelian philosophy and the solipsism of the Cartesian cogito. In "The Mirror Stage As Formative of the I Function" (1949/2002), Lacan describes the conditions for the appearance of self-consciousness: the moment when the infant, first in its mother's arms and later, once the baby is physically able, by itself, can "already recognize his own image as such in a mirror. This recognition is indicated by the illuminative mimicry of the Aha-Erlebnis " (p. 3). This jubilatory assumption on the part of the infant situates the ego and the recognition of the bodily imago within the necessary mediation of the gaze and the desire of the other, initially represented by the mother. Without letting himself be caught up within the fiction of this movement, Lacan emphasizes "the imaginary capture of the self through specular reflection within the function of misrecognition [méconnaissance ] that remains attached to it" since alienation is the fact of the subject who is not "a being conscious of itself." Jean Laplanche later called this mental activity the "capability or incapability of consciousness."
Child psychoanalysis (Donald Winnicott, Serge Lebovici, and Michel Soulé) defines the child's sense of existing within the movement of his or her constitution of an inner universe, a container that makes possible relations with the self and the outside world. This container is elaborated gradually beginning with the child's experience with the mother, which is never totalizing, and it keeps the subject from being absent from itself. The child's rudimentary ego, after a period where there is no distinction between it and the world, creates a boundary where the I and the not-I are distinguishable, just as the image of the body takes on wholeness.
Didier Anzieu emphasizes in The Skin-Ego (1985) that "all mental function, in its development, is supported by a bodily function whose workings it transposes onto the mental plane." This implies that all ego feeling is both mental and corporeal. Involved here are the subject's sense of continuity in time, of proximity to self, of causality (the I ), and of boundaries of which the subject is not always conscious, but which are revealed when normal mechanisms fail (depersonalization and certain states of mystical ecstasy). Carl Gustav Jung, although he prefers to speak in terms of "ego-consciousness," also links this mental activity to the child's progressive individual differentiation. If the mother is the condition for the appearance of ego-consciousness, she is also that from which the child must distinguish itself. The process of individuation becomes merged with self-consciousness and "affect enables us to experience consciousness of ourselves with greater acuity and intensity." Finally, in Freud's work the notion of self-consciousness is not often used. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) he emphasizes that self-consciousness is suspended in dreams. In "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914) he links it to, on the one hand, moral consciousness, which serves philosophical introspection, and, on the other, to the self-perception that nourishes self-esteem. In "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" (1921) this sense of continuity that the individual acquires through his traditions, habits, and sphere of activity, this conscious personality, this "voice of consciousness" will be overtaken by the force of suggestion and hypnosis or, alternatively, will be deemed to be temporarily lost to the individual "following his absorption into the crowd."
Expanded knowledge about children, neurology, and the study of failures of self-consciousness can provide a better approach. It should also be noted that the distinctions between the self (in the various usages of that term) and the ego can help to establish with precision their locus and movement.
Overall, the notion of self-consciousness remains marked by its philosophical origins. There can be no complete assurance of its consistency within psychoanalysis.
Marie Claire Lanct't BÉlanger
See also: Alienation; Alpha-elements; Brentano, Franz von; Depersonalization; Ego feeling; I; Identity; Infant development; Mirror stage; Phenomenology and psychoanalysis; Schilder, Paul Ferdinand; Self-image; Self-representation.
Dugas, Ludovic. (1898). Observations et documents: Un cas de dépersonnalisation. Revue philosophique, 14, 500-507.
Freud, Sigmund. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The mirror stage as formative of the I function. InÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1949)