Many philosophers now believe that the self is in some way constructed by narrative; through socio-linguistically mediated story-telling, we achieve diachronic unity by taking a reflective stance on our experiences. According to the strong formulation of this thesis, conscious beings only develop selves once they acquire the higher-order linguistic and reflective capacities required for autobiographical self-understanding.
Against this claim, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi argue that our capacity for narrative construction is prefigured and underpinned by a more basic form of self-awareness. Our experiences do not initially manifest as a sequence of anonymous events, only for us to subsequently reconcile them as our own via autobiographical thematisation. While autobiography may scaffold experiences and connect them over time, our stream of consciousness possesses an in-built, pre-linguistic and pre-reflective unity that the authors call the ‘minimal self’.
Gallagher and Zahavi’s formulation of the minimal model is premised upon a phenomenological account of self-consciousness, which involves a commitment to what we might call the ‘reflexivity thesis’. According to this thesis, subjectivity is not a dissociable aspect of our mental lives, but a transcendental pre-condition for all conscious experience. Consciousness always, and without exception, implies a tacit form of self-consciousness.
An implication of the reflexivity thesis is that it is not possible for a person to be aware of a given thought without at the same time being tacitly aware that it is their thought. All our occurent experiences are furnished with what Gallagher and Zahavi call a pre-reflective sense of ownership or mineness in virtue of which we are able to immediately recognise them as our own.
If the reflexivity thesis is true, and all our thoughts are self-intimating in this manner, then how do we make sense of the phenomenon of thought insertion? Patients experiencing the symptom report that they are introspectively aware of a thought ‘inside their mind’ that is not their own, most commonly asserting that it has been put there by another agent or external force (Rachel Gunn provides some excellent examples of patient reports in her blog post here).
Gallagher and Zahavi’s answer to this question is that subjects do not, in fact, deny ownership for their thought. What sufferers really mean by ‘they are not my thoughts’ is ‘I am not the agent of the thought’ or ‘I did not intentionally bring this thought about’. By striking this distinction between agency and ownership, Gallagher and Zahavi are able to defend the phenomenological theory of self-consciousness at the heart of the minimal model.
I side with theorists such as Bortolotti and Broome, Billon and Martin and Pacherie in arguing that the agency-based approach suffers from some fairly damning inadequacies. Perhaps the most significant problem is that citing an abnormal sense of agency does not help us distinguish thought insertion from the non-pathological and mundane experience of having an unbidden thought.
But prior to explanatory issues, it is not clear why we should interpret patients as merely denying agency for thoughts, as opposed to taking them at face value as denying ownership. The reasons Gallagher and Zahavi provide for rejecting an ownership-based interpretation are unsatisfactory and ultimately question-begging; without first assuming that awareness and self-awareness are inseparable, we have little reason to suppose, as proponents of the agency-based account do, that subjects with thought insertion are equivocating.
Insofar as subjects with thought insertion lack a sense of ownership for some of their thoughts, the reflexivity thesis is too strong a characterisation of the relationship between awareness and self-awareness. While Gallagher and Zahavi’s notion of a pre-reflective sense of self is salient, I contend that in order to properly characterise the anomalous experience of those afflicted with thought insertion, the robustness of the minimal self must not be over-exaggerated.