A drawing of a stick figure looking at their reflection in a mirror.

What Christopher Peacocke means by ‘Reflective Self-consciousness’

Christopher Peacocke’s The Mirror of the World (2014) is largely about self-consciousness. In the book, Peacocke distinguishes “reflective” self-consciousness from other kinds of self-consciousness. In this post, I will try to understand what Peacocke means by ‘reflective’. Spoiler: it is not what I and many other philosphers mean by ‘reflective’.

For anyone who wants to read the relevant portions of Peacocke’s book, everything I discuss comes from chapters 9 and 10.

1. ‘Reflective’ and Mirrors

When someone says ‘reflective’ you might think of mirrors. Or, if you’re like me, you might think of a certain kind of reasoning. But if you’re Peacocke, then you might think of both.†

A drawing of a stick figure looking in a mirror.Start with mirrors. When we look into a mirror, we explain what we see in terms of our appearance. After all, our appearance in a mirror just is a reflection of our appearance. So mirrors allow us to become aware of our appearance from a third-personal point of view.

Similarly, we can become selfconscious third-personally. For example, when someone sees their facial reaction(s) on the Kiss cam, they might become aware that they are no longer excited at the prospect of kissing their partner in public.

But Peacocke wants to argue that we can also become self-conscious without this third-person point of view — without mirrors, so the speak. After all, in a world without mirrors (and Kiss cams), we can become self-conscious. I will talk about how this works in a minute. But first we have to unpack some jargon.

2. ‘Conscious’

Imagine that you are looking at yourself in the mirror. When you do this, you are conscious of some thing(s) — e.g., a mirror and your mirror image.

A drawing of a stick figure looking at themself in a mirror from the first-person perspective.

NB: By ‘conscious of X‘ I mean only that you were aware of X and / or that you could verbally report about X.

Now, even though you were conscious of something, you were not necessarily in a self-conscious state. You were in a mere subject-reflexive state.

3.  ‘Subject-Reflexive’

When you think about something from your first-person perspective, then you are in a subject-reflexive state — according to Peacocke’s use of the term. And that makes sense. That meaning is kind of built into ‘subject-reflexive’, which literally means something like “referring to the subject.” So, for example, your subject-reflexive memories are those in which you are the one reliving the memory. And your subject-reflexive memory of looking in a mirror involves you, the subject, seeing yourself in a mirror.

A drawing of a stick figure thinking about looking at themself in a mirror from the first-person perspective.

And, importantly, when you are in a subject-reflexive state, it is immediately obvious that you are the subject of that state. Why? Well, because Peacocke built that into his notion of subject-reflexive states.

So when you remember that time that you were looking in a mirror, it’s immediately obvious that you are the one looking into the mirror (as opposed to, say, some other person in that memory).

4.  ‘Self-conscious’

There is a sense in which you know that you are thinking of yourself in a subject reflexive state. It’s obvious. But are you aware that you are thinking of yourself? No. At least not necessarily. That might sound weird, so allow me to explain.

A subject-reflexive thought is merely first-order: a thought about some thing. Awareness is second-order: a thought about a first-order thought.

And self-consciousness is always a second order state. A subject-reflexive state is not.

So what first-order thought are you aware of when you are self-conscious? A subject-reflexive state.

A drawing of a stick figure thinking about what they, themself, look like in a mirror.

Just a moment ago, you were imagining that you were looking into a mirror. That was just a self-reflexive state. But if you became aware that you were thinking about yourself (“Apparently I am remembering that time that I was looking in a mirror.”) then you entered a self-conscious state. Why? Because you had become aware that you were in a subject-reflexive state. And that’s just what self-consciousness is.

5.  ‘Reflective’

Now, what does ‘reflective’ add to ‘self-conscious’ in ‘reflective self-consciousness’? It has to do with how you become aware that you are thinking of yourself — how you become self-conscious. Reflective self-consciousness is just one way to become self-conscious. There are others.

5.1  Non-reflective Self-consciousness

Consider a famous story from John Perry (1979).

I once followed a trail of sugar on a supermarket floor, pushing my cart down the aisle on one side of a tall counter and back the aisle on the other, seeking the shopper with the torn sack to tell him he was making a mess. With each trip around the counter, the trail became thicker. But I seemed unable to catch up. Finally it dawned on me. I was the shopper I was trying to catch.

John Perry's sugar shopper as a stick figure.

John Perry was self-conscious, in a way. He was, in fact, thinking about himself. He thought, “Someone is spilling sugar”. And, in fact, ‘someone’ referred to himself. And John was, in fact, aware that he was thinking about ‘someone’. He thought, “That someone probably doesn’t realize that they are spilling sugar. I should tell them.” And, of course, ‘someone’ referred to himself. But John didn’t immediately know that he was the subject of these thoughts. John had to do some investigating and reasoning to realize it. So John Perry’s self-consciousness was not reflective. I’ll explain why in the next section.

5.2  Reflective Self-consciousness

In cases of reflective self-consciousness, it’s immediately apparent that you are the person about which you are aware of thinking. You don’t need to investigate and / or reason your way to that conclusion.

So reflective self-consciousness is not like looking in a mirror. Looking in a mirror is a third-personal way of looking at ourselves. We see an image in the mirror and we have to reason or investigate our way to the conclusion that the mirror image is just a reflection of us. We may do this quickly, but it is not immediate. It is not obvious. You will know this already if you have been home alone and been spooked by your own reflection. You weren’t expecting to see someone else in your home. And when you saw your reflection, you thought it was someone else. It wasn’t immediately obvious that it was just your reflection in the mirror.

But it is obvious in Peacocke’s reflective self-consciousness. As soon as we have thought(s) about our subject-reflexive thought(s), we know that we are the subject of those thoughts. We do not need to investigate and reason our way to that conclusion.A drawing of a stick figure in a state of reflective self-consciousness.

So when Peacocke uses ‘reflective’, he is referring to a special kind of awareness: an immediate and first-personal awareness of one’s mind.

6.  Conclusion

So — in the philosophers’ jargon — a state of reflective self-consciousness is a subject-reflexive awareness of being in a subject-reflexive state. But now you know how to unpack that jargon. You know that a reflective self-conscious state is one of which you become aware immediately, first-personally, and without having to reason. This meaning of ‘reflective’ is much more specific than what I (and many other philosophers) mean by ‘reflective’.

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† “The reflecting state of the subject is something whose properties, like that of a reflection, are explained by the nature of what is being reflected, something that exists independently of being reflected” (Peacocke, Chapter 9).







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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

4 thoughts on “What Christopher Peacocke means by ‘Reflective Self-consciousness’”

  1. I hate to sound snooty (about Peacocke) but this is merely a restatement of Kant’s account of the transcendental unity of apperception, reclothed in more contemporary jargon

    1. Perhaps. But I wonder if the rest of Peacocke’s view (which I have skipped, of course) would differentiate itself (at least partially) from Kant’s. There is a lot to Peacocke’s reflective self-consciousness. Much more than what I have included. I was merely trying to capture a differentiating aspect of ‘reflective’. There are other differentiating aspects that I have not mentioned, but they are either based on what I have included or else far too esoteric for a public blog post.

  2. A related (and perhaps more sophisticated) parallel occurs in the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre, especially “Being and Nothingness”, where he distinguishes between thetic, nonthetic, prereflective, and reflective consciousness. Worth investigating, if you haven’t already. Some of the details are manifest in his brilliant critique of Freud.

    1. Thanks Stefan! Peacocke mentions Sartre a lot in the book. He even distinguishes his own ‘reflective self-consciousness’ from Sartre’s (Chapter 9, Section 1):

      Reflective self-consciousness as understood by Sartre in La Transcendance de l’Ego and in his 1947 lecture ‘Conscience de soi et connaissance de soi’ includes awareness expressed in the judgement ‘I’m in pain’. As I noted, in awareness that one is in pain, the awareness is of a state of consciousness that does not have (or does not necessarily have) the subject-reflexive character required by the present definition. The awareness may merely be of the pain. We might, stipulatively, call the wider notion Sartre is using ‘reflective subject-consciousness’, as opposed to reflective self-consciousness. Sartrean reflective subject-consciousness is a notion in good standing. It is just not the one on which I am focusing here. Reflective subject-consciousness does not, in my view, involve any reference, in the subject’s mental states, to the first person notion or concept, as opposed, as always, to merely using the notion or concept.

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