At the turn of the 19th century in Germany, one finds a discussion about whether the self is present in expert action that mirrors some of our present concerns. At this time, there was a fairly widespread conception of consciousness as comprising three parts: an awareness of an object, of the self, and of the self’s representation of the object. Karl Reinhold referred to this as the “principle of consciousness,” which he stated as follows: “in consciousness representation is distinguished through the subject from the subject and object and related to both” (1790: p. 167). What exactly this means is, of course, a difficult question, however, let us focus on the idea that consciousness was thought to contain a representation of the subject, or what I would say, the self.
This tripartite model of consciousness was seen as general model of consciousness, not simply a model of consciousness in expert action. However, an objection voiced to it at the time was that in expert action, there is no awareness of the self, because we sometimes we get “lost,” in thought, in sensation, or in action. James Messina (2011) points out that this objection was made by Johann Schwab, who, commenting on Reinhold’s principle of consciousness, asks, “Is there not a consciousness where we do not distinguish ourselves from the object; and is this not the case when we lose ourselves, as one says, in a sensation?” (Schwab, 1791: p. 335, quoted in Messina (2011). For example, when we are engrossed in a philosophical problem and making progress (which may happen occasionally), are we not lost in thought? And, when all is going well, might not the self disappear in running a marathon, or dancing Swan Lake?
The contemporary philosopher Uriah Kriegel (2003), who has a conception of consciousness that is similar to the nineteenth century tripartite model, addressed such objections by making the awareness of the self in conscious experience implicit, rather than explicit. On Kriegel’s view, for example, “in your auditory experience of [a] bagpipe you are aware primarily, or explicitly, of the bagpipe sound [the object]; but you are also implicitly aware that this auditory experience of the bagpipe [your representation of the bagpipe] is your experience [the self]” (2003, p. 104) But as I have suggested, one need not concede as much, since a more accurate description of such situations is not that one gets lost, but rather that all those uninvited worries about death, taxes, and the like that have been crowding your mind vanish. The self is there when movement flows and you feel lost; but it is a self unencumbered by distractions.116 For similar reasons, we can question the idea that the self gets lost. Does one really lose the self, or does one experience oneself as focused on a particularly engaging topic? Again, as with bodily movement, I would say that intense thought can be an escape, not because one loses the self in it, but it prevents one from thinking unpleasant thoughts.
Schwab voiced another objection to Reinhold’s model of consciousness, and in particular to the idea that the self is always present in consciousness, and this was that we lose the self in overwhelming bodily pain. But is it true that when we experience overwhelming pain, the only thing present to our minds is the pain? As expert action does not typically involve excrutiating bodily pain, the case of the self getting lost in pain is a tangential to my concerns and it seems that when experts are in moderate pain, they may very well have a sense that they themselves are aware of being in pain. If only, the dancer might think, I could turn my awareness away from it.117 As for overwhelming pain, someone who accepts Kriegel’s view might resort to making the awareness of the self implicit, however, there is another line of defense: since, arguably, one can’t actually remember what goes on in extreme pain, one might argue that, in such a situation, it is impossible to know whether the self is present. Perhaps, in such a situation, one has the experience, I am in pain, yet one forgets.118