Boundaries of the self

Project for FNS “pro*doc” application (2 candocs)



Project leaders: Kevin Mulligan, Gianfranco Soldati, Otto Bruun, Olivier Massin, Fabrice Teroni

Since the birth of modern philosophy there has been an emphasis on the metaphysical distinction between world and self. The aim of the project is not to investigate this distinction from the third person perspective, but to attempt to capture it from the first person perspective. We intend to study how subjects access and distinguish between the world, the body, and their own selves in experience.

Among the objects of our experience, there are some that we come to regard as independent of ourselves. Developmental psychologists study how children come to conceive of objects as distinct from themselves. Cognitive psychologists investigate the pathologies of patients who come to conceive of parts of their own bodies as alien, and similar cases involving a diminished capacity to properly draw the boundary between oneself and the world. Philosophers and psychologists alike also examine the folk-psychological conceptual framework in terms of which we distinguish between elements in our psychological make-up that truly constitute who we are and those that are ultimately alien to us.

The main hypothesis behind this project is that affective phenomena play a distinctive role in the subject’s delineation of the relevant boundaries. In order to test this hypothesis, the project comprises three subprojects. The first one concerns the generic question of how we come to delineate between the self and the external world. The second one looks more specifically at how we trace a boundary between those elements of the external world that are parts of us (our own body) and other elements. The third one studies a similar question arising in the purely psychological realm regarding how we isolate within our psychological makeup those elements that are authentically our “selves”. 

The common thread which binds the three subprojects together is the assumption, relevant in both psychology and in philosophy, that peculiar affective phenomena are fundamental to our understanding of how such self-conceptions are formed. Theorists appeal to peculiar feelings - a ‘sense of reality’ (cf. subproject A), or a ‘sense of belonging’ (subproject B), or self-reflective emotions (cf. subproject C) - to account for the many puzzles concerning how we make sense of our relationship with the outside world, with our own body, and with our own emotions and actions. Such appeals are symptomatic of the broader affective revolution which has swept psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy over the last few years. Our project aims to examine the viability of these affective approaches to the puzzles cited.


Subproject A: The self and the world

i. Summary

With respect to the world, the aim is to understand how the self distinguishes itself from the external world. There are two distinct questions here. The first one belong to psychology, it concerns the development of the distinction between self and world: how does the self come to the idea of an independently existing reality? A broad trend in developmental psychology holds that toddlers do not conceive of the object of their perception as existing independently of them, but rather acquire this self-world distinction through experience (Baldwin 1906, Piaget 1955, Russell 1996, cf. O’Keefe & Nadel 1978, Hopkins, 1987, cf. Spelke 1991 for some recent scepticism regarding this thesis, and Russell 1995 for an answer). The second question belongs to epistemology, it concerns the justification of our belief in the external world: how do we know that the world exists independently of our experience? A promising, yet long neglected, answer to both questions holds that the experience of the resistance of the world to our voluntary actions provides one way in which we get to experience the world as existing independently of the mind. What can’t be modified at will, what resists, exists independently of our minds. The aim of this subproject is to develop and assess this hypothesis.

ii. State of the debate

Among those who agree that (some version of) the problem of the self-world distinction is a real issue, some think that the experience of resistance has no peculiar role to play in the genetic explanation nor in the justification of this distinction. An important and rival answer, to be found in Descartes and Berkeley, holds that it is rather the visual experience of the spatial exteriority of perceptual objects that grounds this distinction. Historically, philosophers and psychologists became interested in the role of the experience of resistance in the developmental and the epistemological explanations in the beginning of the XXe century, in relation to the so-called “Streit über die existenz der Aussenwelt”. Authors such as J.M. Baldwin (1906), W. Dilthey (1890), G. Heynmans (1905), W. James (1912) and M. Scheler (1927), developed this hypothesis. Before, authors such as Locke, Condillac and Fichte came close to it, but Maine de Biran (2001) was probably the first who articulated it precisely. After having been sporadically revived (Stout 1931, Hampshire 1959), recent literature has put the ‘experience of resistance’ account back in the spotlight (Baldwin 1995, Russell 1996, Smith 2002, Cassam 2005). One important discussion opposes those who think that resistance is a purely muscular phenomenon (Baldwin 1995) to those who consider it as a wider phenomenon involved in every sensory modality (Russell 1996). O. Massin is currently finishing a PhD on the objectivity of the sense of touch in which he defends the view that the experience of muscular resistance justifies (on an internalist conception of justification) our belief in the external world.

iii. Research plan

This subproject, focusing on the constitution of the self-world boundary via our affective responses to our environment, will provide a first description, classification, and analysis of the feeling of effort or resistance, and evaluate the hypothesis that it is through those feelings that the self becomes aware of the mind-independence of the world. It will consider the way in which those affective competences might become selectively or collectively impaired, giving rise to distinctive pathologies.

The fundamental issue concerns the classification of the ‘experience of resistance’ as a mental phenomenon. There is reason to think that it is not purely perceptual in nature. First, it involves a conative or active component: in order to experience the resistance of an object, we must act on it. In experiencing resistance, we seem to act on the very same thing that we perceive. Second, it includes an affective dimension. An argument for this is that “resistance”, in the present sense, is the converse of the relation of effort (to say ‘O resists to S’ amounts to say that ‘S makes an effort on O’) and that feelings of efforts have, in contrast to neutral perceptions, a negative polarity. In other words, experience of effort matters to us in a way that perception of colours or sounds does not: the former, but not the latter, is presented to us as episodes that we would prefer to avoid, ceteris paribus. Such polarity, or valence, is often regarded as distinctive of affective phenomena. Thus feelings of effort may be considered as affective phenomena through which the self experiences the world as existing independently from its experiences.

Several questions should be addressed.

(i) If the experience of resistance is a complex experience, made up of a conation and a perception bearing on the same object, how is it that it gives rise to such a unitary feeling of mind-independence?

(ii) Which is the right type of conation or pro-attitude involved in the experience of resistance: intention, desire, volition, instinct, impulse, or drive? What is the link between the experience of resistance or effort and the phenomenology of agency?

(iii) Is the experience of resistance a direct or intuitive apprehension of the mind-independence of the world (Scheler 1927) or is it only one crucial premise of an inference to the conclusion that the world exists independently (Brown 1827)?

(iv) Is the experience of resistance a precondition for intentionality, the fact that some (or all) mental phenomena refer to objects distinct from themselves? If so, how are we to analyse the experience of resistance in term of perceptions and conations, which seem to be already intentional states (Stout 1931, Scheler 1977)?

(v) Is the experience of resistance really necessary for mind-independence or is the purely perceptual (non-affective) cognition of spatial distance between the subject and the object sufficient?

(vi) Is the very idea of experiencing mind-independence coherent? Doesn’t it imply the perception of unperceived things (Hume; Siegel, forthcoming)? Can we avoid this problem by appealing to a non-modal view of existential dependence?

(vii) Is the experience of the resistance of the physical world restricted to the typical case of muscular efforts (Baldwin 1995) or is it involved in every perceptual experience, including visual or auditory ones (Russell 1996)? Which properties are presented as resistant? Can colours resist (Katz 1935)? Is there a phenomenological ground for the distinction between primary (or response-independent) and secondary (or response-dependent) properties, only the first ones (solidity, shape) being presented as resistant?

(viii) Does the experience of resistance reveal the independently existing world to an already constituted and reflexively conscious self, or does it generate both the feeling of the existence of the world and the feeling of the existence of the self together?

In the above, the feeling of resistance has been considered only as an affect giving us access to the independence of the material world. A further hypothesis, which is of special interest in the context of the study of affective phenomena, is that certain experiences of mental or social resistance could give us access to the objectivity of the axiological world (Scheler 1927). Such an axiological resistance can take various forms. In the case of social norms, blame and punishment may constitute a social form of resistance (Durkheim 1894). Concerning moral values, cases of imaginative resistance may constitute a mental and affective experience of their objectivity (Weatherson 2004).

iv. Significance

The study of the feeling of resistance as an epistemic access to mind-independence has important repercussions. Firstly, intentionality is often considered, from the first person perspective, as an irreducible and primitive feature of intrinsically intentional mental states. The fact that the tree I see is presented to me as existentially independent of my perception tends to be considered as a basic phenomenological fact, standing in no need of explanation. But if the experience of resistance is indeed a necessary condition for intentionality, then intentionality is no longer a primitive phenomenological notion (Scheler 1927). Secondly, the view that the mind-independence of intentional objects can be experienced will be of some importance for the realism-antirealism debate in metaphysics. Quietists claim that the concept of reality is not meaningful, or that even if it were, there would be no way of distinguishing what is real from what is not. The existence of a sui generis feeling of mind-independence may help to answer those challenges. Finally, the experience of mind-independence may generate a reductio ad absurdum of any theory of sense-data. Such theories assume that experiences of sense-data cannot be mistaken, and that sense-data are mind-dependent intentional objects. Now, if sense-data are presented as mind-independent through the feeling of resistance, then it seems that one of the two essential theses of the sense-data theory must be given up.


Subproject B: The self and the body

i. Summary

With respect to the body, the aim is to understand how the body is presented to the self as its own, that is, as distinct from any part of the external world, even familiar ones. The problem is to find a place for the body that is somehow between the self and the world: it is true, on the one hand, that the body is not an ordinary part of the world for the self; on the other, the body is not part of the “core self”: the character traits, feelings, desires or beliefs appears to the self to be more essential components of it than the fingers or the limbs. Intuitively, we neither want the body to be equated to the world, nor to the self. The aim of this subproject is to shed light on the way in which our feelings and actions influence our conception of our body as our ‘own’.

ii. State of the Debate

There are three standard approaches to this question. One common hypothesis accounting for the distinctive way we regard our own bodies appeals to the notion of agency. Parts of the world which are directly responsive to the self’s voluntary control would on this hypothesis determine what constitutes the self’s body. A second standard explanation appeals to proprioception: a sui generis faculty that has the double role of informing the self about the body’s positions and movements while marking this physical body as its own for the self (Martin 1995, O’Shaughnessy 1995). A third hypothesis appeals to affective phenomena. It emphasises the role of bodily feelings, such as pains, tickles, shivers (Dokic 2003). The parts of the world in which those feelings are experienced signal to the self the extent of its own body. These bodily feelings deserve to be called “affective” because of the polarity that they instantiate.

iii. Research Plan

This subproject will develop and assess the third of these hypotheses in conjunction with a comparative evaluation of its plausibility in relation to the other two hypotheses. The ‘affective’ hypothesis raises a number of complex issues:

(i) Are bodily sensations brute subjective phenomena or are they intentional?

(ii) In the second case, does the intentionality of bodily feelings exhaust their phenomenal character (Armstrong 1962) or are they bodily qualia irreducible to the property represented in bodily feelings?

(iii) Can a purely perceptual thesis about bodily sensations, according to which they are mere perceptions of bodily states whose phenomenal character is exhausted by their content, account for the feeling of ownership of one’s body? How is it to explain the distinction between seeing a tree and feeling a pain?

(iv) Can a subjectivist account of bodily sensations, according to which they are purelysubjective and non-intentional mental states, explain the intuitive distinction between the mental self and the bodily self? Is it committed to the view that there is only one encompassing extended self?

(v) If bodily ownership is grounded in sensational episodes, is there also a long-lasting feeling of ownership of one’s body, even in the absence of any bodily sensations?

(vi) Is there a link between the polarity of the bodily sensations and the fact that they appear as located in our own body?

(vii) It is clear that our own bodies are not exclusively presented to us through bodily feelings. If that is so, how are we to account for the relation between bodily feelings and other properties of the body presented in experiences, such as its colours or odours? Does, for instance, the inclination to believe that we visually perceive a part of our own bodies as such depend on our having bodily sensations in that part?

(viii) Is the right phenomenological description of bodily feeling to be cashed out in terms of mind-dependence? For instance, is it the case that pain depends on our experience of it? If so, and if pain can’t be modified at will, do bodily feelings constitute a counter-example to the view mentioned in the first sub-project according to which that which is presented as resistant to our will is also presented as mind-independent?

(ix) There has been a recent revival of the Jamesian claim that emotions are nothing but perceptions of our own bodily changes (Prinz 2004). Philosophers holding this typically also want to claim that emotions represent objects independent of us. If that is so, then how should we tell apart bodily feelings that present our own bodies from those that present objects distinct from us?

iv. Significance

The study of bodily feelings has some important consequences for the whole field of the study of the mind. This study has to define what we mean by “mind” or “mental phenomena”. One of the most important hypotheses, shared by a vast majority of contemporary philosophers and psychologist is that intentionality is the mark of the mental. Bodily feelings constitute an important challenge to this view: at first sight, they seem to be both mental and non-intentional episodes. Moreover, even if it can be shown that every bodily feeling is intentional (points to something different from itself), bodily feelings still represent a potential objection to the general program of naturalism. Indeed, the standard materialist strategy is to identify the subjective aspect of our phenomenal experience to physical properties presented in the content of these experiences. But such a strategy is not easily applied to bodily feelings. As a result, bodily feelings constitute a potential difficulty for two quasi-standard hypotheses in the study of the mind: intentionalism and naturalism.


Subproject C: The Core Self

i. Summary

With respect to the core self, the aim is to cash out in philosophical terms the familiar idea that, among the things we do and feel, some reflect ‘who we are’ more than others. Thus we sometimes regard impulsive actions or irrational emotions as not representative of who we ‘really’ are. There are some things we do and feel that we do not identify with. Here again, we find a boundary between the self and things we regard as alien to the self, but in this case the boundary is traced between objects within the psychological realm. In this subproject we will study the different understandings of this relation of ‘identification’ with parts of one’s psychological make-up.

ii. State of the Debate

In order to elucidate our self-conception, philosophers have appealed to notions such as authenticity (Pugmire 2005), wholeheartedness (Frankfurt 1987), integrity (Taylor 1984), ideal self (Rawls 1971, Richards 1971), and ought-self (Freud 1930/1961, Wollheim 1999). However there are many conflicting ways to unpack these notions. This is due to the disparity in the underlying theoretical tendencies which conceive of our relation to ourselves in incompatible ways. A first tendency conceives of our core selves as something which we access cognitively, through belief. A second tendency regards it as a function of our desires. A third holds it to be a function of our affective dispositions in general. It is thus important to assess the prospects of these theoretical underpinnings.

The first account appeals to different types of beliefs: beliefs regarding who we really are, beliefs regarding who we aspire to be, beliefs regarding what we ought to be. Wholeheartedness, integrity and authenticity would arise when our behaviour and feelings agree with all these types of beliefs. This is a position some philosophers who appeal to the notion of an ideal self and its links with one’s ‘life plan’ appear to have in mind (Rawls 1971).  Although these beliefs are indeed important, such an account fails to explain, for instance, the absence of wholeheartedness exemplified in conflicts among one’s desires which occur quite independently of one’s beliefs. It also implausibly limits the constitution of one’s self-conception to a set of purely cognitive states.

According to conative accounts, clarification should proceed in terms of desires (Frankfurt 1987, Blackburn 2001). More specifically, it is by forming second-order desires concerning  first-order desires that a subject comes to form his self-conception: we are what we desire to want. The account of the relevant notions of authenticity, wholeheartedness, and so on, thus proceeds in terms of the coherence between first- and second-order desires. For instance, I may desire to smoke, but I desire not to want to smoke. If I take a cigarette, I do not live up to my ideal and exhibit a lack of wholeheartedness. But I may all the same be true to myself (authentic). Such an approach to explaining the ‘core self’ leads to problematic consequences for the notion of responsibility and implausible conclusions regarding the extent to which our core self is an autonomous creation. A further difficulty is that it seems to oversimplify the process by which this self is formed – it holds only a limited set of mental states and actions to be involved: second-order desires.

A third ‘affective’ hypothesis that underlies part of the recent literature (Pugmire 2005, Taylor 1984) holds that only emotions are fine-grained enough to account for (i) the various factors involved in the formation of our self-conception, and (ii) the different aspects of the self, their links and coherence. Although second-order desires play a role as argued by the conative accounts (summarised above), a full theory of the self must account for the importance of second order emotions, and in particular self-reflective emotions such as shame, guilt, and pride in the formation of the self (Helm 2001). In guilt we accept responsibility for certain of our actions, while rejecting identification with them. Shame plays the same role in the case of one’s dispositions or (physical) attributes (Deonna & Teroni 2007b). Such emotions are thus involved in the shaping of our self-identities in complex ways.

iii. Research Plan

The present subproject will develop arguments like the ones outlined above in order to show that the cognitive and conative accounts cannot adequately deal with the richness and complexity of the phenomena underpinning identification, and thus are unable to draw the relevant boundary within one’s psychological makeup. This will motivate a thorough examination of the affective hypothesis which appears more apt to deal with these phenomena. But its philosophical defence awaits answers to a number of complex questions, which form the core of the present research plan.

(i) What are the conceptual links between the categories of mental phenomena: emotions as occurrences, emotional dispositions, character traits, personal values, and moral values? Which of these are ontologically more basic? Which serve to explain the occurrence of the others (Shand 1920)? Which play a causal role in the formation of the others?

(ii) What are the determinants of authentic emotion or action? Do we need to look beyond the coherence in our behaviour and our emotions? Do we need to look beyond character and disposition? Do we need to look beyond the individual’s core values? Some suggest that the notion of a ‘narrative self’ may play such a role independently of one’s evaluative states.

(iii) Are there diachronic constraints on emotions (Helm 2001)? Does authenticity and integrity and character demand a certain sort of coherence among different episodic emotions and/or behaviour? How may the demands differ for these various attributes? Do the emotions we have inherently entail normative constraints on future emotional states?

(iv) Is the core self the product of the subject’s own creation (cf. Frankfurt 1971) or is it something passively constituted for us?

(v) How do the different elements of self-conception play a role in the constitution of a subject’s sense of responsibility (and also of the objective notion of responsibility)?

(vi) How do the different elements of self-conception provide a framework for our understanding of phenomena such as weakness of will and irrational emotion?

(vii) How do self-reflective emotions such as shame, guilt and pride relate to self-reflective evaluative states such as self-esteem, self-respect, and self-love (Frankfurt 2006, Mulligan 2006, Taylor 1984)?

(viii) To what extent are self-reflective emotions social (Deonna & Teroni 2007a)? James’ distinction between the social and the intimate self has been extremely influential: may it be the case that even the intimate self involves somehow social emotions?

iv. Significance

The philosophical investigation of the boundary between the ‘core self’ and other psychological phenomena is crucial for many central questions of philosophy which have recently reappeared in contemporary discussions. As the above presentation shows, such an investigation has to tackle fundamental issues about the nature of emotions and the various ways in which one relates to them, about the existence of a distinctive kind of affective normativity, as well as some hotly debated topics like weakness of the will and the links between emotions and irrationality. Due to its focus on the phenomenon of identification, the present project will address these issues from an original perspective.



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