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Minimal Self

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (IF) research project is a philosophical and interdisciplinary study of the most fundamental sense of self. As its starting point it takes the concept of “minimal self”  as recently employed by philosophers such as Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi. It engages in depth with relevant phenomenological scholarship, focusing on the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. The results of this engagement will be used to critically discuss, elaborate, and revise current conceptions of minimal self. Furthermore, it examines applications of the concept of minimal self in psychiatry and psychopathology. On the one hand, this involves an investigation of the applicability of this concept to the understanding of psychopathological phenomena. On the other hand, it investigates what psychiatric studies of fundamental disturbances of the self can tell us about the relationship between the minimal self and the intersubjectively shared world of embodied experience. The aim of the project is to develop a clearer, more elaborate, and substantially revised conception of minimal self.

The project is supervised by Prof. Matthew Ratcliffe.


Workshop at the University of Vienna

Discussion of the Minimal Self in Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture

Part 2 two of the book discusses several aspects of the relationship between minimal self and intersubjectivity. If the most basic forms of the self are already embedded in intersubjectivity, one may think that there is no part of consciousness that is not impregnated with culture. But is there not something in the self that precedes all intersubjectivity? Dan Zahavi (2014) maintains that there is a “minimal self”; every consciousness experience has a character of mineness. Together with Brinck and Reddy (this vol.), he defends the claim that individual experience is not preceded by we-experience. In contrast, Matthew Ratcliffe as well as Anna Ciaunica and Aikaterini Fotopoulou argue in their chapters in different ways that even the “minimal self” needs to be conceived in intersubjective terms, a challenge taken up again by Zahavi in his subsequent response.

In the first chapter of part 2, Ingar Brinck, Vasudevi Reddy, and Dan Zahavi consider some arguments that could be adopted for the primacy of the we, and examine their conceptual and empirical implications. The question of the relation between the collective and the individual has had a long but patchy history within both philosophy and psychology. They argue that the we needs to be seen as a developing and dynamic identity, not as something that exists fully fledged from the start. The concept of we thus needs more nuanced and differentiated treatment than currently exists, distinguishing it from the idea of a “common ground” and discerning multiple senses of “we-ness.” At an empirical level, beginning from the shared history of human evolution and prenatal existence, a simple sense of prereflective we-ness, the authors argue, emerges from second-person I-you engagement in earliest infancy. Developmentally, experientially, and conceptually, engagement remains fundamental to the we throughout its many forms, characterized by reciprocal interaction and conditioned by the normative aspects of mutual addressing.

Matthew Ratcliffe addresses the view that schizophrenia involves disturbance of the minimal self, and that this distinguishes it from other psychiatric conditions. He challenges the distinction between a minimal and an interpersonally constituted sense of self by considering the relationship between psychosis and interpersonally induced trauma. First, he suggests that even minimal self-experience must include a prereflective sense of what kind of intentional state one is in. Then he addresses the extent to which human experience and thought are interpersonally regulated. He proposes that traumatic events in childhood or in adulthood can erode a primitive form of “trust” in other people on which the integrity of intentionality depends, thus disrupting the phenomenological boundaries between intentional state types. Ratcliffe concludes that a distinction between minimal and interpersonal self is untenable, and schizophrenia should be thought of in relational terms rather than simply as a disorder of the individual.

This intersubjective constitution of the self is explored further in the next chapter, by Anna Ciaunica and Aikaterini Fotopoulou. They ask whether minimal selfhood is a built-in feature of our experiential life or a later, socioculturally determined acquisition, emerging in the process of social exchanges and mutual interactions. Building on empirical research on affective touch and interoception, Ciaunica and Fotopoulou argue in favor of reconceptualizing minimal selfhood so that it goes beyond such debates and their tacitly “detached,” visuospatial models of selfhood and otherness. They trace the relational origins of the self back to fundamental principles and regularities of the human embodied condition, such as the amodal properties that govern the organization of sensorimotor signals into distinct perceptual experiences. Interactive experiences with effects “within” and “on” the physical boundaries of the body (e.g., skin-to-skin touch) are necessary for such organization in early infancy when the motor system is not yet developed. Therefore an experiencing subject is not primarily understood as facing another subject “there.” The authors conclude that the minimal self is by necessity co-constituted by other bodies in physical contact and proximal interaction.

In the following chapter, Dan Zahavi responds to the critique of the concept of the minimal self by Ratcliffe and Ciaunica and Fotopoulou. Zahavi acknowledges that the discussion of the minimal self has entered a new phase with the foregoing chapters, not only because they engage with the recent arguments of Self and Other (Zahavi 2014) but also because their criticisms differ from the criticism offered in the past, for example, by advocates of a no-self view, narrativists, and phenomenal externalists. Rather than denying the existence of the minimal self, the critiques published here are concerned is with its proper characterization and interpersonal constitution. Zahavi maintains, however, that the minimal self is not interpersonally constituted. He argues that it can coherently be defined more thinly and independently of interpersonal aspects of the self, for which it is the condition of possibility.