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Sensitive Subjects: Bodily Awareness, Pain, and the Self


Imagine that you feel a pain in your hand, notice the movement of your limbs as you tie your shoes, or attend to your feeling of balance as you ride a rollercoaster. These phenomena are exercises of bodily awareness, the type of awareness one has of one’s body ‘from the inside.’ My dissertation is an investigation into the nature of bodily awareness. In it I describe and attempt to resolve a number of serious puzzles raised by the philosophical and scientific investigation of bodily self-awareness. My solution to these puzzles is to develop a novel account of bodily awareness. On the view I develop bodily awareness is basic, irreducible to other mental capacities such as perception and introspection. Only by treating bodily awareness as basic, I argue, can we understand what is distinctive about it.

I begin by establishing the unity of bodily awareness. Though bodily awareness is comprised of sensory systems that are physically, functionally, and phenomenologically distinct, these distinct sensory systems nevertheless generate a single form of awareness. What unifies bodily awareness and distinguishes it from other forms of awareness such as vision and audition is its phenomenological structure. Whereas other forms of sensory awareness are perspectival, serving to make one aware of objects as they relate to one’s body, bodily awareness is non-perspectival, serving to make one aware of one’s body itself. The different aspects of bodily awareness, then, correspond to those bodily features that one can become aware of in this non-perspectival manner.

Having characterized the unity and structure of bodily awareness I go on to consider its relationship to other forms of conscious awareness, in particular perception and introspection. Some of the most recalcitrant puzzles about bodily awareness stem from the fact that it resembles both our perceptual awareness of the external world (in virtue of making us aware of a physical object) and our introspective awareness of our own minds (in virtue of licensing first-personal judgments concerning what we are aware of in it). Since these forms of awareness are typically regarded as exclusive, this makes it difficult to locate bodily awareness with respect to our other mental fac- ulties. I address this issue by arguing that bodily awareness is sui generis, irreducible to either perception or introspection, though it shares key features with each.

Another characteristic feature of bodily awareness is that involves a feeling of bodily ownership, or a sense that what one is aware of in bodily awareness is one’s own body. One of the chief ways researchers try to understand this feeling of bodily ownership is by looking at subjects in whom it is impaired. In startling disorders such as somatoparaphrenia and depersonalization subjects report feeling alienated from their own bodies. I explore these ownership disorders and provide a novel account of them, one which allows us to hold onto the intuitive thought that bodily awareness invariably presents our bodies to us as our own. I do so by distinguishing a feeling of affective ownership from a feeling of minimal ownership, arguing that it is the former rather than the latter that is impaired in characteristic ownership disorders.

Finally, I address some issues raised by bodily sensations such as pain. Bodily pain strikes many philosophers as deeply paradoxical. The issue is that pains seem to bear both physical characteristics, such as a location in the body, and mental characteristics, such as being subjective entities to which subjects have privileged and peculiar epistemic access. In this final chapter I clarify and address this alleged paradox of pain. I begin by showing how a further assumption, Objectivism, the thesis that what one feels in one’s body when one is in pain is something mind-independent, is necessary for the generation of the paradox. Consequently, the paradox can be avoided if one rejects Objectivism and instead adopts the Embodied View of Pain, a novel metaphysical account on which pains are constitutively mind-dependent feaures of parts of a subject’s body.

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