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Paper presented at the 11th Annual Conference of  the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society, St Anne’s College, Oxford, 14th September 2007.


Campbell Purton

Centre for Counselling Studies, University of East Anglia



How self-awareness arises from sentience:  Mead and Gendlin



In this paper I draw on the work of  two philosopher-psychologists, George Hebert Mead and Eugene Gendlin.  Mead is best known as one of the founders of social psychology, and Gendlin is best known for the therapeutic procedure known as ‘focusing’.  This paper is not a presentation of their ideas as such, but I start with them as a way of  providing a context for the theme I’m interested in – that is, how, in principle, self-aware beings can evolve from creatures that are not self-aware.


There are curious parallels between Gendlin and Mead. They both taught for nearly 40 years  at the University of Chicago, they are both philosophers, both rather outside the mainstream currents of philosophy, both were strongly influenced by Aristotle and by Kant. Both have a strongly pragmatic turn to their thought, and they are both best known for their non-philosophical work.


Mead wrote many articles in the fields of social psychology, philosophy, education and politics, but never published a book during his lifetime. His work gradually became better known after his death, through the publication of several books based on transcripts of his lecture notes. Amongst those who recognised his originality were the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey.  The ideas that I am drawing on today can be found in the collections titled Mind, Self and Society and  The Philosophy of the Present. 


Roughly half of Gendlin’s publications are in philosophy, and half in psychotherapy.  His major work in the therapy field, entitled Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy, is used as a standard text in our Diploma and Masters programme in psychotherapy at UEA.  The background theory of his approach is to be found in his book A Process Model, and it is on that work that am drawing today.


That was by way of introduction.  Now we come to the main theme:


Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter is often criticised, and the criticism often goes in the direction of reducing the two things to one, by suggesting that mind can be reduced to matter. Then there would only one kind of thing in the world. However, there is an another tradition of thought, which suggests that what is wrong with Descartes’ scheme is not that it has two many categories, but too few.  Aristotle has four categories -  material things, living things, sentient beings, and rational beings.  In this scheme the later levels are built on the earlier ones, so that a rational being is also sentient, a sentient being is also alive, and a living thing is also material. For Aristotle there was no development from one level into the next, but for us today that would be a natural extension of his scheme.


Some 80 years ago, Mead, sketched out how living things can emerge from what is non-living, how sentience can emerge from life and how self-awareness can arise from sentience.  In this conference we are concerned with the third transition, but I will first very briefly sketch how Mead treats the first two transitions.  This will take us to the level of sentient creatures, and then we can look at how self-awareness is built on sentience.  In all this I will be drawing on the work of Gendlin as much as on that of Mead.  Gendlin has a much more elaborate account of the second and third transitions than Mead has, but the overall framework of his thought is similar.  Like Mead, Gendlin  is an Aristotelian scholar.  Both thinkers are concerned to give a naturalistic account of the way human self-awareness is rooted in animal sentience and organic life, without reducing any of these categories to the others. 


What is most characteristic of living things is that they reproduce and form species.  They have parts and bodily processes and patterns of behaviour which are organised so as to contribute to the ongoing life and reproduction of the species.  An organ itself has to be understood not just in terms of  its material form, but also in terms of its function. It can’t be understood as something isolated from the rest of the organism. And the organism itself can’t be fully understood as an isolated individual, but only in terms of the species of which it is a member. In that way it is fundamentally different from something like a stone or a cloud.  Then also, a living thing is sensitive to some aspects of its surroundings (for example temperature, humidity), but not to others (for example magnetic field intensity, colour of light).  A living thing may of course be affected by anything in its surroundings, just as a stone is affected, but there are particular aspects of its surroundings which play specific roles in its life.  These are the things to which we say it is sensitive, and which form its environment.  The environment is a function of the organism.  Different organisms in the same physical surroundings have different environments.


Species, organs, sensitivity, environment -  these are some of the central concepts for our thinking about living things.  These terms have no application to what is not living – a living thing is a new kind of thing, which nevertheless emerges quite naturally from the non-living world as self-replicating systems come into existence.


Turning to the second transition, what is most characteristic of sentient beings is that they respond as a whole organism to aspects of their environment which they have registered.  Animals have sense organs which register aspects of the environment, and the animal responds to what is registered rather than to the organic environment in itself.  The plant simply responds to the water, but the animal responds to the water it sees.  (It also would respond to a mirage of water – with this new form of life that the animal has, come new kinds of  problem!)  The animal lives not directly in the organic environment of the plant but in a new version of that environment that is constituted by what it registers through its senses.


There is also the difference that while the plant has needs (for water, sunlight etc) and responds in ways that will tend to satisfy those needs, the animal’s needs are registered in its nervous system, and its behaviour is a response to those registered needs.  (Again, this renders the animal liable to inappropriate behaviour of a kind that does not occur in plants: for instance, illness could affect the animal’s thirst system, so that its thirst for water is more than its need – then it may drink more than is good for it).


The difference here between plants and animals is marked by the everyday distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’.   Both plants and animals need water, but the animal’s need for water is structured through its registration of its need, and the animal responds behaviourally to its registration of its own need.  We see the animal seeking water, and we say it is thirsty; we see it seeking food and say it is hungry.  Although words such as ‘thirsty’ and ‘hungry’ are sometimes applied to plants (and petrol engines), these are not literal uses of the terms.  For the literal use there has to be a living thing which registers aspects of its environment, and of itself, and responds behaviourally to those registrations.  We might say that sentience involves just that – the sentient animal has its own version of its environment which is determined not directly by its needs, as is the case with plants, but by its registering or sensing of its environment.  A sentient being lives in a sensed world, rather than immediately in an organic environment.  


With sentient beings we can begin to apply some – but not all - of the terms associated with the notion of ‘consciousness’.  Animals can be not only hungry or thirsty, but also hostile or afraid.  These terms get their meanings from the kinds of behaviour involved.  For example we say the animal is afraid if it turns to run, or if it is clearly getting ready to run.  That is the sort of thing that ‘being afraid’ is – in the case of an animal.  Human beings, too, can be afraid in that way, but there is another dimension to fear in the case of human beings.  As human beings we can be aware of our feelings without engaging in the relevant behaviour.  Rather than running, or getting ready to run, we can pause and notice the fear that we are feeling.  Or to put it another way, we can experience fear as a feeling, as something in itself that is only loosely tied to behaviour. 


This brings us to the third transition, that between sentience and the human form of consciousness.  In order to get hold of what is most central in this new transition I will follow Mead and Gendlin, and focus on the development of  symbolic behaviour.  Symbols are central to being human because they seem clearly to be involved in the use of concepts, in our understanding of things, and in specifying meanings.  It has often been said that we live in a symbolic world, or that the human being is a symbolic animal.  If we can see how symbolic behaviour can develop from behaviour that is not symbolic, then we may at the same time get some understanding of what is involved in other aspects of human consciousness, such as self-awareness.


There are examples of animal behaviour which come close to being symbolic, in that they are meaningful to other animals.  For example when two dogs meet, and one growls, the other may respond by running away, just as if it had actually been attacked.  The second dog is responding to the growl as if  growling was a symbol of hostility, as if  ‘growl’ means ‘hostile’.   Similarly when rabbits are grazing, when one rabbit thumps with its rear legs, the other rabbits run, as if the thumping symbolised danger.  Behaviour of this kind belongs in the category of animal gestures.  A gesture is a piece of behaviour which does not in itself  bring about any important change, but to which another animal responds. It has, we might say, a meaning for the other animal.  Growling, unlike biting, does not in itself accomplish much, but it may call out a large response in another dog: it ‘means’ something to the other dog. Gestures are only gestures because they are normally responded to:  if our dog happens to thump its leg when it is excited that is not a gesture, even though we might come to recognise its excitement through the thumping.  We may be able to tell a lot about the states of animals through observing their movements, but the movements are not gestures unless they play a role in the life of the species.  The notion of  ‘expression’ comes in here along with that of ‘gesture’.  The dog’s growl expresses hostility, and the rabbit’s thumping expresses fear.  Expression is partly a matter of how the animal looks or sounds through being in a particular state, but there is more to it than that.  The rabbit’s thumping can be said to express its fear, but the dog’s hypothetical thumping does not express its excitement.   For behaviour to be expression, there must be a normal response to it amongst members of that species.


In the same way, we can speak of  a kind of ‘meaning’ in the dog’s growl, or the rabbit’s thumping.   Expression, gesture and meaning go together, but they all exist only within the social context of animal life.  And none of these terms have their full human meaning in the animal context.  The rabbit does not express itself in thumping in the full sense in which a person expresses themself when they thump the table; the dog’s growl is not the same sort of gesture as that in which someone shakes their fist at you; and although the rabbit’s thump can be said to ‘mean’ danger it does not have meaning in the same way that the words ‘Look out!’ have meaning.


In short, animal gestures are somehow different in kind from human gestures.  They are not symbols in the way that human gestures are symbolic. We need to get at the difference between the rabbit thumping and a person shouting ‘Look out!’, both of which might be classified as gestures.


The difference seems to be that the person’s gesture is about the situation.  It draws the attention of the others to the danger that threatens them.  These others may judge that the danger is not significant and so not respond, but if they do respond they are responding to the situation to which their attention has been drawn.  They are not responding directly to the person who shouts.  Whereas with the rabbits the response is a simple behavioural response to the rabbit that thumps.  The thumping is not about the danger, it is simply a response to the danger. 


Symbolic behaviour has an ‘about’ aspect that is lacking in other behaviour.  The question is how this ‘about’ aspect can develop.


Imagine this hypothetical situation.  The rabbits are out grazing. A dog appears, but a long way away.  One rabbit thumps, but not very hard.  Another rabbit responds to the thumping by thumping itself, but more loudly.  (I have seen this happen, but that is as far as it goes with real rabbits).  Suppose that the first rabbit responds again, by more thumping more softly this time.  Hearing this, and watching the dog, the second rabbit now itself thumps more softly.  The first rabbit echoes this, and they watch the dog moving out of sight.  Then they return to grazing. 


This interaction between the two rabbits is not an ordinary behavioural interaction  -  they are not fighting or mating or grooming each other.  Nor do they have an ordinary behavioural interaction with the dog – they don’t run or freeze or attack.  Of course in a sense they are behaving – they are moving their hind legs, but this isn’t achieving anything in strictly behavioural terms.


Rather than behaving they seem to be doing something more like talking.  It is rather as if  one rabbit is saying ‘Uh- huh – could be danger’, and the other replies ‘Yes – danger indeed!’, to which the second responds ‘Well, actually it doesn’t look so bad – no need to run’ and the first then says ‘You’re right – it’s OK’. 


However, the rabbits are not talking – they don’t have a language.  But they are doing something like talking; they are interacting with each other, gesturing at each other, not in the situation, but about the situation. 


A sequence of responses is being generated between the rabbits which is not an ordinary behavioural sequence.  It is quite different from the sort of sequence where one rabbit attacks another, the second rabbit fights back and the first rabbit runs away. That is a fighting sequence. Nor is it like the sequence where the first rabbit thumps and the second rabbit runs.  That is an escape sequence in response to a gesture.  The new sequence is not a behavioural sequence like these – it is not a sequence that deals behaviourally with a danger context, but is a sequence of gestures arising within the danger context.  Such a sequence might not be biologically functional.  If the rabbits go on thumping at each other for a long time the dog may well get them.  On the other hand the sequence could be functional in the context I have specified:  it gives a little time before the rabbits run, and if the danger proves slight, then the gesture sequence can eliminate the energy waste involved in unnecessary running.  This new sequence of gesture-gesture-gesture may arise accidentally, but once established could become functional and be retained in the rabbits’ repertoire of responses.


Much is going on in this new kind of sequence.  Our rabbits will frequently have been in situations where they have thumped, and other rabbits have run; and also situations where other rabbits have thumped and they have run.  That is the gesture pattern – where an otherwise insignificant bit of behaviour elicits a significant response. But in the new sequence, the thumping gesture of one rabbit elicits a similar thumping gesture from the second rabbit, and the first rabbit responds again with a gesture.  This is a new kind of response.  It is a gesturing in response to gesturing – the rabbits are gesturing at each other, in the context of danger.  We can say that the gesturing is about the danger. 


There will be a fundamental change in the nature of the rabbit’s experiencing when it is in this new sequence.  It is afraid, but not in the previous behavioural (running, or simple thumping) way.  It thumps, thus expressing its fear, but now that fear is reflected back in the thumping of the other rabbit.  The gesturing has become a gesturing at the fear in relation to the dog. In this way arises the rabbit’s awareness of its own fear, and this is where the rabbit’s feeling of fear is born.  The rabbit is afraid-and-aware-of-being-afraid; it has acquired a new, reflexive form of awareness. This reflexive form of consciousness arises from the reflection from the other rabbit, and for the moment is only present in the reflexive sequence with the other rabbit. 


This is relevant, as Gendlin says, for our understanding of empathy.  The traditional way of thinking about empathy is that I know that you are feeling sad or angry through noticing that you are behaving as I behave when I am sad or angry.  The idea is, for example, that when I feel sad there is a particular kind of look on my face.  I become aware of this connection between feeling sad and the look.  Then when I see that look on someone else’s face, I deduce that they are sad.  But it is very  implausible that children should learn the link between the feeling and the look through noticing how they look (presumably in a mirror) when they feel sad.  The alternative view, deriving from Mead, is that first other people respond to our look with their sad look, and then how they look brings our sadness into focus. The look of sadness on their face, and the feeling of sadness that we have are thus generated together. The thought here is the basically the same as that which is involved in Wittgenstein’s objections to the idea of a private language. That is, I learn what sadness is not from inspecting my own feelings and privately labelling them, but through your picking up that I am sad and saying ‘You are sad’.  The empathy of others comes first, and through this we come to have, and be aware of, our own feelings. This is a point that is obviously important in thinking about psychotherapy, and the therapeutic practice of reflecting what the client has said.


To return to our rabbits.  In the gesturing sequence a new kind of awareness is developing, a self-awareness. And once a rabbit has experienced this new kind of awareness, it may become possible for it to have that kind of awareness without the necessity for the full gesturing sequence.  When the other rabbits thump, our rabbit, rather than immediately running, may for a moment become aware of its fear, as it experiences the thumping of the others as a reflection of its own state. It may then gesture at this fear through thumping.  There will thus be moments of self-consciousness interspersed with its behaviour, so long as other rabbits are present, and thump.


Suppose finally that one day the other rabbits have returned early to the warren and our rabbit is left on its own.  The dog appears in the distance, and in spite of the absence of the others, our rabbit thumps.  It hears its own thumping, and just as if there were others thumping, the sound of its own thumping brings it to an awareness of its fear, or generates the feeling of fear.  The reflexive sequence, or self-conscious state, is now elicited simply by the appearance of the dog. But the rabbit wouldn’t have this kind of consciousness when on its own if it had not previously been in interaction with the other rabbits.


Gendlin gives an account of  how fully human conceptual experience and language might develop from the kind of consciousness our rabbits have reached.  I will not try to follow this development, but it seems to me that we already have the essential framework here for an understanding of self-awareness.  It should be clear that self-awareness is not to be understood as awareness of a self.  The self as an entity seems to be a later development.   Self awareness is not ordinary awareness of a special kind of entity (called a ‘self’), but a special kind of awareness of ordinary entities (such as fear).  It is a reflexive awareness, and with it come desires and emotions as feelings to which attention can be given.  Animals can be said to have desires and feelings, and these are – in a limited sense of ‘expression’ -  expressed in their behaviour, but they cannot be aware of  what they desire and feel, because that reflexive self-awareness requires a form of life in which relationships with others play a much more fundamental role than any that we find in the animal world.  


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