Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 531-535
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.34077
Open Access 531
Kant on Self-Awareness
Thomas W. Smythe
North Carolina Central University, Durham, USA
Email: thomaswsm ythe @yahoo.com
Received September 24th, 2013; revised October 24th, 2013; a cc e pt ed N o ve mber 2nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Thomas W. Smythe. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
This paper has three main parts. First, I discuss Kant on self-awareness in terms of inner sense, why he
failed to make this account coherent, and why he failed to give such an account. Second, I give two rea-
sons why such an account is bound to be inadequate. In the last section, I discuss another attempt Kant
was tempted to give in terms of transcendental self-awareness involving a nonsensory intuitive perception
that helps solve some of his problems.
Keywords: Self-Awareness; Consciousness; Transcendental
This paper is organized into three main parts. First, I discuss
Kant’s account of the self and self-awareness in terms of inner
sense, why he failed to make this account coherent, and why he
thought he should give such an account of self-awareness.
Second, two reasons for saying that such an empirical account
is bound to be inadequate are sketched. In the second section of
the paper, I discuss another account that Kant was tempted to
give in terms of transcendental self-awareness, and outline a
thicket of attendant problems. Third, I find in Kant a fore-
shadowing of an account of self-awareness in terms of a non-
sensory intuitive perception of the self that helps solve some of
How the “I” that thinks can be distinct from the “I” that intu-
its itself… and yet, this being the same subject, can be identical
with the latter; and how… I can say: “I as… thinking subject,
know myself as an object that is thought, in so far as I am given
to myself as something other or beyond that I know which is
given to myself in intuition, and yet know myself, like other
phenomena, only as I appear to myself, not as I am to under-
standing”—these are questions that raise great difficulties
(B155) (Kant, 1933).
How great is the difficulty… which lies in the fact that con-
sciousness of himself presents only the appearance of himself,
and not the man in himself, and so although there is not a two-
fold “I”, yet there is a twofold consciousness of this “I”, …
consciousness of mere thought, then also that of inner percep-
tion (Kant, 1922: p. 193).
Within these passages Kant formulates a problem within his
philosophy that he was never able to resolve to his own satis-
faction. The problem concerns the nature of the self and
self-awareness. Kant accepted the assumption made by Des-
cartes and Hume that what I am is identifiable with what I can
be aware of myself as being. I can be aware of myself as a sub-
ject that thinks, because I am aware of the activity of thinking
within me. But this awareness or consciousness of my thinking
is not a sense experience, because sense experience involves
perception and tim e. For Kant, there is a distinction between the
thought processes of the empirical self that transpire within the
bounds of time and inner sense and the atemporal, categorical
“thought” of the transcendental subject. The act of thinking is
itself atemporal and unperceivable (Kant, 1902). Thinking can-
not be temporal and empirical, because our awareness of time
presupposes something outside of time. We can think of our
sense experience as temporal only if time itself can be thought
of as give, i.e., time is a unified intuition. Let us try to under-
stand the difficulty Kant saw here.
I am aware of the “I” as thinking subject, only as a precondi-
tion for any experience, including experience of myself. So this
“I” or thinking subject, as an activity of unifying and combin-
ing what is given to me in one time order, is both what I am and
a precondition for what I can experience myself as being. I can
experience my internal states, moments of pleasure and pain,
my desires and feelings, and all that which comprises my em-
pirical self, only because I am so constituted that I can conjoin
my sensations into perceptions of objects in space and time. So
I can have experience and knowledge of myself, taken as object,
only if I, as subject, am of such a nature as to make knowledge
of myself possible.
The problem can be put something like this: How can there
be one and the same self, if we distinguish the I which thinks
(apperception) from the I which is intuited (inner sense)? If I
am a thinking subject, how can I know myself in intuition? And
how can such knowledge be knowledge of myself, if it is
knowledge of myself as I appear to myself in intuition, and not
as I am in myself?
The problem was a real one, and Kant’s awareness of it was
partially dimmed by his dismissal of it. He says that it is no
more a difficulty than the questions of how I can be an object to
myself at all. It can be shown that I know myself only as I ap-
pear to myself in intuition, by reminding ourselves that space is
a pure form of appearances to outer sense, and by asserting that
time and space are on equal footing. Just as we know objects in
T. W. SMYTHE
Kant was willing to leave us in this perpetual circle of never
grasping what we are, but always moving around ourselves. We
can never know what kind of being “the logical ‘I’ qua repre-
sentation apriori is,” that “it is like the ‘substantial’ which re-
mains self over, when I leave away all the accidents which
inhere to it, which, however cannot be all further known, be-
cause the accidents are precisely that by which I know its na-
ture” (Kant, 1902: p. 270). This indicates that there is more
going on here than empiricist doubts about a substratum, since
we do not even know the accidents or qualities of the logical,
formal aspect of the self. Kant is here referring to sensible
space only so far as we are externally affected, we can know
ourselves through inner sense only insofar as we are internally
affected by ourselves (Kant, 1933: p. B156).
His problem is still not solved, for he merely reaffirms that
we must be inwardly affected by a noumenal reality in order to
know ourselves as an object at all. We still have an unbridged
gap between the transcendental and empirical aspects of the self.
We can bring this duality into sharper relief by borrowing a
distinction made by G. H. Mead between the I and the me. The
I is a pure spontaneity, a thinking activity, or performance. The
me is myself taken as object, the result of the performance,
what I can know and say about myself. Presumably, a coherent
account of the self and self-awareness would show that the I
and the me are two aspects of the same subject. Kant cannot say
this because the dual aspects of the I and the me are accompa-
nied by two kinds of self-awareness that are not consistent. I am
aware of the fact that I am, of the transcendental “I” through the
unity of self-consciousness, but I can know myself, the me,
only as I am inwardly affected by the I in inner sense. So I am
systematically precluded from ever being able to tell whether
the I and the me are identical. Any common root of my split
self is inaccessible to me, and I can never understand the gen-
eration of this epistemological schizophrenia. For we don’t
even know whether the thinking “I” “exists independently of
what we can conjecture to be the transcendental substratum of
outer appearances” (Kant, 1933: p. A383).
The pure spontaneity of our thinking self-activity can never
be grasped as a being with any properties because we can never
get hold of our thinking activity as an object. We are always
using it, performing the act of combining the manifold of intui-
tion, and we can never determine its ontological status just
because of this.
Kant’s account of the self and self-awareness involves a dis-
tinction between the I of apperception (intellectual self-aware-
ness) and the me of inner sense (empirical self-awareness). One
finds himself in inner sense only as he appears to himself. Em-
pirical self-awareness is the consciousness of ones temporally
ordered states of mind, and he insists: “Consciousness if self
according to the determinations of our state of inner perception
is merely empirical, and always changing. No fixed and abiding
self can be present itself in this flux of inner appearances”
(Kant, 1933: p. A107). The problem of giving an account of the
identity of the I and the me would still not be solved if the de-
terminations of inner sense were not always changing, if some
were relatively invariant; they would still be states of ourselves.
Even if the category of substance were applicable to the em-
pirical self I would be able to think of myself as permanent in
time only by presupposing the I which thinks. The unchanging
me, of phenomenal substance, would have t o be thought through
the unschematized category of substance, and this would pre-
suppose the transcendental unity of apperception for the inner
perception of a persisting phenomenal object to be a recogni-
tion of myself. Any phenomenal substance within my inner self,
the self of inner sense, would be an unchangeable something
within myself, and thus could not be the self or subject of con-
Kant did not think this problem could be resolved, and Peter
F. Strawson also said that the problem is insoluble, that em-
pirical self-consciousness is confined to the subject of inner
sense, and can never explain the identity of this subject with the
supersensible subject, and that the only alternative is to remove
the temporal limitation on appearances and allow for a tran-
scendental self-consciousness, but this is unintelligible. How-
ever, this move is too drastic, and is not the sole alternative.
Transcendental self-awareness can occur only when the condi-
tions for the empirical self-awareness are satisfied, and the
appearances are strung out in a temporal order. This is the only
alternative Kant allows for in order to make good the identity of
the I and the me (Strawson, 1966: p. 209).
Kant believed we are one self that appears in two ways: as a
spontaneous, knowing subject, and as a receptive, known object.
The self-awareness that I am is a completely empty representa-
tion, of which we cannot even have the concept without being
inwardly affected by inner sense. We can only “revolve in a
perpetual circle” around ourselves, as we actually are, “since
any judgment upon it has already made use of it as representa-
tion” (Kant, 1933: p. B404). Kant reminds us again and again
of the circularity of his account of the self and self-awareness:
Part of Kant’s difficulty is that he never fully rejected what
Sydney Shoemaker has described as the perceptual model of
self-awareness. Self-awareness could be thought of on the
model of sense perception. In this model we are aware of our-
selves as we are in a certain state in the same way we can be
aware of a physical object by perceiving its attributes. Just as I
see a thing which is blue when I see the blueness of that thing, I
can also see myself when I perceive some inner state of myself.
Hume maintained that we are aware of neither an external
physical substance in space, nor a self that has conscious states,
using this model for self-awareness. Kant granted him all this,
and by accepting this perceptual model of empirical self-
awareness, Kant tried to give an account of self-awareness he
recognized as being circular. For to identify as self as myself by
its having any perceived attributes, I would have to know al-
ready that I perceive these attributes by inner sense, and this
higher-order self-awareness, being the condition for my identi-
fication of the perceived self as myself, could not itself be con-
ditioned by that identification. Empirical self-awareness re-
quires a prior self-awareness of another kind in order for me to
“I cannot know as an object that which I must presuppose in
order to know any object” (Kant, 1933: p. A402). Elsewhere he
The subject of the categories cannot by thinking the cate-
gories acquire a concept of itself as an object of the cate-
gories. For in order to think them, its pure self-conscious-
ness, which is what is to be explained, must itself be pre-
supposed. Similarly, the subject, in which the representa-
tion of time has its original ground, cannot thereby deter-
mine its own existence in time. And if this latter is impos-
sible, the former, as a determination of the self (as a
thinking thing in general) by means of the categories, is
equally so (Kant, 1933: p. B422).
T. W. SMYTHE
be able to recognize what is given to me through inner percep-
tion as mine. The problem in Hume’s words is that “self or
person is not any one impression, but that to which our several
perceptions and ideas are supposed to have a reference” (Hume,
Kant believed that this single something, to which all mental
contents are referred, must be found outside of sense experience.
Our awareness of it can no longer be explained within the
model of perceptual awareness itself. In the final analysis, Kant
rejects inner perception as an adequate account of the self and
self-awareness, but he still accepts the framework for marking
off the limits of self-knowledge.
At this point I shall argue that no account of the nature of the
self and self-awareness can be given, independently of the
Kantian system, in terms of what is empirically accessible ex-
clusively to the subject of experience. Although the history of
such attempts has been a long one, I would like to suggest that
the Kantian thesis of the transcendental ego and the ultimacy of
the forms of time and space in which the presentations of iden-
tifiable objects are unified, provides good reasons why this
cannot be done. I shall present these reasons in terms of (1)
awareness of any single object of experience, and (2) awareness
of the spatial or temporal relations between objects of experi-
Consider the statement “I see a tree.” This statement is true
just in case there is a tree there, and I am looking at it, paying
attention, and so on. I cannot come to realize that it is I who am
seeing the tree, because I can never discover that there is a tree
in my visual field and that I am not perceiving it. The tree can-
not be given in my experience at all unless it is given as my
perception. I cannot perceive the tree, and perceive myself, and
see that it is I who am in the relation of perceiving with the tree.
For, if I could do that, then it would have to be possible for me
to perceive myself, and the tree, and see as a fact about myself,
that I am not perceiving the tree. Clearly this is not possible
because the relation of perceiving or acquaintance, as Kant saw,
is not an empirical, contingent relation. For the self and the
object of experience are co-determinative; each is a necessary
condition for the existence of the other. Thus it is self-contra-
dictory to suppose that I could perceive a tree, and realize, as a
fact about this perceptual relation, that it is not me perceiving
the tree. But this should be possible if we are to account for
self-awareness solely in terms of what is exclusively empiri-
cally ac ce ssible to myself.
Although this line of thought has been used by Shoemaker, I
think it is a variation on the Kantian theme expressed by saying
that the “I think” must be able to accompany all of my repre-
sentations, and cannot itself be accompanied by any further
representation (Kant, 1933: p. B132). In Kant the very distinc-
tion between inner and outer perception presupposes the dis-
tinction between the unity of consciousness and the object of
knowledge. The perception of something as external to myself,
as not me, logically implies an awareness of myself, even if
only in a purely negative sense. And the awareness of some-
thing as inside me, or part of myself, implies there is something
outside, and not in me, from which the current object of
knowledge (my mental state) is to be distinguished. But this
logical polarity between what is perceived as outside and what
is perceived as inside myself, is paralleled by, and made possi-
ble by, the more basic polarity between the unity of conscious-
ness and the object of knowledge. The difference between inner
and outer, internal and external, what is part of me, and what is
not me, presupposes a knowing self or subject which can be
conscious of this difference. And whether an object of percep-
tion be external of my inner goings on, it is never open to ques-
tion whether this is an object of knowledge for myself or
someone else. Part of what it is for the unity of consciousness
to be transcendental, basic, original, and unchangeable is that
its relation to an object of experience is necessary, and can
never itself be empirically given. In addition, it means that our
intellectual self-awareness is immediately given, and not the
result of reflection or introspection.
Consider the statement “S is aware that something A is re-
lated to something B.” where this relation is either spatial or
temporal. This statement is clearly not equivalent to “S knows
something A and something B.” or to the statement “The exis-
tence of A is related to the existence of B.” According to the
first statement, it is the fact of being related that is known, and
this is left out by the other statements. The awareness involves
awareness of a relation and of the fact that A and B are the
Some traditional ways of putting what is applied in the above
statement is that as awareness of a relation (e.g., succession) is
not the same as a relation of awarenesses (succession of
awarenesses). If A occurred by itself, ceased, and then B oc-
curred, there would not be an awareness of A being related to B.
For there to be this relation, there must be a conscious aware-
ness of A, B, and the relation between them. A conscious
awareness implies not only that objects are so ordered, but a
subject which is not itself located within the ordered relata. In
the case of temporal relations, if S knows that B is followed by
A, S himself cannot be said to precede or follow either of them.
The same considerations apply to space, mental states, proper-
ties of an object, and whatever else can be known relationally.
The above argument is another way of interpreting what is
involved in the assertion that the “I think” must be able to ac-
company all of my representations. A radical empiricist might
counter this argument with the following principle: Given a set
of many elements each related to a special one, we can do away
with the one to which all other elements are created by speak-
ing simply of the set connected by certain relationships among
them. Such an empiricist then owes us an explanation of how
any given element, or subset, can be consciously aware of the
order and arrangements among many of the elements of the set,
including itself, without supposing that the members of the set
are persons. The difficulty of giving a coherent picture along
these lines testifies to the Kantian insight of the ultimacy of the
“I think”. For the “I think” cannot be related to the elements of
experience the way they are related to each other, and cannot be
derived from anything more basic.
If these two reasons militate against an account of self-
awareness and the self in terms of what is empirically accessi-
ble exclusively to the subject of experiences, then Kant was
correct on insisting on a nonsensuous awareness of the self. Our
awareness of the unity of the self is an awareness of “that unity
of consciousness which precedes all data of intuition, and by
relation to which representation of objects is alone possible”
(Kant, 1933: p. A107). A coherent account of the self in these
terms would show that the I as a thinking subject is the same as
the me, or the awareness I have of myself, independently of the
self-knowledge gained through inner sense. That this approach
Open Access 533
T. W. SMYTHE
was open to Kant can be seen from what has already been said.
The requirements for the possibility of self-awareness, as well
as awareness of my own existence, including awareness of my
own existence, includes awareness of both what the mind does
(its thinking) and what is suffers or undergoes (its states). The
empirically accessible self, a legitimate object of the study of
psychology, is a necessary condition for any self-awareness.
Yet we can abstract from this to provide some account of the
self in terms of transcendental self-consciousness of our origi-
nal apperception. It will be useful to collate some of the things
Kant says about the transcendental self, and my awareness of it,
in various places.
He describes our awareness of it as: “Consciousness of mere
thought (or thinking)” (Kant, 1902, Vol. 7: p. 193).
It is an intellectual self-consciousness which is neither an in-
tuition, a concept, nor the determination of any object:
“An act of the understanding of the determining subject”
(Kant, 1902, Vol. 7).
“A simple representation of the subject of judgment in gen-
eral, of which one knows everything, when one simply thinks
it” (Kant, 1902: p. 193).
“Consciousness of pure spontaneity (the concept of free-
dom)” (Kant, 1902: p. 193).
“Transcenden tal consciousness” (Kant, 1902: p. 18).
“Consciousness of myself, not as I appear to myself, nor as I
am in myself, but only that I am” (Kant, 1933: p. B157).
It is a representation that is a thinking activity not an intuit-
ing: “A simple and completely empty representation that is not
a concept, but a bare consciousness that accompanies all con-
cepts” (Kant, 1933: p. B404).
He describes the transcendental unity of apperception as be-
ing: “The ‘I think’ that accompanies all my representations, but
cannot itself be accompanied by any further representation”
(Kant, 1933: p. B132).
It is the condition for all a priori knowledge:
“Pure original unchangeable consciousness” (Kant, 1933: p.
“An objective unity, i.e., the source of unity of objects”
(Kant, 1933: p. B139).
“A transcendental subject of thoughts = x.” (Kant, 1933: p.
“A power of combination or synthesis” (Kant, 1933: pp.
“A source of unity and combination” (Kant, 1933: p. B154).
“A logically simple and identical subject” (Kant, 1933: pp.
One thing that can be gleaned from these various comments
is that self-consciousness is indistinguishable from appercep-
tion. (The power or faculty of apperception can be said to be
manifested in the act of self-awareness; the act is basic). The
activity of pure apperception is both an activity of thinking and
a consciousness of thinking. Thus all thinking has some degree
of self-awareness, even if we do not encounter the thinking
subject (thinker) as an object. However, self-awareness of our
own thinking is not an introspective awareness or a separate act.
So in what sense do I have self-awareness?
If self-awareness of my thinking is not a separate act of
awareness, it must be part of the performance of the activity of
thinking; it is implicit in the act of thought. For Kant, I am
aware of both the unity and activity of my thinking as I perform
it. My awareness of my thinking is not the same as the activity
of combination, but in thinking I am implicitly aware of my
thinking. The starting point is always an immediate awareness
of the unity of the act of apperception, when the unity is pre-
sumably the result of the activity of combination. It would seem
more plausible to say that self-awareness is awareness of the
unity of that “unity of apperception” which is an outcome of the
activity of thinking, and that we are aware of both the activity
and the product. It was open to Kant to do this by appealing to a
nonsensory intuitive perception of oneself, as I will point out
A further complication is introduced in the above descrip-
tions. The I is an empty representation, and not a concept; Kant
adds that we have no concept of it. It is the source of all our
concepts, so our self-awareness of it is nonconceptual. The
difficulty of trying to fathom how I can be aware if myself and
have no concept of myself is symptomatic of deeper troubles.
Since my self-awareness and my thinking are not the same, my
self-awareness must be produced by my thought. Thus there
must be a mental activity in order to produce any self-aware-
ness. The elusive I, or that which thinks, is known only by its
product. But does it make any sense to say that I can produce
my self-awareness? And if it does make sense, how can this
awareness be awareness of myself, if I produce it?
It seems we are logically condemned to a situation of penul-
timate se lf-awa reness. I am always aware of what I just did, but
never of the I that thinks. The perpetual circle carries over to
atemporal self-awareness. The only way out seems to be an act
of awareness of myself, that does not presuppose myself, and
this subjectless act would be an awareness of the I as the me.
But then I would not be aware of myself.
Kant does want to say that we are somehow aware of the I
that thinks. We need not be reflectively aware f the “I think” in
making judgments, but it is presupposed by what we are imme-
diately aware of. For to know any object we must be able to
distinguish it from the self and its states. But a brief inspection
of Kant’s descriptions of our awareness of the I makes it clear
that he doesn’t really give an account of self-awareness of our-
selves as thinking beings. To say that the I is a representation
says no more than to point out that it is an element of the mind.
To say our self-awareness is transcendental, or consciousness
of thinking, adds nothing to what we already know. Denying
that such self-awareness is conceptual doesn’t make the account
any clearer. It may seem that Kant really has no further account
of self-awareness to give, in addition to empirical self-aware-
ness. But it will be a claim of this paper that Kant has a further
account to give.
Kant is not entirely consistent in denying that we know, or
have any concept of, the I. He wants to say that is some sense
we do know that it is the same understanding or apperception
that conceptualizes all the intuitions belonging to one self-
consciousness, and it must be possible for this identity to be
known to the subject that has these experiences. Although he is
forever denying that we know anything about the nature of the I,
we do know that “the numerical unity of this apperception… is
the ground of all concept” (Kant, 1933: p. A107). To dismiss
this kind of knowing as transcendental knowledge won’t help
us resolve the difficulty, for an analysis of the conditions for
knowledge is not something known by self-awareness. It is
knowledge of the form of knowing, and not of the properties of
our mental operations.
There is evidence that Kant does want to extend self-
knowledge to the spontaneous thinking subject. In one place
T. W. SMYTHE
Open Access 535
Man, who knows all the rest of nature solely through his
senses, knows himself through pure apperception: and this,
indeed, in acts and inner determinations which he cannot
regard as impressions of the senses. He is thus to himself,
on the one hand phenomenon, and on the other hand, in
respect of certain faculties of the action of which cannot
be ascribed to a receptivity of sensibility, a purely intelli-
gible object. We entitle these latter faculties understand-
ing and reason (Kant, 1933: pp. A546,B547).
This clearly suggests that in pure apperception we have a
supersensible, transcendental awareness if the I. In another
place Kant says “I exist as an intelligence which is conscious
solely of its power of combination” (Kant, 1933: p. B158). This
could be translated as “I exist as an entity that knows about
itself by its performance of an activity of combination.” It is
time to get to another kind of self-awareness that Kant fore-
Self Perception as a Nonsensory Perceptual
By suggesting that we might have a nonsensuous awareness
of the transcendental self as a precondition for knowledge of
the empirical self, Kant foreshadows, and makes room for, a
solution to his problem in terms of a nonsensory intuitive per-
ception of the self. Let me explain what I mean by a nonsensory
perception. The concept of perception is much wider than that
of sense perception. There is the possibility of a nonsensory
perception of something. If I come to a sudden realization that I
should help a blind person to cross the street I may have a non-
sensory awareness in that situation as a sort of intuitive aware-
ness or perception. It is a perception because something
prompts me or is presented to me mentally although not
through any of the five sense modalities. Such nonsensory per-
ceptions are quite common.
I have argued elsewhere that we can enjoy self-knowledge of
the self or subject of experience, and of a nonsensory intuitive
sort that counts as a perception. It is a perception because the
self is given to me, prompts me, is a stimulus, or something that
presents itself to me. It is given to me, rather than created by
me (Smythe, 2010).
I believe that this will help with Kant’s remarks, and that
Kant presaged this solution by opening the way for a nonsen-
suous knowledge of the thinking self. The I which thinks (ap-
perception) is known in a different way as the I of sensory in-
tuition (inner sense). I know the effect of the noumenal self,
pure spontaneity, or the transcendental “I” by virtue of having a
nonsensory intuitive perception of it. This is not awareness of
oneself as substance, but it is an awareness of something that
unifies and synthesizes our sensory perceptions or empirical
manifold. It is more than a bundle or series of perceptions. We
have a nonsensory intuitive perception of a thinking activity. It
is a reflexive self-consciousness that goes beyond, and is a
condition for, the flux of inner appearances. I think that this
was open for Kant, and that his remarks paved the way for it.
That is what Kant meant by “consciousness that I am.”
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