Many philosophies and religions teach self-observation. For instance...

  • The Oracle at Delphi told Socrates to "Know Thyself".
  • Yoga teaches people to discover their true selves.

On the surface, self-observation seems plausible. I know my thoughts, my feelings, etc... However, things get confusing because some of these same systems (e.g.: Yoga) teaches that I am not the things I observe, but rather am the one observing these things.

However if this is true, this would seem to lead to a circular situation. How can I observe myself when the self I'm trying to observe is this pure observer? Or can I?

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    The highest consciousness cant be observed from anything else as it is the highest .this seems to me like a little paradox.
    – user17325
    Oct 17, 2015 at 16:04
  • Could you please add some explication what you mean: What is meant by observing consciousness? Who is the observer? What is a high consicousness compared to a lower one? - Probably you can give also an example of the actual situation you have in mind.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 17, 2015 at 16:27
  • By the term highest consciousness what I understand is our aliveness our very ability of being alive and to think further. The thoughts and the thinker is lower consciousness eventhough it is based on the highest.
    – user17325
    Oct 18, 2015 at 2:25
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    After the sharpening of your question thanks to @R.Barzell I understand your question as follows: Is there necessarily a contradiction in the concept of self-observation? My answer: No; self-observation means to convert as many unconscious processes as possible into conscious processes. On the other hand, I agree with you that the approach to split a person into an "I" and a "Self" is risky and can lead to logical inconsistencies.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 20, 2015 at 21:08
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    Paradoxes, like questions, begin and end with language, i.e. discursive thought. Observe in silence, while observing silence. Dec 26, 2016 at 9:59

8 Answers 8


Many cultural structures use phrasings which appear paradoxical. Zen Buddhism, for instance, is famous for the use of such phrasings.

I have developed a suspicion that much of the point of these sayings is that the listener must draw their own conclusions, so I will steadfastly refuse to claim my conclusions are "the right ones." However, I have found one resolution which has repeatedly been beneficial in my own life, so I would offer it for your own study to do with as you will: the assumption that a paradox exists within the meaning of such a phrase depends on the semantics of the phrase, which you have interpreted based on whatever basis you chose. If a yogi claims such a phrase is not paradoxical, then by necessity they must have a different semantics for the phrase than you do, even if you do not understand those semantics, even if they cannot explain them to you in "clear" words. If you can believe they are truthful when they say such phrases, then you can be confident that a semantic does exist, even if you cannot put your finger on it.

If such wordings are of little value to you, and you prefer cold hard mathematics, the work of Douglas Hofstadter explores the issues regarding self-referential paradoxes in Godel, Escher Bach: An eternal golden braid and self-reference more directly in I Am a Strange Loop. By all means, incorporate his work into your study of meanings as well, but never forget to leave a sliver of the meaning for your self. They're your meanings, not anyone else's!

  • The law of the excluded middle is definitional, it applies to a systemisation of human reasoning - & it is far from indisputable, or the only way to use things. It is the basis for identifying most paradoxes. Alternative logics exist, like the catuskoti, as famously used by Nagarjuna. This article links Nagarjuna's use of it, to Hofstadter's strange loops: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 24, 2022 at 10:05

To offer a footnote to these excellent answers, the paradox can also be seen to arise from what Bergson calls "spatializing" time.

By treating the "self" as if it were an "object" in time we can only observe a "past self" from the position of a "new self" that now contains the past self, and so the two "selves" cannot be identical.

Even the computer or video camera cannot go "fast enough" to both be "itself" in the present and to re-present "itself" at the same time. Hence, as Jo Wehler points out, the peculiar linguistic hybrids like "it-self" and "my-self." The noun twists around, attempting to become its own preposition.

Thus spatialized or reified in time the "self" observing "itself" enters an infinite regress of mirror images. This recursion is known in art as the "Droste Effect." Not unlike fractal recursion and Zeno's paradoxes.

Though the paradox is real, meaningful, and fascinating, the answers above have indicated how we overcome it in practice. The being of a "self" is not an object "in time" but, as Heidegger would say, being as "time itself."


No, there is no contradiction inherent to the concept of self-observation.

Self-observation in the sense of your question means to convert as many unconscious processes as possible into conscious processes. That’s what Sigmund Freud tried to achieve by the means of psychoanalysis, e.g., by the interpretation of dreams.

Self-observation is part of self-scrutiny. Oedipus in the Greek play Oedipus the King by Sophokles is driven by the demand to find out: Who am I? He follows the way of rational investigation to reach his goal. This approach includes learning and matching new information with the knowledge saved in one’s own memory. Also this approach is free from any logical contradictions.

The term myself came into being as a simple reflexive pronoun: “I observe myself”.

Language allows to reify the pronoun to a noun the Self. Soon the noun became charged with a family of mysterious meanings and became opposed to the subject in sentences like “I try to recognize my real (or true or higher or …) Self”. Here the person is split into two subjects, one is the I and the other the Self. This approach must challenge questions like “How shall I conceive these two subjects in one person?”

The situation can be characterized by Wittgenstein’s remark

For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.

The original sentence “I observe myself” simply means that I observe some of my properties, characteristics, traits, preferences etc. The sentence is free from any contradictions.

In personality psychology the term the Self is used in a legitime way, sometimes meaning the idealized picture a person has of himself.


How can I observe myself when the self I'm trying to observe is this pure observer?

Strictly speaking, no, there's no paradox in an entity observing itself. Such an ability can be embodied in all sorts of ways.

One example is a video recording device, where the camera lens can be extended using some sort of fiber optic tube and turned back to look at itself.
Another one is a computer program which takes other computer programs as input (for parsing or consistency checking purposes). There is nothing paradoxical about this program taking itself as input, thus "observing" itself.

More formally any information processing system capable of processing a representation of itself is capable of self observation. The system has to be able to store representations of other systems (in the video recording device's case, images, and in the computer program's case, descriptions of programs, in a person's case, mental images and language), and it has to be powerful enough, in terms of volume of data and/or symbols used for representation, to represent itself.

You are in a sense correct though. Although the act of self observation is not itself inherently paradoxical, it does lead to other paradoxes through self reference. Famous examples are Russell's set of all sets that do not contain themselves, and the liar paradox. These have been captured formally in Godel's incompleteness theorem and Turing's halting problem.

However, things get confusing because some of these same systems (e.g.: Yoga) teaches that I am not the things I observe, but rather am the one observing these things. However if this is true, this would seem to lead to a circular situation.

You touch upon the fact that there is a hierarchical relationship between observer and observed, with observer being at a higher level since she/he does the observing, while the observed is the object of the observation, and is thus at a lower level in the hierarchy.

Such a person observing themselves would lead as you said to a "circular situation". Douglas Hofstadter calls this a "strange loop", any situation where a hierarchical structure twists on itself so that the top part of the hierarchy ends up connecting with the lowest level in the hierarchy. The circular situation you describe is just a two (or one) level strange loop.

The ability for self observation was used in interesting ways by philosophers.

  • Aristotle mentions self observation as an affirmation of existence: "if one who sees is conscious that he sees, one who hears that he hears, one who walks that he walks and similarly for all the other human activities there is a faculty that is conscious of their exercise, so that whenever we perceive, we are conscious that we perceive, and whenever we think, we are conscious that we think, and to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious that we exist... (Nicomachean Ethics, 1170a25 ff.)
  • DesCartes' "I think therefore, I am" is based on this: The existence of all external things can be doubted. Sensations, the world around us, other people, might just be an illusion. But there is one thing that we cannot doubt, and that is the act of doubting in itself. And for there to be doubt, there has to be an "I" that does the doubting, i.e. the very ability to observe ones own thoughts is proof that an "I" exists.

  • Hofstadter takes this idea and flips it on its head: The ability for self observation is not the proof that the self exists. It is this ability that leads to the emergence of a self in the first place. Selves, "I"s, emerge as a consequences of information processing systems developing the ability to store and manipulate representations of themselves.

Although Hofstadter was the one who popularized the notion, he wasn't the first to propose it. Self-representational approaches to consciousness is ongoing topic of study among philosophers of mind.

  • You're making me want to re-read "Godel, Escher, Bach" and give "I Am a Strange Loop" another try (couldn't get into it the first time). One thing about Descartes'... his "I think therefore I am" wasn't a direct observation of the observer, but an inference that in the presence of objects (whether or not they're illusory) a subject must exist.
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 22, 2015 at 12:29
  • In attempting to be brief, I ended up making my explanation of DesCartes confusing. I will try to fix it. Thanks for pointing that out. Funny thing, I actually find "I am a Strange Loop" a better read than GEB. Oct 22, 2015 at 17:00
  • Would a recursive function fit as one of the examples ?
    – S.D.
    Nov 3, 2015 at 19:29
  • @S.D. more the other way around: self observing systems are examples of recursive functions. Nov 23, 2015 at 15:58

Self-observation is very important in the development of consciousness. Of course not mere self observation but self-observation inside a society with all the necessary parameters like language, freedom, will etc.

Here I distinguish two types of "feedback". The linear-in-time feedback as for example in computer systems or any other known feedback scheme and the idea of actual feedback. The actual feedback suggests joining a future point to a past point. In practice, because of the linear nature of time it is an impossible situation, a fantastic idea which leads to a paradox and is incomprehensible.

On the other let's think about what happens at the time of self-observation. The self takes the place of the other, and reviews himself from the position of the other. We have the identity and the segregation of self and other. Self observation does not end with simple acts of self-observation, but we can say that when we are being looked by others in practice we are putting to look at ourselves. Consciousness not only needs a subject and a "mirror", but requires society -the other- and the subject will see himself within the social relations.

History is a form of collective self observation, the ability to observe and reflex our past beings back to our new selves. (this can lead to the preposterous fallacy if we unify the past self with the present self). The self (the catholic self and the individual self) is an endless path of alienation (with the ontological meaning) and re-identification.

When we look at ourselves we see the outer appearance, which suggests a lot but we are all a jumble of appearance and content. That is why the eyes which can be seen as a part of the interior -a part of the brain- that is simultaneously exterior, are very sensitive (full of meaning) to the act of self-observation and observation of others. But not only our eyes but rather the eyes of others and in our turn we become these outer eyes who look at others selves and criticize. And this critique consists the foundation of consciousness. {...}

  • While I agree that society plays a role in our lifeworld, I'm not sure how much of a role it plays in consciousness per se. Still, yours is a thought-provoking answer, so I upvoted it. My only recommendation is to delete the last line, as it seems you're selling your answer short :)
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 22, 2015 at 12:40
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    “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” ― Herman Melville
    – John Am
    Oct 22, 2015 at 19:05

No, there is not.

Self-observation in yoga could be translated as the observation of the ego which is a creation of the mind. First you observe your body, memories, emotions, personality, emotional responses, habits of the mind, ideologies, culture etc. Viveka Then you detach from them.

Sutra 1:12 "Both practice (abhyāsa) and detachment (vairāgya) are required to still the patterning of consciousness."

In Vedanta Yoga deeper contemplative states go way beyond the idea of the self. (Samadhi) ref here

"Everywhere are His hands and legs, His eyes and faces, and He hears everything. In this way the Supersoul exists". Bhagavad Gita 13.14:

In Samkhya your true self (Purusha) unlike in Vedanta is unique, individual and abstract/metaphysical however your true self is not your ego (ahamkāra) which belongs to matter or Prakṛti. ref here

The goal of Yoga is not observe the mind to know yourself (ego). That's a side-effect. Stopping the mind to experience a deeper understanding of consciousness and existence is what yoga is about (Yoga sutra 1.2 ref here) (Yoga sutra 1.30 ref here)


To me, this is easily overthought. There is no implicit problem with observing yourself. The hierarchy of observing entities is immediately resolved by the fact of time.

Lots of easily overthought self-referential problems can be pruned by sheer bloody-mindedness of this sort. It is way Quine resolves Russell's paradox -- by presuming the negation of Zorn's Lemma. If you order the self-references, the paradox goes away, and if you don't, it makes no sense to begin with. Thankfully, space and time implicitly order all self-references, all the time.

Whenever you observe any entity, you do not see it at the time it is acting, you see it when it has been collated with the rest of reality and actually 'apprehended'. This is true even if you strip away all of the physics, and focus only on your own internal process. You do not know what is happening right now, you remember what just happened.

You can attribute this notion to Bergson or to physiologists if you want, but it is just plain obvious. We often experience the lag of having to take account of the present moment before we can use its information. And we can see that this is always present.

If we accept in any way that continuums of substance exist, we need to account for the process of becoming as a continuum. We may not like the fact, but things do not just happen: they come to be happening, are happening, and then cease to be happening, in a way that accommodates the continuous nature of space, time and material substances (or quantum possibilities of existence, if you want to be that pedantic).

Every atomic entity has a 'penumbra' of existence.


When expressed simply as self-observation or introspection the thought can seem empty or paradoxical. Consider the liars paradox - by itself a puzzle, a riddle - something to play with in a moments leisure and then to be forgotten or passed on. It took Chrysippus to tease out potential meaning from it; and also - famously Godel; and of course we do not know the circumstances in which it was discovered ...

Some time ago - I mean as a young man - I was struggling with what the notion of jihad meant; there is the quite well known one now; but there is another meaning whose emphasis is on struggle as in the struggle for self-mastery; now having hands that I could write with, and a mind that I could think with and all my feelings and thinking open to me in the theatre of my own mind, if not publicly announced - I was struggling to see what insight this thought contained. It didn't occur to me to go look to see what others had made of it ... or perhaps and more likely I didn't know where to go looking...

Recently I read something in Simone Weils Oppression and Liberty which struck a chord with that notion, and she's obviously as an early Marxist theorist is addressing this in terms of what work means - that is she is sounding out two large thoughts in close proximity to each other:

We have only to bear in mind the weakness of human nature to understand that an existence from which the very notion of work had disappeared would be delivered over to the play of passions and perhaps to madness; there is no self-mastery without discipline and there is no source of discipline for man than the over-coming of external obstacles.

A nation of idlers might well amuse itself by giving itself obstacles to overcome, exercise itself in the sciences, in the arts and games; but the efforts that are involved in pure whim do not form for a man a means for controlling his own whims.

It is the obstacles we encounter and that have to be overcome which give us the opportunity for self-conquest.

I suppose also given her literary and philosophical preoccupations it's also her riposte to the notion of l'acte gratuit (free act) most famously enacted in Merseults L'Etranger (The Outsider); so here she's knocking against another large idea.

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