By mind I mean the observer, the self, something that perceives. I hope that you understand because I can't find the right word.

So, your mind can observe the external existence, and can observe its own thoughts (as something external). Cogito ergo sum, as Descartes said. In other words, the mind discovers, observes the thoughts (or the thoughts discover themselves?), and from that observation comes the conclusion about the existence of that observer, of that mind. So, the question is, how can the mind observe itself? How can it do so if everything that it observes is external relative to itself?

  • Depending on what you mean, it may be that no answer meets your criteria, but the first thought I had is "indirectly." This is also the answer to how you look at yourself despite your eyes being in your head.
    – virmaior
    Jan 18, 2016 at 22:48
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    The way I like to put it is that there is a watching without a watcher. there is no subject, only objects, and a watching of these objects. How is that possible? no one knows — it is a mystery.
    – nir
    Jan 19, 2016 at 12:05
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    @nir: The question is if this is even possible. While you can't objectify your self because of the lack of any gap between the subject and the self, you (according to Fichte and others) can objectify other selves and identify yourself with them through recognition at the same time and be objectified by other selves. This would be the reason for the possibility of distance from your self that enables you to objectify it. But I actually think, as reflected on in my answer, that answering the question as it stands would be impossible because of the length a good answer would have to have.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 19, 2016 at 14:10
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    Indeed this is the famous and mysterious Cartesian theater as scratched the surface in a recent post. You can even spot some intricate inseparable etymological link between your above mind and mine... Sep 28, 2022 at 5:22

2 Answers 2


Douglas Hofstadter provides a mechanism for how this happens in his books "Godel Escher and Bach" and "I am a Strange Loop".

The mechanism is based on feedback loops: He compares the mind to a video camera with and extendable camera lens which can be twisted back so that the camera can take footage of itself.

In the same way, the mind gradually develops higher order symbolic processing of it's own sensory inputs. At one point it realizes that some of those inputs are coming from itself, and that it can control these inputs, and it starts associating them with the symbol that associates with itself, the "I".

More detailed and technical explanations of this approach are studied as part of Self-Representational Theories of Consciousness and Higher Order Theories of Consciousness.

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    At one point it realizes?.. One of the first signals any human mind should have to process would be 'I am hungry. I need something to get rid of the hunger', sent by the body. So, doesn't the realization seem inherent? Isn't that the time when mind associates it's existence within the body and thus associate itself with oneself?
    – venkatKA
    Jan 19, 2016 at 2:26

I am very critical towards theories that try to describe (self-)conciousness as emerging property of systems only. Emergence is nothing more than an euphemism for surrender: It is the admission that the theory cannot explain this in any way and - more importantly - in some sense that the theory is lacking something.

The evolutionary problem of the becoming of the conditions that make personal self possible is perhaps not explicable at all, at least I am not aware of any convincing explanation. But what already has been explained long before is the becoming of personal self in a being that already is capable of it because of the structure of its existance (a priori conditions in the best of its meanings).

Self-conciousness or the knowledge of the self is traditionally defined by the possibility of reciprocal self-recognition by and in other selves. This reflects on the problem of Descartes: In order to realize cogito ergo sum you already have to have a self that is part of conciousness first and foremost.

Most theories of the personal self I know that adress the becoming of it do at some point refer to what was first worked out by Fichte, who's concept of the absolute self is commonly rejected because of its idealistic implications, but nevertheless his dialectics of self and non-self for the becoming of self-conciousness is regarded as generally correct.

This theory is elaborated in his Grundlagen der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre, reformulated in his Grundlagen des Naturrechts (opus postumum! from lectures and manuscripts), which (of course, like many other ingenius works of German Idealism -.-) is not yet to be found in English as far as I found out, only in German.

In the most abstract (and methodologically elaborated) way of the conditions a priori for personal self that I am aware of is established, deducted and described by Plessner in his The Levels/Stages of (the) Organic and Man, Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology (translation at work, yet unpublished). But he also cannot say anything about the becoming of them. (Disclaimer for those professionals that dislike philosophical anthropology because of Gehlen and Heidegger: This is totally different and by far more philosophical).

To summarize, the problem is far too complex to squeeze it in any format suitable for SE. And any answer given would hardly be accurate.

What I can recommend for further reading is the only published book in English language that does introduce into this thinking: Plessner's Philosophical Anthropology

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