Essentially Self-Conscious?

The idea of an essentially self-conscious entity sounds like an oxymoron. Once we even begin to understand what Hegel meant by self-consciousness — that it is anything but automatic immediate “consciousness” of a “self”, but rather the hard-won awareness of real-world limitations, nuances, complications, and ambiguities — there could hardly be anything more absurd than the idea that an entity could just have such awareness essentially.

Luckily, there is another, completely different interpretation, highlighted by Brandom, that does not involve any super powers. An “essentially self-conscious entity” is actually just an entity whose essence depends on the higher-order shape of her commitments, including whatever awareness of limitations, nuances, and what-not that the entity does or does not have.


Who we are is mainly constituted by on the one hand, the practical and epistemic commitments we actually live by, and that are implicit in our words and deeds; and on the other, our track record of responsibility in keeping our words and deeds in line. These together make up what Aristotle called our ethos (root of “ethics”, commonly translated as “character” or “culture”). Appraisals of such things are subject to standards of interpretive charity and reasonableness. Since this has to do purely with what we actually say and do, it does not depend on any extravagant assumptions about free will or exemption from natural causality. (See also Reasons; Ends; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Error; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Rational/Talking Animal.)