Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
“the thinking about others thinking of us . . . excites a blush”Darwin ( 1965, 325)
When one walks into a room full of strangers one may describe oneself as “feeling self-conscious.” To feel self-conscious is to be conscious of oneself as an object represented by others. It seems to me that this kind of self-consciousness is a pervasive phenomenon that is worthy of our attention. It has, however, been rather overlooked in philosophy. When philosophy has focused on self-consciousness it has been the kind of self-consciousness that characterizes our ability to think about ourselves in the first person. While that ability might be required for feeling self-conscious, the latter self-consciousness is I think a distinct and important phenomenon. In this chapter I will explore the nature of what I will call ‘ordinary self-consciousness’ (OSC) and offer an analysis that aims to identify its key components.
My main aim is to identify, and to look closely at the phenomenon. However, I will also raise the suggestion that the phenomenon has a crucial role to play in explaining and understanding the nature of the self-conscious emotions of guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment. Darwin has tended to be slightly mocked by psychologists of the emotions for his tendency to treat all self-conscious emotions as if they were like embarrassment, and to treat embarrassment as merely being the focus of attention of others. Surely, not all emotions that involve “the thinking about others thinking of us” excite the blush associated with embarrassment, and surely more is needed for embarrassment than just being the focus of others. Guilt, shame, pride, and hubris all involve others thinking about us, but often do not, and certainly need not, make us blush. It is of course right that not all self-conscious emotions are like embarrassment. Nevertheless, I think that Darwin might be right in thinking that a relatively simple self-conscious emotion is at the heart of the family of self-conscious emotions. It is not that the relevant emotion is an emotion of which the other self-conscious emotions are a variety. Rather it is what we might call an ‘ur-self-conscious emotion’ – an emotion which will enable us to understand the others, and out of which the others develop. Nor do I think the relevant emotion is embarrassment, rather it is ordinary self-consciousness. I will not, in this piece, try to account for the particular relations between ordinary self-conscious and the distinct self-conscious emotions. Rather, I will table a general hypothesis that ordinary self-consciousness is a phenomenon that has a role to play in our ability to have self-conscious emotions at all.