Skip to main content
Woman looking at drawings of cogs in a brain to represent brainstorming

The relation between subjects and their conscious experiences.

Henry Taylor, University of Birmingham.                


Our consciousness comprises a wide variety of different experiences. This includes conscious experiences that arise from our sense organs, such as sights, sounds, smells, and so on. Our consciousness also allows us to have imaginative experiences of things that never happened, feel emotions such as hatred or happiness, and have a host of other experiences.

You will of course, be familiar with a very wide range of such experiences. However, throughout all of the massive amounts of variety amongst them, there is one thing that remains constant, which is you. All of the conscious experiences that you have are in some important sense yours. 

Imagine you take a bite out of a slice of lemon, and get that really particular sour, bitter taste. That experience is yours in some very important sense. No one else can have that very same experience, and you couldn’t have the same experiences as anyone else. Consciousness is a very private affair. 

This feature of consciousness is so familiar that it can be easy to miss, but how should we explain it? How should we understand the relation between our conscious experiences, and our selves? That is the central question of the paper.

I show that we can solve this problem by thinking about the structure of conscious experiences themselves. The solution lies in appreciating that we partially make up our own conscious experiences. I argue that all conscious experiences are built up out of three parts. The first is the person, or self, that undergoes that experience, the second is the property of the experience that makes it the way it is (that makes the difference between tasting lemon, and tasting carrot, for example) and the third is the time at which it occurs.

As well as providing insight into the structure of consciousness, this view can explain how a conscious experience is so privately related to the person who has it. The reason that an experience is so closely linked to a particular person is because the person is themselves one of the constituents that makes up the conscious experience.

Published in Philosophical Studies 177 (November 2019)