Prof. Eric Steinhart (C) 1998

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We want to know ourselves. If you do not know what and who you are, you are truly and deeply clueless. Self-ignorance is inhuman and so it is not possible to respect somebody who has the ability to gain self-knowledge but who, out of laziness or cowardice, does not.

Self-knowledge is hard to gain. There's a problem: just as the eye is not able to turn its power of vision back onto itself to see itself, so we are not able to turn our conscious awareness (our power of knowing) back on ourselves to know ourselves. To see itself, the eye needs a mirror. To know ourselves, we need mirrors too.

The Phenomenology is a story about things and mirrors, about projections and reflections, about self-alienation and self-recognition.

Mirrors aren't just looking-glasses. Generally, a mirror is anything that reflects; reflection is likeness, resemblance, similarity.

Put a thing in front of a mirror and think about what's happening. There are three factors: the thing; the mirror; the difference between thing and mirror. The thing is us; so what's the mirror?

There has to be some difference between the thing and the mirror in order for there to be mirroring. This is the difference between self and other. Self-recognition has to occur in otherness; you can't recognize yourself in yourself. They eye can't see itself because there is no difference between the eye and itself.

When you stand in front of a looking-glass (an ordinary glass or metal mirror), you project an image of your body into the mirror; the mirror reflects the image back. Projection is self-alienation: the image in the mirror isn't you. People look into mirrors and say: "That's my face!", but they're wrong. It isn't your face at all, it's just an image of your face. Scratch the mirror and you don't feel a thing. The image is alien; it's not you. But you can recognize yourself in that alien image. This is like taking possession of it. It's like the mirror stole your face, and now you have to steal it back. You claim the image of your face as your own, even though you still know it isn't really you. In recognizing your own face, you haven't compared the true appearance of your face to what appears in the mirror, since you don't know what your face really looks like. Self-recognition isn't based on any comparison. In order to make the comparison to gain self-knowledge, you'd have to already have self-knowledge. It's almost as if you reach into the mirror and grab the mirror image: you have to take it, to appropriate it. You need to make an argument, based on philosophical analysis, that the image in the mirror really resembles your face. Self-recognition is something you have to earn by hard logical work. In self-recognition, you overcome the otherness of the mirror-image. You take back what is yours, which the mirror stole from you. What's necessary is that there is a difference (projection and self-alienation; the mirror takes your image) and that you overcome this difference (reflection and self-recognition; you take your image back).

Some mirrors are better than others. How well or how accurately you are able to know yourself depends on how well the mirror is able to reflect your true self. Look into a lousy mirror, and you get a distorted self-image, because the mirror is not able to show you to yourself as you really are. You get inaccurate self-knowledge from a lousy mirror, because it does not reflect your true self. So your self-recognition is bogus; it's an illusion.

Look into a mirror; point to your reflection; say: "That's me!"; how true is that statement? Is it your true self that is reflected in the mirror, or a false self? Is your mirror-image moving, living, thinking? Is it conscious? Is it self-conscious?

Unconsciousness: Put a rock in front of a glass mirror. The rock is not aware of anything. But there is something happening: the mirror is rocklike. The mirror reflects both the shape of the rock and the substance of the rock.

Put a plant in front of a glass mirror, and the reflection is worse: the glass reflects only the shape of the plant, but nothing else. The glass mirror is not plantlike, because it isn't alive. Living things need to recognize themselves in living (or at least moving) mirrors. The mirror is not like the thing mirrored.

Consciousness: Put an animal like a dog or cat in front of a glass mirror. The animal is conscious; it perceives. It's aware of the image of itself in the mirror. But it doesn't seem to be the case that dogs and cats are aware that what they are seeing is an image of themselves. They do not seem to recognize themselves.

Self-Consciousness: Self-consciousness is self-recognition. At a certain point, a human infant is able to recognize himself or herself in a mirror. He or she knows that the mirror reflects an image of himself or herself, and not just a picture of another infant. This is self-recognition. The infant sees himself or herself in something else. By recognizing that the reflection is of himself or herself, the infant takes possession of it and claims it as his or her own.

But a glass mirror is a lousy mirror for a person. It reflects the shape and external motion of the body, but not the life of the body and not the internal motion of the mind.

Look at an animal. Animals are not human, so they have the otherness needed for mirroring. Certainly, animals are like us. We recognize our own humanity more or less in animals. Some animals, the chimps and great apes, are very much like us. Perhaps dolphins are also like us. These animals seem very intelligent, and they are able to use language, to make tools; but they don't seem to have full human self-consciousness. They aren't rational animals.

Look at another person. Another person is human, so you can recognize yourself in that other person. The problem is, the other person is too much like yourself: the difference required for mirroring isn't there. You can create an artificial cultural difference by asserting yourself: you're the master, the other is the slave. But this ultimately fails. The master doesn't recognize himself or herself in the slave, and the slave isn't too happy either. So self-recognition in other people fails because they're too similar. It's like trying to get your one eye to look at your other eye. You'd have to pull it out of your head. Not a good idea. Very painful.

Technology is a system of mirrors: we make things in our own images. Machines move. They regulate themselves like living things. Computers are mindlike: they are able to do logic, and possibly to think. In the computer we have a mirror that is truly able to reflect what is most uniquely human. The story of technological progress is the story of making better and better mirrors.

One other possible mirror is extra-terrestrial rational animals. This is the source of our great fascination with UFOs and space aliens. If they turn out to be rational animals, then we'll have adequate mirrors. We won't be ALONE. Lacking a mirror, we are alone. This solitude is painful because it is ignorance. Alas, alien abductions aside, the ETs don't seem to have arrived yet.

So far the mirrors I've mentioned (glass mirrors, animals, other people, computers, aliens) are all things. Hegel has a different idea: the mirror is a process. In fact, Hegel claims that the best mirror for human being is human history. History is the mirror in which humanity is reflected. We need to recognize ourselves in our own history. History has the necessary difference: you are not your biography, even though you created it. Your biography is the result of your action, which you don't understand while you're acting. You do not yet know what you've done. Acting isn't thinking. So what you need to do now is to remember your past and look for your true self there. You need to recognize yourself in your history. So too humanity as a whole has to recognize itself in its history. The Phenomenology is the story of human self-recognition in its own history.

The thing being mirrored is us, it's humanity. The mirror is our own history. If you look at our history, you see human culture rising from the primitive to advanced culture. The true human shape is emerging in history. The thing being mirrored is what Hegel calls Subject. Subject is the ideal of humanity. It's there from the start, but it's hidden -- like the oak is hidden in the acorn. The mirror of history is what Hegel calls Substance. Substance develops, it changes, it makes progres from primitive crudeness to sophisticated enlightenment. Substance is becoming Subject. It's like our own face is coming into focus in the mirror of our history.

William Paterson University Philosophy Department