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Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity [Paperback]

Thomas Metzinger

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Book Description

Aug. 20 2004 0262633086 978-0262633086 1

According to Thomas Metzinger, no such things as selves exist in the world: nobody ever had or was a self. All that exists are phenomenal selves, as they appear in conscious experience. The phenomenal self, however, is not a thing but an ongoing process; it is the content of a "transparent self-model." In Being No One, Metzinger, a German philosopher, draws strongly on neuroscientific research to present a representationalist and functional analysis of what a consciously experienced first-person perspective actually is. Building a bridge between the humanities and the empirical sciences of the mind, he develops new conceptual toolkits and metaphors; uses case studies of unusual states of mind such as agnosia, neglect, blindsight, and hallucinations; and offers new sets of multilevel constraints for the concept of consciousness. Metzinger's central question is: How exactly does strong, consciously experienced subjectivity emerge out of objective events in the natural world? His epistemic goal is to determine whether conscious experience, in particular the experience of being someone that results from the emergence of a phenomenal self, can be analyzed on subpersonal levels of description. He also asks if and how our Cartesian intuitions that subjective experiences as such can never be reductively explained are themselves ultimately rooted in the deeper representational structure of our conscious minds.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 714 pages
  • Publisher: A Bradford Book; 1 edition (Aug. 20 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262633086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262633086
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 18 x 3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 Kg
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #346,544 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Being No One is Kantian in its scope, intelligence and depth. Steeped in contemporary neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, the book gives the unsolved Kantian problems of inner self and outer world a new look, a new life, and a new route to solution. Metzinger's story is understandable, compelling, and, quite simply, very, very smart.

(Patricia and Paul Churchland, University of California, San Diego)

Thomas Metzinger is one of those courageous explorers who dare to travel beyond the borders of their familiar territory. This book is a successful and brilliant attempt to bring together what had been separated artificially, the philosophy and the neuroscience of mind. It is a must for those who believe that consciousness is a mystery and for those who think it is not.

(Wolf Singer, Max Planck Institute for Brain Research)

While some philosophers have resisted scientists' incursions into the philosophy of mind, Thomas Metzinger has welcomed them. In this book he employs his impressively detailed knowledge of the latest developments in cognitive neuroscience to develop an exciting new philosophical approach to consciousness for which the experience of the self is fundamental. His is a truly interdisciplinary project which has important implications for future work in both philosophy and neuroscience.

(Chris Frith, Institute of Neurology, University College London)

Being No One is a superb and indispensable book. Thomas Metzinger's intelligence, open-minded honesty, and knowledge combine to produce the most complete and satisfying discussion of the problem of self currently available.

(Antonio and Hanna Damasio, Professors of Neurology, University of Iowa College of Medicine)

A convincing philosophical exposition and a well-structured compendium... without a doubt, a milestone of modern Philosophy of Mind.

(Reiner Hedrich Philosophy of Science)

Being No One is essential reading for all scholars interested in the study of the self and of its distortions. In this thought-provoking book Metzinger presents an exciting new theory of phenomenal awareness, a theory that has the merit of being firmly grounded on a vast neuroscientific and psychopathological literature, which is here synthesized and made available to a wider audience for the first time.

(Vittorio Gallese, University of Parma)

Metzinger's interdisciplinary approach opens a new path toward a scientific theory of consciousness and self-consciousness.

(Franz Mechsner and Albert Newen Science)

This book is a 'must' for anyone who is interested in empirical studies related to first-person issues or subjectivity.

(Kai Vogeley TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences)

Being No One is a superb and indispensable book. Thomas Metzinger's intelligence, open-minded honesty, and knowledge combine to produce the most complete and satisfying discussion of the problem of self currently available.

(Antonio and Hanna Damasio, Professors of Neurology, University of Iowa College of Medicine)

The strength of Metzinger's book lies in his mastery of supposedly disparate fields. Being No One successfully bridges the gap between elaborate philosophical models of the self and the neural models that were elaborated in our laboratories. It is a book that has much to offer to a wide array of scholars and readers.

(Marc Jeannerod, Institut des Sciences Cognitives)

About the Author

Thomas Metzinger is Professor of Philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany. He is the editor of Neural Correlates of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2000).

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
115 of 126 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally.The monster can be tamed. Oct. 15 2004
By Carlos Camara - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is very hard to review. There are many reasons for this. One is that I may be biased: I think this may be the most important book written about consciousness in the last couple of decades. Then there is the fact that the book is enormous in scope, (and not far in size either- it is 650 pages long), brilliantly written and argued, and succeeds in doing something few other related books do. Reading this book makes you feel that consciousness has been explained. It makes you feel that the monster has been tamed, that progress can be made, that those who believe there can be no sensible exxplanation for consicousness are just wrong. Now in reality, it is not obvious that consciousness HAS been explained. But one feels like it has. And this is why I think this book is superior to Daniel Dennetts Consicousness explained, arguably the book regarded as the most significant and influential philosophical contribution in the field. After reading Dennett, few believed consicousness had been explaied. Even few felt like it had. This book is unique, and I believe it is a matter of time until its impact is made apparent.

Metzinger wanted to show that the self can be explained in subpersonal terms, using representational analysis. He quickly noticed that since Selves are usually consicous entities, that he would first have to do this for consciousness. Imagine that. Having to explain consicousness to try to explain the self. And so, the book could be seen as divided in two. First, a theory of consicousness, and second, a theory of the self. I am by far more impressed with the former, although undoubtedly the latter is extremely interesting as well.

Before proposing a number of theorethical entities supposed to play the explanatory role, Metzinger carefully analyses the conceptual tools necessary to understand the problem, and formulate solutions. Thus, he analyses the concepts of representation, mental model, phenomenal presentation, etc. His account is also almost completely positive; that is, he almost does not stop to defend his ideas, or to analyse other philosphical theories. He focuses on arguing step-by step for a conceptual edifice that may lead to the explanation of phenomenal states in terms of non-phenomenal objective relations. This part of the book alone seems to me to be one of the strongest formulations of a representational theory of mental states.

Metzinger, then, is able to answer the question of what makes a mental state a conscious state. He argues that mental states have representational, and these states can have phenomenal content if the representational states meet some constraints. Consciously experienced content is content of an active phenomenal model, and phenomenal contents are all representational. The various constraints are the conditions that the representational content must meet in order for it to be a phenomenal content. Examples of these constraints are globality (integration into a global whole), activation in a window of presence, transparency.

The constraints are what makes these ideas powerful. Metzinger analyses the constraints in representational, phenomenological, information-processing, functional and neural-implementation terms. He gives what could be seen as necesary and sufficient conditions for a mental state to be a consicous state. He presents a theory of consicousness. And a very sensible, conceptually simple, naturalistic, and powerful one.

After doing this, he shows how his analysis can acomodate some abnormal phenomenons like blindsight, agnosia, and neglect. He then does much of the same last steps with the problem of the self. He defines concepts like subjectivity, self-hood, self-models. Then he proposes theorethical entities like the phenomenal self model, or the phenomenal model of the intentianality relation, to try to show how the conscious self might emerge. Here too metzinger argues that self content must meet some constraints to be considered phenomenal self content. He also tests his constructs against cases like anosognosia, multiple persoality, lucid dreams.

In sum, Metzinger deals with everything from mental representation, to content, qualia, subjectivity, intentionality, self, and does it in carefully ordered and convincing ways. Metzinger is a philosopher, and the theory is mostly philsophical. But few philsophers include such careful empirical and neurobiological observations. Few philosophers have such knowledge of the extensive literature. Few are as convinced of the central role that scientific objective theorethizing must play.

I must repeat that it is in no way evident that consciousness is explained in Metzingers book. But if there is a book that will set the conceptual framework that leads to such an explanation, it is this one. It is virtually imposible to explain his ideas concisely, and to understand them one has to follow his discussion completely. Therefore, I can do not much but to recomend that anyone interested in consicousness read this book. The book is quite technical and it is fairly long, however I believe that this should not stop the lay reader. The book is in my opinion simply too important. I have reviewed close to 100 books now, most of them on consicousness. I have said on numerous times that such or such a book is a must read. This one is the one I think more closely matches that description.
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant--A theory of consciousness tested against neurological disorders Sept. 28 2008
By Kirk Petersen - Published on
This is a truly brilliant book, with some weaknesses. Anyone with a background in philosophy who reads any book about neurological disorders immediately sees the possibility of building a theory of consciousness and self based on those disorders. Metzinger has done just that.

Personally, I find Metzinger's arguments persuasive, and I think he has developed something truly original and valid. (Metzinger himself would admit, however, that not all aspects of his theory will turn about to be correct.)

The primary weakness of the book is its highly abstract nature. Multiple pages can pass by, all of a purely theoretical nature and without a single concrete example along the way. Moreover, for some of his subsidiary theories, Metzinger even creates acronyms which he uses afterwards throughout the book--which can be annoying. I often found myself trying to remember exactly what PMIR stands for. But given the depth and breadth of this work, I suppose acronyms are justified. This is just not a book intended for the general public.

One small criticism on vocabulary: Metzinger uses the terms "transparent" and "opaque" with their opposite connotative meanings. Metzinger's "transparent" is meant as invisible, like a transparent model not being visible as a model. But, unfortunately, for most English speakers, transparent usually connotes something being visible: a "transparent form of government" is one in which the citizens can peer into and see what's really going on. Something in the reverse direction happens with Metzinger's use of the word "opaque." English speakers sometimes use "opaque" as meaning obscure or difficult to understand--which is not what Metzinger intends at all. So when reading "transparent" or "opaque" in this book, I found myself having to take any extra cognitive step to consciously reverse my normal connotative expectations.

It may be possible to access some of this book without reading everything. What I would suggest is the following: the first chapter, Neurophenomenological Case Studies I and II (good discussion of concrete cases), and the first and last sections of the last chapter ("The Neurophenomenological Caveman" and "Being No One").

If you are not an expert in this field and have no intention of becoming one, it might be better to go to some different books. I would suggest Antonio Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens." Damasio's book can be difficult in its own right, but with some cognitive effort it should be possible for most educated readers to get their minds around it. Better yet is Ramachandran's "Phantoms in the Brain," which is very readable and fascinating as well. Ramachandran focuses on concrete cases--with very little philosophical discussion. (In fact, Ramachandran seems to have a distaste for philosophy.) Indeed, "Being No One" includes many long quotes from "Phantoms." Just by reading through "Phantoms" you should be able to get a general notion of how a theory of consciousness and self might be developed from a study of neurological disorders.

One final point I'd like to make is a defense of Kant. Near the end of the book, Metzinger writes: "This phenomenally transparent representation of invariance and continuity constitutes the intuitions that underlie many traditional philosophical fallacies concerning the existence of selves as process-independent individual entities, as ontological substances that could in principle exist all by themselves, and as mysteriously unchanging essences that generate a sharp transtemporal identity for persons. But at the end of this investigation we can clearly see how individuality (in terms of simplicity and indivisibility), substantiality (in terms of ontological autonomy), and essentiality (in terms of transtemporal sameness) are not properties of selves at all."

When I read that sentence, I immediately thought of Kant's Paralogisms in the Critique of Pure Reason. Metzinger's point is almost exactly the same as Kant's (although Kant takes a purely theoretical approach devoid of discussion of neurological cases). All three properties of the self (1) the substantial "I," (2) the simple soul and (3) numerical identity over time are expressly described by Kant as being "illusions." I even thought that Metzinger must have been thinking of Kant when he wrote that sentence--just without citing him. But Metzinger does not seem to be familiar with the Paralogisms. No book of Kant's figures in Metzinger's long list of references, not even the Prolegomena (which includes an abbreviated discussion of the Paralogisms). Metzinger even criticizes Kant's "transcendental unity of apperception" as being undermined by a study of certain neurological disorders. Somehow, Metzinger believes that Kant "conclude[d] from the fact that, in standard situations, all of us experience ourselves as initiators of our own thoughts or that the 'I think' can, in principle and in the large majority of phenomenal configurations, accompany all states of consciousness, that some kind irreducible entity (e.g., a transcendental subject) must exist." Kant never concluded anything like that! Just the opposite. For Kant, the unity of apperception is transcendental: it does not exist in emperical reality. And in the Paralogisms, Kant wrote 50 pages of detailed, explicit arguments to that effect. What's even more exasperating is that Metzinger's entire point of the self's "substantiality," "essence" and "individuality" not being "epistemically justified" was prefigured by Kant himself two hundred years earlier--and Metzinger seems entirely unaware of the fact.

But in the end, my criticism of Metzinger's understanding of Kant is a minor one. The modern world is becoming overwhelmed with information, and an unfortunate side effect is that Kant is being forgotten. "Being No One" is still a great book.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but Pedantic May 15 2011
By Aaron Rutledge - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I will start my review by commenting on the quality of the writing and organization of ideas, which is, in my opinion, somewhat poor. While the syntactical aspects of the writing such as grammar, punctuation and sentence structure are adequate, it is the conceptual layout that will disconcert almost anyone to tries to read this book. Metzinger is constantly making reference to later parts of the book, defining his terms using concepts that are not explained until later, or even defining concepts circularly. The flow of thought is constantly interrupted by digressions and tangential considerations that are only slightly relevant to the point at hand, and which often aren't covered in enough detail to warrant the digression in the first place. Instead, Metzinger should have used the extra space to unpack his overly terse delivery. Phrases like "functionally defined as temporally internal" and "the phenomenal self consists of a subglobal whole" are encountered frequently and with little or no attempt at unpacking the considerable number of concepts contained therein. I often found myself wishing he would have just formalized the whole book into some kind of higher order logic so that we wouldn't have to guess at the definitions of the words he is constantly making up, and thereby saving hundreds of wasted pages as an added bonus. Needless to say, this book is in dire need of an editor, which is unfortunate considering that there are probably only a few thousand people in the world who can understand what Metzinger is talking about, and none of them are likely to take the time to try to perform the edit.

For those of you still wondering what Metzinger is trying to do in this book, I'll try to offer a little bit of insight. Metzinger is attempting to offer a theory of consciousness that makes reference only to "sub-personal" entities and relations between them. In other words, he wants to eliminate any reference to a "subject", an "I", a "soul", a "seat of consciousness", an "observer", a "ghost in the machine", "mind-stuff" or any other such entity that would be conceptualized as "having" experiences from some transcendent position. Instead, Metzinger wants to explain consciousness in terms of representation and information. For Metzinger, consciousness is basically a representation of a representation, or information about information, that arises during normal brain function and which satisfies certain tediously defined constraints. He defines different layers of representational content and explains how they interact to form a "world-model" and "self-model", which are just informational structures representing the world and the self respectively. The key to consciousness is that these models are "transparent" to the system. That is, the information in these models is presented to the system in such a way that the system is unable to recognize them as models of reality, but rather accepts them as if they were reality itself. This explains why we are naïve realists, and why we cannot help but believe that there is such thing is an "I" that transcends the world that we experience. We cannot escape our "Cartesian assumptions" precisely because of this transparency. Unfortunately, this particular conclusion has the effect of making Metzinger's entire project seem ironic. "So you just spent 700 pages arguing for a theory that, as the theory itself predicts, I can never truly believe? Nice one!"

Another bit of irony comes from his tiresome insistence that "there is no self". Yet, he spends hundreds of pages defining something he calls a "self-model" in which he basically stuffs all of the properties that we'd normally ascribe to ourselves. He has to do this, otherwise the theory would be absurd, but the result is that his supposedly enigmatic proclamation that there is no self is largely hollow. It turns out that we do have a self, but now it's called a self-model.

The one major criticism I would have of Metzinger's treatment of the subject is that he practically ignores the fact that no one has any clue what "informational content" is or how it magically "arises" from physical systems. His theory is basically dualistic in its current form, though he would probably never admit it, and Metzinger offers no suggestions on how one might go about performing a theoretic reduction from his theory to current physical theory. Metzinger skirts around the philosophical problems facing the conceptual framework that he has chosen to build his theories upon, and he basically just accepts that they'll be ironed out someday by somebody else. He throws around ideas like "supervenience", "levels of description" and "teleofunctionalism" as conceptual band-aids with minimal discussion and without acknowledging how controversial and potentially inadequate they are. I have to admit that these were topics I would have liked Metzinger to spend a little more time on given that his entire theory depends on them being coherent. 3.5 stars overall.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating ideas - like a marathon for the layperson Nov. 12 2007
By Ann McCann - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I came to this book from a footnote in Peter Watt's new novel 'Blindsight'. As an older layperson, I can say that Metzinger assumes a background and vocabulary in philosophy that I don't have. But, he has a habit of summarizing and clarifying his points that gives you a thread through the discussion. It's been like an immersion course in another language, and oh the joy when you can grasp a concept or some of his ideas flash out at you. I can think of nothing else I've read in the past few decades that has repaid my hard work with so very much food for thought.

Being No One (and note the specific grammar: it's not 'Being No-one) is more than worth the work. Highly recommended for anyone interested in how consciousness relates to brain activity.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If I am a cornchip at least I am one in process June 2 2013
By W. Jamison - Published on
This book is an excellent approach to a similar problem dealt with in many of Alain Badiou's books where the multiplicity of processes are referred to as events. The writing is excellent and a pleasure to read. This text clearly explains the difficult topic of approaching a study of the NCCs and how those should be understood at multiple levels as the self.

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