Of Selves and Mirrors

If you want to know whether something or someone possesses a capacity for self-recognition or self-perception, a common test to use is the mirror test. Put people in front of a mirror, and see if they can recognize themselves in their reflections. Can you tell that your reflection is your image, that is, an image of you yourself? If so, you would see that the reflection of your nose is not another’s nose. Rather, you would recognize that it refers back to your actual nose. If you wanted to touch your nose, you wouldn’t touch the mirror. You would touch your face. That implies that you can recognize yourself, hence the official name of this test: mirror self-recognition (MSR). That test has some problems. Ultimately, the mirror test says very little about the self of those who do or don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. It says more about the self of someone who thinks mirrors are adequate tests for selfhood.  

One easy criticism of this test is that it is primarily oriented around vision, as if vision grants is the primary (or exclusive?) sense for self-perception, self-awareness, self-recognition, and other self-oriented phenomena. While that may be true for humans, it does not seem true for many nonhuman animals. What if animals are not so ocularcentric? What about auditory and olfactory forms of self-recognition? The mirror test needs to be expanded in a way that accounts for different kinds of sense perception. Accordingly, an “olfactory mirror” test was developed to determine if dogs can smell their own reflection. Dogs typically cannot recognize themselves in a visual mirror, but they do seem to have a capacity for recognizing themselves in an olfactory mirror. A visual mirror reflects the light bouncing off your body. An olfactory mirror reflects the odors that your body emits. According to an olfactory mirror test, if a dog can recognize its own urine, that means the dog is smelling itself, which is to say, the dog has some capacity for self-perception (or self-awareness, self-recognition, etc.; at least for now, I’m not trying to parse these rather ambiguous terms).

I find it interesting that the inadequacy of the visual mirror test led to the development of different kinds of mirror tests, but it did not lead to a displacement of the mirror as paradigm of selfhood. If visual mirrors were inadequate to test for selfhood, let’s try olfactory mirrors. That sounds fine, but part of my job as a philosopher (and that is too emphatic of a job title) is to interrogate assumptions. What if the ocularcentrism of the mirror test was only part of the problem? What if there’s a problem with the mirror itself, not just a visual mirror but any kind of representation or reflective surface (e.g., the olfactory mirror of a dog’s own urine)? The mirror test assumes that there’s something like self-recognition, and that self-recognition is evident when I encounter myself through a reflection. To recognize yourself is to be aware of your own reflection. The focus on reflection presupposes that selfhood or self-perception is an individualistic phenomenon.

Recognizing your reflection is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for having (being or recognizing) a self. Even if one recognizes oneself in one’s reflections, that does not imply that there is a self or person there. A robot programmed to perform autoaffective tasks in response to its reflection would not thereby be a person. Conversely, I am still a person even if I am experiencing dissociative hallucinations that prevent any recognition of my own image. What if recognizing yourself is about becoming yourself in relation to other persons? When I see you see me, I am seeing my face. This face to face relation is not that of a mirror or any kind of reflection. It’s a space of intercorporeal intimacy.

I want to say something about permutations of the doctrine of no self (anatta) across Buddhist philosophies, and I also want to say something about Indigenous experiences of selves and the ways in which the relation of a self to itself is given in multispecies kinship, but I’ll leave those perspectives aside for now, staying instead with an immanent critique of the mirror self-recognition test.

Mainstream philosophy of mind and cognitive science still rely far too much on a modern concept of self, a kind of Cartesian ego or Kantian will, but reinscribed in complex networks of material and semiotic flows (NB: complexity is the Cartesian certainty of the 21st century). This mainstream myopia is indicated by a reliance on mirror metaphors. The mirror is not a good model for subjectivity. Peter Sloterdijk explains this point in his analysis of intimate relations (bubbles) constituted in human inhabitations of space (being-in-spheres).

Aside from the rather vague reflections found in streams and lakes or polished stones and metal (e.g., obsidian and bronze), mirrors are a relatively recent invention: “the self-encounter of human faces in mirror images is a very late addition to primary interfacial reality”; for people today, “living in apartments covered in mirrors, it would be asking the unimaginable if one expected them to realize the meaning of a central fact: that until recently, the quasi-totality of the human race consisted of individuals who never, or only in highly exceptional situations, saw their own faces” (Bubbles 192).

Glass mirrors of the type common today have only existed since c. 1500—and initially only in Venice. Supplying large parts of populations with mirrors only really began in the nineteenth century, and process would not have been complete in the First World until the middle of the twentieth. Only in a mirror-saturated culture could people have believed that for each individual, looking into one’s own mirror image realized a primal form of self-relation. (197)  

The idea of a mirror stage of psychological development and Freudian ideas about narcissism are examples of this modern fixation on mirrors. Other examples include our fixation on media screens, from books and newspapers to digital screens. To be clear, Narcissus did not recognize his own reflection, so it’s not accurate to apply his name to modern individuals who are obsessed with their own image. “If Narcissus wanted to embrace the face in the watery mirror, it was definitely also because it had not yet become his own; his stupid fall into the image presupposed that until then, every visible face had to be that of another.” (199)

The initial experience of faciality rests on the basic circumstance that humans who regard humans are themselves regarded by humans, and return to themselves by way of the sight of the other. In this sense the face, as vision, is the face, as visage, of the other. At first, then, a face is always something that can only be viewed over there and up there. In the initial bipolar interfacial game, the gazes are distributed among the partners in such a way that each for the time being, learned enough about himself by looking into the face of the other who is looking at him. The other thus acts as a person mirror; but he is also the opposite of a mirror, for he permits neither the peace nor the discretion of a reflection in glass or metal—but above all because he produces not an eidetic reproduction, but rather an affective echo. (200)

When the individual turns away from others and toward the dream of self-sufficiency and self-rule, “the world is divided into an inside and an outside that differ in the same way as the ego and the non-ego,” and only with that division can a modern society (populated by individuals) ensue: “it secures the solitary confinement of every individual within an interconnected bubble” (205). The mirror test is a projection of the modern individualistic subject, not unlike what Alan Watts called a skin-encapsulated ego.

If you want to know if something is a self or has a self (leaving aside, for now, the distinction between being and having), there’s an old way to figure it out. Have a conversation. Have regard.

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