The Sense of Self and Its Relation to Agency: A Phenomenological Study


  • Matúš Brziak Comenius University in Bratislava


The aim of this thesis is twofold: First, a phenomenological investigation of the sense of self and a state called nonduality and their relation to the sense of agency. Second, to propose a design of an empirical experiment examining the sense of self under normal and non-dual conditions, to the sense of agency.

There exists a fairly strong consensus in the phenomenological literature about the sense of self as an intrinsic feature of primary experience. Experience happens for me in an immediate way, implicitly marked as my experience (it is like something already). In this way, we talk about pre- reflective, non-observational and non- objectifying self-consciousness (Alternatively: minimal self, core experience, or ipseity). Development in an interpersonal and societal context shapes, since early childhood, the creation of self as a narrative construction.

Sense of agency is a sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action. Agency enters intentional action in two ways: First, through an experiential sense of agency at the first-order, pre-reflexive level of consciousness (at the level of the minimal self). Second, through a reflective attribution of agency (“Yes I did that”). The sense of agency is fully embodied and situated, involving bodily movement, the peripheral nervous system, and affective and intentional aspects. Relevant to the investigation of the self is view offered by predictive coding. The brain generates predictive models not only about the world but also about the “most likely to be me”. Phenomenal content being identified as ‘mine’ is then seen as nothing more than the most probable cause. [1]

A state of non-conceptual awareness, without the subject-object division, is achievable occasionally spontaneously, through meditative practice, or drug use. Characterized mainly by its self-evident existence, non-reification, ineffability, bliss, and an overall reported experience of interconnectedness and well-being. I will argue that the description of this state is strikingly similar to the characteristics of the minimal self, and discuss implications of the possibilities to access this state. [2]

In first-person studies, we encounter a problem of the so-called excavation fallacy: Examining experience alters and even constructs the phenomena. Subjects need to be trained in the ability to become aware of their experience in the first person. Methods for this training differ, but the general agreed necessary “target” state is known as epoché (suspension of judgement). Epoché contains three intertwined components: suspension of beliefs about the world, redirection of attention to the interior, and letting go and accepting experience. Subjects then work iteratively under guidance to hone the skill of verbally reporting their experience. [3]


[1] S. Gallagher and D. Zahavi, “The phenomenological mind”, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2021.
[2] Z. Josipovic, “Nondual awareness: Consciousness-as-such and non- representational reflexivity”, Progress in Brain Research vol. 244 pp. 273–298, 2019.

[3] N. Depraz, F. J. Varela, and P. Vermersch, “Becoming aware: A pragmatics of

experiencing”, Company, 2003.