Circularity or reduction: What is
the real issue?
by Andrew Brook
Dept. of Philosophy
This book has
many virtues. Despite its somewhat daunting title, it is very readable,
in part because most of it is beautifully written. It makes use
of a mass of empirical information from cognitive and developmental
psychology, something still too rare in philosophy of mind. It attempts
to build a completely naturalistic picture of how full-blown adult
self-consciousness could be the product of simpler forms of awareness
of self, e.g., the ability to discriminate between what is in fact
oneself and what is not. It does so in the service of a solution
to a properly philosophical problem, namely, a possible deep tension
buried in the view of self-consciousness currently most popular
among philosophers. And finally, it sustains a single complex argument
from beginning to end
Readers thoroughly familiar with Bermúdez’s book may be able to skip the next few pages. The last half dozen paragraphs of this introduction to Bermúdez’s project are essential to understand the critique that follows and should not be skipped.
Bermúdez has summarized his project as follows (1999):
This book addresses two fundamental questions in the philosophy and psychology of self-consciousness: (1) Can we provide a noncircular account of full-fledged self-conscious thought and language in terms of more fundamental capacities? (2) Can we explain how full-fledged self-conscious thought and language can arise in the normal course of human development? I argue that a paradox (the paradox of self-consciousness) arises from the apparent strict interdependence between self-conscious thought and linguistic self-reference. Responding to the paradox, I draw on recent work in empirical psychology and philosophy to cut the tie between self-conscious thought and linguistic self-reference. The book studies primitive forms of nonconceptual self-consciousness manifested in visual perception, somatic proprioception, spatial reasoning and interpersonal psychological interactions.
Perhaps the tension is not
exactly a paradox, Bermudez’s claim notwithstanding, because there
is not, strictly speaking, any element of contradiction or self-refutation
in it, but it is something pretty serious. Let’s see how it develops
and what it looks like more specifically.
I think: (1) The person AB is about to be attacked by a poisonous spider
I think: (2) I am about to be attacked by a poisonous spider
Even though (1) and (2) are
both thoughts about the same person, namely me, these are quite
different thoughts. Roughly, I could truly think (1) of AB without
knowing that AB is me, and, on the other hand, I could truly think
(2) of myself, knowing that it is myself to whom I am referring,
even if I do not know or have ceased to know that I am AB. As Shoemaker
(1968) has put it, I can refer to myself, refer to myself
knowing that it is myself (the subject of my experiences) to whom
I am referring, without identifying myself under concepts; I can
refer to myself without knowing identifying facts about myself.
(Shoemaker calls this reference to self without identification.
It is different from, though related to, his better known notion
of immunity to error through misidentification with respect to the
first person. We will return to the distinction.) It is thoughts
like (2) that are called ‘I’-thoughts. What makes them special is
that one cannot use ‘I’ and other first person pronouns in this
way "without knowing that one is thinking about oneself"
(1998, 3). Following Castañeda, when reference is
made to an ‘I’-thought in the third person, indirect discourse,
Bermúdez marks the third person pronoun with an ‘*’ (as in
‘AB said that he* was about to be attacked by a poisonous spider’).< 1 >
Bermudez’s strategy in Chapter 10 is straightforward. First he gives an account of the requirements for using first-person pronouns where the user knows that she is referring to herself. This account is a variation on the well-known Gricean communication-intention approach and consists of a complex pattern of ‘I’-thoughts. Then he argues that we can give an account of this pattern of ‘I’-thoughts without invoking the capacity to use first-person pronouns. The pattern of ‘I’-thoughts is this:
An utterer u utters ‘I’ to refer to himself* [see above
for this use of ‘*’] if and only if u utters ‘I’ in full comprehension of the token-reflexive
rule that tokens of ‘I’ refer to their producer and with
the tripartite intention
There does not seem to be
any risk that to know the token-reflexive rule, a user of ‘I’ must
have the capacity to use first-person pronouns, so Bermúdez
focuses on (a) - (c). At least (a) and (b) involve ‘I’-thoughts
(the ‘*’ means that the utterer must know that the person to whom
‘him’ refers is himself). And the question is, can we give an account
in which they can be satisfied without the utterer having to use
first person pronouns?
One way ... would be through an intention to draw an audience’s attention to the material self as revealed in proprioceptive self-consciousness. Another way would be through an intention to draw an audience’s attention to the material self as a spatial element moving within, acting upon, and being acted upon by, the spatial environment [1998, 284]
Proprioceptive self-consciousness and awareness of "the material self as a spatial element moving within, acting upon, and being acted upon by, the spatial environment" are two of the forms of nonconceptual self-awareness that Bermúdez has delineated in earlier chapters.
Does the Project Work?
Unfortunately, it is not clear that either will do the job. I say ‘unfortunately’ because it would be wonderful to have a successful marriage of full-blown adult self-consciousness and simpler forms of self-consciousness of the sort that Bermúdez proposes.
First concern: I am not sure exactly how Bermúdez
wants to frame the problem. I have a fair idea what an ‘I’-thought
is but I am not sure what he means by ‘mastery of first person pronouns’.
He could mean either mastery of the appropriate words in some natural
language or mastery of the ability to make the appropriate kind
of reference to and/or judgment about oneself. The first would make
the project silly – I doubt that anyone has ever held that the way
to understand ‘I’-thoughts is via analysis of our knowledge of a
few English words – but the second runs a serious risk of undermining
it much more profoundly. Here is why. One cannot have an ‘I’-thought
"without knowing that one is thinking about oneself" (1998, 3). But to refer
to oneself in such a way that one knows that one is thinking about
oneself is to make precisely the kind of reference, the kind of
judgment, that mastery of first person pronouns affords. That is
to say, part of having an ‘I’-thought simply
is doing what mastery of the first
person pronouns allows us to do. If so, there are not two separate
elements here, the thought and the mastery of the kind of reference
and/or judgment that first person pronouns affords. From this it
would follow, in turn, that there is no circle. A thing cannot be
in a circle with itself.
Second concern: Right away we notice a slippage in Bermúdez's terminology, specifically in his term 'first person contents'. Sometimes it seems to mean merely some information about the being who is in fact oneself. Other times it clearly means the kind of reference to, judgment about oneself that yields 'I'-thoughts - reference or judgment in which one knows that the person to whom one is referring is oneself. (This is one of the few spots of unclarity in an otherwise lucid book, but it is a bad one.) What we need to get out of proprioceptive self-consciousness and consciousness of oneself as a spatial element is the latter, not just the former. The trouble is, these two kinds of simple self-consciousness may provide only the former, not the latter. This leads to a third concern.)
concern: Can we get 'I'-thoughts out of proprioceptive self-consciousness
and/or conscious of oneself as a spatial element at all? It is far
from clear that we can. Clause (a) has it that a speaker of 'I'
or cognates wants an audience's attention drawn to himself*. Notice
first that this is not the same thing as wanting to draw attention
to the body that is (in fact) his. The speaker may not know which body is delivering
proprioceptive sensations to him, which body is the one travelling
through the spatiotemporal path carved by the base point of his
experiences, which body is responding to his desires and emotions.
(If the latter seems far-fetched, think of Bermúdez's own
favourite example, infants. Some body is in fact responding to their
desires and emotions, by sucking, crying, etc., but it is very unlikely
that the infant knows which one - or indeed anything about bodies
1.This kind of consciousness of self confers immunity, the point we have just seen.
2. When one is conscious of oneself in the way involved in ‘I’-thoughts, one is conscious of oneself as the single common subject of a great many different experiences, as Kant put it (1781/7, A350). A number of experiences are tied together so that they are all part of a single field or state or act of consciousness.
3. The reference to oneself by which one achieves awareness of oneself as subject seems to involve no "identification", an idea well discussed by Shoemaker 1968 and Perry 1979 and introduced earlier. Generalizing the notion a bit, reference to self may not proceed by way of attribution of properties to oneself at all. That is, it may be nonascriptive. One argument for this view is that one is or could be aware of oneself as the subject of every one of one’s conscious experiences and in roughly the same way, i.e., as their subject. If so, consciousness of self is not what Bennett calls ‘experience-dividing’ – statements expressing it have "no direct implications of the form ‘I shall experience C rather than D’ " (Bennett 1974; Brook 1994, 80). If so, no experience-dividing attributions could be necessary for such consciousness.< 2 >
4. Certain indexicals may be essential, i.e., ineliminable. (This is another idea that goes back to the 1960s; Perry 1979 is one of the fullest statements of it.) One argument goes as follows. To know that I wrote a certain book a few years ago, it is not enough to know that someone over six feet tall wrote that book, or that someone who teaches philosophy at a particular university wrote that book, or ... or ... or ... , for I could know all these things without knowing that it was me who has these properties (and I could know that it was me who wrote that book and not know that any of these things are properties of me). Nor would it help to add details of a more identifying kind – the person whose office number is 123 in building ABC, the person whose office phone number is ... . If I don’t know that that office is my office, that that phone number is my phone number, I could know all these things and still not know that it was me who wrote the book. And vice-versa – through bizarre selective amnesia, I could cease to know all such things about myself and yet continue to know that it was me who wrote the book. As Shoemaker puts it,
(There is a connection between this point and the idea that the consciousness of self in question is not by way of identifying or even any attributions. If some indexicals are essential, the consciousness of self involved must at least outstrip all attributions.)
5. In the kind of consciousness of self in question, I may not appear to myself as an object, i.e. an item contained within a world of items and in various relationships to other items in that world, at all. If, when I appear to myself as subject, I appear nonascriptively, i.e., as not characterised as anything, when I am aware of myself as subject, I not only do not appear to myself to be a physical object, I do not appear to myself to be an object among other objects at all. However I appear, my type, boundaries, etc., are entirely unspecified. Kant held this view (1781/7, A382, A402, B429). It is also at least related to Wittgenstein’s (1933-4) distinction between consciousness of the self as subject and as object, a distinction that Bermúdez discusses (1998, 5).
Certainly the view that one
is aware of oneself as an object of any sort faces some real puzzles.
For example, how can an entity appearing as subject of all its experience
also appear as subject to be an object of only a few of them (a puzzle that
exercised Kant [1781/7, B155])? Equally, virtually any of one’s
conscious experiences can be the basis for awareness of oneself
as subject, but one could appear as an object, including a physical
object, of only some of them.
So do we remain caught in Bermúdez's explanatory and/or capacity circles? This is not so clear. First, as we have seen, there may be no such circles. That would be the case if ability to refer to oneself in the way provided by the first person pronouns is simply part of thinking an 'I'-thought. Second, even if one or both circles is real, there would still be no problem if we can explain them both and account for our acquisition of both capacities in terms of some common third factor. In fact, this brings us close to Bermúdez's underlying project, to provide an account of full-blown, 'I'-thought self-consciousness in terms of simpler capacities. We could give up all notion of a circle connecting 'I'-thoughts and the ability make first person judgments without this underlying project losing any of its viability or importance. And it is vitally important. Since 'I'-thought self-consciousness did grow out of simpler capacities phylogenetically and does so again in every child ontogenetically, it would be real progress to have a good story, or even a story, of how this happens or could happen. I am not sure that Bermúdez has such a story yet but he has shown us the direction we have to go in if we want to find one.
<1> This point about ‘I’, etc., that the user knows that it is she herself to whom reference is being made, and the corresponding distinction within uses of third person pronouns was first noted by Castañeda (1966). He says that when third person demonstratives (‘he*’, etc.) are used to express ‘I’-thoughts, they are more properly thought of as quasi-indicators than real indicators, for reasons that we do not need to go into here.
<2> Notice that the notion of self-reference without identification is very different from the notion of immunity to error though misidentification with respect to the first person, even though Shoemaker introduced them both in the same paper. Even if there were no such immunity, it could still be the case that we can or must refer to ourselves without identifying ourselves. For some reason, the notion of immunity has received much more attention than the notion of reference to self without identification, especially in the UK.
Bennett, J. (1974), Kant’s Dialectic Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bermúdez, J. (1998), The Paradox of Self-Consciousness, Bradford/MIT Press.
Brook, A. (1994), Kant and the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press
Castañeda, Hector-N. (1966), ‘He’: A study in the logic of self-consciousness. Ratio 8, pp.130-57
Kant, I. (1781/87), Critique of Pure Reason. P. Guyer and A. Wood, trans. and eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (cited as Axxx for the first edition of 1781and Bxxx for the second of 1787)
Nagel, T. (1965), Physicalism. Philosophical Review 74, 339-56
Perry, J.(1979), The problem of the essential indexical. Noûs 13, pp.3-21
Shoemaker, Sydney. (1968), Self-reference and self-awareness. Journal of Philosophy 65, pp. 555-67
Wittgenstein, L. (1933-4), Blue and Brown Books. Rush Rhees, ed. Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1958