Response to Bermúdez' Reply

by Andrew Brook e-mail

Dept. of Philosophy
Carleton University
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 5B6

José Bermúdez and I may not be communicating as well as we could, so let me recapitulate. In Bermùdez's book, two claims are central:

1. Contemporary philosophical work on self-consciousness is caught in a nasty circle - to think I-thoughts, central to full-blown adult self-consciousness, we must be able to use first-person pronouns; but to use first-person pronouns, we must be able to think I-thoughts (for the details of these and other terms and issues, see Bermúdez's précis of his book and my original review of it.)

2. We can rescue it from this circle by showing that ability to think I-thoughts can be understood as continuous with, in one sense reducible to, simpler forms of awareness of self such as "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" (1998, 284).

My review is centred on two problems, one with (1) and one with (2). In connection with (1), I argue that there is no such circle. What Bermúdez calls a circle is just two aspects of a single phenomenon. And I give reasons for thinking that Bermúdez has not carried (2) out successfully, though the core of the project, reducing the I-thought kind of self-consciousness to simpler forms of consciousness of self, remains important.

Along the way and by way of diagnosing what might have gone wrong in the attempt to reduce I-thought self-consciousness to simpler forms of consciousness of self, I raise a third problem. I suggest that Bermúdez may slide from a simple kind of first person content, the kind found in proprioceptive and other simpler forms of consciousness of self but totally inadequate for thinking I-thoughts, to a richer kind of first person content, the kind required for I-thoughts.

Of the three problems I raise, Bermúdez responds directly only to the last one. To my mind, it is the least significant of the three. Suppose that the problem it raises is fixed. If either of my other two concerns go through, Bermúdez's analysis would still be in deep trouble.

Bermúdez says nothing about my concern about (1). He does respond to some of my concerns about (2) but indirectly, via introduction of a context that leads him to miscast them. The context is the self as subject/self as object distinction, which Bermúdez calls "the principal issue". I don't know why he says this. To be sure, I mention the distinction in my review - in one paragraph right at the end, mainly to connect what I do talk about to a distinction that may be familiar to some readers. But what I am actually talking about are five features of the kind of awareness that one has of oneself when one is aware of oneself as the subject of one's experiences and agent of one's actions. And I introduce these five features, not to distinguish awareness of self as subject from awareness of self as object but because, I claim, they are five things that an account of full-blown I-thought self-consciousness has to account for. My conclusion, similar to Soldati's, is that Bermúdez's appeal to simpler forms of consciousness of self fails to account for them.

In fact, I don't care whether awareness of self as subject is some form of awareness of self as an object or not. And I don't care whether the simpler forms of self-consciousness at issue are awareness of the self as an object or not. In the one place where I speak about awareness of self as object, I say that when we are aware of ourselves as subject, we may not be aware of ourselves as an object in a world of objects - may not (Bermúdez quotes the passage) - and that one of the five features I identity would entail that we are not aware of ourselves as an object. And that is all I say. Whether awareness of self as subject involves awareness of the self as an object is a major preoccupation in certain quarters in Oxford right now - see for example Cassam (1997) - but it is not my concern.

Let me now turn to Bermúdez's specific remarks. He actually begins not with self as subject but with one of his favourite topics, immunity to error through misidentification with respect to the first person. Since he takes up this topic again later, let us postpone it for now and start with his comments on awareness of self as subject. His first criticism of me is that what I say about awareness of self as subject is in tension with the obvious fact that we have first-person awareness of obviously bodily properties (his example is "I have grown six inches."). And the problem is? I don't see one. On the one hand, one can of course be aware of oneself as subject and as an object at the same time, and in far more interesting contexts than growing six inches. Consider 'I hate myself for having said that.' Here 'I' is used to refer to myself as subject, 'myself' to myself as object. On the other hand, as the example just given shows, one does not need to refer to (obviously) bodily properties to be aware of oneself as an object ('obviously bodily' because if materialism is true, all my properties are bodily properties, psychological ones included). Awareness of oneself as subject can arise in the context of perception of obviously bodily properties, memory, thinking, imagination, hallucination of pink elephants, and many, many more. Nothing I said is in any tension with this.

Nor does it matter what the subject of experience is actually like, Bermúdez's next topic . The five features I name are features of the way we are aware of the subject, not features of the thing of which we are aware, a distinction at the heart of Kant's attack on the paralogisms. The issue is not what 'I' refers to - it refers to me, i.e., to a person - but how this referent is presented in such acts of reference. No transcendental subject is even on the horizon in my review. (Bermúdez himself eventually recognizes this but then why does he talk about the mysteriousness of the transcendental subject? He must have had something to do with my review in mind.)

Bermúdez then turns to the five features themselves. He starts with the fourth feature, the essential indexical. He comments, "The fourth [i.e., the essential indexical]... seems completely orthogonal to the distinction between consciousness of self as subject and consciousness of self as object." Indeed - which is not surprising, given that I am not talking about this distinction. I am talking about what a theory of self-consciousness of the I-thought kind needs to account for. That first-person indexicals are ineliminable in certain contexts, I suggest, is one of those things.

The second feature is the unity of consciousness. Bermúdez says that his notion of a nonconceptual point of view is "expressly designed" to capture this dimension of consciousness. I wish he's said something about how. The proposal is interesting.

Turning to the third feature, Bermúdez says that my claims about it may not be coherent. This is Bennett's idea that awareness of self as subject is not experience-dividing. He says,

    The notion of a type of awareness that is not experience-dividing seems a contradiction in terms. If it is awareness then it must have an object - and if it has an object then I cannot see how it can fail to be experience-dividing.

Here's how. Is the awareness of myself available when I am aware of seeing the screen in front of me any different - so far as awareness of myself is concerned - from the awareness of myself available when I am aware that I am hearing the telephone ring or when I aware of thinking about the trip I have to take tomorrow? If the answer is no, this awareness of myself draws no boundaries in my experience. Of course the states are about different things and the awareness of them is experience-dividing. But that is entirely irrelevant. Awareness of myself as their subject is what is under discussion. Bermúdez's comment simply misses the point. (He does not help matters by calling what states of awareness are about their objects. This way of phrasing the point begs a crucial question and in fact begs it against his own preferred view, the view that when we are aware of the self as subject, we are aware of it as an object.)

Bermúdez ducks the fifth claim, that awareness of self as subject may not be awareness of oneself as an object, on the grounds that it is the whole point at issue between us. He is wrong. I do mention awareness of self as an object in my remarks here - but simply to help make the point that I am really making. And that point is? Here are some of the other things that I say in that paragraph. When I am aware of myself as subject, I appear nonascriptively, i.e., not characterized as anything, so that my type, boundaries, etc., are entirely unspecified. True, I do say that if all this is so, I do not appear to myself to be an object but that is at most an implication of the main claim, not the claim itself. That main claim is, to use Kant's term, that awareness of self as subject has a peculiar manifoldlessness. If it does, a theory of self-consciousness has to account for this feature of it.

(Two quick supplementary points:

1. I think that nonascriptive awareness of self as subject is involved in most or all I-thoughts. If so, even a theory limited to I-thought self-consciousness would have to account for this feature, but I won't pursue this thought here.

2. As what I say in this paragraph might indicate, I also think that Shoemakers's notion of self-reference without identification, a close cousin of my nonascriptive reference to self, is actually a far more important notion than his notion of immunity of error through misidentification with respect to the first person, even though the latter has received enormously more attention than the former, especially in recent philosophy in the UK.)

That leaves the first claimed feature, immunity. I will take Bermúdez's two discussions of it together. The first is central to his response to my third concern early in his comments, the worry that he slides from a weaker to a stronger notion of first person content (he quotes the relevant passage). Immunity to error through misidentification is central to Bermúdez's book and an important corner of UK philosophy in general right now but it is not what I am talking about in that passage. What I am talking about, as is perfectly clear in the passage, is the difference between contents that are merely in fact about their bearer and contents that are known by the bearer to be about the bearer. The simpler forms of self-consciousness to which Bermúdez appeals have only the former whereas self-consciousness of the I-thought kind has the latter. My worry was that as a result the former could hardly be used to give an account of this aspect of the latter. More generally, forms of awareness simply of what is in fact oneself do not contain anything out of which awareness that a thing is oneself could be built, so far as I can see. If so, these simpler forms of self-consciousness do not account for a crucial feature of I-thought self-consciousness.

Next, he articulates what he calls a middle way. I think it is supposed to be between contents that are merely in fact about their bearer and contents that are known by the bearer to be about the bearer. It is based on states that have the conditional property,

    if one gains knowledge through them that someone has a certain property, then one ipso facto gains knowledge that one oneself has that property.

This is supposed to create a middle way because, "if an information-source that [has this property] gives rise to any sort of knowledge it will give rise to knowledge that is first-personal. But it does not need to give rise to knowledge at all. That is why it is able to occupy a position between the two extremes that Brook identifies." I don't understand this comment at all. At the least it is based on a mischaracterization of my "two extremes" (which aren't extremes or even positions on a scale at all) and fails to do the job that Bermúdez needs it to do.

It mischaracterizes my distinction because a creature that has simple kinds of self-consciousness knows of properties that are in fact properties of itself. If so, it does know at least something about the "someone" that has that property. It just does not know that the thing is itself. What kind of middle way is there room for here?

It fails to do Bermúdez's job for much the same reason. These creatures do know that someone has a certain property when they know of properties that are in fact properties of themselves. Yet they do not know that it is themselves that have the property. If so, by Bermúdez's account, they do not have immunity. From which it would follow in turn that there is nothing in what they know that could be used to build an account of full-blown I-thought immunity.

In any case, immunity is only one of the features of self-consciousness of the I-thought kind that I identify. Even if some middle way would give Bermúdez a handle on it, that would be only the first step toward a theory of I-thought self-consciousness. Strangely, when Bermúdez turns to immunity as one of those five features later in his comments, he does not offer an account even of it. Instead, he foists on me claims about something that he calls logical immunity and says by contrast that all we need is de facto immunity. Yet I make no claims about the nature of the immunity involved and distinguish no types. All I claim is that a theory of I-thought self-consciousness has to account for the existence of this immunity whatever it is like.

One last point about immunity. Bermúdez ties it directly to introspection, holding that it is properties known by introspection that confer it. This strikes me as incorrect. We do not need to be introspecting a state or event, i.e., turning sensibility and/or attention onto a state or event, in order to have immunity to error through misidentification with respect to the first person about the possessor of that state or event. Such immunity is a feature rather of states and events of which we are or could be aware simply by having them, no intermediary representation needed. (For this point and indeed most of the points I make in these remarks, see Brook 1994.)

Bermúdez concludes by introducing two new claims of his own. The first is a suggestion that self-ascription of thoughts may not involve awareness of self as subject at all. Well, I would happily grant that it need not - we can self-ascribe in dreams, for example. But sometimes it certainly does: 'Do you have any doubts about this belief in X that you hold so dear?' 'Well, I have carefully related that belief to as many of my other beliefs as I can think of. It stands up very well.' No awareness of self as subject is expressed in the second sentence? If such awareness is present in any significant range of cases, a theory of self-consciousness has to account for it.

The second is a suggestion that self-ascription of sensations involves awareness only of the body. Well, if materialism is true, the self is part of the body and so Bermúdez is right. But I don't think that that is what he had in mind. I think he had in mind that there is no awareness of self as subject. (As he says, we have no reason to think that "a distinctive type of self-awareness [is] involved.") No? Consider questions like these: 'Is the pain in your hip worse than the pain you had in your chest last week? Does this pain interfere with your concentration more than the bout of depression you experienced a while ago? How clearly do you remember that bout of depression? Can you describe it as clearly as the chest pain?' To respond such questions, one needs not just awareness of hip and chest, one needs awareness of psychological states - as one's own. One needs memories - as memories of one's own earlier states. One needs awareness of abilities - as one's own abilities. And so on and so forth. In short, one needs awareness of oneself as oneself, the subject of one's experiences.

Bermúdez starts his conclusion this way:

    I remain unconvinced by the distinction that Brook draws between consciousness of self as subject and consciousness of self as object. Of the five grounds he cites for making the distinction, ...

But I did not introduce those five features of self-consciousness to make that distinction. Indeed I introduce the distinction itself only incidentally. I introduced those five features because they are five things, I claim, that a theory like Bermúdez's theory has to be able to account for if it is to be an adequate theory of the kind of self-consciousness that goes with I-thoughts. I am not convinced that Bermúdez accounts for any of them.



Bermúdez, J. (1998), The Paradox of Self-Consciousness, Bradford/MIT Press.

Brook, A. (1994) Kant and the Mind Cambridge University Press.

Cassam, Q. (1997) Self and World Oxford University Press.


top | back to symposium index |