Self-as-Subject and Self-as-Object: Reply to Brook

by José Luis Bermúdez

 

I am grateful to Andrew Book for a thoughtful review that raises some fundamental questions about the nature of self-consciousness. I will concentrate in this reply on what I take to be the central theme in his review. This is the idea that we need to distinguish two types of self-consciousness, consciousness of the self as subject and consciousness of the self as object. His principal contention and concern is that the account I offer of the different types of primitive self-consciousness address only the issue of how we can be aware of the self as object, whereas the really fundamental and deep questions concern consciousness of the self as subject. I will approach Brook's worry at a tangent through a preliminary concern he expresses about the way in which I employ the expression "first-person content".

Brook suggests that there is an equivocation in my use of the phrase "first-person content":

      Sometimes it seems to mean merely some information about the person who is in fact oneself. Other times it clearly means the kind of reference to, judgement about, oneself that yields 'I'-thoughts reference or judgements in which one knows that the person one is referring to is oneself. 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 only provide the former and not the latter.

Brook is absolutely right to make a general distinction between what one might term accidental and essential ways of being about the self, and to point out that first-person contents can only underpin an account of genuine self-consciousness if they involve the former rather than the latter. It is not clear to me, however, that he characterises these two ways in which a thought can be about the self in precisely the right way. The way he formulates the distinction suggests the following picture. There is information about the self. Let us call it self-specifying information. This information is only accidentally about the self. For it to become genuinely about the self it must be accompanied by knowledge that it is information about the self and, moreover, that in the absence of such knowledge it would be impossible to have any form of genuine self-consciousness.

There is a middle ground here that Brook is neglecting, however. Within the general category of information about the self that is not accompanied by propositional first-person knowledge that one is referring to oneself we need to distinguish (as Brook himself is well aware) between information that is derived from information-sources that are immune to error through misidentification (relative to the first-person pronoun) and information-sources that are not so immune. These sources of information are such that, if we know from them that somebody has a particular property, we ipso facto know that we ourselves have that property. Introspection is an example. If I know through introspection that someone is currently thinking about self-consciousness then I know that I myself am thinking about self-consciousness. Introspection cannot provide information about anybody other than me. This does not mean that introspection (and other comparable sources of information) cannot be mistaken. They certainly can, but they do not permit a certain type of error. Judgments made on the basis of them cannot be mistaken about who it is that has the property in question.

The thesis I defend in The Paradox of Self-Consciousness is that first-person contents are based on sources of information that are immune to error through misidentification. Given how I have just elucidated the notion of immunity to error, though, it may be wondered whether this is any different from Brook's characterisation of genuine self-consciousness. Brook holds that genuine self-consciousness requires knowledge that the information in question is about oneself. Information-sources that are immune to error through misidentification are such that, if they yield knowledge that someone has a particular property they yield information that I myself have that property. Do they not both therefore involve propositional first-person knowledge? But an information-source can be immune to error through misidentification without involving propositional first-person knowledge. The characterisation of immunity to error through misidentification is conditional. That is to say, if an information-source that is immune to error through misidentification 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.

Of course, as I remarked in my response to Soldati's contribution to this symposium, although the notion of immunity to error has a crucial role to play in explaining genuine self-consciousness, some account needs to be given of why particular sources of self-specifying information have this feature. It is not enough to take immunity to error as a primitive in the way that Evans, for example, seems to have done. I tried to give such an explanation for the different types of primitive self-consciousness that I identified. In the case of ecological self-perception, for example, the immunity to error was explained in terms of certain features of the content of visual perception the fact that the parts of the body appear in the visual field as what Gibson calls subjective objects (because they can vary in perceived size only within a limited range); the fact that the field of view is bounded by the body; the way in which affordances are directly perceived in the environment. And so forth. I tried to offer comparable accounts for the other forms of nonconceptual self-consciousness I discussed bodily self-awareness in somatic proprioception, spatial self-awareness in possession of a nonconceptual point of view, psychological self-awareness in interpersonal interactions.

This brings us to the principal issue, however the opposition between consciousness of self as subject and consciousness of self as object. The types of nonconceptual self-consciousness that I discuss fail, in Brook's view, to make any sort of bridge between these two types of consciousness of self. They are all ways in which we are conscious of the self as object. They have nothing to do with how we might be conscious of the self as subject.

      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 ands 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 an object among other objects at all.

The remainder of the reply will be devoted to this objection. Let me just quickly remark, however, that the stress Brook places on the significance of consciousness of the self as subject seems in tension with the characterisation of genuine self-consciousness that I have just been discussing. Clearly one can have information about the self together with knowledge that the information in question is about oneself without going beyond consciousness of the self as object. Brook suggests that his understanding of the distinction between consciousness of the self as subject and consciousness of the self as object is closely linked to the distinction between two uses of 'I' that Wittgenstein makes in the following passage:

      There are two different cases in the use of the word "I" (or "my") which I might call "the use as object" and "the use as subject". Examples of the first kind of use are these: "My arm is broken", "I have grown six inches", "I have a bump on my forehead", "The wind blows my hair about". Examples of the second kind are: "I see so-and-so", "I try to lift my arm", "I think it will rain:, "I have a toothache". (Wittgenstein 1958, pp.66-7)

Knowledge like that expressed by "I have grown six inches" seems certainly to satisfy Brook's definition of genuine self-consciousness.

This is a minor quibble, however. The central point that has to be made against Brook is a fundamental doubt about the intelligibility of the distinction between consciousness of the self as subject and consciousness of the self as object. This is certainly very apparent if we compare what Wittgenstein has to say in the passage above with Brook's previously quoted remarks about what consciousness of the self as subject might consist in. Is it really the case that when I have the thought expressible by the sentence "I try to lift my arm" I do not appear to myself as an object among other objects? How can one be aware of oneself as an agent without being aware of oneself as an object? An agent just is a being that sets out to act within and upon the world. How can one do that if one is not an object within the world? How could one even form motor intentions without a sense of one's physical possibilities, dimensions and limitations?

It is hard, in fact, to get clear on what the distinction is supposed to consist in. The problem can be clearly seen when we ask ourselves what, if anything, the first-person pronoun 'I' refers to in sentences that employ the use of 'I' as subject. There seem to be three possibilities. First, it might not refer at all. Second, it might refer to the embodied self - a flesh and blood person occupying a fully determinate region of space-time. Third, it might refer to some form of transcendental subject of the sort envisaged by the early Wittgenstein and Kant (on at least some interpretations see Bermúdez 1994 for exegetical discussion). The first option seems highly unpalatable, confronting us as it does with seemingly insuperable difficulties in giving the truth-conditions of sentences involving first-person pronouns. The second option would probably strike most people as by far the most plausible but then makes it hard to see what the 'I' as subject actually amounts to. The third option would certainly provide a way of making sense of the distinction between consciousness of self as object and consciousness of self as subject, but brings with it a rich and well-known set of problems.

Some of these problems are metaphysical. What could such a thing possibly be? Would it be physical or non-physical? If it is physical then it is hard to see why it should be held to be transcendental. But if, on the other hand, it is non-physical it is hard to see how it can have a place in the world at all. How is the transcendental self related to the body through which it acts in the world? How, for that matter, is it related to the thoughts that it has? The notion of a transcendental subject seems just as opaque as the idea of a propertyless substratum in which the properties of objects inhere. Other problems are epistemological. What form of awareness might enable us to access the transcendental self? It seems unlikely that we can have indirect awareness of it that we can be aware of it through direct awareness of something else (as when one becomes aware of the person walking down the path by hearing the sound of her feet on the path). But nor is it clear how we might have direct awareness of it? How could we come to be aware of something that has no properties? The whole notion of a transcendental subject seems deeply mysterious.

But a defender of the distinction between consciousness of self as subject and consciousness of self as object is likely to point out at this point that recognising the distinction does not require accepting the existence of a transcendental subject. Consciousness of the self as subject is not consciousness of a distinctive sort of object (viz. a transcendental subject), but rather a distinctive sort of consciousness. It is distinctive in virtue of certain formal properties what we might call the marks of consciousness of the self as subject. Brook himself gives five such marks.

      (1) Consciousness of self as subject is immune to error through misidentification in a strong sense. It is logically immune to error through misidentification.

      (2) Consciousness of self as subject involves consciousness of oneself as the single common subject of many different thoughts and experiences.

      (3) Consciousness of self as subject is not "experience-dividing", in Jonathan Bennett's phrase - that is, it does not involve experiencing one thing rather than another.

      (4) Consciousness of self as subject is not entailed by an description that is free of indexicals or token-reflexives.

      (5) Consciousness of self as subject does not involve appearing to oneself as an object.

As I understand him, the principal flaw that Brook finds in my analysis of self-consciousness is that it does not illuminate the distinctive kind of self-consciousness specifiable in terms of these five marks.

Not all of these marks, however, are really as relevant as Brook takes them to be. The fourth, for example, seems completely orthogonal to the distinction between consciousness of self as subject and consciousness of self as object. For neither type of self-consciousness is it the case that thoughts reflecting them can be equivalent to thoughts whose content is expressible in indexical-free terms. The second is easily accommodated within the framework that I develop in the The Paradox of Self-Consciousness. The notion of a nonconceptual point of view is expressly designed to capture the dimension of self-consciousness in which one is aware of oneself as the single common subject of many different thoughts and experiences. As far as the third is concerned, it is far from clear to me that it is a coherent claim. 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. Since the fifth claim (that consciousness of self as subject does not involve appearing to oneself as an object) is essentially the point at issue I shall set it to one side. In the remainder of this reply I will concentrate on the first mark.

As far as immunity to error through misidentification is concerned, Brook makes the point that the proprioceptive self-awareness I consider in Chapter Six of The Paradox of Self-Consciousness is simply de facto immune to error, rather than being logically immune to error. Of course, it is possible to imagine complicated scenarios in which one's proprioceptive system is hooked up to another's body in such a way that misidentification is possible. In the book itself I considered this possibility and remarked that it seems unreasonable to expect logical necessity for a form of self-consciousness that is ultimately determined by contingent facts about the human body. Brook will quite rightly point out that this response begs the question against someone arguing that, since the necessity involved is not logical necessity we are not dealing with self-awareness of the right type. A better response, I now think, would be to query the inference from logical immunity to error to consciousness of self as subject. What thoughts are logically immune to error through misidentification? These thoughts must be such that, if one gains knowledge through them that someone has a certain property, then one ipso facto gains knowledge that one oneself has that property and that that knowledge is about oneself is a matter of logical necessity. But what properties could these be? The only candidates, as far as I can see, are self-ascriptions of thoughts and sensations made on the basis of introspection. Only here is there really no room at all for a deviant causal chain to get a grip in between the knower and the known.

But can self-ascriptions of thoughts and sensations really qualify as instances of consciousness of self as subject? It is hard to see how they can - although the reasons are different in the two cases. The self-ascription of thoughts is best understood as a reflective endorsement of the thought in question. It is frequently remarked that, when a subject responds to the question 'do you believe that p?', he does not "look within" and start searching for the belief that p. Rather, he considers whether p is or is not the case (Evans 1982). By the same token, some authors have suggested, to believe that one believes that p should be understood in a deflationary way. Shoemaker has argued, for example, that "believing that one believes that p is just believing that p plus having a certain level of intelligence, rationality and so forth" (Shoemaker 1996, p.244). Where is the consciousness of self as subject in this, one wonders? There is no consciousness of anything other than the state of affairs that p - or the possible state of affairs that p. A fortiori, there is no consciousness of self as subject.

Clearly, this model cannot be applied to self-ascriptions of sensations. In this case, it seems to me that there is indeed awareness and an object of awareness but, for reasons that I expressed in the relevant chapter of the book at some length, the object of awareness is the body. It is true that a self-ascription of a sensation is logically immune to error in the sense that it will always be me that feels the sensation, irrespective of the location of the bodily disturbance that originally gave rise to it but the object of the sensation is the body. To the extent that having a sensation involves an awareness of anything (and there are many philosophers who would deny even minimal representationalism about sensations), it is an awareness of the disposition of the body. It is true that this element of the self-ascription is not logically immune to error through misidentification. It is at best de facto immune. But again there seems no reason to think that because of this there is a distinctive type of self-awareness involved.

To conclude, therefore, 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 the most plausible is the idea that consciousness of self as subject is logically, rather than de facto, immune to error through misidentification. It does not seem right, however, to identify any form of self-consciousness in the limited range of thoughts that are logically immune to error through misidentification. This bears out the point made earlier in this reply, in response to Brook's claim of equivocation in my understanding of first-person contents, that it is (de facto) immunity to error through misidentification that marks the distinction between accidental and essential ways in which information can be about the self.

References

Bermúdez, J. L. 1994. The Unity of Apperception in the Critique of Pure Reason. In European Journal of Philosophy 2, (December 1994), 213-240

Evans, G. 1982. Varieties of Reference. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Shoemaker, S. 1996. The First Person Perspective and Other Essays. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

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