Primitive Self-Consciousness: Reply to Soldati

by José Luis Bermúdez


Gianfranco Soldati has read my book with great care and raised some challenging questions that go right to the heart of my account of primitive self-consciousness. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to clarify my thoughts on these matters.

Soldati is impressed, and rightly so, by what he terms Castañeda cases - that is to say, situations in which an individual has beliefs about himself without realising that they are about himself. Any adequate theory of self-consciousness must provide a principled way of distinguishing Castañeda cases from cases of genuine self-conscious thought. He takes exception to the way in which I proposed to do this. I stressed the immediate implications that first-person contents have for action, but he suggests that accounts along these lines of what makes something a mental state with a first-person content are employing the wrong direction of explanation. He writes:

First person contents are needed in order to explain action. One might use the intimate connection between first-person contents and action in order to determine the content of a specific mental state. One might say that one's mental state must have a first-person content if it is to explain one's action. But no mental state can be said to have a first-person content in virtue of its immediate connection with behaviour, if this is meant to provide a specification of what is responsible for the fact that a mental state is self-conscious.

Soldati offers an analogy. He suggests that the sort of arguments I offer working backwards from observed behaviour to first person contents are structurally parallel to the following argument

    The car caused the accident

    The accident could only be caused by the car's moving

    Therefore, the car was moving

As he points out, this argument is perfectly valid but does not give us any informative explanation of the fact that the car is moving. The same holds, he thinks, of my general approach of employing inference to the best explanation to identify first-person contents. In Soldati's view my approach can be schematised as follows

    The mental state caused the behaviour

    The behaviour could only have been caused by a state with a first-person content

    Therefore, the mental state has a first-person content

Again, the argument seems perfectly valid, but does not tell us anything about what it is that makes the mental state a mental state with a first-person content. We have no independent handle on the first-personal status of the mental state other than that it serves to explain the behaviour.

Soldati is quite right about this, but it seems to me that there is some confusion about what is explaining what. It is always important to distinguish constitutive questions from epistemological questions. It is one question what makes a particular mental state a self-conscious state and quite another how we go about identifying self-conscious mental states. The inference to the best explanation approach schematised in the short argument above is intended to tackle the second of these issues, rather than the first. It was offered as an account of what justifies us in attributing first-person contents, rathere than as a constitutive account of what makes those contents the contents that they are. As a matter of fact, the little argument that Soldati offers about the car does give us a pretty reasonable way of determining that the car was moving - and so, I submit, does the inference to the best explanation argument offer a pretty reasonable way of determining that a mental state has a first-personal content.

Of course, as Soldati points out, we need to know why states with first-person contents have the immediate implications for action that they do. On what one might term the minimal account (exemplified, for example, by Gareth Evans) first-person contents have the immediate implications for action that they do simply because they carry information that is immune to error through misidentification. Like Soldati, I am inclined to think that this merely gives the problem a name rather than a solution. We have no answer to the question: what makes information immune to error through misidentification? It was for this reason that in The Paradox of Self-Consciousness I did not endorse the minimal account. Even though I fully agree that immunity to error through misidentification is an essential feature of self-conscious states, it seems clear that it itself requires explanation.

I tried to give such an explanation for the different types of self-consciousness. 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. Further details will be found in the online summary and in the relevant chapters of the book.

The overall position, then, is that , although it is quite right to stress the importance of immunity to error in characterising what makes different types of content genuinely first-personal, further accounts need to be given of why particular types of content carry information that is immune to error through misidentification. These accounts will vary according to the type of content concerned.

Soldati raises several problems for the accounts I offer in the central chapters of the book. One problem is broadly strategic. He thinks that the role the notion of immunity to error through misidentification plays in setting up the paradox of self-consciousness means that I cannot appeal to it in explaining what makes forms of nonconceptual content genuinely first-personal. He writes:

Immunity to error through misidentification has been said to be insufficient for an explanation of the self-conscious character of first-person beliefs. It cannot then be explaining the character of perceptual states either.

This seems wrong, however. The problems I identified were not with the notion of immunity to error through misidentification itself, but rather with the idea (characteristic of what I termed the deflationary account of self-consciousness) that it could be fully explicated in terms of mastery of the semantics of the first-person pronoun.

With respect to my account of somatic proprioception Soldati raises the following problem:

I can certainly make a distinction between self and non-self along the divide between objects I move through my body and my body itself. For this to show that proprioception is self-conscious, however, we need to assume that the action carried out with the body is itself self-conscious. One might say that it is because I am aware of the fact that I myself am moving my hand that I perceive my hand as being mine. Yet aren't we then just removing the problem by one step. What is it for me to be aware that I myself am carrying out an action?

This is an interesting point. It seems to me, however, that the crucial premise should be rejected. All that is required to generate the perception of my hand being mine is that I be aware of the intention to move my hand. It would be a further step, and not one that to my mind it would be wise to take, to argue that such motor intentions are themselves first-personal contents. Yet without this further step Soldati's objection will not work.

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