Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The elusive "I", or the delusive "I"?


As philosophers, we are often concerned with the meaning of words - justice, liberty, freedom, the good, and so on. One word that is particularly tricky to subject to this kind of analysis is the word "I". Imagine you wake up paralysed, in a state of total sensory deprivation, and with total amnesia. You can see nothing, hear nothing, and feel nothing. You cannot remember your name or anything about yourself. You cannot even be sure that you have a body. But nonetheless, you can frame the true thought “I feel terrible”. But who feels terrible? “I” is certainly not functioning as a description – because you know nothing about the person it is describing.

There are three obvious possible answers to the question of what “I” means. It is either:
(1) A name that picks something out.
(2) A referring term that is not a name, like “this” or “here”.
(3) A non-referring expression.

If “I” is a name, what does it name? One obvious answer is that it names a human being, namely the human organism who says it. However, in the above case, it seems that it cannot name a human, since we do not even know that we are human or have a body. Another natural answer is that it names a mind, a pure Cartesian ego. This would explain why we can say things like “I was an eagle in a past life”. Regardless of the merit of claims like this, they make sense, which they could not do if “I” just named a body.

If “I” names a mind, however, it should have some way of “picking out” the mind in question. And all other methods of picking things out are fallible. I can talk about the King of England even though there isn’t one, or my name could pick out the wrong target: I could mistake my friend John for his identical twin Tom. However, “I” never goes awry in this sense. I can make false attributions to myself, certainly, like “I am the King of Prussia”. But here it is the attribution rather than the name that goes awry.

Another feature that distinguishes “I” from other names is that names should have some way of ‘locking on’ to their targets. Even if a name isn’t a covert definite description, it nonetheless should be able to say something about the person it names. If someone says “I know a person called John, but I don’t know anything about him. I don’t even know that he calls himself John or is a person”, then you’d think that person didn’t in fact know anyone called John at all. But what can we say about the thing named by “I” aside from the fact that it is a thinking thing?

It is questionable whether we can even say that. How can be sure that the “I” is just one thing? It could be that whatever the true essence of consciousness is, it is not a simple thing, but a host of different things working in unison to create experience. Likewise, we cannot say that the mind is essentially something that thinks: if the mind just is the brain, then its essence is physical rather than mental.

Not all referring terms clearly pick out an object, however. I can have no idea what time it is or where I am, but “I’m here” and “this is now” are immune to failure of reference in much the same way as “I”. Perhaps “I” functions in the same way.

There are two problems with this approach. First, the imperviousness of “here” and “now” to reference failure seems parasitic on the immunity of “I” to reference failure: “here” and “now” refer to where *I* am and when *I* am. Second, there is a question of the public nature of reference. We understand “here” in conversation as picking out the place where we both are. Likewise, we understand “now” as picking out the time at which we are both having a conversation. “Here” and “now”, then, have a public face. But if “I” doesn’t pick out a human organism, then what can serve as its mutually available reference? It makes no sense to say of a friend, “John said “I’m unhappy” yesterday, and he said “I’m happy” today, but I have no idea if it’s the same “I” he’s talking about”. The fact is that, as far as public discourse is concerned, we understand John’s use of “I” in exactly the same way as we understand the use of the name “John”, namely as referring to a particular human being.

It seems, then, that we are faced with two senses of the name “I”: one public, referring to a human organism, and one private, referring to a mysterious mind about which we can say nothing except that it thinks. Moreover, we have to accept that, if these are the senses of “I”, we switch back and forth between them. Consider the sentence “I closed my eyes and thought of you”. One of these actions is a public action taken by a human organism, and the other is a private mental action. Is it plausible that we understand “I” in two different senses, even in a single utterance?

It’s not entirely implausible that this is how “I” operates. After all, English equivocates between two senses of “we”, the exclusive and the inclusive, and does so quite naturally. Imagine Tom, John, and Susan are all talking, and Tom says, “We [the three of us] should go for lunch soon, because we [Tom and John] have to leave in an hour”. This is something that would be naturally understood by all speakers. However, in this case all parties are aware that a change in reference has occurred (one that would probably be indicated by a change in tone of voice, or some pointing gesture). It’s implausible to think that a shift in reference occurs whenever we make a statement that includes both mental and physical terms, like “I closed my eyes and thought of you”.

Enter Immanuel Kant. Kant distinguished between three senses of “I”: the physical (“I lost my arm in a car accident”), the psychological (“I have a fear of commitment”), and the ‘transcendental’, the “I think...” that can accompany any experience we ever have. In practise, we resolve the physical and psychological into a single sense, the sense of ourselves as thinking animals. The transcendental, on the other hand, according to Kant, doesn’t refer to any definite object at all. This is because it is necessarily unaccompanied by anything in what Kant calls “the manifold of intuition”, that is, there is no experience we could ever have of the transcendental “I”. His comment echoes the words of David Hume:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light, or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

Kant concludes, then, that the transcendental “I” is something masquerading as a name of a particular object, but which really expresses something else, namely the unified nature of all our experiences, the fact that they form a single integrated system. Imagine you are explaining the rules of chess. You would say “the Bishop moves diagonally”, or “the Rook moves vertically or horizontally”. You could attach “In chess...” to both these utterances, and in so doing you are simply expressing the fact that the rules should be taken as part of an integrated system. The same is true of our ability to attach “I think” to all our experiences.

This unity is something which we know about not because we have any knowledge of a self which does unifying, but from the experiences themselves, the fact that they are all interrelated. We cannot step outside the system and say anything about the self (or selves!) which do the unifying. The transcendental “I”, then, is way of expressing a category, namely the universal category under which all our experiences fall. It has the form of the name of an object, but as to what that object is we have no idea. As Kant puts it:

Absolutely no further knowledge regarding the I [that thinks]... [the] logical I, considered as an a priori representation – is possible, neither with respect to what sort of being it is nor [with regard to] its natural constitution.

It is natural enough for us to take this “I” as being something like a Cartesian ego. We think of it as simple and indivisible simply because it is bare of content, and without content no division is possible. We think of it as the same in every case for the same reason – because it is bare, we cannot distinguish between its occurrences. Finally, we think of it as independent of any particular content (in the sense that we can conceive of being a squirrel, or existing as a disembodied soul) because it is not an object but a condition of thought in general.

In conclusion, then, we are left, then, not with two senses so much as two uses of I. Likewise, we are left with two objects, but whereas the first is a real object, the second is a bare ‘something’, which we falsely take as a simple immaterial mind or soul.

The first use is “I” functioning as a straightforward name, and names as its object the thinking animals who utters it. This is the public face of “I”.

Second, we can use “I think...” before any thought to show that all our experience constitutes an integrated whole. In so doing, we are quite naturally led to think of the system as being unified by some object, the object that provides the “I think”, and that this transcendental “I” is simple, immaterial, and so on. In fact, all we can say of it is that the unity of the system is there, and is vouchsafed by something; but a something about which we can say nothing.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Good post, mate. You've got a real knack for summarizing rather challenging topics.

But I wonder, without prejudice but in the hope of a sophisticated response, whether "I" functions like a pre-linguistic mental faculty. If that were the case, then the issue would be dodged: "I", like conceptions of number and locative relationship, is hard-wired into the grammar as a member of that set, perhaps a very small set indeed, would be genetically hard-wired (consider generative grammar) in essence but develop into a more complex self-awareness as more "features" become attached to it. It could be argued, taking evolutionary biology as a given, that the range of self-awareness demonstrated in animals is evidence for just such a possibility. Very simple animals indeed are apparently motivated by a non-reflex conception "I must move" at the sight of a predator (or perhaps better: "I must stay still. If it keeps moving, leg it!"). More mentally complex animals (though this status might be difficult to prove) can understand that an image in a mirror that moves in tandem with themselves is actually a reflection of themselves. Humans can understand much more complex relationships to "I".

This raises at least one problem connected to the Sapir-Whorf radical nativism issue (which I won't go into) and one of a Wittgensteinian [?] bent: is that conception of "I" then completely internal to language?

I dunno. But I'd like to know what you think.