Monthly Archives: March 2013

Stranger than Fichte

A very quick thought: Fichte’s “self-positing I” is only the tip of the normative iceberg. But his Science of Knowing is quite possibly the most important work that has yet to be adequately mined. More on this in the future. 


Where there are ‘oughts’ there are ‘I’s: More thoughts on the first person

As we saw earlier, ‘I’ is not an individuating concept and cannot pick out any unique object by definite description. ‘I’ is not a SIN number. Nor is first person knowledge perceptual. To know an object by perception is to know it as other. This is because our faculty of sensibility is fundamentally receptive. We also recall that a form of knowledge or a certain epistemic relationship we have to an object will be reflected in the form of reference and the form of predication (these will be two sides of one coin) through which we describe it. For example, any creature that can refer demonstratively also enjoys the power of perception. First person thoughts of sensation may seem like the best place to begin an inquiry into the form of knowing signified by the use of ‘I’ but since it is the case that non sapient, non self-conscious creatures can feel sensations in this way (for example, warmth, pain and proprioception) such an inquiry will tell us nothing about what extra epistemological work, if any, is being done by having the ability to refer in the first person, to say “I think” if we only take the latter to mean something like “I feel”. If there is no logical function of the first person pronoun, then perhaps it just is a vocative redundancy. If not, then there will be concepts that are unintelligible apart from their participating in first person reference. And we remember that according to Rodl, these are belief and action concepts. This is because beliefs and actions are unintelligible when examined apart from their relation to the process or act of reasoning, that is, reasoning about what to do and reasoning about what to believe, respectively. That is, only a creature that can reason can act or believe. This is not an analytic or merely definitional stipulation but a logical and synthetic truth. And if, as we shall argue, it is the case that reasoning can only occur in the first person, then the ability to say ‘I’ will not be an option one may add cosmetically to rationality, but will be an essential feature of it. In Rodl’s words the sense of action and belief concepts “depends on this [first personal] form of thought.” [SC. pg. 14]. In spontaneous, first-person thought, the intentionality of a thought – it’s directedness towards a referent – is reflexive, oroboric; the thought refers only to itself. “[M]y spontaneous knowledge and what I thus know are one reality.” [ibid.]. This reflexivity of reference holds regardless of what we take the ontological ‘flavour’ of the object-referent to be. If our ontology wants thoughts to refer to material objects or only to other thoughts, anaphorically, then self-conscious ‘I’ thoughts still function spontaneously the way Rodl is trying to make explicit. In truth, Rodl says that insofar as we are justified in speaking about material reality at all we must be justified to speak of ourselves as material beings, and thus, we must be willing to say that we have knowledge of ourselves as material beings. This is because, for Rodl, the knowledge we have of what we call material or physical reality, i.e., scientific or empirical knowledge, is itself grounded in the ability to found our receptive power of sensibility in the self-conscious power of first person reasoning. This is because empirical concepts such as states, processes, movements, organisms, functions, forces, and most importantly, laws, make use of predicative forms that require a unity of judgment capable of representing such concepts in thought. The only form of reference broad enough to do this is the first person. This, finally, is because “first person knowledge is not from the senses but from thought.” [SC. pg. 59] Cryptic though this statement is at present it should be easy enough to see that these empirical concepts (forces, laws, movements etc.) cannot be taken in by the senses but are more appropriately thought of as synthesized in the mind.

Interestingly, in first person reasoning, there is no distinction between offering an explanation for an action or belief and offering an argument in favour of an action or a belief. Explaining why I do or believe something is justifying why I do or believe something. The ‘why’ of an action or belief explanation asks after a (good) reason for doing or believing that way.

First person thoughts code for normative judgments. That is to say, “I” means “it is right to” or “let it be that” or “one should” and so on. There can be no oughts without ‘I’s. Reason speaks in the first person.


Why “I”?

What is, if any, the semantic function of the first person pronoun?  Why do I say “I”? And could I do without this form of reference without my thought losing it’s meaning? 

Furthermore,  if my name is a rigid designator, used to refer to no one  and no thing but me, why can’t I use my name as a substitute for “I” in any first personal sentence?  Indeed, there seem to be empirical cases in which such substitution is the norm. I recall quite vividly when I was teaching young kindergarteners in Japan that often my students would refer to themselves in the third person saying something like “Ryo wants a toy as well” and meaning themselves.  In cases such as these, is the first person represented in the syntax or even in the actual inflection or cadence of the utterance in another way; does Japanese grammar evince a fundamentally different way of thinking from say, the thought structure of Anglophones?  Or does this difference point to the formal superfluity of the option to say “I”?

To answer these questions it would seem paramount that we examine what (if any) information is communicated uniquely only when the first person pronoun is utilized in a sentence.  Let’s take a thought, any thought,  and express it using different forms of reference.

“I am seated at the desk writing.”

“He is seated at the desk writing.”

“This man is seated at the desk writing.”

“You are seated at the desk writing.”

“There is a man seated at the desk writing”.

Taking the last sentence first,  we notice that this statement does not tell us how the speaker came to acquire this belief. This is a fact that one could come to believe by perception,  deductive inference or testimony.  If I want to know what my grounds are for asserting this belief I must appeal to another belief. This knowledge is also accessible to no one specific but to anyone able to make a judgment.

When I say “I am seated at the desk writing” the epistemological situation seems different. Only the person writing seems able to access such knowledge because only I know what I am thinking as I move pen on paper.

Could my brain be scanned and the very same information – that I am writing and not say, pretending to write – be divulged?  May technology render the first person pronoun effectively redundant? 

That is, supposing the first person pronoun evolved as a means of ‘tagging’ semantic content that was being traded in the Space of Reasons as content that was specifically accessible to only the individual who proffered is, supposing this, might it be the case that we will ‘out grow’ the first person? For example, if telepathy were on the table as a faculty of the mind, any thinker could think the thought of any other and inhabit the perspective of any individual. What would be the effect of this? Is privacy of mind a necessary attribute of conscious thought? It seems that third person and demonstrative thoughts would never find epistemic grounding since observer-general facts such as “there is a man seated at a desk writing” and demonstrative facts like “this man is seated at a desk writing” have unique and distinct semantic and informational content. The second includes the information that this fact is known perceptually or, if the sentence is uttered when perception of the scene is no longer possible, then it refers anaphorically to (or standing in for) a previous man mentioned in earlier testimony. Demonstratives can catch hold of perceptual judgments or second person judgments wherein my saying “this man” instead of “the man” seems to acknowledge that new judgments are being made about the same figure just referred to. If I say “He is writing” again I rely on a faculty of perception or anaphora to pin down who it is I am talking about. “You” seems special in that it immediately contains the information that there is an exchange going on between two distinct minds. Could a telepathic community say “You?” and mean anything different than “He” or “this”?

“I” it appears, grounds the fact that all judgments come from a finite and therefore private perspective. But there are implications from current research in neuroscience that suggests that particular thoughts, say that “Paris has some lovely cafes” or “I think I will go for a hike today” are identifiable from examining a thinker’s brain from a third person point of view, that is to say, from the “outside”. The implication would be that such thoughts are coded and identifiable as first person thoughts when examined from a third person perspective. This would mean that the first person perspective was still a unique mode of knowing or believing but that it did not contain any further information than could be expressed third personally. But could this be a deeply mistaken idea about the nature of thought? What if thoughts are not events at all? On this view, a statement, which of course takes a certain amount of time to be spoken, would merely represent a thought symbolically but the thought itself could not be isolated in time as if it were something that ‘occurred’. Might the reason for this be that thoughts are never entirely separable from each other? This would ring consonant with the phenomenological experience of “changing one’s mind” wherein one’s entire state of mind and edifice of beliefs may be altered irrevocably because a new judgment was made, perhaps only explicitly about one state of affairs but implicitly always about the way “everything hangs together.”

More on this later…this thinker thought.

He said.


The UBC 2013 Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

…was a success.