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.


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