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.


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