The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 1

Introduction - 1.2 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

[2] The persons-approach connects personal identity with questions of identification. Its method is to reach sortal identification through a discovery of the conditions necessary for successful referential identification. Its point of view is exhibited in the question, 'What must we take a person to be if we are to achieve successful referential identification of persons (as we are)?' It would follow on this approach that if referential identification of persons depended on identification of their bodies, then we must take a person to be at least a bodily x. This would lead to a consideration of such questions as, 'Is it sufficient to take a person to be a certain body, or is such a sortal identification incomplete?'

I have said enough for it to be evident that the persons-approach is primarily concerned with the identity of other persons and only derivatively concerned with the identity of one oneself. This is inevitable once referential identification is made the key to personal identity. For in normal circumstances none of us makes either a referential or a sortal identification of himself to himself. It is only to others that we referentially identify ourselves. Thus even when we do refer to ourselves it is only because we are obligated to consider ourselves in relation to other people; it is for their benefit that we make identifying references to ourselves. To say that I can identify myself to myself is as absurd as it is to say that I can introduce myself to myself. (The sense in which one discovers who he is following amnesia is not in question here.)

To the objection that we do seem to make identifying references to ourselves in soliloquy (when there is no question of identifying the speaker to hearers) the correct reply is that we continue to use

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public language in soliloquy (for want of a better), but that in soliloquy the referring expression 'I' is not used for the purpose of identification. I leave it open here whether the personal pronoun has any function at all in soliloquy, or is simply redundant as Geach maintains. 2 Moreover from a logical point of view soliloquy is conceptually more complex than dialogue, so the former should be explicated in terms of the latter.

The persons-approach attempts to tell us what we must take ourselves to be. It aspires to be theoretical knowledge of what we are, and its attempt to find out what we are is an attempt To fit us into the scheme of things; to explain in what respects we are like and in what respects unlike other things such as material objects, organic entities, fanciful robots, and spiritual beings (granted there are such). It is an attempt, in short, to locate us among the furniture of the world.

Another aspect of the persons-approach needs to be stressed, because its implications do not seem to have been fully appreciated by those who adopt it. It should lead to an account of what we have reason to take persons to be, and should not lead to an account of what we know persons to be. We do not know that persons are what we take them to be apart from supporting philosophical argument. I cannot, in other words, have immediate knowledge - knowledge not based on argument or evidence - that I am one of the following: a mere body, a pure ego, a bundle of perceptions, a non-spiritual substance, or a unique type of basic particular. It would be odd for a philosopher to say that he knows that he is nothing but a body, but at least intelligible for him to say that he takes himself to be nothing but a body. It is conceivable that I know that I am a person without knowing what a person is, but I may take a person to be any of these things. Thus I understand the problem of personal identity to be the problem of what to take ourselves to be, provided the qualification is added that the conception we form of persons permits persons to make referential identifications of one another.

Enough has now been said about the problem of personal identity for a meaningful contrast to be made with what I have suggested should be regarded as the separate problem of self-identity. As persons we are aware of each other, but we are also aware of ourselves. We possess self-awareness. The problem of self-identity, then, is the problem of the identity of the self of

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which we have this awareness. For those philosophers for whom the persons-approach exhausts the problem, self-awareness of necessity reduces to the possession of the concept of oneself, or to the having of an idea of oneself. 3 And this concept of necessity reduces to that of a person. Apart from the dubiousness of the latter equation, however, it cannot be denied that it is prima facie implausible to interpret awareness of something as an idea of something. Normally an awareness is taken to be experiential in a way that an idea or concept is not. Thus 'I am aware of myself' contrasts with 'I have a concept or idea of myself' The dilemma facing philosophers who adopt the persons-approach is that given their refusal to consider one's own case, the only analysis of self-awareness open to them is the reductive analysis in terms of which being aware of oneself is having an idea of oneself.

What needs to be recognized is that in addition to having an idea of what we must take ourselves to be (personal identity), each of us also has the experience of being a self. It is with this experience that we are concerned when we deal with self-awareness. On this basis I have reserved the description 'the problem of self-identity' for the problem of ascertaining in what the identity of the self consists of which A e claim awareness. And I have given the name 'the self-approach' to the method that I take to be the right method to employ if we are to reach a solution to the problem.

Of course it is possible on the persons-approach to deny that we are aware of ourselves in any sense not covered by their analysis. Persons-approach philosophers may claim that the so-called self-awareness is nothing more than the self's recognition that his experiences are his experiences; that the awareness of being a self just consists in having experiences of this, that and the other kind. However, on this view it is not ruled out in principle that an experience of the sort I have been discussing could feasibly be had. Rather it presents a challenge, i.e. to produce an experience of the appropriate sort. It may be read as corresponding to Hume's method of challenge. 4 Such a move may preserve the consistency of the theory, but, I claim, experience just does not bear it out. If no other explanation of self-awareness was forthcoming, then one might have little option but to accept this interpretation. However, there is I believe an alternative, and my aim is to put forward a

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theory of self-identity that is based on the experience each of us has of being a self.

What the persons-approach seems to ignore is the awareness we have of ourselves and with it our knowledge that we have this awareness, which I shall call our native knowledge of the self5 Knowledge of what we take the self to be is not such knowledge. Whereas the latter sort of knowledge is theoretical and hence propositional in nature, native knowledge of self is non-theoretical and non-propositional; it is the knowledge we have of a self because selves are what we ourselves are. In short, it is experiential knowledge of the self.

I shall try to give a preliminary indication of the nature of this native knowledge we possess. Such knowledge can be reached by a consideration of the relation between a self and his experiences. For grammatical reasons I shall refer to the self as the subject. I do so because we cannot speak grammatically of 'the self of experiences', or 'the person of experiences', whereas we can comfortably speak of 'the subject of experiences'. Now most philosophers, when they refer to the relation between a subject and his experiences, have a special vocabulary for the purpose. Among the variety of expressions used to describe the relation in question are the following: 'belonging to', 'owning', 'having '. Alternatively the experiences are said to be 'experiences of a subject', 'states of a subject', 'predicates characterizing a subject', or 'experiences ascribed to a subject'. I list these expressions because I would like to make the point that these expressions are most naturally understood from a third person point of view They are not the most apt expressions A e can find to disclose what is true in our own cases When we come to the relation between ourselves as subjects and our own experiences, the experiences appear as experiences to the subject The subject 'undergoes' an experience, 'enjoys' an experience, 'suffers' an experience, is 'aware of' an experience, and so on. In sum, from the subject's point of view, experiences happen to him.

This distinction between on the one hand an experience being an experience of a person and on the other hand an experience being an experience to a subject is central to an appreciation of the distinction between the persons-approach and the self-approach.

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For in the case of others, all we can say is that an experience is an experience of a person; it is only in our own case that we can say that an experience is an experience to a subject. The point is most significant. Once we cut ourselves off from the fact that experiences are experiences to a subject, and confine our analysis to the experiences of a person, we can make of the subject any unknown somewhat without it making the slightest difference. Very conveniently this frees the personal identity theorist from the embarrassment of having to explain (which in his own terms he is unable to do) in what sense a subject must be conscious if an experience is to be an experience to him. The consciousness of the subject can be reduced to the attributing of conscious experiences to him. The subject's being conscious apart from his having one particular experience is then understood in terms of his having other contemporaneous experiences beside the one in question. We are then left with no alternative to the following conclusion: the consciousness of the subject the experiences of the subject.

Such an account falls to do justice to our experience of experiences. An experience, no matter how internal, is always presented to the subject as an experience to him; as something over against himself; as something put forth from himself. To use a metaphor, the subject lives in his own logical space which is separate from the logical space of any particular experience. If this metaphor could not be cashed there would be no point in using it. But it will take the rest of the book to cash it. I introduce it at this point simply to draw attention to a problematic aspect of the relation between a subject and his experiences which can only be avoided by refusing to give any account at all of the subject for consciousness. The problem of self-identity then as I see it is the problem of accounting for the identity of the conscious subject qua conscious subject. It is of such conscious subjects that those adopting the persons-approach go on to ask 'What are they?' The persons-approach seeks to offer a theoretical account of what we must take those selves to be which it is the aim of the self-approach to identify experientially.

The puzzle about self-identity, I believe, is the puzzle about the nature of the subject qua conscious subject, and the problem is one of understanding what to make of our being conscious subjects to which our experiences appear to us to be related. What seems to be needed is an account of how we have this experience of being a subject, which is distinct from an account of the relation of the

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subject to the experiences he has. For anyone interested in this problem theories of personal identity will not supply the answers. If I am right this is quite properly so, because the persons-approach is not concerned with this particular set of problems. Thus anyone wishing to have an answer to the problem of self-identity must feel that the persons-approach does not give him what he wants, and in spite of accepting, perhaps, a particular theory developed on the persons-approach, he will still feel that the theory has not removed his perplexity.

Contemporary philosophers could not be expected to be sympathetic to such an undertaking, because they are only too well aware of the pitfalls that lie in its way. Most would see it floundering between the Scylla of Serial Theories of the self, and the Charybdis of the Pure Ego Theory of the self. The challenge presented by this book is its claim to show that it is possible to navigate successfully between the two. Because I have come to think it possible to navigate such a course, I have come to believe that philosophers have been over-hasty in thinking that it could not be done. It is possible for philosophers to become too familiar with philosophical arguments, and because of their familiarity to take for granted their soundness, when a closer inspection would have revealed their weakness. Thus it has become automatic to contrast the Pure Ego Theory with the Serial Theory (or Bundle Theory as it is sometimes called), as though there were no tertium quid. A case in point is the following comment made by Aune:

For one thing, since no phenomenal self is introspectively apparent, as Hume and others have insisted, the only other alternative seems to be a conception of the self as a bundle of experiences. 6
The decisive refutation of this antithesis between the Pure Ego Theory and the Serial Theory is the production of a plausible third alternative The present study in its entirety may be viewed as such an attempt, for it is an attempt to construct a theory of the self on entirely experiential lines which yet succumbs to neither its Scylla nor its Charybdis.

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2. P. Geach, Mental Acts (London, 1957), p. 120.
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3. P.F. Strawson, Individuals (London, 1939), p 89 f
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4. D.G.C. MacNabb, David Hume His Theory of Knowledge and Morality (London, 1951) p. 18.
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5. It may be called knowledge with as much or as little justification as our knowledge of our own pains may be called knowledge. It expresses our ability to report our awareness of the self.
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6. B. Aune Knowledge, Mind, and Nature (New York, 1967), p. 69.
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