The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 1

Introduction - 1.3 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

[3] The distinction between the persons-approach and the self-approach which I wish to draw is necessitated also by a reading of

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traditional theories of the self. This I shall now try to show, and I shall prepare the way with a further point about our native knowledge of the self

I have asserted that native knowledge of the self is nonpropositional, and that due to this it is difficult to put into words. This fact can be exhibited by appreciating a certain affinity between the question 'What is the self?' and the question raised by St Augustine: 'What is time?' St Augustine's well-known retort to the question 'What is time?' seems even more applicable as a retort to the question 'What is the self?': namely, 'If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.' In spite of this difficulty there have been attempts to describe the self from within, and I shall instance one such attempt for the purpose of assessing the implications involved in making such attempts. MacNabb, in his defense of a Berkeleyan view of the self against the Humean view says the following:

I suggest that there is much plausibility in Berkeley's view, that we have an experience which we call the self, or soul, an experience different in kind from our other experiences, more internal than the most personal emotion we feel, and not needing or able to be represented in thought by an image, since in all thinking it is actually present. 7

On this account our selves are, so to speak, 'with us' all the time and this accounts for our feeling of complete familiarity with the self, of which MacNabb's passage gives such a distinct impression. This is, to be sure, the way we feel about ourselves when we are not asked what the self is. But no sooner have we found words to describe this experience, than the self-defeating character of the description becomes evident. MacNabb, we notice, refers to an experience 'which we call the self'. This means that the self is an experience. And the question at once arises. 'Who experiences this experience?' It cannot be the self, since the self has been identified with the experience experienced. We are left with the feeling that the experiencer who experiences the self has been left out of the picture after all, and the suspicion remains that the experiencer in question is the self we have been trying to identify all along. As the fruit-laden branches receded out of reach whenever Tantalus attempted to grasp them, so does the self seem to elude us when we

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attempt to grasp it. Equally, when we do not attempt to grasp it in introspection, it seems as close to us as was the fruit to Tantalus when he made no attempt to reach for it.

The seeming fruitlessness of the attempt to reach the self experientially has led some philosophers to the conclusion that the self must lie outside experience, and must be unknowable in itself. On this view our knowledge of the self is essentially inferential. We know of its existence only through its manifestations. We know what the self experiences and what it accomplishes, but what it is in itself remains forever a mystery. We call it the self, the mind, the ego, or the subject, but apart from dignifying it with a name, we cannot say what it is. Such, in essence, is the Pure Ego Theory of the self.

Other philosophers have refused to entertain the idea of a self that lies outside any possible experience, and yet have agreed with the Pure Ego Theorists that inner experience does not present the self per se. The solution they have proposed is that the self is constituted by its experiences. Theories of this nature are variants of what is called the Serial Theory of the self.

Despite the fact that these two types of theory stand at opposite extremes to each other, they a have a common presupposition. The presupposition is that the type of account that can be given of material objects can also be given of the self: in other words, these theories of the self in effect transpose to the self a theory formulated in the first instance as an account of the relation between a material object and its properties By implication, therefore, they treat the self as an object. Thus in the case of the Pure Ego Theory the reasoning which led to the conclusion that the self is pure subject is identical with the reasoning that whatever property we ascribe to a substance is an attribute of the substance, and what we know of a substance is always one of its attributes and never the substance itself The substance becomes an unknowable something in which attributes 'inhere', and its sole raison d'Ítre is to be a 'support' for a collection of attributes. In short, the Pure Ego Theory is simply the application to the self of the general doctrine of substance and attribute.

If a dialectical movement is to be found anywhere in philosophy it is surely in the movement from theories of substance to phenomenalistic theories. Once a substance is declared to be nothing more than an unknowable support for attributes, it is inevitable that some way of accounting for the compresence of a group of attributes should bc sought that is free of the intellectual embarrassment of an

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unknowable support. The simplest alternative is to attribute the unity of a group of attributes to no other fact than the fact that they constitute a group. It is because they cohere together, it is argued, and not because they inhere in a substance, that a group of attributes is deemed to form a unity. In phenomenalist terms, what is called a substance is nothing but a collection of attributes.

As is well known Hume gave such a phenomenalist analysis of the one substance that had until then escaped - namely, the self. Where others had argued that the self could be known only through its manifestations Hume tough-mindedly asserted that the self was identical with its manifestations; the self being nothing but a bundle of perceptions. Here too, therefore, we have an instance of a theory that was designed to account for our knowledge of material objects simply being taken over and applied to the self.

The fault I find with both the Pure Ego Theory and the Serial Theory - thesis and antithesis, as it were - is that for all the difference it makes they might as well not be about ourselves at all. The theories take no cognizance of our native knowledge of ourselves. They show no awareness that it might beg the question simply to assume that selves can be given the same type of analysis as objects. In effect they do not see it as giving us a unique advantage as compared with our knowledge of objects that we are selves; that we have native knowledge of ourselves, and of ourselves alone; and that it is this that puts the ground of our knowledge of the self on altogether a different footing from the ground of our knowledge of objects.

That the two traditional theories do not make use of the fact that we are in the best possible position to give an account of the self should lead us to suspect that they are wrongly viewed as contributions to the problem of self-identity, and that they should instead be viewed as contributions to the problem of personal-identity. After all not only is no appeal made to our native knowledge of ourselves, but also our native knowledge of self does not lend support to one or other of the traditional rival theories. The Pure Ego Theory preserves the unity and the endurance of the self, but it does so at the cost of making the self non-experiential, and that is at odds with our native knowledge of us. Contrariwise, the Serial Theory makes it difficult to understand the self qua subject: It gives no intuitively acceptable account of the unity and the endurance of the self, although it gives full recognition to the experiential nature of the self.

The use to which I have just put our native knowledge of the self

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reveals by implication what I mean by calling it non-propositional knowledge. I have claimed that in terms of it we can say that experience does not bear out the accounts of the self with which the traditional theories present us. The situation is, I think, rather like this: in virtue of my native knowledge of the self I can tell when a theory of the self does not receive the endorsement of my experience of being a self. To the theorist I can say that I know that the self is not as he describes, but if he asks me what description of the self does fit my experience, I do not know. To put it differently, I can test a theory of the self in terms of my own experience, but I do not judge the suggested theory by comparing it with the theory of the self I know to be true. My judgement is not based on any theory at all: it is based on experience of being a self - quite another matter. It is this that makes it true to say, borrowing from St Augustine: 'when no one asks me, I know what I am, but when I am asked I do not know'.

If then neither the Pure Ego Theory nor the Serial Theory receives the corroboration of our native knowledge of the self does this not mean that they are theories concerning what we must take ourselves to be? For it will be recalled that I argued that a theory of what the self must be taken to be is not disclosed by our native knowledge of the self, and does not receive the endorsement of this experiential knowledge. Unfortunately there are considerations weighing against such an interpretation of the theories we have been dealing with. The aim of theories of personal-identity is to arrive at a sortal identification of persons. So far so good: the theories in question seem to have that aim. On the other hand, the additional condition was laid down that persons had to be subject to referential identification. This condition, I shall try to show, cannot be met by the theories in question.

I do not wish to argue for this proposition on the ground that we run into difficulties as soon as we try to provide criteria for the identification either of Pure Egos, or of selves qua series of experiences. Those difficulties have been impressively exposed by Strawson and Shoemaker. Rather I wish to adopt a different approach. Referential identification of persons is a necessary presupposition of our ability to make statements about persons - both statements ascribing characteristics to ourselves and statements ascribing characteristics to others. That is to say, both self-ascriptive statements (avowals) and other-ascriptive statements are statements about persons. It follows that any sentence in which the grammatical

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subject is a personal pronoun is a sentence in which the personal pronoun is an expression referring to a person. In turn it follows that self-ascriptive statements and other-ascriptive statements entail corresponding statements about persons. Thus the statement 'I am angry' entails the statement 'A person is angry'. Similarly the statement 'He is overweight' entails the statement 'A person is overweight'. From this it is obvious that we can form propositional functions ('--- is angry', ' --- is overweight') and consider the question: 'What type of expression can meaningfully fill the blank to complete the sentence?' Such a procedure, I now want to suggest, can be used to determine whether a theory of the identity of a subject is a theory of personal-identity or a theory of self-identity.

It would work in the following manner. If a theorist wishes to argue that the self as described by him is the intended referent in sentences about persons, then he must consent that a sentence is meaningful when the blank in a propositional function such as the above is replaced by a description of the intended referent. A theorist who is prepared to defend such a proposition as meaningful is a .persons-approach theorist dealing with the problem of personal identity. If not, the theorist must be classified as a self-approach theorist dealing with the problem of self-identity.

Thus a theory according to which we are nothing but bodies would answer to the persons-approach because it is possible to fill the sentence-blank with the expression 'a body' This would give us sentences such as, 'A body is angry', and 'A body is overweight'. Now I would be the first to concede that this is an odd thing to say, but that is not the point. The point is that such a proposition would have to be defended by a philosopher who held the view that we are nothing but bodies. It hardly needs to be said that such a theorist must be prepared to go to the limit with his analysis and affirm the meaningfulness of such sentences as 'A body is thinking'. In other words, the blank-filling must be applicable to sentences involving mental predicates as well as to those involving physical predicates.

When a theorist is not prepared to allow that an expression characterizing the self according to his theory can fill all such sentence-blanks and the sentence still be defended as meaningful, we can be sure that we are not dealing with a theory of personal identity, but a theory of self-identity.

Thus a Pure Ego Theorist would not wish to make the truth of his theory depend upon the meaningfulness of such sentences as,

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'A Pure Ego is angry (or overweight)'. Neither could a Serial Theorist allow the truth of his theory to depend on the meaningfulness of such sentences as, 'A bundle of perceptions is hungry (or overweight)'

This principle would therefore disqualify the two traditional theories from being theories of personal identity. I have already argued that they are not theories of self-identity, because they neither appeal to native knowledge of the self, nor receive the corroboration of such knowledge. Of what then are they theories?

Only one conclusion seems to remain and that is that they aspire to be theories of both personal identity and self-identity. I have however argued that this is impossible. This would explain why the two theories fall between two stools. They are neither the one thing nor the other because they try to be both. They are intended to explain both what the subject is experienced as being, and what the subject must be taken to be. If I am right, however, these are separate questions requiring separate answers, and the unsuccessfulness of the two theories can be attributed to the failure of their advocates to keep the two questions distinct.

One of the merits of the persons-approach, therefore, is that it has forced on us the realization that we have two sorts of questions we can ask about the identity of selves, and this enables us to see where the traditional theories fall down. The lesson to be learned is that a theory of self-identity is not to be evaluated in terms of whether the self can be the subject of ascriptive sentences. On the contrary a theory of self-identity attempts to offer an account of a self even when such a self is not yet thought of as a language-user - a self-ascriber. Just as the having of experiences is not dependent on one's ability to report their occurrence, so being a self is not dependent on one's ability to use first-person and third-person sentences. Thus the difference between the persons-approach and the self-approach comes to this: the former asks what we must take ourselves to be, given the condition that we are language-users; the latter asks what it is to be a subject to which experiences occur, quite independently of this condition. The two approaches operate on entirely different logical levels, and both approaches are, I believe, equally legitimate.

The above discussion gives us a possible insight into why the persons-approach is nowadays just about the only one in the field. The traditional theories such as the Pure Ego Theory and its antithesis the Serial Theory were thought to be theories intended to

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reveal the identity of the self qua subject of experience. Thus interpreted they represented attempts to find out what could be discovered about the self from one's own case. Since these theories have mostly been thought to be unsuccessful, their failure has impugned the respectability of the very idea of giving an account of the experiential self. This meant that the only respectable problem left was that of explaining what we must take to be the subjects referred to in our ascriptive sentences.

But this seems to me to be the wrong conclusion to reach in the light of the failure of the two traditional theories. They failed, not because they attempted an impossible task, but precisely because they were not genuine theories of self-identity resting on an examination of one's own case. They failed because they ignored our native knowledge of the self, and tried to apply to the self theories constructed for the purpose of explaining our knowledge of material objects.

On this assumption I have tried to make good the omission by proposing a theory of self-identity that does rest on our native knowledge of the self. Should the reader still be in doubt whether I have set myself a genuine task, I can only ask him to judge in the light of the theory I am proposing. Thus I am in a sense suggesting that the validity of the problem should be assessed in terms of the meaningfulness of the theory developed in the chapters that follow.

It will be discovered that I frequently turn to the views of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophers many of whom are now no more than names to most philosophers. I have done this in order to re-establish a connection with the stage philosophy had reached when the problem of self-identity as I have defined it was still a live issue, and before the persons-approach came to dominate the philosophical scene.

My introduction of the self-approach may have given rise to a scepticism in the mind of the reader concerning the sorts of argument and evidence I will appeal to in developing my solution to the problem of self-identity. It is easy to anticipate a philosopher's reaction to the statement that an account is to be given of the self which hinges on the experience the subject has in his own case. He will suspect that he is about to be introduced to some very mysterious type of experiencing, which he has no hope of matching with any corresponding experience of his own, and that the case will therefore rest on some ultimately untestable experiential claim. Alternatively, he will suspect that the subject as uncovered in any

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such investigation will prove to be so private and elusive that only the writer will know what he is referring to and no reader will succeed in identifying it. That is to say, he will be sceptical whether any attempt to communicate this experience of the self, or to identify the self allegedly experienced, can succeed.

To allay such suspicions it will be as well for me to reveal the empirical bias of my own philosophical point of view. C. D. Broad, writing in this instance of moral theory, laid down two principles which, when applied to the theory of the self, I would claim to be exemplified in my own approach. The first principle is:

Other things being equal, a theory is to be preferred if it does not have to postulate anything of a kind which is not already admitted as a fact and found to be readily intelligible. 8

This principle is in operation throughout this work, and no appeal will be found anywhere in it to strange forms of experience, or to the postulation of strange entities. The second principle is:

Other things being equal, a theory is to be preferred if it does not have to suppose that all men are fundamentally mistaken on certain matters with which the whole race is and has always been constantly concerned. 9

This principle supports my attempt to account for self-awareness as a phenomenon readily admitted by all except those philosophers whose theories forbid them to concede its existence.

Broad pointed out that as far as moral enquiry is concerned these two principles pulled in opposite directions, but this is not true of their application to the theory of the self I shall advance. The two principles not only work in harmony throughout this enterprise, but go so far as to provide a neat formulation of the methodological aims of the entire work. It would offend against Broad's two principles to imagine that the experiential self can only be found after a deep search for some ultra recondite fact of experience. We have the experience of being selves throughout our waking moments, and an account of the self which depended on some recondite fact, which it would take the discipline of a Platonic philosopher to discover, would not be believable. No account of the self can be

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successful if it fails to explain the accessibility of a subject's self to himself. Any account which was by its nature recondite would immediately be rejected as contrary to our native knowledge of ourselves. The self must be shown to be knowable by means of experience; and by means of experiences none would dispute. A theory which fails to make the self knowable in this way automatically becomes a theory of what the self must be taken to be, and not a theory of what it is experienced as being: that is to say, it might pass as an answer to the problem of personal identity, but could not pass as an answer to the problem of self-identity.

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7. MacNabb, David Hume: His Theory of Knowledge and Morality, p. 147
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8. The, Philosophy of C.D. Broad, ed. A. Schillp (New York, 1959), p. 814,
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9. Ibid.
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