The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 5

The Experiential Self - 5.1.3
[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. The Self as Unprojected Consciousness

[3] So much for the general outline of the theory. I have shown why the self cannot be considered as an object, and I have pointed out that unprojected consciousness cannot be considered as an object either. That gives us one reason for suspecting that they are one and the same thing. But account has to be taken of the fact that many philosophers have denied the necessity of the notion of a subject of consciousness. It follows that if they are right and there is no subject of consciousness, then the attempt to argue that it is identical with unprojected consciousness must be abandoned. It is therefore crucial to my enterprise that I offer reason for rejecting the no-subject view of the self.

The philosophers most anxious to deny the existence of the subject have been the Serial Theorists. Their objection has been that if successive states of consciousness have a subject, that

-page 151-

subject must persist through time in order for it to function as their subject. The self must in that case be considered to be a persisting entity - to wit a Pure Ego.

Now it was precisely this idea of an enduring subject that Serialists such as Russell, 118 Ayer, 119 and Grice 120 wished to avoid. They all suggest that when we refer to a self, what we refer to is revealed on proper analysis to be a relation between total temporary states. As Ayer explains,

We know that a self, if it is not to be treated as a metaphysical entity, must be held to be a logical construction out of the sense-experiences . . . And, accordingly, if we ask what is the nature of the self, we are asking what is the relationship that must obtain between sense-experiences for them to belong to the sense history of the same self. 121

In contradistinction to this approach, it has been pointed out by J. R. Jones that there is still room for a subject of experiences without such a subject being thought of as a persisting entity. 122 What Jones has in mind are the elements that exist simultaneously in each total temporary state. In other words, he draws attention to that other aspect of consciousness that Serialists have tended to overlook. We are asked to envisage the possibility that each experience has its own subject, and that no two experiences separated in time have the same subject. Such a subject would be transient, since it would not outlast the experience of which it was the owner.

What is of particular interest is the reason Jones gives for wishing to reintroduce this vestigial subject. He points out that it is needlessly paradoxical to deny, as Russell does, that there could be experiences without a subject. Jones recalls the insistence of James Ward that it does not make sense to call something an experience, if there is no one whose experience it is. Similarly, on this argument, there can be no presentation without the presentation presenting itself to a subject. But the main point he makes against Russell's no-subject theory is just that it unnecessarily rules out the possibility of ascribing a single experience to a subject. According to the

-page 152-

Serialist position a statement such as 'I am seeing this coloured patch' must be analysed in such a way that the statement is really a statement of the relation of the experience of seeing a coloured patch to the experiences which come before and after it. But Jones's objection is that he finds it meaningful to say 'I am seeing this coloured patch' irrespective of whether any other experiences came before or after it. Thus:

But surely a person never says "I am seeing this coloured patch" or "I am hearing this noise" merely as an expression of the fact that this seeing and this hearing are related to other non-contemporaneous mental events in certain characteristic ways. I at any rate am perfectly certain that there is something contemporaneous with my seeing the coloured patch or my hearing the noise to which I mean to relate these objects when I say that it is "I" who am seeing the coloured patch or hearing the noise . . . The "I" of which I am thinking seems to be involved in any one of the cognitive events which may be combined in the unity of the same total temporary state. 123

He proposes therefore that we consider the possibility that the 'I' in sentences describing such experiences refers to something contemporaneous with the experience, which could then be said to 'have' the experience. Some other contemporaneous mental event (element of consciousness) could be assigned this function. This would have the advantage that, provided the mental event selected was always present, there would be a sense in which every experience had a subject, irrespective of its relation to experiences that come before or after it. At the same time it would avoid the myth of a substantival ego, which Russell was anxious to repudiate. It would avoid it without running into Russell's paradoxical position in which it is denied that experiences have subjects. In casting about us for a type of mental event best suited to perform the function of standing as a subject to each experience, there are strong reasons for the choice of bodily sensation for the purpose. This was recognized by C. D. Broad who says:

I think that the most plausible form of this theory would be to identify the Central Event [i.e. the self] at any moment with a mass of bodily feeling. The longitudinal unity of a self through a period

-page 153-

of time would then depend on the fact that there is a mass of bodily feeling which goes on continuously throughout this period and varies in quality not at all or very slowly. At any moment there are many such masses of bodily feeling, which are numerically different however much they may be alike in quality. These form the Centres of a number of different contemporary total states of mind. Each of them is a thin slice of a long and highly uniform strand of bodily feeling; and each of these strands of bodily feeling accounts for the longitudinal unity of one mind.' 124

Jones follows Gallie in taking up Broad's suggestion. 125 They both equate the subject with what they call 'the somatic field'. I shall not go into the details of this theory because it has been ably expounded and criticised by Shoemaker. 126 The theory rests on the assumption that bodily sensations are not intermittent, for if they were and if an experience occurred during a time at which the somatic field was empty of sensation, the experience in question would be subjectless. But that ex hypothesi is impossible. Thus the theory rests entirely on the questionable empirical premiss that some bodily sensation is contemporaneous with every experience.

[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


118. Russell, Analysis of Mind (London, 1933). Ayer,
back to text

119. A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, 2nd ed. (London, 1953).
back to text

120. H.P. Grice, 'Personal Identity', Mind, I (1941).
back to text

121. Op. cit., p. 125.
back to text

122. J.R. Jones, 'The Self in Sensory Cognition', Mind, LVII (1949).
back to text

123. Op. Cit, p. 43.
back to text

124. C.D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place In Nature (London, 1925), p. 566.
back to text

125. I. Gallie, 'Mental Facts', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, N. S. XXXV11 (936-37).
back to text

126. Shoemaker, Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity, ch. 3, see 8.
back to text