The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 5

The Experiential Self - 5.2.6
[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


2. The Problems the Theory Solves

[6] Let us, however, for the sake of argument, grant Ayer his claim that the relation of 'appropriation' needs to be supplemented by bodily identity. It is instructive to see how Ayer thinks the attachment of a series of confamiliar experiences to a particular body can be effected. According to him a series made up of experiences that are either sensibly compresent or sensibly continuous with one another are attached to a body if at least one of their number is a kinaesthetic sensation attaching to a body. A kinaesthetic sensation is then defined as attaching to a body in that it must have its 'locus' in a particular body. The theory therefore explains how the attachment is effected, and at the same time provides a means of individuating the body to which the series of experiences are attached - as the body 'in' which the kinaesthetic sensation is located. (In an inexplicable slip Ayer passes from talking about kinaesthetic sensation to talking about bodily sensation as if they were identical; whereas all kinaesthetic sensations are bodily sensations but not all bodily sensations are kinaesthetic sensations.)

Having given an account of the relation of 'attachment' Ayer proceeds to dispose of the difficulties to which his theory gives rise. He faces the same problem that confronted the somatic field theory; namely, how can one be sure that every series of confamiliar experiences will contain at least one bodily sensation as a member? He has no option but to argue in terms of probabilities. He makes such statements as 'Even if it is not true that all our experiences are sensibly compresent with bodily sensations, it can fairly be assumed that the greater number of them are.' 135 Once again we are confronted with a theory which gives a key role to kinaesthetic sensation, and yet because on the theory it is purely contingent that the necessary kinaesthetic sensations should be forthcoming, no theoretical reason can be given for their presence.

In this respect the superiority of the theory I am suggesting is manifest. If the subject is equated with unprojected consciousness, and if there can be no unprojected consciousness without kinaesthetic sensation, then we not only have an explanation of the signal importance of kinaesthetic sensation to self-identity, but have an unshakable logical basis for rejecting any argument for the

-page 163-

existence of kinaesthetic sensation in terms of probabilities. We are in a position to see why both James with his encephalic adjustments, and Ayer with his kinaesthetic sensations attached to the body, were both heading in the right direction - but for the wrong reasons - and why on their theory it is inexplicable that such sensations have the importance they accord them. We may further look upon these theories as providing us with a warning of the difficulties one gets oneself into if one does not make the distinctions I have been arguing for. Thus the failures of these theories are an impressive argument in favour of acceptance of mine.

It may have troubled the reader that James should have identified certain kinaesthetic sensations with 'encephalic adjustments' in view of the fact that his theory is not based on bodily identity. From the standpoint of the subject, however, such descriptions should be taken to be no more than appellations of the sensations in question. As such they must not be thought of as presupposing one's ability to identify the heads in which these adjustments occur. But if this is true of James's reference to the body, the same interpretation may be given of Ayer's reference to the body as the 'locus' of bodily sensations. Thus his description of a sensation as Ďa sensation of physical pain in a body' could be interpreted as an appellation of a particular type of sensation, and it could be understood without any attachment being made to a physical body. Such is the case when we locate a kinaesthetic sensation in a phantom limb. Ayer would have to show why his account of bodily attachment would not work for a 'phantom body'. This could only be done by forsaking the self-approach for the persons-approach. As far as the subject himself is concerned all he needs in order to locate his kinaesthetic sensations is a phantom body. The problem to which these issues give rise will be investigated in the last chapter of this book. Enough has been said to show that James is not caught in a contradiction when he describes kinaesthetic sensations in physical terms, and that Ayer needs to do more than he has done to cross the bridge from locatability of bodily sensations to the existence of real bodies.

The judgement Ayer passes on the James-Ayer theory of the self is the following: 'So far as I can see it does not now lead to any counter-intuitive results. Its chief weakness, to my mind, is that the concept of appropriation, on which it relies very heavily, is not sufficiently precise. 136 I have tried to show that the notion of

-page 164-

appropriation, as it stands, is itself counter-intuitive in that it is implausible to believe that there are any such appropriating Thoughts unless we consciously call them into being. However, if the interpretation of appropriation I have offered is accepted, then it is no longer counter-intuitive, for we are all perfectly familiar with the manner in which our experiences are 'put forth' from us when we pay attention to them.

Even if the theory is not counter-intuitive at this level, it is counter-intuitive at a still more fundamental level. When Ayer claims that 'a self can be defined as any class of experiences which are confamiliar with each other', 137 he identifies the self with what is, from the standpoint of common experience, the not-self. A pain I have is mine; it is not me. Indeed if the pain is 'put forth' from me, this very result sets it apart from the self. It is because our experiences are 'put forth' from us - because they bear the aspect of 'appearing to' us - that it seems so incredible to say that we just are our experiences, that we are not in any sense an experiencer of them. It is because we want to get away from this idea that we are drawn into speaking of ourselves as in some sense behind our experiences.

Let me digress for a moment to point out why the Serial Theory seems to be driven into such a counter-intuitive position. The Serial Theory is unquestionably the classical empiricist theory of the self: the self is constructed out of 'the given' just as is the external world itself. Thus the assumptions on which the Serial Theory rests are themselves determined by the empiricist assumptions about the nature of 'the given'. Now it is incumbent upon empiricists to explain how 'the given' is arrived at. The logical method for an empiricist to employ is that of defining 'the given' by ostensive means. This he does by drawing the attention of the reader to an item of sense experience, and then giving him directions on how to recognize an instantiation of 'the given' in the situation confronting him. It is obvious on reflecting on this procedure that whatever feature of the perceptual situation is singled out by the reader will at the time be an object of attention for him. This is clearly true of the well-known analysis of 'seeing a tomato', which Price gives in illustration of an ostensive definition of a sense-datum. 138 If we do not actually put a tomato in front of ourselves to help us follow the analysis, we no doubt imagine seeing one. In

-page 165-

either case the sense-datum is something which is an object of attention at the time of its identification.

This method of arriving at sense-data makes each sense-datum logically independent of every other sense-datum, and since nothing else is given in experience, the self must be viewed as a collection of sense-data. The problem then inevitably arises of how to account for the unity of such a set of discrete units. Some method has to be found of threading them all together. But if I am right the discreteness of the sense-data is necessarily attributable to the fact that they are objects of attention: by singling out for attention this rather than that in our experience we give the sense-datum its discreteness. If we bear this in mind it is odd then to ask how sense-data are related to one another. They must in the first instance be related as belonging to one consciousness before any particular element can be singled out for attention. Thus, the difficulty only arises if we overlook the reason for the discreteness of sense-data in the first place.

Furthermore, my argument that we should recognize the existence of that part of consciousness which I have called unprojected consciousness no longer compels us to construct the self out of elements which are objects of attention. That is to say, we do not have the difficulty of having to build up the self out of elements which ordinarily would be considered to be elements 'put forth', or 'detached' from the self. The recognition that 'the given' is not exhausted by the object of attention enables a theory of the self to be constructed which is as purely empirical as the Serial Theory, but which does not commit us to its implausible view of the self as a logical construction built up out of elements of the not-self.

Ayer's claim that the theory is not counter-intuitive is, from this point of view, nothing less than paradoxical. But clearly he does not have in mind the sense of counter-intuitive I have been assuming. He means that the definition of the self he has given does not lead us to individuate as a person anything which we would not as a matter of commonsense individuate as a person. In addition, he believes that his theory would allow us to individuate persons in unusual conditions in a way that would produce no paradoxical results. With this claim we may agree. But it is hardly surprising that the theory is not counter-intuitive in this sense, in that Ayer has deliberately chosen as defining characteristics of a person ones which would have as a result that persons thus

-page 166-

individuated would coincide with our normal classification of persons. But here again from yet another point of view the results are still counter-intuitive in that the only rationale of the choice of defining characteristics of persons is that they produce the classification Ayer is looking for. Just why the self should be defined in terms of the characteristics he chooses is never explained. Quite obviously this cannot be explained. His theory fails as a theory of self-identity in that he can give no account of the reason for the self's possession of the characteristics in terms of which he defines it.

[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


Footnotes

135. Ibid., p. 262.
back to text

136. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism, p. 278.
back to text

137. Ibid. , p. 259.]
back to text

138. H.H. Price, Perception (London, 1954), p. 3.
back to text