Blind Spots, Perspectives and the First-Person
Blind Spots, Perspectives and the First-Person
Department of Philosophy and Institute of Philosophy
University of Porto
Abstract: In this paper I pursue a worry that runs through the work of F. Gil: the worry that subjectivity as an issue be erased from philosophy whereas it should be at its centre. After a brief sketch of what one may take to be discussing when discussing subjectivity (and consciousness) I will focus on two approaches to the nature of subjectivity: D. Davidson’s view of ‘the subjective’ (Davidson 2001) in the context of his general theory of thought and language and S. Gallagher’s defence of the principle of immunity to error through misidentification (IEM) in the light of cognitive science and psychiatry cases which seem to be exceptions to its application (Gallaher 2012). Davidson’s conception of the subjective in his late writings as (no more than) privacy, assimetry and first-person authority misses both the irreducibility of first-person perspective and its connection with perception. I look at S. Gallagher’s recent work on immunity to error through misidentification in order to bring that out. Yet Davidson is not mis-oriented in the role gives to the subjective: as J. Benoist (Benoist 2012) put it, first-person (is an irreducible perspective but it) is not just a perspective.
This paper is part of a work in progress on conceptions of the subject. It is articulated around a language-based account – Donald Davidson’s view of the subjective as (no more than) than privacy, assimetry and first person authority – and a phenomenology-inspired account – Shaun Gallagher’s recent work on immunity to error through misidentification which, in contrast with Davidson, spells out the irreducibility of first person perspective and its connection with perception. Having used Gallagher to consider subjectivity as perspective, I will end by introducing and commenting an observation of J. Benoist according to which first person is not just a perspective. With these combined, and eventually conflicting, perspectives on the first-person I intend to pursue a worry that runs through the work of F. Gil: the worry that subjectivity as an issue be erased from philosophy whereas it should be at its center. (I believe I will also consider what F. Gil called ‘le système perception-langage’ as it apllies to subjectivity issues).
I. Blind spots
What could erasing subjectivity from philosophy mean? Many current discussions on subjectivity and consciousness within analytic philosophy, especially in the philosophy of mind and language, take place in the context of a ‘naturalized epistemology framework’ – third-person approaches are dominant, or at least pervasive, and the proximity of much philosophical work on mind and language with cognitive science reinforces such orientation. One consequence of such a situation are blindspots in thinking about consciousness and subjectivity – questions are often simply taken to be exhausted when one addresses problems such as the place of consciousness in nature within a physicalist metaphysics, whose nature is decided and debated elsewhere. This may be the case in some quarters of analytic philosophy (F. Gil used to target ‘cognitivisme’) – yet issues of subjectivity and consciousness are dealt with in very different ways not only in the idealistic–phenomenological tradition central to continental philosophy but also in the analytic tradition itself. Before moving on to the comparison I’m mostly interested in today, between Davidson and Gallagher, I will give a very brief overview of the discussions that go under ‘subjectivity’ and ‚consciousness’ in current discussions.
In analytic philosophy the topic of ‚subjectivity’ often leads philosophers to discuss self-reference, self-identification (whether regarding the use of first-person pronoun only or extending to body proper), access or presence to oneself, as in introspection, or first-person authority. Frequent starting points for discussing subjectivity as self-identification are, for instance, the way Wittgenstein, in The Blue and Brown Books, dealt with subjective and objective uses of ‘I’; the way S. Shoemaker, in Self-reference and self-awareness, dealt with the phenomenon (he named) immunity to error through misidentification (and added ‚in relation to the use of first-person pronoun’), the way Gareth Evans, in Varieties of Reference, extended these considerations from the use of ‘I’ to proprioception (it does not make sense to think something like this: I pick out an external object in the world; then I ask: is this object me? Am I this?), as well as the status of de se beliefs, i.e. beliefs about oneself, as authors such as D. Lewis, J. Perry, H.N. Castañeda or R. Chisholm discussed them (one example from Castañeda would be: “Smith has never seen his image (…) in photographs, mirrors, ponds, etc. Suppose that at time t Smith does not know that he has been appointed the editor of Soul and that at t he comes to know that the man whose photograph lies on a certain table is the new Editor of Soul, without Smith realizing that he himself is the man in the photograph.”). Is Smith thinking about himself when he looks at the photograph of the man he knows is the editor of Soul?
In other traditions, subjectivity is not so much one specific issue, such as identifying oneself, but, in a way, the issue at the heart of philosophy; thus, approaches to subjectivity often happen under the guise of a comprehensive investigation on the nature of the ‚subject’ or ‚reason’, often with the intention of criticizing, or renouncing to, the so called Cartesian, ‘classic’, conceptions of subjectivity, which identify subjectivity with a res cogitans, a transparent self-consciousness and locus for the foundation of knowledge. It is not only for Descartes or for Kant, that a view of the subject lies at the centre of philosophical pursuits: two central strands of continental philosophy, the idealistic tradition and the phenomenological tradition, may also be seen as explorations of subjectivity through and through. In the idealistic tradition what is at stake is becoming acquainted with ourselves while understanding the nature of understanding, or reason, this involves not just representing the world, but also activity and feeling, whereas in the phenomenological tradition, as it was inaugurated by Husserl, the main aim was to clarify the subjective origins of sense in the condition of givenness of things.
As for consciouness, the first thing to notice is that it is somewhat more frequent – at least in analytic philosophy – to be presented with a theory of consciousness than with a ‘theory’ of subjectivity. A theory of consciousness could be a metaphysical theory of the place of consciousness in nature, making room for the what it is like to be?, the presentation of the world to a creature, even if only ‘dimly’, as it were phenomenally, i.e. without any conceptualization. Some such theories conclude that physical facts could not possibly suffice to account for this and thus prepare the ground for shunning physicalism, or materialism (S. Kripke, F. Jackson, or D. Chalmers) A theory of consciousness could also be a cognitively inspired first or second-order representational theory (F. Dretske, D. Rosenthal), in which case one does not take representation and phenomenal consciousness to be completely disparate natures – in fact the proposal is that consciousness can be accounted for as a certain kind of representation. A theory of consciousness could also be, especially if comes from disciplines other than philosophy, namely cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, or even cognitive-science minded philosophy, a proposal about cognitive architecture – we may think for instance of Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model, or B. Baars global workspace theory. It could also be a proposal about how the representation of body proper, which takes place in the brain, through multi-layered representations of self, makes for the ‚authorship’ of the flow and the ‚feeling of what happens’ (Damasio). The first thing I wanted to point out here is that this variety of approaches can by itself make for blindspots in discussing conceptions of the subject – people speaking about completely different things often simply talk past each other. But I am more interested in the kind of blind spot a philosopher like Donald Davidson shows in his approach to subjectivity.
II. Diagnosing Davidson on the subjective
In his last writings Davidson (Davidson 2001, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective) accounts for subjectivity (or ‘the subjective’) as first-person-authority in the context of his general project of a theory of thought and language, and how they relate to the world. He believes that once we get rid of the idea of subjectivity as a ‘parade of objects before the mind’ (the cartesian idea), all that remains is privacy and asymmetry. As he puts it in The Myth of the Subjective, “What remains of the concept of subjectivity? So far as I can see two features of the subjective as classically conceived remain in place. Thoughts are private in the obvious but important sense in which property can be private, that is, belong to one person. And knowledge of thoughts is assymmetrical, in that the person who has the thought generally knows he has it in a way others cannot. But that is all there is to the subjective”.
What interests me are the conditions in which Davidson frames the question regarding ‘the subjective’. This is how he puts it: in order to know what other people think, I take as evidence what they say and do. But I don’t have to appeal to any evidence in order to know what I think. How can that be, how can I know what I think? His answer is, there is a presumption built into the nature of interpretation according to which a speaker usually knows what he means, whereas there’s no such presupposition in the interpretation of others. First-person authority is what explains such presupposition – it is thus a necessary feature of the interpretation of speech. So, the question is being posed in terms of language and interpretation. But it is important to notice here that not only knowledge of language (in an individual, a competent speaker of a natural language) is at stake, but the very possibility and objectivity of thought and knowledge in general. For instance, also in the “Myth of the Subjective”, Davidson says it is first person authority that gives rise to the idea of epistemic priority of thought to world, and thus to scepticism, and so accounting for first person authority as he does doing away with the presumption of epistemic authority, is a central piece in a response to scepticism.
First-person authority is thus something much more basic and much less meaningful than epistemic authority: basically, it is simply our condition as linguistic creatures that we have no deeper access to what we think than by saying what we mean. This claim is in itself interesting, and important – but does it, together with the observations above about privacy and assimetry, amount to a view of subjectivity?
Before we take it to be shallow, we should bare in mind that this seemingly trivial claim – first-person authority is a necessary feature of the interpretation of speech, no presumptions of epistemic authority – is put forward within a very ambitious philosophical programme: I mentioned the connection with Davidson’s rejection of scepticism; I should also say that the bigger picture in which Davidson is accounting for ‘the subjective’ is an investigation into the very possibility of objective knowledge and thought for minds such as ours. It is in that context (building on a Taskian theory of truth, and ‘using’ it as theory of interpretation for natural languages, developing his radical interpretation theory of mind and thought) that he ends up relating the objective, the intersubjective and the subjective (the tripod, he calls it) in conceiving of the nature of thought-world relations. And his idea is subjective-intersubjective-objective come together: this means that only when the tripod is in place can there be, for instance, such as thing as a belief (mine, yours) about the world that is true, as opposed to passing glimpses. (example: ‘Those chairs are red’)
Even allowing for this ambition, I think we should keep the following in mind: Davidson’s approach to thought-world relations is an interpretation theory, and as such, to put it very bluntly, it simply assumes that there is something out there to be interpreted. Now even considering his appeal to the intersubjective, and to what he calls triangulations, in making for the possibility of ‘true belief’ in a mind such as our own, even considering that he is taking distance from quinean-like behaviorism, itself undoubtably even more radically third-personal, even considering that here is certainly a contrast between Davidson and Quine, a contrast between distal stimulae and proximal stimulae; the touchstone is still behavioural evidence; ultimately it is stimulae which are out there to be interpreted. So a view from the outside, a priority of a third-person perspective is, we may say, embedded in Davidson’s theory of interpretation and thus in his view of the subjective as privacy, assimetry and first-person authority, and this is not a contingent detail in his philosophy. Not only does his interpretation-stimulae dualism as it were pressupose a third person perspective – but also it does not allow for situatedness of thought and language in the world. Another way to see that this is so is to consider that in Davidson’s view of the subjective as such there is no place for perception proper, for mind’s response to the world, for acquaintance’, something being directly or immediately present to mind, or ‘givenness’. Leaving perception out of the picture Davidson leaves out the picture characteristics of thought-world relations that considering perception renders unavoidable – what I called acquaintance and givenness. To sum up, Davidson’s view of the ‘subjective’ gives us important ideas – above all separating first person authority and epistemic privilege – but it is a-wordly subjectivity, subjectivity without perception and without regard for acquaintance or givenness – even its opposition to scepticism and cartesianism depends on ‘isolation by language’. But if we believe reducing subjectivity to privacy, assimetry and first-person authority trivializes it, what is the alternative?
III. Reintroducing perspective and perception: Shaun Gallagher on IEM
I will next follow Shaun Gallagher in taking immunity to error through misidentification as a phenomenon to look at, if we think subjectivity cannot be fully accounted for by a language-based approach such as Davidson’s. IEM is at first sight, something close to davidsonian first person authority – that was, anyway, the origin of my interest in considering them in parallel.
IEM is a principle which one might think should apply without exception to ways of referring to, or experiencing, oneself. I cannot be wrong in identifying myself as the thinker of my thoughts when I think, or in taking my experiences to be mine when I have them. Or can I? The question is, what is it exactly that is immune to misidentification. We might say it is Me-ness, or mine-ness, of thoughts and experiences; Shoemaker, following Wittgenstein, first spoke of immunity to error through misidentification of use of first person pronoun ‘I’. Yet the phenomenon seems to extend from adscription of mental experience to proprioception; this was explored by Evans, in The Varieties of Reference. Wittgenstein’s initial distinction between subjective and objective uses of ‘I’ goes something like this (I borrow Gallagher’s version) “If I experience a toothache, it would be nonsensical to say ‘Someone has a toothache, is it me’? On the other hand, for example, looking in the mirror and seeing a sunburned arm, I might say ‘I have a sunburn’. But it is possible that I see someone else’s arm in the mirror and mistake it for my own, and in that sense I seem to be misidentifying myself [while referring to myself] as ‘object’. I refer to myself as object on the basis of an objectifying perception or thought.”. Now in his 1980s book, Evans put forward a challenge: ‘My legs are crossed’ – they are mine and I feel them – they are my legs and they are crossed – I cannot be wrong – or can I? Evans challenge goes like this: what if wires are messed up with, and B’s brain gets the stimulation from A’s legs? Can B feel legs that are not his as his, as ‘he’? This is the question that interests Gallagher in First-Person Perspective and Immunity to Error through Misidentification; the cases he considers come from psychiatry, neurology and cognitive science, and range from somatoparaphrenia and thought-insertion in schizophrenic delusions, to cognitive psychology experiments such as Rubber Hand illusion and whole body displacement in people wearing virtual reality goggles, to Nasa robots whose mechanic ‘hands’ its manipulators or controllers come to regard as their own. For instance somatoparaphrenia patients deny the ownership of a limb connected to their body (even if looking at it in the mirror they, as it were, reclaim possession of it), a schizophrenic patient denies the ownership as his own thoughts (Kill God!), in cases of the Rubber Hand illusion there is an illusory feeling of ownership of a hand that is not one’s own. (explain at least Rubber Hand Illusion: Placing left arm out of sight; then simultaneously stroking the real hand (out of sight) and the rubber hand, subjects experience the rubber hand as theirs.)
Each one of the cases makes us think that it is indeed possible to mistakenly identify a body (or body parts, or thoughts, or actions) other than my own as being mine, or being me, as well as not identify my body (or body parts, or thoughts, or actions) as being mine. They thus open a line of objection to IEM and question its status.
Gallagher tries to come to terms with these apparent exceptions to IEM and thus with mine-ness or ipseity. One thing he does, as he has been doing in many writings of his in the last years, is focusing on the senses of self-agency and self-ownership (which are in normal cases indistinguishable) and distinguishing them (involuntary movement of my body makes the distinction clear: if I’m pushed from the back, there’s sense of ownership of my movement but not sense of agency). SO is intrinsic ownness of experience, pre-reflective experience that I am the one undergoing the experience. SA is pre-reflective experience that I am the one causing or generating movement. Gallagher phenomenological and empirical analyses aim at having a closer look at the sense of ‚mine-ness’ as pre-reflective awareness built into every experience. His ultimate intention is to defend that we can keep IEM namely against E. Pacherie and M. Jeannerod’s claim that IEM is only a de facto principle, i.e. obtaining only contingently, the ways of coming to know who the agent of the action is, for instance, not being reliable (bad news for philosophers, as they put it). But Galagher thinks we can and we should keep IEM, provided that we keep it as independent as possible from particular modes of access to self which are, indeed, fallible and subject to manipulation, as experimental cases and pathologies show. Now, his claim is that the one aspect of experience which remains self-specific and retains the characteristics of IEM is first-person perspective – he means first person perspective only, not sense of ownership or sense of agency. What is first person perspective then? Gallagher’s answer is that first person perspective is the integration of non-relative bodily framing and egocentric special framing –it is this that survives manipulations of sense of ownership and sense of agency. Sense of mineness as sense of ownership and sense of agency is indeed fallible and manipulable, yet even in cases such as the rubber hand illusion or somatoparaphrenia or thought-insertion in a schizophrenic patient there is first-person perspective and that first person perspective is still mine: I am the subject to whom ‘I’ refers when I claim ‘This arm (connected to my body) is not mine’, or ‘Those (mechanic) hands are mine’ or ‘These thoughts are not mine’.
(quote Gallagher on first person perspective, and explain)
“Experiential canonical positions – the positions of my limbs as I usually perceive them – are often associated with the egocentric spatial framework (e.g., Petkova and Ehrsson 2008, emphasize the importance of the egocentric framework in this regard) or first-person perspective (see, e.g., Fotopoulou et al. 2009). On this view, my perception of myself in the mirror would be termed allocentric, or third-person. But I think this latter way of expressing it is misleading since all of my perceptions are ordered in the egocentric spatial framework (that is, they all have a spatial point of origin in my body), even my perception of my image in the mirror, in the sense that the mirror and the image in the mirror are either in front of me, to my right or to my left, etc. The allocentric spatial framework is an abstraction from perceived space. If, for example, I visually perceive that object X is to the North of object Y, object X and object Y are still, necessarily located for me in some egocentric framework – X is either to my right or left or in front of me, etc. The egocentric framework applies clearly to the visual, tactile, and olfactory modalities of perception – they all involve a certain direction relative to my body or body part.
This is not the case for proprioception, however. Proprioception does not register in the egocentric framework. The proprioceptive position of my right hand is not relative to my body – it is my body’s posture; it’s not relative to a perceptual point of origin – it is that point of origin (e.g., in the case of haptic perception which involves my right hand touching something else). On the proprioceptive map, and in any experiential canonical position, my left foot isn’t closer to me than my right hand (see Gallagher 2003).This may help to explain one difference between seeing my hand in an experiential canonical position and seeing it in the mirror. Seeing my hand in an experiential canonical position normally involves a consistent integration of proprioception in a non-relative, non-egocentric framework (I’ll call this the non-relative bodily framework) and vision (which operates in the relative, egocentric framework). Seeing my hand in the mirror involves a conflict between these two frameworks; I feel my hand proprioceptively here, but I see it there. In such cases I visually perceive my hand as object in egocentric space. To experience oneself as subject, in this context, is to experience oneself in the non-relative bodily framework, as the origin of the egocentric spatial framework. I do not, so to speak, make an entrance into this non-relative framework; I am it, or I live it. The integration of the non-relative bodily framework (the perceptual origin, which involves the complex organization of my body rather than a literal zero point) and the egocentric spatial frame- work constitutes the first-person perceptual point of view or perspective. This conception of the first-person perspective will help to clarify some of the following cases”.
So, and this is why I wanted to bring in Gallagher, here we have here is, let’s call it, a perception-based, phenomenology-inspired account of subjectivity, or me-ness, or mine-ness, as irreducible first-person perspective, and as such an alternative, or a complement, to Davidson’s language-based view of the subjective. I believe the issues Gallagher faces have to be taken into account if we are to face the blind spots of Davidson’s interpretation theory; in fact from an interpretation theory we simply do not get the means to consider the irreducibility of subjectivity as perspective, or the nature of perpective: its relation to perception, its wordly situatedness. Of course if we go Gallagher’s way, we will let perception related problems regarding acquaintance and giveness inevitably will rise when we consider first person; we are now longer isolated by language in a confortably deflationary and anti-cartesian environment, as in Davidson’s account.
I introduced Gallagher to spell out what’s missing in Davidson’s view of the ‘subjective’. Now l want to finish by saying why I think not all is wrong with Davidson. As I said, his view of the subjective is put forward in the context of a wider ambition: building a theory of truth thought and knowledge – something that is not being discussed by Gallagher here. So I would like to borrow Jocelyn Benoist’s words, in a recent title of his, to say what I want to say against Gallagher (or rather against the definition of subjectivity as first person perspective I quoted above): Subjectivity is not just first-person perspective. Yes, perspective is irreducible in a way that cannot be accounted for with the means of a theory of interpretation, with its residual stimulae-language dualism and its a-worldlyness; but reacting to that should not lead us to think that subjectivity is first-person perspective only, as Gallagher defined it. Subjectivity is not just first-person perspective in the sense that a multiple perspectives perspectivism would not, per se, answer the questions about subjectivity which Davidson considers, such as the role of the subjective in conception of truth, thought, knowledge or the commitment of mind in thought and the role of a ‘connection of minds’ therein. Again I will borrow Jocelyn’s words to say what is missing in an approach to the subjective such as Gallagher’s: We are all first persons in a world. Both the “we are all” and the “in the world” are important there, and should be considered in considering subjectivity if subjectivity is to be, as F. Gil thought it should be, at the center of philosophy.
Porto, february 2012
Benoist, Jocelyn, 2012, “Subjectivity Is Not Just a Perspective”, in Miguens and Preyer 2012, pp. 231-244.
Davidson, Donald, 2001, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Davidson, Donald, 2001 a, “The Myth of the Subjective”, in Davidson 2001, pp. 39-52.
Gallagher, Shaun, 2012, “First-Person Perspective and Immunity to Error Through Misidentification”, in Miguens and Preyer 2012, pp. 245-272.
Gallagher, S. and Schmicking, D. (eds.), 2010, Handbook of Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, Dordrecht, Springer.
Gil, Fernando, 1998, “Eu”, in Modos da Evidência, Lisboa, INCM, Parte I, Subjectividade, inteligibilidade, pp. 31-49.
Gil, Fernando, 1998, “A subjectividade incompressível”, in Modos da Evidência, Lisboa, INCM, Parte I, Subjectividade, inteligibilidade, pp.51-64.
Miguens, Sofia and Preyer, Gerhard (eds.), 2012, Consciousness and Subjectivity, Ontos Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., Philosophical Analysis.
The Rubber Hand Ilusion – videos: Prof. Olaf Blanke, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCQbygjG0RU; Prof. Lawrence Rosenblum, University of California – Riverside http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxwn1w7MJvk
 This work has been developed in the context of Project The Bounds of Judgement (PTDC/FIL-FIL/109882/2009).
 Wittgenstein 1958, Oxford, Blackwell.
 Shoemaker 1968, Self-reference and self-awareness, Journal of Philosophy 65: 555-567.
 Evans 1982, Varieties of Reference, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
 My body, the body proper.
 Castañeda 1966: 130.
 Cf. for instance F. Dretske (Dretske 1997, Conscious experience) and D. Rosenthal (Rosenthal 1997, A Theory of consciousness).
 Being a self thus has to do with appearing to oneself, or representing oneself, in a certain way. The way Dennett sees it, a self is made up of sub-personal parts, by exploring accesses among them.
 Baars’ conception of consciousness as global workspace is the idea that what is globally accessible in a cognitive system is ‘publicly available’ (Baars, Bernard, 1988, A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.)
 Damasio himself wants to put forward a conception of self or consciousness according to which self or consciousness is ‘having the body – body proper – in mind’. The mark of the fact that we are embodied conscious beings, and not cartesian souls, is the fact that our consciousness is such that we always have the self in mind –this is what ‘subjectifies’ consciouness, makes it mine.
 Cf. Davidson 2001, pp. 39-52.
 For Davidson objective thought requires minds which have the concepts of belief and truth.
 Differences from Quine here having to do with opposing relativity of conceptual schemes, while appealing to interpretation.