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Essay on 'I'


To: Paul C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on 'I'
Date: 14 February 2002 11:44

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your e-mail of 5 February, with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program. Although you do not state the title, I take it that your essay is on the subject, 'I'.

This is a case where, because no question has been set, we need to be clear about what is, or might be the question.

You get off on the wrong foot (slightly) when you venture that 'I a truth valid with reference to every living and knowing being...'. What is true, we may safely say, about any living, sentient being is that it is a subject. It would follow that the question we are asking is merely what it is, in general, to be a subject.

Surely, the use of 'I' implies reflection, the ability to consider oneself as a subject of reference among other similar subjects of reference.- For the sake of the discussion, I am going to assume this.

What 'I' purports to refer to is an entity with identity over time. That is how we are able to use 'I' in the past or future tense. (It would be perfectly possible to coin a term which could only be used to refer to present experiences, but such a term would be redundant.)

Now, it looks as though we are getting close to our question, or at least one possible question: what kind of entity-with-identity 'I' refers to. Following your lead, I am going to pursue this question, although there are other questions that one might have pursued.

Prior to philosophy, there would be no difficulty in identifying the entity that 'I' refers to: it is a person, a human being, who is born, grows up, and dies and does various things in between. It is not aware of itself as 'I' at all these states (early infancy, or in advanced stages of Alzheimer's) but that does not prohibit it from using 'I' to say things like, 'When I was born'.

The problem of identity arose historically because thinkers were not content with this pre-philosophical answer. So Descartes attributes identity over time to the 'I' substance, but denies its materiality. Thus arise the criticisms of Lichtenberg and Hume which you cite. (I understand Lichtenberg to be saying that Descartes has no right to say, 'I exist'. He is not saying that you or I have no right to say 'I exist'. I could be wrong about this, as I have only seen the remark and not the original text that it is taken from.)

Unfortunately, we cannot rest content with a refutation of dualism of the Cartesian or Humean variety, because returning to the idea of 'I' as referring to a physical person rather than a soul, leaves philosophers with the vexed question of defining personal identity.

The core of your essay contains an interesting suggestion for a way of understanding the unity of the person - which you then, surprisingly, reject. On a non-reductionist view, the entities dealt with by psychology are not analysable into the entities dealt with by physics. The different sciences selectively pick out different 'objects'.

(You could have added that the non-reductionist supporter of physicalism holds that facts about psychological states *supervene* on facts about physical states. So it would be impossible for two total systems which were identical at the physical level to be different at the psychological level.)

But you then say, 'If the I is just a description of something, rather than a thing, then it can have no influence on events.' Why? Isn't the point of talking about different levels that whatever concepts we use - whether psychological, biological, chemical or physical - are just different ways of collecting together or focusing on the facts whatever they may be. The entities or events that we refer to from within a given theoretical framework figure in perfectly acceptable causal explanations. Whereas it looks as if you are saying that the only *true* causation occurs on the ultimate physical level: everything else is just a fabricated 'description'.

I am not dismissing this worry out of hand because it is very much a live issue in the philosophy of mind, where philosophers debate a version of 'epiphenomenalism' which, unlike the dualist version which I talk about in the program, accepts the physicalist thesis, but questions our right to offer causal explanations at the psychological level.

I do, however, agree that there must be more to 'I' than can be accounted for in terms of levels of scientific theory. This is shown by the fact the description of human action exists within a normative framework, where reasons for actions are offered in place of causal descriptions. Hence the difference between the things that my body does, and the things that 'I' do. Hence the idea that you and I belong not only to the world of nature but also to a human world.

- o O o -

What happens next?

First of all, well done for completing the program! I will keep a copy of this letter on my desk to remind me to send you my mentor's report and Pathways certificate.

If you still have the appetite to continue, there are five other programs (sorry, four!) which you might consider. Or you could go for the next higher level, the Associate Diploma which involves producing a portfolio of four essays of 2000-2500 words. You would send me eight pieces of work, from which you would then select for final revision before submitting your portfolio for examination.

Examples of successful Associate Diploma portfolios can be seen on the Pathways web site at Do think carefully about whether you feel you are ready for this next step.

All the best,