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Meaning of 'I am GK'


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Meaning of 'I am GK'
Date: 29 April 2005 10:47

Dear Walter

Thank you for your email of 18 April, with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Explain the meaning that you associate with the statement, 'I am XYZ.' (For 'XYZ' substitute your own name.)'

Congratulations on completing your second Pathways program! I look forward to working with you on Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind.

This is an example of a question which one needs to interrogate closely.

The question asks you to explain the meaning that you - as opposed to someone who knows you - associate with the statement, 'I am XYZ.' And it gives instructions for interpreting the phrase, 'XYZ'. Namely, you are to 'substitute your own name'.

This is important, because I wanted to identify a particular issue amongst a range of philosophical issues surrounding the notions of identity and self-knowledge, in relation to the philosophy of language.

The question could have asked for the meaning that a hearer associates with the statement, spoken by you, 'I am WF'.

Or it could have asked for the meaning that you associate with the statement, 'I am XYZ', where 'XYZ' refers to something descriptive that could be said, truly or falsely about you, e.g. 'I am shy but extroverted', 'I like pina colada', 'I live in New Mexico', 'I am a member of the Santa Fe golf club'.

Or, finally, it could have asked for the meaning that a hearer associates with above descriptions, as uttered by you.

Professionally, your interest is in a special class of descriptions, or self-descriptions associated with the notion of one's 'identity' not in the logical sense of tracking whether or not A and B are 'one and the same' spatio-temporal individual, but rather in the sense of the kind of person one is, my role or place in society. Masculinity or femininity is one notable example, where some persons feel that their biological nature is at odds with their inner sense of who they are.

Then there are cases where a change in one's sense of identity is so radical as to challenge the truth of statements which one would make on the basis of spatio-temporal continuity alone. 'I am not the person to did that terrible crime,' says the lifer who while in prison converted to Islam, took a bachelors degree and then a doctorate.

As you have discovered, there are interesting issues raised for the philosophy of language by proper names. What exactly is their semantic role? Are they in some sense equivalent to sets of descriptions, or do the function in some fundamentally different way? Answers to these questions would be required in order to account for what another person understands when you say, 'I am WF'.

But this ignores a problem which only seems to appear from a first-person perspective: namely, the sense of the sheer contingency of my existence, not in terms of the mere possibility that there might not have been someone like me, but rather in the sense that I might not have been that person.

Your parents might never have met. The individual whom we actually refer to as WF might never have been conceived. Or, alternatively, the person that I have been corresponding with might not be WF but an impostor. Both those possibilities I can readily appreciate. What I cannot get my mind round is the thought, as expressed by you, 'I might not have been WF', the thought that there might have been a universe exactly like this one with WF in it, but where the person you refer to as 'I' did not exist.

Yet when I turn the very same thought on myself, I feel a sense of dizzying vertigo. GK might indeed have still have existed in a universe where I did not exist. Nothing could be easier.

It is fair to say that the majority of philosophers of language would not regard that as a coherent thought. My interest is in understanding how it can so much as seem coherent, and what truth, if any, is revealed by an investigation into the peculiar nature of self-knowledge and self-reference which tempts us into having that thought.

All the best,