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Accounting for my unique place as self-conscious subject


To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Accounting for my unique place as self-conscious subject
Date: 18 June 2007 11:28

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 8 June, with your final essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'How successful, in your view, is the theory of subjective and objective worlds in accounting for 'my' unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world?'

Your idea of applying the analogy of invariance and conservation laws in physics to the problem of indexicality looks very promising.

I can think of two possible applications/ analogies. The first would be something which one might term the 'conservation of truth', the second would be the 'conservation of meaning'.

(CT) Conservation of truth: When any indexical is replaced by a descriptive phrase or proper name referring to the same individual or item, truth is conserved.

(CM) Conservation of meaning: When any indexical is replaced by a descriptive phrase or proper name referring to the same individual or item, meaning is conserved.

If the sole aim of an indexical expression, like 'I', 'he', 'this', 'now' is to pick out an individual and say something true about it, then it is hard to see how a the truth value of a statement can be changed by substituting a descriptive phrase or name.

However, we need to deal with a trivial counterexample. Over there is Fatso, so-called because of his gigantic size. However, while it is true that Fatso is so-called because of his gigantic size, we would not say, 'He is so-called because of his gigantic size'. That is because predicate, 'is so-called' implies that one is referring to an individual using a proper name with descriptive content.

However, if one expands the predicate, 'is so-called' one gets:

1. 'Fatso is called 'Fatso' because of his gigantic size.'

2. 'He is called 'Fatso' because of his gigantic size.'

Thus preserving the principle CT.

How about CM? Let's take a version of your example. Imagine that in a bar after drinking one too many, I brag, 'I am the International Society for Philosophers!' Of course, I would never do this, although it is conceivable that someone who was ignorant of how the society was founded could accuse me of inventing an imaginary organization called the ISFP in order to provide backing for the Pathways programs.

Assume (as seems plausible) that principle CT is preserved, so that the two propositions are either both true or both false, is there any change in meaning between, 'I am the ISFP,' and 'GK is the ISFP'? (I am assuming that this is a proposition which one may evaluate as true or false. For example, it is false if there really is a Board of the ISFP who really do have a say in how the ISFP is run - as is in fact the case.)

To get one irrelevant consideration out of the way, two propositions which have the same meaning can be asserted on the basis of different evidence. Unless one subscribes to the verification principle, the evidence for a proposition is not part of its meaning. My evidence (or seeming evidence, in my drunken state) for assertion 'I am the ISFP' might be very different from the critic's evidence for asserting, 'GK is the ISFP'.

It could be pointed out that in asserting, 'I am the ISFP' an additional act is performed which is not performed when someone says, 'GK is the ISFP', which one would indicate by saying, 'GK bragged.' Does this make a difference? Surely not. For the same reason as before, the content or meaning of the proposition asserted should not be identified with any additional 'acts' performed in making that assertion (unless one holds that the linguistic act performed is part of the meaning or content of a proposition).

However, I do want to draw a distinction between CT and CM. Meaning is not conserved when one replaces an indexical by a non-indexical, because indexicals fulfil a role which cannot be adequately fulfilled by any other means. If CM were true, then it would be possible to replace all indexical expressions with suitable description phrases without loss of meaning. (In semantics, this can be expressed as the view that all 'de re' judgements can be translated without loss of meaning into 'de dicto' judgements.)

Consider a statement about what is happening now. There has been very heavy rain the last few days (the day before yesterday Sheffield had five inches of rain!). But it's dry and sunny now. This fact is significant for me because it means that I can go out at lunch time and get some fish and chips and enjoy my lunch in the open air. In one sense, we may be able to 'capture' the significance in a report, 'It was dry and sunny on 18th June, so GK decided to go out for chips.' But this still fails to capture the actual meaning that the statement, 'It is now sunny,' has from the perspective of an agent deciding what to do. (I almost forgot: you call 'chips' French fries: again, a trivial point.)

In 'Naive Metaphysics' I call this the 'urgency of action'. What is a mere 'fact' from your perspective - or from my perspective in a day or a month's time - is now (and only now) a situation which calls for my practical judgement and decision.

This is just one aspect of the 'theory of subjective and objective worlds'. The theory is not about subjective STATES. Although (as lunch time approaches) you cannot feel my hunger, the fact that I am hungry is something I can tell you, and you can fully understand - grasp the meaning or content - of what I am saying. Nor is there any additional 'private meaning' which only I can access, which is 'what my hunger feels like for me'. This I take to be the upshot of Wittgenstein's private language argument. (I can't tell you everything there is to be told about my hunger, but then again I can't 'tell myself' either. This is just a feature of the inexhaustibility of psychological descriptions.)

In other words, the indexical terms 'I' and 'now' (together with the other indexicals which may be defined in terms of them) indicate perspectives which cannot be fully analysed from a perspective-less point of view. There is no 'view from nowhere'. That is just another way of saying that meaning is not conserved when one replaces indexicals by non-indexical referring expressions.

All the best,