Vol. 22, No. 11–12, November/December 2015 Editorial Introduction

Mihretu P. Guta

Editorial Introduction

1. The Questions and the Background

The essays in this volume focus on the notion of the first-person pro­noun ‘I’, the notion of the self or person,[1] and the notion of the first-person perspective. Let us call these the three notions. Ever since Descartes set the initial tone in his Meditations, modern philosophical controversies concerning the three notions have continued unabated. Part of the reason for ongoing debates has to do with the sorts of questions that the three notions give rise to.

(i) The word ‘I’ raises two distinct but related questions. The first is the linguistic question of whether the first-person pronoun ‘I’ purports to refer to something. The second is a metaphysical question: whether ‘I’ succeeds in referring to something; (ii) the central question con­cerning the notion of the self or person is whether the self or person is distinct from the physical body or any part of it such as the brain and, if it is, what sort of a thing it is supposed to be; and (iii) when it comes to the notion of the first-person perspective, the question is whether or not it reliably informs us about the true state of our subjective experi­ence(s) and, if it is not, whether it should rather be reduced to a third-person perspective, which is said to be a scientifically respected method. As Chalmers (2010) points out, the data for first-person sub­jective experience(s) come from visual experiences (e.g. colour and depth), or other perceptual experiences (e.g. auditory and tactile), bodily experiences (e.g. pain), mental imagery (e.g. recalled visual images), emotional experiences (e.g. anger), and occurent thought (e.g. reflecting). By contrast, the data for the third-person perspective come from the behaviour and the brain processes of conscious systems (ibid., p. 38).

Keeping these questions in mind, the next thing we need to do is to look for ways which will allow us to develop adequate answers to (i)–(iii). But in order to do this effectively, at least initially, we should approach this issue against the backdrop of Descartes’ view on the three notions and the answers he proposed to (i)–(iii).

Descartes’ approach to (i)–(iii) was entirely non-empirical (i.e. a priori). In the First Meditation (e.g. 1996), Descartes’ desire to estab­lish a strong epistemic foundation for knowledge led him to deploy his famous methodic doubt. Utilizing this method, Descartes tried to show how the reality of all things, particularly material things, at least in principle, could be called into doubt. On the other hand, in the Second Meditation Descartes argues that the reality of one’s own existence (which is revealed by one’s own first-person awareness of it) cannot be doubted. This is because, at least on Descartes’ view, one cannot rule out one’s own existence without at the same time inescapably presupposing it. In a nutshell, for Descartes, doubt without a doubter cannot exist. Hence, it (i.e. epistemic doubt) cannot shake the reality of one’s existence. Moreover, for Descartes, a priori introspective reflection, which is rooted in the first-person perspective, is the most effective way by which one secures self-knowledge. These considera­tions eventually led Descartes to raise an important ontological question which he phrases as: ‘But what then am I?’ (Descartes, 1996, p. 19).

Here Descartes’ question directly echoes one of the questions that underlies the three notions. This is the question that is stated in (i) above. As we recall, the question in (i) comes in two forms, one is whether a singular term ‘I’ purports to refer to something which is a linguistic question. The other question deals with whether ‘I’ actually succeeds in referring to anything. This is a metaphysical question. Descartes dealt with each aspect of these questions by presupposing that ‘I’ purports to refer, and then arguing that it refers to an immaterial substance. Descartes’ detailed discussion for the meta-physical question comes in the Sixth Meditation, where he portrays an immaterial substance as a bearer of all psychological properties such as beliefs, desires, etc., whereas a material substance is a bearer of all physical properties such as extension, size, etc. These are all interesting claims in their own right. But where does all this leave us? One way we can answer this question, in a way that provides a good context for the discussions to follow in the main essays of the present volume, would be to look at some of the main reactions Descartes’ thoughts have elicited. Due to space limitations, I will raise only three points.

2. Reactions

2.1. Immateriality of the Self/Person

For many philosophers, the sticking point in Descartes’ view on the three notions has to do with his characterization of the self or person as an immaterial substance. As it is well-known, Locke, Hume, and Kant in their own way denied that selves or people were immaterial substances. For example, Locke thought that by endorsing a Cartesian self or person we run into an intractable epistemic problem of estab­lishing whether or not it (i.e. the same self or person) continues to occupy any given material body at all times. In this case, Locke illustrates his own suspicion via his famous cobbler and prince thought experiment, which is intended to highlight the possibility of ‘soul swap’ (see, for example, Locke, 1975, Essay, Book II, Ch. XXVII). For his part, having failed to find a Cartesian self via intro­spection, Hume firmly concluded that there is no such thing (see, for example, Hume, 1978, Treatise, Part IV). Partly motivated by Hume, in his ‘First Paralogism’ Kant also argued that we could have no knowledge of an immaterial substance (see Kant, 1929, Critique of Pure Reason, A349–A351).

Largely following the lead of Locke, Hume, and Kant, most con­temporary philosophers (not to mention psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists) also object to the immateriality (perhaps not necessarily substantiality) of the self or person, stating that since an immaterial thing is unobservable, its existence cannot be established (see, for example, Quinton in Perry, 1975, pp. 54–5; Dennett, 1991; Kolak and Martin, 1991, p. 339). Moreover, the separation Descartes introduced between the immaterial self or person and the material body on the one hand, and the corresponding distinctions he intro­duced between mental states and physical/brain states on the other was directly responsible in paving the way for a number of issues still debated in philosophy of mind. Here as a good case in point we can mention well-known contemporary debates on mental causation, the problem of overdetermination, epiphenomenalism, the supervenience of the mental on the physical, reductive physicalism, non-reductive physicalism, property dualism, and various formulations of a non-Cartesian substance dualism (see for details Gibb, Lowe and Ingthorsson, 2013; Kim, 2006; 2005; Lowe, 2008; 2000; Hasker, 1999). The question remains: what would follow from such reactions against Descartes’ characterization of the self or person? My own response (although I cannot defend it here) would be to say that such objections (i.e. those of Locke, Hume, Kant, as well as their modern formulations) by themselves neither conclusively established the non-existence of a non-physical substantial self or person nor did they prevent anyone from holding various views of the self or person such as Hasker’s ‘emergent self view’ (1999). Moreover, some of the essays in this volume would also illustrate this very point in an excellent way.

2.2. The Referentiality of the ‘I’

Largely reacting to Descartes’ characterization of the self or person, Anscombe in her classic paper ‘First Person’ argues, ‘“I” is neither a name nor another kind of expression whose logical role is to make a reference, at all’ (in Cassam, 1994, p. 154). Similarly, Kenny remarks, ‘the grammatical error which is the essence of the theory of the self is in a manner obvious when it is pointed out… It will not do, for instance, to say simply that “I” is the word each of us uses to refer to himself, a pronoun… synonymous with the name of the utterer of the sentence. I is not a referring expression at all, since it is possible to describe one’s own action in the third person’ (Kenny, 1989, p. 87). If both Anscombe and Kenny are right here, then the question arises: what is the role of ‘I’ whenever it appears in grammatical sentences such as ‘I am feeling dizzy’? In this case, one just can’t convincingly assert that, although ‘I’ is not a referential term, its presence somehow is still important to make sense of a particular grammatical sentence(s) in which it happens to appear. Again such a response misses the point by ignoring/violating a simple semantic rule of token-reflexivity, according to which ‘any token of “I” refers to whoever produced it’ (Campbell, 1994, p. 120). Similarly, Lowe remarks, ‘it is a curious feature of the word “I” that it seems to be guaranteed to refer to a quite specific person on any occasion of its use, in such a way that the person using it cannot mistake which person it refers to, namely, him or herself. No such feature attaches to other ways of referring to ourselves’ (Lowe, 2000, pp. 226–7; also see Olson, 2007, pp. 11f.).

Of course, this does not mean that we do not have aspects of the concept of ‘I’ that do not puzzle us. For example, in his ‘On the Phenomeno-Logic of the I’, Castañeda remarks, ‘many mysteries surround the self, but many of them arise from the fact that a self refers to itself in the first-person way’ (in Cassam, 1994, p. 160; see also Evans, 1982, p. 205). The bottom line here is that the refer­entiality of the term ‘I’ should be kept distinct from the difficulty it poses in understanding what exactly it stands for. Two essays in the present volume will elaborate on this issue in great depth.

2.3. Descartes’ Non-Empirical Approach

As pointed out earlier, Descartes strongly believed that a purely a priori method can establish an unshakeable foundation not only for knowledge taken in general, but also for self-knowledge in particular. While a priori first-personal introspective reflection gives us access to our own mental life, it may not be sufficient all by itself.

For example, as some of the essays in this volume will show, there are cases where self-knowledge or even self-concept (i.e. a capacity to reflectively think about oneself) seems to break down. For example, what conclusion should be drawn when individuals with autism demonstrate what is known as pronoun reversals, that is, when a child utters ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘me’ when intending to refer to himself or herself? Will a child’s inability to use ‘I’ to refer to himself or herself in any way jeopardize the capacity he or she has for a self-concept? Similarly, what conclusion should be drawn concerning the problem of ‘thought insertion’, say in schizophrenia, where someone ends up experiencing their own thoughts as someone else’s? Can we then say that, in such situation(s), one would still continue to maintain a clear sense of self-knowledge as understood from one’s own first-person perspective? There are also cases of ‘mind-wandering’ which is con­trasted with ‘mental autonomy’. Mental autonomy refers to a capacity to manage one’s own mental life. However, it has been said that we do not in fact have such a capacity for mental autonomy to the extent we naturally believe that we have. This is because, according to the view (proposed by one of the contributors to this volume), for roughly two thirds of their lives, humans are not mentally autonomous subjects. If this view is correct, then we wonder whether we would be forced to revise our estimation of what we can know from the first-person perspective. If so, in what way? We can add to the list modern day neuroimaging techniques in neuroscience via which it is now possible to peer into people’s brains while people are still alive. Does such progress in brain science render our reliance on the first-person per­spective less relevant, thereby elevating the prominence of the third-person perspective?

Once we seriously begin to ponder on these questions, the limita­tions of Descartes’ non-empirical method become increasingly evident. This is because these are not the sorts of questions that we can hope to tackle via sustained privately exercised a priori reflection by introspection. Moreover, it could also be said that one cannot know a priori what sort of thing one is (or what your ‘I’ refers to). So these questions, inter alia, require direct engagement with people who suffer from some of the situations described above on the one hand, and the experts who do research in these areas on the other.

So where does all this leave us? The answer to this question must not be too difficult. If we really want to make some significant inroads into our understanding of the three notions, the most fruitful course of action we can take has to do with bringing non-empirical and empirical methods together. In short, we need to think about these issues within an interdisciplinary setting. And that is precisely what the present volume attempts to do by bringing together experts from academic disciplines as diverse as metaphysics, philosophy of mind, linguistics, phenomenology, education, and cognitive neuroscience.

Given that this volume is interdisciplinary in its approach, readers should expect different ways by which the authors develop their argu­ments in dealing with the three notions. As it should be expected, the authors may not share similar convictions with respect to what they say regarding the three notions. However, points of agreement among the authors outweigh points of disagreement. Figuring out this common ground at times may appear to be difficult, but with a little bit of extra effort readers should not find it too demanding. With this in mind, in §3 I will briefly explain the structure of the essays.

3. The Essays

3.1. Part One

This section consists of seven essays which collectively deal with selfhood and the first person.

The first essay begins with José Luis Bermúdez’s ‘Selves, Bodies, and Self-Reference: Reflections on Jonathan Lowe’s Non-Cartesian Dualism’. In this essay, Bermúdez examines Lowe’s Non-Cartesian Substance Dualism (NCSD), according to which the self or person is distinct from the physical body or any part of it such as the brain. Bermúdez evaluates Lowe’s arguments for NCSD, namely mental causation and personal agency, the unity argument, individuation of psychological states, as well as the theory of direct demonstrative reference, all of which Lowe uses to defend his theory of NCSD on the one hand, and to reject reductionism about the self (e.g. the bundle theory of the self) on the other. Bermúdez concludes his essay by claiming that neither Lowe’s positive argument for NCSD nor his arguments against reductionism about the self are persuasive.

Richard Swinburne, in his paper ‘The Inevitable Implausibility of Physical Determinism’, argues against physical determinism, the doctrine he states as every event has a physical event as its necessary and sufficient cause and no non-physical or mental event as either a necessary or sufficient cause. But Swinburne argues that there is robust room for causal efficacy of mental events (e.g. one’s intention) which can be accessed only from one’s first-person perspective. Swinburne claims that there is no justification for epiphenomenalism for which the recent neuroscientific work such as Libet-type experi­ments offer no help. Swinburne concludes his essay by claiming that physical determinism is false, since the physical domain is not causally closed. His conclusion is very much compatible with Lowe’s view of mental causation, which Bermúdez criticizes.

Looking at reductive account of the self, Andy Hamilton, in his paper ‘The Metaphysics and Anti-Metaphysics of the Self’, begins his discussion with the modern conception of self-consciousness, which he attributes to Kant (as its originator), and connects this notion to controversies surrounding the ontology of the self. Hamilton develops his own position of self-consciousness by appealing to what he calls the Analytic Principle, which construes self-consciousness via the use of the first-person referring device, ‘I’. Hamilton further develops this principle by merging the notion of self-consciousness with the notion of self-reference via what he calls conceptual holism. Hamilton con­cludes his essay by emphasizing, inter alia, the centrality of ‘I’ for self-consciousness.

Eric T. Olson, in his paper ‘What Does it Mean to Say That We Are Animals?’, focuses on developing a clear account of what the doctrine of animalism comes down to. He begins his discussion by contrasting animalism with Lockeanism. He then moves on to discussing how animalism should be stated. In light of this, Olson points out the different formulations of animalism, thereby showing their inadequacy as well as the problems associated with them. Olson also discusses the central claims of weak animalism, strong animalism, and new animalism. According to Olson, weak animalism is the bare claim that we are animals (in the ordinary sense of ‘are’). Strong animalism is the conjunction of weak animalism with further claims such as animals are animals fundamentally, animals do not persist by virtue of psychological continuity, animals persist by virtue of some sort of brute-physical continuity, etc. New animalism embraces the claim that we are animals, but takes our persistence to consist in psychological continuity. Olson concludes his essay by pointing out that animalism comes in different forms, for which weak animalism serves as their unifying feature.

Harold Noonan, in his paper ‘Plenitude, Pluralism, and Neo-Lockean Persons’, discusses, among other things, the debates between neo-Lockeans and proponents of strong animalism. Noonan under­stands strong animalism as the view that denies the relevance of psychology for the persistence of animals, the view he attributes to Olson. At the centre of Noonan’s discussion lies the solution he pro­poses to accommodate the well-known ‘too many thinkers objection’, often raised against defenders of the neo-Lockean psychological continuity theory of personal identity. Noonan claims that by accept­ing that biologically individuated animals think, the neo-Lockean can effectively deflect the too many thinkers objection. In light of this, Noonan concludes his essay by urging other neo-Lockeans also to embrace a multiplicity of thinkers.

Olley Pearson, in his paper ‘Rationality and the First Person’, discusses how a theory of rationality provides an argument for the existence of a self. The sort of a self that Pearson has in mind is the one that can be captured only in first-personal beliefs, that is, beliefs best expressed with utterances in the first person. For Pearson, a self is distinct from the physical body, which can be captured in third-person beliefs, that is, beliefs best expressed with utterances in the third person. After discussing first-personal beliefs in relation to certain actions, Pearson discusses two accounts of rationality, namely one that is said to consist in fitting complex normative requirements, and one which is reasons-based. Pearson concludes his paper by pointing out why a reasons-based account of rationality is preferable.

Wolfram Hinzen and Kristen Schroeder, in their paper ‘Is “the First Person” a Linguistic Concept Essentially?’, seek to reverse the marginalization of linguistics in philosophical discussions of the ‘self’, ‘the first-person perspective’, and ‘subjectivity’. Hinzen and Schroeder forcefully argue that non-theoretical notions such as the ‘self’ and ‘the first person’ are intimately linked to the grammatical forms used to engage in acts of self-reference. The central claim Hinzen and Schroeder defend is that the first person is inherently linguistic and cannot be defined in non-grammatical terms. They also highlight problems related to pronominal systems in the case of con­ditions such as autism spectrum disorder. They conclude their paper by claiming that grammar and selfhood are intimately related, which they also say shows why a renewed attention should be given to language.

3.2. Part Two

Building upon the discussion undertaken in the preceding seven essays, the five essays in this section collectively focus on the first-person perspective.

In this case, Lynne Rudder Baker, in her paper ‘Autism and “I”’, discusses her view of the first-person perspective and its importance for understanding personhood by applying it to a well-known person with autism, Temple Grandin. Central to Baker’s discussion is Grandin’s claim that she thinks only in pictures. But Baker, without denying Grandin’s personal experiences, however insists that the fact that Grandin has a mental life requires that language plays a central role in how she communicates her experiences as well as in the things she writes, for example. Baker concludes her essay by claiming that Grandin does not lack language or a robust first-person perspective.

Angela J. Guta, in her paper ‘First-Person and Third-Person Per­spectives and Autism’, proposes a new way to help children with autism who suffer from social impairment such as a lack of seeking enjoyment and interest in others. Guta examines whether or not video modelling filmed from the first-person perspective or the third-person perspective is more effective in terms of increasing the verbal and action imitation skills of children with autism. Guta claims that video filmed from the first-person perspective is more effective in increasing the imitation skills of children with autism. She concludes her essay with some recommendations for further research in the area of video modelling filmed from the first-person perspective.

Mihretu P. Guta, in his paper ‘Consciousness, First-Person Per­spective, and Neuroimaging’, introduces a capacity-based account of the first-person perspective, thereby clarifying a number of notions such as intersubjectivity, scientific objectivity and its relation to subjectivity, and the asymmetry that holds between the first-person perspective and the third-person perspective. Guta argues that any attempt to reduce the first-person perspective to that of the third-person perspective fails. Guta also makes a case for the integration between subjectivity and scientific objectivity. He concludes his paper by briefly discussing an objection from neuroscience.

Unlike Baker’s and Guta’s papers, each of which strongly argue for the centrality of the first-person perspective, the remaining two papers deal with some phenomena that seem to disturb first-person experi­ences in general and the notion of self in particular.

In this case, Matthew Ratcliffe and Sam Wilkinson, in their paper ‘Thought Insertion Clarified’, explain the phenomenon of ‘thought insertion’ which involves one experiencing one’s own thought as someone else’s. Ratcliffe and Wilkinson point out that some philos­ophers try to make sense of thought insertion in terms of ownership and agency. However, Ratcliffe and Wilkinson find such an approach unsatisfactory. In light of this, they argue that thought insertion should be understood in terms of experiencing thought content as alien, as opposed to episodes of thinking. They conclude their essay by pointing out how the experience of thought insertion results in disturb­ances of the notion of the self as well as first-person experience.

Finally, Thomas Metzinger, in his paper ‘M-Autonomy’, makes a case for two main claims. First, Metzinger claims that for roughly two thirds of their conscious lives human beings lack mental autonomy; and second, he claims that conscious thought is a subpersonal process. The idea here relates to spontaneous, task-unrelated thought (e.g. day­dreams). Metzinger claims that each of these claims can be backed up by empirical evidence and he presents some of these in his essay. In light of this, he also argues how the notion of the first-person per­spective and personhood should be understood. He concludes his paper by claiming that most of the time it is the brain that thinks, not us.


The essays contributed to this Special Issue are an important output of the international interdisciplinary conference that took place on 15–17 May 2014 at Durham University, UK. The title of the conference was Perspectives on the First Person Pronoun ‘I’: Looking at Metaphysics, Linguistics and Neuroscience. This conference was generously funded by the Mind Association; the John Templeton Foundation; Durham Institute for Advanced Study; Durham Philosophy Department; Durham Faculty of Arts and Humanities Postgraduate Training Grants; Newcastle University School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences; the Analysis Trust; and Durham Ustinov College. We would like to thank the speakers at the conference: Sophie Gibb (Durham University); Harold Noonan (University of Nottingham); Raymond Tallis (Manchester University); Richard Swinburne (University of Oxford); Eric Olson (University of Sheffield); Lynne Rudder Baker (University of Massachusetts); Wolfram Hinzen and Kristen Schroeder (University of Barcelona); Matthew Ratcliffe (University of Vienna); Anders Holmberg (Newcastle University); Angela Guta (Newcastle University); and Mihretu Guta (Durham University). Postgraduate Speakers: Amelia Mihaela Dascalu (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris); Eleonora Mingarelli (Higher Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, Belgium); Brandon L. Rickabaugh (Azusa Pacific University/Biola University, USA); and Alexander Moran (Oxford University). Invited contribu­tors: José Luis Bermúdez (Texas A&M University); Thomas Metzinger (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz); Olley Pearson (Durham University); and Andy Hamilton (Durham University).

The conference was originally organized by E.J. Lowe (in memoriam), Mihretu P. Guta, and Angela J. Guta. We dedicate this Special Issue to the loving memory of Professor E.J. Lowe.[2]


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Chalmers, D.J. (2010) The Character of Consciousness, Oxford: Oxford Uni­versity Press.

Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained, Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

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Hasker, W. (1999) The Emergent Self, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Lowe, E.J. (2008) Personal Agency: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Perry, J. (ed.) (1975) Personal Identity, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[1]     For present purposes, following Locke, I will use the terms ‘self’ and ‘person’ inter­changeably to refer to ‘a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places…’ (Locke, 1975, Essay II, XXVII, 9, p. 335).

[2]     Many thanks to Eric T. Olson for excellent comments on the original draft of this introduction. My thanks also go to a referee for helpful comments. I am also grateful for the Durham Emergence Project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation), where I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the time of editing this volume.

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