Twelve Varieties of Subjectivity: Dividing in Hopes of Conquest
©Ronald de Sousa
University of Toronto
Penultimate draft of paper now published in Knowledge, Language, and Representation Proceedings of ICCS conference, San Sebastian, Spain, May 15 1999, ed. J. M. Larrazabal and L. A. Pérez Miranda,  Kluwer 2002.

                                                                                                                             Subjectivity. See consciousness (Chalmers 1996, index, 413)

Subjectivity is a theme common to many of those philosophers eager to deflate the ambitions of cognitive science. The claim is that persons differ from all other things in that they cannot be exhaustively described in the third person. Any attempt to do so will fail to capture something about every human being that is essentiallysubjective. This expression covers many things, and the word sounds all the more impressive for the fact that the things it purportedly designates are lumped into a very mixed bag. When lumped together as if they constituted one hugely complex problem, they tend to induce a sense of hopelessness. Which is exactly what some of the champions of subjectivity count on to preserve its mystery and irreducibility.

Among the champions in question, some of the most famous are Taylor (1989), Nagel (1986), and Searle (1992, 1997)).

Here is sampling of some of their claims. First, Nagel:

"[T]he purely objective conception will leave something out [viz., the subjective content of "I am Thomas Nagel"] which is both true and remarkable" (Nagel 1986, 64).
Next, Charles Taylor:
There are certain things which are generally held true of objects of scientific study which don't hold of the self:....
1. The object of study is to be taken "absolutely", that is, not in its meaning for us or any other subject,... ("objectively").
2. The object is what it is independent of any descriptions or interpretations offered by any subjects
3. The object can in principle be captured in explicit description;
4. The object can in principle be described without reference to its surroundings. (Taylor 1989, 33-34).
Next, Searle:
Conscious mental states and processes have a special feature not possessed by other natural phenomena, namely subjectivity.....[M]uch of the bankruptcy of most work in the philosophy of mind and a great deal of the sterility of academic psychoanalysis over the past fifty years,... have come from a persistent failure to recognize and come to terms with the fact that the ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first-person ontology. (Searle 1992, 93,95).

Consider, for example, the statement 'I now have a pain in my lower back.' That statement is completely objective in the sense that it is made true by the existence of an objective fact.... However, the phenomenon itself, the actual pain, itself, has a subjective mode of existence. (Searle 1992, 94).

To these claims about the irreducibility of subjectivity, two forms of resistance are possible. One is to claim that the multifarious problems posed by consciousness and subjectivity actually all reduce to one. That one may or may not be currently soluble, but at least one has one problem and not many. That strategy is adverted to (though not adopted) in a recent book by Lycan, who defends "a weak version of Brentano's doctrine that the mental and the intentional are one and the same.... It would follow that once representation itself is (eventually) understood, ... I do not think there will be any 'problem of consciousness' left" (Lycan 1996, 11)[1]. A similar strategy may be implied in the recent books by (Tye 1995) and (Dretske 1995) defending a representationalist theory of consciousness.

The line I propose to pursue here is the opposite. It starts from the consideration that big mysteries are sometimes made of a lot of little tricks, and so might yield to a divide-and-conquer strategy. I suspect this is true of the mysteries of consciousness: if the "problem of consciousness" is not one, but many, and if each one can be successfully dismissed or solved along naturalistic lines, then by this different route we shall reach the same goal, of bringing it about that there not be any 'problem of consciousness' left.

I do not aim to demonstrate this large claim here. I concentrate only on the term "subjectivity", and propose merely to make a start on the first phase, consisting in drawing up a list of ostensibly different problems of subjectivity. If some should turn out to be reducible to others, so much the better. But if not, then each variety of subjectivity might be tackled singly, and this might indeed contribute to a "natural history" of the human mind, in such a way as to bring it all under the aegis of science.

In his perceptive comments on the version of the present paper as presented to the ISCC conference, Jean-Michel Roy urged that by concentrating on the diversity of claims using the word 'subjective' made by philosophers, I risked missing the point which only a proper conceptual or phenomenological analysis could reveal. But the concept lives in what people use it to mean. No conceptual analysis, therefore, can avoid taking into account what those who use the concept have used it to do. Phenomenological analysis suffers from similar problems[2]. Still, one might ask what the root word 'subject' itself suggests as to what the core of subjectivity might mean. Two sufficient conditions then suggest themselves: either that we are talking about items to which only the subject has epistemic access, or that we are talking about items that are ontologically distinct in somehow pertaining only to the subject, as claimed by Searle in the passage just cited. The former can happily be conceded by any materialist. The latter begs the essential question of whether it makes sense to speak of an ontological category which is essentially defined in terms of conditions on epistemic access to it. But these features do not exhaust the claims made for subjectivity and its consequences for our understanding of the mental. That is my justification for undertaking the sort of botanizing I propose in what follows.

To give the flavour of the strategy to which this botanizing is supposed to contribute, here is an example of how confusion between various senses of subjectivity can be misleading.

Berkeley argued against the distinction between primary and secondary qualities that are all equally "ideas existing only in the mind": (Berkeley 1957, 27, 30). The subjectivity of secondary qualities, in the sense of their relativity to the observer's mind, can be shown to attach equally to primary qualities. If we resist the idealist conclusion, we can re-interpret this remark as implying that the perception of all qualities depends on the interaction between the external world and state of the subject's sense-organs. This assumes that if the appearances of things are relative to the sensory and conceptual apparatus of the perceiver, this entails that their attribution to the outside world is mere projection, with no objective correlates beyond themselves. The argument conflates phenomenology -- the quality of experience -- relativity to an observer, and projection -- the attribution of a property to the outside world which is actually entirely resident in or manufactured by the observer. This conflation is plausible in the extreme case in which some quality attributed by an observer to a target depends totally on the perceiver and not at all on the target. For there is then nothing to the property in question except the observer's experience of it, and relativity collapses into projection. But no lesser degree of relativity can effect this collapse. At most, Berkeley's arguments show that the conflation of these different senses of subjectivity leads to idealism. This is not what the modern champions of subjectivity intend, but it may turn out to be the logical consequence of their strategy nevertheless. To some of us, this is reason enough for avoiding the conflation.

Phenomenology, relativity and projection are only three of the possibly distinct senses of subjectivity that have been adduced against materialism. In what follows I distinguish twelve basic varieties -- senses, readings, interpretations, or aspects -- of subjectivity or 'the subjective'. Some, as we shall see, might easily be further divided. Moreover, I am not confident that they are exhaustive. But I remain unconvinced that any form of "irreducible subjectivity" presents an obstacle to physicalism, and I offer the hope that tackling each variety singly will may make it easier to pre-empt their use as a medieval mace to whack wicked reductionists over the head with. Here then, is my list.

1. Perspective.

An individual is somewhere in space-time, and not somewhere else. Except for God, of course, who was invented to instantiate all contradictions in blessed harmony. He's everywhere and everywhen, though at the same time, as it were, not in time or space[3]. But the upshot of this is that every individual has a point of view, a perspective, and apprehends the world, so far as it can apprehend the world, from somewhere and not nowhere[4] (Nagel 1986). If taken in isolation, the feature of being somewhere in particular affects all kinds of individuals, not just humans. But only those individuals that can view something can presumably have a point of view. Thus Searle again:

Subjectivity has the further consequence that all of my conscious forms of intentionality that give me information about the world independent of myself are always from a special point of view. The world itself has no point of view, but my access to the world through my conscious states is always perspectival. (ibid. 95).[5]

In itself, however, that could be true of any other living thing. Nor is it a requirement to be alive: an artificial eye has a point of view. More generally, as shown in the excellent discussion of this subject in (Proust 1997), aspectuality can be seen as a consequence of mere differences of informational channels, and doesn't therefore require any level of consciousness.

Perspective might itself be of two kinds. This can be seen by asking: Does a still camera have a genuine point of view? One reason to deny this is that for a still camera there is nothing that corresponds to the difference between locality in time, and locality in space. For a living individual, these pose slightly different problems. For there are different ways in which we might care about the effects of our actions in distant space, and in different times. Time is asymmetrical in this sense (among others): we care more, or quite differently, about what happens in the future than about what happened in the past. But although the things we care about may, of course, be unevenly distributed, space has no uniformly privileged direction. So temporal perspectivity appears seems to constitute a more serious species of subjectivity than the spatial kind.

Now perspectivity is sometimes equated with subjectivity in general, as suggested in the last quotation from Searle above. Yet subjectivity is also associated with the self, and the temporal form of perspectivity actually causes problems for the view that my self is my subjectivity. This is because changes in perspective, especially in temporal perspective, change the relative value of different prospects. For example, as (Ainslie 1992) has pointed out, we seem to discount the future at a hyperbolic rate, so that the closer prospect can surpass the more distant in apparent value, rather as a low building can loom higher than a tall one when one is up close to the former. Where such changes occur, which perspective is the right one, that is, truly mine? Are there as many individual selves as there are perspectives? In a recent article, Galen Strawson answers in the affirmative: each of us is many brief, material, successive selves, he says, strung like pearls on a string (Strawson 1997). Before him, Derek Parfit (1971, 1984), is famous for advocating a similar view.

Suppose I get my friends solemnly to promise to put me gently to death when I become gaga, because I would rather die than be gaga. What if, once I become gaga, my priorities change? Now I don't want to die: I would rather live and be gaga. Do my friends still "owe" me euthanasia, against my present wishes? Actually, the answer is always No, but for a different reason. If I'm a different self from what I was when they made their promise, then you can't be bound by him (i.e. me-then) to do anything to or for me (i.e. me-now). But if I'm the same person, then I can now relieve you of your obligation to me if I change my mind. The facts about perspective, then, appear to be neutral in practice between the Parfitean and a traditional concept of the self, but they seem to be significantly different in theory.[6]

Note, however, that in articulating the problem of the asymmetry of time we have to introduce an additional factor: what's involved is not just being at a certain place and time, but envisaging what is seen from that point of view as affording possibilities for agency. Make that our second form or aspect of subjectivity.

2. Agency

Agency is presumably not an aspect of human individual subjectivity that we concede to inanimate individuals. As a human, one experiences oneself as having the power to choose and act. The fact of being an agent, as has been often stressed,[7] is a form of subjectivity in the precise sense that I, the subject, and I alone can decide what I will do, although -- depending on your own particular stance on the tricky antinomies of free-will -- all sorts of circumstances can determine what I in fact end up deciding. Whether I am free to decide to do or not to do A, compatibly with your ability to predict which I will do, is a conundrum that I won't discuss. I'll only assert the obvious, namely that whether or not you can predict what I will do does not change the fact that I do in fact experience myself as deciding.

Perhaps this apparent fact about the irreducibility of decision is really just an effect of perspective. From my own point of view as an agent, I can't take my reason for action to causally-determine my action without failing to decide; but failing to decide is just another decision. (Compare: I never can directly see my own face: would I be right in concluding that my face is different from everyone else's in some crucial way that makes it invisible?)

The first locus of the claim that agency is a form of subjectivity is probably Descartes[8], though he didn't say it in so many words. But it takes just a little teasing out to get from the claim that the will is infinite to the present thesis. The infinitude of the will is unfortunately compatible with complete powerlessness. So the measure of the will's freedom has nothing to do with its effectiveness in bringing about any change in the world. Furthermore, this infinite freedom says nothing about the origins of our desires. An admittedly simplistic argument suggests that the infinitude of the will's freedom is also compatible with there being absolutely none of my desires that originates in myself. For whatever my desire, I cannot deny that it might have been different had I different genes or had I had a different life. In other words, my desire must have come from causes ultimately traceable to my genes and to my environment. But since I am not in any sense the author of either my genes or my environment, it seems to follow that I'm not the author of my own desires either. Whatever one may think of this somewhat fishy argument, it remains true that the "freedom of the will," which I'm equating with the subjectivity of agency, cannot be denied: whenever I am made conscious of a set of possible choices, choosing is not so much something I can do, as something I cannot forbear to do, regardless of the origins of my grounds for making it or of whether my choice makes any difference to what results.

3. Titularity or ownness.

One of the specific ways in which my power of agency is "essentially subjective" is that my actions are mine in a peculiar sense of the word. Sergio Moravia (1995) has labeled "titularity" the fact that my mental attributes (including but not only including qualia) are my own in a unique sense of ownership. This sense of ownership is indeed peculiar. It is different from the sense in which I own my bicycle, different from the sense in which I own my hair; different from the sense in which, on some views, I own myself and no other person can logically own me; and different again from the sense in which I "own myself" and no one else can (ethically) own me. For if it is unethical for some person to own another, then it is not metaphysically impossible. But it would seem to be not merely unethical, but metaphysically (or logically) impossible for the slave-owner to own his slave's experiences.[9] The point has been made by Tye (1995, 10-11,71ff), who distinguishes two problems raised for materialism by this feature. We might call these the two conditions of special ownership. One is that every mental state necessarily belongs to someone or other; and the second is that every mental state necessarily belongs to whoever it belongs to and not anyone else.

This is a particularly good example of the mystifying function of these declarations of subjectivity. For the special sense of ownership involved here is not, in fact, exclusive to mental states, but belongs to a large class of predicates. It was described long ago by Aristotle, in connection with what commentators have named "dependent particulars". There are two senses in which we can talk about the whiteness of this paper: one refers to a specific shade of white, and in that sense the whiteness of this paper might also belong to, or characterize, some other surface. But in another sense it is logically impossible that the whiteness of this paper should belong to anything else. We can reidentify this paper, even if it has changed colour, but there is no way that we can reidentify its whiteness independently of it. The paper exists independently of its whiteness, but not vice versa[10] (Aristotle 1963, 1a25-27). Tye points out that non-mental actions, such as one person's laughter, or her walk, also meet both the conditions of special ownership. Events, even those involving no agency at all, exhibit the same feature. My pen's falling to the floor is not something that logically could pertain to nothing, nor is it something that could pertain to anything other than my pen.

Besides titularity, the legal notion of ownership involves two features that have figured prominently in characterizations of what it means for something to belong to me. One is that I have a special right to use it: I have, as the phrase goes, priviledged access to it. The other is that I have the right to exclude others from my property. You might call this the right of privacy, and where it concerns my beliefs about myself, it amounts to their incorrigibility by any one else. These two, then, constitute the next two forms of subjectivity. They are commonly confused, at least in the terms used to describe them. But if we keep in our minds the difference between access and exclusion, it seems plain that they are indeed separable doctrines. I might enforce my right of access to my property, while not excluding anybody else. The converse seems to make less psychological sense, but is not logically impossible.

4. Privileged access.

It was long a dogma of the philosophy of mind that one of the defining characteristics of mental states was their privacy, that is, their inaccessibility to other observers. Tye sees this as one of the aspects of ownership: "My pains, for example, are necessarily private to me. You could not feel any of my pains." (Tye 1990, 71). But clearly privacy is distinct from that other feature of ownership, privileged access. This may well be one of the features that the champions of subjectivity have in mind, but nowadays the issue of access is not generally regarded as clear in either direction. This is partly due, no doubt, to the influence of Wittgenstein's attack on private languages. On the one hand, we have gotten used to talking about mental states which are clearly enough my own, but to which I have no access either because they are repressed in the "Freudian Unconscious" or because they pertain to the "Helmholzian Unconscious" (Johnson-Laird 1988, 354). Conversely, in the light of some recent thought experiments, the impossibility of accessing another person's mental states can no longer be asserted without begging just the sorts of question at issue in debates about materialism.[11]

5. The incorrigibility of appearance.

One of the political privileges of privacy, in sense in which we speak of a right to privacy, is the right to keep others out. Under the last rubric I have focused on the subject's access (which turns out to be dubious). What then of the subject's converse right to exclude others?

Objective reality is more than meets the eye. No one subject, it seems, is ever in a position to exclude others from all facets of Reality. "Mere" appearances, as we call them, on the other hand, are subjective. We inherit from Plato one of the reasons for drawing this contrast: appearances change, while reality supposedly stays the same. But this is quite wrong-headed. If you were aware of an "appearance" which never changed, it would be a pretty sure sign that you were having a hallucination. Part of the changes brought to appearances are due to perspective, which I've already talked about; and if you didn't see something in perspective and from your own point of view that would prove that it was not objective. If I thought I saw a circle from the side and it appeared circular, then I'd have to conclude it wasn't really a circle. The supposed subjectivity of appearance, then, lies in its incorrigibility. It is only I that am incorrigible about what appears to me; anyone else fails to have equal authority with mine. Conversely, what seems to be the case is the only thing on which (for example) Descartes allows that I am incorrigible (Descartes 1984-1985, 29). Incorrigibility thus emerges as a form of subjectivity independent of those already listed, because it is logically possible that propositions concerning perspective, agency, ownership, and even privacy (and also qualitative experience and seeing-as, which we shall get to in a moment) might all be corrigible on the basis of objective evidence. Incorrigibility has a low status these days: most philosophers agree that if any candidates presented itself it would turn out to be an illusion. (Gopnik 1993) An inverse relationship holds between the empirical content of a claim and the degree of its certainty. It is a plausible principle, even if we do not cling to strict verificationist or falsificationist dogmas, that there is a direct correlation between corrigibility and content. (Sellars 1963)

6. Proprioceptive sense.

Among the things I own in some peculiar sense, though not in the peculiar sense just discussed, is my own body. Herein lies one more trademark of subjectivity. In the most common case, the proprioceptive "sense" designates the awareness we have of the position of one's limbs. Try this: close your eyes and touch your nose with your index finger. You may miss, but not by much. Ramachandran and Hirstein have described a delightful experiment in which I can actually find the tip of my nose to be displaced to where the tip of your nose actually is actually displaced:

[T]he subject sits in a chair blindfolded, with an accomplice sitting at his right side.... facing in the same direction. The experimenter then stands near the subject, and with his left hand takes hold of the subject's left index finger and uses it to repeatedly and randomly tap and stroke the nose of the accomplice, while at the same time, using his right hand, he taps and strokes the subject's nose in precisely the same manner, and in perfect synchrony. After a few seconds of this procedure, the subject develops the uncanny illusion that his nose has either been dislocated, or has been stretched out several feet....." (Ramachandran and Hirstein 1997, 452).

What I find particularly intriguing about this illusion, is that in fact this "sense" which guided your hand is not a sense at all, insofar as it has no "organ". What's more, it is clearly a form of subjectivity, insofar as only the subject can make the relevant observation. We can't have someone else's phantom nose illusion. But it's not just a quale or bundle of qualia.

Here again one might divide even more finely. For the special proprioceptive consciousness of one's own face seems to form a distinct class by itself. It is not so easily explained as the nose-displacement illusion, and even more interesting, Jonathan Cole has described severe disturbances in self-concept and interaction with others in patients suffering from "Möbius syndrome", which involves an inability to move any of the muscles of facial expression (Cole 1998). This inability is described as inhibiting the development of a sense of self, no doubt largely because it makes impossible facial imitation which, from the earliest days of a baby's life, establishes one's sense of one's own emotions in some sort of concert with the emotions of others. Cole cites (Meltzoff and Gopnik 1993)'s observation of imitation in infants as suggesting "that in early experience babies learn something of emotion, and how it is experienced, by taking the facial expressions of others and, by imitation, feeling their own faces to be like others" (Cole 1997, 481). More of this under a later heading (see "The subjectivity of intersubjectivity" below). At this point I wish only to point out that no such mechanism could make sense unless there existed the sort of pseudo-sixth sense that is proprioceptive perception of one's own face.

But is this a problem comforting to the mysterians? No. On the contrary, all these proprioceptive phenomena, both common and exotic, are highly suggestive about the physical, neurological origins that are likely to give rise to them.

7. Ipseity.

When I refer to myself, I am not just referring to the person who happens to be me. This is a point developed in a number of papers by H.-N. Castaneda (e.g. Castaneda 1988) and by John Perry (1979). The latter's vivid example has him noticing a trail of sugar in the supermarket. He identifies its source as someone whose cart contains a leaking bag of sugar, who is unaware of it, and who has apparently been all over the supermarket. But for a long time fails to identify the person thus "identified" with himself.[12]

Is knowing that I (Ronnie) am I a real piece of knowledge? God couldn't know it, though he could know that the writer of the previous sentence is Ronnie, or any number of other statements identifying me with myself under two different descriptions.

A similar point could be made about perspective: since God is everywhere, he necessarily lacks perspective. Is this a limitation on God's supposed omniscience? Whatever the answer, it is tempting to think that ipseity is merely a side-effect of perspective. Tempting, but wrong: for the facts of perspective are entailed by the existence of spatio-temporal particulars in space-time; not so ipseity, since it would be theoretically possible for all information I have about myself to be devoid of perspective, and for all my desires to be formulated in entirely general terms. Sober and Wilson have suggested that ipseity is an adaptive trait which allows a self-interested individual to channel benefits to itself without having to burden itself with large amounts of discriminatory information. "This speculation," they add, "entails a small irony. People use the concept of "I" to formulate the thought that they are unique. Yet, part of the reason that people have this concept is that they are not unique...." (Sober and Wilson 1998, 214, 350). Sober and Wilson also correctly point out that ipseity (which they call "self-recognition") differs from "self-awareness" in that "self-recognition does not require that the individual be a psychologist", i.e. think of themselves as having beliefs and desires. (Sober and Wilson 1998, 216).

8. Tone or colour.

What is it like to be you? It's not obvious either that Descartes was right about the transparency of that consciousness, nor that there isn't anything it's like to be me, nor that it's somehow reducible to all the others, or to some subset of qualia. An individual tone, or colour is thus subjective in what seems to be yet another irreducible sense. Nevertheless, the colour of my life may supervene on many physical properties, just as the colour of a surface supervenes on a number of properties of texture, light, and relational properties computed by our visual system in ways determined by complex ecological factors (Thompson 1995). What is distinct about this form of subjectivity is that it concerns not sensory experience in general, but one's experience of oneself in particular. It is precisely not reducible to ipseity, however, if the contrast I just borrowed from Sober and Wilson between ipseity and uniqueness is a real one. My feeling-of-being-me may well be different from anyone else's analogous feeling, and indeed is likely to be so insofar as it supervenes on a number of factors that determine different aspects of our experience of ourselves.

9. The subjectivity in intersubjectivity.

My identity is, in part, intersubjective. I mean by this that it is causally constituted by my being able to gauge the state of my own mind, and particularly my own emotions, in interaction with others. I note three aspects of this interaction. First, grown-ups tell children what they feel, more or less effectively, resulting in adults who know more or less what they feel. I am not sure quite how to analyse the capacity to be so trained to recognize one's own emotions; obviously it presupposes that there must be something that one is being trained to recognize, but it doesn't follow that there must already be full-fledged emotions awaiting recognition. For it may be, as Sue Campbell has stressed, that expressing emotions contributes crucially to the determination of the emotion, both in the sense of bringing the emotion into being and in the sense of making it to be just this emotion and not another (Campbell 1998). Again, there would be no such possibility were there not some subjective side to the interpersonal transaction which is an expression of emotion. One creates one's subjective sense of one's own emotions by comparing them to others. But this suggests something of a paradox, since subjectivity seems to be a precondition, or presupposition, of its own cause. For there surely can't be inter-subjective engagement if there are no subjectivities between which the engagement takes place. The solution to this puzzle no doubt lies in a developmental and dynamic perspective, allowing us to see how the intersubjective and the subjective appreciation of one's emotional self develop together. One piece of the puzzle may lie in this third observation: Meltzoff and Gopnik (1993) have shown that infants are able to imitate facial expressions in the very earliest days of their lives, at a stage when one would be disinclined to ascribe to them anything like a sense of self. Nevertheless it would be surprising if this capacity didn't play a role in the acquisition of emotional expressions and through them of a sense of self. Jonathan Cole puts it this way:

Through imitation a face can be assimilated from visual experience, through proprioception, into felt experience: something can be taken from being "out there" in another, to being "in me" (Cole 1998, 110)

If so, then certain forms of interaction would lie at the base of the acquisition of subjectivity in some of the other senses I have sketched.

10. Projection.

Though most mentions of subjectivity are intended to prove our species superiority, it does sometimes happen that the connotation of subjectivity is negative. One such case is where what's intended is projective illusion or "projection" in the Freudian sense. Now projection is actually a pathological condition, to the extent that it represents a mistake, an illusion based on a sort of confusion between a characteristic of oneself (which isn't acknowledged) and which is ascribed to others though it isn't actually there. But there are closely related phenomena that carry no such stigma. Indeed, some people have suggested that simulation (a sort of systematic but non-self-deceptive projection) plays a crucial role in our understanding of other people. (Gordon 1986, 1992; Goldman 1992; contra, see Stich and Nichols 1992).[13]

11. Seeing-as.

Among the subtleties of my perceptual point of view and of my experiences (to which I return in the next section), lies a facet of subjectivity which does not appear to be exhausted by the previous descriptions. This is the fact that what I perceive, I commonly perceive-as-something-or-other. When I see a duck-rabbit, how many qualia do I see? In the paper cited above, Ramachandran and Hirstein go so far as to propose the following unabashedly functional hypothesis: when I look at a duck-rabbit figure, I can "see-it-as" only one (at least one at a time), because that's precisely among the functions of consciousness: to fix "irrevocably" what we see so as to make it possible for us to undertake unambiguous action. Though Hamlet says conscience makes cowards of us all, yet it is consciousness, on this hypothesis, that has the job of keeping us from the Hamlet syndrome.

To see something as a so-and-so, is to see it in a way that involves intentionality. Yet some sensations are sometimes held to be experienced non-intentionally: the typical example is pain.

Pains, however, are sensed as painful. Indeed, (Kripke 1980) used this fact to revive an old argument against the identity theory of sensations and brain states. That classical argument went as follows:

A painful sensation S is not just painful, but essentially painful. Any neural process N with which we might claim to identify it, however, could only be contingently painful. Therefore, by Leibniz's law, N couldn't be identical with S.

In order to appreciate the modifications that Kripke brought to this argument, recall that he loosened the bonds linking the analytic, the a priori, and the necessary, and their contraries, the synthetic, the a posteriori and the contingent. His analysis requires us to appreciate that some statements, such as the identity statement 'Water is H2O', or 'heat is mean molecular momentum', might be both necessary and a posteriori. The necessity involved is ontological, not epistemic: Kripke allows that there is nothing wrong with the statement that for all we knew there might have been some different physical process responsible for the feeling of heat. But as it happens, there isn't and there couldn't be compatibly with the laws of nature (Kripke 1980, 333).

Kripke's doctrine actually constitutes a minor puzzle in the history of contemporary philosophy. For to have thus relaxed the link between what can be known a priori and what is necessary opens the door to an identity theory immune to the old arguments about what can be imagined to be identical. Yet no sooner did Kripke open this door than he tried to push it shut: nothing is more certain, he argued, than the fact that to be painful is a necessary property of any pain. So if N is really identical to S, then it must be the case that N is necessarily painful too. And that Kripke finds incredible, on the ground that while in the case of heat there is something, namely the process of molecular motion, between the sensation and the heat, there is no analogue to this "something in the middle" in the case of pain. For the essence of pain is nothing but quale felt by the sufferer. (339)

But what's wrong with the other possibility? Why not say that the neural process N is indeed necessarily painful? Since Kripke has duly shown that some necessary truths can be known a posteriori, the burden of proof is now on him to show that this isn't one such necessary truth. All that we need grant his argument is the analyticity of 'pain is painful', and the fact that any physiological state's painfulness, by contrast, is synthetic. Given that, however, it remains perfectly possible that some physiological state really is necessarily painful just as water is necessarily H2O, regardless of the fact that neither, in advance of scientific knowledge, can be expected to seem analytic.

12. Phenomenal experience.

I have left till last the most hotly contested of subjectivity's battlefields. Chalmers puts the centrality of qualia in these terms:

The problem of explaining these philosophical qualities is just the problem of consciousness. This is the really hard part of the mind-body problem (Chalmers 1996, 4).

But it seems to be characteristic of those who take this form of subjectivity as central that any attempt at explaining our talk about qualia in materialist term is taken as a refusal to take the hard problem seriously. Dennett, for example, has repeatedly been accused of denying that we are conscious: "Dennett thinks there are no such things as qualia, subjective experiences, first-person phenomena, or any of the rest of it." ((Searle 1997, 99) Apart from being admirably unambiguous about the "charge" against Dennett, this is a nice example of how the vast and unspecified "rest of it" is thrown into the same bag as qualia. Dennett has repeatedly denied denying that we have conscious experience, but since he has indeed also "quined qualia" (Dennett 1990), it's clear without assessing the argument that Searle's mere assertion of the intuition that qualia just are the "data" doesn't settle the matter. Dennett doesn't deny that we are conscious, or that we have experiences, "and the rest of it." He just claims that the philosophical mystery made about qualia can be dispelled once it is kept separate from other theoretical issues that surround it. He has also argued that once one focuses on the functions of qualia -- which can perfectly well be discussed in the third person -- there is nothing left for the ineffably private qualia to be.

The issue of qualia seems to me open to a vice-grip strategy, which consists in squeezing the irreducibility of qualia between two complementary poles, the materialist identity theory and functionalism. Both are reductive in the sense that they propose third-person accounts of the qualia in question.

(1) Materialism: Churchland has recently argued that the identity theory of qualia can be rehabilitated. His strategy is illustrated by showing how the colour solid is isomorphic to the solid generated by the 3 dimensional structure of the antagonistic receptors which receive input from the three types of cones. The essential strategy here consists in the challenge: "what more do you want than full formal coherence between the physiological mechanisms and the phenomenological structure of the colour solid (or mutatis mutandis)?" (Churchland and Churchland 1998). If it is then objected that correlations don't establish identity, the objector owes an account of what more is required. The answer can only be that two objects, however perfectly correlated, might differ in their causes and effects. The argument is then ready to be turned over to the functionalist.

(2) Functionalism: This is also best summed up in a challenge, the zombie challenge: if you can imagine some being whose reactions to a given scene (sound, sight, stimulus, or whatever) are like yours in every possible way, including synesthetic, associative, recollections evoked, etc.) can you really also imagine that this being might not be like you merely in lacking qualitative experience? If you can, then subjective consciousness, as such, is strictly epiphenomenal in a sense so strong as to make it "a concept that has no utility whatsoever" (Dennett 1991 402.)

At this point, an objector might suggest that functional equivalence is not enough, since two functionally equivalent items might be substantially different. But this objector is one that can safely be left in the hands of the identity theorist, who can once again appeal to the structural correlations between qualia and their physiological underpinnings.

At the risk of dismissing this huge debate with cavalierly short shrift, this vice-grip strategy seems to me sufficiently promising to suggest that the subjectivity of qualia does not actually constitute an insolubly "hard problem".


Some of these "senses" or "aspects" of subjectivity may be redundant. I certainly am not confident that none could, by means of some ingenious argument, be reduced or assimilated to others. But to establish conclusively that they are all distinct would involve 11! or 65 pairwise comparison: I leave this as a rich mine of thesis topics for future doctoral students to explore. All I will rest on now is the thought that there are plausible, non-mystifying avenues of research open on each of the twelve forms of subjectivity I have described, and that in such piece-meal solutions lies the hope of solving the so-called problem of subjective consciousness.


1Lycan's own strategy, however, is much like the one I espouse, though he concentrates on anatomizing the term consciousness rather than the term subjectivity. See Lycan (1996, 2-7).

2See "Contre la phénoménologie", forthcoming, available at

3Christians solved this problem with the usual combination of ingenuity and absurdity: God, while eternal, becomes incarnate, just to show that it's not logically impossible for Him to say things like "Thank Goodness it's Friday."

4Nagel, in The View from Nowhere, conflates several types of subjectivity, though I haven't ascertained that all twelve can be found there. Not surprisingly, subjectivity turns out to be something of a mystery, and an irreducible one at that.

5Note how the language here supports the idea that we are dealing with a single and mysterious "ontological mode": by speaking of a "consequence" of subjectivity, rather than a component, type, or sense of subjectivity, Searle suggests that we can have a prior knowledge of this "ontological mode" and that we are merely drawing out its implications.

6The dilemma I have just articulated leaves out what may appear to be the most poignant case: namely where I am already too gaga to express any opinion. In those cases, however, we might justify giving a "living will" authority by default even in a Parfitean world, as a sort of legal fiction, just as we grant authority by default to nearest relatives for certain other decisions affecting the welfare of the incompetent.

7By the existentialists, by Stuart Hampshire in his Thought and Action (Hampshire 1983) and by Charles Taylor, in Sources of the Self (Taylor 1989) among others.

8Descartes's cogito can also be credited with stressing subjectivity in a sense I'm not sure how to classify. This emerges from the consideration that if we try to paraphrase his argument in Med. II as a syllogism with a universal major premise, "Whatever thinks, exists" the argument will collapse because the premise is false, since thinking is done admirably well by many a fictional character.

9In the phenomenological literature, there is supposed to be a "second phenomenological reduction" that has to do with ownness; but since I have never understood what that is, I confine myself to the non-phenomenological sources literature.

10Cf. Aristotle, Categories 2: "There is, lastly, a class of things which are neither present in a subject nor predicable of a subject, such as the individual man or the individual horse. But, to speak more generally, that which is individual and has the character of a unit is never predicable of a subject. Yet in some cases there is nothing to prevent such being present in a subject. Thus a certain point of grammatical knowledge is present in a subject."

11One set of thought experiments are attributed to Zuboff in (Tye 1995, 78 ff). (Ramachandran and Hirstein 1997) offer similar speculations, in which judicious rewiring of brain connections results in two people sharing or exchanging experiences. They infer that sensations are actually not in principle unobservable by others. The contrary appearance, they argue, is due simply to the fact that in ordinary situations I can only have access to the experiences of others through "translation". But if my brain were wired in just the right way to yours I would have direct access to your mental states.

12A novel the name of which I've forgotten tells the story of a detective who suffers from amnesia and gradually comes to the conclusion that the criminal he is tracking is he himself.

13For further debate see (Davies and Stone 1995).


Ainslie, G. (1992). Picoeconomics: The Strategic Interaction of Successive Motivational States Within the Person. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Aristotle. (1963). Categories and de Interpretatione (J. Ackrill, trans and notes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berkeley, G. (1957). A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (C. M. Turbayne, ed & introd by). Liberal Arts Press. Indianapolis, New York: Bobbs-Merril.

Campbell, S. (1998). Interpreting the Personal: Expression and the Formation of Feeling. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Castaneda, H.-N. (1988). Self-consciousness, demonstrative reference, and self-ascription. In J. E. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical Perspectives, pp. 405-454. Atascadero: Ridgeview.

Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Churchland, P. M. & Churchland, P. (1998). On the Contrary: Critical Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cole, J. (1997). On 'being faceless': Selfhood and facial embodiment. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4(5-6), 467-484.

Cole, J. (1998). About Face. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press <a Bradford Book.

Davies, M. & Stone, T. (eds). (1995). Mental Simulation: Evaluations and Applications. Readings in Mind and Language. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dennett, D. (1990). Quining qualia. In Mind and Cognition: A Reader, pp. 519-547. Oxford : Blackwell.

Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown.

Descartes, R. (1984-85) [1649]. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. (J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff & D. Murdoch, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Original work published 1649.

Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldman, A. I. (1992). In defense of the simulation theory. Mind and Language, 7, 104-119.

Gopnik, A. (1993) How we know our own minds: the illusion of first-person knowledge of intentionality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16, 145-171.

Gordon, R. M. (1986). Folk psychology and simulation. Mind and Language, 1, 158-171.

Gordon, R. M. (1992). The simulation theory: Objections and misconceptions. Mind and Language, 7, 11-34.

Hampshire, S. (1983). Thought and Action, 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1988). The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kripke, S. A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lycan, W. (1996). Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Meltzoff, A. & Gopnik, A. (1993). The role of imitation in understanding persons and developing a theory of mind. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg & D. Cohen (eds), Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Autism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moravia, S. (1995) [1986]. The Enigma of the Mind, Tr. from the Italian L'enigma della mente. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Original work published 1986.

Nagel, T. (1986). The View from Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parfit, D. (1971). Personal identity. Philosophical Review, 80.

Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press .

Perry, J. (1979). The problem of the essential indexical. Nous, 3, 3-21.

Proust, J. (1997) Comment l'esprit vient aux bêtes : essai sur la représentation. Paris: NRF Essais.

Ramachandran, V. & Hirstein, W. (1997). Three laws of qualia: What neurology tells us about the biological functions of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4(5-6), 429-457.

Searle, J. R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press. A Bradford Book.

Searle, J. R. (1997). The Mystery of Consciousness, And exchanges with Daniel C. Dennett and David J. Chalmers. London: Granta.

Sellars, W. (1963). Science, Perception and Reality. New York: Humanities Press.

Sober, E. & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stich, S. & Nichols, S. (1992). Folk psychology: Simulation or tacit theory? Mind and Language, 7, 35-71.

Strawson, G. (1997). The self. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4(5/6), 405-428.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thompson, E. (1995). Colour vision: A study in cognitive science and the philosophy of Perception. London: Routledge.

Tye, M. (1990). A representational theory of pains and their phenomenal character. Philosophical Perspectives, 9, 223-239, J. Tomberlin (Ed.). Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing.

Tye, M. (1995). Ten Problems of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.