The First-Person Perspective
Shoemaker (Sydney)
Source: Block, Flanagan & Guzeldere - The Nature of Consciousness
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Some would say that the philosophy of mind without the first-person perspective1, or the first-person point of view, is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Others would say that it is like Hamlet without the King of Denmark, or like Othello without Iago. I say both. I think of myself as a friend of the first-person perspective2. Some would say that I am too friendly to it, for I hold views about first-person access and first-person authority that many would regard as unacceptably "Cartesian." I certainly think that it is essential to a philosophical understanding of the mental that we appreciate that there is a first person perspective3 on it, a distinctive way mental states present themselves to the subjects whose states they are, and that an essential part of the philosophical task is to give an account of mind which makes intelligible the perspective mental subjects have on their own mental lives. And I do not think, as I think some do, that the right theory about all this will be primarily an "error theory." But I also think that the first-person perspective4 is sometimes rightly cast as the villain in the piece. It is not only the denigrators of introspection that assign it this role. Kant did so in the Paralogisms, seeing our vantage on our selves as the source of transcendental illusions about the substantiality of the self. And Wittgenstein5's "private language argument" can be seen as another attempt to show how the first-person perspective6 can mislead us about the nature of mind.
  2. My concern here is with the role of the first-person perspective7 in the distinctively philosophical activity of conducting thought experiments8 designed to test metaphysical and conceptual claims about the mind. In conducting such a thought experiment9 one envisages a putatively possible situation and inquires whether it really is possible and, if so, what its possibility shows about the nature of mind or the nature of mental concepts. Such envisaging can be done either from the "third-person point of view" or the "first-person point of view." In the one case, one imagines seeing someone doing, saying, and undergoing certain things, and one asks whether this would be a case of something which has been thought to be philosophically problematic-e.g., someone's having an unconscious pain. In the other case, one imagines being oneself the subject of certain mental states-imagines feeling, thinking, etc., certain things-in a case in which certain other things are true, e.g., one's body is in a certain condition, and asks what this shows about some philosophical claim about the relation of mind to body. The question I want to pursue is whether there is anything that can be established by such first-person envisagings that cannot be revealed just as effectively by third-person envisagings.


Originally in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Nov., 1994), pp. 7-22

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