- What am I1? More exactly, what kind of thing am I?
- This is not intended as a classificatory question. It is not like asking 'what kind of butterfly is this?', where answering the question is just a matter of identifying the butterfly in question as belonging to one type or another: for example, as a cabbage white.
- If the question was intended as a classificatory question, then the obvious answer would be 'a human being'. Here, though, it is intended as an ontological question.
- I know that there are several basic kinds of things in the world: inanimate things, plants, animals. It seems to me when I think about myself that I am a basically different kind of thing from any of these, or to put it more formally, that I belong to a different basic kind from them.
- More generally, it seems to me that this is true of all of us human beings. We are a basically different kind of thing from plants or animals (using 'animals' in the sense that excludes human beings) while at the same time, we are basically the same kind of thing as each other.
- Furthermore it seems possible in principle that there could be, or could have been, non-human creatures, in unexplored forests or on other planets, that are basically the same kind of thing as we are. After all, there are many species of animals and of plants, so why could there not be several species of the basic kind of thing that we are?
- Now the question as intended is, what is the 'nature' of this kind ('basic kind') of thing that I am, or (to reformulate it in the plural) that we are? That is, what is the fundamental characteristic, or combination of characteristics, that we all have that makes each of us this kind of thing, and accordingly sets us apart from other kinds of thing?
- I call this the first person plural ontological question.
- If we could identify this fundamental characteristic then we would be able to put a name to the kind of thing that we are. In fact, putting a name to this kind of thing is a shorthand way of identifying the fundamental characteristic in question.
- For example, traditional Christian theology says that we are immortal souls, so it is our having an immortal soul that makes us each the kind of thing that we all are and sets us apart from any other kind of thing.
- Descartes said that we are thinking things, so what makes us the kind of thing that we are is our capacity to think.
- Kant said that we are rational beings, with rationality understood as a matter of subordinating intuitions and inclinations under universal rules, so possessing this capacity for rational cognition and action is what makes us the kind of thing that we are.
- Heidegger said that we are Dasein, which as I understand it is a way of saying that it is the capacity to construe (or misconstrue) things, including ourselves, as being one kind of thing or another that makes us the kind of thing that we are. This capacity is what enables us to ask the first person plural ontological question itself, so here our ability to ask the question provides the clue to its answer.
- To summarise: I have suggested that cognitivist answers to the first person plural ontological question lead to a contradiction in our self-characterisation, and also that they can be attacked for failing to match up to our ordinary sense of what we are2.
- I have tried to connect these criticisms through an argument according to which it is a representationalist conception of our essential way of relating to things, one at odds with our ordinary self-experience, that is responsible for both cognitivist self-characterisations and their internal contradiction.
- Finally I have looked briefly at an alternative productionist conception of our essential way of relating to things, derived from Marx, to see how well it matches our sense of what we are3 and avoids the same internal contradiction.
- My conclusion is that the productionist conception has problems, but that, as we say, it deserves further research.
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- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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