You are here

3. The Elusive Self

3. The Elusive Self
I turn now to a further feature of dualism already mentioned and one which is in my opinion of altogether cardinal importance. This is the insistence that in addition to states of mind distinct in nature from physical states but constantly interacting with them there is also a subject or a self or soul which remains constant and is uniquely involved in all the flow of our mental states or experiences. This notion has a long ancestry. It appears for example in celebrated ways in the work of Plato Augustine Descartes and Kant. It is the version presented by Descartes that has attracted most attention mainly critical in recent times; and that is also the version which appears to me though not adequate at all points most satisfactory in essentials. This is also the view to which I myself subscribe and which I shall seek to present in this chapter in ways that do not seem to me open to the stock objections.

I begin with a major matter and one peculiarly difficult to handle philosophically. It may have been noticed that I used the word ‘involved’ in my statement a little earlier. The self is ‘involved’ in states of mind. Other terms which we use here are ‘own’ ‘belong’ ‘have’. The states of mind are said to be ‘owned’ by or to ‘belong’ to the self. We also say at times that the self ‘has’ its various experiences; and critics defend by contrast the ‘no-ownership’ theory and so forth. We are here at a very difficult crux which it is important to indicate at the outset for most of the relevant controversies hinge on whether this is adequately taken or not.

This crux concerns the way we are to understand or to speak about the self and its relation to use a term for which it is not easy to find a substitute to our particular states of mind as they occur from moment to moment. ‘Relation’ is a word in very common use here and we may easily in discussion come across the question ‘How is the self related to its passing states?’ But even this familiar term can be misleading. For although the view being presented is that the self is not to be identified with its passing states or reduced to them or any pattern of them it is not altogether sound to envisage the self as entirely a thing apart to which the fleeting experiences we have stand in some special relation. The words ‘own’ or ‘belong’ are metaphors and if they are taken very cautiously as such as just convenient and very rough labels for something which is not being properly described at all they may serve their turn. Strictly the proper provenance of these terms is ethics including here social and political concerns. What I own is my property; this pen belongs to me I have paid for it or had it given me by someone who had paid I am the person to say when and how it may be used etc. It is all a matter of the appropriate rights of the bundle of things which I am especially allowed to do with this pen. There is nothing corresponding to this in the way my states of mind belong to me. They are not conferred upon me in any way and do not in any other fashion have anything to do with the proper use of powers or privileges. My experience is not mine in that sense at all.
Few if any are in fact misled by the normally ethical or legal use of words like ‘mine’ or ‘belong’ when applied to the self and passing experiences. We just have to have some word and while the terms we do employ can be quite innocuous when used with no peculiar commitment as in fairly simple statements like ‘I have a pain’ or ‘This pain was mine’ meaning simply that I and no other was the one ‘in’ pain they can easily become consolidated into ways of thinking that are philosophically very misleading and produce reactions seriously at odds with what seems to me the proper way of viewing the matter.
The fact is that ‘relation’ is a word we most commonly use in reference to items in the external world — this is to the left of that this spoke belongs to this wheel that is it stands in some relation to the hub and the rim or as we may put it to the wheel as a whole. General questions are asked about the relation of a thing to its parts in which case we are apt to regard the whole as just the parts related in a special way. On occasion a thing or entity has been thought of as quite other than its parts or qualities some unknown ‘substratum’ in which they ‘inhere’. This and like severely realist views of external objects has never seemed to me very plausible but for the present it will suffice to say that we must either think of relations as subsisting between a whole and its constituent parts or between one such whole and another in a more widely embracing unity or between parts and some unknown substance. But whichever of these views or any variation on them we adopt or whatever other way we adopt of thinking about relations and affinities in the external world this provides no proper clue to the way my experiences may be said to belong to me or to be states of my mind.
I stress this very much for so much in the course of the philosophy of mind especially of late has been determined by our disposition to think of mental existence and the philosophical problems it presents in the terms which we have initially found appropriate in our view of all that we find in the world around us. Our model quite naturally is the external world with which and with one another we are directly preoccupied most of the time.
The self I insist is not to be identified with passing states or any pattern of these it is an entity which ‘has’ them. On the other hand it is not a something altogether apart to which they are somehow ‘related’. It is altogether hard to draw that distinction between a person and his states of mind. If we do we are apt to conjure up some picture like that of beads and the string which holds them. As against this I prefer not to ask strictly what is the relation between a self and its passing states notwithstanding that I am quite firm in regarding the self as an entity over and above its particular states a genuine distinct reality capable of being what it is and functioning independently of the particular states of mind it happens to have.
There is in fact no proper analogy to the way my states of mind are mine or belong to me. Mental existence as I have much stressed is radically different from external being and the terms in which we seek to think of it and discover what may be appropriately said about it must not except by very rough analogy be borrowed from the world of external things. This does not mean that we must coin an entirely new language in speaking of mental things. We can only use the words and forms of speech that have come about in our common intercourse and this it is which so accentuates our problems in the philosophy of mind. We must just proceed as best we can and with an unfailing sense of caution like people moving through a minefield aware that at any moment we may be too rash and say things that are slanted away too much from the peculiar delicate reality with which we must cope without being reduced to totally inarticulate suspension of judgement. We cannot just be silent there are things to say but we must all the time be conscious of the way the things which it seems appropriate to say can easily become misleading or inadequate — or be fossilised into forms where the lack of special insight and novelty converts them in too familiar usage into coarse representations of external things and their modes and behaviour.
This is one of the main reasons why ‘the way of silence’ has had such a strong appeal in the past as in recent times in Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism for example. But our situation is never quite as desperate as that. In religion there is indeed a special complication in that the central concern is usually if not always with some reality which is transcendent or ultimate in the sense of falling altogether outside the finite system by which things become comprehensible to us. But even here we are not without recourse to reliable clues. In the philosophy of mind we are not dealing with anything that is strictly transcendent or outside the way or scheme of things properly accessible to us though a loose use of the term transcendent has sometimes led to its use in any connection where we are not dealing with observable reality. Our minds and what it is to be a person is in no way a mystery occluded from us. There is nothing in one sense which is more open or transparent to us. But to think and speak without ambiguity about mental existence is nonetheless exceptionally difficult because the ways in which we think and speak arise in the context where our common environment has a formative part.
It is all the same important to have sound ideas in the philosophy of mind and not be wholly deterred by the requirements of estimable caution; and in this spirit we must proceed to affirm on the one hand that the self which has experiences is not itself some ingredient of the particular experiences themselves or any other feature of them as fleeting experiences but on the other hand is the experience of having them as peculiarly its own experiences in a way for which there is no strict analogy in the relations of things or properties in the external world. There is nothing accidental or contingent in the way the pain I have is mine or these thoughts while I think them. Neither the pain nor my thoughts have any reality except in being felt or thought by me. It can indeed be properly said that they are me or that they belong to me or make me myself in an indissoluble way. I cannot be separated from them as my skin and my clothes may be removed from my body. The pain hurts just because it is me being in pain. I revile my jealous or unworthy thoughts not as things incidental to what I am but as in a very important sense what I myself am. I am thinking them I am in them in this peculiarly intimate way they are not tagged on to me it is me myself thinking them. Nothing could be closer more at one nothing less capable of being divorced than a person and his thoughts or sensations as he has them.
At the same time it is equally true that I am not just my thoughts and sensations. I remain the same me the one being that I am in all my other thoughts near and remote. When in a short while I shall have quite different thoughts or when I have no concern or interest to recover my present thoughts I remain the distinct person who has the thoughts in the one situation as much as in the other. It is the same ‘I’ or ‘me’ that has all the experiences and this is not just a way of talking; I am involved in a special way in my thoughts and yet I am not just the having these thoughts and experiences.
It should be made clear before we go further that there is one simple sense in which my thoughts are in no way peculiar or private to me. Others may have the same thoughts or as we sometimes put it think along the same lines and I may share my thoughts with others or communicate them. Sharing our thoughts is a very important part of living. But my having these particular thoughts at this time is a distinct mental occurrence and so is your having similar (or different) thoughts whether or not we are sharing our thoughts or in dialogue. I may have your thoughts in the sense of thinking the same as you do or be much stimulated in agreement or disagreement by what you are thinking as I learn about it. But my thinking what you also think or in some way ‘in tune’ with you is a distinct occurrence or flow of thought your thinking it is another. I cannot have your thought or your pain in the special sense in which you are involved in your having them and no one can have my thoughts except in the sense of thinking similar thoughts or learning what I am thinking. Ontologically the two occurrences or flowing of thoughts are quite distinct.
This is very closely bound up with the way a thought is uniquely my thinking a thought there just can be no thought that is not thought by some distinct person except in the sense of an ideal or logical content an abstraction but not an actual on-going thought being thought. There are not in old-fashioned terms any strictly ‘floating’ ideas. We just cannot seriously conceive I submit what it would be like for there to be just a thought or flow of thoughts that is not being had or ‘entertained’ by some individual in such a way that it is at the time that individual. My thoughts and sensations are strictly me and can have no ghostly existence except as they are in this way me or some other person.
At the same time it is equally or indeed more important to appreciate the sense in which they are not me. They are not essential to my being the being I am. I could be having other thoughts at this moment but it would be me having them just as certainly unless I perish I shall be having other thoughts a little later and again after that. Indeed the whole course of my life may change my interests and preoccupations may become completely different my outlook may be new and I may find myself as a reformed or a lapsed character having very different sorts of experiences from those I have now — and yet it would in a peculiarly final and unavoidable sense be me the same being having these other experiences. Indeed as I shall again maintain to be possible the whole course of my life’s experiences from the first moment could have been other than it is — and yet it would be me having this different kind of life ontologically in the strictest sense the same person.
The key to the way we are to understand ourselves as minds or persons or to think philosophically in a sound way about ourselves is that we should not be daunted by the seeming paradoxes of what is now being submitted namely that in a very inexpugnable sense all my experiences as they occur thoughts and sensations and all else equally are what I am myself they could not be except as me thinking etc. while at the same time in an equally radical and inescapable sense I am not these thoughts but the continuous being into whose existence they come in a wholly integral way which also leaves my distinctness as the being that I am unaffected by whether I happen to have these thoughts and experiences or any other.
We may put this more simply as I did earlier by just insisting that the self or person is not the particular mental events that make up his life or any shape or pattern of them but the being or the entity or subject who has them and remains identical in the varied course of them. But without surrendering anything on this score we have also to learn to live intellectually with the equally basic assurance that all our experiences as they occur are ourselves having the experiences in such a way that notions like ‘being related to’ or any but the most general use of terms like ‘own’ or ‘belong’ are singularly inappropriate and misleading. I am not related to my thoughts and pains — I have them; and I need not have them to be the uniquely irreducible being that I am. If even ‘having’ leaves us a little uncertain here that is as it should be for no terms can ever be quite satisfactory in describing a mode of being that is so radically different from all that we encounter in the world around us in which we live.
Some religious writers pre-eminently mystics lay peculiar emphasis on the unavoidable obliqueness of all the allusions they make to supreme or transcendent being. This is for the reason noted already namely that they are dealing with a reality that in essentials is beyond comprehension. They must speak of it ‘slantwise’ in Evelyn Underhill’s word. There is something akin to this in accounts of mental reality also not because that is occluded from us but because of the difficulty of finding terms that do not in this context have misleading associations or a likelihood of becoming misleading in familiar established usage. The corrective to this is to be constantly reflecting on what in fact we find to be the case and keeping that well in mind in the way we talk to one another about it or set out our own thoughts in the most satisfactory way.
There is in this no licence for being arbitrary or simply allowing ourselves to be guided as we have seen that some are prone to do by what happens to be the linguistic usages of a community. We have to get behind that to what we find to be the case and in renewed appreciation of that adapt and vary our terms to convey the most unambiguous impression of what we find. Professor John Wisdom was right in urging us to ‘be careful’ but not in telling us that subject to this we could say ‘what you like’.
We stay then with the view that in all experience there is a self or subject directly involved in having all the experiences which it does have and yet independent in its own distinctness of having any of the experiences which in point of fact it does have. It is in clinging to this notion and setting forth more fully its implications notwithstanding the problems presented in handling it philosophically that we shall arrive at a sound philosophical understanding of what it is for us to be the beings or persons that we are. I shall now try to set out in more detail how this position is to be sustained. The most immediate question is fairly obvious namely how do we come to know that in all experience there is the purported ‘abiding’ self and what if anything can we know further about it.
One of the most celebrated attempts to establish the existence of an abiding self or subject of experience is that of Kant. He maintained that we have to allow or recognise such a subject in order to account for the way we have experiences in an ordered or co-ordinated way or as it is sometimes put be aware of a ‘world of objects’ which we can understand and manipulate. If we were confined to the passing scene as it comes to us in presentations we would not be able to give it any meaning we would see nothing in proper perspective or appreciate that the coloured surface presented to us is bound up with other properties hardness and solidity etc. and with a vast nexus of other properties of things that make up the world in which we live and encounter one another. There are various ways of understanding the ‘world of objects’ which we experience in this way ranging from the views of Berkeley and recent phenomenalists to the more realist insistence on strictly independent physical objects. These variations do not concern us now for on any of these views it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the co-ordinations in our experience of the world even at its most rudimentary stage requires that there should be the sort of continuity which is hard to explain without the admission that we must live on in some way as the same person from one experience to another. How otherwise would we properly apprehend the passing scene or give proper significance to what our senses bring before us at any moment?
This seems to me quite unanswerable as far as it goes and it is a submission also which has been very effectively restated by recent Kantian scholars such as H. J. Paton.1 I have nothing to add to their own presentation of the Kantian argument in itself. But as I have insisted in an earlier presentation of this point in The Self and Immortality the precise status of the subject established in this way remains somewhat ambiguous. Kant himself seemed to waver between various possibilities sometimes implying that the self was no more than an ‘imaginary focus’ at best some wholly unspecified possibly abstract or formal condition of unified experience and at other times inclining though not very explicitly to treat the ‘pure self’ as a genuine ‘thing in itself’ a reality which we cannot properly know since we only strictly know objects according to Kant as they appear under the particular conditions of the kind of experience we have limited it may even be to the objectivity of conditions imposed though not arbitrarily by our own minds — or the kind of minds we have — but all the same ‘as things in themselves’ having a genuine independent reality which the limitations of our kind of experience requires us to posit. The ramifications of this kind of bifurcation does not concern us now. For what certainly emerges is that Kant is undoubtedly confined to regarding the self as something we can never properly know however firmly and unavoidably we have to recognise or posit it as a pre-condition of our having the kind of experience we undoubtedly do have.
Some followers of Kant Lotze outstanding among European thinkers and fairly recent British philosophers like James Ward and F. R. Tennant late in the last century have expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of the Kantian approach to the topic and they have been quite insistent that we must supplement the Kantian argument of which they fully approve in itself or give it more body by maintaining firmly in the words of James Ward that the subject required to meet the Kantian case must itself be ‘the concrete conscious subject’ not ‘an intellectual abstraction’.2 To regard persons in the sphere of practice or that of understanding as just ‘the limit of a long process of intellection’ would in his view be ‘outrageous’.3 A ‘psychological fiction’ or ‘abstract “consciousness”’ will not do.
With all this I heartily concur but I am also convinced that we must carry the case still further for it seems to me hard to give real substance to the Kantian argument from the unity of experience unless we allow some independent understanding of what it is to be a self or subject. For Ward the self still tends to be known only as the implicate of object. But how can we carry the matter further without ascribing to the alleged subject the sort of concreteness which we have reserved for entities in the world around us. Once we make the self that sort of object we are in the toils of the difficulty Hume encountered in trying to look into himself etc. for we do not observe or discover the self as we find objects over against us in the world around us and capable of being characterised in various ways and identified on that basis. This is sometimes put in rather formal terms by saying that the subject must always be a subject and never an object. Make it an object and it is no longer a knower — it becomes one identifiable object among others. For this reason the self can never be properly known. The subject must remain just a subject.
I am not altogether happy with these last ways of putting the case although I fully admit that they do bring us very close to the stance we must adopt. The presentation of the self as essentially subject the knower and never an object smacks too much of the formalism which marks the limitations of the severely Kantian approach. It may even appear to be just a play on words. But whatever we make of that there is certainly a major difficulty the moment we pass beyond the ‘intellectual abstraction’ and meet the request to indicate more specifically what sort of entity or ‘something’ this alleged self is found to be and by what process does it come to be recognised or specified. What sort of ‘something’ is it?
There is an insidious temptation at this point to make a simple appeal to introspection or more cautiously to ‘knowledge by acquaintance’. The main complication about introspection for our purpose is that it is ambiguous. In its most familiar usage it simply refers to the reasonably straightforward matter of noting our various moods and attitudes as reflected in the course of our experiences (including our own purposing) as they occur. We record for ourselves or others what we think or feel at particular times and so forth. This has difficulties for the fact of paying special attention to an on-going experience is liable to distort it as has often been stressed and we find it hard to be rid of bias of various sorts. But in one way or another with checks and counter-checks psychologists do manage to ensure with reasonable reliability that persons can report on the way it goes for them from time to time in various situations. Sometimes the report is severely technical as when a psychologist tests people for immediate responses to visual stimuli and sometimes it is more general as when we describe how we feel in situations of danger or when teased and provoked to anger. However difficult it may be in practice to ‘look in on’ ourselves or observe ourselves in this way there is no insurmountable difficulty in principle. In some ways this kind of introspection is something we practise all the time; the more formal exercise of it is simply more systematic or professional.
Hume would have no particular difficulty about this kind of introspection and he would probably have come across a lot of it to his own irritation in the time he spent in company with the more sensitive and temperamental Rousseau. But whatever problems this presents and whether we think more in terms of retrospection or the immediate noting of mental states in recollection the moment they are over the matter is altogether different when we are asking not how does this object look to me and how many flashes of light I have seen and not even just how angry I was when provoked or pleased to be praised but what is it over and above this for it to be me noting the flash of light or undergoing the fear. This is ‘looking in’ or something like it in a very special sense and it was this that bothered Hume and elicited his famous repudiation of ever managing anything of the kind.
At this point we must be careful not to be led astray by being diverted into the controversy as to whether the attitudes presented by terms like ‘fear’ or ‘pride’ are already on-going states or merely dispositions tendencies to behave as Ryle firmly thinks that they are. On this issue enough has been said already. Whether ‘pride’ is a term that has more than a dispositional use is a moot point that need not detain us. It is certainly odd to speak of observing ourselves being proud. But whatever we say of the limitations and extensions of dispositional terms it would make little sense to consider even dispositions of considerable generality without presupposing as the basis of them some on-going mental processes through which we pass from moment to moment. We need not take up the cudgels again against outright behaviourism. The issue now is not whether there are on-going mental states nor even whether we can and in what ways most successfully record what they are like at the time or in dependable recollection but whether we can further note and specify what it is like to be the subject involved in having various experiences and reacting to them. Does one ever observe the self qua self and if so how do we describe what it is to be a self over and above having certain states of mind and anything that may be obliquely deduced from this or generalised about them.
In short can we ever ‘look in’ on the famous ‘pure self’? Our major philosophical impulses and the main weight of the very tradition in which the idea of a pure self or ego is given prominence strangely predispose us to say ‘Mo’ here. By its very purity this self is just a self. What description can we offer has it ever been provided in general or in particular terms? Just what is it to be a subject of experience or an agent which can be indicated in any terms other than descriptions of the experience itself or the actions we intend or bring about? What to put it bluntly sort of self is mine and what is yours? In what particulars do they differ?
In the tradition there has been an exceptionally strong disposition to say very firmly that there can be no specifiable difference here. This in turn has led very understandably to further philosophical stances in many cases stances to which the thinkers concerned were already much predisposed where the finality of any distinctness of persons is rigorously questioned. Major examples of this are idealist metaphysics and monistic mysticism. The former keeping close to the initial formalism of the Kantian procedures tends to think of individual selves as ‘centres of unification’ capable of being so enlarged like holes in a wall as eventually to overlap with all others and disappear in the completer unity of the whole. There is nothing in a ‘centre of unification’ to preclude this or to single out any individual other than in terms of the contents unified from any other. The second the mystical line takes an even bolder course in dispensing with any finality of distinct persons. There is no way to discriminate and so the boundaries and barriers melt away and each self is merged in every other or in the one Supreme Self which is all there is. Both these ways of thinking have a long and celebrated ancestry and both have in many ways had considerable influence.
I have elsewhere4 stressed how grievous are the consequences for a great deal that is of worth and importance for us of subscribing to either of these types of final philosophical view — or their religious counterpart. I shall return to this elsewhere. In the meantime these wider ramifications of our problems do not directly concern us here. For the immediate issue is whether anything can be said about a self or subject or what it is to be a subject which will make further discourse about it intelligible and show us how we are to distinguish one such self from another. If we cannot do this we seem on the face of it at least to be in serious trouble.
Let me now make it very clear and come to the crux of this matter that I do not propose to offer any positive answer to the understandable request I have been noting. Just what could one say? What is it to be me rather than you other than my dispositional tendencies or the particular course of my own history — or my body. It is these considerations that have driven so many contemporary philosophers either to surrender altogether the notion of self-identity and seek some substitute or to give an account of it with ever-increasing desperation it seems to me in terms of our experiences or dispositions themselves or on the basis of bodily continuity. If we are not to follow them in this and not either to be committed to vacuity or give up altogether how can we proceed? How can we avoid the pit of some desperate and wholly implausible description of what it is to be a self and this particular self or the pit of total unintelligibility? To vary the metaphor we seem to be caught or to have caught ourselves in an inescapable pincer movement. Is there in fact an escape?
I certainly think there is. The solution it seems to me lies in the very special way in which each individual knows himself to be the individual being he is and just what this is like. This is in no way the same as our knowledge of the specific items about ourselves we have usually in mind when we speak of knowing who we are. One obvious item of the latter sort is knowing one’s name and other particulars such as may be found in a passport. Many of these are items we easily forget and it has not been unknown for people to forget even their own name. But when I speak of a special way in which everyone knows himself to be the person he is I am not thinking of such items. There is something more basic more persistent and unavoidable than any knowledge of my physical appearance my history my social status my dispositions likes and dislikes etc. These are all matters on which I am usually the best authority but it is the sort of knowledge about me which others acquire in much the same way as I do myself and about which they may sometimes be more reliably informed.
In short I am not thinking of the sort of peculiarities by which I would normally be described and identified but of what it means for all this or for all that happens to me and all I do to be happening to me or be done by me. Many things are happening to me now I see many things and I am having these thoughts I have bodily sensations; and it could not inappropriately be said that I am the person to whom all this is happening. But what is it for it to be happening to me? The same things or very nearly the same could be happening to other persons; they could look out from the same window. Is the difference between them and myself solely the slight variations in the experiences we undergo and the placing of these in a different setting from mine in the corpus of their experiences as a whole.
It seems certainly to be straining things to say that the only radical difference between me and other persons is that my experiences are associated with a particular body or conditioned by it. The body is indeed normally of the greatest importance in determining what my experience will be like. The perspective in which I see things depends on the location of my body and other things appertaining to it and I have stressed very much already our normal dependence on our bodies.5 But if I am right in my earlier insistence that mental states are radically different in nature from physical ones it would be odd to say the least to hold that the only sense in which I am the particular person I am has nothing to do with my status as a mental being. Nor is the concern or regard (or dislike) I may have for myself or others to be found mainly or directly in what our bodies are like. Bodily features have indeed a very important place in some of our affections but they are so in close association with various properly mental attitudes. It would be perverse or worse to fall in love with a dummy and even then in most cases as with children’s dolls and bears it would have been given some kind of personality beyond what it is physically. Even if it is maintained implausibly to my view that bodily continuity is a condition of personal identity it can hardly be the meaning of it. We like or dislike people for qualities of mind though not exclusively the severely intellectual ones for the way they feel and respond etc.
But it is also implausible though we shall return to that submission to suppose that I am the particular person I am solely because of some pattern or continuity of my varied experiences a continuity which as we shall see could well be extended in principle to the experiences of other persons; and the more explicit reason for maintaining this is that at any particular time I am aware of my experience as very distinctly and expressly mine regardless or without any special thought of how they came about or what may ensue a moment later. There is a peculiar immediacy something expressly evident at the time in the way in which I am certain that in seeing the trees in the field I myself am seeing them it is me. There is no recognisable inferential movement here not even the most subtle. I do not know what it would be like for it not to be me that is seeing the trees now it is unavoidably an experience which I am having however much others may have a like experience; and this is an assurance whether made articulate or not which affirms itself directly at the time in having any experience whatsoever. I just cannot conceive what it would be for it to be otherwise.
Take our stock example again — I am in pain. Can we give any meaning at all to a ‘floating’ pain to there being the pain without its being the pain which I (or some other creature) have? Can there be just pain which is nobody’s pain? This seems to me not just unlikely but inconceivable; and we certainly do not mean by this that a pain must be caused by some physical disorder. A pain (and not just a mental agony as distinct from a ‘physical’ one) may be induced by certain frames of mind. It need not be an imagined pain whatever that would be. I could induce the sort of pain I have when my finger is cut by being predisposed to think that I am having it or some similar factor — a tormentor could tie my hands behind and pretend to cut my finger. In some states at least a pain could be so induced without any damage to my finger. We can also certainly have pains without noting the physical cause of them — I touch the hot plate and only realise that it is hot from the burning sensation. It is not because my finger is swollen or cut that I judge that I am in pain. I know this the moment the pain begins and there might be the swelling or wound which normally hurts without my being in pain at all. The pain is what is felt it starts and lasts only as long as it is felt although as we have seen we may find ourselves paying little heed to it and thereby perhaps reducing or stopping it altogether.
But the pain is also invariably felt as my pain. I could not have it without its being me in pain. Nothing could be more ridiculous than to wonder whether it is after all a pain that I have. I am the one who feels it. In other instances I may indeed wonder who is in pain. A house has collapsed and someone is screaming within. I judge that someone is wounded and in pain but I am not sure which of the inmates it is. This must often happen and even when we note the wounds or the crushed limbs we may not at once be certain which of the victims are actually in pain at the moment and which numbed even though conscious into temporary insensibility. But if we are ourselves among the victims we are not in doubt at all as to whether we are actually in pain or just have wounds that may begin to hurt at any moment. If we are in pain we do not in our own case wonder for a moment whether it is a pain that we have or someone else. We may be in doubt about the extent of our wounds and perhaps mistaken in supposing that we are wounded at all — I may not be certain in the dark whether the blood is oozing from my own leg or my neighbour’s. But I cannot be in any doubt about my being in pain myself however brought about. To know this I dispense with all the evidence that would tell me how others fare. This pain is essentially a pain I feel.
The same goes for my thoughts and all other experiences. Others may have similar thoughts but I know without a shadow of doubt that the thoughts I try to express on paper now are thoughts which I am specifically having as a distinct experience. But if I am also asked — ‘What then is this “I” that has these thoughts and this pain how is it in turn to be described over and above describing the thoughts or the pain or noting them what is the self or subject over and above there being the pain etc.?’ — I am wholly nonplussed. There is nothing I can begin to say in reply not because it is exceptionally difficult to give a correct description but just because there is no description that can be offered. My distinctness my being me is quite unmistakable to me there can be nothing of which I am more certain but it is also unique and ultimate not unique like a rare vase or painting where we can indicate the properties that make it unique but unique in a simple final sense of just being itself.
I must repeat then that just as we recognise the distinctness of mental processes which makes them radically different from physical ones so each one recognises himself as the one distinct being that he is in the very fact of being so in any experience at all. I am aware of myself in being myself.
This may appear to be a particularly lame or tenuous conclusion. After all the fuss I may seem to have said nothing about what it really means for a person to be the distinct person he is. I have simply said that everyone will know the answer to this question in his own case. Everyone will know who or what he is in being the person he is and there is no more that can be said.
I accept this but I do not regard it as a stricture. There are many points in our attempts to understand ourselves and the world around us where we can only report what we find without further amplification or defence. As I have stressed already we do not manufacture the world around us or reason ourselves and the world into existence. We must take things as they are and one of the points where we can simply indicate what is the case is the one about the exclusive but wholly adequate way in which every person is aware in the way indicated of the distinct being that he finds himself to be. Much turns in philosophy as I have also stressed on our ability to recognise such points.
This was the line of my reply to Professor Bernard Williams when he complained6 that talk about ‘ultimates’ means that a philosopher is ‘running out of steam’. It is rather a case that at some point the steam is bound to run out there is a limit to explanation. The same misgiving may however be put a little differently by stressing the seeming vacuity of what is being affirmed and Professor Williams himself along with Professor Flew and others have often put their point in this way. An ethical intuition has a clear content certain things are good or right but nothing appears to have been said in the account I have been giving of just what it is to be a self beyond the alleged recognition of it by each one in his own case. This point was forcibly put by one of the gifted students in the graduate seminar I conducted for two quarters at Emory University in 1978. He wrote:
In Lewis’ theory …Each substantial self is thus sui generis and its being so is its unique and peculiar character. But just to be sui generis is a strange character indeed for it is formal only and is lacking in any content connecting it with other such selves. What this implies is that substantial selves are logically indistinguishable except for being sui generis. Lewis is thus faced in his doctrine I think with the paradox of claiming that the difference between substantial selves is unintelligible but recognisable.7
Mr Metzler continues with a slightly different point:
The strength of this objection may not be clear for one may accept the charge but simply argue that it is a curious fact of experience as we find it. But for myself I cannot see how other substantial selves could be recognised. For I have no direct experience of them as being somehow sui generis. It seems to be a merely logical feature and accordingly the way it seems to me is that we are faced with the logical identity of indiscernibles.
Mr Metzler’s perceptive statement gets very near the mark but not quite. I certainly do maintain that the self is sui generis but it is not thereby reduced to ‘a merely logical feature’. I know myself as a unique existent. My being is not exhausted in being sui generis but is sui generis because of what I know myself to be. This is only unintelligible in the sense that there is nothing I can say about myself beyond the affirmation that I am the person I find myself to be.
His second point concerns what we say about other persons. But that is another matter and I hope it will be clear already that no one on my view can claim the same sort of knowledge of other persons as he has of himself. In claiming to know immediately that the pain is mine because I am having it and cannot I have been insisting have it without being so aware I rule out expressly the possibility of having the same sort of knowledge of another person’s having a pain. It is only of myself that I can have the unique awareness in question. But I am entitled and obliged it seems to me in ascribing pain to others to ascribe to them also the same awareness of themselves having it as I found to be essentially unavoidable in my own case.
Other persons are in one sense a radical mystery to me; I stress this and I deem it of the utmost importance as I shall be insisting again in the sequel to this volume to recognise this. That does not preclude our having very full information about them in other ways and live and intimate relations with them. I can have a very sound idea of the sort of pain you are in and I must regard you like myself as a distinct individual having the pain. But what it is to be you or any other having the pain I cannot possibly know in the sense in which I have no problem in knowing what it is to be me having this pain. There is a barrier here a limit to our encounters which we can never remove. But this itself involves regarding other persons as genuine distinct existences in practice indiscernible at this level but also essentially and not just numerically other. They are sui generis because of what they are in this way in themselves and not just as ‘a logical feature’; and it is for this reason as we shall see again that there can be no merging of persons such as many have thought possible and actually the case. The distinctness of persons is their distinct irreducible individuality.
This holds however for all sentient beings. There are differences of the utmost importance between us and brutes but everything I have said hitherto in this and preceding chapters can be said in strictly the same way of sub-human creatures as of ourselves. Whether for this reason we speak of the ‘soul’ of a worm or an insect or of one of the ‘higher’ animals is mainly a matter of words. If ‘soul’ connotes moral or religious attainments and the sort of destiny which this alone may be thought to make possible then we could not ascribe it to creatures which have not the discernment to reach these and similar attainments. But I have not yet been concerned with such matter. I have been stressing merely the distinct nature of mental or experiential existence and the unavoidability from what we know it is like to have experience of there being some being or subject who has the experience.
This must apply to the dog or the worm as much as to ourselves. We cannot give a Rylean account of a dog in pain any more than we can of a man. It is not just a matter of observing pain-behaviour or of counting on this on the basis of presumed regularities. We have every reason to conclude that the dog feels the pain as we do. It would also be absurd to suppose that the dog is aware of his pain because he observes how his foot is bleeding or hears himself yelping. The actual pain is the same for him as for us. But can we then think of it as anything other than a pain which one distinct individual has? It is not any more than in our own case merely the fact of there being the pain or the mere connection of that with a particular neuro-physiological organism or body. It is not merely that the pain is due to the broken paw of this creature or even if that is the account we must give of it somehow located there. It is a pain which this creature must feel not something a body feels but this live animal. We have to ask here as in all cases what it would be like for there to be a pain which was not individually felt. It seems to me just inconceivable not because we are habituated to talking of pain as something which some creature has but because it is impossible to think of pain or any sensation in any other way. Can we we must ask again make any sense of a mere pain or a ‘floating pain’?
How far can we take this? How low in the scale of life and sentience can we go and still feel compelled to recognise some entity that has the experience? The answer seems to me clear — as low as there is any sentience. We have seen that this is itself a question of evidence. Just where does the behaviour we observe no longer suggest a response to some kind of sentience? What on this basis is the lowest or most elementary form of sentient life we have to recognise? Wherever it is however fleeting and transitory there we must also impute a subject of experience however grandiloquent such terms may sound in their cases. How could there be any sensation that is not sensed by some individual being?
The issue may not be of importance at this level but it is bound up with its counterpart at higher levels of existence especially human life where it has vital importance as will be stressed in due course.
This is not however the whole story — not by any means. There are many other things to be noted before the picture is near complete and these are not elusive or quite as difficult to handle philosophically as the very central theme with which we have been hitherto concerned. They include the way in which we may be said to be not only the subjects of an experience as it occurs but also an ‘abiding’ subject the same in all our experience. There are also the ways in which in a subsidiary but also most important sense we may identify ourselves and be identified by description. Let us then turn to these matters.

From the book: