Bill Brewer Self Location Agency (Mind)

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Self-Location and Agency


    1. The problem of perceptual self-location

    We perceive things in the external world as spatially located both with respect toeach other and to ourselves, such that they are in principle accessible from wherewe seem to be. I hear the door bang behind me; I feel the pen on the desk over tomy right; and I see you walking beneath the line of pictures, from left to right infront of me. By displaying these spatial relations between its objects and us, theperceivers, perception places us in the perceived world: our world and the worldwe perceive are one. Clearly this is not achieved by our continually perceivingourselves along with the things around us, and thus recovering our position withrespect to them. Indeed I shall argue that there are serious difficulties with thesuggestion that this might be the basic mechanism for perceptual self-location.Furthermore, I shall argue that our existence as an element of the objective ordercannot be inferred from the raw given in sense perception. Hence it cannot evenbe on the right lines as an answer to the question "What is it for perception to rep-resent its objects as environmental to the subject?", that it should present theseobjects, along with the perceiving subject himself, or along with something fromwhich his existence in the perceived world could be deduced, in the very sameframe so to speak. Nevertheless, it yields him an awareness of himself as there inthe wings of that scene, genuinely located with respect to the action, yet somehownot normally quite getting onto the stage. And I shall argue here, that perceptualcontents succeed in being self-locating in this way, in virtue of their immediaterole in the control and coordination of spatial behavior.

    What we need is an account of what it is in virtue of which the perceived worldis represented as containing the perceiving subject himself. What is it in virtue ofwhich perceptual contents are thus self-locating? Perception places the perceiverin the world of its objects by representing their spatial relations with respect tohim. So our problem is to give an account of what it is in virtue of which percep-tual experience carries such egocentric spatial content. What is it in virtue ofwhich perception represents things as standing in various spatial relations withthe perceiver?'

    1 That there is a real need for a substantive account here, follows from a minimal sym-pathy with Peacocke's "Discrimination Principle", that "for each content a thinker mayjudge, there is an adequately individuating account of what makes it the case the he is judg-ing that content rather than any other" (1988, p. 468), as applied to nonconceptual, percep-tual contents. Here, as elsewhere, I adopt the fairly standard use of "nonconceptual".

    Mind, Vol. 101.401. January 1992 Oxford University Press 1992

    at University of W

    arwick on January 13, 2013


    nloaded from

  • 18 Bill Brewer

    There are persuasive arguments to suggest that this cannot be the province ofperceptual experience alone. These are in effect developments of the argumentswhich David Pears gives on Wittgenstein's behalf against Russell's two theoriesof the self (1987, ch. 7, esp. pp. 179-84), which I consider in detail in a moment.So my contention will be that perception meets the demand on self-location onlyin virtue of its context of other psychological abilities. In particular, and taking alead from Schopenhauer, self-locating perceptual experience is intimately boundup with the subject's capacity for (attempted) purposive behavior. Perceptualcontents locate the subject in the perceived world in virtue of their role in ground-ing his capacity for perceptually guided spatial action.

    To paraphrase two theses Christopher Janaway attributes to Schopenhauer(1983-4), (/) qua subject of representation (thought and experience) alone, I canhave no sense of myself as an item in the world; but (//) qua subject of will, I dohave a sense of myself as an item in the world.2 Therefore any subject whose per-ceptual experience displays the egocentric spatiality we are interested in must bea subject of will.

    2. Perceptual self-location is not purely perceptual

    Self-locating spatial perception provides its subject with the impression of herselfas in amongst the very objects of her perception, by representing these objects asstanding in various spatial relations with her. It puts her in the world she per-ceives. Such perception unifies the perceiver's space with the space perceived.

    It is clear though, that this is not achieved by her continually perceiving aparticular object, which happens to be her, as standing in these various spatialrelations with the other objects of her perception. Firstly, this is not what hap-pens. My awareness of my location with respect to what I am seeing is very dif-ferent from that I might have of your position in relation to what I would see if I

    for contents whose canonical characterization involves concepts which a subject need notpossess in order to have experiences with those contents.

    It might be objected that the first-person way of thinking is necessarily a conceptualconstituent in any genuinely self-locating content: perceptual self-location requires pos-session of a concept of oneself So the search for a constitutive account of nonconceptual,self-locating perceptual content is misguided. Now it is certainly true that full-blownthought and judgment about one's place as one object among many, a person in the objec-tive world, requires possession of a first-person concept. And I see no reason why percep-tual contents might not also attain this conceptual sophistication. I am concerned with amore primitive layer of content though, which is the nonconceptual foundation for theperspectival nature of perceptual experience which grounds such thought and judgment.This is the basic notion of egocentric spatial perception, stripped of the conceptual contextrequired to fill out what is placed at the centre of the perceptual field into a Strawsonianperson, but nevertheless sufficient to unite the perceiver's world with the world perceived.

    2 These are actually weaker variants of his (A) and (B) (p. 148). It is Schopenhauer'sextreme idealism which transforms my (;) and (//'), which I argue should be endorsed, intohis unacceptable claims. I discuss this matter in 6, as part of a brief comparison betweenmy views and those of Janaway's (1989) Schopenhauer.

    at University of W

    arwick on January 13, 2013


    nloaded from

  • Self-Location and Agency 19

    were a spy following you to see what you were doing and where you weregoing. It is the exception rather than the rule that I am actually an object of myperception, as when, for example, I touch myself or see myself in a mirror. Sec-ondly, it is not obvious that even in the rare cases in which I do perceive myselfas an object, this suffices for the required self-location. It suffices only if myperception of what is in fact my body makes immediate contact with my con-ception of myself as the subject of this perception. And I share the widespreadconviction that "the subject of this perception" cannot be a purely perceptualmode of presentation of anything.

    I think this conviction is what finds expression in Wittgenstein's (1961, 5.631-5.6331) development of Hume's famous claim that "I can never catchmyself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but theperception" (1978, p. 252), as an argument against Russell's (1912) first theoryof the self, on which the subject is known to himself by acquaintance. As a matterof fact, one does not normally encounter oneself as an object in experience. Norcould one do so, under the subjective mode of presentation "the subject of thisexperience". For in purely perceptual terms, this mode of presentation is tied tothe idea of a focal point behind the perceptual field, as its origin. Something morethan mere perceptual experience is required to anchor this point to a determinateitem in the perceived world, and thus to locate the subject of perception. So thereis nothing which would be purely perceptually identifying an object of perceptionas the subject of that perception.

    To paraphrase Sydney Shoemaker (1984, p. 13) on this point, there is no per-ceiving of oneself which explains one's awareness that one is an element of theperceived world in a way analogous to that in which one's sense perception of Johnexplains one's placement of him in the world. For no perception could providethe primary identification of the located item as oneself, the subject of perception.3

    Schopenhauer puts the same point as follows:

    On the purely objective path, we never attain to the inner nature ofthings, but if we attempt to find their inner nature from the outside andempirically, this inner always becomes an outer in our hands; the pith ofthe tree as well as its bark; the heart of the animal as well as its hide; thewhite and yolk of an egg as well as its shell. (1966, pp. 273-4)

    Stripping away the "superficial characteristics", as it were, of any perceptualobject, in the attempt to reveal its essence as the perceiving self, is bound to fail.For all it can expose is a further object of perception. Some prior subject-objectidentification is required for the perceptual recognition of the perceiver as theperceiver. So the kind of self-location we are concerned with cannot be the imme-diate upshot of anything like self-perception. That is to say, the environmentalityof spatial perception cannot consist in the subject's purely perceptual acquain-tance with himself as in amongst the objects of perception.

    3 Shoemaker's original point here is that we should construe the Humean unencoun-terability thesis as a general resistance to the assimilation of self-awareness expressed byuses of "I" "as subject", to perceptual demonstrative knowledge.

    at University of W

    arwick on January 13, 2013


    nloaded from

  • 20 Bill Brewer

    Of course one might still resist the claim that "the subject of this percep-tion" is not a purely perceptual mode of presentation of an object, in whichcase the analogy between perceptual self-location and perceptual other-locationis still in play as a possibility. But the fact is that this is not normally, if ever,the actual pattern of self-location. I immediately perceive things other thanmyself as standing in various spatial relations with myself. And this is what Iam interested in.

    3. Perceptual self-location is not inferential

    An obvious alternative to the idea that perception places its subject in the per-ceived world in virtue of a direct perceptual encounter with the self as an object,is that one's containment is inferred from something else which is given imme-diately in experience. But there are two related difficulties with this suggestion.One stems from Pears' Wittgensteinian argument against Russell's second theoryof the self, on which the subject is known to himself by description. The other isa more general worry about how a person's location as a constituent of the worldcould ever be inferred without circularity from his immediate perception of any-thing but himself as one object among others, which we have just seen is implau-sible. I shall take these in turn.

    What is required is that a subject should infer his place in the world on thebasis of his experience, of which he is not an object. Thus he must begin with apreliminary identification of himself, the item to be located in the perceivedworld, simply as the subject of that experience, and hope to proceed from there.But it is difficult to see how any such identification of the self as "the subject ofthis experience" could ever be acceptable. For it precludes the perceiver's graspof the contingent dependence of the course and nature of his experience on theway the world is in itself and his continuous spatio-temporal route through it,unless he already has some notion of himself as an item in the perceived world.And yet the identification is being suggested as a prelude to his inferring somesuch conception from the content of his experience.

    An initial stab at the point might be to object that the proposed self-identifica-tion makes necessary something which is clearly contingent: the fact that thesubject's experience happens to be the way it is. It is quite contingent that I nowsee that person walking past my window, or feel this arrangement of objects onthe desk in front of me. As Pears puts it (1987, p. 182), these perceptions "neednot have been included in my experiences today". Since perception is the jointupshot of the way the world is in itself on the one hand, and the subject's spatialrelations and receptivity with respect to it on the other, any token perception ofmine might not have been a perception of mine. This is not because it might havebeen someone else's or existed unowned, but because the world might have beendifferent or I might have been somewhere else in it or even asleep. But the for-mula "I am the subject of this experience" appears to make my self-ascription of

    at University of W

    arwick on January 13, 2013


    nloaded from

  • Self-Location and Agency 21

    this experience a necessary truth, by definitionally cementing me to the actualcourse of my experience.

    The obvious reply here, is that any appearance of necessity is illusory. Givena reference-fixing definite description "the F", of a material object a, we have noproblem in understanding the possibility that a might not have been the F. Simi-larly here, why do I suppose there to be any difficulty in a person's grasping thepossibility that she might not have been the subject of such and such perceptualexperience, given her reference-fixing self-identification as the subject of thatexperience? We should reflect on what grounds our access to the thought that amight not have been the F. It seems to me that this has to do with our having somebasic conception of such objects as spatio-temporal particulars. This provides aneutral domain of individuals over which the description ranges and with respectto which the contingency can be understood. Given a domain of such particularsand a predicate "x is F", and given that a is actually the unique satisfier of thepredicate in the domain, we can understand the possibility that a might not havebeen the F in terms of the fact that there are possible worlds in which it is not trueof that spatio-temporal individual that it is uniquely F. This possibility is madeintelligible by our having a more basic grasp on the kind of thing that a is than isprovided merely by the reference-fixing definite description "the F".

    To insist that such a basic conception is equally available in the current case ofa person's descriptive self-identification as th...


View more >