Thursday 1 December 2005

What is Wrong with the Second Person? (2005)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIII No. 2 Winter 2005

What is Wrong with the Second Person?

By Mike Bavidge

We are social animals all the way down. We are social animals not just because we like parties, nor because without other people to care for us we would not survive infancy. Our identities, inner lives and cognitive capacities depend on others. Ernest Becker wrote in his book The Birth and Death of Meaning, 'The child's early training period is one in which his very existence is mediated to him in a condition of entanglement with his mother'. When he wrote that back in 1962, he was repeating accepted wisdom. However the philosophical tradition seems, in many respects, to be in denial of this obvious fact. More recently analytic philosophers have been largely silent on the topic. Some Continental thinkers - Levinas is the outstanding example - have made 'the Other' the primary theme of their work. But if by 'the Other' we mean an indeterminate other person, gender or type talked about in Third Person terms, choosing the Other as a topic will not be enough to reshape the inquiry. Philosophy talks in the Third Person, but sometimes it needs to get inside direct exchanges between one person and another - exchanges which, in so far as they are 'enlanguaged', use the Vocative Case.
Some key moments in philosophical history illustrate the neglect or denial of the importance of the Second Person to philosophical thought with a resulting distortion of problem and available answers.

Here are some examples.

(1) The Meno

In the Meno Plato produces one of the best known and least plausible of his arguments. He purports to show that 'we do not learn, and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection'. He demonstrates his point by eliciting geometric theorems from an uneducated slave boy by pure questioning. He invites Meno 'Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.' For good measure he uses the 'knowledge is remembrance' thesis to prove the immortality of the soul: 'And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?.. And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal.'

The questioning of the slave-boy provides an early example of the denial of the Second Person. The interpersonal process of questioning, directing, prompting and encouraging is regarded as merely the route to intellectual insight. Plato is convinced that knowledge could not have come from the interaction between Socrates and the boy (after all, Socrates told him nothing - gave him no information). The direct influence of Socrates on the boy, calling his attention to a particular problem, making him aware of his ignorance, raising questions in a particular, progressive pattern, approving some moves, discouraging others, endorsing his conclusions, - all of that - Plato treats as marginal to knowledge itself and even to its acquisition.

(2) Cartesian Doubt

Descartes gives us a curious example of the displacement of the Second Person. What does the Doubting Self ultimately need to turn itself into a Knowing Self? The Cogito, arrived at through a strenuously achieved physical and intellectual isolation, gives certainty, but only one that is momentary and internal. Descartes realises that knowledge, which is stable and public, cannot rely solely on private intuitions and the isolated memory of an individual. The Ego Cogitans has to be assured that it is not on the receiving end of the malicious intervention of another. That is why Descartes takes his 'unexpected circuit' (as Hume called it): certainty can only be guaranteed by a beneficent Other, by God.

But why does Descartes need God, an infinitely good Other? Because he needs an argument not merely a personal intervention. Only an infinitely good Other gives a guarantee that can be formulated as a premise of an argument with which to confront scepticism. But if we can bring ourselves to do without an argument but retain the idea that only a personal intervention will do, then perhaps the intervention of a halfway good person will do, an ordinary person, someone like you or me.

(3) Solipsism

A third example. For whom are the problems of Solipsism meant to be problems? That is an issue whether we are talking about zany Solipsism (what reason have I to believe that there are persons other than myself?) or sensible epistemic problems about our knowledge of other people's thoughts and feelings. The zany problem assumes that first I find myself, a competent, self-sufficient individual, faced by a sensible question about the very possibility of the existence of others. Contemporary discussions of the more realistic problems about our knowledge of others' mental lives also assume that a well-set-up person is looking for reasons to prove a thesis. The discussion centres on whether we need a theory or whether the gap between ourselves and others can be bridged less rationalistically by empathy. But in real life communication, neither adults nor infants whose personal identities are being established, are theorists, and only on occasion are we called on to be empathetic. Both the extreme and the modest problems are framed in a way that suggests that the constant interpersonal communication that makes up the fabric of life plays no part in the formulation of the problems of other minds or our responses to them.

(4) The Mind-Body problem

A final example. The Mind-Body problem is often put in terms of the contrast between First and Third Person accounts. The resilience of the problem is frequently presented as an irresolvable tension between our immediate experience expressed in First Person terms and our knowledge of ourselves and others described in Third Person, objective terms. How can we reconcile ideas of ourselves based on our personal experience and ideas of ourselves based on objective accounts? First Person accounts feed into our metaphysical picture of the subject. It is on the basis of the First Person perspective that we attribute to ourselves the special powers of being, unique, self-conscious, rational and responsible. From the Third Person perspective we derive a naturalistic view of ourselves as constructed of the same sort of stuff as the rest of the natural world and explicable in terms of it. As metaphysicians, we then worry about how the two accounts can be reconciled. We oversimplify the problem by representing it as a dichotomy between First and Third Person. Why is the Second Person left out of the picture? And why is it not allowed to feed into our picture of the Self?


The Second Person has its own case, the Vocative, which marks the fundamental difference in speech act between addressing someone and description. In Charles Taylor's words, language involves 'being a conversational partner with somebody; let's call this an "interlocutor". Standing to someone as an interlocutor is fundamentally different from standing to him/her as an object of observation or manipulative interaction. Language marks this most fundamental distinction in the difference of persons. I address someone as "you", speak of them as "him" or "her"'.

There are numerous ways in which we affect each other as self-conscious subjects - warning, promising, inviting, consoling, reprimanding. These are different types of communication but they all involve addressing another person directly. They are different ways of reaching out to others and of directly shaping their experience, feelings and thoughts. They all involve acknowledging another, giving a person the status of a partner in a social interaction. We call out even to new-born babies, attempting to evoke a response even before they are capable of being conversational partners. We home in on each other. The word 'address', as a noun, can mean where you live, as well saying something to someone.

It may seem that communication is constituted by the transmission of information which need not involve messy personal interactions. But our first encounter with information is in the context of our attention being drawn to things, of being warned, encouraged, amused by this or that. Communication is dynamic and interpersonal; 'information' is what is left when you take the personal out of communication.

I now want to sketch three examples of ways in which our inquiries might be reoriented if we gave greater weight to the direct personal?

(1) The Second Person and Language

Wittgenstein begins the Philosophical Investigations with an attack on the idea that naming i.e. attaching a word to an object, is the inaugural act which initiates language. He particularly wants to undermine the theory that words get their meaning from being the names of ideas in the mind - the sort of theory proposed by John Locke. Locke claims that words stand for ideas in the mind of the person who uses the words. The connection of a sign with the thing signified is totally arbitrary. The ideas that give meaning to language are private to each language-user*. However involved in social communication language eventually becomes, all meaning has to be rooted in this connection of public word with private thought. Language may be 'the great common tie of Society' but prior to its communicative role, language enables the individual to record and remember thoughts. The fleeting thought is fixed in language. So language is required for individuals to have usable knowledge even for themselves and they have that prior to any interaction with others.

Against this Wittgenstein argues that language is publicly and socially based. The meaning of words depends on their use in the language which is seen as a social, convention-based institution. The picture we get is that while Locke thought that meaning required only individual thinkers and their ideas, Wittgenstein thought that meaning required not only individual thinkers and ideas but also the institution of language. For example, for the sentence 'Pawn to King 4' to make sense, you need not only a player but the game of chess with its rules and conventions.

This is fine as far as it goes. But it leaves out the distinctive interpersonal engagement of language-users that language requires to fix meaning. Rules and conventions are an important element in Wittgenstein's account of language. But so is the claim that rules do not apply themselves. In Philosophical Investigations he asks 'how can a rule show me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule'. (This is the thought that leads to Kripke's celebrated discussion of Wittgenstein's alleged scepticism.) In response to it he continues:
'That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.'
'Obeying a rule is a practice'. At the end of the day we come down to the fact that 'that is the way we go on'. Wittgenstein imagines his opponents saying '"So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?"' and he replies 'It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.' This may sound like a rejection of Coherence Theory in favour of Pragmatism.

Coherence and Pragmatism have this much in common: they attempt to provide a guarantee of meaning on a Third Person basis. Coherence theory points to the fact that other people agree with me; Pragmatism points to the fact that this is the way people go on. But no evidence in the form of a report of the opinions or the behaviour of others is going to seem compelling to the sceptic; a brute fact cannot explain normativity.

The only assurance we have that what we say makes sense is the actual endorsement of other people- the actual endorsements that are expressed in shared responses, the ordinary approvals, encouragements, the everyday rubbing along together that constitutes the social lives of intelligent animals like us. This assurance cannot be transposed into the premise of an anti-sceptical argument. It is a lived confidence that is as secure, but no more secure, than the viability of our social lives. Others do not, like Descartes' benign demon, have epistemic authority. They accompany us; they join us - that's enough.

Interpretations 'hang in the air' until my way of going on is endorsed by you. It is not enough that meanings are fixed by public rules or sets of criteria; you need to be endorsed by me, and I by you. The infant's attempts at language have to be responded to and accepted. These are not external encouragements designed to ease us into language; they are internal parts of it.

(2) The Second Person and Truth

Heidegger's reflections on Truth provide another moment where it would pay us to think more about the Second Person. He argues for a notion of truth which is more primitive than the propositional notion which is captured in the Correspondence Theory of Truth. He blames Plato for opening up a fatal fissure in Western philosophy: truth as a property of things and truth as a property of representations. He attacks the Correspondence Theory of Truth on the grounds that a representation (a sentence, a belief, an opinion) can be true only if it conforms to something already unconcealed; so there must be a more fundamental notion of truth than propositional truth - world disclosure; truth as unconcealment. We come to realise that truth is applied properly both at the propositional and pre-propositional levels by experiencing the unveiling of Being. And we experience the unveiling of Being when we appreciate the significance of genuinely creative language.

Only in the most authentic emergence of language does reality unveil itself. Only in its primordial, creative form is language the 'House of Being'. Heidegger has a highly individualist and romantic idea of primordial language; it is what comes out of the creative act of the solitary poet on the brink of meaninglessness.

There are parallels between Heidegger's idea that 'Being' reveals itself in language and John McDowell's thoughts in Mind and World where he distinguishes between brute animals that have an environment, i.e. a milieu to which they are perceptually sensitive and in which they are absorbed, and human beings who have a world i.e. a reality of which they can have glimpses. We can ignore the brute/human comparison here (he may be wrong about animals), the distinction is still worth thinking about. Knowledge requires an energetic involvement in the world. A restlessness. A curiosity. Sensation is not enough. We are not totally lost in a brutish absorption with the world. We open up distances between ourselves, our projects and activities, and things and their functions.

We can only understand this transformation of environments into worlds if we give full weight to our dependence on others for our sense of ourselves and the objectivity of the world we share. In language we demand understanding, we call on each other to see the world unveiled in a particular way and we make our very selves available. We must triangulate to create. You and Me and the World, and it is important to add 'in no particular order'; they come as a package deal.
Meaning can die, as well as be born. Both its birth and the death take place in the interactions between people. Cultures die. The death of God, for example, is the death of a culture. It isn't just a matter of individuals changing their beliefs or uncovering their mistakes. We lose the faith - a shared thing. We lose a particular way of experiencing and talking about the world together. Meaning has been compared to the value of a currency: it is maintained as long as people move it around with confidence. You can be left hoarding worthless banknotes or sheepishly try to negotiate them in a market that no longer recognises them. In our post-Christian culture many of us substitute a nostalgic aestheticism for the life of faith. We listen to the St Matthew Passion and enjoy the solitary pleasure of yearning over our loss.

(3) The Second Person and Mind

Even thinkers who explicitly set out to reinstate the Other can relapse into traditional individualistic ways of thinking. Søren Overgaard, for example, in his article in Inquiry, 'Rethinking Other Minds: Wittgenstein and Levinas on Expression', criticises Cartesian philosophers for ignoring 'a crucial distinction between degree of certainty, evidence etc. and kind of access' that we have to the mental lives of others. But his attempted correction of the position retains the Cartesian assumption that fundamentally we, as subjects, are thinkers or inquirers. He writes 'It is quite possible to achieve as high a degree of certainty concerning another's mental states as about anything else in life, but clearly the kind of access remains different. I could not possibly occupy the other's perspective on the world, for then it would be my perspective. What I can (often) do, however, is to see through her expressions, that she is feeling good, planning mischief, or whatever'.

This suggests that we are observers but with (broadly speaking) two modes of accessing the world: one that delivers up objects that lie 'passively open to view'; the other that enables us to see subjects as 'the dynamic source' of expressions. This seems an unsustainable position. It requires that something, perhaps expression or certain behaviour interpreted as criteria, be seen as the appearance of the subject in the world.

He says this because he is trying to avoid claiming either too much for our knowledge of each other or too little. He wants to exclude scepticism. But he also thinks that further strengthening the claim to know other minds must result in claiming to occupy the perspective of the other, i.e. to be the other, what he calls a 'higher form of solipsism'. That would outrage the 'strange inaccessibility' of the other.

Overgaard aims to defend our ability to know the thoughts and feelings of others and to provide a basis for it in terms of the personal nature of expression. But he still talks as if expression were a special sort of data, a sort of super-evidence which normally it makes no sense to challenge.
There is a similar worry about Wittgenstein's famous remark:
My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul'.
He is making a categorical difference between the way we relate to other people and how we relate to everything else. But it still seems to be mysterious. What is the difference between an attitude and an opinion? How do they relate? Pressing questions when you face a sceptic who suspects that an 'attitude' is an 'opinion' which you cannot justify. The real issue is whether there is an encounter between ourselves and others which cannot be captured in terms of observer and object - however wonderfully suffused with the personal.

We like to think of ourselves in terms of activity, autonomy, initiative. But this emphasis hides the fact that we are characterised by our passivities just as much as by our activities. Stones cannot form judgements nor make choices, but neither can they be insulted amused, encouraged, or distracted. We don't see others as 'the dynamic source' of expressions. Minds meet. We experience each other's dynamism. We are addressed by them, questioned, amused, challenged, resented, treated affectionately or cruelly. Being subject to these interactions is as important to personhood as activity and autonomy. We shape each other's minds. 

About the author: Mike Bavidge is Chair of the Philosophical Society of England

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