Notes for Class 2
The Problem: Self-constitution and Objectivity
There is an inevitable tension between claims of self-constitution and the requirements of objectivity that go with individuation, knowability, and normativity. In other words, if self-constitution, of states, contents, and subjects, is as I have described it, then it seems, paradoxically, to exclude some of its own prerequisites.
(1) Forming an adequate conception of the individuation and identity of a state (a subject, an item of content) entails that what such conception should take up a modal articulation. At least in principle, individuation and identity should have some degree of modal stability: one thing should possibly be the same given a change from how it actually is and it should be possible for it not to be the same given what it actually is.
A proper concept of individuation and identity requires some distinction between what a thing is and what a thing seems or appears to be. Without going the full length to substantial individuation, this is entailed by the idea that there is something determinate, for that item, to be and to persist. Even with regard to phenomenal states, experiences, what-is-it-likes, we can at least conceptually distinguish between their phenomenal features (“That greenish spot in my visual field”, by internal ostension) and their subjective appearance (“I have a greenish spot in my visual field”).
The modal conditions, being the same given a change from actual being and being possibly different given actual being, give expression to this demand for objectivity. By being modally independent from its actuality, a state, a subject, an item of content holds its ontological ground: is something objective.
But self-constituting items do not seem susceptible to such modal conditions. The individuation and identity of such items are determined by their being what they are: therefore, there are no conditions alternative to actuality in which they can be the same; and there is no way in which, given what they actually are, they could be different as to individuality and identity.
One could point out that if we distinguish their essential from their accidental properties, self-constituting items could be modally stable. What determines their individuation and identity are the essential properties; what is susceptible to change are the accidental ones. There would be a core individuation and a complementary one. So far, so good. But in this way we simply drop the condition that such entities be self-constituting: what determines their individuation and identity is not their own making it what it is, but what essence they find themselves with.
(2) A similar problem arises for the semantic and epistemic self-constitution of states, subjects, and contents. This is complicated, because of the diversity of the relevant items. To put it very shortly. States and contents are in part identified by what they are about and how they are about is, representationally or pragmatically. What they are about is something that depends on the world, on what there is, no less than on what the state is or what the content is. This is what gives objectivity to their semantic determination. But in the case of self-constituting states and contents, this determination by the world is simply not there. Their aboutness only depends on what they make it to be. But then it is controversial whether the semantics of self-constitution is on safe grounds.
There is a related problem with self-constituting subjects. It is a minimal condition of being a subject that one has first-personal self-knowledge: that one has a first-personal viewpoint on oneself and that such viewpoint allows having cognition of oneself. Otherwise, one would not know oneself as a subject or would have self-knowledge at all. But this is in collision course with self-constitution. Something is knowable if it can be confronted by the knowing subject as some sort of object. Now, this also holds of self-knowledge: a self-constituting entity, like a person or an action, can refer to itself and come to know itself if it can stand to itself as an object. Even subjects are knowable under the condition of their being actual; and actuality and objectivity are required even for first personal knowledge. But is all there is to actually being a subject is what the subject makes itself to be, then simply it does not seem possible to have first-personal self-knowledge: there is no distance enough between the subject and the object of knowing.
(3) Finally, self-constituting items like mental states and contents are susceptible to inherent conditions of correctness (in this, they are not different from linguistic utterances or speech acts, say). A cognitive thought can be accurate or inaccurate; an action can succeed or fail. Representational and pragmatic contents have the corresponding conditions of truth or success. Subjects, insofar as they are engaged in first-personal thoughts or agency, also are susceptible to inherent conditions of correctness. But, again, self-constitution brings havoc on such conditions.
Objective conditions of correctness depend on the possibility of error (for states, contents, and derivatively for subjects). But we have already seen that modal variation: sameness or difference across modal variation, is problematic for self-constituting states and contents, because they cannot be even conceptually detached from their actuality. They cannot thus be assigned the relevant possibilities of error. (A situation in which they are different from what they are is a situation in which they do not exist. This is not a situation in which they are erroneous.)
There seem to be no inherent standards of assessment, except derived from what they make themselves to be; and on this standard, no instance of them can be defective. (While a speech act can be defective by grammar rules: it is not self-constituting.)
The problems are nested the one in the other: the problem of the normative assessment of states, contents, and subjects action is an aspect of that of the determination of their contents and their knowability (as an aspect of what they are). Both depend, ultimately, on the modal implications of self-constitutive individuation. All in all, the problem with self-constitution is that it seems to lack the conditions of objectivity that, on the other hand, are required for understanding it. This is deeply paradoxical.