Notes for Class 2-3 (today!)
A revised version.
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 such conception 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.
Example 1: Given that I am actually a male, if I were a female I would still be myself.
Example 2: Given that I was actually born from my parents, if I were born from other parents I would not be myself.
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 different given a change from actual being, give expression to a demand for objectivity of individuation and identity. 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 only by their actual being, what they actually are. If this is the only and necessary principle of their individuation and identity, 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.
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, in some way, but the 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 a condition of objectivity to their semantic determination. (Not different from individuation in general.)
Example: Your thought of the oldest professor in Villa Mirafiori is about me because I am the oldest &c. Whenever or however you have that thought, it is about me.
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 or even consistent.
Example: Your thought of the oldest professor in Villa Mirafiori is about whoever would be the oldest &c. That I am actually the oldest &c does not make it especially about me.
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 not 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 if 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. One is what it takes oneself to be and this taking oneself as is all there is to self-knowledge.
(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, 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. Not a situation in which they are erroneous.)
Example: The actually true first-personal belief that I am talking to you would be false if it were the same in different conditions (not by me; when nobody is talking; not to you); but in such different circumstances, it would not be the same.
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 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.