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Indifferent Persons?                                                       



Philosophy and its consolation, occurring as it does only in language, it is convenient to describe its appropriation of experience, as of some of its problems, in terms of its principal actors, the fundamental ‘persons’ of language, entities named after their ordinal role in grammar: the ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ persons.


From which person do we think? Or with which and to which? As a person, which is our favourite person? And what of the others? And then the Others? Our closest, most immediate, seems to be the first, the first person, to which the others appear – more clearly than in the case of our (imagined) self image; framed, but as objects, further from our sense of ourselves, as ‘objectified’ by the frame of vision (but might we not more correctly say ‘in ourselves’ as the image, and the word that paraphrases or translates it are all within… parts of ourselves?). If we do not ‘appear’ directly to ourselves, we find ourselves as that to which things appear.


If first person experience does not only pass through the eye, our world as image, then this mode of reception (and imagination) nevertheless constitutes our major mode of interaction with the world – we would feel lost without it. It does not exhaust our sources of experience but is central to them. Together with our sense of hearing, in the form of the aural image, and not least as when we talk ‘silently’ to ourselves. Indeed once subject to thought (once we have learnt speech, and launched upon the interior speech or ‘running commentary’ we call our self) what we ‘notice’ in the field of our visual reception and what we say (first to ourselves, then to others) are, for most purposes, indistinguishable. If the world of the image forms an integral, even crucial, part of the complex of parts we call the self, then the world as formed by language appears to be at least equally indispensible - more so, as the blind continue to be human, in a way those without language do not (those who remain in a state before language - remembering that animals also have the signaling systems that constitute language and communication).


Yet is there not a clear difference between first person speech and first person experience - as it is convenient to call our own (conscious) reception of our senses and the thoughts that result? Ineffable, evanescent as it may be, this place ‘before’ the image and ‘behind; the word, is nevertheless our place. Yet that is the problem: the finger that points back, points at the machine, and the description of the inner workings of the machine is no longer that of the first person.  When we look for the first person in the place it ought to be found, in the place if its foundation, it is no longer to be found. It is the same with our experience of time and its basis in the sense of the present – on close examination it simply evaporates. Our most private, most intimate experience of ourselves, when approached dissolves into thin air (which paradox induced Sartre to call the basis of experienced being, ‘nothingness’). Once no longer private, however, once communicated, even if only to oneself, in language, then things solidify a little around the sense of an ‘I’; the first person, then, is pretty much unavoidable. ‘I feel’, ‘I think’; yet if in many languages the ’I’ is elided, as also in the codes of certain discourses (in Chinese lyric poetry, for example) then it is implied, the subject position relative to the verb is syntactically clear – as (to put it terms of semantics) is the deixis, or pointing, towards the subject that operates the verb, the choice then for which person, usually the first person, is also clear – or as clear as the borrowed first person of the lyric will allow.      


In a similar vein, if we take the opposition between indicative and subjunctive mood, as the division between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, then we have the branches of philosophy that discuss what we should do, and so moral philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, etc; as opposed to descriptive philosophy purporting to describe matters as they are, and so offering the gamut from correspondence in logic through to the coherence of history or grand systems (the latter, some might argue, always already in subjunctive mood, but then one person’s indicative is often read by another as a manifestation of the former’s subjunctive wish). If our language does indeed limit what we can think, then these divisions in language may well lie behind some of our most treasured philosophical divisions…




‘First person’ experience, if largely illusory (with respect to pinning down the person behind the ‘person’), nevertheless seems indispensible. Once the foundation for belief, and, in its self-projection onto the universe as a whole, the origin of the object of belief: a God. As well as the foundation for our temporal projection outwards; the sense of our always in present as the birth of our notion of eternity (realm of Myth and Metaphysics): an illusion to mirror that of the eternal return of the self. Yet this ‘illusion’ is perhaps all we have; and so again, perhaps, a necessary illusion. Furthermore the first person has also been the basis for much philosophy. Indeed it was regarded as foundational from Descartes to the rise of Phenomenology - and includes the heritage of Idealism and perhaps also Empiricism, as the later too seeks first principles in an often passive reception, the targets for its skepticism may well include the self (yet the ‘place’ or ‘person’ of reception remains, a ‘first’ rather than other ‘person’), but rather are aimed at the strange fruits of an over extending Rationalism, of active reason used alone (a target shared by the rationalist, Kant). Indeed the parallels between the active role of reason in constituting reality and the passive reception of sense data that defines empiricism, and active and passive voice in language may make one wonder at the linguistic origins of these basic approaches. Most recently Post-structuralism and Post-modernism (along with the host of other ’Posts’ our epoch of thought is heir to) offer the return of the now divisible and fallible self as a new, if unreliable (paralleled by the unreliable narrator of post-modernist prose), basis for recent thinking, such as politics of identity. Along with the unavoidable re-constitution of an unstable ‘outside’ (as unstable theoretically as the evaporating ‘matter’ of the physics which is recent philosophy’s sister and inspiration, in what were once -somewhat naively- referred to as the ‘hard’ sciences). So we have a provisional, even conditional, ‘outside’ or exteriority to complement this (apparently indispensible) ‘inside’ or interiority (two ‘provisionals’ we seem not to be able to think without – witness the return of the self in recent philosophy after its removal, or sidestepping, by Structuralism, Functionalism and philosophies of language as influenced by the later Wittgenstein).


(As such the ‘foundation’ for the post-humanist position lies in the critique of the self-presence that is regarded as foundational by the tradition from Descartes onwards (including rationalists and empiricists), a critique evinced by many of a skeptical turn of thought (Hume, Nietzsche) and continued by Wittgenstein and by Derrida, who often appears to continue where the former left of …).


Post-foundationalism, despite its name, offers a return of foundations albeit as provisional… as a kind of ‘weak’ thought, under ‘erasure’, mark of its origins in Pragmatism. (Post-structuralism likewise offers the return of structure as provisional and positional, the product, for all its vaunted ‘objectivism’ or formalism, of a (theoretical) point of view…). Perhaps a longer tradition is that of the making of the self. We might glance at the trajectory from Classical Greek self-discipline, to Catholic monastic practice to Puritan manners to the recasting of this problematic in the work of Foucault. A tradition where the denial of self, also very definitely the practice of self-denial, is the very formation of self (again we witness the operation of strategies connected with the self as operating under a certain amount of denial, as with personification or the positing of eternity). The self as fashionable as the fashionable self of civilisation.


The move to the ‘third person’. Fruit of two revolutions: one scientific and slow, incarnate in measure; the other more recent, concerning the role of language, set in the relation of subject and predicate, subject and object. If present from Aristotle onwards, the ‘objective’ point of view has more recently come to the fore in philosophy in Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as in Structuralism and the metaphysical heritage of Materialism - as language or ‘Being’ that ‘thinks’ us. There is also a tapping into the tradition of self as constituted by the other as a tradition in philosophy (Hegel to Sartre and Lacan). Science, since freeing itself from philosophical or metaphysical underpinnings, of course, depends upon the third person standpoint, whether as the self ‘outside time’ employing the tautologies of artificial language to view all in a quantitative light or the other as object of study (Positivism, History, Sociology, Anthropology).


An assertion without a subject position; unanchored uterance; speech act with no point of origin; no context of enunciation?


Yet is the third person an alternative, or simply a way of avoiding the question of context, subject of enunciation or use, by substituting assertions, or (tautologous) descriptions of the way things are (as we want them to be, so as they should or ought to be, from the point of view of our desire, our intended use of them)? Descriptions which either slide from asserted ‘is’ to what is actually an ‘ought’, the subjunctive lurking behind the (putative) indicative, or which are called up at the behest of this positional desire or intention to use. The point of a first person is to avoid ‘fake’ third person positions, of subjective points of view masquerading as objective knowledge, and so as a cure -or at least corrective- to pure theorizing, the wielding of pure reason, (with its go anywhere, prove anything approach). In this light ‘experience’ is the cure for the ivory tower of Rationalism in all its guises. (However the unveiling of the institutional conditions or power relations that obtain at the origin of certain types of knowledge (Foucault) as of the functionalism that unmasks the delusions of belief are of third person origin – whence the need of a ‘critical functionalism’ in Ethnology and Anthropology).


Foundationality however seems to require something approaching the first person, so requiring the forgetting of both foundation and the fiction of the self if one wishes to go ‘beyond’ previous attempts at first principles; yet this very forgetting risks the accusation of deceit or self-deception so often leveled at a parallel practice in religious thinking, that of ascetic self-denial; both attempts at forgetting further the promotion (and concealment) of another kind of self… (as Iago’s Reason masks his self-interest and the denial of emotion at the heart of Euripides’ Bachaae leads to its violent unleashing in destructive worship).


Either way there is no escape from thinking as a human activity (our thinking machines have not yet taken over this job, although there is no ruling out the possibility that the next stage of the evolution of intelligence may not be organic). Rooted in place; not least the place in our heads (in which we experience ourselves as ‘housed’). Indeed any attempt to go beyond this context-bound, rootedness of the subject of enunciation is often part of a -thinly concealed- attempt to play God (to put oneself at the standpoint of the eternal). If this ‘position’, (being nowhere) is sought for as the guarantee of value, of value-conferring in the world, then the irony is that the nowhere place desired as guarantor (the outside), is also a product of our own minds. As are the values conferred. Thus revealing the true value of the subjective, eternal present of the first person: its ability to confer value, to confer quality in a quantified world (even under the slight of hand which covers a certain amount of self-deception). No mean feat; even if this offering, this gift, is made in a state of denial.


Second Person or ‘Middle’ term. Voice of the ’vocative’ or ‘calling’ as ‘calling to’; as compared to the first person’s ‘personification’ (where everything experienced appears to mirror the perceiving self) and the third person of nominalism, trope ’apostrophe’, or giving a name to things (in active voice, in passive voice the second and third persons are the origins of what effects us, we are effected by them). In effect the dispensing of object labels, or the Proper Name as label for the Subject (this is John, a cat, the sky), to which predicates then may be attached (John is a man, the cat is black, the sky is vast). This is the voice that calls to the ‘second person’, also known as the I/ You or I/ Thou relation, and is the voice of communication, of direct address and on a ghostly level, of ‘calling’ in the sense of ‘calling-up’ (or, in terms of the favourite trope of Paul De Man, ‘prosopopoeia’, the calling up of the absent and dead). This address may even be with the self as ‘you’ -as one is intimate with ones self- midway to the objectification of the self-as-other in the third person; in which case we have a conversation with this ‘almost-other’ as with a friend; a self watching self, with self both as ‘I’ and as ‘you’ (‘you then did this…’). However the usual form of this relation is still as an imaginary conversation with another, perhaps further inflected by the inclusion of the you/ thou modalities of address, as also by high/ low, formal/ intimate, distant/ familiar, along with moods such as loss/ mourning, alienation/ anxiety, repleteness/ plenitude. Writ large we have the relationship of self to the ‘Other’, whether conceptualized as ‘God’, ‘Gaia’, the source of Gift, the recipient of our debt, or our dependency and imbrocation in the sea of intersubjectivity in which we swim, and so an important aspect of the thinking of ethics and the social bond (Buber, Levinas).



Philosophy in the first, second, and third persons offers differing takes on the other and the object. If the first person foundation of knowledge and science has become increasingly untenable then the third person of scientism (as the no-person of logical tautology) of closed or artificial languages, leaves out too much that is essential to a human (and humane) existence. Skeptical enquiry rules out the self-regarding self as it does its universal personification, the Self of God (even as the eternal present of the now and eternity appear as twin illusions fostered by our experience in time). Philosophy in the second person, the address to the other as person, the second person personification (if you will) as key to our relationship with each other and perhaps even to the world (if we note the importance of the personification at the heart of genius loci). A relation even extending to (or recognizing the relation to) the Other as God; the interpersonal as valourised sphere of experience. If the third person offers us a view from without, one based upon received customs on the one hand and quantitative objectivity on the other, then this ‘external’ viewpoint can always be traced to a particular or embodied (read, ‘interested’) self; at worst we get the no-place of a God’s eye view, that metaphysical hiding place that turns out to be the view from nowhere (at best, one quantitative set of clothes succeed another as use and empirical data combine and recombine). This abstraction is why the first person is still important; no longer as a foundation for thinking, but as a representative of human experience and so (after Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu) as a corrective to the ivory tower, the rational grid and the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. The intimacy of the second person completes this necessary corrective to the otherwise successful ascendancy of the ‘third person’ sciences.


One can not have an emphasis on language (as first) or of its place in culture(s) as primary, with out using the first person, the ‘I’ after all is a linguistic construct, function or position. In a word, this word, if we can speak, we know how to use.


(The language of the self, our personal language, ‘speaking to oneself’, as not to be confused with ‘private language’ (as the self, pre language, here (the later) Wittgenstein shares ground with Derrida who in many respects appears to continue this line of research to its omnipresent vanishing point…’no outside text’. Natural language as our final home. The argument then is as to what constitutes natural language with its open-endeddness and the nature of its relation to the ‘artificial’ or second order, axiomatised, languages of mathematics, logic, grammar and other descriptive or qualitative formal languages – reducible to natural language but not capable of reducing it...)


The attentive reader will have noticed that I have used ‘our’ and ‘we rather more often than ‘mine’ and ‘I. So a better option may well be the use of the first person plural, the ‘We’ of our collective experience (as reiterated in language use and stored as collective memory in text and image, actual and virtual). Our experience is so often inseparable from its generalization… its communication, its interpersonal element (so also implying and subsuming our descriptions (read theories and philosophies) of others (third person) and our intercommunication (second person). We, despite our addiction to the idea of our unique individual being, owe a considerable debt, both evolutionary and constitutional (or, genetic and ontic) to community, to inter-subjective being, such that ‘We’ is perhaps more suitable than the first person singular ‘I’ in many of the cases where the latter is used. The main drawback of the plural form being that it includes the oft-used (rhetorical) slippage of part for whole, where some (few) speak for others (often the many); my ‘we’ as opposed to your or his or her (or indeed, its) ‘we’…


Life (and certainly the language in which we conceive it), therefore, consists of all three persons - and more, if we add all the conceivable plural and gender combinations… as well as some of the inferable generational and hierarchical uses. So we must make do with a manifold with partition - the parts of the self in (creative) tension (as usual)… all inseparable from the ‘outside’ they configure which in turn is (ultimately) responsible for their self-present and self-occluded configuration.







© Peter Nesteruk, 2009