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Separating first-personness from the other problems of consciousness or ‘you had to have been there!’

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The concept of first-personness is well defined in grammar, but it has developed two discrepant senses in common usage and in the psychology and philosophy literatures. First-personness is taken to mean phenomenal experience (subjectivity, awareness, consciousness), and also to mean a person's point of view. However, since we can nonconsciously perceive, judge and behave, all from a point of view which we must name ‘our own', these acts can be called first-person acts even though they are nonconscious. Therefore, I propose that the main idea behind first-personness is the point of view; that it is not a unique property of consciousness; and that consciousness will be easier to understand if it is not freighted with extraneous issues. This essay explores the concepts underlying point of view and entity. Entiticity is viewed as a matter of degree and as a matter of convention. It is found most coherent to consider an entity's point of view as the total set of discriminations or interactions made possible by the entity's present state and context. Whether or not an entity is a person or is conscious is irrelevant to its having a point of view referenced to itself. Even inanimate objects can receive input and act only in so far as they are enabled or limited by their points of view. Since humans find it awkward at first to say that non-human or non-biological entities have a first-person point of view, it would be best to drop the reference to person in this context. C.S. Peirce's term ‘firstness', developed in 1891, might do nicely. This analysis of first-personness applies equally to agents as it does to subjects. Once these terms are clarified, it is easier to see how a superordinate entity reconciles conflict when its relatively autonomous subsystems have points of view discrepant from each other or from the whole. This has application in untangling confusions concerning the duality of the cerebral hemispheres and the results of their disconnection in relation to the popular assumption of personal unity.
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Keywords: Conscious; entity; first person; knowledge; non-conscious; point of view; self; subjectivity

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, UCSF.

Publication date: 01 February 1999

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