The Impersonal Self: Autonomy, Ownership, and Eliminative Subject

Most of the time in our everyday lives we talk of this person or that person as having psychological states and who does things, performs actions: as someone who owns their psychological states and actions. The notion of self-ownership has a long history (of which more later). We might call this the Sovereign Self or the Autonomous Subject theory of the person. The invention of autonomy as a concept was the creation of a unique philosopher, Immanuel Kant. As J.B. Schneewind in his epochal history of this concept tells us Kant used the notion of invention for this term of autonomy in the same way as Leibniz, another philosopher of the 17th Century for whom Kant had great respect but often disagreed with:

“Lebniz thought up a simple substance which had nothing but obscure representations, and called it a slumbering monad. This monad he had not explained, but merely invented; for the concept of it was not given to him but was rather created by him” – from Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

Kant saw autonomy as the moral center of our sense of identity and subjectivity. For Kant autonomy required what is termed ‘contracausal freedom’ or free will: he believed that in the unique experience of the moral ought we are “given” a “fact of reason” (Schneewind, 3). For him free will was part of a mechanism of law, the imposition of certain codified rules and regulatory processes that internalized our need to obey. In his writings he alludes to the sense of persons as agents who are self-governed and in this way were considered autonomous agents with free will. I’ll not go into the full arguments presented by Kant for this view, to do so would entail an explication of his mature moral philosophy.

Instead, I move on past this and onto the contemporary writings of an eliminativist whose stance is in direct opposition to this whole moral tradition. David Parfit in his Reasons and Persons develops the notion of impersonalism in which `reality could be fully described in impersonal terms: that is, without the claim that people exist’.’ As Parfit explains it:

Because we ascribe thoughts to thinkers, it is true that thinkers exist. But thinkers are not separately existing entities. The existence of a thinker just involves the existence of his brain and body, the doing of his deeds, the thinking of his thoughts, and the occurrence of certain other physical and mental events. We could therefore redescribe any person’s life in impersonal terms. In explaining the unity of this life, we need not claim that it is the life of a particular person. We could describe what, at different times, was thought and felt and observed and done, and how these various events were interrelated. Persons would be mentioned here only in the descriptions of the content of many thoughts, desires, memories, and so on. Persons need not be claimed to be the thinkers of any of these thoughts.2

In this view the Self as Autonomous free will or moral center is eliminated in preference to a new description in which a person is seen in impersonal terms as the site or medium through which events such as thought, desire, memory and so on occur. As he states it in this view it is not merely true here that the unity of different experiences does not need to be explained by ascribing all of these experiences to a person, a self, or autonomous subject in the Kantian sense, but that the unity of experiences, in each stream, cannot be explained in this way: there are only two alternatives(i.e., we might ascribe the experiences in each stream to a subject of experiences which is not me, and, therefore, not a person).(ibid. Kindle Location 5575-5577).

The notion that we cannot attribute these experiences, thoughts, memories, etc. to a particular subject, person, or identity frees us into what might be termed the deanthropomorphization and impersonalization as non-intentional. Eliminating the intentional attribution of thought, experience, desires, etc. to a unique identity or self suddenly offers us a completely different set of ethical questions. The notion of the dilemmas facing such a view of subjectivity as the impersonalization and deanthropomorphization of the Subject. In 1999 Parfit would reject this notion:

In a later article of 1999, he withdraws his earlier claim, which he now labels `F’, that `reality could be fully described in impersonal terms: that is, without the claim that people exist’.’ He says, `F, as I shall admit here, was a mistake’. The idea that thoughts, experiences, and acts are had by, or performed by, something is now agreed to be an extra idea, but we can imagine someone operating instead with the idea of thoughts, experiences, and acts merely occurring in a body. Parfit thinks that such a person would lack our concept of a person, but would be no worse off and in a way better off. He would be like someone who lacked the concept of a river, but had the concept a continuous flowing of water in a certain pattern . Parfit distinguishes the ownership relations of had by, done by, from the components of a person, and he sees our existence as consisting in `the existence of a body and the occurrence of various interrelated mental processes and events’. He thus sees himself as still maintaining some kind of `reductionism’, in that persons can be `reduced’ to these latter things as components, even though ownership, which is part of the concept of a person, is no longer included as something deducible. This seems to be a weaker form of reductionism, in that the account is an account not of a person, but only of a person’s components. And it might be added that the components are themselves under-described, in that it is omitted that the mental processes and events are owned.3

This move toward a description of components rather than persons shifts the eliminative move toward a new elminativist attribution theory. Eliminativism predicts that part or all of our folk-psychological theory will vanish into thin air, just as it happened in the past when scientific progress led to the abandonment of the folk theory of witchcraft or the protoscientific theories of phlogiston and caloric fluid. This prediction rests on an argument which moves from considering folk psychology as a massively defective theory to the conclusion that—just as with witches, phlogiston, and caloric fluid—folk-psychological entities do not exist. Thus philosophy of mind joined attribution theory in adopting a critical attitude toward the explanatory adequacy of folk psychology.4

For Parfit it is not the concept of individual or self that is being eliminated as much as it is the notion of ownership. The idea of ownership is not after all included, not even as a way of talking, in his account of an embodied stream of consciousness. This seems  to acknowledge that the idea of ownership has actually been eliminated from that account, rather than being reduced to something else. It is not the person, but only the components of the person, that are now treated as reducible. But already the earlier claim that talk of ownership could be dropped without loss looks like elimination of all but a name.(see Sorabji, Kindle Locations 3319-3322)

What is ownership? In most ways this leads back to the history of our notions surrounding private property. Problems of personal identity are expressed in terms of the self’s being lost, stolen, possessed by others, or ‘inauthentic.’ Self-ownership (or sovereignty of the individual, individual sovereignty or individual autonomy) is the concept of property in one’s own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity, and be the exclusive controller of his own body and life. According to G. A. Cohen, the concept of self-ownership is that “each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply.”

The philosophers William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson described those possessed of a mind conducive to self-ownership as sovereign individuals, which have supreme authority and sovereignty over their own choices, without the interference of governing powers, provided they have not violated the rights of others. This notion is central to classical liberalism and individualistic political philosophies such as abolitionism, ethical egoism, rights-based libertarianism, Objectivism (Ann Rand), and individualist anarchism.

The  legal scholar Meir Dan-Cohen in his essays on The Value of Ownership and Responsibility and the Boundaries of the Self. The emphasis of this work is in illuminating the phenomenology of ownership and our common usage of personal pronouns to apply to both body and property; this serves as the folk basis for legal conceptions and debates about responsibility and ownership. Another view holds that labor is alienable, because it can be contracted out, thus alienating it from the self. In this view, the freedom of a person to voluntarily sell oneself into slavery is also preserved by the principle of self-ownership.

We can find such notions of self-ownership in many authors: John Locke wrote in his Two Treatises on Government, “every man has a Property in his own Person.” Locke also said that the individual “has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did.” Josiah Warren was the first who wrote about the “sovereignty of the individual”. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is sometimes viewed as an implementation of the concept of self-ownership, as are some portions of the Bill of Rights.

So it is this whole history of Self as self-ownership that is being eliminated from these newer notions of personhood, not the concept of person itself. The notion that we are component systems within  larger environmental component systems is becoming the standard move for elminativists and naturalists alike. The mechanisms underlying this is the key to the whole edifice and will need to be explored in further posts.

1. Kant, Immanuel (2008-08-14). Works of Immanuel Kant: Including Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals & more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 8562-8568). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.
2. Parfit, Derek (1984-04-12). Reasons and Persons (Oxford Paperbacks) (Kindle Locations 5568-5574). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Richard Sorabji. Self: Ancient and Modern Insights About Individuality, Life, and Death (Kindle Locations 3300-3309). Kindle Edition.
4. Theory of Mind.Massimo Marraffa. Internet Encylopedia.

1 thought on “The Impersonal Self: Autonomy, Ownership, and Eliminative Subject

  1. Reasons and Persons is a very strange book, a great example, I think, of what happens when you fall into the ‘Dissociation Fallacy,’ the trap of thinking you can selectively pick some intentional concepts/phenomena for elimination and not others.

    I’d be interested to see what you think of Dennett’s “Mechanism and Responsibility,” Craig. From my standpoint, much of the folk-psychological vocabulary can be functionally redeemed, so long as we refuse to theorize them in what seem to be their own terms (because we literally have no metacognitive access to those terms).


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