Saturday, 14 May 2011

against mineness

There are some questions in philosophy that I really just can't get on with. My hunch is that they dress themselves up as honing in on genuine theoretical projects whilst really being able to claim no more than the mere appearance of explanatory respectability.

Dan ZahaviOne which bugs me considerably is: 'What makes (me aware of) a particular experience (as) my experience?' The question gets asked, and then somewhat-phenomenalistically-inclined phenomenologists provide a theory of 'mineness', 'ipseity', 'self-intimating presencing', or what have you, by way of an answer.

But is it really a good question? Well, I do know what it is to ask 'What makes the car outside my car?' We know what kind of answer is called for - and in that knowing, know what the sense of the question is. The answer makes reference to certain paperwork, a certain financial transaction or gift, etc. But an essential part of the possibility of this kind of answer is that cars don't necessarily belong to me. I stand in a relation to the car, the relation being one of ownership, and I can say (by appeal to last night's poker game) what makes it the case that it is I rather than you who stands in this relation.

So too, I know what is being asked when you put it to me: 'What makes a chicken a bird?' To answer the question I just explain what a bird is. Here the matter of the question does not (a la 'my car' case) have to do with the possibility that a chicken might not have been a bird. Rather we just want to know what the essential features of bird-dom are that chickens enjoy. We have a grip on what such questions are asking because we know what to make of these two different deployments of 'makes'.

What I am submitting is that we don't really know what to make of 'What makes' in 'What makes a certain experience mine?' Substituting 'In virtue of what are' for 'What makes' doesn't get us any further. It just isn't obvious to me, to put a grammatical proposition in a rather too de re dress for my liking, that certain experiences are mine 'in virtue of' anything at all. Since there is nothing to be said about what makes a certain experience mine, there is accordingly also nothing to be said about what makes for my putative awareness (or what would make for my putative lack of awareness if I am suffering from a particular pathology) that a certain experience is my experience.

Similar difficulties arise for me in several other instances which the metaphysically minded are far more likely than I to find intriguing. If someone asked me 'What makes now the present moment?' I think I'd probably just have to let my jaw go slack. The only answer I can come up with is: 'Er, a grammatical rule', and  I have a sense that this will probably be experienced as more facetious than helpful.

You ask me 'What makes that woman your aunt?' I say 'Well, that's a slightly funny way of construing a question, but I can probably give you what you need if I let you know she is my father's sister.' And you say, 'No sorry, I know what an aunt is, and I appreciate how you are related, but what I want to know is what makes this woman, who is your father's sister, your aunt? Wherein the 'yourness'?' What I don't do now is develop a theory of a quality of 'myness' or 'yourness' which attaches itself to this particular relation.

Eugen Fischer
Here is what I think is going on for those who talk of the 'mineness' of my experiences. They have gotten held captive by a picture of experiences as inner objects. They may in all sorts of ways explicitly deny this but, as Eugen Fischer has described in his lovely book on Philosophical Delusion and its Therapy, this conscious denial need not prevent unconsciously entertained pictures from exerting their tacit influences on the kinds of questions we find ourselves wanting to ask.

If instead we remind ourselves that experiences are not objects but (intentional) relations to perceptibilia et al., the idea that grammatical possessives always imply ownership will rightly seem obscure. In truth we know all too well that we don't have much use for sentences which seem to invite us to suppose that we must enjoy some kind of relationship (such as ownership) with our relationships themselves.