contra ipseity

Notes for a short talk to the Phenomenology and Mental Health Network Meeting, 12th June 2020, St Catherine's College, Oxford

1. Introduction

a. Psychopathologists tell us of a range of distinctly schizophrenic disturbances – Ichstörungen – that we may call ‘self-disturbances’, ‘I disturbances’… even ‘ipseity disturbances’ if you like…

(a) "My thoughts are not thought by me. They are thought by somebody else"
(b) "Feelings are not felt by me, things are not seen by me, only by my eyes"
(c) "This (thing, event) directly refers to me."
(d) "My thoughts can influence (things, events). This (event) happens because I think it"
(e) "To keep the world going, I must not stop thinking/breathing, otherwise it would cease to exist."
(f) "My experience has changed somehow. It is not real somehow such as I myself am somehow not real."
(g) "Things do not feel real. There is something like a wall of glass between me and everything else."
(h) "Time has disappeared. … you could say there are bits of time, small pieces, shaken and mingled, or you could also say that there is no time at all."

In English psychopathology we call some of these passivity / made experiences; depersonalization, derealisation; delusions of reference, delusional perception.

b. My claim in what follows: The theory brought to bear on them by phenomenological psychopathology is unhelpful. Unhelpful because meaningless.

Some key terms from this phenomenological theory that I will argue are largely meaningless: Sense of myness / mineness. Ipseity. Self-givenness (i.e. givenness to self). First-person point of view. First-personal presence. Sense of self-coinciding. Auto-affection. Non-thetic self-consciousness. Consciousness’s purely immanent (i.e. non-transcendent) presence to itself.

A note on ‘self-consciousness’: if one enjoys this simply to the extent that one can make meaningful use of the word ‘I’ in ‘avowals’ or ‘declarations’ of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily posture, actions, etc…. then, ok, fine!

But if ‘self-consciousness’ is taken to mean ‘consciousness of self’ – so that I could be said to properly use the word ‘I’ as above because I am ‘conscious of’ my mental and physical states…. Then, not ok, not fine! 

That, at any rate, is what I'll argue below.

2. Schneider and Jaspers


Because this sense of “me” and “mine” is so elusive a concept to grasp, its disturbances are ill defined and hard to sample. This particularly applies to thinking and somatic experience… Only when the sense of “me” and “mine” is encroached on from without can we grasp at the disturbance.


Self-awareness is [he alleges] present in every psychic event. Every psychic manifestation, whether perception, bodily sensation, memory, idea, thought or feeling carries this particular aspect of ‘being mine’ of having an ‘I’-quality, of ‘personally belonging’, of it being one’s own doing. … If these psychic manifestations occur with the awareness of their not being mine, of being alien, automatic, independent, arriving from elsewhere, we term them phenomena of depersonalization. … In the natural course of our activities we do not notice how essential this experience of unified performance is.

The idea: this putative (non-thetic/positional) self-awareness is normally so recessive that it can’t be noticed. But we do notice it in breakdowns, which breakdowns reveal to us something about the structure of ordinary (self-)consciousness (an idea also mooted by John Campbell, George Graham & G Lynn Stephens).

So what is this sense of mineness? This sense of my thoughts, hand, face, feelings, sensations, as mine?

Well: what, first, are ‘senses’? There are 26 different senses of ‘sense’ in the OED!

I've the sense that the 19th OED sense is the pertinent one: “A faculty, esp. of an intuitive nature, of accurately perceiving, discerning, or evaluating. Frequently with of.”

Senses here are experiential judgements: outrage, foreboding, injustice, something being not right, sense of right and wrong, someone standing silently behind us, sense of timing.

Because they have to do with judgement, it’s essential to such senses that they could be misleading; it’s of their nature to get something right or wrong. My outrage may be misplaced; there may be nobody behind me; my arm may not be raised, my timing be off.

So what then is this alleged sense of mineness that my own thoughts and feelings and postures etc are involved in? Surely I don’t pre-reflectively judge that they are mine? For I can’t get it wrong that they are mine. (Although this in fact is not a helpful formulation – see later.)

I can be radically confused – but this is not the kind of confusion which involves error – but is instead a sort that involves failing to make sense.

William James’s correspondent’s anecdote about Baldy:

In half-stunned states, self-consciousness may lapse. A friend writes me: "We were driving back from —— in a wagonette. The door flew open and X., alias 'Baldy,' fell out on the road. We pulled up at once, and then he said, 'Did anybody fall out?' or 'Who fell out?'—I don't exactly remember the words. When told that Baldy fell out, he said, 'Did Baldy fall out? Poor Baldy!'

Baldy’s disturbance is manifest not simply in his confusedly calling himself by his own name, as a young child might, but by his falling out of the carriage and knowing that someone had fallen out – but not who!

Far from Baldy’s disturbance showing up a failure to engage in an allegedly normal business of correctly picking oneself out as the subject of one’s own activities, our sense of its absurdity instead shows up the nonsensicality of that very idea.

A Sufi tale attributed to Mullah Nasruddin:

After a long journey, Nasruddin came at night to the marketplace and lay down to sleep. But so many people were there in the hubbub that he feared not knowing which one was he on waking. To make himself identifiable, he tied a gourd to his ankle, and then went to sleep. His mischievous neighbour, seeing what the Mullah had done, untied the gourd and affixed it to his own ankle. On waking Nasruddin was mightily disturbed and exclaimed: ‘It seems that he is me. But if so, then who now am I?’

Nasruddin’s confusion here, we might say, consists not in his actually taking himself for his neighbour – since it’s not clear to us what that would even mean – but in his confusedly thinking that he so much as needs to identify himself in the first place. 

3. Is My-ness Just Absence of Incompetence with ‘I’?

Perhaps having a sense of myness simply involves not being confused in Baldy / Nasruddin - type ways? To not confusedly ascribe my own thoughts and feelings to another?

OK, fine. But if we agree to that, we shall also have to agree that reference to an absence of a sense of mineness is now utterly non-elucidatory when it comes to the Ichstörungen. If to enjoy a sense of X is to not be in state Y, then we can’t form any clearer an idea of what it is to be in state Y by adverting to the absence here of a sense of X.

Anscombe registers this in her 1975 essay ‘The First Person’:

The … normal state is the absence of … discontinuity, dissociation and loss … [which normal state] can therefore be called the possession of ‘self-feeling’: I record my suspicion that this is identifiable rather by consideration of the abnormal than the normal case.

4. Zahavi, Sass, & Parnas

These phenomenologists' claims:

Schizophrenic disturbances of ‘mineness’ (Meinhaftigkeit (Schneider), for-me-ness, ipseity (Sartre)) are disturbances of ‘self-givenness’, of the ‘first-person perspective', of 'self-presence’.

“whether a certain experience is experienced as mine or not … [depends] upon … the [implicit self-]givenness [the non-thetic/non-positional self-consciousness] of the experience. If the experience is given in a first-personal mode of presentation, it is experienced as my experience, otherwise not.”

Talk of “mineness… is not meant to suggest that I own [all my] experiences in a way … similar to the way I possess external objects…” The experiences’ “commonality” has instead to do with “the distinct givenness [or] first-personal presence of experience. … [T]he experiences I am living through are given differently to me than to anybody else.”

My critique:

Critical Claim: It means nothing to say that our own experiences are given or present to us. This is all just a hangover from an inner consciousness / introspection / acquaintance model of our involvement with our thoughts and feelings, in which they become objects of some kind of inner sense.

Response: But it is precisely the point of non-thetic/positional self-consciousness to deny this two-part subject-object relation in self-consciousness. Here we relate to ourselves qua ourselves not qua another.

Counter: But why talk of self-awareness or presence or self-relating at all here? Why think that an experience which presents an object to us is also itself present to us? Why think of self-consciousness as consciousness of/by a self?

Response: Because without some such presence, how would we know what we think or feel? We would be ‘mind- or self- blind’.

Counter: Why assume that any kind of awareness or sense of anything is needed to self-ascribe sensations, thoughts, limb positions, etc? Being ‘mind-blind’ could only be a meaningful a problem if our self-consciousness is some kind of self-awareness in the first place. (We are neither mind-blind... nor mind-present!)

Diagnosis: this idea of inner immanent self-awareness: “is blown up out of a misconstrue of the reflexive pronoun” (Anscombe 1975, 25; check out the gorgeously archaic 'misconstrue'). The misconstrual has to do with assuming that ‘I’ is a ‘referring expression’, that there is something (self-ascription) that could be succeeded or failed at here, that there is ‘guaranteed success’ in self-reference (which is a nonsense: if there’s no such thing as failure, there’s no such thing as success). (“Getting hold of the wrong object is excluded, and that makes us think that getting hold of the right object is guaranteed. But the reason is that there is no getting hold of an object at all.” (Anscombe 1975, 32)). This goes both for the what and the who of our own experience. Talk of ‘immunity to error through misidentification’ is an unhelpful way to make a conceptual point – one that borrows the terms of the very kind of thought it’s really trying to reject. As if there actually was some kind of success – a guaranteed success! – here in play.

Counter-Critique: On ‘I’ not being a referring expression – surely it designates the one using it?

Counter: Well, it’s a rule that others can use ("When he says 'I' he means 'Richard Gipps'"), but doesn’t capture our own use of it: we can’t achieve the same with it as we can with names (so also questionable whether ‘I’ is really a pronoun at all – depending on what we mean by ‘pronoun’). We can imagine peculiar cases, more neurological than psychopathological, in which I’m mistaken about whether, say, Richard Gipps is hungry (perhaps I’ve forgotten my own name). But what we don’t find cogent is the suggestion that I may be mistaken about whether it’s I who's hungry.

Counter-Critique: We weren't talking about 'linguistically-conditioned self-reference', but about an experiential property of mineness.

Response: The point of the critique was that such talk of mineness, self-presence, etc., is an expression of a philosophical fantasy based on a misunderstanding of our concepts. Relinquish the fantasy and we realise that avowal is not a form of judgement. And that we're not in the business of picking out anything, in pre-reflective judgements, of however immanent a sort, when we use the reflexive first-person pronoun.

5. Conclusion: What Then Are Ichstörungen?

Confusional failures of ‘self-consciousness’ either in clear consciousness (delusional passivity experiences etc), or in Baldy type cases, are not confusions of a mis-judgement, but of a nonsense, sort.

The ‘self-alienation’ these experiences manifest shows itself in the use of a language only apt for alterity (judgements about others) in the domain of subjectivity (my living out of my experiences).

There’s no gain from psychopathological theorists following their subjects here – no point in them embedding alienated nonsensical conceptions of subjectivity in their explanations of alienated nonsensical experience.


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