contra ipseity

A talk

12th June 2020 St Cats, Oxford / Revised for 1st March 2022, Phenolab

1. Introduction

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

(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." 

The English psychopathological lexicon calls some of these ‘passivity / made experiences; depersonalization, derealisation; delusions of reference, delusional perception’.

b. My claim in what follows: The phenomena are what they are, and are articulated by patients the way they are articulated; with all that I naturally have no quarrel! But the theory brought to bear on them by quite a few phenomenological psychopathologists is unhelpful. Unhelpful: not because it's false - but because it's meaningless. So the explanations of the pathology developed using the theory are invalid. (Also, though this is a topic for another day: it's unclear that we should even be after explanations of this kind for psychotic experiences.)

Some key terms from this phenomenological theory: 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. Consciousness’s purely immanent (i.e. non-transcendent) presence to itself. Non-thetic self-consciousness.

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! No quarrel!

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'm in some sense ‘conscious of’ my mental and physical states…. Then, not ok, not fine!

2. Schneider and Jaspers

How this got going in the Heidelberg school:


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 [KJ 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: a putative non-thetic (non-positional - these are Sartrean terms) self-awareness is normally so recessive that it can’t be noticed. But we do notice it in breakdowns, and these reveal to us something about the structure of ordinary (self-)consciousness (an idea also mooted by John Campbell, George Graham & G Lynn Stephens). (Positional Cs: Cs transcends itself, is directed at objects in (i.e. is an ‘intentional’ relation to) the world. Non-pos self-Cs which provides the putative 'sense of mineness’ is not ‘directed at’ anything in this manner; Sartre puts brackets round the ‘of’: my seeing the cat doesn’t contain also an awareness of my seeing, as if my seeing is the intentional object of a further act.)   

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

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

19th OED sense: “A faculty, esp. of an intuitive nature, of accurately perceiving, discerning, or evaluating. Frequently with of.”

I will use the term 'experiential judgements’ here; you can have a sense of: outrage, foreboding, injustice, something being not right, sense of right and wrong, someone standing silently behind us, sense of timing. (En passant: talk of ‘experiential’ is here intended to get away from cogitation. By analogy: I may, as I drive by, judge or misjudge how close your car’s wing-mirror is to mine without ever thinking about it.)

Because they have to do with judgement, it’s essential to such senses that they may 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 is not a helpful formulation – see later.) The cases in which we can get it wrong, that an arm or a gesture is mine, (e.g. in a photo, on a battlefield) involve instead what Sartre called reflective consciousness.

Now, I can be radically confused. But there are 2 types of confusion. One involves error. But the relevant sort here has instead to do with failing to make sense

Let me share 3 philosophical 'jokes' which have about them that depth which Wittgenstein said characterises a certain kind of philosophical humour:

1. 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. 

2. 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. Or: a nice story, 25th September 1938, front page of The Oregonian (newspaper), Portland, Oregon: 

Headline: ‘Nope’, he says, Body isn’t his. ‘Charles Keville walked into a temporary morgue and looked at a body which had been identified as his. “Nope”, he said, “that ain’t me”, and walked out again.’  

We understand all this - that there’s no such thing as identifying oneself to oneself as oneself - well enough when we laugh at the above ‘jokes’. And we forget it when we’re at our unfunny studies. Even so, the comic provides the truer understanding of human nature than the philosopher.    

3. Is My-ness Just Competence with ‘I’?

Perhaps having a sense of myness simply involves the ability to self-ascribe thoughts and feelings, to use ‘I’ as a reflexive pronoun, 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

How so?

Well, if what it is 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 of a sense of X.

The psychopathological ambition is, after all, something like this. Gordon says ‘The thoughts in my mind are not mine; they are Humphrey’s thoughts’. How is this so much as possible? Supposed answer: well, Gordon has suffered a disturbed sense of mineness, a disturbance of ipseity. But: what is it to suffer such a disturbed sense? Well, it’s to be disposed to become confused in the way Gordon becomes confused. ... This is a mere virtue dormitiva.

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

The … normal state is the absence of … discontinuity, dissociation and loss … [which] 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

Some examples of the phenomenological psychopathologists' claims:

On ipseity:

Parnas & Henriksen: “From a phenomenological perspective, all experience manifests in the first-person perspective as “my” experience—that is, the first-person givenness of experience implies a sense of “mine-ness,” “for-me-ness,” or “ipseity” that transpires through the flux of time and changing modalities of consciousness. … I am always pre-reflectively aware of being myself and I have no need for self-reflection to assure myself of being myself (e.g. I do not need to re­flect upon who these feelings or thoughts might belong to in order to know that it is me).”

On psychopathology:

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

Parnas & Henriksen: ““ipse­ity disorder” … indicates an instability in the normally tacit, taken- for-granted, pre-reflective sense of being a subject of awareness and action, which no longer saturates the experiential life in the usual, unproblematic way”

Dan Zahavi: “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.”

Dan Zahavi: 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.”

A dialectical encounter, beginning with my critique:

Error Theory: It means nothing to say that 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.

Imagined 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 self-relating or givenness or presence at all here? Why think that when an object is present to us in our experience of it, the experience is also itself somehow present to us?

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 problem if our self-consciousness were some kind of self-awareness in the first place. (We are neither mind-blind nor mind-present!)

What then is our diagnosis as to what’s gone wrong - why is the ‘ipseity’ idea so attractive?

Diagnosis: this idea of inner immanent self-awareness: “is blown up out of a misconstrue of the reflexive pronoun” (Anscombe 1975, 25) 

OK, so that sounds a bit ‘out-there’. How could it all be blown up out of a linguistic 'misconstrue'?

Well, recall first that the topic is: my alleged sense that I am the subject of my experiences. It is this alleged sense which has gone wrong in the ‘I disturbances’.

The critical Anscombian thought is that the underlying temptation here is to think that when I say ‘I feel X’, I’m expressing a thought which voices two judgements: that X is what is here felt, and that I am the one to feel X. But this is wrong in both parts: I am not, when I voice (say) my pain, judging that it’s pain that I’m in, nor that I am the one in pain.  

The ‘misconstrue’ 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. But this is just a nonsense: if there’s no such thing as failure, there’s also no such thing as success.

It is rather to do with the fact that - to now come back to something I mentioned earlier and said then that I’d return to later -  to quote Anscombe (1975, 32): “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 [it’s excluded] is that there is no getting hold of an object at all.”

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 in identification! – here in play.

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

Counter: Well, the issue isn’t the word ‘refer’. Help yourself to it if you must. But the thing is: that it ‘refers to the one using it’ is a rule that others can use - but it doesn’t at all capture our own use of it. 

Thus we can’t achieve the same with ‘I' as we can with names (so also questionable whether ‘I’s 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 is/am hungry.

Counter-Critique: We are not talking about ‘linguistically-conditioned self-reference’, but about ‘a property of mineness in experience itself’. 

Response: The point of the critique was precisely that such talk of ‘mineness', ‘self-presence’, etc., expresses a philosophical fantasy itself rooted in a misunderstanding of our concepts. Avowal - in the sense of simultaneous expression and self-ascription (e.g. ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I hope it’s nearly the end of the talk’) - is not grounded in any kind of judgement about who we’re talking about. We aren’t in the business of picking out anything or anyone, in putative pre-reflective judgements of however immanent a sort, when we use the reflexive first-person pronoun. 

5. Conclusion: What Then Are Ichstörungen?

So: 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.

This is what is striking. This is what must be accepted. We sometimes get into such confusions. Especially when severely mentally ill. But also when infants, when dreaming, when concussed, etc.

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

There’s no need for psychopathological theorists to follow their subjects here – to embed alienated conceptions of subjectivity in their explanations of alienated experience.

The temptation to the question remains: ‘So just what is going on here?’. Well, what I leave you with is the thought that the subject who is experiencing radical self-disturbances is having such experiences as are actually individuated by their disposition to use just the peculiar terms they use. (Jaspers: We're forced to use the words provided by the patients. ... Not, I'd add, because we don't enjoy independent access to their mental goings on, not because we have to make do with second best ... but because the very idea of such access is incoherent, because we have here only the illusion of something better ... and ultimately because the criteria of identity for the experiences in question just are the articulations offered them by their sufferers.)

Don’t think that the patient here is accurately or inaccurately describing their own experiences. If they were sane, still prodromal perhaps, they might say ‘it is for me somehow as if I had a thought that’s not my own’. No: they are not describing, but expressing, and the expression gives the criteria of identity for the content of the confusion.


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