I am a place

Perhaps since Wittgenstein, we’ve become a bit cautious about taking language as a guide to reality, but here is, I suggest, one place where reflection on language provides a profound metaphysical suggestion about the nature of selfhood.

Amongst many of the realists in India, it is common to think of the self as a unique kind of substance, and its states (affective, cognitive, volitional) as properties. As such, my current state of visual perception of a computer screen would be schematized as my (the self’s) possessing the property of visual awareness of a computer screen. And this particular state of visual perception (dharma) does not hang in space, it is grounded in my self, the property bearer (dharmin).

In The Character of Logic in India, Matilal reminds us that predication in India often uses the locative case, where here, the primary relation isn’t expressed as “property—possessor”, but “locatee—location”. In the context of stock examples of inference,  smokiness is located on the mountain, and therefore, fieriness is also located there.

We may note right away that the two ways of expressing predication often coincide. Using the genitive of possession or the locative of placement is then a matter of choice, and they are often used to express the same things. (E.g., for Rāmānuja, the selves and materiality are “located in” God, and also owned by him.)

I am not arguing that the “locatee—location” model is always better or radically different, but rather that the notion of the self as a location seems to me to make sense of what a self is, and what it does, in a profound way. On this idea:

A self is a unique location of mental states; a unique “place” where such states may be located. The existence of a self also allows for the co-location of varied states, the cohesion of which provides the basis of personhood.

What do we mean by location? I mean that in the “space of selves”, my self would be the unique place where the cluster of mental properties that comprise my personality are co-located (as well as the deeper subsurface states which support it). And this is the difference between my pains and yours. Mine are located “here”, yours “there”. You would say the opposite, correctly.

This is why there exist subjects and not simply a world of objects. Subjects are locations of experience, and hence suffering, pleasure, harm, and the rest. This is why they have moral worth, and why we must navigate our dealings with them with more care than with mere objects, which are unfit to be the location of such states.

In terms of personal identity, the self as location is not sufficient for diachronic or synchronic personal identity, but—at least the realists would argue—it is necessary, as it is needed to co-locate mental states, doing so for a host of states both synchronically and diachronically.

The self as unique location also make sense of notions of haecceities or uniqueness (sometimes mirrored by talk of viśeṣa in India). You can strip away all of my current properties and I’d cease to be a person, by my deep self is still a unique location of possible states and relationships. It need not be seen as an “essence” in a robust sense, but an irreducibly unique place that may uniquely locate possible subjective states.

One nice feature of this way of thinking of mental predication is that one need not hold that a self is a substance in a deeply metaphysically laden way other than noting that it is a place where one can locate and co-locate psychological properties.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

5 thoughts on “I am a place

  1. Great post Matthew.

    I am currently teaching a seminar on Ganeri’s The Self. Your post in mention of the material in Matilal’s book is helpful.

  2. Thank you, Matthew.
    I have a question and a comment. The first regards the quote “A self is a unique location…”: who said it? The comment is the following: I see your point concerning locations as a way to de-substantialise the sentence, or at least to avoid the problem of its substantiality. But why should this only be possible in case of locations? Could not one believe in a function-based self, i.e., a self which is not a substance but just a function (not a real “thing”, but a sum of functions performing the role of that alleged thing), even without the location-metaphor? After all, some Buddhist thinkers said that we have just dharmas and that the postulation of a dharmin beyond them is unwarranted. Or am I missing something?

    • Hi Elisa,

      Who said it? I did! I set it off in a justified block quote just to highlight it, not as a quotation from someone else. The second sentence of that passage, now that I think about, paraphrases something I said in a couple of places elsewhere.

      It seems to me to capture what it means to be a self, and it makes sense of the idea of the self as a locus of psychological states as found in many of the realist schools.

      And it’s not that the motivation is to avoid substantiality. That point was just an idea tacked on at the end, that locus-talk explains what they are getting at with substance-talk, and one need not buy in to a specific theory of the padārthas including the self’s being best framed as one of the padārthas, namely dravya, to capture this point.

      From the realists’ perspective, the Buddhist account has it’s own problems, as you well know, many of them stemming from the lack of locatedness if there are only dharmas without a dharmin.

  3. Metaphysically and logically prior to the self as a “location” (the ‘I am’ part of the phrase above) is what Raymond Tallis terms the “existential intuition,” which we awkwardly but necessarily express in propositional terms as “[That] I am this [x].” However, what is being articulated is “pre-” or “non-” propositional awareness (‘a “blush” of awareness’), which is, in turn, “the foundation of the propositional awareness that is unique to human [animals].” The proposition itself can refer to specific or singular, individuated locus: an individual body, a phenomenal body, an embodied self, “or, over time, a person.” The “this [x]” Tallis says, is “a pariculariser of the the personal existence I assume.” I won’t attempt to summarize what is, after all, and not surprisingly, a complex argument, but those interested should seek out Tallis’ book, I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

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