Sebastian Rödl is a philosopher, not a poet, novelist, dramatist, or essayist. His appearance on this blog is an anomaly, prompted by the excitement and pleasure I took, as a non-philosopher, in reading his book, Self-Consciousness. I’m not qualified to assess his argument philosophically, but others have done so, and even as a non-philosopher, I can appreciate the movement, scope, and subtlety of his arguments.
The book starts with a problem: although we can describe the referent of the first-person, “I,” we cannot describe it’s “sense” (a term from Frege). The referent of the first-person would be the name of the speaker; it’s “sense” would be how it refers to the first-person; Rödl wants to understand the nature of the relationship between the first-person pronoun and the speaker.
But his ambitions are much greater: he seeks to revive and complete the German idealist project, working towards what Marx called a “true materialism,” unhindered by empiricism and positing a metaphysical account of action and thought. In so doing, he develops a notion of “causality” that stands in opposition to “cause;” he argues that the “unity of thought and movement in action is metaphysical, not verbal” with a corresponding unity for first-person belief statements; drawing on Kant, and continuing the argument against Hume as he appears in the guise of contemporary philosophers, Rödl explains that action concepts, like substance concepts, do not impose unity upon discrete events or objects in the world, but suppose unity, without which those events and substances could not be picked out in the first place; he establishes “the good” and “the true” as two essential “orders of reasoning,” under which one is subsumed by virtue of intentionally acting (“I do X because it is right”) and intentionally believing (“I believe x because it is true”); he closes the gap between the act and the thought that something is right to do, and between the gap between a belief and the thought that something is right to believe, explaining that there is no gap in the cases when acts and beliefs are sustained by a certain form of explanation, or causality–that something is right to do or believe; the form of explanation, that causality that represents an act or belief under either the order of the good or the true, is first-person statement, “I am cooking” or “I see the tree.”
But that is only in the first three chapters; the book’s astonishing ambition becomes apparent in Chapter 4, “Reason, Freedom, and True Materialism,” which offers an account of freedom that rescues Kant’s notion of “autonomy” from misreadings, and which saves freedom from arguments about deterministic chains of events–and it is only possible owing to what he has already set forth:
As Kant says, the concept of ‘freedom’ designates a kind of causality. The relevant kind is the one we have described: a causality of thought, sustained by a formally represented, rational and self-conscious, order. This explains the traditional doctrine that freedom is a character not only of acts of the will, but equally of acts of the intellect. The doctrine has been revived recently, but continues to meet with puzzlement. Our reflections allow us to state it in a manner which should no longer seem puzzling…
Some authors claim that I am free if my movements are caused by my beliefs and desires, presumably because, in this case, I am doing what I want to do and am doing it because I want to do it. What else can freedom be? But I may be doing A because I want to do B and because that doing A is a means of doing B, and yet fail to exercise freedom in doing A. Remember him who falls ill because he wants to lose weight, develops symptoms from his depression over his failure, on account of which he loses weight. His falling is is not an act of freedom. And he is no freer if, in addition to his desire to lose weight, there is among the psychic causes of his decline a belief that he will lose weight on account of this desire. (Such a belief could quite conceivably deepen his depression and aggravate the symptoms). Someone who is doing something because _________ manifests freedom not if exalted things follow the “because,” but if and only if the “because” bears a certain sense. Freedom is not a matter of what explains the movement, but a character of the manner in which it is explained. An action is free if its explanation exhibits a certain form…When an action can be explained in this way, then its subject’s thought that she is doing something it is good to do brings her closer to a certain finite end, or as circumstances reveal it to manifest a certain infinite end, is not a further causes, but the causality. The idea of freedom is the idea of an act that exhibits a causality of thought.
That “certain finite end” or “certain infinite end” is an end that corresponds with, or falls under, the order of the good–she is doing something that is good to do. Rödl explains further:
If the concept of a causality of thought is not available, being free necessarily is misconstrued as being caused to move by certain psychic states or events, with unlimited space for debate over their kind and content, for this then is the only alternative to the absurd view that being free is being not determined by anything. It is undetermined, let us suppose, whether a rabbit running across a field will pass to the left or to the right of a tree in its path or whether a rock rolling over a peak rising in its way will be deflected to the left or to the right. Neither the rabbit nor the rock manifest freedom in going right even though, we imagined, it was undetermined whether they would before they did. The idea of freedom is not the idea of a lack of determination; it does not signify the arbitrary, absurd, and null. It is the idea of a kind of causality, intelligibility, and reality: a causality of thought, an intelligibility that passes through an order of reason, and a reality that is self-conscious.
And further on:
When Kant says that the will gives itself the law, he means that the law of the will is a law of autonomy in the sense we have explained, and in a further sense. For, laws that are formally represented are one’s own in a yet stronger sense. A subject represents acts of hers falling under a formally represented order in unmediated first person thoughts. Her acknowledgment of this order, contained in these acts, is an unmediated first person thought as well. Hence, a formally represented order is one’s own in the sense that “one’s own”, here, is a first person pronoun. As a formally represented order is an order of reason, being autonomous in this stronger sense is being subject to laws of reason. Being under laws of reason, I am subject to nothing other than myself in the sense that these laws spring from, and constitute, the nature of that to which I refer first personally.
The argument in the book is as grand, as powerful, as it seems; it is like beginning out at sea, on the raft of the first-person pronoun, and feeling a crest build beneath it, as it approaches the enduring concepts and problems of philosophy.
The crash onto the shore comes at the end of Chapter 5, in which Rödl asserts “contemporary epistemology, sharing in the empiricism of all hitherto existing materialism, presupposes that the sensory nexus to an object by which I know how things stand with it is something to be known in turn only empirically, or through the senses”; his goal in the chapter is to “depart from this empiricism and develop a truly materialist account of receptive knowledge [that is, knowledge of objects in the world, received by the subject].” For Rödl, we have a “non-empirical knowledge of a material relationship with an object” because, to put the point hastily, we only know what we perceive receptively because we know that we perceive at all, and this latter is spontaneous and self-conscious knowledge. The skeptic retorts that our power to know the world may fail, but Rodl explains, drawing on Aristotle, that the notion of a power in the first place: all powers are liable to fail, since it is their nature that they are not yet fully actualized (if they were fully actualized, they would be ‘pure act,’ a divinity) and “if we made it our principle to include circumstances unfavorable to its exercise in the description of an object of a power so as to render it immune to being frustrate by unfavorable circumstances, we would never arrive at a description of a power.” –Take now the power of receptive knowledge, at the center of the chapter: “It is no accident if someone with the power to gain knowledge by means of the senses on a given occasion gains knowledge in this way…A power of sensory knowledge alone accounts for its acts, and therefore alone accounts for its subject knowledge of its act.” The spontaneous recognition that a power of sensory knowledge has been exercised grounds the recognition of what has been gained through such sensory knowledge.
(Our knowledge of ourselves, though spontaneous, is nonetheless materialist because, as Rödl argues in Chapter 4, first-person thoughts “pertain to a material substance…a man, a temporal and spatial, perishable and divisible substance.” The reason, he explains in passage of therapeutic philosophy, owes to the claim that “thinking first person thoughts representing movement, ‘I am doing A,’ I apply a material concept to myself”; within that thought representing movement, applies a concept of identity, because time lapses as the action is completed, as well as a concept of material substance, because the logical subject of a man speaking in the first person is a material man.)
Now for the end of the chapter, after Rödl has argued against Michael Williams’ epistemology. Reading his words, we should recall Wittgenstein: “Realism but not empiricism, that is the challenge”:
The problem is not epistemological realism, but the empiricist conception of material reality, through which Williams interprets it and which has impeded the development of a true materialism. Williams forgets a peculiarity of the nature of man that affects the way in which we know to: the nature of man is our nature. If we inquire into the nature of knowledge, we inquire into our own nature. And knowledge of ourselves must, in the case that is fundamental in the sense that only in virtue of it do we know ourselves, be unmediated first person knowledge. Such knowledge is not based on observation. The science of man, of which the theory of knowledge forms a part, is not an empirical science. It is pursued not by observing men and drawing inferences from these data but by articulating what we know of man by being men.
[I should note that, in contrast to the masculine gender of the language in this passage, Rödl most frequently makes “she” the subject of his sentences and examples].
From contemporary philosophy, this is heady stuff; but by the end of Chapter 5, it feels earned. What is left, we might ask; but the final chapter makes the full reach of the book apparent. Rödl’s friend (say the acknowledgements and footnotes), Michael Thompson, quotes their shared hero, G.E.M. Anscombe, in the introduction to his own book, Life and Action. In a 1958 paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Anscombe writes that, given the state of terminology in moral philosophy, the best path forward is to “banish ethics totally from our minds.” What this means is not an outright rejection of ethics, but a re-approach, from new foundations. Anscombe, quoted in Thompson, again: “there is philosophically a huge gap, as present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human ‘flourishing.'” Thompson says of himself that he is “climbing ladder reaches towards the ethical without really reaching it,” owing to his belief that the work Anscombe prescribed ought to be carried out; Rödl might be understood to be in the same position, but the ethical comes into view in the book’s final chapter, “The Second Person.” (As an aside, several years ago I read, with energy and excitement, Derek Parfit’s recent On What Matters–but Anscombe’s words feel pertinent to that book, especially after reading Rodl: the account of a self, of identity, of the will, of freedom: these appear in Parfit’s book, but in a form that, as incredible as the structure and design of Parfit’s argument, seem to be less solid than that structure and design require).
The aim of “The Second Person” is to assert that we can have access to understanding another person’s thoughts and that such access does not depend first and foremost on receptive knowledge, our sensory impression of what they see and say, but on such receptive knowledge framed by, and standing upon, spontaneous knowledge of what it means to intentionally act and believe in the first place; we can understand why others act and belief because we are capable of spontaneous knowledge of our own acts and beliefs:
The power whose presence in your accounts for your belief is the same as the power whose presence in me accounts for my knowledge of your belief. Second person knowledge of belief is not identical with its object, but it has the same ultimate cause: a shared power of receptive knowledge…This inner nexus of second person knowledge and its object did not go unnoticed, but the awareness of it has been distorted by the lack of the concept of a causality of reason. It has been claimed to be an artifact of the necessary method of interpretation that, for the most part, I find myself agreeing with her whom I interpret. If I am to understand someone else at all, I largely have to read my opinions into her, especially very dear opinions like the truth of my logic. Now it is true that I will for the most part agree with someone I understand. But this agreement is not the fundamental phenomenon; it has a cause, and this cause, not the agreement, is the source of understanding. Our agreement manifests the presence of the same order of reason in both of us; we agree because our thoughts have this common cause.
I hear in these words a corrective of Gadamer’s alignment of truth and understanding (though Gadamer’s concept of truth is different from Rödl’s); but more to the point, Rödl offers a profound (in so far as it rests on the arguments of five prior chapters) defense of the idea that understanding another is possible–and he will go further, explaining that “first person thought requires and includes second person thought…it is especial to self-consciousness,” which is “a manner of being for two: it essentially manifests itself in mutual recognition of self-conscious subjects as self-conscious.”
This equation resolves a paradox left open in Chapter 4: “A self-conscious subject must be, and yet cannot be, the source of her own self-consciousness; she must be, and yet cannot be, the source of the order being under which she is self-conscious.” The resolution cannot take the form of one person giving another a law, and the other person giving a law to the first in turn; that represents circular thinking because the instantiation of each law is left without explanation, depending on the other, without any initial starting point. Instead, Rödl argues, “an order of reason must manifests itself”–by necessity–“in mutual recognition of subjectts who fall under it”:
A first person thought represents an act as manifesting an order of reason. An order of reason is general; it induces a manifold, the manifold of those whose acts can be explained by being subsumed under it. An unmediated first person thought contains an idea of this manifold and places its referent among its members. In first person thought, I represent myself as one of a kind, which means that, thinking first person thoughts, I deploy the general idea of a subject of that kind, and thereby have the idea of other subjects of the order that governs my actions and beliefs”-
—Rödl has already argued that “the fundamental mode of referring to another subject is second personally” and so he can conclude that “as the power of first person thought is a power to think about other subjects, it is a power of second-person thought”
The consequence, once more, is for understanding. Facing off against one of his teachers and interlocutors, Rödl ends by taking the legs out from John McDowell’s claim that “there is no obvious reason not to hold that understanding requires not shared thoughts but different thoughts mutually known to stand in a suitable relation”–but, how, Rödl wonders, can be know what relation such thoughts stand in, if we do not know the thoughts in the first place: “I possess the notion of a thought that bears the relevant relation to my thought only if I understand you; my understanding you is the source of my possessing that relation, not the other way around”
To use the book’s analogy, just as my saying “today” yesterday and saying “yesterday” today express the same act of thinking (without these phrases, Rödl points out, there would be no such thing as an act of thinking expressed by either phrase; they point towards a unified act beyond the instance of either), so “the express the same thought.” And the same is true for first and second person thoughts. The books final words:
We said that my thinking second personally about you and your receiving my second person thought, thinking back at me second personally, is one act of thinking, an act of thinking for two. But you receive my thought thinking an unmediated first person thought [you think that I am thinking of you, etc]. Hence, my “You” addressed at you and your “I” that receives my address express the same act of thinking. This case is fundamental in that, without it, there would be no such thing as thoughts expressed by “You…” and, consequently, by “I…” As “You..” said by me and “I..” said by you in taking up my address express the same act of thinking, they express the same thought. This is a difference in the means of expression, not in the thought expressed. Second person thought is first person thought. It is thought of the self-conscious.
An end without fanfare, without seeming to stake out any great position or claim, but with a vista of ethical possibilities opening from the reality of shared understanding, of what might be called, in a humbler sense than it once possessed, humanism.