The Meaning of I

One of the characters in my novel Black Earth/White Bones is Jurgen Wolff, the neurotic son of an almost-famous Austrian philosopher. In the course of the book Jurgen becomes deeply troubled by the thought that he might not exist. The argument that leads him to this disturbing conclusion goes something like this.

Words obtain their meaning through a process of reference. The term ‘Eiffel Tower’ or ‘Ohakune Carrot’ refer to particular objects in particular places. We might say such names are labels that pick out things. In a similar way, the term ‘dog’ picks out a member of a particular class of animals.

In English, and in many other languages, there is a group of words, which philosophers call ‘indexicals’, that work a little differently.  This group includes words like ‘now’, ‘here’, ‘today’, ‘you’ and ‘I’. Indexicals obtain their reference from the particular circumstances in which they are used. ‘Now’ refers to the time that it is spoken, ‘here’ to the place. ‘Today’ picks out 20/12/09 on 20/12/09 but not on 1/6/10. ‘You’ picks out the person who is addressed, ‘I’ the person speaking. We might say that the meaning of an indexical is determined by a particular point of view.

Jurgen’s problem in Black Earth/White Bones comes from the use of the word ‘I’ and its objective variant ‘me’.

Generally speaking, we think of a person as consisting of a body and a mind or a mind incorporated in a body or a physical part and a mental or conscious part. Some of us might want to call the mental part ‘a soul’. What, precisely, do the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ pick out in this context?   

I can say ‘I am 1.85m tall’, which implies that the object that ‘I’ refers to is physical. I can also say ‘I am not my body’ without talking obvious nonsense or ‘I like my body’. Such sentences suggest a reference that is non-physical. What about ‘I do not like the way I look?’ This seems to imply two referents for the word ‘I’ one of which is purely physical and one of which isn’t. How about this one?

‘When I die I don’t want to be buried I want you to cremate me and scatter me in the Rose Garden and, don’t forget, I’ll be watching to make sure you do.’

It seems here that the referent for ‘I’ and ‘me’ shifts around from the physical to the mental, from the live person to the dead body to the ashes to the immortal soul.

This slipperiness leads Jurgen to wonder whether the word ‘I’ refers to anything at all and, if it doesn’t, then his only conclusion is that he does not exist.

The idea that a person consists of a mind and a body is deeply rooted in human culture. It is implicit in the notion of ghosts and ancestor spirits and traceable through early thought into philosophy and the traditional doctrines of religions such as Christianity and Islam. When we die our souls go somewhere: to Hell or Heaven or Valhalla or Paradise or maybe just to wander the world among the living.

I think there are two impulses behind these beliefs. First, if you hold to your own perspective and refrain from adopting an ‘outside’ view of yourself, your own death is inconceivable. It seems impossible that you could cease to exist. What is it like to be dead? Well, nothing. The belief in an afterlife is not just a comfort and an antidote to fear. From a certain perspective, the immortality of one’s soul is an entirely rational conclusion. This does not, of course, mean that it is a correct one.

The second reason for belief in the separate existence of a mind or soul is that, on occasion, we experience ourselves that way. I can adopt a point of view in which my foot or my waistline or the shape of my ears or, conceivably, my whole body becomes an object of my attention. Anything that can be an object considered in a point of view is logically distinct from whatever it is that does the considering. It is tempting to call the considerer, which is intimately bound up with one’s sense of self, a soul or a mind or a consciousness and then begin to analyse it as we would any other object. Such projects are fraught with difficulty, as Jurgen’s conundrum shows. The problem is not that we are our bodies, as reductionist science or philosophy wants to claim, but that we cannot be the objects of our own analysis. Like the speck in the field of vision that moves as soon as I try to focus on it, the subject of my point of view can never become its object.

Happy Hollyhocks and Great Seasonings!

4 Responses to “The Meaning of I”

  1. jurgen wolff Says:

    Sounds like an interesting fellow… 🙂

  2. Chris Says:

    And nothing like any real person of the same name, I hasten to add.

  3. Glavniru Says:

    Моя история из жизни: мы как-то с мамой ехали в маршрутке,( мама спец по всем видам мяса на глаз определяет что это), на остановке залазит подвипывший мужик с куском свежака в одноразовом пакете. Едем. Маршрутка резко тормозит,мужик по инерции бежит вперед и пакет рвется ,оттуда выпадет свежак ,дальше мамины слова- ” Мужчина,у вас вымя выпало!” я медленно сползаю под сиденье , пассажиры ржут, мужик красный – выбегает на следующей остановке :)))

  4. Bruitin » Blog Archive » The Same Blue Says:

    […] same blue that I see if I were looking through my eyes’. This second question takes us back to Jurgen’s conundrum. It suggests a dualistic view of what it is to be a […]

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