The Given and the Self-Presenting

Ronald C. Hoy

Reprinted from Noûs 19 (1985): 347-64, with the permission of Professor Hoy and the publisher, Blackwell Publishing Company.

Right now, you should be able to know that you think you are beginning to read a philosophy paper. At least, you should know something about your strictly present ("occurrent") experience. How is this possible unless something is "given" at the very moment of your experience? Widespread acceptance of the thesis that the given is a myth may make this question seem old-fashioned (Rorty, 1979). I would like to argue that such a question is still viable and may even help guide naturalistic attempts to deal with mental phenomena. My approach will be novel in that I want to go beyond ordinary analytic epistemology, that is, beyond the analysis of epistemic concepts and beyond the construction of rival foundational or coherence philosophies. I want to test such theories by seeing how well they account for certain aspects of the temporality of experience. My result will also be novel, for the thesis that will emerge is that if we make certain plausible assumptions about time and experience (assumptions that a coherence theorist might typically make) then there are plausible theoretical reasons for positing some form of the given.

    The temporality of experience generates philosophical problems because beliefs about time and experience are often incoherent. For example, people typically believe that they can perceive in a moment such durational processes as the streaking of meteors. However, taking seriously the idea that such processes are temporal implies that their earlier phases do not exist when their later ones do, so how can both be the objects of a perception? The easy answer that the perceptual experiencing is also a durational process just leads to more questions. Since the earlier phases of the perceiving process do not exist when the later phases do, how exactly do they influence or help to constitute a unitary perception? To use William James' term, since reflection shows that experienced phenomena occupy a specious present, how can experience be understood in terms of what is genuinely (strictly) present? There are a variety of philosophical theories that address these questions (See Hoy, 1982, 1976a, 1976b). According to some, what is really given in a strictly present experiencing is not some portion of the past (the earlier phases of a duration), but a strictly present surrogate, including, e.g., faded sensa (Hoy, 1976b) or elements of "retentional consciousness" (Husserl, 1966). Significantly, such theories assume that something strictly present is given or capable of being given. Generalizing, I want to confront contemporary epistemologies with the following problem (what I will call the "temporality problem"): how well do they account for ostensible apperceptive knowledge of mental occurrents in terms of states that are strictly present? I will sharpen this problem after briefly rehearsing recent debates about whether mental occurrents can be given or self-presenting.


    Foundationalist theories of knowledge that endorse some form of the given, or as it is more recently called, the self-presenting, seem to hurdle the temporality problem with beguiling ease. Roderick Chisholm says "if there is something that is directly evident to a man, then there is some state of affairs that 'presents itself to him'", and he defines the self-presenting as follows: "h is self-presenting for S at t = df h occurs at t; and necessarily, if h occurs at t then h is evident for S at t" (Chisholm, 1977, pp. 20-22). This definition demands the simultaneity of what is self-presenting with the state of knowing it. So if experiences are self-presenting then one can know their character right at the moment of their occurrence.

    Some philosophers find this position objectionable because simultaneous self-presentingness suggests that the mind stands in some preternatural intentional relation to the self-presenting. Moreover, non-foundationalists think they have systematic reasons for rejecting anything that smacks of the incorrigibly given. Wilfrid Sellars has recently analyzed the self-presenting with an eye to showing that it suffers from some of the same defects as traditional concepts of the given. A review of Sellars' analysis will lead us to ask how well his important non-foundationalist theory copes with the temporality problem.

    The strategy of Sellars' attacks on the given can be summarized as his presenting the foundationalist with dilemmas: he proposes alternative ways to analyze what is happening when something is given or self-presenting and then argues that acceptance of either alternative undermines the epistemic power or priority of what purports to be given. In his early "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" Sellars asked one to try to choose

  1. It is particulars which are sensed. Sensing is not knowing. The existence of sense-data does not logically imply the existence of knowledge.
  1. Sensing is a form of knowing. It is facts rather than particulars which are sensed (Sellars, 1956, p. 255).

Alternative (a) puts a logical gap between the would-be foundations of knowledge and all beliefs: sensing a particular is not ipso facto to believe anything about the particular, so its being sensed ". . . would be a non-epistemic fact. . ." Following Kant (by maintaining that all belief and knowledge is judgmental or propositional in logical form), Sellars maintains that ". . . what is known, even in noninferential knowledge, is facts rather than particulars. . . " (Sellars, 1956, p. 255). This would seem to drive one to alternative (b). But then Sellars devotes considerable energy to arguing that sensing, by itself, cannot be knowing. To summarize: knowing facts (being propositional) requires classification ("something's being thus-and-so"), and to classify is to conceptualize (as opposed to sense). Finally, unless one is a Rationalist, the best way to understand conceptualization is as an acquired skill that is quasi-linguistic. In the end, Sellars allows noninferential states of believing, for example, those perceptual beliefs that are caused by states of sensing. These beliefs are not, however, foundational because they derive their meaning and epistemic cogency from being part of a successful system of beliefs, and because a more successful system can lead us to reject or revise noninferential beliefs. One might think that one could have an experience of something's looking red (a typical example of the given) without having to know or believe anything else, but Sellars disagrees: "looks red" is essentially a contrastive concept, and using it requires some semantic competence with the objective "is red" (Sellars, 1956: Sections III-VI).1

    One way to try to dodge Sellars' attack would be to argue, as Roderick Firth does, that people have some primitive noncontrastive concepts that are not logically dependent on the objective terms of language (Firth, 1973, p. 462). Sellars grants that there is a concept "pertaining to red" which is prior to contrastive concepts, but he denies that it is a concept of a kind of experience (Sellars, 1981, p. 10). Even if a child has a "sensing redly" Sellars denies that the child knows it as a sensing redly (Sellars, 1981, p. 11). In effect, Sellars reaffirms the distinction between sensing and conceiving (or believing), and he confronts Firth with a choice:

  1. What is given is what is sensed. . .the given being (perhaps) accompanied by and somehow intimately related to a taking;

  2. What is given is what is taken; the taking (believing) being (perhaps) accompanied by and somehow intimately related to, a sensing" (Sellars, 1981, p. 26).

Those who choose (1) believe the given is a "self-presenting actuality," and those who choose (2) believe that to be given is "a special case of being believed, so that, presumably, the given is something that need not be the case" (Sellars, 1981, p. 27). This last observation should drive the foundationalist to accept the first alternative, since the point of givenness is to serve as authoritative awareness that something is the case.

    In the end, Sellars' view of perceptual experience is close to alternative (2), so having driven the foundationalist to choose (1) he proceeds to dissect (1) with another pair of alternatives. He sees two accounts of the self-presenting:

SP-1: A self-presenting state of affairs is a fact (an obtaining state of affairs) which (a) belongs to a certain category (usually the category of occurrent mental states), and (b) is, more specifically, to the effect that a certain person is in occurrent mental state Phi of which the following is true: that if the person were to query 'Am I in state Phi?' they would directly apprehend the fact that they were in Phi. Direct apprehension is a unique cognitive act which is more basic than any believing, no matter how warranted. . . (Sellars, 1981, p. 28).

SP-2: A self-presenting state of affairs is one which is such that if the relevant person at the relevant time were to believe it to obtain, the belief would be noninferentially warranted or self- warranting (Sellars, 1981, p. 29).

According to the pattern of Sellars' dialectic, SP-1 is undesirable because it leaves the self-presenting a nonbelief. How can such things support beliefs? How does a mysterious "unique cognitive act which is more basic than any believing" work? Opting for SP-2, however, means that the self-presenting loses its incorrigibility, for SP-2 ". . . is compatible with the idea that self-presenting states of affairs need not obtain (be facts)" (Sellars, 1981, p. 29).

    Firth has tried to avoid Sellars' let's-analyze-the-given gambit by responding that what is important is that we "have the primitive 'looks' concept..." (Firth, 1981, p. 95), and this "... is not to imply that we know how to analyze this concept, or even that it is analyzable" (Firth, 1981, p. 96). What is important for Firth is that beliefs about experience have more warrant than can be accounted for by the way they cohere with other beliefs (Firth, 1981 p. 91). But this response may lead to a coherence-inspired trap. Firth says that the statement "it looks to me as if I am seeing something red" has some degree of noninferential warrant when he believes it to be true because it is a statement that "purports to characterize (and only to characterize) the content of my present experience" (Firth, 1973, p. 467). Sellars interprets this position as meaning that judgments about present (occurrent) experience have the property, PE, of being about present experience and that having PE is supposed to be a noninferential warrant increasing property of those judgments. But for Sellars, this requires that a metajudgment, "'Judgments which have PE are likely to be true,' if itself warranted, have a warrant which, as Firth is using the term, is noninferential" (Sellars, 1979, p. 175). Sellars leans heavily on Firth's characterization of the noninferential warrant being "ultimate" to conclude that Firth is committed to the idea that the metajudgment either has no warrant or has warrant which is also noninferential (Sellars, 1979, p. 176). Since neither of these alternatives is attractive (the former is destructive and the latter by itself is unilluminating), Sellars feels encouraged to go on to develop his thesis that what justifies such metajudgments is their role in a coherent and explanatory theory of agents representing themselves and their world (Sellars, 1979, pp. 176-181). Occurrent experience judgments have only some initial (prima facie) noninferential warrant, but in the end their warrant derives from explanatory coherence.

    In an important way, the debate between Sellars and the foundationalists is at a stand-off. To see this note that Sellars begins his climb to explanatory coherence by puzzling about the warrant of metajudgments concerning occurrent experience beliefs. But why should foundationalists get on Sellars' semantic ladder? Sellars seems to be reading Firth's phrase, "ultimate noninferential warrant," as "ultimately warranted noninferntially," i.e., as saying whatever the warrant of present experience judgments turns out to be it will (ultimately) be noninferential. Since, for Sellars, the metajudgment is ultimately warranted by explanatory coherence, his question about it seems natural. But the foundationalist might find the question question-begging. Instead, one could interpret Firth's phrase "ultimate noninferential warrant" straightforwardly as meaning that the warrant is non-inferential and ultimate Period. The warrant is ultimate in the sense of being prior to whatever is said about present experience judgments. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that one should ignore Sellars' dilemmas concerning the nature of the self-presenting. Indeed, developing his analyses will bring us to the temporality problem in a way that might make the foundationalist happy.


    Someone like Sellars finds doctrines of givenness or self-presentingness objectionable partly because they leave the fundamental states of knowing mysterious in ways that can easily lead to Cartesianism or Platonism. According to his naturalism, justified beliefs form a species of quasi-linguistic representations that are part of the "causal order." An evolving system of belief is shaped both by causal interactions with the world and by ideals of explanatory coherence, and even representations of occurrent experience are conceptual and revisable. Indeed, Sellars chides other representationalists for not being thorough:

As a matter of fact, careful reading of the texts reveals that most, if not all, representationalists covertly introduced a non-representational mode of cognitive access [to grasp the special character of representations in virtue of which they are warranted] -- interestingly enough, to representationalist acts themselves. Because of this fact, Immanuel Kant might well have been the first thorough going representationalist (Sellars, 1979, p. 170).

Yet, to his credit, Sellars sees the need to explain the ostensible incorrigibility of occurrent experience beliefs. In effect, this is done by transforming their epistemic grade to prima facie noninferential warrant, and they have this because a person's beliefs about his experiences are generally good indicators of what those experiences are. So, self-presenting states of affairs become those things beliefs about which are noninferentially warranted (see SP-2 above and Sellars, 1979, p. 172).

    It is not good enough, however, to try to explain the distinctive force of occurrent experience beliefs solely in epistemic terms, for a diversity of kinds of beliefs might count as noninferentially warranted (e.g. logical or mathematical axioms). So Sellars' SP-2 misses a traditional idea: there must be something about experience that makes it a paradigm of the self-presenting. What? One feature is the temporal immediacy of experience; your occurrent beliefs are self-presenting because they are what you are experiencing now. Let us add this feature to SP-2:

SP-2': A self-presenting state of affairs is a contingent mental or experiential state of a person which is such that if the person whose state it is were to believe it to obtain simultaneously with its obtaining then the belief would be noninferentially warranted.

     Having made this feature explicit, however, it is no longer clear that Sellars' anti-foundationalist strategy of driving a wedge between facts and beliefs continues to work. The occurrence of an occurrent experience belief is itself an obtaining state of affairs (a fact). In virtue of its type it is a warranted belief, and according to SP-2' it is about a self-presenting state of affairs. Now assume that the belief is about itself and that this is why it is self-presenting and temporally immediate. Then, that mental occurrent is both a warranted belief and a self-presenting fact. For example, consider your belief (not a mere entertaining of a proposition) expressed by, "I believe I am now reading a philosophy paper." Or, imagining your belief classifying itself, try thinking: "This, the mental state I am now in, is an I-am-now-reading-a-philosophy-paper be lief."2 When such occur they are both beliefs and self-presenting facts. Even if this means that something can be given in the foundationalist sense of being incorrigible, Sellars need not be upset because, most recently, he has mainly been concerned to attack that version of the Myth of the Given that maintains that the categorial nature of the given is revealed. (Firth is also against this thesis, only he calls it the "Fallacy of Conceptual Retrojection" (Firth, 1981, p. 98)). And if some self-presenting states of affairs are beliefs about themselves, it is still far from clear what their metaphysical analysis requires.

    A controversy remains that brings the temporality problem to the foreground. As a "representationalist" Sellars may reject the assumption that occurrent beliefs can be about themselves. He notes that

Representationlists typically become touchy when asked whether our only access to the fact, when it is a fact, that an act has a knowledge-making property (whatever it might be) is by the occurrence of a further representational act. And, indeed, the question whether representationalism can be so formulated as to alleviate this touchiness is a central theme in disputes pertaining to 'foundationalism' (Sellars, 1979, p. 171).

Elsewhere, he claims: ". . . . the apperception of a representing always involves a conceptual act which, however intimately related to the apperceived representing, is numerically distinct from the latter. . ." (Sellars, 1968, p. 11). But why should we accept, without further argument, that the alternative, either nonrepresentational direct apprehensions or distinct representings of representations, exhausts all possible models of apperception (see again the quote on p. 352)? Why not representations that represent themselves? Perhaps some classical representationalists are not guilty of having "covertly introduced a non-representational mode of cognitive access". Perhaps, instead, they assumed that some representations can represent themselves. Whatever the historical situation may be, there is an argument that this is the best representationalist alternative, an argument that involves the temporality problem.

    The "touchy" question Sellars alludes to in the above quote is related to the fact that if a representation is represented as having a knowledge-making property only in virtue of the occurrence of a further representational act then the same must be true of the second representational act, and so on. The resulting regress can be vicious in the following way. Assume that one sometimes succeeds in knowing what his occurrent beliefs are. In other words, one knowingly represents the state of affairs that he is now representing such-and-such (you knowingly represent the state of affairs of your believing you are reading a philosophy paper). If we also assume (with Sellars) that this representing (call it R) is numerically distinct from the occurrent belief known (call it P) then we face a dilemma: either the distinct representing is simultaneous with P or it is later than P.3 If R is later than P there are two problems. First, P is not occurrent when R is, so if R represents P it cannot be a true representing of a present occurrent belief (for P is no longer strictly present). So if R is later than P it should always have the form "I had the occurrent belief P." But this leads to the second problem: we can never know what we now believe. For how can we represent R (i.e. the belief that we just had the occurrent belief P)? Only by having a later R' representing R. But then R is no longer a present occurrent belief. When we try to capture R' by a later R" the problem is the same, and we have a temporal regress. So on this view, one might believe at t that he had an occurrent belief, but, strangely, one couldn't know at t (indeed one couldn't believe at t) that he was having that metabelief. This contradicts the initial assumption that one can sometimes succeed in knowing what his occurrent beliefs are.

    The other horn of the dilemma allows that R can be simultaneous with P. One problem with this alternative is that the relation between R and P becomes mysterious. Sellars wants to maintain that, at bottom, the connection between representings is causal. But what kind of causal relations are simultaneous? At least since Einstein, it has been part of our scientific image that the terms of causal relations cannot be simultaneous. (Some interpretations of hidden variable theories in quantum mechanics might be exceptions, but these too are mysterious.) Moreover, making R simultaneous with P does not avoid the problem of a regress. What is supposed to confer warrant on a belief about present experience is recognition of the fact that it is a present (occurrent) experience belief (i.e. having actual warrant, as opposed to being warrantable, depends upon recognition of its type). Suppose P is a belief about some occurring aspect of experience and R is a simultaneous belief about P to the effect that P is an occurrent experience belief. If the apperception of P and its warrant is contingent upon the occurrence of a simultaneous R, how do we ever know this condition is realized, i.e., how do we know that R is an occurrent representing of P? According to this scheme, what is required is a numerically distinct representing, R', to the effect that R is an occurrent experience belief. This leads to a regress of simultaneous metarepresentings. Unless this regress can be stopped in some special way, it would seem that we could not know whether the conditions for knowing our occurrent beliefs are realized when we have those beliefs. Again, it seems that SP-2 type analyses of the self-presenting lead to the unintuitive result that we do not know what our occurrent beliefs are -- if they must be represented by numerically distinct beliefs.

    It may be that, unless he can find some way to transfer warrant from what is represented to the representing (always a distinct belief), Sellars' best option is simply to deny that we know our occurrent experiences (representings) when they occur. After all, we no doubt have many occurrent representings (e.g., perceptual beliefs when typing letters or driving cars) that never get represented, and for most practical purposes it may be causally sufficient for survival or success just to have beliefs or to merely think we have them (without knowing that we think we have them when we have them). Yet, it would be strange to have to force apperceptive consciousness into such a mold just to hold to the doctrine that representations cannot represent themselves.

    The ordinary term "self-presenting" is ambiguous. There is a peacock kind of self-presentation whenever anything offers itself to view like a peacock. This kind of self-presentation need not be reflexive. Peacocks don't have to present themselves to themselves to be self-presenting. In contrast, there is a reflexive kind of self-presentation when something presents itself to itself. Sellars' stipulation that representing a representation requires a distinct representing precludes representations from being self- presenting in the reflexive sense. So for Sellars, beliefs can be self-presenting only like blind peacocks, offering themselves to be represented by other beliefs. When we take time seriously, this view has the consequence that our present apperceivings are unrepresented representings. And this sounds like we cannot know what our occurrent experiences or beliefs are when we have them. This problem is avoidable if some representations can somehow reflexively represent themselves. But we do not understand how psychological states can do this.


Can functionalism model the reflexive self-presentation of occurrent experience? According to the functionalist program, psychological states are to be understood as "inner" states characterized by their roles in the production of other inner states and behavior (Block, 1980; Dennett, 1978b; Fodor, 1981). It has been noticed that some functionally defined states of machines can ape the immediacy of reports of occurrent psychological states. Putnam, for example, has argued that no "miscomputation" can occur when a machine prints 'I am in state A' as a result of its machine table containing the instruction: Print 'I am in state A' when in state A (Putnam, 1960, p. 148). And Dennett says that "when the state reported is a logical or functionally individuated state, the task of ascertaining, monitoring or examining drops out of the reporting process (Dennett, 1969, p.103). "The report issues directly from the state it reports in that the machine is in state A only if it reports it is in state A" (Dennett, 1969, p. 103).

    Such functional states seem to share the immediacy of apperception, but their abstractness makes it difficult to assess them as models of particular events of occurrent apperception. Go beyond abstract definitions and ask, what exactly is supposed to count as an instantiation (a realization) of Putnam's state A? It cannot be the collection of physical tokens on a page of printout (which is not a state of the machine), so it must be the machine's realization of some disposition state that moves the machine to produce the printout. But such a state precedes the report, "I am in state A." Strictly, for the report to be true it should read, "I was in state A." There is, then a difference between such "immediate" machine reports and occurrent beliefs about present experience. For unless we are systematically wrong, such beliefs can be strictly simultaneous with (indeed they at least partially constitute) states of apperceiving.

    There are additional difficulties if the functionalist account is construed as an analysis of infallibility or incorrigibility (as opposed to immediacy). The idea that, "I am in state A," can be viewed as an infallible or incorrigible report of state A -- a report that requires no "monitoring" -- is plausible only in epistemic contexts where one already knows A's functional definition and one is confident that the machine producing that report is a faithful model of the formal system (machine table) defining state A. When we are trying to understand psychological states as natural phenomena our epistemic situation may be quite different: we may be trying to discover the best functional "definition" of actual psychological states, and so we should worry whether a particular reporting state really betokens the state we have hypothetically defined. Putnam and Dennett talk as if "verbal slips" or "mechanical failures" are the only threats to their analysis of incorrigibility. But what if we do not know the machine's program, or we have to worry about bizarre or equivocal programs? For example, suppose a real program includes "Print: 'I am in state A' when in state E," and "Print: 'I am in state E' when in state A." Then to know whether Dennett's requirement is met, that the machine is in state A only if it reports it is in state A (i.e. to be confident that Dennett's "definition" of a state A is the one that applies to the machine), some additional monitoring or analysis will be needed. If so, the opposition has new life, for their intuition is that the first-person situation is not comparable to a machine's in this regard. We can have doubts about your veracity or the nature of your "machine table" when you report you believe you know you are in pain. But you cannot have such doubts about your occurrent belief. The functionalist analysis seems to miss this "self-sufficient" immediacy and incorrigibility of apperception.

    Even if we are confident that a report should count as a reliable indicator of a machine's state, there is another disanalogy between such a report and occurrent beliefs. Presumably, the content of one's first-person belief is what is epistemically privileged, and it is so for the person having the belief. But, unless the machine is monitoring its own report, the content is in an important way irrelevant. So far as the machine is concerned the programmer could have defined state A as: Print " I am in state B " when in state A. Because some state's name is merely mentioned in the instruction's quote, and because the same state's name is idle after it is printed, quite different programs with respect to reports could be functionally isomorphic with respect to computing functions. Any report could "issue directly" from states otherwise functionally there should be no temptation to view the report as a linguistic entity being used (then and there) to describe or to classify the state of the machine. The occurrence, per se, of the report does not mean anything. The case of occurrent belief seems quite different: its mere occurrence is meaningful because it is known without further monitoring. This is why we are tempted to call such beliefs reflexive or self-presenting.4

    These issues are relevant to the current debate about "absent qualia." The functional definition of mental states has the virtue that it is irrelevant what kind of 'hardware" instantiates the functional state. This approach has illuminated aspects of thinking, computing, and linguistic meaning, and given plausibility to the "analytic" connection between "inner" mental episodes and kinds of behavior. But one can worry whether this strategy can do justice to the difference between a sensuous perceptual state and a mere conceptual state without turning the perceptual state into just a complicated species of thinking. What seems to be missing in the functionalist account are so-called "raw feels" or "qualia," so the fact that functionalism seems compatible with the inversion or total absence or qualia counts as an objection to functionalism (Block, 1980). That is, it counts as an objection if one can know qualia in a nonfunctionalist way. Shoemaker, for one, adopts a 'causal theory of knowledge" and believes that functionalism can define similarity classes for qualia (1981, 1975). More starkly, Dennett spells it out in black and white when he admits he is "still a bit baffled about just what occurrent color properties [qualia] are", and confesses to be unable to see the difference between seeing something as colored and judging that he is seeing something as colored (Dennett, 1981, pp. 103-6). What is missing in these discussions is recognition of the possibility that there is a noncausal aspect of the exemplification of a property (in the sensuous case, its feel as opposed to what it brings about) and the idea that this aspect could be a self- presenting part of occurrent experience. Should this idea prove cogent, perhaps more can be said about what qualia are than Block's somewhat evasive quote from Louis Armstrong: "If you got to ask, you ain't never gonna get to know" (Block, 1980, p. 278).5


I will end this paper by showing that the temporality problem should not be taken to give automatic support to Cartesianism. I will do so by critically examining how the self-presenting functions in the system of a foundationalist who intentionally embraces a variety that is unabashedly Cartesian and Platonic. Consider Chisholm's recent analysis:

      A property P may be called self-presenting provided only that P is necessarily such that (a) nothing that has it directly attributes to itself the negation of P; (b) every property it entails is necessarily such that everything that can have it can also consider its having it; and (c) if P entails the capacity to have a certain property, then P entails that property (Chisholm, 1981, p. 80).

This definition is not at all intuitive; it is constructed so that self-presenting properties turn out to be psychological properties of one's self. Chisholm's central concept is direct attribution which is a primitive intentional relation whereby one nonpropositionally thinks of oneself as having a certain property (Chisholm, 1981, pp. l and 29). Not having used any epistemic concepts in these definitions, Chisholm says that epistemic justification supervenes of the self-presenting: "If the property of being F is self- presenting, then for every x, if (i) x has the property of being F, and if (ii) x considers his being F, then it is certain for x that he then has the property of being F" (Chisholm, 1981, p. 82). After securing primitive reference to oneself and basic knowledge of some of one's own properties, the rest of Chisholm's project consists in analyzing reference to and knowledge of other things via one's reference to and knowledge of oneself.6

    Consciousness of the self-presenting is not, for Chisholm, mediated by a distinct act of consciousness. For, ". . . considering and believing are themselves self-presenting" (Chisholm, 1981, p. 81), and ". . . every self-presenting property is necessarily such that, if an individual has it, if he considers his having it. . ., then, ipso facto, he will directly attribute it to himself" (Chisholm, 1981, p. 80). If so, Chisholm avoids the regress that threatens the representationalist:

    There is no regress here. We are not saying that if you consider your being sad, then you will believe that you are considering your being sad. And we are not saying that if you believe yourself to be sad, then you will believe yourself to believe yourself to be sad, for we can consider and believe without considering our considering and believing (Chisholm, 1981, p. 81).

    It seems as if Chisholm's self-presenting was tailored to do the job that Sellars' and the functionalists' analyses left undone. It permits you to know what you now seem to be experiencing: occurrent beliefs can be self-presenting and evident at the moment of their occurrence, independently of any subsequent or simultaneous sequences of additional mental activity. But how does the self- presenting work? For Chisholm it works as part of a full-blown Cartesian-Platonic metaphysics .

    The following metaphysical theses stand out in Chisholm's The First Person.

  1. Direct attributions of self-presenting properties are intentional, and sui generis intentional facts have "primacy" when one wants to understand consciousness and reference.
  2. Occurrent self-presentings are obtaining states of affairs wherein one directly attributes to oneself as object some abstract, eternal Platonic property as "content''.
  3. The self is always object, never content, of direct attributions; much like Kant's transcendent self the self eludes conceptualization (Chisholm, 1981, p. 85ff).
Each of these theses is sufficiently provocative to make one wonder whether a doctrine of self-presentation can be interpreted more neutrally. Perhaps the following puzzles will motivate such a reinterpretation.

    (1) Are direct attributions of self-presenting properties intentional and thereby non-natural in some Cartesian sense? Chisholm resists the strategy of those who view intentional descriptions as ways of talking about complex natural systems, systems where intentional idioms and intentionally "inexisting" objects drops out when they are described at some deeper (sub-personal) level (cf. Dennett, l978a, Chapter I). But what makes direct attributions of self-presenting properties intentional? Chisholm says "our basic locution, 'the property of being F is such that x directly attributes it to y', is intentional: the expression in the place of 'the property of being F' need not designate a property that is exemplified" (Chisholm, 1981, p. 28). But Chisholm needs more than the locution to be intentional if he is maintaining the "primacy of the intentional. " He needs direct attribution to be intentional in the sense that the property one attributes might not be exemplified yet "inexist" (or exist as a Platonic entity) as the object or "content" of the attribution. According to this test, many direct attributions seem intentional, for example, think of yourself as being a flying horse. But it does not work for Chisholm's fundamental attributions, the ones that count as certain and as psychological. Your considering yourself to be a flying horse is self-presenting, and it cannot fail to be exemplified when the considering occurs. In this case, what you are attributing is the property of considering yourself to be a flying horse. Whenever a property qualifies as self-presenting and is directly attributed, it must be exemplified. This means that all direct attributions of self-presenting properties fail Chisholm's test for being intentional. If we go along with Chisholm and " define consciousness by reference to the self-presenting" (Chisholm, 1981, pp. 79-81), then consciousness turns out to be, at bottom, nonintentional. If self-presentation need not involve relations to intentionally "inexistent" objects, what reason is there for thinking that self-presentation or direct attribution are preternatural phenomena? Indeed, perhaps one could analyze away direct attributions that seem intentional. When you directly attribute being a flying horse you may not be in any special relation to being a flying horse; you may just be having a self-presentation of the I think-I-am-thinking-of-a-flying-horse kind.

    (2) How can eternal or atemporal universals enter the particular moment of self-presentation? Must we be Platonists if we posit self-presentation? If self-presenting direct attributions turn out to be nonintentional in the above way, then perhaps some of the motivation is gone for viewing direct attribution as a relation between oneself and a Platonic entity. All that's happening in a moment of consciousness is the occurrence of a self-presenting particular event. Chisholm would want to analyze this event as both the grasping and the exemplification of Platonic universals, but we are not forced to adopt this ontology simply because consciousness involves self-presenting properties.

    (3) How is the self involved in the moment of self-presentation? Only as object, not as content, says Chisholm. But this position is doubly puzzling. Self-presenting properties are our psychological properties, so we must know something about ourselves (the character of our experiences, beliefs, etc.). What are we beyond the sum of our psychological properties? A naturalist might answer that we are also the sum of our biochemical and physical relational properties. But Chisholm would reject all these property sums as definitive of a self on the grounds that some other self could have them (Chisholm, 1981 pp. 15ff and 85ff). I suspect that Chisholm views the self as a perduring (enduring, self-identical) entity whose nature and identity is not affected by the flux of self-presenting properties it considers -- a kind of monad or perspective (cf. Hoy, 1978). But if self-presentings are not somehow part of oneself (constitutive of oneself), then they are not self-presenting in the reflexive sense. Recall the distinction between things that are self-presenting merely in the peacock sense and things that are reflexively self-presenting. It would seem that Chisholm's self-presenting properties are merely of the former type: psychological properties may be said to present themselves ". . . to the subject who has them" (Chisholm, 1981, p. 79, my emphasis). But why not allow them as reflexive states of oneself?

    Puzzles (1)-(3) suggest the following speculative transformation of Chisholm's position: hypothesize that some psychological states are reflexively self-presenting events (perhaps occurrent "abstract particulars"). Such events could be successively genidentical, thereby constituting the history of a self. Such a theory would be naturalistic in that it would not automatically require Platonic objects or non natural relations to them. It would be foundationalist in the minimal sense that epistemic certainty could supervene on occurrent self-presentings. Yet the theory could cohere with larger stories about these strings of self-presentings. It remains to be seen, however, whether one can do more than point to the need for reflexive self-presentation in an account of apperceptive organisms.7


Block, N., "Troubles with Functionalism," in Block (ed.), Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).

Chisholm, R., The First Person (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981).

__________, Theory of Knowledge (second edition) Englewood (Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977).

Delaney, C., et. al., The Synoptic Vision, Essays on the Philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977).

Dennett, D., Brainstorms (Montgomery: Bradford, 1978a).

__________, Content and Consciousness (New York: Humanities, 1969). ,

__________, "Current issues in the Philosophy of Mind," American Philosophical Quarterly 15 (1978b): 249-262.

__________, "Wondering Where the Yellow Went," The Monist 64 (1981): 102-108.

Firth, R., "Coherence, Certainty, and Epistemic Priority," in R. Chisholm and R. Swartz (ed.), Empirical Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs- Prentice-Hall, 1973). ,

__________, "Reply to Sellars," The Monist 64 (1981):91-101.

Fodor, J., "The Mind-Body Problem," Scientific American 244 (January, 1981):114-123.

Hofstadter, R., Gödel, Escher, Bach (New York: Vintage, 1979).

Hoy, R., "Ambiguities in the Subjective Timing of Experiences Debate," Philosophy of Science 49 (1982):254-262.

__________, "A note on Gustav Bergmann's Treatment of Temporal Consciousness," Philosophy of Science 43 (1976a): 610-617).

__________, "Becoming and Persons" Philosophical Studies 34 (1978): 269-280.

__________, "Dispositions, Logical States, and Mental Occurrents," Synthese 44 (1980):207-239.

__________, "Science and Temporal Experience: A Critical Defense of C. D. Broad's Theory of Temporal Cognition," Philosophy Research Archives (1976b).

Husserl, E., The Phenomenology of internal Time- Consciousness (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966) . Pribram, K. "The Brain, the Telephone, the Thermostat, the Computer, and the Hologram," Cognition and Brain Theory IV (1981): 105-122.

Putnam, H., "Minds and Machines," in S. Hook (ed.), Dimensions of Mind (New York: New York University Press, 1960).

Rorty, R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Sellars, W., "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," in Feigl and Savage (ed.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

__________, "More on Givenness and Explanatory Coherence," in G. Pappas (ed.) Justification and Knowledge (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979). ,

__________, Science and Metaphysics (New York: Humanities, 1968).

__________, Science, Perception, and Reality (New York: Humanities, 1963).

__________, "The Carus Lectures of Wilfrid Sellars: Foundations for a Metaphysics of Pure Process," The Monist 64 (1981): 3-90.

Shoemaker, S., "Absent Qualia are Impossible -- A Reply to Block," The Philosophical Review, XC (1981): 581-599.

__________, "Functionalism and Qualia," Philosophical Studies 27 (1975): 291-31S.


1 For an overview of Sellars' system see his "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," (1956) and reprinted in (1968). For later developments see his 1968 and 1981 pieces. For access to secondary literature see Delaney, 1977.

2A referee suggested that such self-referential states might be analyzed as having the form "I am reading a philosophy paper, and I believe this," where the 'this' refers to the conjunction. But then only the second conjunct is incorrigible. The first conjunct is merely a common expression of the belief state, which, I suggest, should be analyzed as a particular occurrent wholly about itself.

3 Again, this problem requires that time be "taken seriously" as a one dimensional order so that the specious present is viewed as specious (i.e. durational phenomena do not exist "all at once" in the present). A strictly present representing is not durational in the way that the content of the specious present is often taken to be. Experiences having duration must be viewed as sequences of strictly present representings or experiencings (see Hoy, 1981, 1980, l976b). Consider an analogy. Past and future parts of a football game can be part of what is loosely called a "present" football game, but they cannot be part of a strictly present event. But there must be (or have been) some present events for there to be (or to have been) a football game. So football games are not occurrents in the sense that there is some present moment when they are ontologically self-sufficient; rather, they are emergent entities relationally constituted by sequences of occurrent play events. Now some mental "events" (some experiences like proving a theorem or getting an education) may be temporally complex entities like football games, but if they all were then there would be no time when mental occurrents would be strictly present. Beliefs, for example, could only be temporal constructions whose present parts were not beliefs. So it is the theory of time that requires that occurrent beliefs be "ontologically self-sufficient" at the moment of their occurrence. The only appeal to intuition or common sense in the temporality problem is the assumption that there are times when we know what we are then experiencing.

4The puzzles in sections II and III are epistemological cousins of a general metaphysical puzzle. I have argued elsewhere that mental occurrents cannot be constituted merely by dispositional properties as these are typically understood by functionalists (Hoy, 1980). Functional properties are relational and temporally extrinsic features of mental occurrents. Unlike the linguistic status of physical patterns (whose status as tokens does depend upon relational and temporally extrinsic features), the mental status of a particular mental occurrent seems independent of such relational features. So one is tempted to say that what makes an occurrent mental is not its dispositions or its relations, but the fact that it is known when it occurs (and this knowing cannot be just a matter of dispositions and relations).

5It is some measure of the importance of the problem of qualia that Sellars has been worried about it ever since he wrote about a homogeneous pink ice-cube in the 1950's. See, e.g., (1956, section XVI) and "Philosophy and the Scientific image of Man" reprinted in (1963). He has been worried about (among other things) how perceptions can "somehow involve" entities different from thoughts in an "aesthetically interesting" way, and he has not been tempted by Dennett's easy way out. Recently, he has even suggested that sensa (qualia) are "given" without their correct ontological category being given (1981: lecture III). Is Sellars now vulnerable to his own strict distinction between facts and representings (beliefs)? Is the gap so wide that Dennett is right when he complains "I do not see, then, that Sellars has a way of shoehorning his cases of sensing pinkly or yellowly into the gap between states of believing this or that and the states in the immediate etiology of those belief states (Dennett, 1981 p. 107)? Or is Sellars' system flexible enough to allow self-presenting properties as natural phenomena, as some not-merely-etiological part of a complex state that is a perceptual state?

6It is interesting to observe how throughly Chisholm's system is opposed to Sellars': not only are properties Platonic (Chisholm, 1981: Chapter 2 and Appendix) and intentionality prior to language (1981: Chapter 1), but also the most primitive forms of reference and knowledge are not even propositional (they get expressed by sentences that look propositional but fail to be so because no one knows the pure Platonic essence of himself; (1981: Chapter 3). If Chisholm can make this all work he will have blunted Sellars' basic wedge, the idea that since what is subject to epistemic appraisal is propositional it must have a conceptual (hence linguistic) dimension.

7 The problematic nature of mental occurrents and self-presentation should encourage speculation about the "physics" needed in cognitive science (cf. Hofstader, 1979; Pribram, 1981). What must the "hardware" be like if mental occurrents can be reflexive self-presentings?