Talking About the First-Person

by William Meacham

Copyright © 2010, William Meacham. Permission to reproduce is granted provided the work is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice. Contact the author at

Published in Philosophy Now, a popular journal of philosophy, Issue No. 56.

Roger Caldwell's article in Philosophy Now Issue 54, "How to be Conscious," while quite a good summary of recent thinking in the field of consciousness studies, illustrates a wide-spread problem of lack of precision in language. I refer to the use of the word "I" in making assertions about the first-person point of view. Consider the following:

1) "I have a privileged perspective on what it feels like to be me that is not available to anyone else ...." (p 26)

2) "I understand that Searle resists the label [property dualism], but much of what he says surely presupposes such a position." (p 28)

The first sentence is intended to be applicable to everyone; the author is making a general assertion about all persons, not just making an autobiographical statement about himself. The second sentence, however, is purely personal. It is the author, not persons in general, who understands Searle's resistance to the label. But the author uses I-language in both cases. The reader must grasp the distinction from the context.

Caldwell is certainly not the only writer to exhibit this confusion, and usually the context makes the meaning clear, but not always. For instance, take this passage from Dennett:

"As a left-handed person, I can wonder whether I am a left-hemisphere-dominant speaker or a right-hemisphere-dominant speaker, and the only way I can learn the truth is by submitting myself to objective, 'third-person' testing. ... [T]here are, however, some events that occur in my brain that I do know about, as soon as they occur: my subjective experiences themselves."[*]

Is Dennett speaking autobiographically or generally? Or does he mix the two modes in the same paragraph?

I respectfully suggest that we avoid I-language when we really mean to assert something applicable generally. It's not hard to do. Here are two examples of how I would restate the I-language found in Caldwell's paper.

Such restatement might require a bit of extra work, as in the first example, or it may be quite straightforward, as in the second. In all cases, the meaning will be clearer.


[*] Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), pp. 77, 78.

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