Panayot Butchvarov in his latest book claims that the first-person singular pronoun as it functions in such typical philosophical contexts as the Cartesian cogito is "a dangling pronoun, a pronoun without an antecedent noun." (Anthropocentrism in Philosophy: Realism, Antirealism, Semirealism, Walter de Gruyter, 2015, p. 40) In this entry I will try to understand and evaluate Butchvarov's fascinating claim. But first we must sort out some obscurity in Butchvarov's presentation of what I take to be a genuine problem, the problem of what, if anything, one refers to with 'I' when one says or thinks, 'I think therefore I am.'
If a dangling pronoun is one without an antecedent, then a non-dangling pronoun would be one with an antecedent. But while some pronouns have antecedents, it is not clear that indexical uses of pronouns have antecedents. This is relevant because the use of ego or 'I' in the Cartesian cogito is an indexical use. So what is the problem with this indexical use that lacks an antecedent? Consider first a sentence featuring a pronoun that has an antecedent:
Peter always calls before he visits.
In this sentence, 'Peter' is the antecedent of the third-person singular pronoun 'he.' It is worth noting that an antecedent needn't come before the term for which it is the antecedent:
After he got home, Peter poured himself a drink.
In this sentence 'Peter' is the antecedent of 'he' despite occurring after 'he' in the order of reading. The antecedency is referential rather than temporal. In both of these cases, the reference of 'he' is supplied by the antecedent. The burden of reference is borne by the antecedent. So there is a clear sense in which the reference of 'he' in both cases is not direct, but mediated by the antecedent. The antecedent is referentially prior to to the pronoun for which it is the antecedent. But suppose I point to Peter and say
He smokes cigarettes.
This is an indexical use of 'he.' Part of what makes it an indexical use is that its reference depends on the context of utterance: I utter a token of 'he' while pointing at Peter, or nodding in his direction. Another part of what makes it an indexical is that it refers directly, not just in the sense that the reference is not routed through a description or sense associated with the use of the pronoun, but also in that there is no need for an antecedent to secure the reference. Now suppose I say
I smoke cigars.
This use of 'I' is clearly indexical, although it is a purely indexical (D. Kaplan) inasmuch as there is no need for a demonstration: I don't need to point to myself when I say 'I smoke cigars.' And like the immediately preceding example, there is no need for an antecedent to nail down the reference of 'I.' Not every pronoun needs an antecedent to do a referential job.
In fact, it seems that no indexical expression, used indexically, has or could have an antecedent. Hector Castaneda puts it like this:
Whether in oratio recta or in oratio obliqua, (genuine) indicators have no antecedents. ("Indicators and Quasi-Indicators" reprinted in The Phenomeno-Logic of the I, p. 67)
This seems right. So if a dangling pronoun is one without a noun antecedent as Butchvarov maintains, then 'he' and 'I' in our last examples are dangling pronouns. But this is not a problem. What Butchvarov is getting at, however, is a problem. So I suggest that what he really means by a dangling pronoun is not one without a noun antecedent, but a pronoun which cannot be replaced salva veritate in any sentence in which it occurs with a noun.
For example, in most ordinary contexts my uses of 'I' refer to BV, a publicly identifiable person, and only to this person. In these contexts 'I' can be replaced by 'BV' salva veritate. Although 'I live in Arizona' (when uttered by BV) and 'BV lives in Arizona' differ in sense, so that the replacement cannot be made salva significatione, the two sentences have the same truth-value, and presumably also the same truth-maker, BV's living in Arizona.
To put the point more generally, in most ordinary contexts tokens of 'I' are replaceable salva veritate in the sentences in which they occur with tokens of proper names or definite descriptions or demonstrative phrases. Thus the following sentences have the same truth-value and are presumably made true by the same concrete fact or state of affairs:
I am a native Californian [uttered by BV]
BV is a native Californian
The best chess-playing philosopher in the Superstition Foothills is a native Californian
That man [with a pointing toward BV] is a native Californian.
Let us say that such ordinary uses of 'I' are anchored (my term). For in each case the 'I'-token is anchored or can be anchored in a non-indexical term such as a proper name or a definite description that refers to the same item that the 'I'-token refers to. But we shouldn't confuse anchors and antecedents. Every antecedent of a pronoun anchors that pronoun, but not every anchor of a pronoun is an antecedent of it. Thus 'BV' anchors the 'I' in 'I am hungry' assertively uttered by BV; but 'BV' is not the antecedent of the 'I' in the sentence in question. The 'I'-token in the sentence in question has, and needs, no antecedent.
In typical philosophical contexts, however, 'I' appears to be what Butchvarov confusingly calls a dangling pronoun, “a pronoun without an antecedent noun.” (40) If I say, “I was born in California,” I refer to the man BV, a transient chunk of the physical world, a bit of its fauna. The pronoun in this context is replaceable salva veritate by the proper name, 'BV.' But when I thoughtfully say or write “I think therefore I am,” or “I doubt therefore I am” in the context of a search for something indubitable, something whose existence cannot be doubted, I cannot be taken to be referring to the man BV. For the existence of this man can be doubted along with the existence of every other physical thing.
Butchvarov is on to something, but he expresses himself in a confusing and confused way. His point is not that the 'I' in 'I think therefore I am' lacks an antecedent, for this is also true in unproblematic sentences such as 'I am hungry.' The point is that the ego of the cogito , the 'I' of the 'I think therefore I am' is not anchored, i.e., not replaceable salva veritate with a proper name or definite description or demonstrative phrase in the way that the 'I' in 'I am hungry' when assertively uttered by BV can be replaced by a token of 'BV.'
The problem that Butchvarov is on to is that in the cogito situation we seem to have a use of the word 'I' -- a genuine indexical use, not a quasi-indexical use or a quantificational use -- that does not pick out the speaker or any physical thing. What then does it pick out?
At this point you can and perhaps ought to ask: How could what is grammatically the first-person singular pronoun not function as an indexical term? Well, suppose I am explaining Brentano's theory of intentionality to a student and I say,
1. I cannot be conscious without being conscious of something.
Clearly, what I am trying to convey to the student is not some fact about myself, but a fact, if it is a fact, about any conscious being. The proposition I am trying to get across is more clearly put as follows:
2. For any x, if x is a person, and x is conscious, then x is conscious of something.
Curiously, 'I' can be used to mean anyone. So I say a token of (1) features a quantificational use of 'I,' not an indexical use. The reference of an indexical term depends on the context of its deployment, use, tokening. Thus the indexical 'I' used by BV refers to BV and cannot be used by BV to refer to anyone other than BV. But the reference of 'I' in (1) does not vary with the persons who use it. So 'I' in (1) is not an indexical. It functions essentially like a bound variable.
Back to our problem. What am I referring to when I enact the Cartesian cogito? Let's consider a second classical example to get the full flavor of the problem.
What am I referring to when I enact the Augustinian Si fallor, sum? (The City of God, XI, 26)"If I am mistaken, I am." In my life I have been mistaken about many things. Is there anything about which I can be certain that I am not mistaken? If yes, then it is not the case that everything is open to doubt. Thinking about this, I hit upon the old insight of the Bishop of Hippo: If I am mistaken about this or that, or deceived about this or that, then I am, whence it follows that there is at least one thing about which I cannot be mistaken, namely, that I exist.
What does 'I' refer to in the philosophical conclusions 'I cannot doubt that I exist' and 'I cannot be mistaken about my own existence'? I agree with Butchvarov that these uses of 'I' -- call them philosophical uses to distinguish them from ordinary uses -- cannot refer to the speaker or to any physical thing. If they did, the question would be begged against the skeptic and no fundamentum inconcussum would have been reached.
At this point some will say that 'I' does not refer to anything, that it is a mere expletive, a bit of linguistic filler that functions like the 'it' in 'She made it clear that she would not tolerate her husband's infidelity' or like the 'it' in 'It is snowing' as opposed to the 'it' in 'It is a snow flake.' Accordingly, 'I am thinking . . . .' means ''There is thinking going on . . ..' But I don't want to discuss this view at present. I will assume with Butchvarov that 'I' used philosophically as in the Cartesian and Augustinian cases does have a referent just as the 'I' of ordinary contexts has a referent. Unlike names and descriptions, indexical uses of 'I' have seemed to most theorists to be guaranteed against reference failure and in a two-fold sense: My uses of 'I' cannot fail to refer to something and indeed to the right thing. I can't be a 'bad shot' when I fire an 'I'-token: I can't hit PB, say, instead of BV.
So 'I' deployed philosophically has a referent but not a physical referent. This seems to leave us with only two options: 'I' used philosophically refers to a metaphysical self or it refers to something that is not a self at all. I incline toward the first view; Butchvarov affirms the second.
Well, why not say something like what Descartes and such latter-day Cartesians as Edmund Husserl either said or implied, namely, that the primary reference of the indexical 'I' is to a thinking thing, a res cogitans, a metaphysical self, a transcendental ego? One might argue for this view as follows. (This is my argument.)
a. Every indexical use of 'I' is immune to reference failure in a two-fold sense: it cannot fail to have a referent, and it cannot fail have the right referent. (This point has been urged by P. F. Strawson.)
b. Every philosophical use of 'I' is an indexical use.
c. Every philosophical use of 'I' is immune to reference failure. (a, b)
d. Every indexical use of 'I' refers to the user of the 'I'-token. (A user need not be a speaker.)
e. No philosophical use of 'I' refers to an item whose existence can be doubted by the user of the 'I'-token.
f. Every physical thing is such that its existence can be doubted.
g. Every philosophical use of 'I' refers to a meta-physical item such as a Cartesian thinking thing. (c-f)
Butchvarov won't accept this argument. One point he will make is that the metaphysical self, if there is one, is an item that could be referred to only by an indexical. "But would anything be an entity if it could be referred to only with an indexical?" (39) A thinker that is only an I "borders on incoherence." (39) I take the point to be that nothing could count as an entity unless it is referrable-to in third-person ways. So BV and PB are entities because, while each can refer to himself in the first-person way by a thoughtful deployment of an 'I'-token, each can also be referred to in third-person ways. Thus anyone, not just PB, can refer to PB using his name and such definite descriptions as 'the author of Anthropocentism in Philosophy.' Philosophical uses of 'I,' however, cannot be replaced by names or descriptions or demonstrative phrases having the same reference. The philosophical 'I' is a dangling pronoun. There is no name or description that can be substituted for it.
For Butchvarov, there cannot be a pure subject of thought, a pure ego, ein reines Ich, etc. Butchvarov would also point out that talk of such involves the monstrous transformation of pronouns into nouns as we speak of pure egos and ask how many there are. He would furthermore insist Hume-fashion that no such item as a pure I is every encountered in experience, outer or inner. If I replied that it is the very nature of the ultimate subject of thought and experience to be unobjectifiable, he would presumably revert to his point about the incoherence of supposing that any entity could be the referent of a pure indexical only.
I concede that Butchvarov has a reasonable case against (g), though I do not think he has refuted it. But let us irenically suppose that (g) is false. Then which of the premises of my argument must Butchvarov reject? If I understand him, he would reject (d): Every indexical use of 'I' refers to the user of the 'I'-token. His view is that only some do and that the philosophical uses such as we have in the Cartesian and Augustinian examples do not refer to the user of the 'I'-token. They do not refer to persons or anything at the metaphysical core of a person such as a metaphysical ego.
To what then do they refer? Here is where things get really interesting.
Butchvarov's proposal is that the philosophical (as opposed to the ordinary) uses of the grammatically personal pronoun 'I' are logically impersonal: they refer not to persons but to views ("cognitions" in a broad sense) that needn't be the views of any particular person. I take him to be saying that the philosophical uses of 'I' are indexical uses that are impersonal uses, as opposed to saying that the philosophical uses are non-indexical impersonal uses. (1) above is an example of a non-indexical impersonal use of 'I.' As I read him, Butchvarov is not saying that the philosophical uses are like (1).
To show how a use of 'I' could refer to a view rather to a person, Butchvarov offers us this example:
3. I can't believe you left your children in the car unattended! (197)
One who says this is typically not referring to himself and stating a fact about what he can or cannot believe. He is reasonably interpreted as using the sentence "to indicate the view that leaving children unattended in a car is grossly imprudent." (197) Thus (3) is better rendered as
4. Leaving children unattended in a car is grossly imprudent.
Now I grant that 'I' in (3) is impersonal in that it is not plausibly read as referring to the speaker of (3), or to any person. But I fail to see how 'I' in (3) indicates (Butchvarov's word) a view or proposition, the view or proposition expressed by (4). If a term indicates, then it is an indicator, which is to say that it is an indexical. But 'I' in (3) is not an indexical. I say it is an impersonal non-indexical use of 'I.' If 'I' in (3) were an indexical, then different speakers of (3) would be referring to different views or propositions. But if Manny, Moe, and Jack each assertively utter (3), they express the same proposition, (4).
Butchvarov sees that the philosophical uses of 'I' cannot refer to the speaker or to any innerworldly entity, on pain of begging the question against the skeptic. For the existence of any intramundane entity can be doubted. But he also insists, with some plausibility, that the philosophical uses of 'I' cannot refer to any transcendental or pre-mundane or extra-mundane entity. Now if the referent of the philosophical 'I' is neither in the world nor out of it, what is left to say but that the referent is the world itself? Not the things in the world, but the world as the unifying totality of these things. And that is what Butchvarov says. "In the philosophical contexts that would render reference to the speaker or any other inhabitant of the world question-begging, 'I' indicates a worldview and thus also the world." (198)
Now a crucial step in his reasoning to this conclusion is the premise that a view or "cognition" "need not be a particular person's cognition." (197) Not every view is optical, but consider an optical view from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Butchvarov claims that it would be "absurd" to ask: Whose view is it? One sees his point: that view is not 'owned' by Donald Trump, say, or by any particular person. But it does not follow that there can be an optical view without a viewer. Every view is the view of some viewer or other even if no view is tied necessarily to some particular person such as Donald Trump. So the question, Whose view is it? has a reasonable answer: it is the view of anyone who occupies the point of view. The view into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim at the start of the Bright Angel Trail is the view of anyone who occupies that position, which is not to say that the view presupposes the existence of BV or PB or any particular person. But an actual view does presuppose the existence of some viewer or other. And so if the actual world is a (nonoptical) view, then it too has to be someone's view. There can be a view from nowhere since not every view is optical, but I balk at a view by no one. If I am right, Butchvarov has failed to solve the paradox of antirealism. But to explain this would require a separate post.
As I see it, Butchvarov's argument trades on the confusion of 'No view is tied necessarily to some definite person' (true) and 'No view requires a viewer, some viewer or other.' (false)
Butchvarov further maintains that if a proposition is described as true, it would be absurd to ask: Whose truth is it? (197) In one sense this is right. That 7 + 5 =12 is not my truth or your truth. But it doesn't follow that truths can exist without any minds at all. Classically, truth is adequation of intellect and thing, and cannot exist without intellects, whether finite or divine. Truth is Janus-faced: it faces the world and it faces the mind. Truth is necessarily mind-involving. I suggest that truth conceived out of all relation to any mind is an incoherent notion.
This is even clearer in the case of knowledge. Butchvarov claims that if physics is described as a body of knowledge, it would be absurd to ask: Whose knowledge is it? Well of course it is not Lee Smolin's knowledge or the knowledge of any particular person. But if there were no physicists there would be no physics. In general, if there were no knowers, here would be no knowledge. Even if truths can float free of minds, it is self-evident that knowledge cannot. Knowledge exists only in knowers even if truth can exist apart from any knowers.
And so a worldview that is not anyone's view is a notion hard to credit. And that a philosophical use of 'I' could indicate a worldview is even harder to understand.
Butchvarov is trying to understand the philosophical uses of 'I' as we find them in the well-known Augustinian, Cartesian, Kantian, and Husserlian contexts. He is trying to find a way to reconcile the following propositions:
5. These philosophical uses of the first-person singular pronoun are referential.
6. These uses are indexical.
7. These uses do not refer to thinking animals or to any objects in the world.
8. These uses do not refer to Augustinian souls or Cartesian thinking things or Kantian noumenal selves or Husserlian transcendental egos.
Butchvarov reconciles this tetrad by adding to their number:
9. These uses are impersonal and refer to the world. (192)
In a subsequent post I will try to show that Butchvarov is entangled in essentially the same problem that Kant encounters when he tries to understand the unity of experience, the unity of the phenomenal world, in terms of the "'I think' that must be able to accompany all my representations." (CPR B131) The mystery is how the words 'I' and 'think' which have clear ordinary uses are appropriate to express the unity of experience when these words used philosophically cannot designate any items IN experience or OUT of experience.