What is the relation between an experience, the subject of the experience, and the content of the experience? [1]


Galen Strawson Unfinished draft



‘Eventually meditators…come to see that the perceiver is only the subject side of a momentary experience, an aspect of the perception or thought itself’.[2]



1 Introduction

2 Subjects of experience—thick, traditional, thin

3 Terms and assumptions

4 ‘[E = S:C]’

5 The Subject thesis: polarity

6 ‘[E = S = C]’?

7 ‘The thoughts themselves are the thinkers’

8 Pause

9 Object and property

10 [E = S = C]

11 Conclusion



1 Introduction


Assume that materialism is true and consider Louis, a representative human being. Louis is part of physical reality. Everything about him is a wholly physical phenomenon, including, of course, his conscious experience, and all the experiential qualitative[3] character that it has for him as he has it. No remotely realistic version of materialism can deny the existence of the experiential qualitative character of experience, so understood.[4]

     I call the part of reality that consists of Louis the Louis-reality—the L-reality for short. The notion of the L-reality is rough, for as a concrete physical being Louis is enmeshed in wide-reaching physical interactions, but it is serviceable and useful none the less.[5]

     Consider one of Louis’s experiences, and suppose for simplicity that it is a sharply delimited, uninterrupted, two-second-long episode that is preceded and followed by a period of complete unconsciousness on Louis’s part. Call this event of experience ‘e’, call the subject of this experience ‘s’, and call the overall experiential content of this experience ‘c’—where by ‘experiential content’ I mean ‘narrow’ experiential content, purely ‘internal’ content , ‘phenomenological’ content, whatever you prefer to call it.[6] My question is:


What is the relation between e, s and c?


     I have called the subject of es’ rather than ‘Louis’ in order not to beg any questions. It may seem obvious that s = Louis, but there are different views of what subjects of experience are, and equally of what Louis is, considered as a subject of experience at a given time, and some combinations of these views about Louis and about what subjects of experience are have the consequence that s is no more identical with Louis than Louis is identical with his left hand.

     What is the relation between e, s and c? Certain things seem clear immediately. There cannot be an experience without experiential content, and there cannot be an experience without a subject of experience. I take these to be necessary truths, true without any possible exception. Taking ‘Ex’, ‘Sx’, and ‘Cx’ stand for ‘x is an experience’, ‘x is a subject of experience’, and ‘x is an experiential content’ respectively, one can express these two truths as follows:


(1) [$xEx Þ $yCy]


(2 ) [$xEx Þ $ySy].


Þ’ has modal force, strong as you like.

     Introducing ‘Oxy’ for ‘x is the content or subject of y’ one can expand (1) to


{1} [$xEx Þ [$yCy Ù Oyx]]


and (2) to


{2} [$xEx Þ [$ySy Ù Oyx]]


     Some have said—they have appeared to say—that there can be an experience without a subject of experience; they have appeared to doubt (2), which I will call the Subject thesis. But this view is crazy, on its most natural reading, for ‘an experience is impossible without an experiencer’.[7] It is ‘an obvious conceptual truth that an experiencing is necessarily an experiencing by a subject of experience, and involves that subject as intimately as a branch-bending involves a branch’.[8] This is not a ‘grammatical illusion’, as some have proposed, but an evident—inconcussible—metaphysical truth. There cannot be experience without a subject of experience because experience is necessarily experience for—for someone-or-something. Experience necessarily involves experiential ‘what-it-is-likeness’, and experiential what-it-is-likeness is necessarily what-it-is-likeness for someone-or-something. Whatever the full story about the substantial nature of this experiencing something, its existence cannot be denied.

     Descartes gets this exactly right in his Second Meditation. He points out that he can know that he exists as thinker or subject however wrong he is about his substantial nature. As he explicitly says, he might for all he knows at this point in his argument be nothing more than his body.[9]

     Descartes’s point is secure even if individual-substance-suggesting noun phrases like ‘an experiencer’ or ‘a subject of experience’ or ‘someone-or-something’ have the potential to mislead. There is nothing in Buddhism that challenges it when it is understood as it is here. One could express it paradoxically by saying that if per impossibile there could be intense pain-experience without any subject of that experience, mere experience without any experiencer, there would be no point in stopping it, because no one would be suffering.[10] Later on I will consider the suggestion that the word ‘subject’ can be happily replaced by ‘subjectivity’.

     (1) and (2) are true, then, obviously true, although (2) can be read in ways that make it less obviously true, or even false, as will emerge. And so also, no doubt, are


(3) [$xCx Þ $yEy]


(4 ) [$xCx Þ $ySy]




{3} [$xCx Þ [$yEy Ù Oxy]]


{4} [$xCx Þ [$ySy Ù Oyx]].[11]


Evidently there cannot be experiential content—actual, occurrent experiential content—without there being (an) experience of some sort. Equally evidently there cannot be experiential content without there being a subject of experience. (4) is in effect a version of (2) and is in any case entailed by (2) and (3).

     (3) and (4) can be questioned, on at least one reading. For it is

arguable that there are occurrent but unexperienced experiential contents.[12] I will put this interesting issue to one side, however, and take ‘experiential content’ to mean ‘experienced content’, so that (3) and (4) are trivially true. This issue is not important at the moment, because the question that interests me is not whether experiential content can possibly exist without (conscious)[13] experience existing. It is rather this: given an experience, which must have content, and must have an experiencer (= (1) and (2)) , what is the relation between that experience, its content, and its subject?

     With (1)-(4) in place, two possible entailments remain


(5) [$xSx Þ $yEy]


(6 ) [$xSx Þ $yCy][14]


and if either is true the other is,[15] but both are plainly false given the most common understanding of the notion of a subject of experience, according to which a subject of experience can exist at time t without any experience existing at t.[16] There is, however, a way of conceiving of subjects of experience which has the consequence that (5) and (6) are both true, and it is I think very valuable to have this conception to hand if one wants to get a clearer view of the metaphysics of conscious experience or subjectivity.

     I am now going to change—simplify—my terminology. Given that all of (1) to (6) are true, once one has the right conception of the subject of experience in place, and that my main concern is with the relation between an experience, its subject (haver) and its content, I will take ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘C’ stand for any individual, arbitrarily selected experience, its subject (or haver) and its experiential content. The general version of the question about the relation between e, s, and c is then this:


What is the relation between E, S and C?


(1)-(6) are replaced by


[1] [E Þ C]

[2] [E Þ S]

[3] [C Þ E]

[4] [C Þ S]

[5] [S Þ E]

[6] [S Þ C].


[1]-[4] are as trivial as ever, [5] and [6] will now be defended.


2 Subjects of experience—thick, traditional, thin


Many find it natural to say that human beings and other animals considered as a whole are subjects of experience. I will call this the thick use of the term ‘subject of experience’. The thick use is automatic for most experimental psychologists and analytic philosophers, who may not easily see (or remember) that it is neither mandatory nor even particularly natural.

     In spite of this orthodoxy, many (including many analytic philosophers) still have a tendency to think that the subject of experience properly or strictly speaking is some sort of inner mental entity or presence: ‘the self’, or some such thing—something essentially distinct from, not identical with, the human being considered as a whole.   This has long been the traditional use of the term ‘subject of experience’ in philosophy, and I will call it the traditional use. It comes extremely naturally to us, given the character of our experience, and its apparent naturalness is quite certainly not just some artefact of philosophical or religious speculation.

     Some who favour the thick use agree that the traditional use is natural, but think that it is pernicious, and in some way anti-materialist. I think it may be misleading, although it can be taken in ways that make it sensible, but it is certainly not anti-materialist. This, however, is not my present topic.[17]

     So far, then, we have two uses of the term ‘subject of experience’:


[A] the thick whole-creature use dominant in present-day analytic philosophy and experimental psychology




[B] the traditional use according to which a subject of experience is an inner mental entity of some sort.


As ordinarily understood, [A] and [B] both allow—assume—that a subject of experience may and standardly does continue to exist even when it is not having any experience: whether you think that human subjects of experience are whole human beings or whether you think they are inner mental entities you are likely to allow (although Descartes, notably, does not) that they can continue to exist during periods of complete unconsciousness or experiencelessness—in periods of truly dreamless sleep, say. I (hereby) take this assumption to be built into [A] and [B], and it is this that prompts the third use of the term ‘subject of experience’,


[C] the thin use according to which a subject of experience does not and cannot exist at any given time unless there is experience at that time.


The thin use stands opposed to both [A] and [B] precisely because they both build in the assumption that a subject of experience can be said to exist in the absence of any experience.


—Why shouldn’t they? It seems overwhelmingly natural to do so.


Perhaps it does. But to limit oneself to [A] and [B] is to run the risk of begging a central question. Many are so accustomed to [A] and [B], and to the idea that they exhaust the options, that they cannot take [C] seriously. And yet [C] simply makes explicit one natural use of ‘subject of experience’: according to which there (obviously) cannor be a subject of experience, at a given time t, unless some experience exists at t for it to be a subject of, at t.

     [C] is necessarily true according to Descartes. He holds that the soul or self or subject of experience cannot exist in the absence of experience or consciousness. But does so for special metaphysical reasons—because he holds (or so it seems to me) that the subject is in some sense wholly constituted of experience or consciousness. I think he may well be right about this, but for the wrong reasons.[18]

     How does all this apply to Louis—to the L-reality? Those who favour [A], the thick use, find one subject in the L-reality. The same goes, no doubt, for those who favour [B], the traditional use.[19] But those who favour [C], the thin use, and who concur with the standard view that the life of a human being regularly involves periods of complete experiencelessness (periods of dreamless sleep, for example), must find many subjects in the L-reality (considered over time).

     Some will feel confident that this multiplicity tells against [C], but I think this is terminological habit or prejudice; and whether or not there turn out to be many subjects in the L-reality, on [C]’s way of counting (it is, for one thing, an unsettled empirical question whether there are any periods of complete experiencelessness in the life of an ordinary human being), [C] may be a very useful notion to have in play when attempting a sound metaphysics of consciousness. I think [C] is crucial, and from now on when I ask about the relation between experiences, subjects, and contents I will be concerned only with thin subjects, and only with human thin subjects, unless I specify otherwise. Nothing I say will challenge any of the very many true things that have been said about subjects of experience by those who favour the thick use of ‘subject of experience’.

     Are thin subjects persons? If you wish. In philosophy, the sense of the word ‘person’ is not clearly fixed independently of theory. Certainly longevity is not decisive: if a creature qualitatively identical to me during two seconds of my life exists for just two seconds, that creature is a person. There may also be creatures who live lives as complex as ours in two seconds.

     I take thin subjects to be inner mental entities of some sort (the initial definition does not explicitly exclude the possibility that a thin subject existing for two seconds, say, is a time-slice of a whole human being having a two-second-long experience), but this certainly does not decide the issue against their being persons. Some think it an evident truth that persons are whole human beings; but it is only a terminological preference. And many find Henry James’s usage natural when he writes, of one of his early books,


I think of...the masterpiece in question...as the work of quite another person than myself...a rich relation, say, who...suffers me still to claim a shy fourth cousinship.[20]


James knows perfectly well that he is the same human being as the author of that book, but he does not feel he is the same person as the author of that book.[21]

     Are thin subjects things that can be said to speak English and know French and algebra? Certainly, in every sense in which you can be said to these things at any given time.

     Are we thin subjects? In one respect, of course, we are thick subjects, human beings considered as a whole. In this respect we are, in being subjects of experience, things that can yawn and scratch. In another respect, though, we are, in being subjects of experience, no more whole human beings than hands or hearts: we are thin subjects. In this respect we are, in being subjects of experience, no more things that can yawn or scratch than eyebrows or thoughts. There is nothing anti-materialist about this view.


But ‘What then am I?’[22] Am I two different sort of things, a thin subject and a thick subject? This is ridiculous. Who—or what—speaks when Louis says ‘I’?


Well, ‘I’ is not univocal.[23] We move naturally between conceiving of ourselves primarily as a human being considered as a whole and primarily as some sort of inner mental entity. [[I will say more in an Appendix.]]?


3  Terms and assumptions


To introduce the notion of a thin subject is not—not yet—to make any assertion about the nature of reality that can be sensibly disputed. It is simply to introduce a certain way of talking about something whose existence is not in question. The way of talking may be disliked or thought unhelpful. Attachments to linguistic and theoretical habits can be as intense as attachment to dietary prohibitions, and can incorporate a conviction that other habits (of linguistic or theoretical idiom, or diet) are intrinsically wrong. True—but the phenomenon I refer to in speaking of thin subjects is indisputably real and utterly commonplace. It is the subject of experience understood in precisely the sense in which it is true to say that there is a subject of experience in the L-reality only when (and whenever) there is experience in the L-reality. To claim that this is an unnatural or perverse way to section reality even when doing metaphysics is simply to reveal one’s habituation to those natural notions of the subject of experience that allow that a subject of experience can persist through times of experiencelessness. The thick or traditional use is certainly more basic in ordinary thought, but this is no reason to disallow the thin use.

     The existence of thin subjects is not an assumption, then. I am making certain assumptions: I have assumed that materialism is true, and I am now going to assume that human thin subjects are relatively short-lived entities. I am going to take it, in other words (and contrary to Descartes), that it is an empirical fact about the human process of consciousness that it is non-continuous in a certain way. I believe, in fact, that it is non-continuous in such a way that there are many subjects of experience in the L-reality in any normal waking day. Others, perhaps, believe that it is continuous in any waking day but interrupted at night.

     An outright temporal gap in consciousness in the L-reality is obviously sufficient for non-continuity, but is not necessary, on the present view: an experientially unitary period of experience or ‘pulse’ of thought (in William James’s terminology) may succeed another in a temporally seamless way and yet count as a discontinuity for the purposes of counting subjects.[24]

     Let me also register my view (it is as much a terminological decision as an assumption) that subjects of experience are happily thought of as objects, even when they are thinly understood, as here. Let me make this conditional: if one is going to talk of objects at all in one’s metaphysics, then it is I think not hard to show that thin subjects have at least as good a claim to be called objects as anything else.[25] For very briefly, [i] all concrete reality is substance (this view will be supported by the discussion of the object/property distinction in §9); [ii] whatever objects or individual substances are, they are physical unities of a certain sort; and [iii] there are no more indisputable physical unities than subjects of experience.[26]

     That said, I think matter is best thought of as what one might call ‘process-stuff’, and that all physical objects are best thought of as processes, even if the converse is not true. And I take it this to be true on a three-dimensionalist (3D) view of objects as much as on a four-dimensionalist (4D) view.[27] We have to combat an intense staticism in our thought about matter and objects. Matter is essentially dynamic: essentially in time and essentially changeful.[28] All reality is process, as Whitehead was moved to observe by his study of twentieth-century physics, and as Heracleitus and others proposed long ago. Perhaps we would do better to call matter ‘time-matter’, or at least ‘matter-in-time’, so that we never for a moment forget its essential temporality. We think of matter as essentially extended, but we tend to think only of extension in space—something that can, we intuitively feel, be given to us as a whole at an instant. But space and time are interdependent. They are aspects of spacetime, and all concrete spatial extension is extension in spacetime.[29]

     It follows from this interdependence alone, I think, that there is no ontologically weighty distinction between objects and processes given which objects are not truly said to be processes, although there is for many purposes a perfectly respectable distinction to be made between them. ‘From this alone’: there is in fact no need to invoke the spacetime of relativity theory, for even if relativity theory is false in its account of the essential interdependence of space and time there is no metaphysically defensible conception of a physical object—a ‘spatio-temporal continuant’, as philosophers say—that allows one to distinguish validly between objects and processes by saying that the latter are essentially dynamic or changeful phenomena in some way in which the former are not.[30] The source of the idea that there might be some metaphysically deep distinction between objects and processes lies in natural everyday habits of thought that are ordinarily harmless and indeed useful, and yet are disabling—almost perfectly unhelpful—in certain theoretical contexts. It seems to me that we philosophers continue to be very severely hampered by this habit of thought even when we have, in the frame of theoretical discussion, fully agreed and, as we think, deeply appreciated, that objects are entirely creatures of time, process-entities.[31] Later on I will pick up a similar point about the distinction between objects and properties.

     Certainly the brevity of human thin subjects should not count against their claim to be objects, and, hence, physical objects. ‘The prejudice that the real is the persistent must be abandoned’,[32] and the everyday human temporal scale has no special validity. If W-particles and Z-particles are fundamental particles then they will presumably count as objects in almost any serious materialist metaphysics that countenances objects at all, and they are considerably more ephemeral entities than thin subjects; and 10–34th of a second, a very short time by human standards, ‘seems by the standards of early-universe physics as interminable as an indifferent production of Lohengrin’.[33]

     Thin subjects certainly exist, then, and are to be counted among the objects, on the present scheme of things; although objects are processes, wholly constituted out of time-matter, process-stuff, and although ‘subjectivity’ may turn out to be helpful alternative to ‘subject’, in certain contexts, by the time I have finished. I take it, as a materialist, that all thin subjects are entirely constituted out of process-stuff in the brain. Cerebral process-stuff is constantly being recruited or corralled into one transient subject-constituting (and, equally, experience-constituting) piece or synergy of process-stuff after another. This, I propose, is what the conscious life of a human being consists in. (I will say more about ‘synergy’ shortly.)

     My (empirical) bet is that thin subjects last for a maximum of about three seconds, in the human case,[34] with many being much shorter. I think that there is always some complete interruption of consciousness in any longer period of time, although this is not phenomenologically accessible to most people in normal life. There may either be a straightforward temporal gap, as already remarked, or there may be a new experience, with a new subject, following seamlessly on from the previous one. The next experience may even overlap the previous one temporally, as one recruitment or neurons gathers pace and peaks in consciousness before the previous one has died to nothing.[35] There is no particular difficulty in the idea (whether or not it happens is an empirical issue).

     These experiences—these experiences-with-subjects—are I propose primitive unities (they are of course physical unities, on the materialist view). They are ‘indecomposable unities’, in William James’s terms, in the sense that no subpart of one such experience-with-subject can be said to be itself a whole experience-with-subject.[36] One experience-pulse means one subject. If overlap of the sort just imagined occurs in the L-reality then there are for a brief time two experiences-with-subjects in the L-reality; this is what the consciousness of Louis consists in, at this time. But neither of the two (thin) subjects that are numerically distinguishable at time t on this view of experiences as successive neuronal recruitments is aware of there being two subjects at t; nor is Louis the whole human being considered as a (thick) subject of experience aware of this at t. The phenomenology of experience may be and usually is of continuous experience.[37]

     I will elaborate this view as I go along. Let me stress that ‘thin’ carries no implication of brevity. The basic definition of thin subjects allows that they might last for hours or days, even if they cannot do so in our case. In some creatueres they might cease to exist only when very rare periods of complete experiencelessness occur—only in dreamless sleep, say. One could even suppose, with Descartes (on one reading), that thin subjects are immortal.


—So what is the relation of a thin subject to a human being? What is the relation of this putative thin subject s in the L-reality to Louis the human being?


I take it that it is a completely straightforward part-whole relation, like the relation between Louis the whole human being and one of his toes or transient spots. s is a spatiotemporally bounded piece of process-stuff which one may call ps, Louis considered as a whole is also a spatiotemporally bounded piece of process-stuff which one may call pL, and ps is ontically distinct from pL in the way in which any (proper) part of an object that is itself correctly thought of as an object (a cell, a hand, a finger, depending on your view) is ontically distinct from the larger object of which it is a part. s is also not ontically distinct from Louis in any sense in which such a part of Louis is not ontically distinct from Louis.[38]

     I take [s = ps] to be a simple identity claim, not a constitutive identity claim—if, that is, a constitutive identity claim is one that allows that the constituter can possibly exist in the absence of the constitutee, or conversely. On this view, neither ps nor s can exist without the other—unlike the statue of Pegasus and the lump of bronze out of which it is made (to take a familiar example), on most accounts of the relation between them. s could not possibly have consisted of anything other than the particular synergy of process-stuff ps and ps could not possibly have existed without s existing.[39]

     In the same spirit I take it that the identity conditions of subject-constituting synergies of process-stuff are a strict function of their parts, in whatever sense they have parts: add or subtract one single subject-constituting ‘particle’ or ‘string’ or ‘field’ or ‘physical simple’ or ultimate, as I will call the ultimate constituents of reality, whatever they are, and you no longer have the same synergy or the same subject.[40]

     This decision runs contrary to common intuitions about the conditions under which something (e.g a subject of experience) can be correctly said to remain the same thing. I will consider some counterfactuals later.

     I hope the word ‘synergy’ does some work against the staticist tendencies of our natural picture of objects. It is not wrong, nor even particularly unclear, to say that s (or e) consists of a piece or bit or segment of process-stuff, for the essentially temporal, dynamic nature of what is in question has already been strongly marked by the term ‘process-stuff’. But a piece of process-stuff could be dynamic in every part (every piece of physical process-stuff is dynamic in every part, every atom is essentially in internal uproar) without necessarily being synergetic in any very interesting way, let alone synergetic in the way required for it to be a subject or an experience.[41] It is the synergy of process-stuff ps that constitutesis—s. It is not as if the piece of process-stuff, involving 1010 ultimates, say, already wholly constitutes s, and it is then a further fact about ps that it is synergetic in a certain way. It is a portion of synergetic process-stuff that constitutes/is s—the physical object that is the subject of experience.

     Imagine a connectionist’s customized set of party lights. Switched on for a few seconds, each light flashes in a pattern that depends on the other lights’ state of activation. The object that corresponds to s (or e), in this analogy, is not the set of lights conceived as something you can put away in a box for next year (which we naturally think of as an object). Nor is it the set of lights considered as a few-seconds-long temporal slice of the thing that you can put away in a box for next year (a rather peculiar object, by our ordinary lights). The object that corresponds to s (or e) in this analogy is: the-set-of-lights-in-the-process-of-flashing.

     One might try to mark the point by repeating that thin subjects are dynamic entities, but that already concedes too much to the staticism of our ordinary thought about objects; for all physical objects are dynamic entities (there is an awful lot going on in a stone). The analogy draws whatever force it has from the contrast between the natural staticist picture of the set of lights and the ‘dynamic’ entity that consists of the set-of-lights-in-the-process-of-flashing-for-three-seconds, but really all objects are best conceived on the model of the set-of-lights-in-the-process-of-flashing-for-three-seconds—as essentially processual entities made of process-stuff.

     I labour the point because I want to establish its banality. There are areas of metaphysics in which it is very important to cultivate the intuition of process in thinking about matter.


—In that case, why bother with the solid staticist word ‘object’ at all, or the strongly substantial/substantival-sounding word ‘subject’? Why not fall back into a world—or vocabulary—of Russellian ‘events’ or Whiteheadian ‘occasions’?


First because there is no reason why one should not take the words ‘object’ and ‘subject’ with one into the processual outlook, realigning them to mean more clearly on their faces what they have meant (referentially speaking) all along. Second because there are positive reasons why one should take these words with one—rather than leaving them behind as specious rallying points for bad intuitions.


4 ‘[E = S:C]’


So much for preliminaries. Thin subjects certainly exist. Human thin subjects certainly exist. As remarked, I think they last for a maximum of about three seconds. They have as good a claim to the title ‘physical object’ as anything else. Like all other physical objects they are essentially spatiotemporal, essentially dynamic entities. Like all other physical objects other than individual ultimates they are constituted of collections of ultimates. They are synergies of process-stuff of a certain very special sort, involving special macroelectrical (electrochemical) goings on.[42]

     We may now repeat the question:


What is the relation between E, S and C?


The first thing to do is to add


[5] [S Þ E]




[6] [S Þ C]


to [1]-[4], to give the full house of [1]-[6]. Together [1]-[6] entail


[7] [E Û S Û C],


which, particularized to the case of e, a single experience in the L-reality, gives


[7L] [e Û s Û c].[43]


I take it, as before, that [7] and [7L] have modal force, but there is a sense in which ‘Û’ is not very informative. If [7] is true it would be good to know more about what makes it true. It would be good to know more about the metaphysics of the situation.

     My first proposal is that we may and should move on from [1] and [2]—the obvious thesis that every experience has some experiential content, and the equally obvious Subject thesis that experience has to be experience-for someone-or-something—to the thesis that an experience consists of a (thin) subject entertaining—having, living—a content. I propose to write this as


[8] [E = S:C]


where ‘:’ has some kind of strong intimacy-intimating function whose force (over and above ‘Û’) remains to be determined. [8] then, is formed on the model of the general connection schema


[7] [E Û S Û C];


it replaces the first ‘Û’ in [7] by identity and the second by some as yet unspecified metaphysical intimacy.


5 The Subject thesis: polarity


One thing that seems correct about [8] is that it conveys the sense in which any experience comports an irreducible polarity. I will expound this a little, and consider in passing a couple of doubts about the Subject thesis. I will use the plural-accepting, count-noun form of the word ‘experience’ for talking of experiences as things that may have non-experiential being as well as experiential being,[44] and reserve the phrase ‘experiential phenomena’ and the plural-lacking form of the noun ‘experience’ to refer precisely and only to the concrete phenomenon of the qualitative character that experiences have for those who have them as they have them where this phenomenon of qualitative character is considered wholly independently of everything else.[45]

     With this provision one can distinguish three modes of characterization of the portion of reality that concerns us when we are concerned with mental phenomena. First, mode 1, the experiential mental mode of characterization. In this mode we designate and describe experiential phenomena as just defined. I will call it the experiential mode for short, because ‘mental’ is redundant.

     Mode 2 is the non-experiential mental mode of characterization. In this mode we designate and describe non-experiential phenomena that are none the less mental phenomena, whether dispositional (beliefs, preferences, knowledge of language, and so on) or occurrent (unconscious thought processes, and so on). This mode hardly concerns me here, and I mention it for completeness.

     Mode 3 is the non-experiential non-mental mode of characterization. In this mode we designate and describe non-experiential, non-mental features of the portion of reality that concerns us when we are concerned with the existence of experiential phenomena, e.g. the being of the brain in so far as it is correctly characterizable by current physics and neurophysiology.[46]

     Consider, in the framework provided by these three modes of characterization,[47] Louis’s experience e: his current experience of looking at St Paul’s Cathedral, say, on the north side of the River Thames, from the Globe Theatre on the South Bank. If one wants to give a truly compendious account of the being of e it seems that one will have to mention many things. It seems that one will have to mention [i] those of e’s causes that need to be cited in a full account of its intentional content (St Paul’s Cathedral, the River Thames, and so on). And one will have to mention [ii] those features of the brain activity that constitutes the being of e that are correctly characterizable in non-mental, non-experiential terms (e.g. the terms of physics and neurophysiology). At this stage one is in mode 3, the non-experiential non-mental mode of description.[48]

     Actually [i] is not right, on the terms of this paper. It is right given a broader conception of what an experience is, but e is by definition (p. 00) an experience narrowly conceived (in the semi-technical sense of ‘narrow’). Its content c is narrowly conceived. So none of the things that are part of the intentional content of experiences broadly conceived need to be mentioned in mode 3 given my present purposes.

     Nor, so far as [ii] is concerned, does the non-mental non-experiential being of any things—ultimates—that are not directly constitutive of e. I take the ‘process-stuff’ idiom to allow one, in talking of e (= pe), to refer to a portion of reality—e—in a very specific way that excludes any and all process-stuff that is not directly constitutive of e, part of the being of e; and I take it that to do this is to exclude things like myelin-constituting ultimates that may naturally enough be supposed to be part of e on a more inclusive view of what an experience is. The process-stuff idiom allows intensely fine-grained demarcations of portions of reality (I hope that the account of the object/property distinction given in §9 will make this idea more easier to grasp). It allows one to separate off just the process-stuff that directly constitutes e from everything else in the neuronal complex that is a candidate for identification with e on a blunter view of things which lets in myelin-constituting ultimates, cell-wall-constituting ultimates, blood-sugar-constituting ultimates, and so on (always assuming that nature in her ingenuity has not somehow found a way to put even these things to work as consciousness-constituting elements in those synergies of process-stuff that are experiences).[49]

     It remains true, nevertheless, that the ultimates that are directly constitutive of e will have non-mental non-experiential being as well as experiential being, given the standard materialist view that every experiential or experience-constituting reality also has some non-experiential reality. This non-mental non-experiential being will therefore be picked up in mode 3.

     Moving to mode 1, the experiential mode, one drops reference to the non-experiential being of those ultimates that are directly constitutive of e. One strips one’s account of e of any reference to anything that is (a) constitutive of e’s existence, considered as a whole, and (b) non-experiential. One does this in order to focus on one particular and indubitably real feature of the being of e: its experiential being.

     Is such exclusive focusing really possible, or legitimate? Is it possible for materialists who take it that experiential phenomena are entirely a matter of brain activity, and, further, that all brain activity has some non-experiential being? Certainly, for it does not follow, from the fact (if it is indeed a fact) that e must have non-experiential being in addition to experiential being, that one cannot consider the experiential phenomena that e involves in isolation, or just as such. One can. One can consider e’s experiential nature quite independently of any non-experiential or non-mental causes or being that it may have, restricting oneself entirely to the experiential mode of characterization. I will mark this by saying that one may restrict oneself to considering ee, where the subscript ‘e’ is short for ‘experiential’.

     Having marked out this object of enquiry, ee, one can ask the following question:


Given that ee exists, what else must exist?


Call anything non-experiential that must exist if ee exists ‘N’. What is N? One radical group of idealists holds that ‘N’ denotes nothing.[50] A second group of idealists holds that ‘N’ denotes certain immaterial but partly non-experiential phenomena.[51] Materialists hold that ‘N’ denotes various non-experiential physical phenomena. And so on.

     Many philosophers will be inclined to refer to their favoured candidate for N—the soul, the body, the brain—when answering the question of what the subject of experience is,[52] but the Subject thesis completely bypasses all these metaphysical differences. It points out that one has to grant that the subject of experience must exist, given that e exists, even when one keeps strictly to the experiential mode of characterization and so considers only ee. One has to grant that the subject of experience must exist before one has made any other assumptions about the nature of reality.


—But mice presumably have experience, and we are not bound to say that there is anything as grand as a subject of experience—a Subject of Experience—in their case. A mouse considered as an integral experiential-and-non-experiential whole may perfectly well be called a subject of experience. But when we give an account of what must exist if a particular mouse experience m exists while restricting ourselves to the experiential, and considering only ee, we do not have to talk of a subject of experience at all. Nor should we do so. When we limit ourselves to the experiential, we need and should speak only of experience, or of experiential content. That is all there is to be found, so far as the experiential is concerned, in the case of the mouse. And by itself it does not give us grounds for asserting the existence of anything else at all—such as a Subject of Experience.


Oh but it does. Take any particular experience E. Even when one all one has assumed to exist is Ee /it seems that / it seems that one can already know that what exists, given that Ee exists, is complex in a certain respect. Ee may be complex in virtue of its content: it may be experience as of seeing, simultaneously, a complicated array of different colours. But even if Ee does not involve any complexity in this way—perhaps it is just uniform experience of green—it seems that one is already in a position to assert—to know—that what exists, given that Ee exists, is and must be complex in a certain respect. Surely Ee cannot possibly exist without the polarity of experiencer and experiential content? Where there is experiential content there is necessarily experiencing, and where there is experiencing there is necessarily an experiencer—a subject of experience. This is the apparently irreducible polarity that, so far, seems well expressed by


[8] [E = S:C].


Some may want to replace the individual-substance-suggesting word ‘subject’ by the word ‘subjectivity’, even after a repetition of earlier assurances that (in good Second-Meditation style) the Subject thesis makes no claims whatever about the ultimate substantial nature of the subject, and certainly doesn’t claim that the subject can be known to be something ontologically distinct from E or indeed Ee. That’s fine, although I’m not prepared to allow the replacement of ‘subject’ by ‘subjectivity’ in the Subject thesis unless it is allowed in return that ‘subject’ can also be correctly used. This is quite certainly only a matter of terminology (it may be that some Buddhists will find the point very hard to allow, given their time-honoured terminological habits). For the basic point surely remains untouched: Ee must still involve some sort of irreducible complexity or polarity in involving the phenomenon of subjectivity, on the one hand, and the phenomenon of content, occurrent particular content, on the other.

     Well, perhaps the point is not entirely untouched; perhaps it does not seem quite so luminously evident after the substitution of ‘subjectivity’ for ‘subject’. That’s fine by me, for in the end, I do not want it to be untouched at all. And to say that it is provable that any experience comports some sort of irreducible polarity, and that this can be known to be so even when one restricts oneself to the experiential mode of characterization, is not yet to say that one can prove irreducible, full-on ontological plurality a priori from the mere existence of Ee.


—I don’t know what you mean by ‘full-on ontological plurality’, and this is all wrong in any case. Experiential content is all that can be truly discerned when one is restricted to mode 1, the experiential mode of characterization. The subject of experience cannot be discerned. This is what Hume took such pains to show us.


Hume did no such thing,[53] but let’s leave him out of this. The first point to make is that even it were true that experiential content is all that can be discerned when one is restricted to mode 1 it would still be true that the subject can be known to exist if Ee is known to exist.[54] Granted that the subject is not itself a wholly experiential phenomenon, in the sense of an experiential-content phenomenon (surely—obviously—it cannot itself be just a bit of content?), we can still know that it exists, even when restricted to mode 1, and even when the resources of mode 1 are conceived as narrowly as they are in this objection. For if there is an experience of pain, then—once again—there must be something, some whatever-it-is, that feels the pain. There cannot be just experiential content—if to say this is in any way to suggest or imply that there is not also a subject of experience (occurrent subjectivity). The point, once again, could not be more simple: an experience is necessarily experience-for. We must discern at least this much structure in the world when it is said that there is an experience (e.g. of pain), even if we think that reality is purely mental. The Subject thesis does not depend on the traditional idea that an experience, being a process or event, necessarily requires some sort of substance that is in some way distinct from it, in which it can go on or occur. It holds good even if one proposes that there is nothing but process, ‘pure process’, indeed pure mental process, in the universe. The fact that one can know that the subject of experience exists even when one restricts oneself to considering the experiential being of experiences, and does not speculate in any way about their non-experiential or non-mental being, is a direct consequence of the necessary ‘for-ness’ of experience.

     The necessary for-ness of any (arbitrary particular) experience E is not itself any part of the experiential content of E. It is not, I take it, something that is necessarily apprehended in some manner by the entity whose experience E is, when E occurs. Equally, representation of the subject of E needn’t be part of the experiential content of E, although (contrary to Ryle, and the ancient ‘the eye cannot see itself’ analogy) I think it can be.[55] The fact remains that the necessary for-ness of experience requires us to acknowledge the existence of the subject of experience when saying what must exist given that E exists—even when considering E just as Ee—i.e. just in its experiential being. It is natural for some, given their terminological preferences, to think that Buddhist meditation, or indeed any remotely successful practice of meditation, however secular, shows the noun-phrase ‘the subject of experience’ to be irredeemably excessive. But there is no reason to accept this; it is only a terminological attachment. My reply to those who want to replace ‘subject of experience’ by ‘subjectivity’ is that the force of the phrase ‘subject of experience’in its present use (this is an explicit terminological ruling) is such that the existence of subjectivity entails the existence of a subject of experience.


6 ‘[E = S = C]’?


Before I was interrupted (before Hume was misrepresented) I was proposing that we can know that reality is complex in a certain way even if all we know is that a given experience E exists, even when considering E just as Ee. It seems that there is a respect in which experience involves an irreducible polarity—the polarity of subject of experience and experiential content—and this polarity seems well enough represented by


[8] [E = S:C].


It is not, however, clear that we can know that this polarity involves some sort of genuine ontological plurality—a real distinction, as opposed to a merely conceptual distinction, as Descartes might have said. For there is a real distinction between two phenomena—so that genuine ontological plurality is in question—if and only if they can possibly ‘exist apart’, and a merely conceptual distinction between them if and only if they are distinct but cannot possibly exist apart, like trilaterality and triangularity.[56] And when we confine our attention to thin subjects, as here, it seems quite unclear that the actual subject S of any given actual experience E can exist apart from E, even in thought. For this reason I am not claiming that the allegedly irreducible subject:content polarity of any experience proves the existence of irreducible ontological plurality. (Some may think that counterfactual speculation can quickly pull them apart; but I am going to deny this.)


Well, is there or is there not irreducible ontological plurality?


This issue now has to be addressed. It is very difficult—it includes, for one thing, all the perennial problems raised by the distinction between object and property—but I will now attempt it, returning to e, Louis’s particular experience.

     What more can be said about the relation between e, s and c in the light of the biconditional template


[7L] [e Û s Û c]?


I have already proposed that


[8L] [e = s:c]


is informative and true as a version of [7L]. The colon-designated relation is admittedly murky, but at least it seems clear that we cannot develop it into identity and say that


[9L] [e = s = c].


The subject cannot, surely, be the content. Even if there is some sense in which it is best to say that the subject of the experience is just the (necessary) subjectivity of the experience, still the subjectivity cannot, surely, be the content.

     That remains to be seen. In the meantime, it may be suggested that the colon in [8L] is too appositional, and too separatist. And perhaps it is also too egalitarian, suggesting full equality of ontological status across the double dots—so that there is no difference between s:c and c:s. Perhaps it would be more graphic to write [8L] as


[10L] [e = s{c}],


the curly brackets representing not only the fact that c is essentially something for s, and essentially belongs to s,[57] but also the idea that c is somehow included in s in such a way that its being is at least partly constitutive of the being of s. On this view c is, as it were, the body or flesh of s, without which s (the thin subject) could not exist, and would be nothing. s, we feel, cannot simply be the same as c, but s is nothing without c—not just utterly empty, but non-existent. s could not possibly exist apart from c.[58]

     Shifting terms, we may say that the existence of s is the existence of ps, a synergy of process-stuff: that [s = ps]. And whatever else it is or is not, the existence of c is (given materialism) nothing over and above the existence of some process-stuff which we may call pc: [c = pc].[59] The question is then this: what is the relation between ps (= s) and pc (= c)? What is the relation between the process-stuff that is (wholly constitutive of) the being of s and the process-stuff that is (wholly constitutive of) the being of c. This is, I think, a powerful question.


—This is lovely, but I don’t really follow. I really don’t follow. It looks as if the main achievement of the colon and curly brackets is to dramatize our uncertainty about the metaphysics of the relation between s and c. The meaning of ‘=’, by contrast, is very clear.


I agree. ‘=’ has an agreeable clarity. It would be nice to have more of it. And perhaps


[9L] [e = s = c]


is not as crazy as it sounds. Perhaps it is worth asking what sort of a case can be made for [9L], at least—to examine where and how, exactly, it hits incoherence, if it does.

     The central strangeness is the identification of s and c. How can the subject be the content? But is the intuition that s cannot be the same as c as sound as it is strong? Perhaps it feeds off some elision or blurring of the difference between qualitative-identity considerations and numerical-identity considerations; or between type identity and token identity; or between contents considered as abstract particulars and contents considered as concrete, occurrent particulars. One needs to bring the question ‘What is it, actually, for concrete, occurrent, experiential content to exist?’ before one’s mind, again and again, if necessary, in order to put this speculation to the test.[60]

     Clearly we must allow that two numerically distinct subjects S1 and S2 can entertain or have qualitatively identical contents. Equally clearly we must insist that if they do then there will of necessity be two numerically distinct contents C1 and C2 (it is only contents in this concrete sense that are at issue in this paper, occurrent contents, living contents, as it were.) Now when, keeping this vividly in mind, we reflect on the point that a subject of experience S cannot possibly exist at time t unless there is some experiential content C for it to be the subject of, at t, and the proposal in the penultimate paragraph that this is because C is in some way constitutive of the very existence of S, it can begin to seem that there is after all no obvious asymmetry between c and s. If it is granted that c is indeed partly constitutive of the very existence of s, if it is granted that this is the root reason why


[6L] [s Þ c]


is true, then the claim that s is partly constitutive of c—this being the root reason why


[4L] [[c Þ s]


is true—looks no less strong. For c (once again) is living content, an actual particular occurrence of content that is (necessarily) an actual entertaining of content, an episode that necessarily involves there being ‘what-it’s-likeness’ in the world, and its very life and reality—its being something concrete and particular, rather than being an uninstantiated what-it’s-likeness type—just is its being lived, had, animated, suffused, by a subject (or subjectivity). It is, as [4L] records, impossible for c—this very occurrence of experiential content—to exist without s—this very (thin) subject existing and being its subject.

     At this point, then, the egalitarian implication of the colon in ‘s:c’—the suggestion of (ontological) parity, commutativity, relational symmetry—may seem justified after all.[61]

     Suppose this is so. What then remains to favour ‘:’ over ‘=’? Well, the colon, unlike the identity sign, continues to stand up for the apparently adamantine fact that s and c must be somehow distinct however intimate their relation of mutual dependence. The idea that they are at least conceptually distinct, even if they are not really distinct, is surely non-negotiable.


—But what does this mean, as applied to particulars? The notion of a merely conceptual distinction applies only to properties. And while two properties like trilaterality and triangularity can be only conceptually distinct because unable to exist apart while remaining clearly different properties,[62] it is not clear how two particulars could possibly be absolutely unable to exist apart without being the same single thing…[63]


Hang on a moment—


…but it hardly matters, because you’ve now just defined these entities into this intense degree of metaphysical intimacy, and although you may not have meddled much with ‘experience’ and ‘content’ in doing so, you have had to bend the term ‘subject of experience’ right out of shape to get anywhere near where you think you are now.


Out of shape? I think that’s philosophico-terminological prejudice, for reasons given earlier. Why should ‘subject of experience’ have a dispositional reading, a reading that allows there to be a subject of experience when there is no experience? What is the evidence that a subject of experience continues to exist when there is no experience? There is none.

     The last question is silly, because the matter under discussion is not a matter of fact, but that is the point of the question. It makes vivid the fact that it really is just a matter of terminological decision to say that subjects of experience are things that continue to exist when there is no experience. Human beings do so continue, of course, and brains, and parts of brains that are capable of being recruited into experience-constituting and subject-constituting synergies; but I don’t think subjects of experience do. You don’t disagree with me, on my terms. You simply choose to put things differently. It’s true that the inclination to use ‘subject of experience’ in this way is not just a product of philosophical fashion or habituation. It is supported by our deep, innate, highly general and often thoroughly sensible pre-theoretical tendency[64] to posit underlying continuants in order to explain the existence of resemblances between occurrences that are given in experience as diachronically separate and, to that extent, as numerically distinct entities. But this only explains the inclination; it does not justify it. Hume himself, in so far as he took any positive stand on the matter, supposed


[i] that there are as many numerically distinct subjects of experience or selves to be found in the L-reality as there are numerically distinct experiences (‘perceptions’, in his terminology)[65]




[ii] that there are in fact many numerically distinct experiences (perceptions) to be found in the L-reality.


I agree with both [i] and [ii]. I have assumed that [ii] is true (p. xxx). As for [i] I am confident that it is for many philosophical purposes, although not all, the best position to hold if one wishes to talk in terms of selves and subjects of experience at all (it is not a question of simple right or wrong).


7 ‘The thoughts themselves are the thinkers’


William James agrees, and I will now briefly deviate from the main line of argument in order to give his view. In his great book The Principles of Psychology[66] he uses the word ‘thought’ in Descartes’s sense to cover all types of conscious episodes.[67] Having done so, he appoints ‘Thought...with a capital T’ as a name for ‘the present mental state’,[68] and formulates his view about the subject of experience (or I or self) as follows. ‘The I’, he says, ‘is a Thought’; ‘the thoughts themselves are the thinkers’; each ‘“perishing”… pulse of thought’ or ‘“section” of consciousness’ is a subject of consciousness.[69]

     In the terminology of this paper, then, James holds that


[11] [E = S]


—that the experiences are the experiencers—a claim that may seem as rebarbative, metaphysically, as ever, although I think it is true in the sense in which James and I intend it.

     ‘The thoughts themselves are the thinkers’ sounds excessively odd. One can recast it as ‘the conscious episodes themselves are the subjects of consciousness’, for perhaps the best simple translation of Descartes’s ‘cogito, ergo sum’ is ‘I am conscious, therefore I am’. But this version hardly improves matters, although it chimes well with some of the ways in which Descartes formulates his position.[70]

     More accessible, perhaps, is the following: ‘the existence of each conscious episode or experience consists (wholly) in the existence of a subject of consciousness entertaining a certain mental content’. This is


[E = S:C] or [E = S{C}], both of which are compatible with [E = S] so long as ‘:C’ or ‘{C}’ merely introduces some sort of qualification of S, not an separate ontological extra. It doesn’t dilute James’s claim, and it may sound just a little less unpalatable to some. It may have a slightly better chance of delivering the odd mental shock that comes from grasping (however briefly) truths that have no non-counterintuitive expression.

     A little more fully, James claims that the self or subject or


I…is a Thought [present mental state], at each moment different from that of the last moment, but appropriative of the latter, together with all that the latter called its own. All the experiential facts find their place in this description, unencumbered with any hypothesis save that of the existence of passing thoughts or states of mind.[71]


There are many subjects, on this view, in the case of a human being like Louis. Each one, each ‘pulse of thought’, is an ‘indecomposable unity’[72] in every sense in which it needs to be for distinct thought-elements like grass and green and wet to be genuinely bound together in whatever way they must be if the (single) thought that the grass is green and wet is genuinely to occur, or if a single experience is to be (for example) both experience of hearing Handel’s song ‘xxx’ and experience of swimming. What is the metaphysical status of these subjects relative to each other? James is quite clear on the point. They are numerically distinct substances. A brain, no doubt, is a single continuing thing, but ‘the same brain may subserve many conscious selves, either alternate or coexisting’, that have ‘no substantial identity’.[73] Each is an upsurging of a subject/experience which is a transient pattern of synergetic activity in the brain.

     At one point James puts the point by saying that the self or subject consists in ‘a remembering and appropriating Thought incessantly renewed’,[74] and some might take ‘incessantly renewed’ to suggest that selves are being represented as things that do have some sort of long-term continuity. But James’s more careful statement of his view cancels any such suggestion. He knows it is natural for us to think of the self as something that has long-term continuity, and is happy to speak in sympathy with that tendency, but he holds that it is in fact incorrect:


My present Thought stands...in the plenitude of ownership of the train of my past selves, is owner not only de facto, but de jure, the most real owner there can be.… Successive thinkers, numerically distinct, but all aware of the past in the same way, form an adequate vehicle for all the experience of personal unity and sameness which we actually have.[75]


How does this fit in with James’s doctrine of the ‘stream of consciousness’, the apparent continuity of conscious experience from subject to subject that occurs in the case of an individual human being like Louis, and that gives no sense that there is a series of numerically distinct subjects? James has no difficulty with this, for on his view each subject ‘appropriates’—makes its own, takes to itself, inherits, has access to—the content of the experiences of its predecessors. The notion of appropriation is loose, but it is clear enough for James’s purposes.[76] It supplies all the apparent (phenomenological) continuity of experience, its developmental coherence, and the consistency of overall perspective from subject to subject in the case of an individual human being like Louis. A further reason why all these things are entirely unsurprising, on his view as on mine, is that the subjects in question arise successively, in a single person’s brain, from brain conditions that have considerable similarity from moment to moment even as they change.

     (They are similar for more than one reason. First, given short-term or ‘working’ memory, the content of the immediately preceding experience standardly forms part of the overall experiential context in which the new experience arises in every sense in which features of the external environment do; and this is true both of salient content, content in the focus of attention, and of background content, somatosensory content, mood-tone content, and so on. Second, somatosensory and mood-tone contents are in any case (i.e. independently of memory) continually refreshed from sources that often undergo only slow change—from pulse to pulse, subject to subject—even as salient contents turn over rapidly.[77] Third, all the features of the brain that constitute a human being’s character, beliefs, general epistemic and cognitive outlook, general conative and emotional outlook, and so on, also remain highly stable from moment to moment. The whole phenomenon—considered both in its conscious experiential aspects and in its non-conscious non-experiential aspects—may be compared to the view from a train, close things streaming past, a line of trees a field away moving more slowly, the hills in the distance more slowly still, or even indiscernibly.)

I think James’s view is correct, as already remarked. More moderately, I think that this is the best thing to say about the notion of the subject of experience, once one has put aside the thick, whole-creature use of ‘subject of experience’. James is motivated by a radical form of empiricism that I believe to be indefensible, but that is no objection to the substance of his conclusion, and I think that his thought on this matter, like Hume’s, goes far deeper than anything demanded merely by radical empiricist principles.


8 Pause


So James is onside, and Hume is a friendly shade, but the current proposal—the triple identity proposal that


[9] [E = S = C]


—still seems absurd. The experience is the subject? The subject is the content? Contents have experience? Experiences have experience? Experiences experience themselves?! The claim that [E = S:C] may come to seem relatively tolerable, once one has acclimatized to the thin use of ‘subject of experience’. It simply states that an experience-occurrence is a subject-entertaining-a-content-occurrence, and that is certainly true, whatever else is or is not true. But why go on to [9], the triple identity?

     Well, I think [E = S = C] states a profound truth, although I don’t suppose that I am able to show this. On the one hand it seems to me that the claim made earlier—that S and C stand in an intensely intimate relation given which they cannot possibly exist apart, so that there is at most a conceptual distinction between them—has very considerable force (remember that S is, as always, a thin subject). On the other hand the objection made earlier—that you can’t have a merely conceptual distinction between two particulars if their relation falls short of numerical identity—seems pretty irresistible. So unless one can achieve a more than merely conceptual distinction between S and C one will I think be driven to


[12] [S = C].


But [12]—together with [9]—seems as crazy as ever.

     Can anything be done? The next task, I think, is to consider an ancient problem about the relation between objects and their properties. It sits at the centre of the present difficulty, blinking like a slow loris.

     What will follow the discussion of the relation between object and property might be expressed in short form in the following wholly unacceptable way: [11] [E = S] is true, and so is


[13] [E = C]


but [12] [S = C] is not![78] Or, perhaps slightly less unacceptably: you can assert [E = S], and you can assert [E = C], but you can’t assert [S = C], or indeed [E = S = C]. For when you focus on [E = S], C changes appearance; it shimmers out of any appearance of objecthood back into the appearance of propertyhood. And when you focus on [E = C], S—somewhat more surprisingly—does the same. This, I propose, is the recalcitrant structure of our understanding.)


9 Object and property


Objects have properties, we say. There are, indisputably, objects; and, indisputably, they have properties. Our habit of thinking in terms of the object/property distinction[79] is ineluctable. And it is perfectly correct in its everyday way. But ordinary thought is not a good guide to metaphysical truth, any more than it is a good guide to scientific truth. And there is an equally ineluctable sense in which any sharp or categorial object/property distinction is profoundly misleading.

     This is a point that will obviously be important if one takes S to be an object (as I do) and is naturally inclined to think of C as a property (as we all are); for this makes the proposal that [S = C] look like a Class A category mistake.[80]

     I think we can in fact sufficiently grasp the truth about the object/property distinction, although it eludes sharp formulation, has done so for millennia and will doubtless continue to do so. Although it is a truth that violates a deep precept of our ordinary ‘discursive’ form of thought in such a way that thought-expressing language does not provide adequately for its precise expression, I think it is not entirely beyond our reach.

     The central idea, briefly, is this. One has already gone wrong, when discussing what exists in the world, if one thinks that there is any sort of ontologically weighty distinction to be drawn between objects and properties according to which there are objects on the one hand and properties on the other hand—where by ‘properties’ I will always mean intrinsic, natural, categorical properties, unless I specify otherwise.[81] Clearly objects without properties are impossible. There can no more be objects without properties than there can be closed plane rectilinear figures that have three angles without having three sides. ‘Bare particulars’—objects thought of as things that do of course have properties but are in themselves entirely independent of properties—are incoherent. To be is necessarily to be somehow or other, i.e. to have some nature or other, i.e. to have properties.

     Rebounding from the obvious incoherence of bare particulars, one may think that the only other option is to conceive of objects as nothing but collections or collocations or ‘bundles’ of properties—concretely ‘instantiated’ properties. But this option may seem no better. Mere bundles of properties, concretely instantiated or not, may seem as bad as bare particulars. Why should we accept properties without objects after having rejected objects without properties?

     But this is not what we are asked to do. The claim is not that there can be concretely instantiated properties without objects; it is that objects (just) are collections of concretely instantiated properties. And although the debate is as troublesome as it is ancient, conducted as it is against the stubborn background beat of everyday thought and talk, perhaps adequate sense can be given to the admittedly odd-sounding claim that objects are nothing but collections of instantiated properties.

     But it will always sound hugely peculiar—to say of a child or a refrigerator that it is (‘strictly speaking’—but this qualification brings little relief) nothing but a collection of instantiated properties. To some it may continue to sound little better than the claim that there are bare propertyless objects. But perhaps there is no need to put things in such troublesome terms. It seems to me that philosophers have managed to find other ways of describing the object/property topos correctly. When Kant says that


in their relation to substance, accidents or properties are not in fact subordinated to it, but are the manner of existing of the substance itself[82]


I think he gets the matter exactly right. Nothing more needs to be said. There is no ontological subordination of property to object, no existential inequality—or priority—of any sort. We can as Armstrong says ‘distinguish the particularity of a particular from its properties’, but


the two ‘factors’ are too intimately together to speak of a relation between them. The thisness and the nature are incapable of existing apart from each other. Bare particulars are vicious abstractions…from what may be called states of affairs: this-of-a-certain-nature.[83]


Nagarjuna talks in the same vein of the ‘complete codependence…of things and their attributes’,[84] and P. F. Strawson’s use of the highly suggestive phrase ‘non-relational tie’ in his discussion of the way in which grammatical subject terms and predicate terms (object terms and property terms) are combined in the description of reality can profitably be given a straightforwardly metaphysical application as well as a logico-linguitic one.[85]

     I believe one should accept this ‘non-relational’ conception of the relation […] between an object and its intrinsic or non-relational […] properties, if one is going to retain the words ‘object’ and ‘property’ in one’s metaphysics. It is entirely compatible with claiming that an object’s properties—including its intrinsic or non-relational properties—may and do change through time, while it remains the same object.


—True, but we also want to be able to say that an object would have been the object it is, at t, even if its properties had been different, at t. We think that the (actual) object could have existed apart from some at least of its (actual) properties.


Nothing here forbids this past-subjunctive way of talking about the non-actual. To see this, all one needs to do is to lose any tendency to slip (even in one’s underthought) from the evident fact


(i) that there are contexts in which it is entirely natural to take it that (some at least of) an object’s properties might have been different from what they are while it remained the same object


to the entirely mistaken idea


(ii) that an object has—must have—some form or mode of being independently of its having the properties it does have.


—But we also want to be able to say that an object would still be the object it is even if (some at least of) its properties were other than they are in fact.


True; and this present-tense counterfactual talk may at first seem more problematic than past-tense counterfactual talk. But this is very superficial. Such facts about natural counterfactual talk constitute no challenge to the present proposal about the object/property relation. One may want to reject the proposal for other reasons, but no one who has a clear understanding of the nature of counterfactual talk can take it to constitute an objection to the proposal by itself. The adequacy of ordinary thought and talk to represent reality perspicuously in this particular area of metaphysical concern is already in the dock, and already stands condemned. Those who doubt the present proposal, and who think that the correct interpretation of counterfactual talk backs up their view, rather than merely reexpressing it, will have to produce independent (non-linguistic) metaphysical arguments in support of their view. They cannot simply appeal to the common understanding of counterfactuals.

     Some may find that (ii)—the idea that an object must have some form or mode of being independently of its having the properties it has—continues to ring true; ordinary thought and language may keep pushing in this direction. The present rejection of (ii) may continue to sound like one of those conclusions, reached so confidently by a certain type of philosopher, that one accepts, if at all, only as a piece of book learning that forever fails to gain effective entry to one’s thinking.

     There is, perhaps, no permanent remedy for this. We face the fact that some of our most fundamental categories do not get the world right. When we think hard—obstinately[86]—I think we can see a priori that this is so; but we cannot really liberate ourselves from the framework they dictate.[87] Ramsey does not exaggerate, I think, when he says that ‘the whole theory of universals is due to mistaking…a characteristic of language…for a fundamental characteristic of reality’.[88] But he doesn’t go far enough: it is not just ordinary language but ordinary thought that misleads us and will perhaps always do so.

     The best thing to do, perhaps, is simply to keep Kant’s phrase constantly in mind: ‘in their relation to the object, the properties are not in fact subordinated to it, but are the manner of existing of the object itself’.[89] This, I think, is another of those points at which philosophy requires a form of contemplation, something more than disengaged theoretical assent: cultivation of a shift in intuitions, acquisition of the ability to hold a different beat in place in the background of thought, at least for a time.[90] The object/process/property/state/event cluster of distinctions is unexceptionable and effectively inevitable in everyday life, but is in many ways superficial from the point of view of science and metaphysics in general.

     Some think that conflict with our ordinary or common sense ways of thinking is always an objection to a philosophical theory, but this is certainly untrue if it is anything more than a recommendation always to keep in touch with ordinary ways of thinking and speaking. Philosophy, like science, aims to say how things are, and it is (as already remarked) no more sensible to say that conflict with our ordinary ways of thinking and speaking is an objection to a philosophical theory than it is to say that it is an objection to a scientific theory. Philosophy has its own distinctive and proprietary principles of common sense, in any case, and they often lead to conflict with ordinary (or ‘common-sense’) common sense. There are many areas in which we can see clearly that our ordinary concepts and ways of thinking are not and cannot be fully adequate to the reality they purport to represent (consider our ordinary concepts of space, time, and matter), and it so happens that one of the very deepest and most startling demonstrations of this inadequacy is provided by our commitment to thinking in terms of object and property in the (ontologico-categorial) way that we ordinarily do. In large parts of philosophy this commitment causes no problems; for very many purposes the language of object and property works smoothly enough. But there are, inevitably, areas in metaphysics where its inadequacy to reality is part of the problem at issue (it may not be obviously or explicitly what is at issue), and then its uncritical use—its use in any robust form—wreaks havoc, havoc aggravated by the ease and success of its employment in other areas which understandably misleads us into thinking that it must be generally viable. In discussing the ‘mind-body problem’, for one, it seems to me best to avoid the word ‘property’ as far as possible.[91]


10 [E = S = C]


So much for the object/property distinction. Let me now return to the concrete phenomenon of a portion of reality that consists of some arbitrarily selected particular, concrete experience E on the part of some arbitrarily selected human being H that occurs at some particular place p (in the H-reality) at some particular time t (between t1 and t2) and that consists of some particular, concrete thin subject S entertaining—living—some particular, concrete, occurrent content C.

     Suppose, by way of example, that this E-S-C phenomenon is a two-second experience of uniform red; or suppose it is you now, hearing or reading the following: ‘barath abalori trafalon’. The question is: What is the relation between E, S and C?

     The answer I have proposed and backed away from is: identity:


[9] [E = S = C].


On this view, [E = S:C] does not go far enough. It is for some reason not enough to say simply that an experience, an experience-event is a subject-having-a-content-event. But why not? [E = S = C] still seems absurd. [S = C] seems absurd.

     Let us accept the principle that if there is at most a conceptual distinction between two particulars, if they cannot possibly exist apart, then they are not really two but only one: they are identical (more strictly, it is—of course—identical with itself). The question is then this: can S and C possibly exist apart?

     The answer No is contained in what has gone before. Certainly C cannot possibly exist without S; no content, no actual, concrete, particular occurrent content occurring at some particular place at some particular time can possibly have any subject other than the subject it does have, whatever the subject’s girth (thick, traditional, thin). This is


[6] [S Þ C]


a point that is (as noted in §6) covered by an old slogan: ‘ideas—contents —are ‘logically private’.[92] If (per impossibile) C did have some subject other than S, C could not be the content occurrence it is: it could not be itself. So, by reductio (from [C ≠ C]), [S Þ C].


—But the converse fails, and this is the crux. Suppose S and C had begun to exist together at time t1, in the H-reality, as they did, only for C to be cut short after a millisecond, at t1.1 and seamlessly replaced by C* ≠ C, which lasted until t2? Surely in this case S would have continued without C? President Nixon would have continued to exist throughout July 4, 1973 if he had eaten a different breakfast, on that day, from the one he did eat. So too S would have continued to exist—apart from C—in the case just described.


Not on my view. For C is the very body of S without which S (a thin subject) cannot exist. In this story, S ceases to exist at t1.1. The fact that certain sorts of counterfactual speculation run smoothly for human beings (and indeed for all objects as ordinarily conceived) in everyday thought and talk proves nothing. It has no leverage at all. It simply presupposes that S is substantially distinct from C in some way (it begs the question). One needs some independent reason to think that S is substantially distinct from C. But what gives one an independent fix on the identity of S that allows one to say such a thing?


—Fine; just give me a reason for saying that S can’t possibly exist without C that doesn’t equally beg the question. It isn’t enough for you to appeal to the definition of a thin subject according to which a thin subject exists in the H-reality only if experience exists in the H-reality. My proposal blocks that move with the word ‘seamlessly’: there is no time between t1 and t2 at which there is no experience in the H-reality.


I’m prepared to take back ‘begs the question’, but your reply fails. I certainly do not think that it follows from the fact that there is temporally seamless experience in the H-reality between t1 and t2 that there is a a single thin subject in the H-reality between t1 and t2 (see p. 000). It is arguable that here we face a conflict of conceptions that lies beyond the point where it is helpful to talk of question-begging. It’s probably better just to free-associate. I’ve been rambling redundantly for some time as it is, because it seems the best way to get anyone who is still reading to work out either why I’m right or why I’m wrong.

     I take it as clear that this very content C can’t possibly exist without this very subject S: actual occurring experiential contents are indeed ‘logically private’. The present claim is simply that the converse is also true: this very subject S can’t possibly exist without this very content C. I’m not really concerned to argue the point, I just want to elucidate the conception of the thin subject that seems to lead to it. As remarked in §xxx, I think we need to have this conception in place if we are going to make progress in the metaphysics of experience, human or otherwise, within a materialist framework.

     From my side, it looks as if the problem on the other side is that of being hooked into a bad picture of what objects or individual substances are that produces a bad picture of what subjects are when subjects are considered as objects or individual substances. There is nothing wrong with an objectual or substantival conception of the subject, once one has a sufficiently processual understanding of the notion of physical objects or substances; it’s important to retain such a conception (there are no better examples of substances than subjects of experience). But this, perhaps, is one of those points at which it may be helpful to replace ‘subject’ by ‘subjectivity’, taking it as a count-noun (‘a subjectivity’), or better, I think, as a constituent of a count-noun (‘an event or episode of subjectivity’) in order to highlight the sense in which the existence of S is really nothing over and above the fact that C is actual, concrete, occurrent content. Subjectivity is animated content, occurrent content.

     It is I think an understandable harking back to the ordinary and ordinarily unexceptionable but theoretically unfortunate[93] notion of what an object is, and so of what a subject-considered-as-an-object is, that makes meditators of many kinds want to deny its existence, although they cannot coherently deny the existence of the phenomenon of consciousness or subjectivity. In certain linguistic and theoretical frames, the idea that the correct thing to say is that the supposed subject of experience is really just occurrent subjectivity seems an early, easy lesson of meditation. An experience that many find it natural to characterize as experience of the non-existence of the self or subject seems inescapable in the present moment of meditation if meditation is practised with any success.[94] The occurrence of this experience is entirely banal and reliable.[95]

     All this is true and interesting. But it does not, in a linguistic frame (mood) like mine, give any reason to think that the term ‘subject of experience’ is in any way inappropriate in the description of reality, either in general or in the description of certain sorts of meditative state. In a frame like mine, it is a trivial (definitional) point that it is appropriate to speak of a subject of experience whenever it is appropriate to speak of subjectivity: whenever there is experience, with its necessary for-ness. It is, more bluntly, a necessary truth that there is a subject of experience whenever there is subjectivity. It is equally trivial, on the present terms of discussion, that there is a substance or object that is a subject of experience whenever there is subjectivity. To think that talk of objects or substances that are subjects of experience is or can be put in question by what meditation reveals is simply to have a wrong picture (a picture that falls apart on the slightest acquaintance with the terms of science) of what physical objects or individual substances are.




I suppose I’m offering [E = S = C] as an a priori truth (I'm not sure of anything any more). But we can suppose for a moment that it is an empirical claim about the material world. E is (by materialist hypothesis) identical with a two-second synergy of process-stuff PE in the H-reality ([E = PE]), S is identical with a two-second synergy of process-stuff PS in the H-reality ([S = PS]), and C is identical with a two-second synergy of process-stuff PC in the H-reality ([C = PC]). In these terms, the proposal is that as a matter of fact


[14] [PE = PS = PC]


—that in any and all cases of experience the process-stuff that is the experience just is the process-stuff that is the subject, which in turn just is the process-stuff that is the content. We cannot section PE into regions, a PS region and a PC region. In which case


[9] [E = S = C].


     Now suppose that the art of mapping the neural constituters of consciousness has been perfected, and that we have picked out the synergy of process-stuff PE that is (directly constitutive of) a single experience E. And suppose we find that we can somehow independently identify the subject synergy PS that must exist given that E exists and the content synergy PC that must exist given that E exists. The present claim is that in this case we will find that PS and PC are the same, and that both are the same as PE.

     If we suppose instead, contrary to [14], that we can corral out a subject subsynergy PS of PE or a content subsynergy PC of PE, neither PC nor PS being identical with PE, then the claim is that PS and PC will always be the same.

     This last supposition is directly contrary to [14], and so to [9], but I’d like to try it for a while. And I want to depart from the present terminological scheme in another way. Ignoring the ruling about what needs to be mentioned when one adopts the non-mental, non-experiential mode of characterization of experiences (mode 3, p. 00), I want for a moment to think of E, i.e. PE, as something that can have working parts, say myelin-constituting ultimates that are not themselves experience-constituting parts. As before (p. 00), I take it that the ‘process-stuff’ idiom allows one, in talking of PE, to refer to a portion of reality in a very specific way that excludes any and all matter (ultimates, process-stuff) that is not directly constitutive of E, and I have supposed that to do this is to exclude things like myelin-constituting or cell-wall-constituting ultimates.[96]

     This is why I talk of neural constituters of E rather than neural correlates of E. I take it that the neural (direct) constituters of E are what are picked out by the very fine-grained identification of E, and are a subset of the neural correlates of E, given that ‘X is a neural correlate of E’ is understood to entail only that if E occurs then X must occur.[97]

     With this in place, consider the following ‘empirical’ challenge to the claim that if we could identify a subject subsynergy PS of PE or a content subsynergy PC of PE, then PS and PC would have to be identical (it isn’t really an empirical speculation, because its target has a priori protection). Suppose that there seem to be good prima facie reasons—simple spatial reasons, say—for distinguishing a subject subsynergy PS from a content subsynergy PC within a given experience-synergy PE that exists from t1 to t2. At t0, say, one is considering the collection of ultimates, K, that will participate in the constituting of PE from t1 to t2. We may suppose that K, modelled in colour in two dimensions, has the shape of a blue crescent moon curled tightly round an orange ball. Little pathways connect the crescent to the ball, and pathways for sensory inputs lead to the ball and only to the ball. At t0 sensory inputs flow into the ball. A flush of red suffuses rapidly across the ball and up the pathways to the crescent. Whereupon pulses of blue shoot out from the crescent along the little connecting paths, and at t1 the whole crescent-ball complex pulses purple for two seconds—this is the existence of PE—until t2, when K loses its purple colour as ultimates (and indeed neurons) that figure in the process-stuff constitutive of PE are rapidly recruited into other transient experience-synergies.

     The idea, evidently enough, is that one might think it right to say that the purple-pulsing crescent is PS while the purple-pulsing ball is PC. But nothing in this story gives good reason to suppose that an actually existing (and hence actually experiencing) thin subject S (= PS) is ontologically distinct from an actually existing, occurrent, ‘living’ content C (= PC). E, in this story, is the purple-pulsing PE. There is no (thin) subject at all existing in the K-reality before t1, although there is a crescent formation; nor is there any occurrent conscious content before t1, although there is a ball formation suffused with red. Neither S nor C exists at all before the onset of purple at t1. They begin together. The occurrent content C is the ‘body’ of S without which S cannot exist and the subject S is the ‘animating principle’ of C without which C cannot exist.. The crescent-ball story supplies no reason at all to think that the crescent formation between t1 and t2 is S while the ball formation between t1 and t2 is C.

     Suppose we try to translate into these terms the suggestion (that S could continue to exit when C is replaced by C* (p. 000). It won’t do to imagine that the red flush in the ball structure (material for visual experience V1, say) is annihilated and seamlessly replaced at by a differently caused slightly darker red flush (material for visual experience V2, say) before any empurplement occurs, for S does not exist at all in this story; experience has not yet begun. We have to suppose instead that empurplement has taken place at t1 (experience has begun, S exists) and that the ball part of the purple process-stuff is annihilated and seamlessly replaced by different (darker) process-stuff at t1.1 while the crescent part of the process-stuff remains the same.[98]

     Suppose we admit this possibility. Is it a case in which S continues while C does not? No. According to the present story the subjectivity of E is no more located in the crescent than in the ball—the subjectivity of the experience is undisentanglably distributed across PE..

     I believe that something very like this is the present consensus among the neurophysiologically informed about how experiences are actually realized in the brain; both among those who are genuine (real) realists about consciousness, and those, like Dennett (in so far as I understand him), who are not.[99] On this view, there is simply no locus in the brain, however scattered, that is [a] the locus of the subject of experience and [b] distinct from the place where the neuronal activity in virtue of which the experience has the content it does is located.

     There may be brain regions—parts of the reticular activating system, say, plus regions F, C and Y (‘RAS+FCY)—that must always be activated in a certain way whenever there is any experience at all, but it does not follow that there is any sense in which subjects of experience are somehow located in RAS+FCY. Being a neural correlate of consciousness does not entail being a neural constituter of consciousness.

     If we suppose that the synergy of process-stuff constituted by a certain state of activation of RAS+FCY between t1 and t2 is among the neural constituters of S and not only among the neural correlates of S, so that S is partly located in RAS+FCY (these constitute the ‘crescent’), then the present claim is then that S is also located in the regions in virtue of which E has the content it does (the ball) in such a way that there is no good reason to say that S can remain in existence if anything about the content changes. The PS = PC claim demands further that there is no sense in which the (occurrent, living) content C is located in the ball in some way in which it is not also equally located in the RAS+FCY crescent.




When we try to approach this part of reality I think our categories of thought—even our philosophically elasticated categories of thought—reach breaking point. The object/property distinction is locked into the terms ‘experience’, ‘subject of experience’ and ‘content’ in a way that makes it almost impossibly hard for us see or conceive, let alone endorse, the proposed identity—even if the best current neurophysiology seems to support this kind of view. We can, it seems, pull C into line with E to get [E = C]. And, jumping off from the [E = S:C] picture or [E = S{C}] picture, we can it seems pull S into line with E to get [E = S]. But as soon as we have done this either with S or with C—as soon as we have achieved some sort of intellectual hold on the proposal that one of S or C is identical with E, as a step on the way to asserting


[9] [E = S = C]


with some sense of real understanding—then the other pops out of line, deliquescing and recrystallizing as propertyish or aspectish. If we take it that the experience just is—is just—the subject, then the content seems left out, and it seems we can get it back in only by thinking of it as an aspect or property of the subject (back to [E = S:C] or [E = S{C}]). If the experience just is—is just—the occurrent content, then the subject seems left out, and it seems we can get it back in only by thinking of it as the intrinsic (necessary) subjectivity of occurrent content.

     In spite of this I suspect that [E = S = C] is true, and that similar wonders of identity (masked by the bad picture of the object/property distinction to which our minds keep defaulting) apply in the case of all other physical objects.

     I think, in fact, that the case of the relation between an experience, the subject of the experience, and the content of the experience—the difficulty of the claim that [E = S = C]—is exemplary, and gives us a glimmering of an extremely general metaphysical truth. It opens a small frosted window onto the nature of things in a way that nothing else can.[100] To argue for this suspicion one would have to go, impossibly, beyond the limits of our thought. All I have offer is my strong sense that I have been following a trio of lines that seem bent on convergence to a point represented by ‘[E = S = C]’ and that seem to fail to achieve it only because they hit an unscalable wall. It seems to me that this impact does not settle the matter against the [E = S = C] singularity. For the wall may not be itself part of the landscape of thought, as it appears to be. I think it marks, rather, one of the limits of thought. And I think it is possible to attain a sound sense that this is so, which (indirectly) strongly supports the feeling that the lines do converge to a point beyond the wall. The philosophical consensus within the bounds of the wall is that we can never have any respectable reason for this feeling. But there are, perhaps, strong reasons of elegance in its favour, reasons of the sort that are so telling in science. It may be added that reasons, like arguments, are only a small part of philosophy.


So that’s the case for the tridentity. There is, in the Christian canon, a long tradition favouring another triple identity. I think my triple identity is easier to understand than the more famous one.






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[1] Thanks so far to Jesus Aguilar, Barry Dainton, Brie Gertler, Mark Greenberg, Ben Olsen, Jim Stone and Dean Zimmerman.

[2] Rosch 1997: 193. When I cite a work I give the date of its completion or its original publication date, while the page reference is to the edition listed in the bibliography.

[3] ‘Qualitative’ has to be explicitly qualified by ‘experiential’ at least once because every (non-relational) property of a thing contributes to its qualitative character and the standard materialist assumption is that experiences have non-experiential (non-relational) properties as well as experiential properties.

[4] ‘Representationists’ deny it (they sometimes deny their denial). They are the principal remaining representatives of an extraordinary sect (now slowly expiring) whose members single-handedly made the twentieth-century century the silliest in the history of philosophy. Members of the sect typically pursue the project of trying to define the mental reductively in non-mental terms. In order to do so they have to deny the existence of experiential qualitative character—however evasive they are about this. (The idealist project of defining the physical in non-physical terms is far less mad—infinitely less mad, strictly, because the reductionist project involves the denial of a certainty.)

[5] Louis is constitutively entangled with the quantum vacuum, and is not neatly separable out as a single portion of reality. There are at any given time many millions of transient neutrinos in the spatial volume bounded by the surface of Louis’s skin that are not, I take it, part of Louis. The same goes for much of the contents of his digestive system. And so on.

[6] Whatever experiential content is left as incontrovertibly real when one assumes the truth of the extreme sceptical hypothesis about the existence of anything other than one’s own conscious states of mind. Note that such experiential content is not limited to sensory or feeling content. Obviously enough, it includes anything whose subtraction could impoverish a human being’s experience of life: experience of thought, of understanding mathematics, or a metaphor, and so on (see e.g. James 1890: 1.245-6, Ayers 1991, vol. 1 ch. 31, Strawson 1994: 5-13).

[7] Frege 1918: 27.

[8] Shoemaker 1986: 10.

[9] 1641: 18. This is why Lichtenberg’s famous objection to Descartes is no good at all.

[10] Buddhism is very concerned with suffering.

[11] S is the subject who experiences the experiential content or, if you like the ‘haver’ of the experiential content.

[12] See e.g. Lockwood 1989: xxx, Strawson 1994: xxx.

[13] I take it that there is no other kind.

[14] Duly accompanied by {5} [$xSx Þ [$yEy Ù Sxy]] and {6} [$xSx Þ [$yCy Ù Oxy]]. Again S is the subject in the sense of the ‘haver’ of the experiential content.

[15] If [5] is true then [6] is, by [5] and [1]; if [6] is true then [5] is, by [6] and [3].

[16] Or at any other time: on this view a creature may be a subject of experience in the sense that it is capable of experience (it needs only to be awakened, or stimulated) even if it has never had, and never has, any experience.

[17] See Strawson xxxx.

[18] Descartes’s endorsement of the view that the soul or self or subject of experience is always conscious (always experiencing) is an integral part of his substance dualism. I think he may be right although I am a monist and materialist.

[19] Louis has not had a cerebral commisurotomy, is not suffering from dissociative identity disorder, and so on.

[20] Ref xxx

[21] He is using the word ‘person’ in the familiar way that allows one to distinguish a person from a human being considered as a whole.

[22] As Descartes asked (1641: 18).

[23] See Strawson 1999c, 2002b.

[24] I will say more about this in due course. For James’s view see xxx below. For some related ideas see Strawson 1999.

[25] I defend this idea in Strawson 1999: §XV-XVI.

[26] According to a stronger version of this view, thin subjects have (as far as we know) a better claim to be considered as objects than anything else; for a brief defence see Strawson 1999: ibid. I think it is in the general spirit of van Inwagen’s (1990) notion of an object to count thin subjects as objects, although he does not do so himself.

[27] It is arguable that it is more obviously true on a 3D view than on some versions of the 4D view which see time as ‘spacelike’. Much of the 3D vs 4D debate is I think a waste of time. For some outstanding mediation, see Jackson 1994: 96-103.

[28] I am taking ‘dynamic’ to be essentially equivalent to ‘in time and changing’, although some realists about time might precisely wish to question the aptness of the word ‘dynamic’.

[29] This is not a distinctively 4D claim—should anyone’s terminological habits make it seem so.

[30] Again, there is nothing in the 3D conception of objects that supports such a view.

[31] I am ignoring the view, ingeniously argued for by Barbour, that time does not exist. See Barbour xxxx.

[32] Russell 1925: xii.

[33] Ferris 1997: 237.

[34] I am influenced by research by Pöppel and others—which is doubtless open to interpretations [Pöppel xxx, Ruhnau xxx).

[35] James agrees (1890: xxx).

[36] James 1890: 1.371. This is wholly compatible with the view that they are composed of many neurons and many parts of neurons.

[37] Usually: some like myself, often have experience gappiness, of consciousness continually restarting. See Strawson 1997.

[38] The comparison between s and parts of Louis like fingers or cells may seem troublesome, but I think it is troublesome in just the way it needs to be; see Strawson 1999a: xxx and forthcoming).

[39] The same goes for [e = pe] and that [c = pc]. Any concrete existent consists of some portion of process-stuff. e, s, and c are all concrete existents, and they could not, on the present terms, have consisted of any ultimates other than the ones of which they do in fact consist. (Some may think that c must be understood as a property and not as a thing. This issue will be addressed in §xxx.)

[40] I use ‘ultimate’ as an unencumbered term. I agree with van Inwagen (1990: 72) that Leibniz’s term ‘simple’ is preferable to ‘fundamental particle’ as a term for the ultimate constituents of reality, first because the term ‘fundamental particle’ has potentially misleading descriptive meaning, provoking a picture of tiny grains of solid stuff that has no scientific warrant, second because many of the things currently called ‘fundamental particles’ may not be genuinely fundamental or ultimate constituents of reality (one view is that the fundamental particles currently recognized—leptons and quarks—are not strictly speaking elementary and are to be ‘explained as various modes of vibration of tiny one-dimensional rips in spacetime known as strings’ (Weinberg 1997: 20); whether this leaves strings in place as ultimates, or leaves only a single object, spacetime, I do not know). I prefer to use ‘ultimate’ because ‘simple’, too, carries implications—of radical separateness, non-overlappingness and indivisibility—that are best avoided. That said, I am going to take it for purposes of discussion that it is legitimate to speak of individual ultimates—given particle-like observational effects, say, and in spite of the phenomena of quantum entanglement. (Post (1963) famously suggested that even if there are ultimate constituents, they may have to be seen as ‘non-individuals’ in some way).

[41] Gravitational interaction is already synergy, on one view. The physical synergy that is of interest in the present case is the sort of thing studied by neurophysiologists.

[42] Tables and chairs are physical objects (unless van Inwagen is right), and do not involve such special electrical goings on. Nor do electric motors. Nor do plants.

[43] All the numbered proposals have Louis-relativized versions. I omit the brackets required by the convention that two-place operators bring brackets with them.

[44] As standard realistic materialism supposes.

[45] I take over this terminological device from Strawson 1994: ch. 6. Recall that the qualitative character includes experience of thought—of cognitive content—as much as feeling. See note xxx.

[46] The qualification ‘in so far as’ is important, for when aspiring materialists discuss the (living) brain they often slip into supposing that the word ‘brain’ somehow refers only to the brain non-mentally and non-experientially considered—the brain-as-revealed-by-current-physics-and-neurophysiology. This is a mistake that can lead to other mistakes. One needs to bear in mind , for the word ‘brain’, used to refer to the living brain, duly refers to the living brain, the living brain considered as a whole, the living brain in its total physical existence. Why is this important? Because to be a genuine (realistic) materialist is to hold that this total physical existence is constituted, at least in part, by experiential phenomena. It is to hold that the brain of an ordinary living person is constituted, if only in part, by experiential phenomena in every sense in which it is constituted, in part, by non-experiential phenomena characterizable by physics. It is not as if there is something still left to say about experiential phenomena, once you have said everything there is to say about the physical nature of the brain. You cannot think this if you are a real—and realistic—materialist.

[47] Mode 1 (+e +m), mode 2 (–e +m) and mode 3 (–e –m) exhaust the possibilities, for obviously there cannot be experiential non-mental phenomena (+e –m).

[48] Some of the brain activity may also be supposed to have a true description in non-experiential mental terms available in mode 2.

[49] It doesn’t matter if these particular examples are inaccurate; it is enough that there may be ultimates in the brain that are necessary for the existence of e although they are not directly constitutive of e. I will say a little more about this in §10.

[50] Not Descartes, in fact, who requires that the brain exist if ee is to exist, given that ee involves sensory experience.

[51] This is perhaps the most common view of ‘immaterial substance’, but (once again) it is not Cartesian. See Strawson 1994: ch. 5.

[52] Others—e.g. ‘content externalists’—will want to include much more—e.g. St Paul’s Cathedral—in their account of N.

[53] I argue this point in Strawson 2001 and (at more length) in Strawson forthcoming xxx.

[54] Kant (1781) puts this well in the Paralogisms.

[55] See Ryle (1949: 186-9), and a challenge to his view in Strawson 1999, §X. Minds are considerably more remarkable than eyes.

[56] I will use these terms in this sense, which is close to Descartes’s sense, throughout (see Descartes 1644: 213-14xxx?).

[57] Experiences, as one used to say, are ‘logically private’.

[58] ‘What if the s:c entity begins to exist but then c is cut short—after a millisecond—to be seamlessly replaced by c* ≠ c? Doesn’t s then continue without c?’ Not in my view, but it is not yet time to play with counterfactuals.

[59] This may seem an odder claim than the claim that [s = ps]. I hope the discussion of the object/property distinction in §8 will make it seem less unpalatable.

[60] Remember that I am concerned only with ‘narrow’ content in the sense of p. 1.

[61] Note [xxx = ‘what if C*’] records a doubt about whether [6L] is as secure as [4L]; I will come to this soon.

[62] They are then not ‘really’ distinct, in Descartes’s sense.

[63] I put aside the wonders of quantum entanglement; see e.g. Post 1963.

[64] So ingeniously identified and analysed by Hume (1739; for the case of objects in general see pp. xxx; for the case of self or subject in particular, see pp. xxx), and more recently by Spelke and others (see Spelke 1994, 1996xxx, Leslie xxx).

[65] At one point Hume writes ‘when my perceptions are remov'd for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist’ (1739: 252).

[66] It was written before he became too much of a philosophical ‘pragmatist’.

[67] He is explicit about this; see for example 1890: 1. 186, 224.

[68] 1890: 1.338.

[69] 1890: 1.400-01; 1892:191 (Dover 83); 1.371, 1.337.

[70] At one point Descartes claims that ‘each substance has one principal property which constitutes its nature or essence…and Thinking [or thought] constitutes the nature of Thinking substance’ (1644: 210; my emphasis). Elsewhere he talks of "our soul or our Thought" in such a way that it seems that he is treating the two terms as strictly interchangeable (1644: 184); and at one point he writes, seemingly unequivocally, that "Thinking...must be considered as nothing else than thinking substance itself..., that is, as mind" (1644: 215). It is arguable that he was hustled out of this difficult insight by his critics’ insistence on the conventional metaphysical categories. For discussion of this question see Strawson 1994: xxx.

[71] 1890:1.400-401, also 1892:191 (Dover ed. 83). He makes the same point in other terms in 1890: 1.338-42.

[72] 1890: 1.371. more on unity quotation from William James?

[73] 1890: 1.401; 1892: 181 (Dover ed. 69).

[74] 1890: 1.338; 1:362-363. Compare Damasio 1994: 236-243: ‘at each moment the state of self is constructed, from the ground up. It is an evanescent reference state, so continuously and consistently reconstructed that the owner never knows that it is being remade unless something goes wrong with the remaking’ (p. 240).

[75] 1890: 1.360; 1892: 181 (Dover ed. 70).

[76] It would of course be much too strong if it suggested that no content is ever lost.

[77] They show developmental coherence, in Hume’s sense (1739: 195), even when they change rapidly—as when you stumble on a tiger. See also James’s ‘thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it’ example (1892: xxx; compare 1890: 239-41).

[78] This is the exclamation mark used in chess notation.

[79] Also known as the distinction between particulars and universals, between the particular and the general, between individuals and universals, and so on. See e.g. Strawson 1959, Armstrong 1980, 1997, and Mellor & Oliver 1997.

[80] Some may think that s, a ‘thin’ subject, is best thought of as a property of something else, Louis the human being considered as a whole, but I have taken s to be an object (see p. 000 above and note xxx).

[81] I take the propriety of such notions for granted (for some recent discussion, see Lewis & Langton 1998 and the debate in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research xx). It is worth noting that categorical properties can no more exist without dispositional properties existing than conversely.

[82] Kant 1781/7: A414/B441.

[83] 1980: 109-110.

[84] xxx

[85] Strawson 1959: 167-178. For another suggestive alternative to Armstrong’s talk of ‘states of affairs’, see Lewis 2002xxx.

[86] ‘Metaphysics means nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly’ (James 1890: 1.144.)

[87] Compare, again, the free will debate.

[88] Ramsey 1925: 60.

[89] I have substituted ‘object’ and ‘property’ for ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ respectively.

[90] I describe another in Strawson 2002.

[91] ‘Huizinga, noting the vogue that the problem of universals enjoyed throughout the Middle Age and the fact that the conflict was still unresolved in his day, was disposed to find, in its persistence, confirmation of his view of philosophy as a form of agonistic play’ (Strawson 1979: 52). It seems to me, however, that Huizinga was completely wrong; what he saw was an intellectual drama that was bound to play itself out over and over again in different minds as they came to maturity. (The free will debate has some of the same characteristics, but it is I think far less difficult.)

[92] [[possible objection: lose right to this ‘proprietorial’ notion with thin subjects; NO ; red herrings about individuation; etc]]

[93] Theoretically disastrous, in this context.

[94] In traditions, like the Hindu tradition, that stress the existence of the self, the account will be given in terms of the absorption of atman, the individual soul, into brahman, the world soul (rather as the contents of a glass of water mingle into the sea).

[95] It is an entirely robust result, in the sense of experimental psychology; it can occur (and doubtless usually does) without delivering any particular spiritual benefits, and without conferring any ability to give it weight in normal life.

[96] Perhaps also serotonin-constituting ultimates; and so on.

[97] Talk of correlates invites a type reading, but can be given a token reading. (Strictly speaking this way of using ‘neural’ offends against the point made in note [xxx=living brain note], because it models itself on the standard use of ‘neural correlates of consciousness’.)

[98] Exactly the same ultimates may be involved: they need only be in a different state of activation in order to constitute a numerically distinct portion of process-stuff, a numerically distinct synergy. Staticist ways of conceiving matter doesn’t allow numerical distinctness in this case, for K = K.

[99] Given that some form of panpsychism is the most plausible, parsimonious, and ‘hard-nosed’ option for materialism (see Strawson 2002) , the way lies open for a truly spectacular Aufhebung of Dennett’s apparently completely reductionist, consciousness-denying account of consciousness as ‘just’ ‘cerebral celebrity’ or ‘fame in the brain’ (see e.g. Dennett 2001). If the present view is right, Dennett’s fame story can be aufgehoben (raised up, cancelled and yet preserved) into a consciousness-affirming account of consciousness that is fully realist about consciousness. This is a story for another paper.

[100] Perhaps the frosting is not in the glass, but in the mind, and can be brought transiently to transparency by intellectual discipline.