The other day in class I drew on an old example that I’ve used before, but which always turns out to be a useful way to illustrate the commonsense, philosophical idealism that we bring to the way we normally talk and think about identity — a commonsense approach that might be worthwhile rethinking when we move from simply proclaiming our supposed identity to studying how it is that we accomplish the work of identification in the first place.
The example entailed the common first person possessive phrase, “My hand” or “my foot,” or the equally common second and third person versions, “Your hand” or “their feet.” The curious thing, here, is how the terribly useful subject/object construction (e.g., “That’s my land!”) becomes a problem when transferred to claims we make about our selves (sure, private ownership of all kinds is a problem for Marxists, but let’s not go there right now); for when it comes to head and shoulders, knees and toes (not to mention eyes, ears, mouth, and nose) I’m not sure who or what the subject is. That is, I’m not so sure of the difference between subject and object in this case, for it could be said that I am my foot no less than I am my hand. But we posit some identity, some off-stage owner, nonetheless — question: where does it reside? Inside “our heads,” probably, as if it is peering out through “our eyes,” perhaps, but metaphors of the heart come to mind as well; that is, we find someplace we can posit, with “our imaginations,” as removed and non-tangible and thus the locus of the mysterious possessor of all that is tangible and “at hand.”
I won’t even get into what’s going on with the oddly self-referential nature of “myself”…
Now, I’m not going so far as to take a strong stand on the notion of embodied cognition, i.e., the increasingly prominent view that it is a mistake to presume that mind or consciousness reside only between our two ears alone; I just wish to point out this interesting little trick of language, this nifty feat accomplished by subject/object constructions when applied to bodies, that creates the impression of a timeless phantom looking out on the world from somewhere deep inside.