My Left Foot

A painting of a foot and a red flowerThe 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”…


The definition of 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.

Belle de jour

3 Replies to “My Left Foot”

  1. Here’s one thing to think about, Professor:

    With “my” hand I can will (or at least I can have an impression of willing) that the sensible impressions of the hand change in special ways that I cannot with “other people’s” hands.

    So with a fixed visual field I can will that my hand moves from the right side of my visual field to the left side of my visual field. I can even have eyes closed and through the sense of proprioception I can perceive my hand to move by my willing. “Other people’s” hands may move across my visual field, but this perception would not be connected with my perception of willing it to do so. It also would not be connected with proprioception. I would probably use some story like this as explaining the conditions for my judging a hand as “mine” or as “someone else’s”.

    And I think a thorough-going physicalist or neutral monist could have this sort of theoretical basis to her possessive case usage, without assuming any sort of “off-stage owner” of dualism or idealism, as you mention. One just has to take sense data as primary, like any good empiricist should.

  2. I wasn’t so interested as the distinction of my hand from their hands but, instead, in the idea of ownership and self that presupposes a distinction between subject (the ghostly referent for the possessive pronoun, whether first or third person) and the object supposedly possessed (whether it be hand or eye or will). So not the distinction between me and them or between mine and theirs, though this is curious too of course, but between me and mine or the presumed distinction between them and theirs, since one could make the argument that the impression of me is simply the sum total of the parts (i.e., knee is me no less than pancreas) and not some ethereal surplus (i.e., called spirit, mind, self, what have you).

  3. I think the account can ground that distinction as well, although I was not explicit.

    What it shows it that the talk about “my hand” can have an account which doesn’t have the Cartesian ghost implication, even though the talk is still the same, old, folk discourse that everyone uses. All you need is the two combined perceptions: the perception of willing and the perception of the hand moving. This does not assume that there is some ghost doing the willing or the moving, just that there are the brute facts of the two perceptions.

    So then where does the “me” come in? Or, of what does it consist? That’s a good question. Kant would talk about the “unity of apperception” in his First Critique. I just tried writing a big, long thing trying to explain it, but it’s probably such a hatchet job, I think I would just do best to link to this post by Geoffrey Klempner (which usefully contrasts it with the “Cartestian” view which Ryle so deftly problematized*):

    *A good historical question would be how much of Kant’s work Ryle read.

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