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Published by shawn
Exploring the issue of self awareness and individuality through language (or through the use of 'I').
Exploring the issue of self awareness and individuality through language (or through the use of 'I').

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Published by: shawn on May 12, 2009
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Exploring the issue of self awareness and languageWritten by: Shawn MonaghanMarch 30, 1995The article which I am using as a vehicle for this opinion essay is "A Child's Second Birth" inTime, published on June 19, 1978 (attached and subsequently lost). This article is basically anexposition and advertisement for Louise Kaplan'sOneness and Separatenessthe author (of thearticle) is not mentioned. I have outlined (in yellow ink) the key claim of the article which drawsout the issue of most interest to me -- self awareness and individuality through language (or through the use of 'I').
This magazine article goes about explaining the process of individualization and self awarenessof children as a function of language use:As the child moves toward psychological birth, and the first use of the word 'I',...
This quotation is describing the child's first use of 'I' as one of the most important events in childself awareness, that is, actual realization of the child that s/he is self aware, and conscious of thatfact. The sense of self awareness that is meant in the article is that of 'objective self awareness'which is defined by Shelley Duval and Robert A. Wicklund inA Theory Of Objective Self Awareness:Consciousness [that] is focused exclusively upon the self and consequently the individual attendsto his conscious state, his personal history, his body, or any other personal aspects of himself.
This definition is perhaps better understood in opposition to its opposite 'subjective self awareness'. A subjectively self aware person is only aware of her self in the sense of 'peripheralfeedback' from her actions, feelings, and all other internal states of awareness.
Usually 'I' is simply used as a pronoun, meaning the person who is speaking or writing. In order to consider the utterance of 'I' as a definite declaration of self awareness, certain very specificconditions must apply: the speaker must expressly say something to the effect that they areconsciously self aware, anything else leads the listener much doubt as to what exactly is beingdeclared. It is possible thatTimebelieved that any use of 'I'impliesobjective self awareness, butit is not clear that such is a viable claim.I do not believe the use of 'I' in a common everyday sentence implies the speaker is self awareand conscious of this, over and above the literal meaning. Consider, "I want that ball". Does thissentence mean the speaker wants the ball and that the speaker intends to inform the audience thats/he is consciously self-aware, in addition to having a desire for the ball? When considering achild just barely able to use the language, certainly not. The importance of intentions can betraced back to a philosopher named Grice who posited that meaning in communication is oftendependent on intention,that is, the meaning of a statement is derived in many cases from theintentions of the utterer.
In the Gricean formulation of a promise for example, the speaker has the intention to induce the belief in the listener that s/he is making a promise, this as well as a number of different levels of intention are involved in everyday communication. If the promise was not intended then it would be an insincere promise and arguably not a promise whatsoever. However, intention is notabsolutely necessary to meaning, consider a formulation of Gricean intention:S1.Can you reach the salt.
A person uttering the sentence S1 is said to hold many complicated intentions concerning thestatement which give it its meaning. The speaker intends to induce the belief in the audience thatshe wants the salt passed, also the speaker intends the audience to recognize her intention toinduce the above belief. This sentence is also an indirect speech act in that it seems to onlyindirectly get at the meaning of the speaker.A speech act is a particular form of act through language, it is not just performing an act throughlanguage it is a linguistic action. For example, when a man utters "I do" at a wedding (and he isthe groom and it is done at the appropriate time) he is actually getting married and not merelytalking about getting married.What is really being asked in S1 is not whether the listener can reach the salt, but if the listener will "please pass the salt", this meaning is understood on a regular basis often without anythought involved. I hardly think a child new to the language or even the average adult holds allof the intentions or consciously thinks about the literal versus the actual meaning of the sentence, but does this mean that unintentional meaning has no meaning? Intentions of this sort need not be consciously considered by the speaker in the meaning of the average use of this sentence. The basic intention of the speaker in uttering s1 can be considered a blanket intention that she has thewish to communicate, which is really the same thing as wishing to induce belief that she hasintentions and etcetera. Now consider S1 when uttered by a child barely two years of age, it is not likely that the childhas all of the requisite Gricean intentions, after all until I read Grice's work I do not think I wasconscious of any such intentions either. Conceivably, the child and I both mean the same thing by sentence s1 even though I can formulate the various intentions and meanings of such astatement and the average child can not. Does it follow then that a child has the same meaning asme despite different intentions?S2. I want the ball.When I use sentence s2 I certainly do not think I ever intended to imply that I am objectively self aware, but the knowledge of my self awareness would be inescapable. Can we say that the child'suse of the word 'I' is evidence that she is self aware? If the child used the phrase "want ball" onlyyesterday and as a result of parental scolding and tutelage reproduces S2 today, I would say mostdefinitely the child isnotmore likely to be self aware today than s/he was yesterday.In the regular use of the pronoun 'I' we consider the speaker to be implicitly self aware as itseems perfectly ludicrous to deny self-reflection to the average adult. This does not necessarilymean that use of 'I' requires self awareness, as the conclusion that anyone who uses 'I' is self aware does not obtain from the premise that the average adult is self aware. When the object of our investigation is a child's self awareness we should definitely not assume the presence of self reflection, but should seek explicit demonstration.It is generally assumed that we are not born self aware in the sense that we know ourselves as aseparate individual and are conscious that we are self aware, in fact Duval and many others claimthat self awareness is learned. As to how we can know when an individual has become a self aware individual, Duval asserts that a child becomes objectively self aware when certainconditions of learning are fulfilled:The necessary condition for differentiating the causal agent self is that the child becomes awarethat there are perceptions, thoughts, and behaviours that differ from his own.
The process of becoming self aware then is a process of learning that the experiences, thoughts, behaviours and perceptions of the self are not the only ones and that the world is different fromand exists outside of the self. Duval uses the example of transparencies to illustrate the process:one transparency has the image of the un-self-aware child's view of an object and the other transparency has the image of an adult or another child printed upon it. When the twotransparencies are overlapped the differences become evident and the child becomes aware thatits point of view is not the only way to see things. The eventual result according to Duval islearned self awareness for the child. It is interesting to note that Duval claims the pr ocess of learning self awareness is most certain to occur through direct contact with others
, speech andgestures allow for the risk of a, "time-gap between the child's f ocus of attention upon the targetobject and his awareness of the parent's [conflicting] attitude".
The implication here is thatnon-humans and inanimate objects could possibly be used in the process of learning self awareness. As for the question of whether the child requires a language to properly self-reflect,Duval is silent.Is it possible that the word 'I' somehow contains the meaning 'self aware' within its larger contextof meaning? I do not imply here that a word has a meaning of its own, but perhapsTimemagazine does believe that words contain meaning. According to the Empirical Idea Theory of Meaning it is quite possible that words somehow mean something in and of themselves. A word,so the hypothesis goes, is a symbol of an idea and this word somehow carries the meaning of theidea it is attached to, so perhaps some property of the idea is contained within the word itself.The word 'chair' could perhaps somehow have the sense of chair within its phonetic or writtenform. Perhaps in this estimation 'I' contains the property of self awareness.This type of theory has a great number of problems however, first, it is not intuitively correct tomyself and a great number of other philosophers, second, the problem arises as to how can wordshave a sense or property. The description of 'sense' is sketchy at best and it is nearly impossibleto study the phenomena, often being dependent on the individual user. One observer might assertthat 'chalk' contains a sort of chalky property, while another denies that 'chalk' means anythingindependent of its use. Language is a very tricky subject to deal with. We use it to get married(speech acts), we use it to communicate, and many would argue we use it to think. The problemis, using the word 'chalk' to think about the thing chalk clouds up our perception of what we arereally doing. Certainly few wish to claim that the word 'chalk' existed before language, and at thesame time few wish to claim that 'chalk' was somehow designed to refer to the substance. Whatdoes 'chalk' look and sound like? The obvious answer is Chalk, but this definition is far tocircular to be evidence that 'chalk' contains the property of chalk, perhaps we only think it does because the symbol is so inextricably connected to the substance in our minds.
It seems quite likely that we think in our 'natural' language (ie. English, Spanish, Bantu). Suchclaims are very difficult to prove or even support however as we can not get inside of our headsand demonstrate the thinking process. It would seem however that the claim, that words or language are important to the way we think, is a reasonable claim. After all, it is consideredenriching to learn a second language, as it is said that by doing so we learn to think in a differentway.If it is true that language is the vehicle of thought, perhaps it is possible that whatTimeclaimsabout language is correct after all -- that use of the word 'I' is integral to self awareness. Theimplication of this sort of argument would be that thought is impossible without some sort of language, and perhaps it would follow that thinking about complex things is impossible without

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