The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2007) Vol.

Subjectivity and the First-Person
Dan Zahavi
University of Copenhagen
Phenomenology and analytical philosophy share a number of common
concerns, and i t seems obvious that analytical philosophy can learn
from phenomenology, j ust as phenomenology can profit from an
exchange with analytical philosophy. But although I think i t would be
a pity to miss the opportunity for dialogue that is currently at hand, I
will in the following voice some caveats. More specifically, I wish to
discuss two issues that complicate what might otherwise seem like
rather strai ghtforward i nteracti on. The fi rst i ssue concerns the
question of whether the current focus on the first-person perspective
might have a negative side-effect by giving us a slanted view of what
subjectivity amounts to. The second issue concerns the question of
whether superficial similarities i n the descriptive findings might
actually conceal some rather deep-rooted differences i n the systematic
use these findings serve.
Outside a philosophical context, the notion of subjectivity will
typically-if at all-be understood as somehow pertaining to
that which lacks objectivity, to that which cannot be settled
objectively, to the merely subjective, to unargued and idiosyn-
cratic opinions or preferences. Given such an understanding,
subjectivity might easily be seen as something that clouds and
colors our understanding, something that prevents us from
attaining objective knowledge, and thus as something that we,
as far as possible, should put aside or leave behind in our
scientific pursuit of truth.
However, in one field at least-the study of consciousness-
subjectivity is arguably part of the explanandum and conse-
quently something that requires closer investigation. As
Shoemaker has recently put i t, “it i s essential for a philo-
sophical understanding of the mental that we appreciate that
there i s a first person perspective on i t, a distinctive way
mental states present themselves to the subjects whose states
they are, and that an essential part of the philosophical task is
to give an account of mind which makes intelligible the
perspective mental subjects have on their own mental lives”
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
(Shoemaker 1996,157). Whereas others must rely on what I say
and do in order to know what I think or feel, my access to my
own psychological states isn’t exclusively based on behavioral
evidence. A satisfying account of consciousness should respect
and acknowledge this epistemic asymmetry. It must take the
first-personal or subjective givenness of consciousness seriously,
since an important and nonnegligible feature of consciousness is
the way in which it is experienced by the subject.
I n contemporary discussions i n analytical philosophy of
mind, a standard move has been to articulate the subjectivity of
experience in terms of Nagel’s famous notion of what-it-is-like.
However, there is more to the subjectivity of experience than
the fact that what it is like to perceive a black triangle is
subjectively distinct from what it is like to perceive a red circle
(cf. Nagel 1974). Not only is what it i s like to perceive red
different from what i t is like to perceive black, but what it is
like to perceive red is different from what it is like to remember
or imagine red. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that we i n
perceiving or imagining an object consciously are aware of the
object as appearing i n a determinate manner to ourselves.
Whereas the object might be termed the accusative of the
perceiving, the subject is the dative. When I consciously imagine
a gnome, desire a grape, anticipate a forthcoming film festival,
or remember a recent holiday in the Alps, all of these experi-
ences bring me into the presence of different intentional objects.
These objects are there for me in different modes of givenness
(as imagined, desired, recollected, anticipated, etc.). And the
reason why the experiences are said to be subjective is not only
because they are accessible in a unique manner from the very
same first-person perspective they themselves help constitute.
Rather, it is also because such experiences are characterized by
a subjective mode of existence in the sense that they precisely
feel like something for somebody. I do not first experience a
neutral or unowned toothache or taste of cauliflower in order
then in a subsequent move to have to ask the question “Whose
experience is this actually?” I n short, experiences that are given
from the first-person perspective are given (at least tacitly) as
my experiences, as experiences I am undergoing or living
through.’ When I think about Paris, smell crushed mint leaves,
listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet or move my left arm, all
these various experiences seem to share a certain feature; they
are all felt as mine.
As should be clear, there is a marked difference between this
understanding of what subjectivity amounts to and the one we
started out with. The reason why conscious mental states are
said to possess the feature of subjectivity is not because state-
ments about conscious mental states necessarily lack objective
validity, rather-and to repeat-it is because conscious mental
states involve a first-person perspective, a reference to how
Dan Zahavi
things are for me. I t is this feature of self-referentiality, this for-
me-ness that really makes it appropriate to speak of the subjec-
tivity of experience.
Why organize a meeting on the first-person perspective
with contributions from both phenomenologists as well as
analytical philosophers of mind? I n some sense, the rationale
behind a meeting like the present is obvious. I t reflects the
profound change that has taken place within mai nstream
philosophy of mind and cognitive science duri ng the l ast
couple of decades: I ssues like the ones j ust mentioned are
precisely issues that once again are seen as philosophically
and scientifically legitimate. This i s of course i n marked
contrast to how they have been viewed during much of the
twenti eth century, where the experiential dimension was
generally considered to be inherently unreliable due to its
subjective nature and thus unsuitable for scientific research.
As Watson wrote in 1913 commenting on the alleged failings of
introspective psychology,
Psychology as the behavi ori st views it is a purel y objective
experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the
prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential
part of its methods, nor i s the scientific value of its data dependent
upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpre-
tation in terms of consciousness. (Watson 1913, 158)
As Watson explained i n a text from 1920, the behaviorist
ignores mental states
i n the same sense that chemi stry ignores alchemy, astronomy
horoscopy, and psychology telepathy and psychic manifestations.
The behaviorist does not concern himself with them because as the
stream of his science broadens and deepens such older concepts are
sucked under, never to reappear. (Watson 1920, 94)
Behaviorism has had a decisive impact throughout the twentieth
century. Even after its official decline, its influence continued.
I n an article from 1991, for instance, George Rey compared the
belief in the existence of consciousness to a believer’s faith in
the existence of God (Rey 1991, 692). Generally speaking,
however, much has changed since the early 1990s. I t has become
increasingly evident that a satisfying account of consciousness
cannot make do with a merely functional analysis of intentional
behavior. To ignore the issue of subjectivity when investigating
consciousness i s like seeking to “explain” consciousness by
defining it away, it is like “solving” a problem by ignoring the
part of it that makes it difficult. Even advocates of a strongly
reductionistic approach to consciousness have recognized that a
plausible theory of mind must be phenomenologically adequate
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
and that subjectivity and experience are topics of philosophical
importance. Although much consciousness research is still
aimed at locating and identifying particular neural correlates of
consciousness, there is a growing realization that we will not
get very far in giving an account of the relationship between
consciousness and the brain unless we have a clear conception
of what it i s that we are trying to relate. Any appraisal of
whether a naturalization of consciousness is possible requires
an understanding and detailed description of the main features
of consciousness. If thi s groundwork is ignored, and if one
attempts to implement the naturalization directly, the danger is
obvious. Perhaps we will succeed in naturalizing something, but
i t is doubtful whether i t will be that which has our interest,
namely, consciousness in its full complexity.
But again, thi s i s something that has now started to be
recognized. I t is surely no coincidence that a number of analyti-
cal philosophers are increasingly making references to phenom-
enology. An early example is Flanagan, who in his 1992 book
Consciousness Reconsidered argued for what he called the
natural method. If we wish to undertake a serious investigation
of consciousness, we cannot make do with neuroscientific or
psychological (that is, functional) analyses alone; we also need
to give phenomenology i ts due (Flanagan 1992, 11). Similar
claims can be found in the recent work of Searle, Block, McGinn,
Chalmers, Strawson, Siewert, Crane, among many others. This
is not to say, of course, that the focus on the first-person dimen-
sion has gone unchallenged. Dennett, for instance, has famously
argued that a science of consciousness must be based on data
that are available from the third-person scientific perspective,
that such a third-person scientific perspective can do justice to
the most ineffable subjective experiences, and that the very idea
of a first-person science is a fantasy (Dennett 1991, 2001; cf.
Zahavi 2007a). But in general it is fair to say that mainstream
philosophy of mind and cognitive science is currently more
receptive to phenomenology than it has been for a long time-
though, and this is something I will return to in a moment-one
also has to realize that the type of phenomenology that many
analytical philosophers have in mind differs considerably from
classical phenomenology, that is, the philosophical tradition
inaugurated by Husserl.
Continental phenomenology and analytical philosophy count
as two of the most influential philosophical traditions in the
twentieth century. Unfortunately, their relationship has in the
past not exactly been characterized by fruitful cooperation and
exchange, rather most of the time it has ranged from complete
disregard to outright hostility. This is regrettable for a number
of reasons, not the least because both traditions could profit
from one another. Why has the dialogue proved so difficult? One
reason is that both traditions have evolved relatively indepen-
Dan Zahavi
dently with thei r own topics, methods, and rather complex
terminology. Another tremendous hindrance has been the
persisting propagation of stereotypic caricatures.
Phenomenology and analytical philosophy share a number
of common concerns, and i t seems obvious that analytical
philosophy can learn from phenomenology, j ust as phenom-
enology can profit from an exchange with analytical philos-
ophy. I t would be a pity to miss the opportunity for dialogue
that is currently at hand. An obvious way to contribute to this
rapprochement, which I personally endorse and encourage,
would be by carefully examining issues such as the structures
of time-consciousness, body-awareness, self-awareness, percep-
tual intentionality, imagination, recollection, and so forth, in
order to show how recent analytical analyses and classical
phenomenological investigations might complement one
another. This undertaking is currently being conducted by a
number of people. I t i s flourishing, which is why I i n the
following paper wish to do something slightly different. I wish
to voice some caveats. More specifically, I wish to discuss two
issues that complicate what might otherwise seem like a rather
straightforward interaction.
The first issue concerns the question of whether the current
focus on the first-person perspective might have a negative
side-effect by giving us a slanted view of what subjectivity
amounts to. The second issue concerns the question of whether
superficial similarities in the descriptive findings might actually
conceal some rather deep-rooted differences in the systematic
use these findings serve.
Before starting, let me make it quite clear that I certainly
don’t want to postulate the existence of some kind of unbridge-
able gap between phenomenology and analytical philosophy. I n
fact, given how complex and multifaceted both traditions are, I
think such a claim would not only display a rather crude under-
standing of twentieth-century philosophy, it would also quite
simply be wrong. Rather, my point is simply that there are
certain central aspects of what (classical) phenomenology
amounts to that have been downplayed or completely ignored in
recent exchanges and that these aspects must be considered if
talk of real dialogue is to be taken seriously.
1. The Problem of Others
It has recently been claimed that even though we must
recognize and respect the existence of phenomenal conscious-
ness we also have to realize that it is evidentially insulated and
that this is what makes i t so difficult to handle theoretically
(Hohwy 2004). What does this mean? I t means that even though
we might enjoy first-personal access to our own conscious mental
states, second- and third-person ascriptions of mental states are
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
a highly indirect, highly inferential endeavor. The experiential
life of others is not manifest or present or given in any straight-
forward sense. I n my view, this is the wrong move to make. I t
entails a too impoverished notion of what is given, of what is
experientially available. To put my worry in more general
terms, I think it would be quite unfortunate if the recent revived
interest in the first-personal dimension of subjectivity went
hand in hand with a misleading account of intersubjectivity.
If we accept the conceptual separation of the mental from
the behavioral, if my own self-experience is of a purely mental
nature, whereas my experience of others is of purely behavioral
nature, we will be faced with what is known as the conceptual
problem of other minds. If we adopt what McCulloch (2003,941
called a behavior-rejecting mentalism, that is, if we deny that
embodiment and bodily behavior have any essential role to play
for experience, if we deny that embodiment and environmental
embedding are essential to having a mind, it will remain rather
puzzling why we should even so much as think that there are
other minded creatures. If my self-experience is, in the primary
instance, of a purely mental nature, that is, if my body does not
figure essentially in my self-ascription of (some) psychological
states, while my ascription of mental states to others are based
solely on their bodily behavior, how would we then ever come to
be i n possession of a trul y general concept of mind that is
equally applicable to different subjects. What should guarantee
that we were, in fact, ascribing the same type of states to self
and to others (cf. Davidson 2001, 207; Avramides 2001, 135,
This problem was not only recognized by the phenomenolo-
gists, they also proposed how to go about solving it. Consider
the following quotes from Merleau-Ponty’s Phtnomtnologie de la
How can the word ‘I’ be put into plural, how can a general idea of
the Z be formed, how can I speak of an I other than my own, how
can I know that there are other Z’s, how can consciousness which,
by its nature, and as self-knowledge, is in the mode of the Z, be
grasped in the mode of Thou, and through this, in the world of the
‘One’? (Merleau-Ponty 1945,400-401 [1962,3481)
If the sole experience of the subject is the one which I gain by
coinciding with it, if the mind, by definition, eludes ‘the outside
spectator’ and can be recognized only from within, my cogito is
necessarily unique, and cannot be ‘shared in’ by another. Perhaps we
can say that it is ‘transferable’ to others. But then how could such a
transfer ever be brought about? What spectacle can ever validly
induce me to posit outside myself that mode of existence the whole
significance of which demands that i t be grasped from within?
Unless ... I have an exterior others have no interior. The plurality of
Dan Zahavi
consciousness is impossible if I have an absolute consciousness of
myself. (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 427-28 [ 1962,3731)
Merleau-Ponty’s solution was consequently to insist on the
embodied character of self-experience. Had self-experience been
of a purely mental nature, had it only been present in the form
of an immediate and unique inwardness, I would have been
unable to recognize other bodies as embodied subjects. Since
intersubjectivity is, in fact, possible, there must, however, exist
a bridge between my self-acquaintance and my acquaintance
with others (Merleau-Ponty 1945,400-401,405, 511). If I am to
recognize other bodies as embodied foreign subjects, I must be
in possession of something that will allow me to do so. When I
experience myself and when I experience others, there is, i n
fact, a common denominator. I n both cases, I am dealing with
embodiment, and one of the features of my embodied subjec-
tivity is that it, per definition, entails acting and living in the
world. When I go for a walk, write a letter, or play ball, to use
Strawson’s classic examples (Strawson 1959, 1111, I am experi-
encing myself, but in a way that anticipates the manner in which
I would experience others and others would experience me.
Scheler made a related point. He argued that we should not
underestimate the difficulties involved in self-experience and
overestimate the difficulties involved in the experience of others
(Scheler 1973, 244-46). Weshould not fail to acknowledge the
embodied and embedded nature of self-experience, and we should
not ignore what can be directly perceived about others. That is,
Scheler pointed to the importance of embodiment on both sides
of this relation: he denied that our initial self-acquaintance is of
a purely mental nature and that it takes place in isolation from
others, and he also denied that our basic acquaintance with
others is inferential in nature. Wecan perceive the joy, sadness,
puzzlement, or eagerness of others in their movements, gestures,
facial expressions, and actions.
Scheler and Merleau-Ponty consequently both opposed the
view according to which our encounter with others is, first and
foremost, an encounter with bodily and behavioral exteriorities
devoid of any psychological properties. According to such a view,
defended by behaviorists and Cartesians alike, behavior, consi-
dered in itself, is neither expressive nor significant. All that is
given are physical qualities and their changes. For Scheler and
Merleau-Ponty, thi s view on behavior presents us with a
distorted picture, not only of behavior, but also of the mind. I t is
no coincidence that we use psychological terms to describe
behavior; indeed we would be hard pressed to describe i t in
terms of bare movements. Affective and emotional states are
not simply qualities of subjective experience, rather they are
given in expressive phenomena, that is, they are expressed in
bodily gestures and actions, and they thereby become visible to
Subjectivity and the Erst-Person Perspective
others. There is, in short, something highly problematic about
claiming that intersubjective understanding is a two-stage
process of which the first stage is the perception of meaningless
behavior and the second is an intellectually based attribution of
psychological meaning. I n the majority of cases, it is quite
difficult (and artificial) to divide a phenomenon neatly into a
psychological aspect and a behavioral aspect-think merely of a
groan of pain, a handshake, an embrace. I n the face-to-face
encounter we are confronted neither with a mere body, nor with
a hidden psyche, but with a unified whole. Scheler spoke of an
“expressive unity” (Ausdruckseinheit). It is only subsequently,
through a process of abstraction, that this unity can be divided
and our interest then proceed “inwards” or “outwards” (Scheler
1973, 255).
Phenomenologists have in general taken a nonmentalistic,
embodied approach to questions of understanding others and
the problem of intersubjectivity. Webegin from the recognition
that the body of the other presents itself quite differently than
any other physical entity, and accordingly that our perception of
the other’s bodily presence is unlike our perception of ordinary
physical objects. The other is given in its bodily presence as a
lived intentional body, as a body that is actively engaged in the
world. As Sartre pointed out, it would be a decisive mistake to
think that my ordinary encounter with the body of another is
an encounter with the kind of body described by physiology. The
body of another is always given to me in a situation or meaning-
ful context, which is codetermined by the action and expression
of that very body (Sartre 1976, 395).
Some phenomenologists suggest that thi s involves a
distinctive mode of consciousness that they call empathy (for an
overview, see Zahavi 2001a). Empathy is defined as a form of
intentionality in which one is directed toward the other’s lived
experiences. The phenomenological conception of empathy
stands opposed to any theory that claims that our primary mode
of understanding others is by perceiving their bodily behavior
and then inferring or hypothesizing that their behavior is caused
by experiences or inner mental states similar to those that
apparently cause that kind of behavior in us. Rather, in empathy,
we experience the other directly as a person, as an intentional
being whose bodily gestures and actions are expressive of his or
her experiences or states of mind.
Our ascription of conscious states to others crucially involves
their bodily behavior. But this is not to say that the ascription
is hypothetical or assumptive and our understanding is indirect
or inferential. As Bennett and Hacker observe, when somebody
blushes because he is ashamed, the blush reveals and manifests
the shame; i t doesn’t conceal it. When somebody screams i n
pain, while the dentist drills in his tooth, it makes little sense
to say that thi s is merely behavior and that the real pain
Dan Zahavi
remains concealed and inner. Wecan speak of indirect evidence
or of knowing indirectly only where it also makes sense to
speak of a more direct evidence, but there is no more direct way
of knowing that somebody is in pain that seeing him writhe in
pain. By contrast, knowing indirectly or by way of inference
that somebody is in pain might be a matter of noticing a bottle
of pain killers next to his bedside together with an empty glass
of water (Bennett and Hacker 2003,89, 93).
The idea is not to reduce consciousness as such to intentional
behavior. But we should recognize that the expressive relation
between mental phenomena and behavior is stronger than that
of a mere contingent causal connection, though weaker than
that of identity. Bodily behavior (which should be distinguished
from embodiment) is neither necessary nor sufficient for a
whole range of mental phenomena, so one can occur without the
other-which is why lying, deception, and suppression are
possible-but this is not to say that this is generally the case or
that it could conceivably always be the case. As a rule, we do
not come to know one independently of the other. Expression is
more than simply a bridge supposed to close the gap between
inner mental states and external bodily behavior. One sees the
actions and expressive gestures of other persons as psycho-
logically meaningful. No inference to a hidden set of mental
states is necessary. Expressive behavior reveals the mind to us.
Certainly, i t differs from the access available from the first-
person perspective. Weshould respect and maintain the asym-
metry between the first-person and the second- (and third-)
person access to psychological states, but thi s is not a
difference between an immediate certainty on the one side and
an insecure inference on the other. As Wittgenstein writes,
“My thoughts are not hidden from [the other], but are j ust
open to him in a different way than they are to me” (Wittgen-
stein 1992, 34-35). Nor should we make the mistake of confusing
different kinds of access with different degrees of certainty.
We should recognize that each type of access has i ts own
strengths and weaknesses. The second- (or thi rd-) person
access only “falls short” of the first-person access, if i t i s
assumed that the latter is privileged and that i t is the inter-
nal aspi rati on of the former to approximate the l atter as
closely as possible (Moran 2001, 157). To put it differently, the
second- (and third-) person access to psychological states differ
from the first-person access, but thi s difference is not an
imperfection or a shortcoming. Rather, the difference is consti-
tuti onal . I t is what makes the experience i n question an
experience of an other, rather than a self-experience. As Husserl
points out, had I had the same access to the consciousness of
the other as I have to my own, the other would have ceased
being an other, and i nstead have become a part of myself
(Husserl 1950, 139).
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
To repeat, this is not behaviorism. The idea is not to identify
mental states with behavior, or reduce them to behavior, nor
does it rule out that some experiential states are covert; but
not all experiences can lack a natural expression if inter-
subjectivity is to get off the ground. To suggest, as Searle has
recently done, that the indirect means of verifying claims
about black holes or subatomic particles might “give us a
model for verifying hypotheses i n the area of the study of
human and animal subjectivity” (Searle 1999, 2074) is to make
a move in the wrong direction.
One reason why the problem of other minds seems so
persistent is that we have conflicting intuitions about the
accessibility of the mental life of others. On the one hand, there
is something right about the claim that the feelings and thoughts
of others are manifest in their expressions and gestures. On the
other hand, there also seems to be something right in the idea
that the mental life of another is in some respect inaccessible.
There are situations where we have no reason to doubt that the
other is angry, in pain, or bored. There are other situations
where we have no clue as to their precise state of mind. Despite
this, i t seems wrong to claim that the mental life of others is
experientially inaccessible, just as it seems wrong to claim that
everything is open to view. The challenge is to reconcile both
intuitions, rather than letting one of them go (Overgaard 2005).
Returning to the issue of the relationship between subjec-
tivity and the first-person perspective, I might summarize this
section by simply stating that it is a serious mistake to reduce
subjectivity to that which i s only accessible from the first-
person perspective, as if it were something exclusively inner,
something visible to only one person and invisible to everyone
else. The second- and third-personal dimension of subjectivity is
also important. To quote once again from Merleau-Ponty’s
Ph6nomknologie de la perception:
Hitherto the Cogito depreciated the perception of others, teaching
me as it did that the I is accessible only to itself, since it defines me
as the thought which I have of myself, and which clearly I am alone
in having, at least in this ultimate sense. For the ‘other’ to be more
than an empty word, it is necessary that my existence should never
be reduced to my bare awareness of existing, but that it should take
in also the awareness that one may have of it; and thus include my
incarnation in some nature and the possibility, at least, of a
historical situation. (Merleau-Ponty 1945, vii [1962, xii-xiii])
2. Introspection, Intentional Psychology,
and the Transcendental Question
Let me now turn to the second issue I wish to discuss. I n a
manuscript entitled Phanomenologie und Psychologie from
Dan Zahavi
1917, Husserl raised the following question: Why introduce a
new science entitled phenomenology when there is already a
well-established explanatory science dealing with the psychic
life of humans and animals, namely, psychology. More specifically,
psychology is a science of naturalized consciousness. And could
it not be argued that a mere description of experience-which is
supposedly all that phenomenology can offer-does not consti-
tute a viable scientific alternative to psychology, but merely a-
perhaps indispensable-descriptive preliminary to a trul y
scientific study of the mind (Husserl 1987, 102). As Husserl
remarks, this line of thought has been so convincing that the
term “phenomenological” is being used i n all kinds of philo-
sophical and psychological writings to describe a direct descrip-
tion of consciousness based on introspection (Husserl 1987, 103).
The parallel to the contemporary discourse is quite striking.
Currently, the term “phenomenology” is also increasingly being
used by cognitive scientists to designate a first-person descrip-
tion of what the “what it is like” of experience is really like. And
against that background, it might be difficult to understand
why phenomenology should not simply be seen as a kind of
psychology or even as a form of introspectionism. I n Conscious-
ness Explained, for instance, Dennett criticizes phenomenology
for employing an unreliable introspectionist methodology and
argues that i t has failed to find a single, settled method that
everyone could agree upon (Dennett 1991, 44).
Is this identification of phenomenology and introspectionism
-which, by the way, can also be found among analytical philos-
ophers favorably disposed toward phenomenology-correct? Let
us make use of the phenomenological dictum and return to the
things themselves, which in this case are the actual writings of
the phenomenologists. Let us as an example pick Husserl’s
Logische Untersuchungen. I t is a recognized milestone i n
twentieth-century philosophy and indisputably a work i n
phenomenological philosophy. I n fact, i t constituted what
Husserl himself took to be his “breakthrough” to phenom-
enology. What kind of analyses does one find in this book? One
finds Husserl’s famous attack on and rejection of psychologism,
a defense of the irreducibility of logic and the ideality of mean-
ing, an analysis of pictorial representations, a theory of the
part-whole relation, a sophisticated account of intentionality,
and an epistemological clarification of the relation between
concepts and intuitions, to mention j ust a few of the many
topics treated in the book. Is the method at work introspection,
and is this a work in introspective psychology? I think it should
be pretty obvious to anybody who has actually read the book that
the answer is no. Should we then conclude that the book is after
all not a work in phenomenology, or should we rather reconsider
our hasty identification of phenomenology and introspective
psychology? Again, I think the answer should be obvious.
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
Phenomenological disputes as well as disputes among
phenomenologists are philosophical disputes (see Siewert 2007).
Although i t would be an exaggeration to claim that Husserl’s
analyses in Logische Untersuchungen found universal approval
among the subsequent generations of phenomenologists, I don’t
know of any instance at all where Husserl’s position was rejected
on the basis of an appeal to “better” introspective evidence.
Husserl’s analyses gave rise to an intense discussion, and many
of the analyses were subsequently improved and refined by
thi nkers like Sartre, Heidegger, Lbvinas, and Derrida (see
Zahavi and Stjernfelt 2002). Compare this to Metzinger who
claims that the phenomenological method cannot provide a
method for generating any growth of knowledge since there is
no way one can reach intersubjective consensus on claims like
“this is the purest blue anyone can perceive” versus “no it isn’t,
i t has a slight green hue” (Metzinger 2003, 591). But these
claims are not the type of claims that are to be found in works
by phenomenological philosophers, and to suggest so is to reveal
one’s lack of familiarity with the tradition in question.
All the major figures in the phenomenological tradition have
openly and unequivocally denied that they are engaged in some
kind of introspective psychology and that the method they
employ is a method of introspection (see Gurwitsch 1966, 89-
106; Husserl 1984a, 201-16; Heidegger 1993, 11-17; Merleau-
Ponty 1945, 70). Husserl for instance categorically rejects the
attempt to equate the notion of phenomenological intuition with
a type of inner experience or introspection (Husserl 1987, 36)
and even argues that the very suggestion that phenomenology
is attempting to restitute the method of introspection (innerer
Beobachtung) is preposterous and perverse (Husserl 1952,38).
What is behind such a categorical dismissal? To start with, it
is important to realize that classical phenomenology is not just
another name for a kind of psychological self-observation; rather
it must be appreciated as a special form of transcendental
philosophy that seeks to reflect on the conditions of possibility
of experience and cognition, and on the question of what condi-
tions something must satisfy i n order to count as “real.”
Phenomenology is certainly interested in the phenomena and in
thei r conditions of possibility, but phenomenologists would
typically argue that it would be a metaphysical fallacy to locate
the phenomenal realm within the mind and to suggest that the
way to access and describe it is by turning the gaze inwards. As
Husserl already pointed out in the Logische Untersuchungen
the entire facile divide between inside and outside has its origin
in a naive commonsensical metaphysics and i s phenomeno-
logically suspect and inappropriate when it comes to under-
standing the nature of intentionality (Husserl 1984b, 673, 708).
But this divide is precisely something that the term “introspec-
tion” buys into and accepts. To speak of introspection is to
Dan Zahavi
(tacitly) endorse the idea that consciousness is inside the head
and the world is outside. The same criticism can also be found
in Heidegger, who denies that the relation between Dasein and
world can be grasped with the help of the concepts “inner” and
“outer” (Heidegger 1986, 62), and in Merleau-Ponty, who writes
that “Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly
inside and I am wholly outside myself” (Merleau-Ponty 1945,
467 [1962, 4071). I n Phe‘nome‘nologie de l a perception, Merleau-
Ponty even declares that phenomenology is distinguished in all
its characteristics from introspective psychology and that the
difference in question is a difference in principle. Whereas the
introspective psychologist considers consciousness as a mere
sector of being, and tries to investigate this sector in the same
way the physicist tries to investigate his, the phenomenologist
realizes that consciousness ultimately calls for a transcendental
clarification that goes beyond commonsense postulates and
brings us face to face with the problem concerning the constitu-
tion of the world (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 72).
This remark calls for further clarification. The simplest way
to understand Merleau-Ponty’s claim is by acknowledging that
phenomenology-despite all kinds of other differences-is firmly
situated within a certain Kantian or post-Kantian framework.2
One way to interpret Kant’s revolutionary Copernican turn is by
seeing it as amounting to the realization that subjectivity
constitutes the framework within which or in correlation to
which reality must be understood. Thus, and this pinpoints a
main difference to at least a good part of the recent preoccu-
pation with phenomenology in analytical philosophy of mind,
the phenomenological interest in the first-person perspective is
not primarily motivated by the relatively trivial insight that we
need to include the first-person perspective if we wish to under-
stand mental phenomena. Rather, the phenomenologists’ focus
on the first-person perspective i s as much motivated by an
attempt to understand the nature of objectivity, as by an interest
in the subjectivity of consciousness. To put i t differently, the
motivation is transcendental philosophical in nature and makes
use of a distinction between the subject conceived as an object
i n the world and the subject conceived as a subject for the
world, that is, considered as a necessary (though not necessarily
sufficient) condition of possibility for cognition and meaning
(Carr 1999). The phenomenologists would consequently reject
the suggestion that consciousness is merely one object among
others in the world, on a par with-though possibly more com-
plex than-volcanoes, waterfalls, ice crystals, gold nuggets,
rhododendrons, and black holes, since they would consider it to
be a necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) condition of
possibility for any entity to appear as an object in the way it
does and with the meaning it has. The phenomenologists would
argue that a view from nowhere is unattainable, j ust as they
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
would deny that it is possible to look at our experiences from
sideways on to see whether they match with reality. This is so,
not because such views are incredibly hard to reach, but because
the very idea of such views is nonsensical.
The phenomenological analysis of the first-person perspec-
tive is much more than a mere compilation of descriptive
findings. I t also goes beyond a narrow contribution to issues of
relevance for philosophy of mind. In fact, the systematic import
of the phenomenological analyses can only be fully appreciated
the moment the link to the overarching transcendental philo-
sophical considerations are made visible. For one, they entail a
showdown with metaphysical realism and scientism. Like many
prominent figures in analytical philosophy, phenomenologists
have endorsed a this-worldly conception of objectivity and reality
and have sought to overcome the skepticism according to which
the way the world appears to us is compatible with the world
really being completely different (Husserl 1950, 32, 117;
Heidegger 1986, 229). They have also tended to reject the view
-currently sanctioned by many naturalists-according to which
natural science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is,
and of what is not that it is not, to quote Sellars (1963, 173). In
their view, science is not simply a collection of systematically
interrelated justified propositions. Science i s performed by
somebody; it is a specific theoretical stance toward the world.
This stance did not fall down from the sky; i t has its own
presuppositions and origin. Scientific objectivity is something to
strive for, but it rests on the observations and experiences of
individuals; it is knowledge shared by a community of experi-
encing subjects and presupposes a triangulation of points of
view or perspectives. This is not to say that there is nothing
like a third-person perspective, but merely that such a perspec-
tive is exactly a perspective from somewhere. I t is a view that
we can adopt on the world. I t is a perspective founded upon a
first-person perspective, or to be more precise it emerges out of
the encounter between at least two first-person perspectives;
that is, it involves intersubjectivity. I n short, if we wish to
understand knowledge, truth, objectivity, meaning, and reference,
we will have to investigate the forms and structures of inten-
tionality that are employed by the cognizing and acting
subjects. Failing to do so, failing to effectuate the reflective
move of transcendental thought, would in the eyes of the
phenomenologists be to succumb to a naive objectivism. Thus,
according to thi s view, rather than being a hindrance or
obstacle, subjectivity turns out to be a far more important
requisite for objectivity and the pursuit of scientific knowledge
than, say, microscopes and scanners.
So to recapitulate, phenomenologists would argue that a
proper recognition of subjectivity has wide-ranging methodo-
logical, epistemological, and metaphysical implication^.^This is
Dan Zahavi
as such not a new insight. Since Descartes, and particularly
since Kant, subjectivity has been of ongoing concern to many
philosophers working within the German and French traditions.
I t is no coincidence that whereas there is no entry on subjec-
tivity in The Oxford Companion to the Mind or in the Routledge
Encyclopedia of Philosophy the term figures as a 9000-word
entry in the German Historisches Worterbuch der Philosophie.
3. Conclusion
As I hope has become clear, I wholeheartedly endorse the
renewed focus on subjectivity. I think an investigation of the
first-person perspective is of paramount importance not only for
philosophy of mind, but also for a number of related disciplines
including social philosophy, psychiatry, developmental psychology,
and cognitive neuroscience. Ultimately, what we need is an
account of the first-person perspective that (among other
things) addresses its significance (the role i t plays) and sys-
tematic import, describes its structure, delineates the metho-
dology that we should employ when investigating it, and finally
clarifies its ontological or metaphysical status.
As I have tried to argue, however, it would be highly unfor-
tunate if the long overdue recognition of the importance of the
first-person perspective were to take the form of a return to a
Lockean style account of consciousness. What do I mean by a
Lockean style account? I n this context, I am mainly thinking of
a pre-Kantian and pre-Wittgensteinian take on consciousness;
that is, one that ignores transcendental considerations, thereby
viewing consciousness merely as yet another object i n the
world, and one that defines subjectivity as something inner and
private, thereby disregarding the extent to which it is visible to
others in our meaningful behavior and the extent to which it is
influenced, shaped, and formed by our interaction and engage-
ment with others, by our shared forms of life.
But to anticipate an obvious objection, couldn’t (and shouldn’t)
one simply discard the (outdated) transcendental philosophical
aspect of phenomenological philosophy and instead focus on
that which seems to be of lasting value, namely, those concrete
phenomenological analyses that are of pertinence to a narrowly
circumscribed investigation of the mind? One can certainly
make this move, but to do so would be to miss out on much of
what phenomenology has to offer; one would abandon large
parts of what is proper to phenomenological philosophy. This is
also why I think, and this might come as a slight surprise, that
the recent revived interest in the study of consciousness is
something of a mixed blessing. With few exceptions this interest
has gone hand in hand with a strong commitment to naturalism.
Whereas classical analytical philosophy (of language) might
have been less interested in consciousness, its basic conception
Subjectivity and the First-Person Perspective
of language as a framework of intelligibility could easily be
given a transcendental philosophical twist. Rather than
engaging in first-order claims about the nature of things (which
it left to various scientific disciplines), it concerned itself with
the conceptual preconditions for any such empirical inquiries.
The situation is now more or less reversed by philosophers who
consider thei r own work to be directly continuous with the
natural sciences. For phenomenology, however, it is important to
retain both aspects: the interest in subjectivity and the transcen-
dental perspective.
Given restrictions of space, there are some obvious issues
that I haven’t been able to do justice to i n thi s paper. One
concerns the discrepancies i nternal to phenomenology. The
phenomenological tradition is not a monolith, and some might
argue that I have glossed over some extremely important
differences between Husserl on the one hand and Merleau-
Ponty and Heidegger on the other. I don’t think so. I n my view,
both of the latter philosophers are as committed to a form of
transcendental philosophy as is Husserl, but this is a claim that
I will not be able to substantiate in any detail on this occasion.
Another issue concerns the development of post-phenome-
nological thinking on the Continent. I t is not only behaviorists
and eliminativists like Watson, Skinner, Rey, and Dennett who
have been critical of the appeal to a first-person perspective.
This skepticism has-at l east to a superficial look-been
mirrored by the repeated declaration of the demise or even
death of the subject found in the writings of Nietzsche, Foucault,
and Derrida. Thus, throughout much of the twentieth century,
influential thinkers on the Continent have argued that subjec-
tivity rather than being a given, something innate and funda-
mental, is a cultural and linguistic construction, the result of a
discursive or narrative praxis. I t would be an interesting exercise
to examine more carefully the similarities and differences
between these two thrusts of criticism with their different root
in the natural and cultural sciences respectively. But although,
the subsequent development of French and German philosophy
for a time led to an increasing condemnation of the “philosophy
of subjectivity,” subjectivity has, I believe, continued to be of
central importance within this theoretical framework; in fact it
has even witnessed something of a renaissance in recent years.
This is so, not only because it has remained a contentious and
debated topic and because the increased focus on discourse,
ethics, and in particular intersubjectivity continues to appeal to
and evoke the very notion that were supposedly surpassed, but
also because in recent years there has been a growing appre-
ciation of the complexity of the classical accounts of subjectivity.
Contrary to widespread criticism, many of the classical thinkers
did not conceive of subjectivity as some kind of isolated, self-
contained, worldless substance. Rather, already they realized
Dan Zahavi
the importance of the social, cultural, and historical context;
pointed to the interdependence between subjectivity and inter-
subjectivity; and emphasized the significance of expressive
behavior. In short, they left us careful analyses of the embodied
and embedded nature of subjectivity (Zahavi 2004; Seigel 2005).
Arguably this even holds for pathological states such as thought-
insertion (see Gallagher 2000).
I t is a quite complicated task to untangle the precise relation
between the classical kind of transcendental philosophy found in Kant
and the type of transcendental philosophy developed by the phenome-
nologists. For a few references, see Kern 1964 and Zahavi 1996 and
This last claim is slightly controversial. According to a popular
reading, phenomenology is first and foremost a method; its scope is
restricted to methodological issues. And i t is consequently charac-
terized by what might be termed a form of metaphysical neutrality; it
doesn’t take a stand on metaphysical questions-it brackets questions
concerning reality-wherefore it ultimately remains compatible with a
variety of metaphysical positions. This interpretation is flawed
however and is frequently based on what amounts to a misinterpre-
tation of Husserl’s so-called epoch6 and transcendental reduction.
Husserl is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of both of the
latter moves is to suspend and neutralize a certain dogmatic attitude
toward reality, thereby allowing us to investigate reality in a new way,
namely, in its significance and manifestation for consciousness. I n
short, the epoch6 entails a change of attitude toward reality and not
an exclusion of reality. As Husserl pointed out in the lecture
Phanomenologie und Anthropologie from 1931, the only thing that is
excluded as a result of the epoch6 is a certain nalvet6, the nayvet6 of
simply taking the world for granted, thereby ignoring the contribution
of consciousness (Husserl 1989, 173). In Erste Philosophie ZZ, Husserl
even wrote that it might ultimately be better to avoid using the term
“Ausschaltung” altogether, since the use of this term might easily lead
to the mistaken view that the being of the world is no longer a
phenomenological theme, whereas the truth is that transcendental
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