On the Joint Engagement of Persons: Self-Consciousness, the Symmetry Thesis and Person Perception

Philosophical Psychology 25 (1):1-27 (2012)
In The Paradox of Self-Consciousness, Jose Luis Bermúdez presents an abductive argument for what he calls ‘the Symmetry Thesis’ about self-ascription: in order to have the ability to self-ascribe psychological predicates to oneself, one must be able to ascribe psychological predicates to other subjects like oneself. Bermúdez discusses joint engagement as a key phenomenon that underwrites his abductive argument for the Symmetry Thesis. He argues that the ability to self-ascribe is “constituted” by the intersubjective relations that are realized in joint engagement. I will argue in §1 that although Bermúdez may be correct that these phenomena support the idea that pre-linguistic infants and non-linguistic animals possess primitive forms of self-consciousness, for conceptual reasons, his account of joint engagement cannot be used to argue for the Symmetry thesis. I will argue in §2 that while Bermúdez is correct that joint engagement is significant for the constitution of self-ascription, his description of that phenomenon is too robust, because it requires that the infant have a mental representation of the other as a psychological subject of perceptions. I argue that Bermúdez’s description requires an iteration of representations each of which requires a form of self-reference, which goes against Bermudez’s aim of avoiding the paradox of self-consciousness. In presenting his argument for the Symmetry thesis and his account of joint engagement, Bermúdez critiques P. F. Strawson’s argument for the Symmetry Thesis. In §3 of the paper, I turn to the positive project of presenting a constructive argument for the Symmetry thesis. In a variety of sources, P. F. Strawson and Gareth Evans present a transcendental argument for the Symmetry thesis. I suggest that an argument for the Symmetry thesis is available in Strawson’s notion of the primitiveness of the person. In §4, this leads to a corresponding account of joint engagement. Instead of the robust account of joint engagement presented by Bermúdez, I suggest that the infant perceives the mother’s acknowledgement of the infant without the capacity for self-reference that the Bermúdez’s iteration requires. I reconstruct an account of other-ascription in terms of what I call “person perception,” relying on a recent discussion of Strawson’s view by Axel Seemann (2008). On the Strawsonian account that I provide, an adult summons a child to recognize and acknowledge a form of life in which it participates as a person. In closing, I consider how my account of other-ascription differs from two classic accounts— the theory-theory and the simulation theory— and discuss how my account provides a genuine third alternative: the Persons theory. I would argue that the Persons theory offers a new approach to key issues in philosophy and psychology concerning self-consciousness and intersubjectivity.
Keywords self-consciousness  intersubjectivity  other minds
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DOI 10.1080/09515089.2011.569912
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