The second person

Assume we’re all familiar with the critiques of Naturalism or Functionalism that claim they reduce everything to the third person perspective and overlook the reality of the first person perspective. We might assume that all this means is that they want to replace or explain away the subjective and non-publicly observable with what is publicly observable and common. But even then, there is some slippage: why use a triple distinction of persons (and presumably perspectives) as equivalent to a binary opposition between subject and object? True, grammatical distinctions don’t always track ontological divisions, but Buber’s insistence on the ontological value of the second person has not caught on or been widely applied to our situation. Some notes:

-Notice that the binary of “publicly vs. non-publicly verifiable” comes with an implied second person. What is this “public” except us, that is, me and you? It is not enough to say science is founded on facts or observations: we need to manifest it and ground it in interpersonal relations, in me-you relations.

-The demand that science be publically verifiable is a critique of the reality of the “I”, but not in the sense that all should be reduced to the third person but in the sense that science must be based on the “we” or “I-you” binary. As far as science is concerned, the “I” is just an imperfect or elemental feature of the public “I-thou” in the face of which all must be able to be verified.

-What is a zombie with respect to second person questions? It seems a certain way of refuting the idea that the second person can be reduced to the 1st-3rd binary. In a zombie world, second person relations are illusory, even  if unavoidable.

-Sure, we’d all speak to HAL or C-3PO in the second person. But they are still instruments, that is, extensions and participants in my consciousness. To the extent that they fail to be so, I’m supposed to just destroy or reprogram them. Hence, the second person we use in relation to them is only grammatical and an ontological illusion.

-We have always had an idea of humans who were nothing but an instruments or extensions of some other first person consciousness. They’re called slaves, degraded races, human non-persons, etc. I’ve said before that the culmination of AI is the perfect slave, but another way to put it is an other for whom the second person perspective is purely grammatical and ontologically illusory.

-The third person needs a he-she-it division. The second can have the gender division, but no neuter.

-The third person, the “objective”, or the publicly verifiable is not opposed to the subjective so much as to the interpersonal. The objective is outside a social relation.

-Linguistic philosophy might be a backdoor approach to second person recognition. Language is essentially interpersonal, and its use essentially incorporates one into a community.

-A master and his slaves do not make a community, nor does the sultan and his harem or the king and his concubines. In all these cases there is only one person. Community demands that all members form some whole. The “we” or the “I-you” is crucial.

-Hypothesis: one could teach much of the history of modern philosophy as an overlooking of the second person perspective. Solipsism (or the threat of it), idealism, a single category of the “thing in itself” outside of the “I”, spirit recognizing and unfolding only a single self it is singular freedom, etc. We’ve consistently seen the only problem as self-world, overlooking that we have to also account for a self-other that is different from an object or world-entity.

-There is something so terribly male in all this overlooking of the interpersonal. This is not a mistake that women tend to make, and  to this is one way in which marginalization of females in philosophy did lasting and severe harm.

-I was reminded of the cost of female marginalization in an article where David Gelernter quotes novelist Marilynne Robinson, who’s observations of the celebrated figure of Phineas Gage struck me like a gunshot.

Robinson asks: But what about the actual man Gage? The neurobiologists say nothing about the fact that “Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered prolonged infections of the brain,” that his most serious injuries were permanent. He was 25 years old and had no hope of recovery. Isn’t it possible, she asks, that his outbursts of angry swearing meant just what they usually mean—that the man was enraged and suffering? When the brain scientists tell this story, writes Robinson, “there is no sense at all that [Gage] was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.”

Reading this, I was ashamed that all Gage ever was to me was an example of lacking a frontal cortex. He was never a person or a “you” to me – if he was I could have seen him for what he was: disfigured, in pain, half-blind, less attractive, ashamed of his mistake, angry at the stupid dispensations of chance, with his future plans violently changed and his past history dominated by so trivial a ‘what if’, etc. To overlook this is so typically male, but for all that it is a profound metaphysical mistake.


1 Comment

  1. January 3, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Robinson’s observation about Phineas Gage is convicting to me as well. What a great point.

    With regards to C3PO and HAL, I’m not sure I can agree. If we create real AI with real autonomy, would we have no more moral relation to it than we do to a rock? Would not there be a real relationship, at the very least like that between a man and his dog? There is an emotional dimension to that relationship. It is interpersonal, though in an importantly qualified sense that only one of the persons is human.

    Perhaps a parallel case might illustrate what I’m trying to get at: St. Athenagoras defends the doctrine of the resurrection by claiming, surprisingly similar to Kant, that rational beings exist as ends in themselves. Thus, God, being good, is not willing to let us permanently succumb to death and corruption but must, most certainly, restore that which he created to exist.

    I cover this parallel in more detail here:

    In any case, the point I am trying to get at is that we are by no means ontologically equal to God. Indeed, like the potter with his clay, God may make us for whatever use he wishes. On the other hand, he made us to be rational beings, persons, and therefore to exist, from one perspective at least, for ourselves and not to be used as a mere tool by any other rational being. If human beings could create autonomous, rational intelligence, wouldn’t they have a similar responsibility toward it as God does to the rational creatures he has made? Wouldn’t there be some form of I-you relationship with, say, Astro Boy, that would entail its own moral duties?

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