MEANS OF ACCESS AND MODES OF ALLOWANCE:
OTHER SELVES AND THE FORMATION OF IDENTITY IN
B.A., Regis University, 2001
M.A., Denver Seminary, 2006
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
Graduate Interdisciplinary Studies
by Rebecca Vartabedian
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Humanities
has been approved
Myra O. Bookman
Maria L. Talero
Vartabedian, Rebecca C. (M.H., Graduate Interdisciplinary Studies)
Means of Access and Modes of Allowance: Other Selves and the formation of
Identity in Phenomenology
Thesis directed by Dr. Myra O. Bookman
In this study I claim that identity is at least partially constituted in and through our
relationships with others. That is, what it means to be me is not entirely up to me,
but is accomplished in collaboration with others. It is on a phenomenological
perspective that other humans help to make sense of our world. In this way,
phenomenology serves as a more coherent and complete explanation for what it is to
I begin by dealing with the Cartesian view of human identity and reality, and
describe Descartes means of access to other human beings. Because Descartes
cogito only has access to other cogitos by way of inference and analogy, I argue this
view is unsatisfactory. Descartes claims here do not match up with our ordinary,
robust experience of our connections with others.
In chapter two, I claim that phenomenology (generally) and the work of
Merleau-Ponty and Russon (specifically) develop a more coherent view of personal
identity and reality. After establishing this position on identity and reality, I draw on
Merleau-Pontys claim that we have access to others by virtue of an internal
relation. I interpret this internal relation as a set of fundamental processes that
require others for their completion. I discuss the pairing relation (the means by which
a child develops her bodily self-awareness) and language. These are processes that
involve another person from the outset, and so establish channels by which access to
others is available.
The central task of chapter three is to show more precisely the role of others in
forming identity. To reinforce this claim, I discuss certain forms of verbal behavior
that our relationships with others allow. Allowance is a term I introduce here to
indicate certain verbal behaviors only possible in particular relationships namely,
gossip and truth-telling. In these examples, I show the ways in which identity is
enacted in and through interpersonal behavior.
I conclude the study by briefly describing the ways in which the insights Ive
developed here prepare the ground for investigations into ethics and interpersonal
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
Myra O. Bookman
For Kent, Marilyn, Oscar, and Gina.
I extend my thanks to Mark Tanzer and Myra Bookman. I appreciate their questions
and insights, especially as this work will no doubt serve as a stepping-stone for my
continued scholarly work. This project and my continued thinking about these issues
has benefitted from their attention. I am also particularly grateful for Myras help
with last-minute bureaucratic details.
The students in PHI 1010-011 (Introduction to Philosophy, Spring 2009) at Metro
State allowed me to explore some of the ideas in this project out loud in my lectures.
My work as an adjunct professor provided an unexpected stage for thinking through
the questions central to this project.
Molly Garrison, Karen Adkins, Dave DeNovellis, Melissa Lineberger, Mike and
Betty Vartabedian, Chip and Meg Case, Bill Nicoson, and Howie Movshovitz
provided moral support, good friendship, and encouragement in support of finishing
My scholarship has only improved under the watchful eye of Maria Talero. Not only
did she introduce me to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Russon, but her
incisive questions and careful attention to this work vastly improved its quality and
coherence. I am grateful for the several summers weve spent together studying
phenomenology, and am equally thankful for her devotion to this project and the
more remote goal of its completion.
Gina Bata, Oscar Gonzales, and Kent and Marilyn Talmage-Bowers provided
encouragement beyond measure, both in support of this project and my overall goals
and aims. I am, as a result, grateful beyond measure for their unflagging support. I
dedicate this work to them as a small token of my appreciation.
Andrew Vartabedian listens to me think out loud far more often than should be
necessary (both in person and via the internet). If this story has a hero, hes it.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE: THE COMPLAINT..................................6
Descartes view of Reality and Identity...............6
The Cogito and Others?................................9
CHAPTER TWO: MEANS OF ACCESS...............................13
Phenomenology: Method, Reality, Identity.............13
The Pairing Relation.................................19
Speech and Dialogue..................................22
CHAPTER THREE: MODES OF ALLOWANCE..........................28
Allowances via Affordances...........................29
Allowances in Action (1): Gossip.....................31
Allowances in Action (2): Telling the Truth..........33
Allowances, Identity, and a Sense of the World.......37
CONCLUSION: TOWARD ETHICS..................................42
When I get around to teaching Descartes in an Introduction to Philosophy course, I
often poll my students about their definition of personal identity. Ill ask whether or
not they believe they have a mind, and usually all but the most scientifically inclined
of the group agree to the definition of self as some kind of combination of mind and
body. My students are not alone, though sympathetic readers1 and critics2 alike
acknowledge the pervasiveness of the Cartesian paradigm in popular consciousness.
For as keen as my students are to adopt a Cartesian description of the self,
their commitments tend to slip when it comes to the matter of other selves. In order to
know others, Descartes suggests an analogy based on behaviors of speaking and
grasping the reasons for ones actions. This is to say that as a composite of mind and
body I speak to make my thoughts known and I understand the purpose behind my
actions; I see a being exhibiting these same behaviors, so on the basis of this
similarity I conclude that this other must be a human being. My knowledge of others
comes only by way of inference and analogy here, and this analogical activity is the
demand Descartes view of identity and relation makes on my interactions with the
1 See John Cottingham, Cartesian Reflections: Essay>s on Descartes's Philosophy (Oxford,
2008) and Deborah Browns Descartes and the Passionate Mind (Cambridge, 2006).
2 For example, Marjorie Grenes Descartes (Hackett, 1998).
While Descartes language of the self seems to accurately describe what my
students believe about themselves, Descartes view does not describe their beliefs
about how they are related to others. Students explain that others are just there, that
no proof or inference is required to establish their existence, and that they are
engaged with these others in lively and meaningful relationships.
The dissonances between philosophical requirement and everyday experience
multiply even further. Descartes cannot give an account of why it is I get involved
with others until late in his philosophical corpus (Passions of the Soul, (1649)), and
even then my involvement with others is a matter of realizing that I would be better
off if I entered into love or friendship with another.3
Further (and more to the point of this writing), we find ourselves in
relationships that have some kind of transformative effect. The cogito of the Second
Meditation gives a view of identity as fully formed, and known as a thing that
thinks. However, this fails to square with the fact that others do not know me as a
thinking thing. Rather, my identity seems at least in part to be established in
accordance with my relationships with others. For example, that I am wife, aunt,
or friend each has more existential weight than a mere predicate or embellishment.
Put another way, these are not descriptors that I tack on to my understanding of what
it means to be me, When I pick up again with people I knew from the past, our
3 The fact is, our relationships are not good for us all the time sometimes our friends betray
us or we compromise our friendships; we make romantic connections and break them off; we overstep
our bounds with respect to another person in damaging ways any number of descriptions can be
employed for why our relationships go right or wrong, and Id venture a guess that while self-
improvement is part of the picture, its not the entire reason for our involvement with others.
common history allows us to build a relationship from a shared starting point. When I
choose to become romantically involved with someone I have no history with, our
activity together becomes a kind of collaboration which, for better or for worse,
transforms me from Andrews girlfriend to Andrews wife. Wife, aunt, and
friend are my identity, each the result of a collaboration with others, and the result
of a process that cannot be unilaterally achieved.
The claim I defend in this study is that identity is at least partially constituted
in and through our relationships with others. That is, what it means to be me, is not
entirely up to me, but is accomplished in collaboration with others. In
phenomenology, particularly that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Russon, we
find an account of other selves that establishes these others as an immediate feature of
our experience. Phenomenology also provides a framework for understanding how
certain interpersonal behaviors account for the part others play in constituting
I begin by laying out the complaint against the Cartesian view in more formal
terms. In chapter one, I explain Descartes view of reality and identity from the
Meditations and explain the consequences this view has for the seifs ability to
know others. Specifically, this view of reality and identity results in the problem of
solipsism; the position that the only mind or self one can know is ones own.
Descartes analogical argument, which originates from the Discourse on Method,
only reinforces this difficulty, and further obscures the possibility for being in
connection with other humans.
In the second chapter, I explain the way in which a phenomenological view of
the self provides means of access to other selves. In particular, I rely Merleau-Ponty
and Russon, who emphasize the self as an embodied, intentional consciousness
situated in the world. With this view of the self as a fundamental assumption,
Merleau-Ponty shows that analogical means are inadequate to the task of establishing
the existence of others and instead argues that other human beings exist as part of
ones immediate experience of the world. More precisely, Merelau-Ponty suggests
that certain behavioral processes are such that the self requires another person to
achieve completion. Pairing the childs development of their bodily self-awareness
- and language are processes that involve another person from the outset, and so
establish channels by which access to others is available.
The central task of chapter three is to show more precisely the role of others in
forming identity. To reinforce this claim, I discuss certain forms of verbal behavior
that our relationships with others allow. Allowance is a term I introduce in chapter
three to indicate certain verbal behaviors only possible in particular relationships. I
draw on Karen Adkins discussion of gossip to explain how friendship (or any
relationship marked by mutual interest and trust) allows for the interested, intimate
talk gossip is characterized by. I then describe Dieterich Bonhoeffers assessment of
the situational nature of truth telling. Different relationships require different
sensitivities toward the truth, and in this way telling the truth is an activity that marks
my identity as friend, wife, and aunt. In these examples, I endeavor to show the ways
in which identity is enacted in and through interpersonal behavior. That is, allowances
illustrate that what it means to be me to exist in a living situation among a variety of
other people is not entirely up to me.
In the conclusion, I indicate some of the ways the preceding study of access
and allowance supports a phenomenological view of ethics. Drawing on the work of
Francisco Varela, I argue that the practical know how that is required to live
ethically is developed as soon as our awareness of others is initiated. Further, I will
show that this know-how is developed most precisely in the relationships that have
the highest degree of allowance. While these are mere suggestions, they do show the
ways in which a phenomenological evaluation of behavior can be derived from
conclusions of ontology and our relatedness to others.
In all, this study should demonstrate that on a phenomenological perspective
other humans are required in order for the self to make sense of her world. In this
way, phenomenology serves as a more coherent and complete explanation for what it
is to be human.
CHAPTER ONE: THE COMPLAINT
In this chapter, I will take on the task of identifying the dissonances in Descartes
philosophical project. The descriptions of reality and human identity Descartes offers
cannot accommodate the relationships I have with others, and these descriptions fail
to appreciate the crucial role that these others play in forming my identity. I will
begin by examining the descriptions offered by a typical reading of Descartes
position as it emerges from Meditation Two and Meditation Six. I will then engage the
argument he offers in part V of the Discourse on Method to see how Descartes
accounts for the presence of other selves. I will conclude by showing the problems
that emerge from this perspective.
Descartes: Reality and Identity
In the Meditations, Descartes engages a program of methodological skepticism
designed to reveal certain and indubitable truths on which he can construct his house
of knowledge. These first of these certain and indubitable truths is the existence of a
substance, which he comes to define as a thinking thing. He says,
At last, I have discovered it thought; this alone is inseparable from me ... I
am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind or
intelligence, or intellect, or reason ... for all that I am a thing which is real and
which truly exists. But what kind of thing? As I have just said, a thinking
4 Rene Descartes, Second Meditation in Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans.
John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), 82/1 17.
Mental substance is known immediately and intuitively (i.e., by way of
contemplation). Since Descartes realizes that he can doubt all things the imagination
conjures that he has a body, or that senses confirm the content of reality the only
process that emerges from this procedure is thinking. With this, Descartes describes
reality as consisting in at least a mental substance the cogito. The cogito has a set of
faculties that include doubting, understanding (grasping a definition), imagining
(calling up mental images as a mental representation of an object), and perceiving
with the senses. Descartes is clear to point out that having a sensory perception
(e.g., hearing, seeing, or feeling cold) only reinforces the presence of the thinking
substance and does not extend outside the cogito.5 Mental substance forms a neat and
However, this is not the complete picture of reality. In Meditation Two,
Descartes give a definition of extended substance as whatever has a determinable
shape and definable location and can occupy a space in such a way as to exclude any
other body; it can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste, or smell and can be
moved in various ways, not by itself but by whatever else comes into contact with
it.6 Whereas mental substance refers to the immaterial aspect of reality, Descartes
uses this definition to point to a possible material aspect of reality. Definition alone,
5 Ibid., 83/118. Descartes reminds his reader of this limitation by saying that the proper
purpose of the sensory perceptions given me by nature is simply to inform the mind of what is
beneficial or harmful for the composite of which the mind is a part; and to this extent they are
sufficiently clear and distinct. But I misuse them by treating them as reliable touchstones for
immediate judgments about the essential nature of the bodies located outside us; yet this is an area
where they provide only very obscure information.
though, is insufficient to prove that such a substance exists. Part of Meditation Six is
concerned with establishing the existence of extended substance.
To demonstrate the presence of bodies as part of reality, Descartes draws on
particular faculties of mental substance. Imagination and sense perception (those
faculties of mental substance attuned to activity outside the mental substance) are
activated and subsequently generate ideas that are produced without my cooperation
and often against my will.7 In order to give an account of these ideas, Descartes
launches into a proof of sorts. He claims first, that the cogito has ideas that resemble
an object and have the qualities of corporeal nature (according to the definition
provided in Meditation Two). Second, Descartes claims that God has given me a
propensity to believe (these ideas) are produced by corporeal things.8 That god is not
a deceiver, combined with a deliverance of the Natural Light (that something
cannot come from nothing) both serve as confirming evidence for the existence of
corporeal things. Although the proof of the existence of an extended substance is
established by intuitive means, its conclusion is not immediate. Descartes requires
several premises to demonstrate the existence of corporeal substance.
Given that the content of reality consists in these two existing and distinct
substances, Descartes can turn to making claims about the human person. Descartes
argues in the Sixth Meditation that the human person is a composite of these
ontologically distinct substances. Relying on evidence first of the certainty of the
cogitos existence, combined with evidence of self-presenting states like hunger, pain,
7 Ibid., 79/115.
8 Ibid., 80/116.
and thirst, Descartes concludes that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is
present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with
it, so that I and the body form a unit.9 Descartes claims that the whole self consists in
this combination of body (extended substance) and mind (mental substance), and
responds and reacts to perceptions of the world around it.
However, earlier in Meditation Six Descartes indicates that these substances
dont bear equal weight when it comes to identity. The self is identical to mental
substance since it is the first and clearest conclusion that Descartes reflection
produces. The relationship between mental and extended substance is one of close
intermingling, but it is the cogito that functions as the seat of identity.10 So far I have
argued that Descartes view of reality provides groundwork necessary for his
definition of the self. However, these ontological commitments create problems for
the cogitos ability to determine the existence of other selves.
The Cogito and others?
The means by which mental substance knows itself are reflectively true and
immediately available. For example, if I doubt my own existence, the result of this
doubt is confirmation that I do exist doubting is a form of thinking, and thinking
marks the presence of a mental substance. If I call into doubt the claim, That body
9 Ibid., 81/116. Descartes also confirms this joining as the hallmark of a real man in the
Discourse on Method, part V. He claims, I showed how it is not sufficient for (the rational soul) to be
lodged in the human body like a helmsman in his ship, except perhaps to move its limbs, but it must be
more closely joined and united with the body in order to have, besides this power of movement,
feelings and appetites like ours and so constitute a real man (Discourse on Method, in Descartes:
Selected Philosophical Writings 60/46).
10 Descartes argues that the I is distinct from the body and can exist without it at 78/114-
115. I think it is best here to read Descartes as claiming first that while the body and mind are
somehow joined, identity is wrapped up with the cogito.
walking down the street is a self, composite of mind and body, this just shows
evidence of my mental substance not another self. The self-as-cogito cannot rely on
the principles of reflection and intuition to determine the existence of other mental
substances. Furthermore, I cannot confirm any description about the nature of the
object I observe, except that it is outside the sphere of what constitutes the self.
Accordingly, the only mental substance I can know is my own.
Since the cogito knows only its own mind, we might wonder if the self has
any access at all to others. Descartes offers an affirmative answer, to this issue, but
this knowledge is achieved at a relatively low level of reliability. In part V of the
Discourse on Method, Descartes argues for a way of distinguishing other selves from
automata. Physical resemblance alone is insufficient for my being able to tell humans
and robots apart, so I ought to rely instead on two very certain means of recognizing
that (the automata) were not real men.11 These two signs are the use of speech and
the ability to grasp the reason or purpose behind movement.
In explaining the first means of access the cogito has to others, Descartes
claims that automata could never use words, or put together other signs, as we do in
order to declare our thoughts to others.12 Language is key to showing the gap
between humans and automata, since the signs represent mental content. Speech,
here, is an external placeholder for the thinking thing.
The second means of access traffics in the same kind of relationship between
mental content and external sign. Automata may be programmed in order to respond
11 Descartes, Discourse on Method, V pp 56-57.
12 Ibid., 56.
efficiently to stimuli but are ill equipped to explain the reason for their movements.
Automata, according to Descartes, do not act from understanding, but only from the
disposition of their organs.131 move my hand off of a hot stove because a hot stove
causes pain and results in a burn. I know not to put my hand on a hot stove again
because I dont want to be in pain or burned. This recollection of pain and my plan to
avoid it in the future isnt available to the automaton. We might draw the following
argument out of the text at this point:
(Premise) I am a composite of mind and body (a rational soul joined to a
(Premise) I use speech to make my thoughts public, and 1 know the reasons for
each of my movements.
(Premise) I observe certain objects using speech or some other language to
make their thoughts public, and 1 observe these same objects moving in such a
way that demonstrates their grasp of the reasons for their movements.
(Conclusion) Therefore, It is likely that these others I observe are selves.
In order to successfully demonstrate the presence of other selves, the analogy bears
the weight of showing mental content. Whatever comparison I construct has to
somehow provide access to the mental life of another cogito. However, since my
access to objects outside the self confirms the existence of my thinking substance I
have no way of breaking out of this loop. I cannot establish the existence of other
selves qua mental substances. Instead, I can only infer that these beings before me are
likely other selves.
Beyond the immediate problem of solipsism that is confirmed by the
Discourse's analogy, there are certain features of my everyday experience that seem
13 Ibid., 57.
crucial but are incompatible with the view of the self Descartes offers. For example,
that I am Andrews wife, or Mayas aunt each has a bearing on who I am and the
ways in which I conduct myself. This is to say that as Andrews wife, my way of
relating to others and the world are colored by this relationship. Certain possibilities
(e.g., other romantic partners) are eliminated and so for me, other men take on a status
of possible friends. As Mayas aunt, I act in such a way to protect her interests
(although not to the degree her parents do). For example, if she is riding in my car I
have a heightened sense of how I am driving, the safety of my vehicle, and I exercise
higher degrees of self-control. The influence of other people seems to matter to me,
and their influence affects my conduct.
On the Cartesian view, identity cannot depend on analogical relationships or
probable conclusions based on observing behavior. Put another way, at the behavioral
level these others can affect me, but at the ontological level, these others have no
impact on what it means to be me. However, my experience of and connections
with other people seems to point to there being more to my identity than my being a
thinking thing. It is not just that I behave myself differently because of the
influence of Andrew or Maya, but rather that my relationship to them has a kind of
constitutive significance my identity seems to depend in part on my relationships
with others. That is, identity is a kind of project that is accomplished in collaboration
with other selves. In order to see how this is possible, I turn in the next two chapters
to a different philosophical paradigm: phenomenology. More specifically, I rely on
the phenomenological perspectives of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Russon to
account for the ways in which other humans are key in the constitution of my identity.
CHAPTER TWO: MEANS OF ACCESS
In the previous chapter I discussed the way in which Descartes claims about reality
and identity lead to difficulties related to the cogito's access to other cogitos. In this
chapter I argue that phenomenology solves the problem of access by arguing that
others exist and are immediately accessible (rather than inferentially posited). The
presence of others is confirmed by way of certain behavioral processes like the
childs development of their bodily self-awareness (the pairing relation) and the
activity of having a conversation. Phenomenologys insight is that these processes
ultimately confirm the presence of others as a given of experience, because these
processes require another for their resolution. In order to address these activities,
though, it is useful to understand the ways phenomenology departs from the Cartesian
view of reality and identity.
Phenomenology: Method, Reality, and Identity
Key to phenomenologys success in the face of solipsism is its methodological
assumptions and its view of the self as embodied, intentional consciousness situated
in the world. Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains phenomenology as,"... a
transcendental philosophy which places in abeyance the assertions arising out of the
natural attitude, the better to understand them; but it is also a philosophy for which
the world is always 'already there' before reflection begins as an inalienable
presence."14 The "natural attitude" Merleau-Ponty refers to consists in assumptions
that objects of experience exist independently of our perception of them, and that
these objects are already fully determinate. In the Phenomenology of Perception,
Merleau-Ponty explains that phenomenology following Husserl brackets or
suspends the assumptions of the natural attitude in order to clarify the way things in
the world are present to us.15 Methodologically, phenomenology trains its focus on
the world as it is given. By taking this position toward immediate experience,
phenomenology aims to avoid the kinds of analysis that subordinate experience in
favor of conceptual or abstracted views of reality. From this methodological position,
phenomenology argues in favor of a view of the self that emphasizes the unavoidable
directedness or "intentionality" of consciousness and the fundamental role of the
On the phenomenological view I am not a private consciousness assaulted by
the world and attempting to cope with unreliable tools. Merleau-Ponty explains that
the notion of intentionality a cornerstone of phenomenological accounts of the
self consists in the statement, All consciousness is consciousness of something.
That is, our mechanisms for experience are not passive receptors activated by external
objects (as Cartesians or empiricists would argue), but are always already directed
towards the thing experienced. Similarly, our mental life is not locked away or
private. On this point, Merleau-Ponty says,
14 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London:
Routledge, 2002), vii.
15 This description relies on clarifying comments from Fred Evanss introductory lecture to
the Phenomenology of Perception, given 25 August 2009.
We must abandon the fundamental prejudice according to which the psyche is
that which is accessible only to myself and cannot be seen from the outside.
My psyche is not a series of states of consciousness that are rigorously
closed in on themselves and inaccessible to anyone but me. My consciousness
is turned primarily toward the world, turned toward things; it is above all a
relation to the world.16
Instead of the thing that thinks, phenomenology claims that consciousness is
involved with the world. It is an activity in which I relate to the world according to
certain projects and opportunities. For example, as a child my desire to be an
astronaut colored completely my trips to the elementary school library, the attitude I
took to math and science, the devotion I gave to memorizing astronomical facts, and
even my television habits. In a way, astronaut trailed around and behind me in my
second grade life. One need only examine material from that time to see the way in
which I parsed the world my mental life had a public dimension, with evidence of
library checkout forms, writers workshop projects and Odyssey magazine
subscriptions to mark it.
The body is instrumental to the public dimension I indicated above.
Phenomenology insists that the relationship between consciousness and body is not
the close intermingling that Descartes suggests it is something even more
fundamental. John Russon argues that the body is not divorced from consciousness,
and is partly responsible for my understanding and relating to the world: Our bodies
are the determinateness, the specificity, of our existence: the body is the point where
each of us is something specific. To be a body is to be a specific identity that is open
16 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Childs Relations With Others, in The Primacy of
Perception, ed. James Edie. Northwestern Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
(Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 116-117.
to involvement with others.17 Identity does not simply begin and end with
consciousness. Our bodies mark out important identity-specific territory. That is,
the body is crucial to identity, since it is through my body that I am involved with the
world. For example, it is through the body that I am able to make a house my home
(based on the habitual movements I make in that space), that I am able to cook my
favorite meal (because of my facility to manipulate kitchen implements), or play
volleyball (by virtue of my ability to move efficiently and strategically). These
activities are not the private province of the intellect, but require both my body and a
conscious direction together toward completing the task at hand (arranging the house,
using a knife, serving the ball) for their achievement. By these lights, what it means to
be a human person is to be an embodied, intentional self with a particular orientation
to the world.
In order to fully appreciate and grasp the given-ness of the world prescribed
by the reduction, phenomenology contends that this embodied, intentional self is
already situated in a world that requires no proof of its existence. Reality is in the
living situation and daily activity of a particular human person, and this living
situation is not demarcated in terms of the private self and public world of objects.
John Russon further cements phenomenology's challenge to the strict subject-object
relation of self and world, saying:
We must, therefore, reorient our thinking and conceive of a subject who is
intrinsically situated, or an environment that intrinsically calls for someone to
resolve it. What exists is a situation that is meaningful, a situation that is
experienced as a range of tensions, a situation that needs certain things to be
17 John Russon, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis and the Elements of Everyday Life
(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 21.
done. Human reality is this situation, this event of meaning, this happening of
a subject-object pair.18
Human beings find themselves among objects to be used, facing decisions to be
made, and related to the world around them. The "subject" and "object" separated on
the analysis of the natural attitude are, as John Russon points out, "already involved,
each having a grip on the other."19 Phenomenology argues that the self is wrapped up
with a tacit, immediate awareness of the environment in terms of its bodys capacities
for interacting with it. The self exists first and foremost as a relationship to
ones own surroundings, and these surroundings call the self to action.
Phenomenologys view of reality thus calls our attention to the situated nature
of human experience, and the realization that the situation betrays essential details for
what it is to be human. We find ourselves surrounded and it is entirely possible that
these surroundings contain other selves, but how can we know?
Merleau-Ponty argues that the situated self does not rely on an argument by
analogy to gain access to other selves. It is the case that analogical reasoning can
provide a clue in the hunt for other selves, but the analogy alone cannot establish the
existence of others.20 Instead, Merleau-Ponty argues that the self as situated,
embodied consciousness is confronted with certain limitations. He claims,
Between my consciousness and my body as I experience it, between this
phenomenal body of mine and that of another as I see it from the outside,
there exists an internal relation which causes the other to appear as the
18 Russon, 20.
19 Russon, 20.
20 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 410.
completion of the system. The other can be evident to me because I am not
transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its
In order to see the implications of this claim, consider the degree of self-possession
evident in Descartes articulation of the cogito. The I am in this case admits of no
ambiguity I am a thing that thinks', I am mental substance. On this view, other
selves once they have been established do not have access to me at the level of
identity. They have access at the level of behavior (that is, I can adjust my activities
in concert with their presence), but they do not change who or what I am. However,
if, as Merleau-Ponty points out, I am not transparent for myself, there is some
aspect of my being that is out of my control or out of my grasp. Merleau-Ponty
explains that if there are others, they have the part of my identity that I do not -
they can see me (just as I see them) from the outside. This insight sets the stage
onto which other selves might emerge.
When Merleau-Ponty describes the internal relation I have with others, he
points to a limitation arising from this lack of access. If I am not in full possession of
myself, then certain processes are such that I cannot achieve them on my own. That
is, if our experience of ourselves is somehow not fully grasped, then it seems
reasonable to suggest that our ability to fully resolve certain situations on our own is
Our ordinary experience shows our limitations when it comes to developing
ones own bodily awareness and the activity of conversation. I discuss the pairing
relation first, not only because it has a kind of temporal priority, but also because it
21 Ibid, 413.
describes the relation by which a child gains the tools it needs to develop a bodily
self-awareness. Because the child has limited access to itself, it must rely on another
human being to realize this awareness.
The Pairing Relation
In The Childs Relations With Others, Merleau-Ponty appeals to this concept of
pairing to describe our experience of other selves. Pairing is the result of association
and not identification. This is to say that this process is not described in terms of my
recognizing precise correspondences between myself and the other. Rather, the
associative character of the pairing relationship allows me to see the other as a
modification of myself.22 Merleau-Ponty calls on pairing to establish in the child
recognition of the other at six months, by means of the body.
Pairing is, first, a bodily activity in which a child develops a postural schema, a
way of living that includes the internal organs and extremities, as opposed to simply
living through the internal organs only. Merleau-Ponty explains that until the fifth or
sixth month, a child lacks an understanding of her own body and instead understands
the world solely in terms of introceptive impulses. The childs world during this
period is lived quite literally from the inside (stomach, lungs, etc.) out. The
22 Merleau-Pontys discussion in The Childs Relations With Others picks up on the
concept of pairing developed by Husserl in the Cartesian Meditations. Husserl explains, Since the
other body there enters into a pairing association with my body here and, being given perceptually,
becomes the core of an appresentation, the core of my experience of a coexisting ego, that ego,
according to the whole sense-giving course of the association, must be appresented as an ego now
coexisting in the mode There, such as I would be if I were there (Husserl, Cartesian Meditations,
119/148). This presentation is not built on the basis of an inference, where I identify bodily and
psychical similarities between myself and another object like me over there. Instead, this
presentation involves recognition of the possibilities for experience that are given by the presence of
the alter ego. It is an analogy driven by the performative possibilities of the alter ego presents as
spatially and consciously distinct from my ego. This is to say that the co-presence of the ego and the
alter ego makes possible a host of experiences one provides for the other.
process of mylenization, which involves the development of neural pathways that
extend interoceptivity to the limbs, thus makes the child receptive to external stimuli,
and begins to develop the scheme needed for perception to be possible.23 Ultimately,
the postural schema involves the perception of my bodys position in relation to the
vertical, the horizontal, and certain other axes of important coordinates of its
environment.24 By developing the postural schema, the child acquires the tools
needed to deal with and incorporate external stimuli, and these contribute to the
childs sense of herself in space. In particular, it is the exteroceptive impulses that the
child needs, and these develop by examining the body. It is not the childs own body,
though, that is examined but that of another.
As Merleau-Ponty explains, the first beginnings of an observation of others
consist in fixations on the parts of the body. The child looks at the feet, the mouth, the
hands; he does not look at the person ... we see him systematically relating to
himself, after six months, the different things he has learned about the others body
from looking at him.25 On this account, the sense of ones own body is not an
intellectual operation. Rather, it is the experience of the others body parts, which
initiates the childs self-exploration. The child is able to discover and organize her
spatial presence by means of the other. This process culminates at six months with the
recognition of the other using the full range of exteroceptive tools required to begin
2j Merleau-Ponty, The Childs Relations With Others, 122.
24 Ibid., 117.
25 Ibid., 125.
perceiving namely, visual stimuli and the sight of the other childs face.26 By
engaging with another living body, the child gains the ability to experience the world
more fully through its own body.
Second and further down the developmental road pairing deepens ones self-
awareness by showing the body as others see it. The child has, by virtue of the
previous developmental stage, an incomplete sense of her own body. Merleau-Ponty
claims, the major fact that concerns the development of consciousness of ones own
body is the acquisition of a representation or a visual image of the body itself, in
particular by means of the mirror.27 28 In this example pairing is at work, for on the
childs initial understanding of the mirror image there is a spatial (not a conceptual)
distance between his interoceptive position and the person in the back of the mirror.
This distance must be collapsed, but is instrumental in giving the child the possibility
that it is seen by others.
Merleau-Ponty relies on Lacans idea of identification as that which affects the
collapse of the spatial distance (and continued distinction) between the child and his
mirror image the child must identify the image as of himself. This recognition is
accompanied by the acknowledgement that to recognize his image in the mirror is
for him to learn that there can be a viewpoint taken on him. When this occurs, it
has the consequence of showing the child the version of himself others have access
to. It is not the interoceptive, inner self or the way the child feels about himself, but
27 Ibid., 125-126.
28 Ibid., 136.
rather it is the self that appears on the outside. The pairing association is key in
establishing the childs identity, but the child on its own does not achieve this
process. These fundamental features of body-awareness and self-identification
involve others at their most basic. In this case, it is not just that others exhibit
behavior as an indicator that they exist, but rather, the child relies on these others to
become itself in important ways.
Pairing illustrates one process that the human person cannot complete on their
own, and it shows the way in which behavior requires others for its realization.
Furthermore, pairing shows the role of the body in the seifs access to others, since it
relies on the body as the point of connection between the child and others. In the early
stage, the child mimics the movement of others and is subsequently able to reach
into the world via a postural schema. The mirror image shows the child how it is
accessed by others. In an important sense, the mirror stage is crucial because it can
restore to us those aspects of our identity that are lost to us (that is, those aspects that
are unavailable on self-examination), but this restoration comes at a price. The mirror
shows that we are only complete as selves when we recognize that part of us remains
held by others.
Pairing emphasizes the ways in which a child relies on others to develop their
bodily awareness. Language (generally) and conversation (specifically) are verbal
processes that give the self access to others, and put additional distance between
phenomenological accounts of other selves and analogical ones.
Speech and Dialogue
Recall that Descartes claims speech is one of the primary means of access to others,
since when I speak I declare my fully formed mental content. If I do this, and I
observe other bodies doing the same thing, I can infer they are human. On this
description, though, speech is of peripheral importance it is a mere byproduct
produced by the thinking thing.
In The Body as Expression and Speech, Merleau-Ponty makes the point that
if speech is a mere byproduct, thought shouldnt require it. He says, why should
thought seek to duplicate itself in a succession of utterances, if the latter do not carry
and contain within themselves their own meaning?29 Here Merleau-Ponty claims that
speech carries meaning with it, and he suggests that the simultaneous character of
thought and speech (e.g., the work of the orator) is a function of the embodied,
intentional self. But the meaning speech offers is not fully formed. Rather, meaning is
developed in the situation in which speech occurs. He explains the value of the
And, as in a foreign country, I begin to understand the meaning of words
through their place in a context of action, and by taking part in a communal
life in the same way an as yet imperfectly understood piece of philosophical
writing discloses to me at least a certain style either a Spinozist, critical, or
phenomenological one which is the first draft of meaning.30
In this case, meaning emerges via a communal life. I can memorize lists of
vocabulary, but the usage and nuance of the words only come through in the context
of meaning, the situation of speaking or hearing that foreign language. In this way,
Merleau-Ponty points out that meaning is a public, living activity.
29 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 211.
30 Ibid., 208.
Earlier, I mentioned that instead of analogical arguments for our access to
others, Merleau-Ponty argues in favor of an internal relation between the self and
other. This internal relation casts others as the completion of the system.31 Since
generating meaning is a public activity (as discussed in the foreign language example
above), it is a candidate for this internal relation that establishes a connection between
self and other.
Merleau-Ponty turns to the behavior surrounding language and speech in
Other Selves and the Human World. He claims that in dialogue we find creative
and (often) spontaneous behavior. Language and the activities in which it is employed
(dialogue and conversation, for example) are a vital means of access to others. In
.. .there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground;
my thought and his are inter-woven into a single fabric, my words and those
of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are
inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator.32
Contrary to the Cartesian claim that language is my announcement of fully formed
thoughts, Merleau-Ponty argues that language has a kind of self-making character. In
dialogue, my interlocutor and I are beholden to the demands of the situation. I may
have a complete thought to offer, but when I announce that thought in the presence of
another person, they respond in a way I cant entirely predict. The creative call-and-
response of conversation has ontological significance:
We have here a dual being, where the other is for me no longer a mere bit of
behavior in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators for each
other in consummate reciprocity. Our perspectives merge into each other, and
31 Ibid., 413.
we co-exist through a common world. In the present dialogue, I am freed from
myself, for the other persons thoughts are certainly his; they are not of my
making, though I do grasp them the moment they come into being, or even
anticipate them. And indeed, the objection which my interlocutor raises to
what I say draws from me thought which I had no idea I possessed, so at the
same time that I lend him thoughts, he reciprocates by making me think too.33
The collaboration here is a far cry from disparate cogitos publicly declaring their
mental content. Conversation instead reveals a common stage onto which my partner
and I act and move according to the requirements the conversation presents.
My conversations move according to lobs and volleys, which while possibly
predictable are not determined in advance. Even the most mundane of topics shows
this kind of interwoven-ness. If my husband calls after work to ask me, What should
we have for dinner? my response is the result of some over-the-phone triage. I may
have wanted him to stop for Vietnamese food because that sounded good, but if I
instead suggest that we eat in instead, my suggestion is usually based on how he
sounds over the phone. Im reading what his day was like and trying to gauge his
willingness to make an extra stop. Ultimately, my suggestion here is determined by
the tone of our conversation. Even though I know my husband well, his response to
my suggestion of Vietnamese food is not entirely predictable. Aiming to solve the
dinner problem makes us collaborators in the sense that Merleau-Ponty describes
above. We may know the likely path of our interlocutors offering, but until it is
spoken, we remain just a little in the dark.
My experience teaching speaks to the creativity, surprise, and shared thinking
that Merleau-Ponty describes are characteristics of a dialogue. There are, for example,
a fairly predictable set of responses I can expect from students when I teach
Descartes Meditations. But occasionally, someone makes an offering I did not expect
and could not predict. The student bothered by Descartes dismissal of emotion shows
her belief in the value of emotions for human life. I must depart from my well-worn
script to meet my student on the stage her question created. In this particular class,
our exchange colors the way material is received and reveals a set of significances
that werent evident before.
When Merleau-Ponty says, The spoken word is a gesture, its meaning, a
world, 34he notes two critical features of speech. First, as a gesture, speech is a verbal
offering to be taken up by another. Merleau-Ponty claims, The sense of the gestures
is not given, but understood; that is, recaptured by an act on the spectators part.35
Our bodys movements are themselves offerings that others appropriate and act on
according to their own inner possibilities. He gives the example of the child who
witnesses an act of sexual intercourse.36 If the child has not yet reached sexual
maturity, he interprets this act much differently than the adolescent who sees this
activity as an opportunity, behavior it will be able to (eventually) engage in and
appreciate its significance. In the same way, my speaking is recaptured by my
interlocutor and understood according to what is possible for them. As a gesture,
speech does not show or unveil fully formed meaning, but its sense is instead
established as a collaboration between interlocutors.
Second, meaning is derived from the act of speaking with another. The
world from which meaning emerges is the living situation, the communal life I
share with another person. In this way, the conversation is necessary for making sense
of my thought. The significance of speech is not something I achieve on my own.
The preceding discussions of pairing and speech identify and explain
systems that require other human selves for their completion. Merleau-Ponty shows
the ways in which these systems are part of our reality as a living situation. Our
ability to establish our place in this reality (quite literally, as the pairing relation
indicates) and our ability to speak meaningfully require others as original
participants in our understanding of the world. This kind of access to others is
simply not available on the Cartesian paradigm, since analogical access does not lend
itself to the immediate or robust interaction with others that occurs at all stages of life.
On the phenomenological view, then, the problem of other selves is no
problem at all. By rejecting the natural attitude and focusing on the world as it is
given, phenomenology provides immediate access to others that accords with our
experience of them. Phenomenology succeeds because it focuses on experiential
activities in which we ordinarily encounter others. In the next chapter, I examine
more precisely the claim that certain interpersonal behaviors give evidence for the
role others play in forming identity.
CHAPTER THREE: MODES OF ALLOWANCE
So far I have argued for a solution to the problem of access using the positions
articulated by Merleau-Ponty and John Russon. The problem of access relies for its
solution on a definition of self as situated, embodied consciousness. The preceding
discussions of pairing and language have identified some of the ways in which the
self has access to others like it. As I indicated in the first chapter, what is missing
from a Cartesian account is the fact that our identity that is, what it means to be
me- is sensitive to the influence of other people. In other words, beyond the bare
fact of access to the other, how can we understand the influence others have on my
In the first chapter I explained some of the ways in which my experience as
Andrews wife and Mayas aunt each cast the world in a certain light. In this chapter,
I want to explain how phenomenology accounts for the influence Andrew and Maya
(specifically) and other humans (more generally) have on my identity. To support this
claim, I introduce the notion of allowance, which I understand to be interpersonal
behaviors that are made possible by that is, allowed within the context of certain
relationships. Gossip emerges from a friendship marked by mutual trust. Telling the
truth is a behavior established in accordance with my relationship to my niece.
Allowances of which gossip and truth telling are examples are only possible
because, in a phrase, "conditions are right." That is, my situation with another person
creates an environment wherein certain verbal behaviors are appropriate or allowed.
In order to understand more precisely what I mean by allowance, I draw on
the work of J.J. Gibson and his theory of affordances for an analogue. This theory of
perception argues that certain possibilities are afforded to an organism by its
surroundings. After I discuss the theory of affordance and the way it connects to
allowances, I describe three examples of allowance in ordinary conversation. I gossip
with a friend because weve developed a high degree of trust on which such intimate
talk can rest. I recognize that telling the truth is an activity that must be sensitive to
the nature of my relationship with my niece and her mother. I regulate the amount of
information I share with others because the intimate details of my life are best kept
within the confines of my marriage. Each of these activities is allowed by my
relationships with these particular human beings.
I conclude by drawing a link between these allowances and my identity. As
the discussion of gesture in chapter two showed37, my bodily behavior is a form of
offering that another human takes up according to their own inner possibilities. I
recall this discussion and introduce John Russons concept of projective
embodiment to explain the ways in which my identity (as wife, friend, sister, or
aunt) is not entirely up to me, but rather is achieved in collaboration with these other
Allowances via Affordances
j7 See pages 27-28 above.
The term "allowance" (which I'm introducing in this study) is intended to describe
possibilities of interpersonal behavior made possible by my relationships with others.
J. J. Gibson's theory of affordance provides a template for understanding allowance
Gibson's theory of affordance describes the relationship between animal and
environment. He explains that the most primitive location, the primary situation of the
animal is that of being surrounded by possibilities for action.38 The animal must leam
to navigate its surroundings by perceiving the differences among features of its
environment in order to behave appropriately (i.e., survive) in the environment.39
Gibson identifies these features of the environment as affordances, and he claims that
affordances provide or furnish something for the animal, for good or ill.40 For
example, a rock ledge may afford a raised position for hunting prey, but if the animal
is not careful the rock ledge affords a dangerous fall.
The notion of affordance is not limited to the animal in the wild. The objects
of everyday experience can also be described in terms of their affordances. For
example, the lawn chair affords me a place to sit, and affords my dog some shelter
from the elements. Although my survival doesn't hinge on the lawn chair in the same
way it would hinge on my behaving appropriately around a steep cliff, the ease with
which I move in my backyard and among the lawn chair does depend on my
perceptions of what the lawn chair does and does not offer me. Gibson's theory
j8 J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1986), 7-8.
40 Ibid., 127.
speaks to the relationship between organism and environment as generating certain
perceptual possibilities that are simply not available to the animal on its own, nor are
they features solely found in the environment. Instead, an affordance is made possible
by the animal and environment together.
With respect to this study, Gibsons claims are useful for understanding
allowances, which I argue have ontological significance. An allowance is only
possible when I find myself in particular relationships with particular other selves.
Just as an affordance can point to a variety of features in an environment, allowances
can describe a myriad of behaviors between partners in a relationship.
One other feature of Gibsons theory bears mentioning here, and that is his
observation that the animal is mobile, moving in and out of different surroundings. As
the animals surroundings change, different affordances emerge for the animal from
these new surroundings. The relevance of this observation for the theory of
allowances is that as a situated, embodied self surrounded by objects and others, I
find that my surroundings change. Like the animal I am mobile, moving in and out of
relational territory. Just as the animal and environment are linked by affordances (i.e.,
features the environment offers the animal), our relationships allow for certain ways
of speaking that shape the relationship and reinforce my place in it. My conversations
must respond to changes in territory, and the responsiveness I demonstrate as a result
shows the way in which my identity is sensitive to these surroundings. Allowances
are best understood in action, and so now I will explain two examples of allowances
in action: gossip and truth telling.
Allowances in Action (1): Gossip
As I indicated above, allowances describe possibilities of verbal exchange made
possible by my relationships with others. Gossip is an allowance made possible by a
close relationship friendship, for example with another person. Karen Adkins
defines gossip as "intimate, interested talk ... usually driven by the respective location
of (the) participants."41 This definition helps to highlight the fact that gossip is a
situated phenomenon that gossip is sensitive to the way those gossiping are situated.
For example, consider what happens when I catch up with a friend I havent seen in a
long time. One of the activities we engage in is a sort of litany regarding people who
formed our circle in the past. We talk about people who are not present, and they
form an anchor for the conversation.
What about the content of these conversations? Interested, intimate talk of this
sort may involve talking about people who are not present, but we are not necessarily
talking about them behind their backs (with all the negative or malicious
connotations that phrase carries with it). If I am catching up with a childhood friend
from church, it is natural that our connection calls for description of or talk about our
church community. It is in this way that we locate our interest in one another. It is this
shared history that allows us to stake out positions in the conversation, and identifies
my relationship to this other as childhood church friend.
The character of the conversation depends on how I am situated with respect
to this other person. If I am talking with someone with whom I have repeatedly
reconnected, our interested talk may extend beyond mere description of those in our
41 Karen Adkins. The real dirt: gossip and feminist epistemology, Social Epistemology, 16
no. 3 (2002): 216. Primarily, Adkins wants to explain the epistemological value of gossip and rumor,
but her insights do bear some relevance to my discussion of the way identity in progress is marked
by certain verbal behaviors.
former community. It may allow us to evaluate or lodge opinions about the
community and those in it, to say more to one another beyond describing what so-
and-so is up to these days. In this case, trust is key and gossip here becomes a way of
speaking with another in which each participant has a stake.42 Gossip is intimate talk
allowed and called for by a relationship marked by trust. In this way, gossip is not a
display of power or an attempt to damage or gain leverage over someone with
In the context of friendship, gossip is possible because of a shared history or
consistent connection bearing this mutual trust. There is a background against which
such talk makes sense. More importantly, there is a boundary according to which this
talk is constrained. I engage in intimate, private conversation with my friend with the
expectation that such talk will remain between us.43 Put another way, to be Mollys
friend or Ginas friend is, in part, to be able to engage freely in interested, intimate
talk about familiar items in our shared situation.
Allowances in Action (2): Telling the Truth
Another concrete mode of allowance is telling the truth, which on this interpretation
- is more than language corresponding to confirmable facts about reality. In other
words, telling the truth is more than a mental substance issuing information into the
external world. In his unfinished essay, What is meant by telling the truth?
42 Ibid., 230.
43 Of course, this expectation is the result of some costly errors. Occasionally, we engage in
talk appropriate to a friendship with the wrong person, like an acquaintance or someone weve only
just met. In these situations, interested, intimate talk is uncalled for. This is because this situation lacks
the interpretive mechanisms employed between friends to appropriately deal with the content of such
talk. When I gossip in the wrong environment, it shows that I have failed to read my conversation
partner adequately and have failed to take the right kinds of territorial cues.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer claims, Telling the truth means something different according
to the particular situation in which one stands.44 By this, Bonhoeffer, means that the
situation I find myself in and, more importantly, the people with whom I am
situated shapes both the delivery and content of the truth. Here Bonhoeffer departs
from a strict correspondence view of truth, which relies on an identical match
between speech and an external state of affairs. This textbook version of the truth
does not square with our experience of telling the truth. As Bonhoeffer claims, telling
the truth is instead situated interpersonal behavior, based on my growing appreciation
of the people with whom I am situated.
If my niece Maya asks me, Is Santa Claus real? I could respond by saying to
her, No, Maya. Santa Claus is not real and your parents are responsible for the
presents under the tree on Christmas morning. To be sure, this is a candidate for
truth since I know there is no Santa Claus and I know how the presents show up
under the tree. However, I dont tell Maya the correspondence version of the truth.
While my reason for not telling this version of the truth is partially motivated by self-
serving ends (i.e., I dont want to be responsible for ruining it for my niece), it is also
motivated by my knowing what it is like to be surprised on Christmas morning and to
wait in expectation for 364 days for that joy and surprise to arrive. In part, my job
as Mayas aunt consists in protecting her interests, and maintaining an opportunity for
her to experience happy excitement and surprise is part of this protection. In light of
44 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, What Is Meant by Telling the Truth? in Ethics, trans. Neville
Horton Smith (New York: Touchstone Books, 1995), 358.
these considerations, then, the truth involves me going along with the ruse as long as
A more fundamental reason for my not telling the correspondence version of
the truth is that it is not mine to tell. My exchanges with my sisters children are
colored in important ways by my relationship with my sister. In the case of Santa
Claus, I must be judicious because I know my sister wants to preserve the joy and
expectation surrounding Christmas for as long as possible. This understanding
reflects my knowledge of my sister she has loved Christmas her whole life, and is
keen to preserve old traditions and perpetuate new ones with her family. She goes a
long way to develop happy memories and associations for her children. To tell the
textbook truth compromises not just my nieces feelings, but also my sisters entire
enterprise. Although it concerns something seemingly trivial, this analysis shows that
telling the truth is a serious matter that requires a great deal of sensitivity to my
situation with my niece and my sister. My relationship with Maya allows me to depart
from the textbook truth about Santa Claus in order to protect certain of her
interests, and my relationship with my sister sets the boundaries within which my
truth telling emerges. When it comes to Santa Claus, these situations require that I tell
the truth and tell it slant.
To further emphasize this point about the situational sensitivity required in
order to tell the truth, Bonhoeffer claims, every utterance or word lives and has its
home in a particular environment. The word in the family is different from the word
in business or in public.45 His point here is to show the way words function in a
45 Ibid., 361-362.
particular context. When I was growing up my family had a particular designation
that we used for private family matters. We called it at-home talk. This was a
verbal way of marking the boundary for speech that was appropriate only in the
context of the family. At-home talk was applied to news about my dads major job
change, or a discussion about sex with the expectation that such matters would
literally stay within the walls of our home. Functionally, at-home talk was
shorthand for Case family talk. It identified the way my family talked about finances,
the way my parents approached the topic of sex, and the expectation they had for how
far outside the bounds of our family this form of speech would extend.
My husband and I have our own form of at-home talk, and the way in which
such speech is employed follows many of the same rules. There are certain topics that
we do not discuss outside the boundaries of our married life. But, in keeping with
Bonhoeffers observation, this behavior is learned. The parameters for the
Vartabedian version of at-home talk have been cultivated over ten years of
discussions, over-sharing with inappropriate parties, and ultimately a mutual
recognition of the kinds of topics that must stay between us. It marks our
conversations with a degree of secrecy, but a secrecy that is appropriate to a married
couple. This is one way in which telling the truth shows itself. It is, as Bonhoeffer
indicates, a living activity that happens in my marriage.
Here I have tried to explain the ways in which appropriate interpersonal
behaviors like gossip and truth telling emerge from the particular situation my
interlocutor and I occupy. These allowances are only possible because of this
situated-ness. In the next section, I explain the way our being situated among and
involved with others contributes to our identity. Others are key in determining what it
means to be me, because their projects in and direction toward the world help to
shape my behavior.
Allowances, Identity, and a Sense of the World
A consequence of phenomenologys description of the self as an embodied,
intentional consciousness situated in the world is the limitation of not having a full
grasp of myself at any time. For example, the pairing relation demonstrated the ways
in which other humans are required in order to gain one's bodily self-awareness, one's
sense of their own place in the world.
The discussion of allowance in this chapter is intended to illustrate another
consequence of this limitation: Allowances show that verbal behaviors like gossip or
truth telling are not instruments of a fully formed self. While my relationship to my
sister gives us the ability to determine the truth about Santa Claus for her children, it
also puts a strict boundary down with respect to the kind of verbal behavior we
engage in. That is, we dont rely on the kids to correctly interpret loose talk about
Santa Claus. Instead, my sister and I carefully choose our words in service of the
larger goals she has for her children. This is a concrete example of a more general
point. It is not just that I take on a certain way of speaking in accordance with my
sisters plans or projects, but the situation of being Mayas aunt requires this way of
speaking. That is, part of what it means to be Mayas aunt requires some kind of
buy-in on my part to the kinds of experiences my sister is trying to generate for her
children. I have a hand in crafting the way she understands and interprets Christmas.
Further, by participating carefully (i.e., telling the truth slant when it comes to Santa
Claus) in this project, I demonstrate to her a more general care and concern
appropriate to our family tie. But, none of these actions on my part obtain without a
niece to direct them towards, and in this way, part of what it means to be me is not up
to me, but is instead determined in collaboration with Maya and her mother.
I suggest, then, that identity is a concrete process, rather than an abstract
description, and like other concrete processes (e.g., bodily self-awareness and
conversation) calls for its (partial) completion in partnership with another person. As
Maya grows up, she and I may develop a relationship such that she sees me as her
confidante, and I bring to her life an ear willing to listen to her problems differently
than her mother would. On these terms, being Mayas aunt takes on a different
significance than it did when she was four. My response to the questions, How do I
act toward/respond to my sisters daughter? What does it mean for me to be her
aunt? is determined over time, and largely by Maya and I in collaboration together.
In order to see more precisely how it is that identity requires the collaboration
of others for its determination, I point to John Russons concept of projective
embodiment. He explains that What is distinctive of the human identity ... is the
structure of projective embodiment, that is, the other is a center of interpretive
activity such that that others subjectivity is constitutive of the significance of the
things it encounters.46 For Russon, the embodied self has both a present dimension
(i.e., its location in space) and a future dimension, by which it projects itself
according to plans and goals to be taken up, its expectations for the future. Just as I
have this experience of my own projective embodiment that is, I experience my
46 Russon, Human Experience, 53.
present situation according to the location of my body, and interpret the world
accordingly. Further, I have an expectation of what the future holds. Russon points
out that the other an embodied, intentional consciousness in their own right has
this same experience of themselves. Like me, my friends respond and interpret the
world according to their present situation and future expectations.
Relevant to this study, projective embodiment identifies the structure another
person relies on to experience the world. My husbands projective embodiment, for
example, bears on my experience. That is, in an intimate relationship like the one I
have with my husband, my projective embodiment impinges on his his present
situation and future goals are held in tension with mine, and my situation and goals
held in tension with his.47 However, just like me my husband is limited in the sense
that he does not have himself fully. He encounters the same kinds of ontological
limitations that I do. He once required others to help develop a postural schema, and
like me, he relies on others to discuss and determine the evenings dinner plans.
Part of what it means to be is to find our projects and plans require others
for their resolution. Allowances those features of conversation that are made
possible by my relationships to others show that I am beholden to the projective
embodiment of others. To say that I am beholden to others and their ways of
interpreting the world seems to indicate that they have some influence on what it
means for me to exist among these others. If reality, on phenomenological grounds,
47 While the description Ive offered sounds one-sided, it should be noted that phenomenology
argues that any relationship in which 1 am limited puts the same kinds of limits on my partner. For
example, in a relationship governed by sexual desire, just as I desire my partner he also desires me;
similarly, as he desires me, I also desire him. This is emphasized in the following paragraph, in which
I explain that others suffer from the same ontological limitation that I do and that they rely on others in
the same way I do.
consists in a situation that calls for action, and action is the way any self responds to
their respective situation, then the preceding analysis of allowance indicates that as a
situated self I cannot act any way I see fit. Rather, I act in accordance with the
projective embodiment of others. My involvement with these others places strictures
on the way I act and speak in my situated-ness.
My deference to my sisters Christmas projects is a way of showing how it is I
am Kerrys sister; my discretion about certain household matters indicates a way in
which I am Andrews wife; my casual, interested talk about the past marks my
friendships with Molly and Gina. Allowances signal my involvement with others in
relationships, but these also point out certain limits on what I can do or how far I can
go when it comes to speaking or acting. In this way, what it means to be me is to
speak and act in accordance with the projective embodiment of others I am involved
with, whether by birth, by family ties, or by my own choosing. The point of all this is
to say that our verbal behavior is indicative of the influence certain others have in our
making sense of the world. Allowances are further evidence for the conclusion that
what it means to be me to exist in a living situation among a variety of other people
- is not entirely up to me.
Here I have tried to explain the ways in which phenomenology as it is
derived from Merleau-Ponty and Russon supports the machinations of everyday
experience including and especially the ways in which other humans influence our
identity. While the Cartesian account provides a neat description of identity in the
cogito, it fails to acknowledge the impact others have on determining one's sense of
self. Allowances are particularly important in establishing phenomenology's
superiority here, since they demonstrate behavior made possible by certain
relationships. Further, allowances open the way to the more general claim that my
projective embodiment must cope with the projective embodiment of another.
Allowances are a way of giving an account of the role others play in accomplishing
interpersonal behaviors and, by extension, their active participation in the matter of
understanding what it means for me to exist in a living situation among other humans
CONCLUSION: TOWARD ETHICS
In the preceding chapters, I have attempted to demonstrate phenomenologys
superiority to Cartesian accounts of identity, reality, and our access to other selves.
The claim I have defended is that in phenomenology (as it is articulated by Maurice
Merleau-Ponty and John Russon), we find an account of other selves that establishes
the presence of others as an immediate feature of our experience. The pairing relation
showed that other human beings are present to us at the very earliest stages of human
development, and in these early stages we rely on others to help us establish our
bodily self-awareness. Furthermore, other selves are key to our ability to determine
the meaning and significance of the situation we find ourselves in. The discussion of
conversation in chapter two bears this out. Other human beings contribute
fundamentally to what it means to be embodied and situated in the world.
I have also argued that this view of the self and its access to other provides a
way to understand how others are collaborators in the project of constituting identity.
The account of allowance I give in chapter three explains that we find ourselves
situated with others in a way that allows for or makes possible certain behaviors.
These connections are not uniform, and so our ways of speaking follow suit.
Allowance speaks to the particularity of our relationships to other people, and also
indicates some of the ways in which these others are responsible for determining what
it means to be me.
It seems reasonable to wonder why the phenomenological view, which takes
on the messy unpredictability of life as it is lived, should be favored over an approach
like the one Descartes offers, which emphasizes uniformity in its view of identity,
reality, and our means of access to others. To be sure, Descartes project is insightful
and logically rigorous, but it seems to lead to a kind of philosophical schizophrenia.
That is, the ontological categories his project prescribes dont match up with or
worse, require us to ignore relevant and important features of our everyday
experience. To accept the Cartesian paradigm requires that we minimize our
experience of the world as it is given in favor of uniform ontological descriptions. I
find this requirement unrealistic and inaccurate when it comes to the very matters the
Cartesian paradigm attempts to explain, and for this reason I am inclined to adopt
another explanatory paradigm.
Phenomenologys reduction has a kind of leveling effect in that it allows for
the raw material of experience to become the focus of inquiry and analysis. In this
way, the richness of our everyday interactions can be philosophically accommodated.
This manages to avoid the schizophrenia that accompanies Cartesian explanations,
since its starting point allows a phenomenological description to account for the
diversity and variety of exchanges we have with others.
One important concept that this study should point toward is the responsibility
we have toward others we are in relationship with. I have said a little bit about norms
in our conversations, that certain verbal behaviors are called for or uncalled for based
on our relationship to our interlocutor. A fully orbed discussion of ethics is beyond
the scope of this study, but I do want to say some things briefly about the preceding
analysis and its connection to ethics.
It seems reasonable to conclude that a philosophical position driven by
situation would run counter to ethical systems relying on universally-applicable rules
and principles. Most clearly in conflict here is an absolutist perspective like Kants,
which demands adherence to duty over and above any inclinations to the contrary.
Telling the truth on this view is an action motivated by ones allegiance to the moral
law, even if it leads to counter-intuitive results. In the famous example of the
Inquiring Murderer, Kant would have us tell the textbook version of the truth, even
if it jeopardized the life of a loved one.
Phenomenologys ethical requirements grow out of the claim that as an
embodied, intentional self my look on the world is already disposed to my acting in it.
Put another way, the situation I find myself in requires action in order for it to be
resolved. For example, the volleyball court calls out of me a particular kind of athletic
activity. In the same way, my living room offers an environment for cozy and
intimate conversation. In short, what it means to be has an active dimension. As
Merleau-Ponty claims, Consciousness is not a matter of I think that, but I can.48
To be an intentional consciousness is to act in accordance with norms embodied in
the situation, rather than simply to think. Compare this point of view, again, with
Kant for whom action is only warranted after a period of intellectual consideration.
The categorical imperatives are designed to make sure we think before we act, and if
the possible action fails to accord with the rules, we are prohibited from acting at all.
48 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 158-159.
Merleau-Pontys insight is that our basic bearing in the world is one of action, rather
than thought: we tell the truth or dont tell the truth. Further, our action is
accomplished according to the particularities of our situation, rather than ones
adherence to extra-situational norms.
So if our situation in the world is one that calls for action, by what terms is
this action regulated? Further, what insight does the present study provide when it
comes to regulating our action? Francisco Varela claims that linked to the concept of
the I can is the notion of know-how. He claims that our day-to-day lives are
described in terms of seamless, situated action: we always operate in some kind of
immediacy of a given situation. Our lived world is so ready at hand that we have no
deliberateness about what it is and how we inhabit it.49 It is not that we live
unconsciously or blindly through our daily life, but quite the opposite our
movements are habituated to the requirements our daily life presents, and so these
actions dont garner constant scrutiny or notice. This is why an analysis of seamless
action like catching up with Gina about our former classmates, or telling Maya the
appropriate things about Santa Claus seems disruptive. We dont consider why or
what it means to be truthful to our family members or to talk about the past among
friends. It seems silly to say, but the fact of the matter is that we just are truthful. In
the same way, I dont think about gossiping with Gina, but we just visit.
Varela indicates that our ability to move seamlessly our know-how when
it comes to truth-telling or gossiping is built up from having to reorient ourselves in
49 Francisco Varela, Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Writing Science series
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 9.
the face of an unfamiliar situation or impasse. Varela says we deliberate and analyze
... we become like beginners, seeking to feel at ease with the task at hand.50 On this
analysis, the I can shows itself in our ability to cope with new territory. In the terms
of this study, this reorienting is evident when we transgress boundaries of our
relationships, or when we offer certain speech that is uncalled for by the relationship
we are operating in the context of. For example, if I offer gossip to someone that I
shouldnt (according to the conditions laid out in chapter three), and that person
spreads around what I thought was private talk between the two of us, I must cope
with the aftermath. I can generally take responsibility for myself when it comes to
speaking, but if the person I was talking about confronts me I must engage that person
and make amends in a way appropriate to my relationship with that other person.
When my supposedly seamless ways of acting fail, I engage in this process of
reorienting as a mechanism by which I recover and attempt to reestablish my position
with this other on now unfamiliar grounds.
Given these insights about reorienting, I suggest two ways that the present
discussion of access and allowance is relevant to our development of know-how.
First, the analysis of access in chapter two demonstrated that others are installed as
immediate participants in our experience of the world. We might conclude, then, that
as soon as our awareness begins to include others, the process orienting ourselves to
the norms of our shared situation begins. As a result, our know-how begins to develop
at this early stage as well. Our understanding of how we ought to behave is a process
of development that is informed in part by our reliance on others to complete
50 Ibid., 19.
certain crucial processes, whether those processes are bodily (as the pairing relation
demonstrates) or called for by our situation (as conversation indicates).
Second, the analysis of allowance in chapter three demonstrated that certain
relationships are characterized by a high degree of allowance. For example, my
relationship with my husband bears a very high degree of allowance, as does my
relationship with my closest friend. These intimate relationships are the places where
know-how is developed most acutely.51 Responsibility is at work in my relationships
with friends and family members as well, and it seems that a discussion of allowance
points to ways in which responsibility can be accounted for in these relationships.
I have argued here against the Cartesian cogito and its subsequent account of
other selves. Because of its ontological commitments, the Cartesian view prevents our
relations with other selves from having the transformative power that our experience
of these relations indicates. Instead of establishing others by analogy, phenomenology
claims instead that other selves are present and are part of the most basic experiential
processes (i.e., the development of bodily self-awareness, and the process of dialogue
and conversation). Drawing on this insight, I have described certain interpersonal
behaviors namely gossip and certain ways of telling the truth that give evidence of
the role others play in constituting my identity. In the conclusion I have described
ways in which these means of access and modes of allowance together illuminate
51 This point is similar to the one advocated by John Russon in Bearing Witness to Epiphany: Persons,
Things, and the Nature of Erotic Life (2009), in which he suggests that my erotic attachment to another
person is the site and source of freedom and responsibility. While I agree in principle with this claim, I
want to point out that freedom and responsibility emerge in the context of relationships that are not
platforms from which know how, habits of successful behavior developed in
relation with others, can be forged.
John Russon reminds us that ours is the reality of people engaging with
people, and the world fundamentally exists for us as the context for the development
of that interhuman life.521 have endeavored here to explain how the reality Russon
describes is achieved on a phenomenological analysis, and to say a little bit about
what an interhuman life looks like. This is marked (at least in part) by particular
patterns of interpersonal behavior, which shed light on what it is to be related-to,
friends-with or partners-in the cultivation of a meaningful existence.
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