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  • I




The status of "I" as a prime would not seem susceptible to controversy, but some have taken issue with it (along with many other aspects of NSM). Chris Barker, a linguist at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a paper "Paraphrase is Not Enough" that "I" might be defined as case of natural kinds, specifically (but as we shall see, implicitly) of human beings, as follows:


  • I = the speaker of the utterance in which this word occurs


In terms closer to NSM, Barker's "definition" might be paraphrased as


  • I: this is the person who says "I"


This paraphrase makes explicit something Barker neglects. When a parrot says "I", it doesn't know what it's saying. It doesn't think that it is referring to itself, even though it might be possessed of individual self-awareness, and might even have some concept of the same for other beings, for all we know. A particularly affectionate owner might come to think of the parrot as a person, but the owner's irritated houseguest might feel otherwise. This objection might seem a stretch, but there are situations in which similar objections might apply to human beings as well, about which see below.


Barker neglects other semantic issues in his formulation. For example, "I" might occur in a direct-quote utterance such as


  • "She said, 'I can't do that'"


in which case it clearly doesn't refer to the person saying it. (Admittedly, he anticipates this in his mention of having some way to talk about utterances; whether this could be defined without reference to "I" is another question.) This objection might reasonably be fended off by defining "utterance" recursively--i.e., that this utterance embeds someone else's utterance, so that "I" means "she". "I" might occur in a line spoken by a character in a performance, in which case "I" refers to a fictional character played by the actor, not a real person. This objection might be fended off (albeit less persuasively) by characterizing the entire script as a series of direct quotes from a text, and admitting fictional characters as a category of person. "I" might occur in someone's ironic posturing as some other real person; that objection might be fended off (somewhat desperately) by saying that the person saying "I" is inventing an unwritten script on the spot and directly quoting from it--putting the script's words in someone else's mouth perhaps, but still the mouth of a person.


What remains, however, is the reasonable assumption of individual self-awareness in all normal native speakers of a natural language, as well as the enduring mystery of the origins of that self-awareness. Even if self-awareness were thoroughly elucidated scientifically (as some, notably Daniel Dennet, claim to have already done), the pragmatics of discourse probably would not be affected. A normal person muttering "I want to kill the President" in his sleep, a deranged person incoherently shouting it from the rooftops, and a brain-damaged patient who suffers from arbitrary utterances saying the same, are all very unlikely to be brought up on criminal charges of actually threatening the life of the President, because we have standards of evidence for intent, for establishing that the person saying "I" in various cases actually knew who they were talking about, and that those people were themselves. Our ability to use "I" in reference to fictional persons or fictionalizations of real persons, and for others to be able to know what we mean, is an artefact of the normal human being's ability to host (very approximate) mental models of the consciousness of other persons, real and hypothetical, which is itself in part a product of our mysterious capacity for awareness of ourselves as thinking, feeling individuals.

Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 10:17 am on Oct 17, 2006

Could use a few links, I guess.

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