“Know thyself”; Immediate self-intuition

At a most basic level, a young child’s tugging against the resistance of another for its favourite toy or morsel of food is ‘self’ disclosing, a thwarting of personal intentionality which reveals one to oneself. For Husserl however, the founding father of phenomenology, the ‘self’ needs no mediating jolt to disclose self-consciousness and he rejected the role of the symbol in the ‘self’s’ orientation to the world. Husserl’s dismissal of the communicative usefulness of signs in solitary mental life led him to declare that ‘One’s conscious acts in silent soliloquy do not indicate anything to oneself with signs’.[1]  Notable philosophers such as Derrida conversely take issue with this, positing ‘différence’ as the ‘movement’ which presages otherness and non-presence in actual presence, promising more. Derrida concluded that Husserl failed to see the internal ‘dialectic’ which opens up living to difference, and constitutes in the immediacy of experience, the divergence present in indicative communication and signification in general and this was because he ‘not only intends to exclude indication from ‘solitary mental life’, his position holds that ‘… expressive language itself would be something supervenient upon the absolute silence of self-relationship’. [2]

Enquire within; but what kind of language is employed?

Enquire within; but what kind of language is employed?

But some scholars protest that one does signify meaning in words spoken to oneself in private soliloquy. Here the ‘I’ that seemingly only reports your past commits you to it. ‘The next time you utter ‘I’ this subsequent ‘I’ corre­sponds to and answers for the prior one.[3] When I rehearse a defence of past actions, whether for a police statement or a domestic dispute, when I review the way that I managed colleagues at work or consider how to phrase acceptance of an award, or articulate a romantic proposal, ‘I’ is ‘hardwired’ to my identity-sense and expressive of that accretion of meaning my life has acquired intersubjectively. It is not a hollow term of convenience even in inner speech.

Husserl cites the presence of signification in the brand imposed upon a slave; it is he argues, a present sign of the absent master and the reality of his power. Signification of this kind functions as an index of some reality because of a relationship established by association. The sign indicates, without divulging the workings of that which signifies; ‘the empirical association is without insight into eidetic necessity’. [4] Nevertheless for Husserl a sign can be expressive and have a meaning too. It points to an ideality rather than a reality. A sign’s expression therefore points to its meaning; a relationship not dependent on natural juxtaposition or conventional association but use. It is not just this branded slave that is indicated, the barbaric ownership of one human by another is also expressed as legitimized.

Similarly, a nod of the head may mean agreement or recognition and not exclusively a gesture towards something. Facial ‘expressions’, bodily poise and posture, may parade on the outside, attitudes, moods and states of mind, but not convey the meanings of objects. Words, issued as expressions, can also function as indices. As expressions, the words I hear someone speak refer to meanings the speaker intended them to mean, and additionally they indicate the speaker’s real acts and emotions.

What is it that the word 'here' signifies?

What is it that the word ‘here’ signifies?

Consider the word ‘here’, which has a univocal and ideal meaning: a speaker’s indeterminate spatial environment. Change the speaker however and the referent environment changes. The word ‘here’ functions in another way too: it points to where the word is pronounced. The word, as a real signatory event pronounced somewhere, indicates the position of the speaker who spoke it.

The personal pronoun ‘I’ functions like this. It is not pure index alone associated with a real individual. It can be associated with anyone; ‘I’ means: whatever speaker is self-designating by using it. Its pronouncement may be loaned out and thus serve to indicate whatever speaker is physically associated with it. Such indication is not exterior to the meaning however, so that ‘I am happy’ does not equate to ‘Whatever speaker is designating himself is happy’.

But are there any pure expressions, any words, whose meaning would be independent of the situated speaker or their contextual provenance? This is unlikely; similarly it seems that ‘self’-consciousness really is attended by consciousness of the world. Immanent intuitions seem intertwined with transcendent intuitions. This suggests that expressions, by which a consciousness refers to objects, are indivisible from indications which intimate the actual acts and states of the speaker.[5]

For the listener, expressions are indicative: sounds or inscriptions mean something because they are also construed as signs indicating the actual or past reality of some real person’s expressive intention. Even metaphors, though they do not indicate literal reality nevertheless express something originally derived from or dependent upon reality. Perhaps the speaker likewise recognises their own intentions, attitudes, and moods because expressions authenticate them. If this is so, those intentions, attitudes, and moods would be exterior, disconnected by the ideal materiality of the signs, similar to the manner in which real things themselves lie beyond any hyletic materiality given in sensibility.[6]


What kind of language is one using when one talks to oneself?

Though language functions expressively and indicatively, whoever speaks can withdraw from interaction with others.  For Husserl, the resultant solitary monologue no longer has the same kind of referent, though expressions retain their original meaning; he negates the indicative function of signs leaving the expressive function intact. Signs articulated inwardly keep consciousness in contact with objects and the world, but do not mediate its relationship with itself.[7]

However, in solitary monologue one is in fact talking to oneself; one is issuing signs in which thoughts, doubts and deliberations are formulated. One’s identity-sense audits these varying possibilities expressed, reading the signs for their implications regarding one’s purpose and significance in the world. These expressive signs, with which one intentionally refers oneself to an object through its meaning, also indicate to oneself that selfsame intentional orientation and the reason that Husserl is wrong in rejecting their indicative capacity is because the entity they indicate is never sufficiently verified. Imagine for example in preparation for  interview  I am asked routine questions such as why I chose teaching as a profession; the reason I spent some time out of the country; why I applied for this particular job and whether after a day’s familiarisation with this school, I still want employment there. As I speedily mould my reasons for my past behaviour to another’s questioning of it, I must update both my sense of ownership for those things I accept responsibility for and my sense of the meaning I wish to be regarded as accruing to my life as a consequence. This for a number of reasons involves inner speech that is new in its signification to me and is updated in interaction with others.

According to Husserl, in a monologue, words are not required to indicate ‘existence of mental acts’, this would be purposeless; the mental act has an ‘immediate immanent intuition of itself’, and  he concludes that ‘One merely conceives of oneself as speaking and communicating’.[8] But this is not persuasive and I reject Husserl’s view that a sign becomes superfluous because what the sign refers to is given. It is never fully given. Husserl is mistaken precisely because speech when directed to an inner referent serves the purpose of returning surety for the significance and purposiveness of the mental act with regards to its relationship to the identity we desire, an identity that can never be completed. As I speak, even internally, I speak myself, that is my identity, into being.

Consider again the occasional expression ‘I’. Husserl contends that in solitary speech the meaning of the ‘I’ is fully encapsulated in the immediacy of one’s own personality and conveyed to others in speech. Immediate intuition of both the speaker’s presence and of ‘one’s own personality’ renders superfluous the endorsement of a sign, inasmuch as the sign motivates belief in the reality of what it indicates and this job is done. However, to what extent is my identity ever ring-fenced and isolated from my inner vocalised reflection. In contradistinction I frequently ‘asks myself’, ‘Am I really like that?’, How would I have responded in such a situation?’ and so on. Whether face to face with the Nazi atrocities of the past, witness to the panicked frenzy of hungry refugees, or rioting looters, or whether the recipient of altruistic human kindnesses, I can meaningfully ask myself internally, ‘Where would I have stood in all of it?’. My identity-sense is not so much an immediate intuition of what is, so much as an audit of what might be.

The 'I' is a container whose contents are hard to label.

The ‘I’ is a container whose contents are hard to label.

Clearly the ‘I’ is not simply an index associated with one’s own personality; it also communicates ‘the speaker who designates himself’. Indicative function is a component of the meaning and therefore not superfluous, even in the context of immediate intuition. To use a designating word, one needs to know both its general meaning and the certain one that is meant on each designating occasion. When I refer to myself internally, I may designate my ideal ‘self’, my three-year old ‘self’ or some ‘self’ posited by another, nevertheless in a subjective sense whether or not I authorize the distinction, it is there.

One understands the meaning of ‘I think, therefore I am’ even when its speaker is out of sight, no longer alive, unknown or fictitious. The term ‘I’ designates the actual state of my personality and also conveys a meaning regardless of that state. It can be argued therefore that occasional expressions, continue to function meaningfully, with meanings specified by an indicative element, when speech is reduced to solitary monologue. The child that turns to its mother and says ‘Do I like broccoli?’ knows what it means by ‘I’, but is encountering the indeterminate I that we all find ourselves to be. So too if this question is internalized and made more momentous, let’s say ‘Would I die for my country?’, the question still designates a sense of actual state of my personality and yet also a meaning regardless of that state. Solitary speech is therefore one of the auditing processes, here at a conscious level, whereby one signifies to oneself the extent of one’s harmony with the world.

It is possible to proceed beyond Derrida, and affirm that ‘the linguistic articulation of thought includes signs functioning as indices of, and for, the linguistically articulating subject itself’.[9] The subject’s relationship to itself is not intuitive, but mediated through signs. Difference can be recognised in oneself furthermore; there are times when I might say without irony ‘I am not myself today’. These are not merely expressive but indices too, whose sign-functioning is determined by cultural usage.

Consider again the proposition that words, whether external or internal, are indices and signifiers both. The word ‘Rabbi’ is both index and sign. It is an index for all Jewish teachers trained in religious commentary on the Torah; it also signifies respect. I would not apply the term to myself, even in silent soliloquy, for I am neither entitled by Jewish descent nor by rigorous training. Nevertheless the term ‘Rabbi’ has both an indicative and expressive potency in my inner speech because it was applied to me insultingly in bitter exchanges at school.

Ask not what a word means but how it is used.

Ask not what a word means but how it is used.

The word ‘Rabbi’, an indicator of function and a signifier of respect, is for me, a sign of the tormenting intentionality of others. Though born in India, I suffered ridicule at school in England because I was considered different. This use of the term disconnected it from any indicative legitimacy; my peers were not accusing me of being Jewish. It made little sense to say, ‘It’s just a term of respect’. The purposiveness of the term ‘Rabbi’ was misapplied; I am not a trained Jewish exegete or pedagogue. The significance of the term furthermore is disharmonious with my life for it was never deployed by my peers at school as an expression of respect. In internal soliloquy the term Rabbi is a constant misalignment between the background and foreground of my world and therefore if the sign must motivate belief in the reality of what it indicates this job is still to be done. As a young student internalization of this term unleashed a battle between the following warring elements; belief that I deserve respect even though I am disrespected; the belief that Rabbis such Abraham ibn Ezra, Lord Sacks, or Jesus for that matter must have detected respect in this address; the belief that were I to use the term appropriately it would be honourable; the belief that its misapplication to me is indicative of the user’s ignorance or cruel intent. These conflicting factors cannot render the internal mental  act ‘They called me Rabbi’ an act bereft of signifying force

In the vocalizing and in the recollection of troubled soliloquy the word ‘Rabbi’ was a sign that emphasized alterity and the cruelty of others. Speech and gesture are signs of co-existence. Wittgenstein has rendered indubitable the observation that we have inner speech but we do not have a private language. The shared range of meanings we attempt to appropriate internally require expression in speech and our identity-sense is indebted to its retention of indicative and expressive force.

[1] Husserl, Logical Investigations, in Moran and Mooney, 2002, 544

[2] Derrida, ‘Signs and the blink of an eye’, chapter 5, Speech and Phenomena, 1967, in Moran and Mooney, 2002, 553

[3] Lingis, Contact, in Janus Head, Vol. 8, No. 2 Winter 2005, 442

[4] Lingis, 1984, 4

[5] Lingis, 1984, 6

[6] Ibid, 7

[7] Lingis, 1984, 7

[8] Husserl, Logical Investigations, 1970. in Lingis, 1984, 8

[9] Lingis, ibid, 13


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