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The Second Person Perspective


Recent philosophical developments on personal indexicals reveal a disagreement between those who defend and those who deny the existence of a distinctive class of second person thoughts. In this piece, I tackle this controversy by highlighting two crucial constraints based on paradigmatic felicitous singular uses of the second person pronoun. On the one hand, the Addressing Constraint is brought out by the awareness and action capabilities displayed in successfully addressing another. On the other hand, the Merging Constraint arises, among other things, from the fact that ‘I’/‘you’-exchanges ground intersubjective disagreement. Once these constraints are fully in view, I go on to show that they pose a challenging dilemma for any account of the second person and that the chasm between friends and foes of the distinctness of second person thought is better seen as endorsements of one of the horns of the dilemma. In reaction to this, I outline a way of accommodating both constraints in terms of ‘perspectives’, i.e. ways of thinking of a reference that do not individuate a thought. On the recommended approach, the second person perspective is cognitively distinctive but does not itself signal the existence of a distinctive second person type of thought. By contrast, a single type of thought about selves expressible with personal indexicals—the self-thought type—can be shown to comprise the third, the second and, perhaps surprisingly, the first person perspective. Unlike other perspectival approaches, the here proposed analysis relies on an elucidation of perspectives in terms of specific information on which a thinker draws made available by a concept-individuating reference rule.

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  1. The cross-cutting impact of the still growing attention on the second person may justify, to use Naomi Eilan’s evocative terms, speaking of a paradigm shift or ‘you turn’ in philosophy and other disciplines (Eilan 2014).

  2. The most accurate statement of what is distinctive, cognitively speaking, about ‘you’-thought will be given below by the Addressing Constraint in terms of the awareness and agentive components elicited when successfully addressing another with ‘you’ (Sect. 3).

  3. Thus, the non-distinctivist stance is not simply about accepting the possibility of expressing a ‘you’-thought with a kind of expression other than ‘you’—such as the phrase ‘that person’. While this possibility would indeed ratify Heck’s suggestion that the second person is a (merely) linguistic phenomenon (Heck 2002, 12), the issue is rather about the thoughts themselves. One may therefore be a full-blooded distinctivist over and above any commitment to a particular class of expressions (whether linguistic or non-linguistic) being tied to or necessary for the expression of a distinctive second person thought (see also Longworth 2014).

  4. See Peacocke (2014a, b, Chap. 10), Martin (2014) and Salje (2017) for insightful discussions of the form of awareness at issue and which goes in these writings under the label ‘interpersonal self-consciousness’. Note that, although similar forms of awareness are arguably involved in communication generally, the kind of awareness targeted in the analysis concerns specifically successful practice with ‘you’ (cf. Peacocke 2014b, 244–245).

  5. The list contains, as is plain from the examples, also actions that fall short of ‘co-operation’ understood as requiring agents to “have a common purpose and hence common knowledge of their circumstances and of what they are doing” (Heal 2014, 322). Moreover, it is plausible that some of these actions—e.g. dancing, hugging, kissing or, generally, jointly acting or planning—may both be dually and dyadically predicated of the subjects in the sense tabled by Sebastian Rödl. Dyadic predication, but not dual predication, distinguishes the subjects from each other as terms of a transaction. If dually predicated actions are rooted in ‘you’-thought, as I am suggesting here, we may have some grounds for rejecting or at least qualifying the claim that ‘you’-thought is a kind of dyadic or transactional thought (cf. Rödl 2014).

  6. Bermúdez (2017) describes the Symmetry Constraint at the level of the token sense and I have elsewhere resorted to a different type-token analysis (Verdejo 2018b). I shall ignore these complexities in the consideration of the Merging Constraint here. Suffice it to say, for present purposes, that there are a number of ways of glossing the requirement that two thoughts be the same (or be instantiations of the same type of thought) and that the Merging Constraint is meant to hold sway on any candidate interpretation. Elaborating on John McDowell’s views (1984), Longworth (2014) also acquiesces to a version of this constraint via what he terms the ‘Coordination Claim’. The need to comply with the Merging Constraint also strongly resonates with the notion of interperspectival content recently spelled out in Ludlow (2019).

  7. I am indebted here to Salje (2017, §2).

  8. Even the former option described here may be barred to the non-distictivist insofar as there is arguably no iterated complex of first and third person thought that fully seizes the sort of self-awareness that is in operation as part of the distinctive awareness accompanying ‘you’ in communication (cf. Martin 2014, §4).

  9. One may flesh out the relevant notion of information-drawing in terms of implicit conceptions—i.e. tacit knowledge involved in the possession of a concept (see Peacocke 1998, 2008, Chap. 4). In agreement with the analysis of Kaplan’s problems below, the target implicit conceptions issued in thinking a self-thought from a given perspective may have incorrect or false contents. The possibility of implicit conceptions with incorrect or false contents has been explicitly contemplated in previous work (Peacocke 2008, 142; Verdejo 2018c).

  10. I side here with Ludlow, who also demarcates perspectives or perspectival contents from the phenomenology of one’s experience (Ludlow 2019).

  11. As a consequence, the mental file framework may also face problems when dealing with basic cases of disagreement (Verdejo 2018a, 502–503).

  12. I nonetheless wholeheartedly agree that the personal case—in which perspectives or perspectival contents are expressible with personal pronouns—is structurally analogous to the temporal case—expressible with indexicals such as ‘now’/‘then’—and the spatial case—involving terms such as ‘here’/‘there’—in ways I cannot bring out here but are illuminatingly covered in Ludlow’s work.

  13. The account favoured here is thus not a long distance from the so-called ‘token-indexical theories’ critically discussed in Ludlow (2019, Chapter 4). While I do not have here the space to vindicate the claim, I do not think that, when properly construed, this sort of account is vulnerable to Ludlow’s objections there. Suffice it to say that, unlike the theories Ludlow criticises, (1) the account I favour here is not committed to the view that perspectival contents must disappear from the characterisation of the reference rule and (2) reference rules in my (roughly Peacockean) sense—and hence the reference rule for the self-concept—provide the specification of the conditions that an object has to fulfil in order to be the reference of a concept but they do not work as reference-fixing descriptions furnishing a reductive analysis of the content expressed by the corresponding personal pronouns.


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I am grateful to José Luis Bermúdez, Guy Longworth, Léa Salje, Matt Sims and two anonymous referees for their helpful feedback on this work. This research has been generously supported by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Government of Spain) and the European Union through the research Projects FFI2016‐80588‐R and FFI2015‐63892‐P (MINECO, AEI/FEDER, EU), as well as the Secretary for Universities and Research of the Department of Economy and Knowledge (Government of Catalonia).

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Correspondence to Víctor M. Verdejo.

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Verdejo, V.M. The Second Person Perspective. Erkenn 86, 1693–1711 (2021).

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