The identity of experiences and the identity of the subject


Barry Dainton has developed a sophisticated version of the bundle theory of the subject of experiences. I shall focus on three claims Dainton makes: the identity-conditions of subjects can be specified in terms of capacities to produce experiences; the identity-conditions of token capacities are not determined by their subjects; and a subject is nothing over and above a bundle of such capacities. I shall argue that Dainton’s key notion of co-consciousness, a primitive relation of experienced togetherness, presupposes a subject common to each of the experiences which are experienced together. Therefore, co-consciousness cannot be used to state the identity-conditions of subjects in a non-circular manner. I shall also argue that none of the different options Dainton offers for specifying the identity-conditions of token experiential capacities independently of their subjects are successful. I shall then outline a way in which this can be done, but argue that it undermines the claim that a subject is nothing over and above a bundle of such capacities.

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  1. 1.

    Tim Bayne describes a phenomenalist approach as one on which we “construct selves out of streams of consciousness” (2010, p. 281). Some versions of phenomenalism, e.g., what Bayne terms naïve phenomenalism, treat selves as identical with bundles of experiences. However, I think Bayne’s preferred version of phenomenalism, on which the self is a merely intentional entity (op. cit., pp. 289–293), does not count as such a view. Merely intentional entities do not seem apt to be either constituted by or identical with any bundle of mental states; rather, they are the objects of various mental states.

  2. 2.

    On such theories the self may be constituted by different bundles at different times, e.g., the bundle–bundle view (Benovsky 2009, p. 13). The term ‘mental states’ should be understood as neutral between events, states of affairs, properties, etc.

  3. 3.

    This claim may apply only to maximal bundles (i.e., bundles which are not themselves included in larger bundles), but I take it that most bundle theorists confine themselves to such bundles, even if only tacitly (see, e.g., Dainton 2008, p. 252).

  4. 4.

    In the quotation Lowe refers to individuating and identifying mental states. This may make it seem as though what is at issue regarding (b) is an epistemological matter, namely how we can identify mental states in the sense of correctly distinguishing between them. But what is really at issue is a metaphysical matter: it is whether the identity- and distinctness-conditions for mental states necessarily involve their subjects.

  5. 5.

    Not all conceptions of the subject would allow for this. However, it is accepted by Dainton and (though I cannot pursue the matter here) is independently plausible.

  6. 6.

    The triggering conditions of a capacity are the circumstances in which it is activated. The type of manifestation of a capacity is the type of effect it produces when triggered, i.e., the type of experience an experiential capacity produces.

  7. 7.

    Dainton occasionally conflates the physical base of a capacity with the entity which possesses the capacity (2004a, 386, 2008, 233-234, 314). I shall return to this distinction in Sect. 6 below.

  8. 8.

    “There is something that it is like to have several experiences together (or to have a single experience with parts that are experienced together), and this ‘togetherness’ is co-consciousness” (Dainton 2004b, 12).

  9. 9.

    I say ‘in part’ because co-consciousness involves more than experiences being had by the same subject; the experiences must also be experientially unified in a way which may be irreducible. For this reason, it seems true that co-consciousness is a primitive relation in the sense of not being wholly analysable, but this does not rule out there being a constitutive relation between co-consciousness and consubjectivity.

  10. 10.

    This would be to endorse the experiential parts view of the unity of consciousness (Brook & Raymont 2017, Sect. 7.1).

  11. 11.

    Luke Roelofs (2016) has suggested that in certain circumstances the same token experience can be had by more than subject. That is, he denies is Exclusivity Principle, that each token experience can belong to one subject only (2016, 3205). The argument just outlined in the main text does not require this principle. What it requires is that for each token experience E1, there is at least one subject who experiences each proper part of E1 (if it has proper parts).

  12. 12.

    For example, on the insufficiency of physical or nomological connections between capacities see Dainton (2008), 335–336.

  13. 13.

    Another bundle theory which is vulnerable to this objection is that of H. P. Grice, on which a self is a series of overall experiences or total temporary states, where two or more experiences belong to a single total temporary state if each experience can be known, either by introspection or memory, to be simultaneous (1941, 343-344). The proposed account of a subject in terms of total temporary states is circular, since two experiences can be known to be simultaneous in this way only if they are introspected or remembered by the same subject.

  14. 14.

    As we shall see in Sect. 6 this assumption can be questioned, but for the moment we can accept it.

  15. 15.

    It might be that this event has no cause. Or it might be that the event is caused, but that it is not the manifestation of a causal capacity. For example, if a Humean theory of causation is correct then events are not manifestations of causal capacities.

  16. 16.

    I have put this point in de re terms, i.e., ‘x is capable of…’. Alternatively, it could be described in de dicto terms, e.g., ‘It is possible for x to not have P at t1 and to have P at t2’. But in the present context this distinction is not relevant—it seems clear that Dainton accepts de re modal claims. (Thanks to Claudio Calosi for discussion of this point.)

  17. 17.

    For an outline and discussion of these views, see Steward (1997).

  18. 18.

    Thanks to Alex Carruth for discussion of this point.

  19. 19.

    Instead of appealing to the capacity to generate experiences as basic, could Dainton not appeal to the capacity to have experiences, and apply the Isolation Thesis to that? Again, it is not clear how tokens of this capacity could themselves undergo experiences (compare: to be mortal is to have the capacity to die, but tokens of this capacity cannot themselves expire, because they are not living entities). See also Snowdon (2016), 148.

  20. 20.

    An entity is the secondary possessor of a property if it has the property by virtue of having a proper part which possesses the property in a primary way (Dainton 2008, 229); that is, the other proper parts of the entity are redundant with regard to its possessing these properties (op. cit., p. 231). An entity is the primary possessor if it has the property and does not have it in virtue of having a proper part which possesses the property.

  21. 21.

    To be more precise, the physical world is annihilated except for that portion which is identical with experiences (if experiences are themselves physical in nature) (Dainton 2008, 249).

  22. 22.

    Dainton notes that he is “not claiming that minimal subjects are real metaphysically possibilities”, since the existence of experiences may metaphysically necessitate existence of physical grounds or immaterial substance (2008, 253). But he appeals to the fact that minimal subjects are imaginable to motivate the claim that experiences are concrete particulars rather than modes. The imaginability of minimal subjects only supports this claim if their imaginability supports their metaphysical possibility.

  23. 23.

    Unlike the notion of a minimal subject, these counterexamples do not rely on thought-experiments. For instance, the suggestion that capacities may lack distinct bases has been systematically developed and defended by, e.g., Heil (2012).

  24. 24.

    For instance, a sugar cube is soluble, and the cube is the entity which undergoes any manifestation of that capacity; it is the entity which dissolves. In some cases, an entity other than the bearer of the capacity can undergo its manifestation. A shard of glass has the capacity to puncture a sheet of paper, but what undergoes the manifestation of this capacity is the glass together with some paper.

  25. 25.

    It may be objected that since the token base is itself a property-instance, it cannot literally be transferred from one person to another. I am sympathetic to this objection, but I waive it here.

  26. 26.

    Dainton suggests something like this in (2004a, 386) (see also 2015, 171 n6). However, he uses the term ‘grounds’ to designate what possesses the token capacities, and elsewhere he uses this term to designate the physical bases of token capacities. Therefore, it is not clear that he distinguishes between options (i) and (iv).

  27. 27.

    Could the primary possessor of each capacity making up the C-system be a numerically distinct member of the same C-system? This would seem to make the identity-conditions for each token capacity viciously circular, assuming option (iv). The identity-conditions of a member of the C-system, EC1, would in part be determined by other members of the same system (by the capacity EC2 which is the primary possessor of EC1, and the capacity EC3 which is the primary possessor of EC2, etc.), but the identity-conditions of each other member of the system would in part be determined by EC1 (since each other member will either be primarily possessed by EC1, or primarily possessed by a capacity which is primarily possessed by EC1, etc.).

  28. 28.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting that I consider this possibility.

  29. 29.

    A further worry is that the primary possessors of a subject’s experiential capacities may not form a bundle at all. For instance, each of a subject’s experiential capacities may be primarily possessed by a single entity. In this case, the phenomenal substance would not be a bundle of any entities, mental or not.


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Thanks to Martine Nida-Rümelin, Helen Steward, Tom McClelland, Jiri Benovsky and an anonymous referee for their comments on this paper. Thanks also to the audience at the EXRE colloquium in Fribourg.

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O’Conaill, D. The identity of experiences and the identity of the subject. Philos Stud 177, 987–1005 (2020).

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  • Experience
  • Subject
  • C-system
  • Experiential capacity
  • Identity-conditions
  • Co–consciousness