Elizabeth Anscombe was a puzzling character, a brilliant philosopher, an eccentric. Her writings in philosophy of mind and action are admired by many. As for some of her writings on morals, many current readers politely avert their gaze. For me, resorting to Anscombe’s work has often been, in the last years, when teaching philosophy of mind or philosophy of action, a way of spelling out what the orientation of a Wittgensteinian position regarding topics such as consciousness or agency could be. Where Wittgenstein often says gnomic things or asks seemingly mysterious questions (e.g. “An inner process stands in need of outward criteria” (Philosophical Investigations, §580) or “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm raises from the fact that I raise my arm?” (Philosophical Investigations, §621)), Anscombe provides us with fine and explicit analyses. What follows is an exercise in that spirit, centered on Anscombe’s 1975 article “The First Person.”[1] In “The First Person,” as she moves between thought experiments, such as the sensorial deprivation tank, and deep metaphysics, Anscombe goes after the uses of ‘I’, the strange little word we (all) use to speak about ourselves.[2]


1. Around 1975

Anscombe’s article was published in 1975. What she says there should thus, I believe, be understood against the background of particular discussions of the uses of ‘I’ going on around that date. I start with a quick review of some landmarks of such discussions. This will help me in putting Anscombe’s proposals in context.

In the The Blue and Brown Books[3] Wittgenstein had famously contrasted uses of ‘I’ as subject with uses of ‘I’ as object. If I experience a toothache and say “I have a toothache,” it would be nonsensical to say “Someone has a toothache – is it me?” On the other hand, when I look in the mirror, see a sunburned arm and say “I have a sunburn” it is possible that I am looking at someone else’s arm and mistaking it for my own. In that sense I am misidentifying myself — it is possible that I do it. In uses of ‘I’ as object it is possible that I am wrong about who or what I am, that I do not know that something is, or is not, me.

In 1968, following Wittgenstein on the uses of ‘I’ as subject, Sydney Shoemaker introduces, in his article “Self-reference and Self-awareness,” the term “IEM” (“Immunity to Error through Misidentification”). What Shoemaker had in mind was the self-ascription of mental experience. He wanted to give a name to the condition in which such self-attribution is made: we are immune to error through misidentification when we attribute mental experience to ourselves. In other words, we cannot go wrong when we think e.g. “I feel pain.” In uses of ‘I’ as subject it is not possible that I misidentify myself.

This was going on before Anscombe published her article. Not long after the article was published, Gareth Evans, who had doubts about the gap between the mental and the physical seemingly involved in Shoemaker’s IEM, was interested, in his 1982 book The Varieties of Reference, in “testing” whether IEM should somehow extend from self-attribution of mental experience to proprioception. He considered possible problems with such an extension, as in the following scenario. Imagine that I am sitting and I think “My legs are crossed.” My legs are mine and I feel them; I cannot be wrong — or can I? What if wires are messed up with, and my brain gets the stimulation from another person’s legs? Can I feel legs that are not mine as mine, as ‘me’? Evans tried to come to terms with such situations. His basic conviction anyway, as he formulates it in Chapter 7 (“Self-identification”) of Varieties of Reference, is that

Our thoughts about ourselves are in no way hospitable to Cartesianism. If there is to be a division between the mental and the physical, it is a division which is spanned by the Ideas we have of ourselves. Our customary use of ‘I’ simply spans the gap between the mental and the physical and is no more intimately connected with one aspect of our self-conception than with the other. (Evans 1982, 256)

Because the discussion of the first person bears on questions concerning mind-world relations in general, and thus on metaphysics and not just on questions of mind and action, it is also worth having in mind that at that time, in the 1980’s, Evans was formulating his position against Thomas Nagel’s view of the subjective, according to which I cannot possibly think of myself as something in the world (“the world as it is anyway,” in Bernard Williams’ expression). Nagel’s position is that we cannot make sense of our own perspective, as subjects, as being part of the objective world; in other words, we cannot successfully locate consciousness in the objectively represented world. From this he concluded the existence of a gulf between the objective and the subjective, and posited what he termed an essentially perspectival subjective reality. This was supposed to be a position concerning the metaphysics of consciousness. Evans was interested in rejecting Nagel’s conclusion, which he thought simply presuposed idealism.

These are some important aspects of the state of the discussion of the first person, or the uses of ‘I’, some time before and after the publication of Anscombe’s article in 1975. But back to Wittgenstein. He himself does say the following in The Blue and Brown Books, and so in the same context in which he introduced the contrast between subjective and objective uses of ‘I’ that I mentioned above:

We feel then that in the cases in which ‘I’ is used as subject, we don’t use it because we recognize a particular person by his bodily characteristics; and this creates the illusion that we use this word to refer to something bodiless, which, however, has its seat in our body. In fact this seems to be the real ego, the one of which it was said, “Cogito, ergo sum.” (Wittgenstein, 1972, 69-70)

In other words, he acknowledges a particular kind of illusion, an illusion that using ‘I’ we use it to refer to something bodiless. This will be clarified through Anscombe’s 1975 article. All the ideas above, anyway, matter, I believe, for weighing the importance of Anscombe’s discussions in her article.


2. The uses of ‘I’ in “The First-Person”

“The First Person” (1975) is officiallly about the uses of ‘I’, the word each one of us uses to speak about themselves, and also about reference. So one usually takes it to be concerned with a particular question in the philosophy of language, the question of the indexical ‘I’ (the “essential indexical,” as John Perry called it) and how it refers. Anscombe’s commentators usually suppose her to claim that, since there is no Cartesian Ego to be the referent of ‘I’, ‘I’ does not refer. This move of Anscombe is typically dismissed as absurd. This is one thing Evans is doing in the Varieties of Reference, around the passages I quoted before. He mentions Anscombe’s “extraordinary conclusion” and dismisses it (Evans 1982, 214-15). His point is that ‘I’ does refer, and that it does so sucessfully and without any problems: I use ‘I’ to speak of myself in saying “I am Sofia” or “I am writing this text”; you use ‘I’ to say “I am reading this text.”

But what if we consider — following Vincent Descombes (2014), Beatrice Longuenesse (2017) and also Jean-Philippe Narboux (2018) — that what is going on in “The First Person” concerns rather self-awareness, and not so much reference per se? Anscombe herself speaks of what she is doing in “The First Person” as putting forward an alternative to the Cartesian conception of consciousness. She introduces the expression “the Cartesian conception of consciousness” which is not, she says, just Descartes’ conception, but also that of Augustine and Saul Kripke (these are the three authors she mentions on the first page of “The First Person”). According to the Cartesian conception of consciousness the mind knows its own substance. And so the specific target in “The First Person,” at least as Anscombe herself sets the stage for the discussions, is what she calls the analytic view of the cogito, which she sees as an instance of the Cartesian conception of consciousness. Saul Kripke is the person she has in mind. Kripke, she says:

has tried to reinstate Descartes’ argument for his dualism. But he neglects its essentially first-person character, making it an argument about the non-identity of Descartes with his own body. (Anscombe 1975, 21)

One note might be useful here. A number of people have noticed that Anscombe’s rejection of the main assumption of the Cartesian conception of consciousness, the idea that the mind knows its own substance, closely resembles Jean-Paul Sartre’s views expressed in his 1936 opuscule La Transcendance de l’Ego.[4] What is common to Anscombe and Sartre is the denial of the idea that self-awareness amounts to self-knowledge, i.e. to knowledge of what or who one is. According to Sartre, being self-aware need not involve any explicit identification of oneself as oneself. One famous example of Sartre in the Transcendance de l’Ego is an example of someone — for example me — running to catch the tramway. In running to catch the tramway I am involved and engaged in what I am doing; there is no ‘I’ explicitly present in my mind in that situation, as I run to catch the tramway. I am not thinking about myself; there is only my awareness of the situation.[5] Sartre thus distinguishes conscience de soi, which may be, as he puts it, non-thétique (non-thetic), from connaissance de soi. He does it in the context of developing his views on pre-reflective consciousness. His approach has been seen as having much in common with Anscombe’s (see e.g. Narboux 2018).

Anyway, back to Anscombe herself. According to the most common interpretation, at the heart of the article lies the following line of argument:

1. Let us assume that ‘I’ is a referring expression.

2. Then I-reference must be imune to error through misidentification.

3. Then ‘I’ should refer nothing short of a Cartesian Ego.

4. Yet there are no Cartesian Egos, only human beings.

5. So there is no referent for ‘I’.

6. Therefore ‘I’ is not a refering expression.

In a 2014 article entitled “Le Marteau, le Maillet et le Clou,” the French philosopher Vincent Descombes called this interpretation the interpretation of “The First Person” that gets transmitted if we never stop to read the article ourselves (plus, he remarks, it is an interpretation based on three of the twenty something pages of the article). Anscombe is supposed to be defending a paradoxical thesis, a thesis which goes against our common sense view of the (quite normal) workings of ‘I’ in our linguistic practices. To that counterintuitiveness one should add the fact that the claim that ‘I’ does not refer is not even a new claim — it is supposed to take up Hume, Lichtenberg and Wittgenstein’s idea according to which ‘I’ is some kind of illusion, maybe a linguistic illusion. That Anscombe is defending such a thesis is taken to be explained by the fact that she wants to put aside any dualism regarding our nature: if ‘I’ referred, then it would necessarily refer a Cartesian Ego; since there are no Cartesian Egos, ‘I’ does not refer. Yet there are, as I said, other possible readings. According to Descombes’ reading, Anscombe is doing something completely different. Granted, she is interested in uses of ‘I’ (although she never speaks of ‘I’ as an indexical). Granted, she asks whether ‘I’ is a proper name, and goes on to ask “if it is a proper name what is it that it names?” But when we look at the actual text what she is in fact doing when she asks such questions is asking what the relation is between ‘I’ (i.e. what I call myself) and ‘Sofia’, i.e. my name, what others call me. Her focus is on the relation between ‘I’ and ‘EA’ (‘Elizabeth Anscombe’) as they get used, and, as we will see, on the relation between ‘I’ and ‘René Descartes’. Such is the purpose of the following scenario: 

Imagine a society where everyone is labelled with two names. One appears in their backs and at the top of their chests and these names, which their bearers cannot see, are various: ‘B’ to ‘Z’, let us say. The other, ‘A’, is stamped on the inside of their wrists, and is the same for everyone. In making reports on peoples’ actions everyone uses the names on their chests or backs, if he can see the names or is used to seeing them. (..) Everyone also learns to respond to utterance of the name on his own chest or back in the sort of way and cirumstances in which we tend to respond to utterance of our names. Reports on one’s own actions are made using the name on the wrist. (Anscombe 1975, 24)

What is going on here? I, you, him, we all speak of ourselves using the word ‘I’. Yet I do not say “Hi, I am I,” neither do I introduce you to a third person by saying “This is I.” Nor do I call a third person by shouting “Hey I, come here!” What Anscombe is ultimately asking in the passage above then, or wants to ask, is what the relation is between ‘I’ (or A) and the name others use to name us (to call us, to speak of us). Also, Anscombe wants to ask: do these people, the people who use ‘A’ to speak about themselves, the A-users, let us call them, have self-consciousness? She goes on to say that speaking of selves as something one has, or one is, is complete nonsense. It amounts to being misled by language, which, at least in English makes me speak of myself when I speak of myself. But the point is that, although speaking of self-consciousness as consciousness of a self, a thing, some kind of object which is a self, is nonsense, it is not nonsense to speak of self-consciousness. We are indeed self-aware, aware of ourselves.

Another question about the A-users is: are they like us or not? She thinks not. Use of ‘A’ for oneself by the A-users is not like use of ‘I’ by one of us. Why not? Something goes along with our use of ‘I’ — we will see what — that does not go with the use of ‘A’ by the A-users. Anyway, as I said, Anscombe moves on to say that even if speaking of selves, our selves, as something one has, or one is, is complete nonsense, this is not the same as saying that self-consiousness is nonsense, or that we, who use ‘I’ to speak of ourselves, are, or are not, self-aware. Remember she asked whether these people who use ‘A’ to speak of themselves are self-aware. Ultimately she will claim that I am aware of myself when I speak about myself in a different way than users of ‘A’. But what does she mean? This will be clarified by the story of Baldy, our third scenario (as Beatrice Longuenesse points out, the story clarifies it a contrario).

Meanwhile, in the article, Anscombe proceeds with her analysis of the uses of ‘I’. She does ask whether ‘I’ is a proper name. We certainly may think that ‘I’ is a proper name in the following sense. If someone (let us say EA) makes an utterance which has ‘I’ as subject (such a person, says, say, “I went to the library this morning”), and that is true of her, then such an utterance will be true of EA (when e.g. another person says “EA went to the library this morning”). This is a sense in which we might take ‘I’, in my mouth, to be just another name for EA, she says. Yet, she goes on, this is the move that made Saul Kripke interpret the Cartesian cogito in a completely wrong way. We have now come to the context, in the article, in which Ancombe discusses the “analytic version of the cogito,” that is, the version of the cogito proposed by Kripke (what she has in mind is Kripke’s immensely influential logic of proper names in Naming and Necessity, 1972).

Kripke distinguishes between the person (e.g. René Descartes) and that person’s proper body. Once the distinction is made, he claims that there is a possible world where René Descartes (or somebody else) would be the same person but would not have the same body.

This is how the argument goes for Descartes himself: I cannot think that I do not exist yet I may perfectly well think that I am not this French man sitting by the fire, or that these hands are not mine — all that is separable from me; essentially, I am just a res cogitans, a thinking thing. A corollary of the argument is then that although it is conceivable that I have no body, it is not conceivable that I do not exist. Then I am not this body. I am not a kind of body.

What according to Anscombe completely escapes Kripke in his own version of Descartes’ cogito (in particular when he claims that the conclusion of the cogito argument is the third person claim that “René Descartes is not this body”) is that it is crucial for Descartes’s argument as Descartes himself formulates it that the argument be formulated in the first person. This, in fact, is why the title of Anscombe’s article is “The First Person”. She wants to stress that Descartes’ conclusion is: “I am not this body.” Yet what Kripke wants to claim is something different: he wants to claim that Descartes is not this body. That for Anscombe amounts to not having understood Descartes’ argument.

What is she getting at? She clearly wants to call attention to the fact that ‘I’ and ‘RD’, ‘I’ and ‘EA’, ‘I’ and ‘Sofia’ simply do not work the same way. Underlying the conviction that ‘I’ and ‘RD’, or ‘I’ and ‘EA’ are names which name the same thing is a conflation of self-consciousness with self-identification, i.e. with the identification of what, in the world, one is. But such an identification makes assumptions which Anscombe does not accept.

Her point is thus that (pace Augustine, Descartes, Locke and Kripke) self-consciousness does not by itself amount to self-identification, to knowing what or who in the world one is. The most famous scenario in “The First Person,” the sensory deprivation tank, further illustrates this:

Now imagine that I enter into a state of sensory deprivation. Sight is cut off and I am locally anaesthetized everywhere, perhaps floated in a tank of tepid water; I am unable to speak or to touch any part of my body with any other. Now I tell myself “I won’t let this happen again!” If the object meant by ‘I’ is this body, this human being, then in these circumstances it won’t be present to my senses; and how else can it be present to me? Am I reduced to, as it were, referring in absence? I have not lost my self consciousness; nor can what I mean by ‘I‘ be an object no longer present to me. (Ancombe 1975, 31)

We are tempted to think that ‘I’ must refer to an object. Yet in the sensory deprivation tank “There is no getting hold of an object at all” (these are Anscombe’s own words). In the sensorial deprivation tank there is no getting hold of an object and yet I am still self-aware. Self-awareness, consciousness of oneself, does not have be a getting hold of an object. Someone who does not know who or what it/she/he is at the moment, whether it is a body, a human being, or something else, need not have lost self-consciousness, may very well be self-aware. This is very important for Anscombe.

Here is finally William James’ story of Baldy, in a note in Principles of Psychology:

We were driving in a wagonette; the door flew open and X, alias Baldy, fell out on the road. We pulled out at once and then he said “Did anyone fall out?” or “Who fell out?” I don’t exactly remember the words — When told that Baldy fell out he said “Did Baldy fall out? Poor Baldy!” (quoted in Anscombe 1975, 36)

There is something wrong with Baldy, his friends notice, but what is it exactly? Is this scenario any different than the sensory deprivation tank? One difference is that unlike the person in the sensorial deprivation tank Baldy does not use ‘I’ but rather ‘Baldy’ to speak about himself. He speaks of himself in the third person. But we have all heard people do that (children often speak like that: “Joan wants candy,” Joan, the little girl, says). A king, or a star footballer, might do the same, that is, speak of themselves in the third person. What is strange with Baldy is not that per se. What is strange has to do with the lack of the “immediate non-observational I-thoughts” (Anscombe’s term) which are normally present in a situation like this and seem to be absent in Baldy. What are these I-thoughts? Here is Anscombe’s answer:

These I-thoughts are unmmediated conceptions (...) of states, motions, etc, of this object here, about which I can find out that it is E.A. About which I did learn that it is a human being. (Anscombe 1975, 34)

Baldy does not have such immediate conceptions of this object here, and so he cannot find out that it is Baldy, i.e. me (himself, I mean, of course). Notice that a person might very well be speaking of him or herself in the third person and not have such a problem at all (there is no reason to think that the king, the footballer and the child I mentioned above have that problem). So something is lacking in Baldy. We might call that which is missing immediate, non-observational I-thoughts (in the case of Baldy, “unmediated conceptions (...) of states, motions, etc., of this object here”, an object about which he can find out that it is Baldy).

These missing I-thoughts are not impersonal the way Lichtenberg’s Es denkt proposed to replace the cogito — might be regarded as being impersonal. Anscombe herself stresses that her preferred examples of I-thoughts are related to actions, postures, movements and intentions. “My way is opposed to that of Descartes,” she says, by which she means that her paradigmatic examples of I-thoughts are not “the Cartesianly preferred I-thoughts.” I move, I run, I stand, are the I-thoughts Anscombe prefers, not “I have a headache” or “I am thinking about thinking” or “I see red” (Anscombe 1975, 35). Anscombian I-thoughts (I move, I run, I stand,...) corrrespond to, in Sartre’s language, pre-reflexive consciouness, conscience de soi non-thétique, to be distinguished from connaissance de soi.

Let us go back to Baldy. According to Béatrice Longuenesse, the case of Baldy illustrates a contrario what we have and A-users have not — what we have and they have not are such unmediated conceptions of states, motions, etc., of this object here, about which (such an object) may find out that it is B to Z. Baldy does not have them either — he is an exceptional case of “one of us” in that he lacks such unmediated conceptions.

Such unmediated conceptions are Anscombe’s last word on self-awareness in “The First Person”. If “The First Person” is indeed about awareness, or consciousness, what is being claimed by Anscombe is that such unmmediated conceptions of states, motions, etc, of this object here, about which I can find out that it is EA, are crucial for what we think of as consciousness. Without them our use of ‘I’ would be like the use of ‘A’ by the A-users. They are not self-aware in that sense, whereas we are. Of course that also entails then that “I am EA” is not, as she puts it, an identity proposition; it is something I have to find out about.

I now want to claim that the conception of self-consciousness present in “The First Person” is a needed complement for the notion of acting intentionally which Anscombe had developed in her 1957 book Intention. Key to both cases is the idea that I am not transparent to myself ab initio; rather, I encounter myself in the world. In other words, I, as it were, come to be aware of something in the world, I come to find out things about myself, as something in the world. There is something in the world about which I learn that I am SM; I do not start from, as it were, cognitive transparency from me to myself, as a Cartesian consciousness would. This is the point of the idea that the mind does not know its substance. This is crucial for Anscombe’s views on agency and acting intentionally.


3. A very short incursion into Intention

When we want to get a grasp of what action is, we contrast action with mere events, that which befalls us, which is not in any way up to us. But where is it that we find “space” for the bringing about, the being-up-to-us-ness of action? What is it that marks it off from the purposeless happenings in a physical world? Is it consciousness?

Let us think of humans and their body movements. Let us say we are a film director coming from outer space and landing in the middle of Lisbon. We film humans. There is walking, clashing, shaking, bending, lifting, carrying, jumping, leaping, skipping, pushing — what are those bodies doing? What distinguishes them from robots without an inner, which would go through the very same movements?[6] Maybe we want to say that only consciousness could help us tell them apart from such robots, in the sense that only conciousness gives body movements of humans their meaningfulness. But what exactly do we mean if we say that?

Let us consider some important ideas of Anscombe’s on this. First, the very well known example of §23 of Intention:

Let us ask: is there any description which is the description of an intentional action, given that an intentional action occurs? And let us consider a concrete situation. A man is pumping water into the cistern which supplies the drinking water of a house. Someone has found a way of systematically contaminating the source with a deadly cumulative poison whose effects are unnoticeable until they can no longer be cured. The house is regularly inhabited by a small group of party chiefs, with their immediate families, who are in control of a great state; they are engaged in exterminating the Jews and perhaps plan a world war (…) the man who contaminated the source has calculated that if these people are destroyed some good men will get into power who will govern well (…) Now we ask: What is this man doing? What is the description of his action? (…) e.g. he is earning wages, he is supporting a family, he is wearing away his shoe-soles, he is making a disturbance of the air (...) If in fact good government comes about (...) because the party chiefs die, then he will have been helping to produce this state of affairs.

In this scenario we have the body movements of a human. Many descriptions of what is happening are possible here. If many descriptions of what is happening are possible here then there is no such thing as the movements of a human body being intentional tout court, i.e. doing something p an sich; there is only being intentional under a particular description. This is precisely what Anscombe wants to say: according to her, for something to be done intentionally, for there to be intentional acting, the agent herself has to be aware of her own bodily movements under that description. Imagine that I wash a cloth full of red stains which turns out to be the blood of a murder victim; the cloth would have been precious evidence for the police had I not washed it. Did I wash it away intentionally? For there to be intentional acting (acting intentionally) there has to be awareness of body movements under a particular description, and such a description might have been unavailable to me. Also for there to be intentional acting an agent has to be aware, not through observation but as it were from within a body in the world, of the agent’s body proper and its doings (I cannot just fall back into my senses and find out that I am washing a cloth full of red stains). Only under such circumstances is the agent in the position to answer the Anscombian question, the question “why?,” and thus to give reasons for his/her action (the question “why?” is the question Anscombe concentrates on in Intention). Such inhabiting from within and the power to offer reasons are Anscombe’s criteria of intentional action. What is important for me here is that according to Anscombe my own position of practical knowledge regarding myself (my knowing what it is that I am doing when I am doing it, something which in a more cognitive context we would call sense of agency) is continuous with the knowledge without observation I have of my body proper (going back to Evans’ example, I know that my legs are crossed without having to look and see — this is the status of what in cognitive terms is proprioception). Yet they are not the same. Such practical knowledge is, from an epistemological viewpoint, different from theoretical knowledge — theoretical knowledge is third person knowledge about me, knowledge others may have of what I am doing by observing me. Yet it is still knowledge of the same object in the world. In fact, we may sometimes happen to find ourselves in the observer’s position regarding ourselves (as, in Anscombe’s own example, when I suddenly notice my hand tapping out Rule Britannia on the table: it often happens that one arrives as it were too late at one’s own behavior). Yet such an observer’s stance is not our default stance towards ourselves. Our default stance towards ourselves is not that of an observer. We inhabit our body proper from within, we are it, and usually we do not arrive too late at what we are doing.

The assimetry between practical and theoretical knowledge which I am trying to get at, and which is a very important topic of Intention, lies behind another famous section of Intention:

Let us consider a man going around a town with a shopping list in his hand. (…) if the list and what the man actually buys do not agree (…) than the mistake is not in the list but in the man’s performance (if his wife were to say: ‘Look! It says butter and you have bought margarine!’ he would hardly reply: What a mistake! We must put that right! And alter the word on the list to ‘margerine’.) (§32)

In practical knowledge of myself, if there is a mistake, if I go wrong, such an error is an error of performance (notice that if there could be no mistake there could be no knowledge — this is a very Wittgensteinian point of Anscombe). That is what makes the situation above funny, or absurd. If, however, a detective is following the man going around town and making a list of what he buys, and if he wrote butter instead of margerine, then that would mark an observation error. That is something completely different from an epistemological point of view. That we have practical knowledge of what we do as we do it means that there is no need to observe ourselves as we act in order to know what we are doing. Still, what takes place as we act takes place in the world; it is not solipsistic fabulation. In particular, what we are doing, what we bring about, is observable by others and we may very well be wrong about what we ourselves are doing as we do it. Being accessible without observation and by observation caracterizes action (compare this with being named ‘I’ and ‘EA’).

As I said, there is place for knowledge here according to Anscombe. There is place for practical knowledge and for self-knowledge. In this picture (in contrast to pictures of self-knowledge where self-knowledge is, say, knowledge of what I am thinking now) self-knowledge is knowledge of the object that one is, of the human animal that one is in the world. In such circumstances, introspection is, as Anscombe puts it, “but one contributory method for self-knowledge” (Anscombe 1975, 34). Think of e.g. my knowledge of where I was born. I know that I was born in Cedofeita, in Porto, in Portugal. I could not have acquired such knowledge by introspection. Yet for Anscombe this counts as a perfectly good piece of self-knowledge, in that it is knowledge of the object in the world that I am. Again, for her the prototypical example of self-knowledge is not knowlege that I am thinking, or that I am seeing red (this would be, to use her term, a “Cartesianly preferred example” of self-knowledge). That I move, or that I was born in Cedofeita, are equally good examples.

Anyway back to practical knowledge: I know what I am doing. It is knowledge  because there can be mistakes. Yet in the best case, I do what happens. The point is that acting intentionally is not something purely internal, purely mental, it happens in the world, and because of that it is not transparent to me and may very well undergo vissicitudes in execution.


4. Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, I believe that we can get from Anscombe some clear ideas about the shape of a Wittgensteinian view of self-awareness and agency. This will be an anti-Cartesian view, no doubt about that. But what is most worth noticing is that “Cartesianism” is not, for Anscombe, an admirer of Descartes, a translator of Descartes, dualism only, or dualism above all. One may very well be a self-professed materialist and still refuse to see the mental as engagement with the world, involving a particular body proper which is there not only for itself but also to be perceived by others. In other words, what would count as (bad) Cartesianism, in Anscombe’s sense, may very well go with official physicalism, or materialism. Bad Cartesianism makes it natural for us to think of the inner as pure inner, juxtaposed or not juxtaposed, to pure outer. The pure outer is, then, the world, body proper included. This is not an alien idea in philosophy of mind and action. Pure inner and pure outer in this sense is precisely what we need for zombies scenarios in the philosophy of mind; or for intentions as inner mental states in philosophy of action and beliefs-desires-intentions models. In such views, beliefs-desires-intentions are, as it were, added as extra ingredients to bodily movements; only they give human bodily movements their character of action.[7] All that pressuposes a view of the inner, the very view of the inner that Anscombe is criticizing in both “The First Person” and Intention. It is a view of the inner which pressuposes that the mind knows its own substance, is transparent to itself. But that is precisely Anscombe’s target in “The First Person.”

So Anscombe’s Wittgensteinian position on self-awareness and agency is bound to stand opposed to a number of intuitive, supposedly non-problematic starting points in current philosophy of mind and action. This is so because for Anscombe they are anything but non-problematic: they assume a transparency of the mental to itself and a disengagement of the mental from the world which she thinks is totally ungrounded.

I want to end by suggesting a test which will be very familiar to analytic philosophers. Let us ask ourselves whether we can conceive a scenario of human action where humans may either be fully conscious humans or zombies. Can we conceive such a scenario? Many philosophers nowadays, maybe the majority of philosophers of mind, would claim that indeed we can. I believe Anscombe would not.


[1] My readings of “The First Person” have been influenced by the work of French philosophers Vincent Descombes (2014), Beatrice Longuenesse (2017) and Jean-Philippe Narboux (2018).

[2] When I presented a version of this paper in Helsinki (April 2019), José Filipe Silva pointed out to me that there are similarities between Anscombe’s scenario, which I will analyse in this article, and Avicenna’s floating man argument.

[3] The Blue and Brown Books were published in 1958. They correspond to notes taken in courses given by Wittgenstein in 1933-35.

[4] Cf. Miguens, Preyer and Morando 2016, and Longuenesse 2017.

[5] See Narboux 2018, p. 224-25.

[6] It is no coincidence that this is the zombie question in the philosophy of mind. Philosophical zombies are a very common mental experiment in literature on the philosophy of mind. They are behaviourally indistinguishable from you and me, indistinguishable in their use of language and in any external manifestations of intelligence. The only difference is that it is not like anything to be one of them: they are not conscious, they just go through all the movements of consciousness and intelligence. Philosophical zombies are used to prompt intuitions about consciousness and modality (possibility, actuality, necessity). One important question is whether such a creature is possible in this world, our world. The Australian philosopher David Chalmers (in particular his 1996 book The Conscious Mind) had a crucial role in bringing philosophical zombies into discussions on the philosophy of mind.

[7] See the article “Agency”, by Donald Davidson, in his volume Essays on Actions and Events (1980); John Searle’s Intentionality (1983); or Michael Bratman’s books Intentions, Plans and Practical Reason (1987) and Faces of Intention (1999).




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Bratman, M. 1999. Faces of Intention, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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Narboux, Jean-Philippe, 2018. “Is Self-consciousness Consciousness of One’s Self?”, in Wittgenstein and Phenomenology, Oskaari Kuusela, Mihai Ometita, Timur Uçan (Eds.), London, Routledge.

Özaltun, E, 2016. “Practical Knowledge as Knowledge of What Happens: A Reading of §45, Klesis 2016: 35, Valérie Aucouturier dir., Lectures contemporaines de Elisabeth Anscombe http://www.revue-klesis.org/pdf/Klesis-Anscombe-04-Eylem-Ozaltun-Practical-Knowledge-What-Happens-Reading-45.pdf

Perry, John 1979. The problema of the essential indexical, Noûs 13/1, pp. 3-21.

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Wittgenstein, L. 2009. Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations, Revised 4th edition by P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.

__________. 1972. The Blue and Brown Books, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.


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