In Defence of a No-Subject View of Phenomenal

In Defence of a No-Subject View of
Phenomenal Experience
It’s commonly assumed that when something appears to be the
case in experience, it appears to be the case to a subject. This
paper defends and develops a no-subject view. Phenomenality
does not reside in appearance to a subject, according to this view,
but in appearance simpliciter. Phenomenological considerations
are offered in support, and the view is bolstered against various
objections. In particular, this paper argues that, in order for
the no-subject view to avoid lapsing into solipsism, it requires a
metaphysical background picture according to which the world is
a fragmented place.
When you experience the world, there is something it’s like to undergo
this experience, certain phenomenal facts obtain. What do these phenomenal facts really consist in? This paper proposes a no-subject view
of phenomenal facts: when you interact with the world, it comes to appear in certain ways, it manifests itself as including various objects that
have various qualities. These appearances are not relativized to a subject, they are not appearances to a subject: when you causally interact
with the world, things come to appear to be the case simpliciter.
Various philosophers have been drawn to some version of the nosubject view of experience (also known as the no-self or no-ownership
view) - such as Lichtenberg and Hume, Schlick and Wittgenstein, and
more recently, Johnston and Hare.1 The main objective of this paper
is to become clearer why the view has appeal, and to formulate a nosubject view of phenomenal facts that is more plausible than existent
formulations. I believe that the no-subject view is typically paired with
extraneous commitments, theoretical baggage that is both unnecessary
and implausible. We avoid these by drawing distinctions. A subsidiary
aim of this paper is to clarify the connection between a no-subject view
and a certain form solipsism and to show that, in order for the no-subject
theory not to imply this form of solipsism, it requires a metaphysical
background picture according to which the world is a fragmented place.
The notion of fragmentation has been invoked before to explain how a
non-trivial body of information can contain inconsistencies (notably in
Lewis 1982 and Stalnaker 1984: Ch.5), and the idea that the world is
itself fragmented has been invoked to defend the reality of tensed facts
and subjective facts (in Fine 2005). Here a version of fragmentalism will
be invoked to bolster the no-subject view of phenomenal experience.
Three disclaimers. First: I will not address the mind-body problem, or questions concerning the reduction of phenomenal experience.
The support for a no-subject theory of phenomenal experience primarily
draws on phenomenological considerations. Second: the aim is not to
work out the view in full detail; given the space, the resulting view will
be rough. Third: the no-subject view, as it will be proposed here, is not
for the metaphysically faint-hearted. It’s best to put on our exploratory
See Lichtenberg (1804/1990), Hume (1739/1975: Bk.1 Ch.4), Schlick (1936: §5),
see Moore (1955) and Kripke (1982: postscript) on Wittgenstein, Johnston (2007) and
Hare (2009).
hats: let us see what a relatively plausible form of the no-subject view
looks like, how it might or might not shed light on various aspects of experience, and what its costs are. At worst, we gain a better appreciation
of why experiences are indeed the experience of a subject and what the
explanatory role is of this relativization to a subject.
The paper is structured as follows. Section 1 discusses three phenomenological considerations in favour of a no-subject view of phenomenal facts. Section 2 sketches an account of the subject-less phenomenal
facts according to which they feature an appearance modality. Section 3
discusses the main problem that, I think, any no-subject view runs into:
stemming from the fact that the phenomenal facts make for conflicting
experiential perspectives on the world. Section 4 shows how this problem
can be solved if we admit fragmentation across the phenomenal facts.
Considerations in favour
Why should we bother exploring a no-subject view of phenomenal experience? Is it not obvious that, in experience, matters always appear to a
subject? I believe that the no-subject view is surprisingly well-motivated
when we reflect on our experience of the world, and that it is not all
obvious that phenomenal experience is essentially to or for or otherwise
involving a subject. Though the no-subject view also faces problems, I
want to start with the various considerations that support it.
Hume expressed a simple and direct phenomenological consideration
in favour of the thought that experiences are not in any essential sense
had by a subject or self: we simply do not encounter a subject or self
when we reflect on our ongoing experience of the world. Hume expressed
it in these often quoted words:
[W]hen I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I
always stumble on some particular perception or other, of
heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.
(Hume 1739/1975: Bk.1 Ch.4 §6).
I agree with Hume. When I attend to my experience, there is an apparent
slice of world and there is the fact that the apparent slice of world appears
to obtain, manifests itself as obtaining. What appears to obtain does not
seem in any way to qualify or determine a certain thing as well, a subject.
I do not think that Hume’s consideration should be taken to concern
personal identity, at least not directly.2 The no-subject view that is of
concern here is not the view that I am not a thing or do not exist, it’s
a view concerning phenomenal facts. I will assume in this paper that,
at any time, I’m nothing but a physical organism that causally interacts
with the world and nothing other than that. Thus, when I use ‘I’, it
always and only picks out this physical organism and when I consider
the experience that I find when I introspect, it’s the physical organism
that is ‘finding’ these experiences. We remain silent on issues concerning
diachronic identity - about what makes me be this organism at this time
and that organism at that later time. We solely focus on the nature of
phenomenal facts that obtain at a time.
More fully then, I take the Humean consideration to be this: an
appearance does not seem to be instantiated by or qualifying a physical
organism, nor does an appearance seem instantiated by or qualifying
some entity, a subject, distinct from that physical organism. There is
I do not mean to deny that Hume might have taken it to bear on questions
concerning personal identity, I only mean that it will not here be taken to imply that
I am not anything.
just the appearance of a certain bit of world as being a certain way. Now
of course the bit of world that appears as being a certain way typically
includes the physical organism that I am, but here it appears to be an
object amongst the tables and chairs that surround it in the relevant
appearances - not a subject that is qualified by the appearance itself.
The physical organism does not feature in the disclosed bit of world as
a bearer of the experiences, just like the tables and chairs do not feature
in the disclosed bit of world as a bearer of the experiences.
This is not to deny that there is some sense in which the appearances
stand in important relations to the organism that I am. For one, the
appearances are centred around this physical organism; there appear my
two hands sticking out, there appears the outer borders of my glasses, this
body appears to be infused with sensations, with little aches, pressures
and itches, and so on. In addition, there is an integration of at least some
aspects of the phenomenal experiences with each other, with the availability of memories and intentions that all centre around me in the above
ways. And their is their availability to higher order reflective acts which,
when they occur (such as when I reflect on my ongoing experience), are
themselves integrated with these phenomenal experiences that centre on
me (cf. Johnston 2007: 258). In addition, there is the availability of the
appearances to verbalization and expression by a certain organism; and
there is the effect that the appearances appear to have on a certain organism, it is the appearance of a snake that makes this organism jump.
And there is an apparent dependence of the appearances on the organism that I am: when I am affected by the environment, in particular,
when my perceptual apparatus causally interacts with the environment,
what appears will change. That is, though the physical organism does
not feature in the disclosed bit of world as a bearer of the experiences, it
does feature as the unique object on which the appearances that I find in
my phenomenological reflections depend. Amongst all the objects that
appear in various ways in experience, one object stands out as being the
one on which the apperances centre and depend, namely the physical
organism that I am.
These relations are all good candidates for underlying our talk of the
experience ‘of’ a subject and the appearance of the world ‘to’ a subject
- assuming a no-subject view is correct. Though we are concerned with
the metaphysics of the mind and not with the semantics of certain kinds
of ordinary talk, it should be clear that the above mentioned relations
(and, undoubtedly others) can feature in the truth conditions of talk of
relativized experiences and appearances, in fact, it is likely that, in different contexts, different relations feature in the proper truth conditions.
For simplicity though, it may help to foreground the dependence relation
and accept as a rule of thumb that sentences like ‘ML experiences that
p’ or ‘it appears to ML that p’ is short for such conjunctive sentences as
‘it is experienced that p and this depends on ML’ or ‘it appears that p
and this depends on ML’.
Because the various kinds of ‘to-ness’ that can be admitted in a nosubject view consist in facts that are distinct from the appearances themselves, there is only a contingent relation between the appearances and
the various aspects of ‘mine-ness’ that accrues to them. And this seems
exactly right. When I reflect on the very experiences that I have, I can
imagine that someone else undergoes these very experiences, that someone else is in my seat as it were.
Take my experience of a red apple. There is the way this apple
manifests itself as being, the way it appears to be, and then there is
the fact that this is so ‘to me’ in a sense that seems extrinsic to the
appearance; it could have been a different physical organism that the
appearance depends on, the appearance could have been integrated with
the appearance of someone else’s arms sticking out, and so on. The way
things appear are only contingently tied to the physical organism that
I am; instead of the appearance’s dependence on me and its integration
with my other experiences, there could have been a dependence on a
different organism and an integration with different experiences.
Note this talk of ‘integration with my experiences instead of with
other experiences’. Do we not illegitimately need to appeal to the sense
of essential mineness that is denied by the no-subject view? Strawson
argues that the no-subject view is incoherent because it needs to make
such an appeal. To quote his objection in full:
[The no-subject view] is not coherent, in that one who holds
it is forced to make use of that sense of possession of which
he denies the existence, in presenting his case for the denial.
When he tries to state the contingent fact, which he thinks
gives rise to the illusion of the ‘ego’, he has to state it in some
such form as ‘All my experiences are had1 by (i.e. uniquely
dependent on the state of) body B’. [...] The theorist means
to speak of all the experience had by a certain person being
contingently so dependent. And the theorist cannot consistently argue that ‘all the experience of person P’ means the
same thing as ‘all experiences contingently dependent on a
certain body B’; for then his proposition would not be contingent, as his theory requires, but analytic. (Strawson 1959: 9697).
Strawson believes that we need to either admit that the experiences are
to a subject, or else forego the contingent relation between experience
and a subject. But this objection fails. By ‘all my experiences are had1
by (i.e. uniquely dependent on the state of) body B’ we can perfectly
well mean ‘all the experience that depend on body B depend on body B’.
Contrary to what Strawson maintains, this is a contingent fact: all the
experiences that (actually) depend on body B could depend on another
body C. The fact stated by ‘the experiences that depend on B depend on
B’ is contingent in the very sense in which ‘my neighbour is my neighbour’ is contingent, as the person who is my neighbour could have lived
somewhere else.
Not only can the relations of some given appearances hold to a different subject, when I imagine certain experiences, I can also simply leave
out the relations of these appearances to any subject. Take the experiences that Hannibal must have had as he was battling the Romans at
Cannae. As Shoemaker notes, ‘if I imagine the battle of Cannae as it
might have been experienced by Hannibal, I do not thereby imagine being Hannibal’ (1994: 17). I can simply imagine that the Carthage army
marches forward onto the battlefield, that there is the neck of a horse,
two armoured arms sticking out holding the leather reins, the smell of
sweat, the sound of rattling shields, and so on. In doing this, I do not
thereby imagine myself, the physical organism that I am, sitting on the
horse overlooking the battlefield, but nor do I imagine being Hannibal
sitting on a horse overlooking the battlefield. I imagine things appearing
a certain way without them appearing that way to me, or to Hannibal,
or to anyone else. Though nothing forces me to, I can add the relations
to some subject to the imagined scene, and when I do, I simply add further facts, further specifications of the imagined scene, such as that my
hands are holding the leather reins, that the experiences are integrated
with memories that centre around me, and so on. Though I can add the
relations to a subject, I can also leave it out when I underspecify what
I intend to imagine, suggesting again that the relations are not already
part of the appearances themselves.
The absence of essential relations between subject and appearance
is in fact our default mode of engagement with the world; it’s plausible
that phenomenal reflection on experience tends to bring the relations
to a subject to the foreground. That is, when we are not engaged in
phenomenal reflection (or introspection, or higher order reflection on experience), there is simply the appearance of the world in various ways.
Speaking from within the standard picture we might say that, in our
ongoing experience, we ourselves dissappear, coming to stand ‘behind’
an embedded perspective on the world, a perspective that we are not
ourselves in. Just as the eye stands behind a visual field without being
in it; a subject stands behind a phenomenal field without being part of it
(cf. Wittgenstein 1921/1961: 5.6331). But this talk of ‘standing behind
the appearance in some way’ is elusive, a mode of description that we
are forced into given our presumption that appearances are first of all to
a subject. If we bracket our presumed theories of experience when we
engage in reflection on experience the neutral description is not there is
a subject standing ‘behind’ the ongoing experience, but simply that no
subject is involved in the ongoing experience of the world. There is just
the world appearing in various ways; the self does not ‘disappear’ in the
background, it is just not there.
This is worth emphasizing. When we theorize about phenomenal
character, about what it is like to undergo experience, the focus tends
to be exclusively on the qualitative character of experience, on the way
in which certain qualities stand disclosed or manifested in experience.
But, in addition to the qualitative character character, there is also the
subjective or perspectival character of undergoing experience. Part of
what it is like to undergo experience is to be somehow ‘embedded in a
point of view on the world’, and the latter needs to be accounted for
just as much as the qualitative character of experience. As Hellie puts it
boldly: ‘if the embedded perspective isn’t real, consciousness isn’t real’
(2013: 305). What the standard view describes as a subject ‘occupying
a point of view’ or a subject ‘standing behind’ his or her experience, the
no-subject view describes simply as the world appearing in certain ways.
The former is arguably a contorted way of describing what is taken at
face value by the no-subject view. There is a tension in insisting on the
one hand that phenomenal experiences are to a subject and yet at the
same time admitting that the subject disappears in the background when
we consider the experience as ongoing.
To draw this out further, there is a notable difference in imagining
that things appear in certain ways to a particular subject and imagining
that certain things appear to be the case simpliciter. If I try to imagine
that an apple appears reddish to a particular subject, John, I waver
between imagining John and the apple together - a scene that somehow
misses out on the appearing aspect - and imagining an apple that appears
reddish - a scene that misses out on the to-John aspect. In contrast, if
I imagine that the apple appears reddish simpliciter, and nothing else, I
actually succeed in imagining the world as being a certain way, and my
act of imagination arguably succeeds in capturing not only the qualitative
character but also the subjective character of the experience of a red
apple. By visualizing the apple as red, I arguably imagine or conceive
of the apple as appearing (or being present as) red. Now, paradoxically,
what it is like for John to undergo the experience of the red apple is for
the apple to appear reddish simpliciter, not for him. It is only when we
imagine the world appearing a certain way simpliciter that we imagine
seeing the world from an experiential vantage point, and only then do we
truly imagine what it is like to undergo a certain experience.
So, then, these are all various routes to the same conclusion: there is
the direct phenomenological claim that I do not find a subject involved
in experience and various more indirect claims that appearances seem
transferable, that I can imagine undergoing experience without imagining being anyone, and that the non-involvement of a subject is what is
behind the elusive ‘embedding in a point of view’ or ‘a subject’s standing
behind experience’. These considerations tentatively suggest that whatever reason there is for attributing experiences to a subject must be a
theoretical reason, and not a phenomenological one.
There is a methodological question of how much weight we should give
to phenomenological reflections such as the above. I believe they carry
much weight: our phenomenological reflection is the only reason why we
think that there are phenomenal facts in the first place. Merely observing
our brain states, or more generally the mechanics and behaviour of the
physical organisms that we are, arguably would not give us any reason to
posit phenomenal facts at all. We posit phenomenal facts because we are
forced to by what we find when we reflect on our ongoing experience - to
capture that a slice of world stands revealed in our experience - this is
the central theoretical role that phenomenal facts play in our theorizing
about the world and the most straightforward way to capture what we
find in our phenomenological reflections is to posit the phenomenal facts
precisely as they are found to be in the phenomenological reflections
that provide the reasons for positing them in the first place and that, the
above suggests, is without an individual subject to which the way the
world appears.
Appearance as a modality
If the above considerations are correct, then we have reason to take the
phenomenological data at face value and explore the no-subject view further. Most importantly: how are we to understand the subject-less phenomenal facts of the no-subject view? The above three considerations
naturally lead to a particular understanding of the subjectless experiences, which I will make explicit here. Phenomenality is a modality, that
of some matter appearing to be the case. As I discuss this way of understanding phenomenality, I will draw some further distinctions between
the no-subject view and closely related views.
Thus far, I have been using ‘phenomenal experience’ and ‘appearance’
interchangeably. It is time to be more precise. When we experience
things, it should be relatively uncontroversial that those things come to
appear in various ways, that when we see things they look certain ways,
when we hear things they sound certain ways, when we touch things
they feel certain ways, etc. When a tulip looks red when I see it, for it to
appear red makes for what it’s like to undergo an experience of the tulip
as being red. It’s a natural thought that the way things appear when
a subject interacts with the world and the fact that they do so at all
makes for what it is like for a subject to undergo that experience. The
relevant notion of ‘appearance’ here is not that of an intellectual reason
to believe something, a striking as true, but of a qualitative manifestation
of things.3
The notion of appearance is most naturally understood as a type
of modality, as it appearing to be the case that A where A is sentence
that expresses the content of the appearance. Formally, this means that
This distinction between an intellectual en experiential notion of appearance is
discussed in Chisholm (1959) and Jackson (1977).
the phenomenal facts are best described using a sentential operator ‘A’
with which to form sentences such as ‘A(the tulip is red)’, saying that it
appears to be the case that the tulip is red.4 What appears are not special
‘phenomenal properties’, phenomenal redness, phenomenal shapes, etc.;
it is not captured in terms of special properties of mental images or
mental states of a subject, as per the qualia view defended in, e.g., Block
(2003), Levine (2001), Peacocke (1983) and Chalmers (1996); rather,
phenomenality is captured in terms of a modality.5
I will take this modal notion of appearance to be the central primitive of the no-subject view - the concept in terms of which we understand
phenomenality on this view, and that resists definition in other terms.
By way of homing in on the relevant sense of the notion though, we might
say that when you undergo experience, a certain qualitatively rich scene
manifests itself as obtaining, discloses itself. Appearance is here understood in the way that Johnston understands what he calls ‘presence’:
Consider presence, the variety of ways in which real or ostensible items, be they objects, qualities or whatever, disclose
some aspect of their nature. Perhaps the best way to bring
presence into view is to begin with perception. When one
sees one’s dogs running in the front yard, the whole content
of the perceptual experience is of the dogs and their running
being present in a certain way, a way that discloses something of the nature of the dogs and their running. THERE
This proposal should be distinguished from the ‘theory of appearing’ as it is
defended in Alston (1999) and Langsam (1997). The core primitive of this theory is
the relation of an object o appearing to be F to a subject s; whereas the core primitive
of the proposed account is that of some fact appearing to be the case simpliciter.
This fits the so-called transparency of experience. The transparency of experience
features in arguments for a range of different conclusions: for a defence of functionalism in Harman (1990), against the qualia view in Tye (2014), for naive realism in
Kennedy (2009) and Martin 2002, and for Russelian contents of experience in Speaks
the dogs are, immediately available as objects of attention
and demonstration, and as topics of one’s further thought
and talk. (Johnston 2007: 233).
When something appears to be the case, there is a presence of the involved objects and properties, a presence of object and properties as
disclosed or laid bare.6
On the most straightforward understanding of appearance it is something that may be misleading. What appears to be the case doesn’t have
to be the case and it doesn’t even have to involve anything that actually
exists.7 This means that appearances aren’t factive, nor admit of an
analogue of the Barcan Formula:
If it appears that A it does not follow that A: AA 2 A.
If it appears that there is an F it does not follow that there is
something that appears to be F : A∃x(F x) 2 ∃xA(F x).
If it appears to be the case that a dragon flies in front of my window, we
clearly shouldn’t infer from this that there is a dragon flying in front of
the window, nor that there is something in the world that appears to be a
dragon flying in front of my window, as there doesn’t need to be anything
in the world that I experience as the dragon, nor any mental items, such
as sense-data, mental images, or ideas (cf. Martin 2000: 206-211).
Hellie (2014) equates presence with the target of attention: something is present if
and only if it is attended to. This is not how I think of appearance. The appearances
form a disclosed scene, only a thin slice of which will typically be the focus of attention
and, as a result, feed into the cognitive processing of a subject (see Block 2011). Of
course it’s an interesting question how we are to think of attention on this view. I
will leave this for another time.
This sets the view apart from direct realism and its resorts to disjunctivism, as
in e.g. Hinton (1973), McDowell (1982), Snowdon (1980) and Martin (2004). As
appearance itself does not involve a subject it is natural to think of a appearance as
something directly involving the world when it is veridical. There may therefore be a
deep conceptual affinity between the no-subject view and direct realism. I leave this
for another occasion.
Beside the possible non-veridicality of appearances, there are less obvious elucidatory questions that need to be settled. A first question
concerns the content of appearances. I will assume that what appears to
be the case does not just concern colour patches in certain configurations
(in the case of visual appearances) but also concerns identified particulars. There can be an appearance of this book being red. And similarly
for the the ways things feel, sound, smell, and taste; there are particular
things that smell or sound or taste certain ways. I will also assume that
things appear in ways that discriminate much more finely than one is
able to do conceptually in judgements and mere beliefs and in ways that
go beyond what one can memorize later or process cognitively at any
point in time. We may not have words or concepts for every single way
things can appear to be. These assumptions are however not essential
to the no-subject view as such and concern a question that any view of
phenomenal facts needs to settle at some point.8
A second, more important elucidatory question is whether the relevant notion of appearance should be understood as being implicitly
first-personal. Adherents of a no-subject view typically distinguish between such sentences as ‘I am sitting’ or ‘I have a matchbox in my hands’
and sentences such as ‘I see a red book’ or ‘I am in pain’ (see for example Moore 1955: 13-14, on Wittgenstein, and Anscombe 1975: 61). ‘I am
sitting’ or ‘I have a matchbox in my hands’ are straightforwardly understood as attributing properties to a subject: the physical organism that
I am has the property of sitting, and has a matchbox in her hands. ‘I
see a red book’ or ‘I am in pain’ are not understood in this way; they do
not straightforwardly attribute properties to an organism. Some adher8
For further discussion, see Tye (2006) and Byrne (2001: 202). Tye (2002) offers a
defence of the claim that the phenomenal facts consist in certain facts appearing to
be the case (to a subject - in his view).
ents of the no-subject view take a sentence such as ‘I am in pain’ to be
equivalent to the subjectless ‘it is paining’, where the latter is taken to be
implicitly first-personal: it is the case simpliciter that it is paining if and
only if it is the case from my first-person perspective that it is paining.
This view is inspired by Lichtenberg’s famous critical remark concerning
Descartes’ cogito: ‘We should say it thinks, just as we say it lightens. To
say cogito is already to say too much as soon as we translate it [as] I
think ’ Lichtenberg (1804/1990: K18). This understanding of experience
as inherently first personal is analogous to the tense-logical convention
that it is the case simpliciter that it rains if and only if it is now the
case that it rains. Just as all facts are implicitly present-tensed on this
account, so are all facts implicitly ‘first-personal’ according to this way
of developing the no-subject view: appearance simpliciter is equivalent
to appearance-to-me.9 Borrowing a label from Fine (2005), we can call
this species of the no-subject view ‘first-personalism’.
As Schlick (1936) notes, however, an adherent of the no-subject view
is in no way forced to adopt a first-personalist understanding of the phenomenal facts. If I say, ‘I am in pain’, this may - in appropriate contexts
- be given a conjunctive reading, as for example ‘it appears to be the case
that there is pain and this appearance depends on me’. Similarly, ‘I see a
red book’ can be understood as saying that ‘the book appears to be red
and this appearance depends on me’. In general, such sentences may be
understood as expressing that things appear a certain way and that those
appearances depend on a certain subject. The appearances themselves
are not here understood as being first-personal in some implicit way they are understood as being truly ‘unowned’, or neutral, and the use
For an exploration of the analogy between a first-personal and tensed understanding of facts, see Prior (1968/2003) and Prior (1977/2003), Fine (2005: §6 and §12),
and Hare (2009: Ch.3).
of ‘I’ is taken straightforwardly as referring to the subject (i.e. physical
organism) using it. We do not distinguish between two senses of ‘I’: one
where it picks out a subject (as in ‘I am sitting’) and a sense where it
disappears as it were (as when ‘I am in pain’ is read as ‘it is paining’).
In contrast, ‘I’ always and uniformly picks the one who uses it. From
here on, I will refer to this as the no-subject view and distinguish it from
first-personalism. I will only explore the no-subject view.
A third important question concerns how appearances bear on the
information that a subject possesses about the world. I believe that
an adherent of the no-subject view should distinguish sharply between
representational facts and appearance facts.10 We describe a subject as
representing something in order to capture that she interacts with the
world informed by some body of information about her surroundings.
Representational states thus qualify a certain item in the world, namely
a physical organism. The appearance facts, in contrast, do not capture
the informational interaction of a subject with the world, but what things
appear like when this subject experiences things. An adherent of the nosubject view should accept that representational states are instantiated
by subjects (or are attitudes had by subjects). We ascribe representational states to subjects on the basis of how they seem disposed to act:
when a subject is disposed to act (and talk) as though it is the case that
A, then we have reason to ascribe a representational state to the subject
according to which it is the case that A.11 For example, if someone says
Note that, given the identification of phenomenal character and appearances,
this is ipso facto to distinguish between phenomenal character and representational
content, setting it apart from the representationalist view defended in, e.g., Harman
(1990), Armstrong (1999), Tye (1995), Dretske (2003), Byrne (2001), and Jackson
This weak claim about reasons for attributing beliefs is not to be confused with
a claim about the nature of those beliefs. The weak claim should be compatible
with dispositional accounts of belief (as in e.g. Braithwaite 1932, Marcus 1990 and
Schwitzgebel 2002), with functionalist accounts (as in e.g. Stalnaker 1984 and Armstrong 1973), and with interpretationist accounts (as in e.g. Dennett 1991 and David-
that a tulip is red, groups it together with other red things, and seems
disposed to continue to do so in a reliable fashion, then it is plausible
that the subject represents the world as being one in which the tulip is
red. This is part of the information that this organism possesses and acts
Given the distinction between representations and appearances, there
is a question concerning the relation between them. Is it the case that a
subject represents that A if and only if it appears to be the case that A
and it appearing to be case that A depends on that subject? There are
good reasons to deny this. We should allow that the contents of appearances and representations can come apart. This is the lesson we learn
from cases of inverted spectrum, due to Shoemaker (1982) (see also the
inverted earth cases in Block 1990). This thought experiment suggests
that the phenomenal is not externally determined whereas the representations of a subject are externally determined. The well-known case
involves someone, call him Nonvert, who experiences red things exactly
the way we experience them and someone else, Invert, who experiences
red things exactly the way we experience green things. Both have been
like this since birth, and make the same discriminations between things,
and both are part of the same linguistic community, describing the same
things as red, green, etc. If Invert and Nonvert both make the same
colour discriminations when interacting with the same coloured things,
and both describe for example the same tomato as red, then both Invert
and Nonvert represent this tomato as being red. This is to take their dispositions as the central guide to their information about the world, and
to adopt an externalism with regard to the content of their representations of the world. Externalism about representational content leads us
son 2001).
to say that their experience must represent the tomato in the same way.
And so, if the way things are represented by experiences were all there
is to the way things appear, externalism forces us to claim that there
simply would be no difference in the phenomenal character of Nonvert
and Invert, which seems prima facie wrong. There will a phenomenal difference between Nonvert’s and Invert’s experience of the tomato - given
that Nonvert experiences it as we experience red things and Nonvert experiences it as we experience green things, and when we undergo such
experiences, there is a phenomenal difference.
There are therefore independent reasons to believe in a distinction
between phenomenality and representations. That the representations
of a subject may have a different content from the appearances that
depend on that subject. Both Nonvert and Invert represent the tomato
as being red, given the environment that they interact with. But when
Invert experiences the tomato it appears to be green, and when Nonvert
experiences the tomato it appears to be red. The difference between them
lies in what things appear to be like when they interact with coloured
objects and not in what things are represented to be like. When we
consider Invert’s experience, things do not appear as they are represented
to be by him whereas in the case of Nonvert they do.
A rough theoretical picture is starting to emerge at this point: there
are physical organisms that bear information about the world, this information - a body of representations that determine a subject’s behaviour
and is of a subject - is distinguished from the phenomenal affair of the
world coming to appear in certain ways when a physical organism causally
interacts with the world, a qualitative disclosure or presence of a certain
bit of world. These appearance facts are not of a subject and are not
inherently first-personal. We could consider further characteristics of ap-
pearances at this point but it is time to face the elephant in the room and
discuss a major issue, one whose solution will require more theoretical
machinery on the part of the no-subject view.
The problem of conflicting perspectives
We have seen three phenomenological considerations in favour of the nosubject view; and we proposed a more theoretically precise picture that is
in line with these considerations. There is however also a phenomenological consideration that spells trouble. It’s very simple. When I reflect on
my experience, I find that various things appear in various ways and that
everything that appears to be case depends on the physical organism that
I am. I do not find anything else appearing to be the case, in particular,
I do not find the appearances that you find when you reflect on your
experience. Each and every appearance depends on how things stand
with me, indeed, this allows me to identify myself via the appearances: I
am the one on which the appearances depend. But this requires that the
appearances that depend on you do not obtain. So, although this sounds
megalomanian, there is something phenomenologically right about the
thought that there is something it’s like when I undergo experience and
nothing it’s like when anyone else does so.
We can formulate this tension as a paradox, or rather a schema for a
paradox that each will have to formulate for him or herself. In my own
case - let my name be ML - the paradox revolves around the following
two principles:
Subjective uniqueness: Something appears to be the case when ML
interacts with the world and nothing appears to be the case when
any other subject interacts with the world.12
Objective non-uniqueness: Whatever general principles hold of the
phenomenal facts involving one subject hold of the phenomenal
facts involving any other subject that undergoes experience (cf.
Hellie (2013)).
The paradox arising from this is straightforward.13 According to subjective uniqueness, it’s only the case that something appears to be the case
when ML interacts with the world and nothing appears to be the case
when anyone else does so. Or, to put it in more general terms, there’s
only something it’s like when ML interacts with the world and nothing
it’s like when anyone else does so. The world is disclosed in a way that
depends on exactly one physical organism - me. Now given that subjective uniqueness is a general principle concerning the phenomenal facts
involving the experiences of ML, objective non-uniqueness tells us that
similar facts should hold when we substitute for ML any other arbitrary
subject that undergoes experience. So take someone else, TN. If we substitute TN for ML in subjective uniqueness, this means that something
appears to be the case when TN interacts with the world and nothing
appears to be the case when any other subject interacts with the world,
including ML. But this means that something appears to be the case
and nothing appears to be the case when ML undergoes experience, and
that something appears to be the case and nothing appears to be the
case when TN interacts with the world, and so on for any other subject.
Contradictions arise all over.
For further discussion supporting the thought expressed in the Egocentrity principle, see Hare (2009), Hellie (2013), and Merlo (Dissertation).
Note the similarity with McTaggart’s argument as it is understood in Fine (2005),
revolving around a conflict between reasons to privilege one subject and thinking we
are all on a par. The tension between these principles is part of a broader tension
between an objective and subjective view of the world, brought to our attention by
Nagel 1979.
Objective non-uniqueness describes an aspect of what we think the
world is objectively like: whatever general principles hold of the phenomenal facts involving one subject hold of the phenomenal facts involving
any other subject that undergoes experience. It captures the truism that
I’m just one amongst many subjects and that everyone’s experience is
on an exact par. This seems undeniable to me. We have exactly the
same kind of brains operating in the same world under the same physical
laws. If there were such general principles, true of one subject but not of
others, the world order would somehow be oriented towards one subject.
That cannot be right.
The problem of conflicting perspectives does not arise for the standard
view of phenomenal experiences precisely because of the relativization to
subjects: there is something to ML when ML interacts with the world
and there is nothing it’s like to ML when TN interacts with the world.
And correspondingly for TN: there is something it is like to TN when
TN interacts with the world and nothing it is like to TN when ML
interacts with the world. No contradictions arise. In §1 I suggested that
whatever reason there is for attributing experiences to a subject must
be a theoretical reason and not a phenomenological one. Making for
individual phenomenal perspectives whilst avoiding incoherence, may be
one such theoretical reason.
This solution is not available on a no-subject view. The relativization
is exactly what the no-subject view denies, and goes against the phenomenological considerations we saw in §1. In fact, it also goes against
the phenomenological facts that lies at the heart of this problem because,
with the relativization, we do not explain how the phenomenal facts allow us to single ourselves out: I cannot say ‘I am the one that has the
experiences’, I can only say ‘I am the one who has my experiences’ but
for this to single me out, I already need to know what experiences are
mine and which ones aren’t. And yet I can single myself out descriptively
as the one on which the appearances depend.
This problem of conflicting perspectives leads an adherent of the nosubject view to some form of solipsism: something appears to be the
case when I interact with the world and nothing appears to be the case
when you interact with the world.14 And this, in turn, fits neatly with
the first-personalist understanding of the subject-less phenomenal facts,
according to which ‘there is pain’ and ‘I am in pain’ are equivalent.15
Borrowing from the framework of tense operators, one might introduce
an operator ‘from someone else’s point of view it is the case that...’ that
allows one to capture something of the experience of others (see Hare
(2009), Merlo (Dissertation) and Hellie (2011)). If I feel no pain but you
do, I will deny that there is pain but allow that from someone’s point of
view there is pain. You will disagree and say instead that there is pain
but allow that from someone’s point of view there is no pain. So you
and I come to offer disagreeing descriptions of the world. The awkward
question is of course: who could be right? Really just one of us? I believe
that the proponent of a no-subject view does not have to be saddled with
this form of solipsism, not if she is willing to revise her understanding of
the way in which the facts that constitute the world hang together.
Alternatively, one might think we have to live with two incommensurable ways of
understanding the world, a first person way and a third person way. This was Nagel’s
response to the problem (in his 1986; see also Harman 2007).
For more on the connection between the first-personalist understanding of facts
and solipsism, see Schlick (1936: §5).
Fragmentation across appearances
Each of us is able to switch attention to phenomenal facts that allow us
to identify a subject in the world because they all depend on that subject. Let us simplify things for the moment and imagine, instead of the
phenomenal facts, a flickering neon arrow - representing the phenomenal
facts - floating above a single subject that it points out. Now consider
two toy-models of the world. The first toy-model is a single gigantic
image of the earth and its inhabitants. As it is only a single image, we
must choose who the neon arrow points at, either it points to ML, or to
TN, or to someone else. It cannot point to both ML and TN given that
pointing to ML and pointing to TN are incompatible facts, and this way
of representing the world leaves no room for such facts both to obtain.
We have to choose who the arrow points at (solipsistically taking a single
subject to be unique), or we have to give everyone their own arrow (in
which case I cannot identify myself as the one who the arrow points at),
or we have to leave the arrow out of the picture altogether, countenancing
no such means of identifying oneself.
This toy-model, the single gigantic image, is a model of the world as
we ordinarily assume it to be: one public one unified realm, within which
all the facts obtain together. Now consider a different toy-model. It
consists not in a single gigantic image but in a collection of such gigantic
images, where there is one image in which the big neon arrow hovers
above ML and one where it hovers above TN, and so on. Each picture
shows a single subject as singled out. If we were to mesh all the images
together into one, it’s unclear what we are to do with the arrow. Perhaps
we leave it out, perhaps we introduce token arrows, one for each subject.
Whatever we do, in the meshed-together image no one can single out him
or herself as the one the arrow points at.
We typically assume that we should mesh together the images in
order for them to represent the world. That is, we assume that only
a single unified image can represent the world because the world is a
metaphysically unified place. But this assumption is not sacrosanct. We
can make sense of a world that is inherently perspectival, that is disunified
in a certain sense. We can reject it and allow that the plurality of images
collectively represent the world is like: an inherently perspectival place
where facts are not absent or present, but one fact can be present insofar
as the other is absent and vice versa. Leave one image out of the collection
and we an incomplete representation; mesh them all together and we have
a misrepresentation. The world is not unified, but fragmented.
If we want to make sense of a fragmented world, we must recognize
a type of co-reality of facts that can fail to obtain. We normally assume
that when A and B each obtain, they thereby co-obtain. This is not a
concept of co-obtainment that allows for a breakdown in unity, as it does
not allow for two facts each to obtain without co-obtaining. That is, if
we imagine a list of sentences stating facts that obtain:
p, q, r, s, ....
Then for any two sentences in the list, say p and q, their conjunction p∧q
obtains as well. Conjunction does not represent the kind of metaphysical
unity that can break down.
So we must introduce a new notion of co-obtainment. This will be a
primitive bit of metaphysical ideology, captured in a sentential connective
‘◦’, which I propose to read as ‘... insofar as...’: ‘the sun shines ◦ the
birds sing’ is read as ‘the sun shines insofar as the birds sing’.
What then, does the logical structure of a fragmentalist world look
like.16 We can use the toy-model of a fragmented world as a foil here. We
The fragmentalist view discussed here is inspired by Fine’s fragmentalism in Fine
say that an atomic fact p is the case according to the plurality of images
when it is true according to an image. We say that a co-obtainment fact
A ◦ B is true if there is a single image in the collection that represents
both A and B as obtaining. We say that a negation ¬A is true if A is
not represented as being the case by the images. And we say that an
ordinary conjunction A ∧ B is true whenever A is true and B is true
according to the images.17
The central point of the fragmentalist point is that, given the list of
atomic facts:
p, q, r, s, ....
It is now not the case that for any two facts, say p and q, we have that
p ◦ q: that p obtains and that q obtains does not imply that p obtains
insofar as q obtains. That each obtains does not mean that they obtain
together. That is the sense in which the world is fragmented. If p, q, r
describe a single image, then it is the case that p ◦ q ◦ r. If p, ¬q, r
describe a different image, then it is the case that p ◦ ¬q ◦ r. If there
is not a single image of which each of p, q, s are true, then it is the case
that ¬(p ◦ q ◦ s). And so, in this way, we arrive at a description stating
various co-obtainments of fact:
p ◦ q ◦ r, p ◦ ¬q ◦ r, p ◦ ¬q ◦ ¬r, ...
Note how the various co-obtainments of facts can overlap (involve the
same fact), and notice that for each of these facts, we will still allow that
their conjunction obtains: if p◦q and r ◦s are the case, then (p◦q)∧(r ◦s)
is the case.
(2005), for a detailed discussion of the differences between this framework and Fine’s
see Lipman forthcoming(a).
For more details, see Lipman forthcoming(b), where the logical features of the
framework are discussed in detail.
Let us apply the fragmentalist conception of the world to the phenomenal aspect of experiences. Say that we are engaged in the metaphysical
project of describing everything that is case. We start describing the
co-obtainment of common-or-garden facts including objective facts concerning the organisms that walk around:
Snow is white ◦ the earth revolves around the sun ◦ Boston
lies 190 miles away from New York ◦ ML is a human being
◦ ML’s brain is in state S1 ◦ TN is a human being ◦ TN’s
brains is in state S2 ◦ ...
As we describe these objective facts, we come to add representation facts
for each and every subject:18
... ◦ ML believes that the sky is blue ◦ ML believes that
white clouds are passing by ◦ ML believes that a crow is
flying through the sky ◦ ML believes that ML’s foot itches ◦
... ◦ TN believes that the walls of his office are white ◦ TN
believes that there is a coffee mug on his desk ◦ TN believes
that birds are chirping outside ◦ ...
Assuming further that certain things appear to be the case when ML
interacts with the world, we further extend our description with certain
appearance facts and their dependence on ML:
... ◦ something appears to be the case when ML interacts with
the world ◦ it appears that (the sky is blue) ◦ it appears
that (white clouds are passing by) ◦ it appears that (a crow
is flying through the sky) ◦ it appears that (ML’s shoulder
Though the framework is neutral with regard to what representation consists in,
it may help to think of representations in terms of dispositions, such that roughly
speaking ML’s representing that A consists in ML’s being disposed to act as though
it’s the case that A.
itches) ◦ ... ◦ if ML were to close his eyes (or change his state
in similar ways), it would not appear to be the case that the
sky is blue and that white clouds are passing by ◦ if ML were
to scratch his shoulder, it would not appear to be the case
that ML’s shoulder itches ◦ ...
Let us abbreviate the long co-obtainment description as ‘Frag1 ’. It describes the co-obtaining of a range of facts, whose obtaining constitutes
the world as including one subjective perspective on it, namely that which
depends on ML. This co-obtainment sentence, Frag1 , captures: (1) the
public objective facts about the world, (2) how all subjects experientially
represent the world as being and hence, how all subjects are disposed to
behave and respond to that world and, finally, (3) the subjective experiential perspective of ML in terms of a certain collection of subjectless
appearance facts; and (4) the dependence of those appearance facts on
the state of a particular organism, ML. It’s the third set of facts - the
appearance facts - that make for the phenomenal character of ML’s experience, they describe a single phenomenal field, which we find when we
reflect on our ongoing experience of world. To attend to these facts is for
one to attend to how things are ‘from a first person perspective’.
Note that the dependence of the appearances on ML has been represented by counterfactual facts of the form ¬F (s)→¬A(A), where F is
some property of the relevant subject s (ML in the case of Frag1 ) with
which the relevant appearance, A(A), counterfactually co-varies. The
counterfactual claim is only true insofar as the relevant appearances obtain. For example, take the fact that if I were to close my eyes, it would
not appear to be the case that the sky is blue (i.e. ML does not have his
eyes open → the sky does not appear blue). The counterfactual claim
is only true within my subjective perspective on the world, here it seems
that if ML closes his eyes, the sky no longer appears to be blue.
Thus far we only have a description of all the objective facts and of the
appearances that constitute a single subjective perspective. Of course,
we find that another co-obtainment description is also true, stating the
co-obtainment of the same objective facts but this time replacing the previous appearance facts with those that capture the subjective perspective
of TN:
... ◦ something appears to be the case when TN interacts with
the world ◦ it appears that (the walls of TN’s office are white)
◦ it appears that (there is a coffee mug on TN’s desk) ◦ it
appears that (birds are chirping outside) ◦ ... ◦ if TN were
to close his eyes, it would not appear to be the case that the
walls of TN’s office are white and that there is a coffee mug
on TN’s desk ◦ ...
Let us abbreviate this co-obtainment description as ‘Frag2 ’. This sentence agrees with ‘Frag1 ’ on the common-or-garden facts (e.g.
Boston lies 190 miles away from New York) as well as on the facts about
the representational states of subjects (e.g. that ML represents that a
crow is flying through the sky); it only disagrees with ‘Frag1 ’ about what
appears to be the case.
It is important to stress how the appearances that make for one perspective, such as those centred on ML, do not obtain at all insofar as
those appearances obtain that make for the perspective that is centred
on someone else, such as TN. That is what it means for it to be the
case that, for example, nothing appears to be the case when ML interacts
with the world ◦ something appears to be the case when TN interacts
with the world. There is no single ‘fragmented perspective’ in which the
little perspectives are all sitting next to each other (Hellie 2013: 311), the
‘fragmentation’ consists in the perspectival structure of the world: facts
that fail to co-obtain are not real together, and are in no way still sitting
‘next to each other’.
We continue this process to capture the co-obtainment and noncobtainment of collections of appearance facts. We arrive at our overall
conception of the world through the list of all the co-obtainment facts:
Frag1 , Frag1 , Frag3 , ...
We arrive at a conception of the world in which the appearance facts do
not all co-obtain. We have it for example that ¬(Frag1 ◦ Frag2 ). The
world appears to be this way but only insofar as it doesn’t appear to be
that way. The appearance facts that, insofar as they obtain depend on
one subject, do not co-obtain with those appearance facts that, insofar
as they obtain, depend on someone else. The fragments are each the
case without being the case together or forming one unified world. There
are multiple phenomenal fields, each one real only insofar as the others
With this fragmentalist turn in the no-subject view, it’s able to solve
the problem discussed in the previous section. According to subjective
uniqueness, it’s only the case that something appears to be the case when
ML interacts with the world and nothing appears to be the case when
someone else does. The negative aspect of this claim, the denial that
something appears to be the case when anyone else interacts with the
world, is read as the negation of a co-obtainment claim. It’s the fact
that something appears to be the case when ML interacts with the world
insofar as nothings appears to be the case when TN interacts with the
world. ML’s interaction with the world gives rise to phenomenal facts
insofar as no one else’s interaction gives rise to phenomenal facts, and
hence ML is singled out insofar as these facts obtain. As per objective
non-uniqueness, there is a similar co-obtainment of appearances but then
centred around TN: something appears when TN interacts with the world
insofar as nothing appears when ML interacts with the world.
Subjective uniqueness is only something that obtains within our subjective perspective on the world, i.e. only obtains insofar as the facts
obtain that constitute that perspective on the world, and those are the
subjectless appearance facts. It is only insofar as the world discloses itself
in this way that I am singled out; insofar as the world discloses itself in
that way, it is you that is singled out.
As you find yourself in the world and interact with it, things appear in
various ways. The appearances that constitute your subjective experiential view do not co-obtain with the phenomenal facts that constitute
my subjective experiential view on the world: the one set of co-obtaining
appearance facts obtains insofar as the other set of co-obtaining appearance facts doesn’t and vice versa. The account that arises from this
harmonizes an objective view of the world with the deliverances of our
phenomenological reflections; the consequence is that the appearances
make for a fragmentation of the world.
Needless to say, the account is far from a complete presentation of the
no-subject view, merely a sketch of the most basic conceptual elements.
Details need to be filled in and many questions need to be answered. The
notion of appearance that makes for phenomenality needs to be further
elucidated, as well as its interaction with co-obtainment. And then there
is the - thus far bracketed - question whether any of this clashes with
physicalism. These and other questions will need to be addressed at some
other occasion. I hope I have said enough to place a view on the table
that can be critically engaged with, elaborated further, and, perhaps, can
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