by Steve Bayne (2001)

P. F. Strawson was one of those who liberated us from what Fodor called the "dark days of the 50s." I no longer regard those days as so dark, but my admiration for Strawson has grown considerably.

Despite my penchant for "revisionary" as opposed to "descriptive" metaphysics, Strawson's fertile imagination made descriptive metaphysics look like fun. His work on persons is in my opinion far more interesting that his work on the denoting problem, which catapulted him into prominence in 1950.

I will focus on his theory of persons relying on three main sources: for Strawson's paper "Persons" first published in Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science vo. II. ed. by Feigl, Scriven, and Grover Maxwell I will be using the pagination from Thomas Buford's *excellent* anthology _Essays on Other Minds_ U of Illinois. 1970; also, chapter three of _Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics_ Anchor. 1959; and finally for Ayer's piece "The Concept of a Person" I will be using his _The Concept of a Person_. St. Martins. 1963. This essay was written sometime around the Spring of 2000. I now, Nov. 13, 2003, would like to add a brief remark, as the essay has generated far more interest than I had anticipated. I have decided that there will be a sequal to this paper which is to include in particular a discussion of Strawson's theory of persons in view of his novel use of the notion of self-consciousness in Kant (esp. pp. 97-112 of Bounds of Sense). An appreciation of the second part of Individuals has been neglected by many of today's most well known philosophers. Others, Rorty in particular no doubt, understand full well the significance of Strawson's views on semantics but for some reason ignore the role of "feature placing sentences" and related matters treated in this neglected section of Strawson's book. My own views will be compensatory in this regard. Ultimately, the self geometrically construed with a strong attachment to Strawson on persons reveals ties to the early Russell that belie the notion that Strawson's chief contribution is as a foil to Russell on the nature of definite descriptions. Other questions must remain untouched for the most part, such as, "Is having a body a physical property in the same sense as is having a certain height or shape?


There are two questions around which Strawson's theory of persons revolves. They are:

1. Why are states of consciousness ascribed to anything at all?

2. Why are states of consciousness ascribed to the same things that we ascribe physical properties - such as being a certain weight etc.
Strawson identifies two positions with respect to the attribution of properties to persons. The first he calls the "Cartesian" position about which he has little to say; the other he refers to as the "no-ownership" theory which he discusses in great detail.

This theorist says that it is merely a "linguistic illusion that one attributes one's states of consciousness at all" (Buford p. 318) and that

...the uniqueness of this body is sufficient to give rise to the idea that one's experiences can be ascribed to some particular individual thing, and be said to be possessed by, or owned by, that thing. (op. cit. 319)
In _Individuals_ chpt III, Strawson illustrates how the relation of mind and body amounts to "many peculiar combinations of dependence..." He opens with the imaginative proposal of having us suppose a situation where one body depends on the position of another for the perspective from which it views the world, and where whether that body sees is made to depend on whether the eyes of yet another body are opened. He adds a third body, one the orientation of which determines the direction from which our original imagined body sees. The body may be unique to a mind but this dependence is contingent in the sense at least that it is a contingent matter that *this* body determines the content of my cognitive awareness.

I suspect, but I'm not sure that there is also the veiled suggestion that there is no reason on a Cartesian view to consider the mind as related to a single body only, but that is speculation on my part.


Strawson observes that identical subjects have very different properties attributed to them: not only do I say that I am six feet tall, tall but I also say that I am angry or confused. He does not mention properties in facts such as that I have an I angry face, or that I am ten years old. What is important about these facts for Strawson's purpose is that they provide no answers to the two questions around which we said above his theory revolves. (cf. _Individuals_ (p.86).


For Strawson, advocates of the primacy of the body in any description of persons maintain a "no ownership" theory. They enjoy certain advantages, such as not having to defend the existence of a "pure ego." I believe it is a weakness in Strawson's theory of persons that he does not pursue in greater detail the alternatives available to the pure ego theorist in relation to the problem of ownership, that is, the problem of figuring out why conscious states need to be attributed to anything at all and if so, to what they belong.

The first one I know to really make a fuss about "ownership" in the sense in which Strawson intends was Charlie Broad. Broad in fact talks a great deal about this, and in fact much of what Broad said was incorporated into important work by Ian Gallie, work that influenced Paul Grice. In fact, I will suggest Broad's account of ownership also had a significant influence on Chisholm's theory of self attribution. Let's take a look very briefly at this before returning to Strawson.

Broad considers two theories of the "Pure Ego," but only one of them involves "ownership" of conscious states. In the first, a conscious state is analyzed as a property exemplified by an ego. If I am tired, the conscious state of "being tired" is the truthful attribution to the Pure Ego that is said to be constitutive of the fact of my being tired. Since this is somewhat interpretive (cf. _Mind and Its Place in Nature_ p. 562) let me quote a crucial passage:

...on both theories (of the Pure Ego sb) there is a relation of the Pure Ego to the mental event, and also a relation of the Pure go to the determinate quality in the case of non-referential state of mind. On the first theory, the Pure Ego is *characterized* directly by tiredness; on the second theory, the Pure Ego has to the quality of tiredness a compound relation which is the logical product of the two relations of "owning" and "being characterized by"...The difference is that, on the first theory, the relation between the Pure Ego and the quality is direct, like that of father to son; whilst, on the second theory, it is indirect, like that of uncle to nephew.
I think it is very important to note that roughly this characterization and even the notion of "indirect" vs. "direct" is preserved in one interesting form in Rodrick Chisholm's work. Consider how Chisholm defines his technical term "indirect attribution."

Ian Gallie was another philosopher interested in "ownership" of mental states. In his 1936 paper in MIND Gallie says,

Firstly, any theory of the Self must offer some analysis of the statement "This experience belongs to my personal history, or more shortly is *mine*." ("Is the Self a Substance" MIND 1936. p. 34).
Gallie puts his finger on three different approaches to ownership. There is the first theory that includes treating the pure ego as something with which we have acquaintance and which regards the "I" as a "logically proper name." Alternatively, we might treat "I" as being "a concealed descriptive phrase." Here there is a weaker and a stronger version of the theory.

For it may be held that (1) that the sentence "I am puzzled" is misleading only in the respect of its grammatical subject, and that the meaning of my judgement would be adequately expressed if for the original sentence were substituted some sentence of the form "The only instance of F - e.g., the only owner of such and such experience - is puzzled. Or it might be held (2) that the sentence "I am puzzled" is misleading in respect both of its subject and predicate, since the word "I" conceals a description of such a type that, when it is explicitly stated in words, the original predicate of the sentence must be altered if the result is to be a significant assertion... We might distinguish these two varieties of the second view as the theories (1) that the Self is a Descriptum, and (2) that it is a Logical Construction. (MIND 1936 p. 37).

Broad's idea of compound relations and direct characterization and also Gallie's two views on "I" are made use of, or so it strongly appears, by Chisholm. Take a look at his definition of 'indirect attribution'. It is somewhat similar to Broad's "compound relations." Notice also that Chisholm will talk about kinds of attribution, rather than "ownership." Here is Chisholm's definition.

D3 y is such that x indirectly attributes to it the property of being F =Df There is a relation R such that x indirectly attributes to y, as the thing to which x bears R, the property of being F. (_The First Person_. Minnesota. 1981. p. 31)
In subsequent postings I will pursue the main part of Strawson theory as well as some criticisms by Ayer.


The no-ownership theorist alleges merely that there is no attribution of psychological predicates to anything but the body. On this view such predicates belong only contingently to their physical subjects. (Buford 320) The no-ownership theorist says that his opponent, however, now

...slides from this admissible ...sense of 'belong' a wholly inadmissible and empty sense...and in this new ...sense the particular thing which is supposed to possess the experiences is not thought of as body, but as something else, say an ego (ibid).
The ego on the ownership view "has" its experiences in a nontransferrable way, this we'll call HAVING. According to the no-ownership view the experiences are "had" in another sense, one I'll refer to as *HAVING*.

Now the lines are drawn more clearly. The no ownership theorist denies HAVING. Later, in _Individuals_ Strawson is more lucid. *HAVING* is a a way of describing the causal relation between a body and experiences. It's transferability amounts to being sufficiently demonstrated by showing that there is only this causal relation and that therefore some other thing may have *HAD* the experience. Strawson (_Individuals_ p. 91). But I think we have to ask ourselves this question: Is it really the case that a causal consequence is transferable in this sense; here we get into the issue of the relation of causation and essence. Not having time to address this, I simply advise that we not discount the idea of the Ego as a property, in fact an essence, of a certain group of particles in some causal relation. In this case, the Ego may not come off looking like a substance, or provide a unity based on a "center" of some sort, but it would conform significantly to the traditional Ego concept. But Strawson, now produces the argument which is the *key* to understanding how he and Ayer differ.

I mention this because I will have something to say shortly about how Ayer responded to Strawson's theory of persons. In any event, Strawson says the no-ownership theorist (mental states belong only to bodies) maintains an incoherent position:

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 form as "All *my* experiences are had^1(*HAVING* -sb) by (uniquely dependent on the state of)the body B." For any attempt to eliminate the "my" ...would yield something that is not a contingent fact at all. The proposition that *all* experiences are causally dependent on the state of a single body B, for example, is just false. The theorist means to speak of all the experiences *had by a certain person* being contingently so dependent.

Now for the really CRUCIAL passage, Strawson says:

And the theorist cannot consistently argue that "all the experiences 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. (Buford 321).
In order to state his position the no-ownership theorist must introduce the notion of 'my' experiences, but then he must upon pain of triviality (analyticity) introduce a non transferable sense in which a subject owns (HAVING) those experiences. Confident that he has established the need for at least some kind of non-bodily thing to "own" psychological properties, Strawson gives a theory of persons.

It is certainly worth noting that it is not the case that all Pure Ego theories were intended as making ownership of conscious states necessary in any sense. This is evident in Broad.

Secondly, on the present form of the Pure Ego theory it is not logically impossible that there should be mental events which are not owned by any Pure Ego at all. (Broad MPN p. 564)
Moreover, Strawson's account is pretty skimpy when it comes to discussing all the potentially viable positions. For example, there are non-Ego theory - the serial theory discussed by Gallie - that is not necessarily based on the primacy of the body, the only alternative seriously discussed by Strawson to the Ego theory. Let's take a quick look at the constructive part of Strawson's theory of persons.


We have already identified at least two kinds of properties, properties such as being tall which apply to bodies, and the psychological properties whose ownership we have been discussing such as being angry, or tired. The subject of both predicates is not a composite of two substances, as in Decartes scheme of things, but rather an unanalyzable entity that is capable of having both properties:

What I mean by the concept of a person is the concept of a type of entity such that *both* predicates ascribing states of consciousness *and* predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics, a physical situation , etc., are equally applicable to a single individual of that single type.
Like the no ownership theorist, Strawson is rejecting the notion of the "pure ego," and this is what makes his position interesting and original. Strawson's concept of a person dispenses with the idea of the pure ego as well as the person conceived of as body alone. His position brings us back to the two questions that were raised at the very beginning of our discussion. The key point is that it is Strawson's concept of a person that allows us not only to answer these questions but also to relate them correctly. Here is what he says about these questions:
Now I shall say that they are connected in this way: that a necessary condition of states of consciousness being ascribed at all is that they should be ascribed to *the very same things* as certain corporeal characteristics. ... (_Individuals_. p. 98)
He follows this up with an attack on the "pure ego," saying that if we took it as a logically "independent primitive" notion in its own right we would be unable to distinguish subjects for ascription of states of characters. Here I want to interject a question. We have been assuming that there are two kinds of properties: those which are mental and those which are corporeal, but now if we fuse into singularity the subjects which support these properties we might call into question whether these properties can really be distinguished, and if so how. We can't single out mental ones by any reference to a pure ego, because the concept has been vacated, so to speak. So have we traded one problem (the relation of mental and physical) for another (the difference between mental and physical ascriptions)?