Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Essential Indexical

John Perry, in "The Problem of the Essential Indexical" (1979), argues that indexical beliefs are necessary for action. That is, if he's walking around the supermarket while sugar slowly leaks from a torn bag in his cart, he may have the belief
(1) John Perry is making a mess.
But, he claims, this is insufficient for action (ie stopping to remedy the problem of the torn sack of sugar) unless he also has the belief
(2) I am John Perry.
or instead has the belief
(3) I am making a mess.
Those in Arthur's class will remember this, and many other similar examples, from section M of the text.
An article by Evan C. Tiffany entitled "What is Essential about Indexicals?" (2000) disagrees with this conclusion. Consider an example (not directly taken from Tiffany) where I hold these four beliefs:
(4) The resident of of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is responsible for the war.
(5) The President of the United States resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
(6) War is wrong.
(7) If one believes that war is wrong, and there is a war occuring, then they should protest the actions of those responsible.
Are these sufficient for explaining my actions of driving to DC to protest the president? Or, must there also be an indexical belief about the here or now hidden within their midst?
Difficult question--At first glance, it seems that these are certainly sufficient, but consider the following beliefs:
(8) The war is occuring now.
(9) I am a citizen of the country perpetuating the war.
(10) I am here and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is there.
(11) Protesting is the right thing for me to do.
Are any of these, or something like them, also required for action?
What say you, fellow philosophers?


At 11:34 PM, November 06, 2004, Blogger Eric said...

Good initial thought is that you do indeed have indexical belief built in to (7) with "...there is war occurring..." However, this doesn't take care of the "I" part, just the "now" part; I think that surely the referent of "one" in (7) needs to be identified as "I" before action will occur. That is, one needs to recognize that "I" hold the beliefs in (6) and (7), since (4) and (5) appear to be matters of fact.

Sorry for the short and choppy input; I'm still getting used to this Blogger thing. Would anyone be willing to give me a couple of hints? (I'm looking for things like: how to use italics, how to make bold font, etc.) Thanks!

At 2:17 AM, November 07, 2004, Blogger cocodrylo said...

Regarding (4), I would say that the use of the definite article "the" suggests some sort of topic of conversation, which would then probably require some sort of indexical usage. Perhaps an implication from (4) would be that 'war is occuring now,' since 'the' implies various propositions already considered within the sphere of conversation ('now'), but are not being mentioned, which is a further explanation of what Eric seems to be requiring.

Moreover, you would need to say that the president is responsible for the war. Additionally, the conditional of (7) does not indicate what type of protest one should endeavor to take (drive to the location of the responsible individual, or simply call him a jerk?).

There is also another problem in that many are responsible for the war, in which case you might have to go to a lot of other places.

Of course, you can add these assumptions in, but still have a problem of indexicals.

Problematically, you asked whether or not these are sufficient for _explaining_ your behavior. This is different than something being sufficient for you to actually behave from your own perspective. That is, I might be able to explain your behavior without reference to indexicals, but in order to for _me_ to act, indexicals must be taken into account. Even you, Chris, by referencing your own past behavior, do not necessarily need reference to indexicals. So, I would say that you do need indexicals when you act, but not to explain actions.

Although, now that I think about it, you probably would still need indexicals even in describing behavior. For example, "Chris believed that _he_ should go to Washington."

Sorry for being lazy and not editing properly


At 12:36 AM, November 08, 2004, Blogger Chris said...

That's a good point, Quentin. Explanation in a retrospective sense does not require indexicals. I should have worded it thus:
Does explanation of my actions at a time t require the believing of indexical beliefs at t?
That was what I meant to ask, but my phrasing ended up ambiguous.
At this point I agree with both you and Eric, that purposive action (I assume actions like thrashing about in one's sleep don't count) does require indexical beliefs. Tiffany, contra Perry and the three of us, argues that we're just stuck in our rut of thinking in things that way, and that once we free ourselves from that paradigm we will see clearly the illusion to which we have become bound. Instead of thinking about this too much, however, I have immersed myself in various other readings about the nature of indexicals--including the influential paper of our own Dr. Smith--in order to get a better understanding of how exactly they work. Once I take a decisive stand I will let you know what I come up with.

At 1:42 AM, November 08, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't there be an indexical belief in the assumption that you are not the president?
- Shieva

At 2:24 AM, November 08, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As bad as he's doing, even the President should be protesting the President.

At 7:57 AM, November 17, 2004, Blogger Schmelzprisma said...

In my eyes, the beauty in Perry's example lies here: The belief that it is _him_ who is making the mess compels me to a specific action. He is dissatisfied with the situation before, but only after he realises he knows _what to do_.

Of course it's possible to know exactly what needs to be done in a certain situation in the abstract. But bringing that into force requires the relevant de-se belief.

Excuse me if this is a bit off topic: I think that the deeper roots for this phenomenon are exceptionally well described in Gareth Evans' "Varieties of Reference"

At 1:56 PM, April 07, 2008, Blogger The said...

Indexical notions arise from the essential distinction between SELF and OTHER; this différance, or "spacing", then informs all other indexical beliefs.

Furthermore, the différance between SELF and OTHER is generated in a complex, and not altogether straightforward, way. Let's ask the psychoanalysts:

According to psychoanalytic philosophers, babies are born without this SELF-OTHER distiction, floating in a sea of sensation that they cannot differentiate or understand. Their actions are not informed by indexicality, but are instead sponteneous and instictive. But then their sponteneous action is suddenly responded to (usually with feeding or touching), fulfilling a need that the baby had not previously understood. This gives the baby a sense of SELF, specifically a sense of OMNIPOTENCE: there is no coherent OTHER, but the baby must only feel a need for it to be fulfilled.

There are times, however, that the child's needs are not immediately fulfilled, during which he must wander the desert of sensation in search of the OTHER who fulfills his needs. This modifies his illusion of omnipotence, giving him the sense that he is not the only thing in the world. But if the baby searches for too long and loses hope, then he experiences a period of NON-EXISTENCE in which neither SELF nor OTHER can be discerned.

Further on in development, the child recognizes the mother as the OTHER, and they have their first interactions, which often involve "mirroring". This is when the child imitates the mother's smiles, laughs, and movements: the baby is learning to recognize the SELF IN THE OTHER. This then develops into a mature SELF IMAGE, which is continually based on, and informed by, the OTHERs that we interact with in daily life.

Thus, when "I am making a mess," the indexical "I" refers in fact to an imaginary SELF IMAGE, which is built upon both the notions of SELF and OTHER. This, I believe, is why we feel the impulse to help John with his mess in order to help ourselves through our sympathetic embarrassment (or, conversely, to make fun of him in a delusional attempt to make us feel better about our own embarrassments).

Good stuff.


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