Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming and punishment, especially when translated into a theological context.