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Anscombe, G. Elizabeth M.. The First Person
1975, In Collected Philosophical Papers, Volume Two: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Added by: Anne-Marie McCallion and Giada Fratantonio

Introduction: Descartes and St Augustine share not only the argument Cogtto ergo sum - in Augustine Si fallor, sum (De Civitate Dei, XI, 26) - but also the corollary argument claiming to prove that the mind (Augustine) or, as Descartes puts it, this I, is not any kind of body. "I could suppose I had no body," wrote Descartes, "but not that I was not", and inferred that "this I" is not a body. Augustine says "The mind knows itself to think", and "it knows its own substance": hence "it is certain of being that alone, which alone it is certain of being" (De Trinitate, Book XI. Augustine is not here explicitly offering an argument in the first person, as Descartes is. The first-person character of Descartes' argument means that each person must administer it to himself in the first person; and the assent to St Augustine's various propositions will equally be made, if at all, by appropriating them in the first person. In these writers there is the assumption that when one says "I" or "the mind", one is naming something such that the knowledge of its existence, which is a knowledge of itself as thinking in all the various modes, determines what it is that is known to exist.

Comment: This text is best suited to more advanced readers. Anscombe shows that ‘I’ is not a referring expression by taking the arguments to this effect to their logical conclusions, thus demonstrating their absurdity. She then moves on, in light of this, to explore the relationship between our command of the first person and self-consciousness - thus demonstrating the pragmatic role of ‘I’. The text is quite dense and some knowledge of arguments to the effect that ‘I’ is a referring expression (as well as the common issues with these) is required. This text would be suitable for advanced courses on the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind or 20th century analytic philosophy.

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