Bryan Chambliss Abstract

Bryan Chambliss

Ph.D. Candidate

Cognitive Science GIDP


American Philosophical Association, Central Division

Chicago, Illinois


 A second-person thought is one aptly expressed by its thinker using a second-person pronoun, like ‘you’. An essentially second-person-indexical thought, or de te thought, is a second-person thought with essentially indexical content that manifests an irreducibly second-person perspective. Well-known arguments for essentially first-person-indexical thought, or de se thought, contend that it plays an indispensable role in explaining action and underpins a distinct kind of self-knowledge. Likewise, I argue that de te thought plays an indispensable role in explaining interaction with other agents and underpins a distinct kind of knowledge of these other agents. Critics of de te thought come in two forms: those who reject all forms of essentially indexical thought, or those who reject de te thought specifically. In response, I argue that if de se thought exists, then so does de te thought, and explain why all parties to the debate ought to be interested.

Abstract for Lay Audience

Human social interaction is a rich and complicated phenomenon that stands in need of explanation. One important means of explaining social interaction is in terms of the psychological processes of the agents involved. In such explanations, the processes by which we think about the minds of other agents, or social cognition, ought to play a central role in explaining social interaction. I argue that during meaningful, fact-to-face social interaction, social cognition trades in a distinctive kind of thought. Thus, what is distinctive of face-to-face interaction is not to be understood merely in terms of differential emotional responses, or distinctive temporal patterns displayed by the interaction. Instead, during social interaction, social cognition represents other agents differently: as a you, an agent with whom I am engaged in social interaction. 

For example, imagine that you sit down for lunch at a busy airport. As you raise a sandwich to your mouth, a woman you’ve never seen before issues a stern command: “Stop that this instant!” Looking up, you find her staring at you, and perplexed, you stare back. Your realization about what has just transpired is not well expressed as “she told me to stop eating,” nor as “that woman told me to stop eating.” Rather, in the context of your ongoing interaction with this stranger, your thought seems aptly expressed by addressing the woman herself—“You told me to stop eating.” But does the secondperson pronoun ‘you’ mark something distinctive about the thought itself, e.g. by indicating that the thought that denotes the woman in a distinctively “second-personal” way? Or is ‘you’ merely an artifact of using public language to express this thought, given that one naturally addresses another agent during an ongoing interaction?

 I argue that during face-to-face interactions with other agents, our thoughts represent these agents in a distinctively second-personal way, naturally expressed in language using ‘you’. My argument shows that such thoughts manifest a distinctively second-personal perspective. This is important because my argument for distinctively second-personal thought is nearly identical to some widely-endorsed philosophical arguments for distinctively first-personal thought. These arguments conclude that distinctively first-personal thought—often called self-locating thought—yields a characteristic form of self-knowledge and plays an essential role in explaining action. I extend these arguments to thought about other agents with whom one is interacting, showing that distinctively second-person thought yields an analogous form of knowledge about other agents and plays an essential role in explaining interaction. 

By doing so, I show that while philosophers have rightly recognized distinctively first-personal thought, they have incorrectly located the source of the distinctiveness in the first-person perspective. But first-person thought is not the only kind of thought that captures the distinctive perspective of the thinker. Recognizing an agent as a partner in interaction is characteristic of a distinctively social form of essentially indexical thought: de te thought.

Last updated 23 Jul 2019