Second Persons and the Constitution of the First Person

  • Jay L. Garfield Smith College and Harvard Divinity School
Keywords: Philosophy of Self, Second Person, Human Subjectivity


Philosophers and Cognitive Scientists have become accustomed to distinguishing the first person perspective from the third person perspective on reality or experience. This is sometimes meant to mark the distinction between the “objective” or “intersubjective” attitude towards things and the “subjective” or “personal” attitude.  Sometimes, it is meant to mark the distinction between knowledge and mere opinion. Sometimes it is meant to mark the distinction between an essentially private and privileged access to an inner world and a merely inferential or speculative access to that world.  No doubt there are other uses as well.  But I don't care about this dichotomy here, or indeed any of these putative distinctions it is alleged to mark. Instead, I want to call attention to the central role of the less often acknowledged grammatical and phenomenological category, that of the second person. This category is essential not only for understanding the development of self-understanding, but also for the development of the moral sense that allows us to participate in the societies that constitute us as persons.  The task of moral education is the cultivation of care for second persons.  But we do so by extending not self-regard (for that is inextensible—others are not oneself), but by extending the spontaneous caring response we have for those with whom we immediately interact—second persons. Our moral lives, I will argue, like our cognitive lives, cannot be understood without understanding the special nature of second person relationships.  In short, I will argue that the second person perspective is in fact essential to the constitution of human subjectivity, and that it permeates all forms of interpersonal consciousness and even self-consciousness.

How to Cite
Garfield, J. (2019). Second Persons and the Constitution of the First Person. HUMANA.MENTE Journal of Philosophical Studies, 12(36), 42-66. Retrieved from