Hofstadter's Criticism of Nagel

The point of Hofstadter’s distinction between ‘What would it be like for me to be X’ and ‘What is it like, objectively, to be X’ is based on the observation, which he formulates as a question, of ‘How can something be something that it isn’t?’ (Hofstadter 1981, 409). This question is deepened by the other fact that both these two ‘things’ can have experience (Hofstadter 1981, 409). And then, he continues by offering, perhaps, the final blow, by bringing a third party into the equation: Like for whom? (Hofstadter 1981, 409). Is it for us, the perceivers, or, again ‘objectively’?
According to Hofstadter this is the ‘sticking’ point of Nagel’s article (Nagel wants to know if it is possible to give a description of the real nature of human experience in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us.). Hofstadter says that this is ‘a blatant contradiction’ (Hofstadter 1981, 409). It seems that no one can know objectively what it is subjectively like (Hofstadter 1981, 409).
The strange thing about the idea of ‘being a bat’ is that bats have a highly reduced collection of conceptual and perceptual categories, compared to what humans are (Hofstadter 1981, 411). The bats are not able to form notions such as ‘human philosophy.’ Because of this, Hofstadter wonders if we will be able to map our mind onto that of a bat; we are not sure what kind of representational system is the mind of a bat (Hofstadter 1981, 411).
The strongest part of Hofstadter’s criticism is in the observation that ‘each persons’s self-symbol has become, over his or her life, so large and complicated and idiosyncratic that it can no longer just assume the identity of another person or being’ (Hofstadter 1981, 413). Every one of us has his/her individual history and we are wrapped in it entirely, to the point that everyone’s self-symbol is unique.
Language plays a role when we try to cross over into territory that is not ours (Hofstadter 1981, 413). Because bats do not have this universal currency for the exchange of ideas they do not know what it is like to be another bat (Hofstadter 1981, 413). With the help of language we are able to transfer things about ourselves, we express ourselves and others that understand what we say are able to know us better. This public medium is of limited help. There will always be in our minds rich concepts that we are not able to express entirely. Always something will be missing from what we say; we find ourselves trapped into ourselves without ever being able to came out entirely (Hofstadter 1981, 414).

Hofstadter, Douglas R., and Daniel C. Dennett. The Mind’s I, Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. Toronto, New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

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