The Subject’s Point of View

Katalin Farkas: The Subject's Point of View

The Subject’s Point of View, a book written by Katalin Farkas is an especially remarkable achievement in the Hungarian philosophical life, not only because it was published by one of the main publishers in the international field of philosophy, but also because it increases the number of works written in a high standard. Moreover, we should highly appreciate the fact that the author elaborates her own opinion in it.

We can guess who her possible target audience is, and because of this who is not familiar enough with the philosophy of mind, might be daunted by the book. Indeed, her train of thought covers questions which require serious erudition and expertise. However, the first part (providing an introduction and presenting the outline of the argumentation) is easily comprehensible without any preliminary knowledge. In the case of a well-known philosophical problem, that is, the mark of the mental (or the criterion of the mental), Katalin Farkas finds the answer in the peculiarity of privileged access. The mind is something that can be accessed only by the self in a subjective way. In the light of this first thesis, the second part gives the verdict in favour of internalism in the debate over internalism vs. externalism (which is considered a particularly important question in analytical philosophy – to be presented below briefly). At the same time, it carefully presents this scope of problems along with giving an account of its numerous turnouts. Thus, actually, many kinds of readers could get a taste of the book, from the ones who are simply “interested” to colleagues longing for intense debates (the latter will be discussed later). However, precisely because of its gradualness, the book is going to be most useful for those who wish to become absorbed in the topic.


The author, being tired of the fact that the Cartesian heritage is continuously described as a drag on the proper understanding of the mind, endeavours to show the following: the fact that we come across Descartes’s ideas in the philosophy of the mind again and again is not because the great ancestor keeps us under some sort of philosophical pressure (which Rorty complains about) but rather, but because Descartes managed to acquire a proper understanding in certain questions.

Therefore the first three chapters deal with restoring the reputation of the Cartesian conception (see p. 67). For one thing, the author opposes those eliminativist philosophers who think that mental phenomena have no common characteristics and we are nothing more than prisoners of an established folk psychological way of speaking when we ascribe mental conditions to ourselves and to each other; and, for another, she also opposes Aristotle and those who proclaimed him their intellectual precursor, namely the so-called functionalists, who like to identify mental characteristics with certain functions of the human organism.

In Descartes’s work, attempts at giving a definition of the mind – the res cogitans – are mixed with the problem of finding the method for reaching reliable knowledge (p. 21). Nevertheless, we can interpret the evil demon hypothesis as a device to reduce the world to the subject. That is to say, it shows what we can alter while we keep the subjective realm unchanged. One by one we get rid of everything that does not belong to the subject. First we exclude the world and the body. Then certain mental-like faculties such as perception follow. Thus, anything detachable in this way cannot be mental.

This process of the subject focusing on itself is what we call introspection, which provides a special and individual way to access the contents of my mind. Katalin Farkas seems to find the distinctive feature of the mind in this privileged access. This is not a criterion applicable as a definition, nor is it an infallible or omniscient ability, but an individual method of cognition (an epistemic method) that we possess only in relation with our own mind.


Descartes’s rehabilitation in revealing the essence of the mind does not mean that the Cartesian body and soul dualism gains a chance for revival. Katalin Farkas plays for safety in the latter field. She does not find it unimaginable that her thesis can be shaped into an argument for dualism. However, since she believes that her point of view is compatible both with physicalism and dualism, it would require some other assumptions as well (p. 15, p. 54).

Chapter 3 defines the criteria of the person on the basis of the Cartesian conception of the mind. Those can be regarded as persons who are in possession of a mind determined by the Cartesian criterion. Human beings as biological organisms are in sharp contrast with it because, on the one hand, other modes of existence such as various extra-terrestrials or perhaps machines might also possess minds; and, on the other, undeveloped embryos belonging to the human race or people with irreversible brain-damage living in a vegetative state do not possess a subjective point of view.

In the second part (from Chapter 4 on) led by the author, we are able to enter into a much more technical debate over internalism and externalism. Those who do not happen to know what the latter question is about, or who have only heard the brief definition of externalism (namely that it is that strange-sounding thesis which says that factors outside the mind are also thought to play a role in determining our mental state) do not have to worry either: at the beginning of the second part this is carefully explained in the passage which deals with presenting the opponent (externalism).

As a matter of fact, externalism is highly popular in philosophy today. While at one time it referred to propositional contents (that is, the contents of beliefs, thoughts and verbal expressions), nowadays it is also considered true in the description of mental phenomena such as sensations, the experience of which has a characteristic quality (in technical terms, things that possess a phenomenal character). However, the Cartesian opinion of mental phenomena outlined above requires consistent internalism, which is simply the negation of externalism, namely, that we cannot rely on factors outside the mind when determining mental states. The author first deals with the easier opponent, that is, externalism relating to phenomenal qualities (Chapter 5); then proceeds to defeat externalism relating to propositional contents (Chapter 6). The main idea of this 100-page-long analytical argumentation is that according to the Cartesian thesis only that can be considered mental to which only the subject has access. Yet there is no privileged access to the factors outside the mind. Finally, the task of Chapter 7 is to defeat externalism at its home ground, that is, the philosophy of language: the indisputable presence of the external factors determining meaning and reference has to be harmonized with the thesis that the speaker is aware of the content he or she wanted to express.

Besides elaborating the author’s point of view in a professional, explicit and meticulous way, The Subject's Point of View also takes into consideration the standpoints of those who have little knowledge of the topic but wish to become absorbed in it. The author’s point of view is considered authentic by her colleagues who are experienced in this field, yet, of course, it is enthusiastically disputed. For those who are interested, I recommend looking for further information and details in the “Fórum” column of the 2010/3 issue of Magyar Filozófiai Szemle (either before or after reading the book), where reviewers such as Miklós Márton, Gábor Forrai and János Tőzsér raise some objections (similarly to Descates’s work Mediations, which is considered a model), which are answered by the author herself.


Katalin Farkas, The Subject's Point of View, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

translated by Ágnes Piukovics and Eszter Szabó