E-Int: “Transparency and Agency in Inner Speech”

Rob Clowes will be speaking on “Transparency and Agency in Inner Speech”

Pevensey I 1A1, 4:30 p.m., 19 April 2007

What is inner speech? How does its phenomenological aspect relate to its functional and representational aspects? Does inner speech play a special role in our inner-lives, and if so, how can we characterise it?

Vygotsky (1986 [1934]) – in the modern context – is one of the originators of the claim that speech as a social tool between persons is appropriated to the regulation of inner life within persons. In some passages, he even argues that the internalisation of speech plays a role in the constitution of inner life as such. Vygotsky develops his case primarily in terms of a functional analysis. Phenomenology does however play a role in this analysis and recent research has made clear his indebtedness to the Husserl (MacDonald, 2000) as well as his more well-known use of Husserl as a target for critique (Vygotsky, 1997 [1927]).

The proposed link between speech as a social tool and inner life remains enticing to many. In part, because it might help develop a materialist case for a special sort of human inner life without parting company with naturalism. But is it possible to defend this link? Is there anything special about inner speech either along its phenomenological, functional or other dimensions? Can we develop a principled account of this articulated within a broader account of subjectivity?

I will situate Vygotsky’s argument with respect to one of the most developed current research programmes into articulating a multi-level account of subjectivity, i.e. the work of Thomas Metzinger (2004). Metzinger conclusions on the ontological status of subjectivity are controversial. Nevertheless, his framework offers a series of multi-level constraints (spanning the phenomenological, representational, functional and neural) that enrich our understanding of subjectivity. We can also use them to analyse inner speech.

A central constraint is transparency. Metzinger says transparency is “a special form of inner darkness” with respect to some of the vehicles of cognition. Transparency as a feature of representational systems is used to explain a variety of features of normal and abnormal subjectivity. On Metzinger’s account, the transparency (and other) vehicle properties of a linguistic representation are no different from those of any other representational system. Such a view threatens the basic Vygotskian claim.

Metzinger’s enriched concepts for understanding subjectivity are perhaps at their weakest in the resources they give for the analysis of agency. And yet, agency is a central dimension needed to explain the sorts of dissociations of thought and especially of inner voice we find e.g. in schizophrenia (Stephens & Graham, 2000). In the light of this, I propose a revised neo-Vygotskian account of the social and linguistic construction of agency. I use this to elucidate what is special about the inner voice and extend the levels of analysis offered by Metzinger, especially, along the dimension of its time-structure.


MacDonald, P. S. (2000). Phenomenological factors in Vygotsky’s mature psychology. History of the Human Sciences, 13(3), 69-93.

Metzinger, T. (2004). Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity: Bradford Book.

Stephens, G. L., & Graham, G. (2000). When Self-Consciousness Breaks: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986 [1934]). Thought and Language (Seventh Printing ed.): MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997 [1927]). The historical meaning of the crisis in psychology. The Collected Works of LS Vygotsky, 3.


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