Montaigne’s essay “An apology for Raymond Sebond” contains the line “When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?”. In this we have a classic way of looking at the problem of intentionality, and intersubjectivity. What lies behind the cat’s eyes, or behind the eyes of another? In games such as Tamagotchi or even the infamous ‘Pet Rock’ we begin to attribute a personality to a non-human. But how do we differentiate between the Heideggerian Da-Sein and the fetischized art object the Alfred Gell writes about?

We have the experience of having experience; We can ask ourselves “What was I thinking?”. Another common phrase that captures this phenomena is the anguished “What am I doing?” In the technical language of Philosophy, this experience of experience is termed intentionality. It implies a kind of turning one’s attention back on onesself. Yet this is not necessarily solopsistic or narcissistic: through our own intentionality we can attribute a similar experience in others- we attribute a similar quality of experience to others and thus approach them as subjects. Yet we face a difficulty- we have the sense other subjects yet no proof of the subjectivity that their external behavior exhibits.

This has a ethical dimension- what do we owe a person versus an object? Yet we have no proof beyond attributing a similar subjectivity. We cannot “read minds” in the way we can read gestures. In a practical sense, business people, theatre actors, even young babies interact well, communicating by word, gesture, posture and sign. However, we see, hear and feel these gestures, without guarantee that there is a subject behind them. In a simple example, when I smile and greet a friend, I know that my emotions are ones of pleasure and affection at meeting. The smile and firm grasp of his hand in a shake I interpret as similar to mine. But I cannot truly read his mind.

A related issue is that this reading of another’s gesture may make the error of attributing the same experience without the nuance of this being a different being. Look again at greeting a friend. In the case I’m thinking of I have to look up, for my friend is much taller than I. Also, being both men, we are less likely to hug than if we were to embrace. These experiences are different, and in practice we negotiate them more or less sucessfully, without the deductive proof of a particular subject with which we are dealing.

When we begin to look at toys and games, we have a peculiar relationship to them. The philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour observes how we blame a car for “letting us down” when it stalls in traffic. Yet we do not really think that the car made a decision to be lazy as it were. Alfred Gell’s research points out the power of this phenomena, where art objects and sacred objects are treated as subjects.

Heidegger positions this as a problem of being in the world. We— Da-sein is how he would term it— are thrown into a particular place and time. This implies for people, well, other people. However, drawing distinctions between this ‘throwness’ versus the thrownesses of others poses an ethical problem. Simply put, the clichéd “do onto others” of the golden rule becomes problematic when one subject is a masochist and the other isn’t.

A less hyperbolic example are the differences between culture and genders in the subject of hugging. I am a fairly tactile person and freqeuntly hug or enbrace my friends and loved ones. When someone I don’t know well is demonstrative, I usually respond with only a measure of reserve. Yet, I have friends of both genders who find I lack reserve , and am too touchy-feely.
Their experience of tactility is different from mine- their subjectivity not only seems to reside in a different place than mine, but in at least some degree different in kind.

Thus how do I attribute non- subjectivity, and the ethically more significant intersubjectivity to people(actors, in Latour’s terminology) and not to actants? Is my cat playing with me, as Montaigne phrases it. Is my body an avatar? Or does Heidegger’s attempt to defuse the mind-body distinction lead to a constantly shifting identity? Do NPC’s , the little animated ‘bots of video games become exstentions of the designers who coded and drew them? Are clothes then a form of avatar for us, with a different materiality than that of our body? When we consider the avatar and the NPC, how precisely can we think of them as exstentions in light of Heidegger’s attempt to overcome Descarte’s split between mind and body?