Speaking in the Third Person

This is just a simple essay on how I see the world, and how I came to that view, the first in a set of posts I’m labeling philosophy. There’s no real point to it, no political or technical agenda… just some reflection and thinking out loud. I’ve never formally studied philosophy, and I’m sure these thoughts are probably not particularly original, but I arrived at them organically through my own life, in what passes for wisdom. Megan, my wife, laughs at me whenever I start a sentence with “I have a theory…”; apparently, I have a lot of theories. I have an active imagination, and I’m very opinionated; I like to try to figure out how the world works.

The way the mind works fascinates me in particular, and my understandings and beliefs about it have changed and evolved significantly through my adult life. I’m recording these thoughts now for the entertainment of some future me.

Many years back, in my late 20s, I came up with a sort of metaphor for how people talk to one another that I called the Third Person. I reckoned that we don’t really talk to each other at all. I have my model of how you think, and act, and feel, and you have your internal model of me. When I talk to you, when I gauge your reaction and adjust what I’m saying or doing, I’m actually judging my own flawed perception of you, of how I guess that you are reacting; you are doing the same with me. In a very real sense, we are each engaging in internal dialogs.

But really, my model of you is much more me than it is you.

Together, your model of me, and my model of you, act as a collective, composite intermediary for our discussion, for all our interactions: the Third Person. An external entity that is a sort of gestalt synthesis of how each of us tries to understand the other. We each talk to the Third Person, and the Third Person tells us the other’s reply.

Usually, we aren’t even really aware that we aren’t actually talking directly to each other; we’re almost completely taken in by the illusion. The Third Person is a skilled translator.

Functionally, that third person is there to help us communicate, but sometimes it can get in the way. I act differently around different people, and I tend to be relatively consistent with any given person or group… much of that is bound up in past interactions, in expectations of behavior (how I expect you to behave, and how I expect you want me to behave). Those expectations can lead to a much more limited personality than either of us have really developed. The Third Person’s personality is often quite different than my personality and your personality. The Third Person can also accentuate and enhance relationships; it can put us into a frame of mind that we don’t normally use in our day-to-day lives; some of my favorite, most inspiring times are getting together with old friends and having a reunion with our Third Person.

(Just for the record, in case this strikes you as solipsistic or schizophrenic, I do believe in an objective reality; by definition, that which we call reality is reality. But I also believe that that reality is mediated in ways we don’t understand.)

I’ve always been a reader, mostly fiction (sometimes even literature), and in my teens, reading books by Vonnegut and Brautigan and Robert Anton Wilson really shaped how I saw myself and my place in the world. So, it amused me to call my metaphor the Third Person, after the third-person narrative view; it fit well, since it was an omniscient view of a dialog, outside of any of the speakers.

I didn’t really put the metaphor of the Third Person into praxis in my everyday life… it was just an interesting observation, one of hundreds of thoughts that occurred to me, not a way to lead my life. But it resonated with me, and looking back, it was the first tangible seed of one of my central operational beliefs: mental models. I’ll write about that some other time.