Monday, February 25, 2008


Friday and Saturday, the UCR Philosophy Department hosted its annual conference. Eminent scholars traveled from afar to address the conference theme: the self.

Various accounts of "the self" were bruited and attacked; fine discriminations were made; historical texts were deferentially cited. Is the self where consciousness comes together? Is it our subjective location in space and time? Is it created by our personal narratives? Or could it be, as Kierkegaard says:

The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self.
Through it all, I felt unmoored. What is a self really? I'm not sure how we are to go about answering such a question.

I believe it's a great mistake to plunge into metaphysics with intuitions about what it sounds right or wrong to say as one's only guide. First, one needs a sense of why we care. What is the purpose of the account? Do we want to know who to punish after a crime? Do we want to know why we should save for retirement? Do we want to know how an animal knows not to eat its own limbs?

With no practical or empirical grounding, it's all just puffs of fog.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

Amen to that brother!

Ahem. I know you aren't the only philosopher to voice worries like this. Peter Unger is coming out with a book titled *Beyond Inanity*. How common are worries like this, though?

Anonymous said...

I recall from my youth a television interview of Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher. He was railing against one of the catch phrases of the day, saying, "All this talk about 'identity crisis' just sticks in my throat. Were you not born? Are you not you?" Yes, I see. And even agree. But if you take a slightly different perspective...

MT said...

Hey, you applied for this job. I suppose you could say the reason to care what is the self is self interest--to better serve it. Also we know we contain multitudes and that we self-deceive, and that which urges we indulge affect our social success and self-dignity. Maybe is "What is the self?" is not so much a question as a palliative distraction from the frustrating concern "How should I behave?"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hallq: Among philosophers of science and empirically-oriented philosophers of mind, some version of such a view is not too uncommon. As one might expect, people who do hold such views tend not to become metaphysicians!

Cute story, Phaedrus!

MT, I'm not sure my colleagues entirely knew what they were getting when they hired me; but they have been very supportive nonetheless. And surely, indeed, there are many palliative distractions from the question, How should I behave?

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Eric, a little bit of empirical ground to dissipate frog or inanity:
Gillihan, S. J., & Farah, M. J. (2005). Is self special? A critical review of evidence from experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 76-97

The above mentioned authors are skeptical about the usefulness of the concept of "self"

ADHR said...


I'm missing your concern, I'm afraid. The "self" is "whatever makes me me". So, whatever it is that thinks and does -- the thing that has a mind and a body, that is an agent, that can be helf responsible, etc. And if there even is a thing there.

In terms of whether this question has practical consequences, I'm not clear how that can be answered until we figure out what the self actually is. But if, at the end of the day, there's no practical consequence beyond understanding ourselves (so to speak!) a little better, that doesn't seem a bad result.

In terms of empirical literature, Ulric Neisser has published on the self (e.g., "Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge", Philosophical Psychology 1(1): 35-59). And there are some really good philosophers who've taken a kick at the can. Owen Flanagan, Galen Strawson and Dennett have all written on the self. As, for that matter, has William James (e.g., Chapter 10 of Vol. 1 of The Principles of Psychology). None of the above seem to start with intuitions about what it's right/wrong to say and work into metaphysics. Maybe the conference didn't attract very good papers?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That sounds like an interesting paper, Anibal. Thanks for the tip.

adhr: Well, maybe I was feeling a little grumpy when I wrote that post! But still, I don't understand what the question is about "what makes me me". Is it a question of responsibility, for example? Then let's formulate the more concrete, manageable question: In virtue of what do we hold a person responsible for previous actions done by someone? If there's a special kind of responsibility that maps fairly well onto our intuitions about whether we are holding someone responsible for actions done earlier by themselves, then maybe we have a responsibility-derived criterion for "selfhood". But whether this will line up with other criteria, like embodiment, narrative continuity, etc., is an open question.

I think we have no moorings if we lose sight of the practical or empirical projects that should ground our judgments about in what sorts of cases we should apply this term "self". It's not that I hate all work on the self, but I do think it's often unclear what's driving it all....

arnold Trehub said...

I think it is useful to distinguish between two aspects of *self*. The first is the core self which is best understood as the spacetime *origin* of all of one's phenomenal experience. The second aspect is the self image which includes one's current self model and personal historical narrative. I have defined the first (self-1) as the neuronal token of the self-locus in the retinoid model (I!). I have also indicated how the self model (self-2) is created as an extended set of neuronal propositions attached to the core self.

My claim of a core self (I!) conflicts with Metzinger's claim that no such thing as a self exists. However, my account of the self image is consistent with Metzinger's notion of the pehenomenal self model (PSM).

ADHR said...


I'm still missing the objection, I think. I'm not sure how we can tell what good (in empirical or practical terms) investigating the self will do until we've gone out and done it.

I'm also not sure why theoretical benefit isn't a good thing. That is, instead of using a loose concept of a "self", we might be able to come up with something more rigorous that provides more understanding. Isn't that a benefit as well?

Anonymous said...

I think we need a good understanding of "self" because people have such radically incorrect misconceptions (fostered of course by philosophers through the ages) about how they think and act. You need a correct understanding in order to counter this confusion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Adhr and Kenf: I agree there could be something useful in getting clear about the notion of the self; I don't object to that. But I don't think one can get clear without a grounding project in mind -- a practical or empirical enterprise that can, among other things, justify privileging certain intutions and downplaying others.

Arnold: Some view in that vicinity is more appealing to me than anything I heard at the conference. I think part of the problem (at least for me as an auditor) was in its not being clear exactly what sort of "self" model was supposed to be at stake. You offer at least a partial disambiguation. I bet you've got some empirical projects, too, that provide a structure for embracing this dual model of the self.