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Saving the Self

Following on from our last issue, Raymond Tallis defends personal identity from those who say the self is an illusion.

One could forgive the self for feeling rather hunted. Since David Hume famously questioned its existence, the number, intensity and variety of attacks has increased. It is time someone came to the rescue and got one or two things straight. But let us first look at the case made by the ‘autocides’.

The Attack on the Self

It is difficult not to begin with David Hume, as his assault on the self includes what must be one of the most famous passages in all philosophy:

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat, cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception.” (‘On Personal Identity’ A Treatise of Human Nature)

He concluded that humans “are nothing but a bundle of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” “The identity we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictional one”, he finally says. So that’s that. Those of you who think of your selves as real are plain wrong.

Hume’s sentiments are very modern. In the last century, thinkers approaching the world in very different ways have arrived at similar conclusions. Existentialists, notably Sartre, have emphasised how the self is not a thing: we cannot be ourselves as an oak tree is an oak tree. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argued that the notion of a self with definite, fixed characteristics was the result of confusing the product of free choice with a given thing. Roles, for example, are not things; we cannot be them, only aspire to be them. If we try to be, say, a waiter as an ink well is an inkwell, we are guilty of ‘bad faith’. (Note bad faith, not self-betrayal, because there is no self to betray.) Ontologically, the self is a child of the marriage of Nothingness and Being: it is what it is not and is not what it is. I am myself in virtue of not being the objects of which I am aware; I am a subject and, as such, ‘not-an-object’.

Postmodernists have argued that the self is merely a node in a network of symbols and signs. Roland Barthes, for example, demonstrated to his own satisfaction (in A Lover’s Discourse) that even when a self falls in love – seemingly its most intense self-expression – it merely instantiates a series of symbolic positions. More generally, when I speak ‘from the heart’ – about politics, love, science – I am merely a conduit allowing language to speak through myself, permitting that echo-chamber of intertextuality, the human heart, to echo out loud. Barthes’ views are close to the position of those who emphasise that the self is a relatively recent notion. Some Marx-leaning thinkers link the illusion that we are substantive selves with the social organisation that has emerged with capitalism which fosters our sense of being a distinct entity with clear-cut boundaries. The sense of being a substantive ‘subject’ or independent point of departure is merely ‘a bourgeois illusion’; it is an ontological medal we award ourselves when we reach a certain degree of affluence and social independence.

The popularisation of neuroscience has done most to disseminate the idea that the self is an illusion. (See, for example, Rita Carter’s Mapping the Mind.) If you look into the brain, you will not find any neurones corresponding to an homunculus. There are neurones variously organised into centres and pathways, there are inputs and outputs, but nowhere is there a place where the neurones or neural activity are organised into anything like a self, where the inputs are fielded as my experiences and the outputs are initiated as my actions. Neuroscientists – and those philosophers who are neuroscience groupies – conclude that the self is therefore an illusion, and, come to that, so too is the feeling we have that we are true agents. (This is a story for another day).

Defending the Self

So there you have it. The self does not really exist as something truly real because: it is not available to introspection (Hume); it is not a thing (Existentialists); it is a soluble fish in a sea of general meanings or representations (postmodernists); and/or it cannot be found in the brain or its activity (neurophilosophers). There are many other lines of attack but these examples are sufficient to illustrate what is wrong with these autocides: they are looking for the wrong kind of entity or in the wrong place or both.

Hume’s position is particularly vulnerable. It seems to rule out the very ‘I’ that, according to Hume in the passage I have just quoted, conducted the inquiry into the nature of the self. If Hume really believed what his arguments led him to believe, the ‘I’ to whom he attributed his belief would be a fiction referring to a fiction. Something has clearly gone wrong. Hume’s error was to look for the wrong kind of entity. Of course the self cannot be observed through introspection. It is not a kind of percept or super-percept. It is presupposed in perception, as Kant pointed out in The Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant believed that what Hume was looking for in the wrong place was something to tie experiences together. According to Kant, perceptions were held together – in what he called ‘the unity of apperception’ – by ‘the transcendental unity of self-consciousness’. This transcendental self is, however, rather donnish: Kant characterised it as an “‘I think’ that accompanies all my perceptions.” It is problematic in other ways. Precisely because it is not part of the flow of perceptions, is not an element in the empirical self, the transcendental self, which is outside of space and time, seems rather empty. It is merely a logical subject, an ontological size zero. It is certainly difficult to see how it engages with flesh-and-blood individuals. The ‘I think’ that supposedly accompanies all my perceptions, tying them together into a self in a world, does not make clear contact with the ‘I’ who lives in the world, with the introspectable items that Hume encountered when he looked in vain for his self.

What about the existentialist attack on the self? That is fatal only for the views of those who believe the self needs, in order to qualify as real, to be a thing: a static entity or inert object whose nature is given and whose continuation and continuity is guaranteed without effort on its part. A self doesn’t have to be like an inkwell or a pebble in order to count as real. Indeed, one should be very unlike an inkwell. The self is self-fashioning – that is why selves are accountable. An inkwell is not accountable for the injuries it has caused to the heads it has fallen upon; nor does it have concern for its future. The self, however, is not merely Nothingness (or a ‘Being-there’ or Dasein) flickering over Being like Loge’s flame. It is inextricably caught up with the material body, as the still under-appreciated Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasised in his masterpiece The Phenomenology of Perception. The essence of selfhood is not being a thing but appropriating things as one’s self – of which more presently.

The postmodern attack fails to understand the difference between general meanings and their particular exemplification in our lives, as when we use meaningful symbols to convey something we want others to respond to. When I say ‘Hello’, though the word and the circumstances in which it is used are often highly conventionalised, this does not mean (even in this utterly commonplace example) that language is using me, and that in this and every other intelligible action, I am a soluble fish in a sea of discourse. Next time you are walking towards someone and wondering whether, when, and how to greet them, you will appreciate how much of your individual self (attitudes, feelings, history, education, immediate past experience etc) is engaged.

Neuroscience cannot find the self (even less the free agent) for two reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t examine the person but the isolated nervous system and it is an unproven and highly implausible assumption that the person really is the isolated nervous system. Secondly, it approaches the nervous system from the impersonal standpoint of physical chemistry so that the brain boils down to sets of semi-permeable membranes along which electrochemical impulses propagate. While the brain is a necessary condition of the self (the beheaded are pretty selfless), we should not expect to find the self in a stand-alone bit of brain but in a brain that is part of a body environed by the natural world and a massively complex, historically evolved, culture. Uprooting the brain from all this is a sure-fire way of mislaying the self.

Towards a Positive Account of the Self

It is not enough to point out the errors of the autocides. We need also to develop a positive idea of the self. At the very heart of the notion of a self worth having is that of an accountable agent enduring over time. This has different aspects. We want an intelligible account of our feeling that we have temporal depth, that we are truly connected with the past, that we are essentially the same entities over time, that we have memories that are truly of experiences we have had, that there were certain events that were our actions for which we remain answerable, that we have prudential concern for a future that is our future. There are many other aspects of selfhood – in particular those related to the identifying marks (of physical appearance, of traits, of knowledge, of office, of relationships) by which others recognise us and entertain expectations with respect to us. The former, however, are core and will do for the present.

At the heart of the sense of the self is a kind of tautology, an existential iteration: ‘That I am’; or ‘That I am [this]’. This Existential Intuition is connected with the intuition ‘That I am the same thing over time’; and ‘That I am of such and such a nature’. All three are woven into the notion of personal identity.

There are two main ways in which the self is being understood at present in English-speaking philosophy: as an enduring mind; and as an enduring body. For most contemporary philosophers, the enduring mind is not a substance or a soul but is built up out of experiences and the memory of experiences. The most celebrated attempt to construe the self psychologically is that of Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons). He works in the spirit of John Locke who, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding argued that identity lay in our consciousness. What endured, however, was not some individual item, such as an overarching master perception, but a continuity resulting from the internal connectedness of consciousness. This connectedness was secured most obviously, though not exclusively, through memory: the memory of our own experiences.

Locke’s account has powerful intuitive attractions. Continuity of memory seems to underpin so many other continuities: my enduring understanding of what, where, who; the familiarity that makes the world my world and guides me through my life; my sense of commitment to my commitments; my responsibility for delivering on my promises; and, most directly, my sense of having temporal depth. Psychological continuity seems like the inner truth within the external facts of my constancy, reliability, predictability; the private, essential ‘take’ on the framework that gives stable sense to my life, and enables me to make sense of myself and others to make sense of, and to recognise, me.

But it has many problems. The one that Parfit has addressed most directly is this: our memory has limited reach. I cannot recall very precisely the ten year old Raymond Tallis, and yet I have no doubt that the child and I are the same person. Parfit therefore replaces the notion of direct psychological connectedness with that of continuity: a partial overlap of memories and traits from year to year. As in a rope, there is no single thread going from end to end but overlapping threads that ensure the impression of continuity.

Unfortunately this, too, has many problems. (For a full critique, see Raymond Tallis I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being). The most important is the one pointed out by Bishop Butler that the sense that memories are my memories presupposes rather than establishes personal identity. Parfit thinks he has an answer to this and perhaps he does. And he also thinks he has found a way of describing the self that will deliver what we need – the sense of endurance over time, responsibility for the past, prudential concern for one’s own future etc. – without invoking a transcendent entity that will hold it all together – a so-called reductive account. There is, however, one problem that he cannot deal with: that is that of differentiating true from false memories. How can I be sure that the memories I have are of experiences I truly had in the past. Our capacity to fabricate memories is boundless. There is no way of establishing, within the psychological stream, an audit trail distinguishing true memories of actual experiences from false memories of non-experiences.

Some feel that the problem with Parfit lies deeper and that a stream of experiences cannot cohere of its own accord. Eric Olson has appealed to the body as the basis for the individuated, enduring, coherent self. In The Human Animal he puts forward a view of ‘personal identity without psychology’. This solves many problems – not the least of the continuity of some kind of identity from the ego-less period when one was an infant or even a foetus to full adulthood, and across periods of intermission due to sleep or even coma, and it does seem to offer a basis for dealing with the ‘audit trail’ problem. (See Raymond Tallis ‘Identity and the Mind’ in Darwin Lectures on Identity.) The trouble is, dispensing with psychology means that even a body in a persistent, irreversible profound coma, as long as it is alive, counts as a person. This seems counter-intuitive; as Locke said, “Person stands for a thinking intelligent Being…that..can consider itself as it self.” Worse still, it is difficult to see how a body without psychology could have an identity, the status of a single thing: it can be taken as many organs, millions of cells, trillions of atoms.

There are many other problems with the self being identified either as a stand-alone psyche or a body uninhabited by a psyche. The most profound is that both theories focus on the self as enduring over time: the psychological theory gives the subjective dimension of continuity; and bodily theory gives its outer face. But the notion of personal identity over time must surely be secondary to that of identity at a given time. The psychological stream may be internally stitched by memory but it seems not only ownerless but untethered – disconnected from here and now. It seems ungrounded, without substance. And while the body is obviously substantial, and holds together over time, being relatively stable, considered merely as a living organism it lacks ownership of itself at a particular time. Neither bodiless psychology nor a body without psychology provides any grounding for the sense of identity at a particular time and this must have priority over the sense of identity over time, the sense that one is the same self at successive, or widely separated, moments.

This is the challenge: a satisfactory account of the self must give it substance, without making it a mere thing; it must encompass the self at a given time, as well as the continuity of the self over time; and must have both objective and subjective aspects. This can be achieved if we invoke both the connectedness of the stream of experience and the continuity of the body but not by adding one to the other. We can do this if we think of the self as the conscious human being appropriating its body as itself. I have called this appropriation the Existential Intuition, which is unique to humans. (I discuss why in The Hand. Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being.)

The Existential Intuition can be represented as a proposition ‘That I am this’, where ‘this’ in the first instance is one’s body. But it is not really a proposition, of course; it is more like a blush – a blush of realisation. As one develops beyond infancy, the sense of self evolves from an undifferentiated blush of the self-appropriation of the sentient body as ‘I’ to an infinitely folded sense of being a person with a variety of connected identities. This extends beyond the body to the world with which the individual is engaged and which, in virtue of that engagement, becomes its world. This world is to a great extent a world of facts, or possibilities, largely acquired through discourse – though the sense of self can extend out of the body through items it assimilates into its body schema: its tools, and more broadly the possessions that give it the sense of its own space. There is a ‘MySpace’ that is triangulated by our projects, relationships, journeys, preoccupations and possessions. ‘I’ and ‘my space’ are two sides of the same coin.

This account of the evolving self (described in I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being) accommodates the fact that it has both subjective and objective surface; gives it substance without reducing it to a thing; allows it to have temporal depth and coherence over time – highlighted through memories but not merely internally guaranteed through them – and to have prudential concern for its future; and permits it to be a responsible moral agent. Such a self is not a mere flow of perceptions or even of memories. Nor is it just the successive moments of an organism. It is neither reduced to such a flow nor attenuated, as in Kant, to a transcendental logical subject which, as we saw, was so difficult to link with a biographical person. What is more, being a first-person entity with a material presence in the third- or no-person world – the self can be a point of departure; indeed capable of the kind of freedom Sartre was anxious to preserve when he placed the self at a distance from the material body, almost (one could be forgiven for thinking) from Being, so that it looked like a flame of Nothingness. It can lead its life as a human being rather than merely surf, suffer, or, like an animal, organically live it.

One final thought. Next time you meet someone who tells you the self is a fiction, reassure her that she, and you, are real.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2007

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. We’re delighted to announce that he will be starting a regular column in Philosophy Now from next issue.

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