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Self, Self, Self!

by Rick Lewis

Many of us enjoy talking about ourselves, perhaps too much sometimes. But in this issue we’ll be talking about our selves, which maybe is a bit different.

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates often urges his fellow Athenians to “Know Thyself”, which was a popular maxim inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. There seems a widespread consensus among philosophers, psychoanalysts and suchlike folk that striving to understand yourself better is a good idea. Why should that be the case? If you fret too much about the details of your self, you might become self-conscious, and this can impede the effectiveness of your dealings with others. Nevertheless, René Descartes kicked off modern philosophy with introspection and the self as his starting point. He mused that however comprehensively deluded his thinking might be, he was at least definitely having thoughts, and if he was thinking, that must mean that he existed. From that small foothold he went on to deduce the existence of a benevolent God and of the external world and, for better or worse, set the whole adventure of Western philosophy on a new path.

Philosophers have been self-obsessed ever since, and our contributors this month deal with some of the central philosophical problems of the self. Chris Durante asks about personal identity: given that over the course of your whole life from when you first became self-aware, you have changed dramatically in terms of physical appearance, experiences, capabilities and in many other ways, what exactly is the constant thread that makes you the same person, rather than a succession of different people? Sam Woolfe looks at some competing conceptions of the self and discusses the idea that a unitary self is an illusion, perhaps arising because we arrange our different experiences so as to make a coherent narrative in ways that are biologically advantageous. Some think the existence of the self is self-evident, and attempts to disprove it are self-contradictory. David Hume is perhaps the best-known Western philosopher to have doubted whether the self existed (see box in Chris Durante’s article), but the Buddha too taught that there was no self. In her article, Katie Javanaud examines whether this doctrine is logically compatible with another Buddhist doctrine, that people can achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. This requires a careful examination of what is meant by ‘self’; one of the striking things about Javanaud’s article is how much the logical approach and core concerns of ancient Buddhist and Hindu writers have in common with debates about the self in modern Western philosophy. Perhaps this shows that the concerns of philosophy are universal, and that logic is logic everywhere, in all ages, rather than being relative to different cultures or belief systems. Frank Robinson examines and takes issue with Julian Jaynes’s famous theory that our sense of self is a recent historical development; dating back only some three thousand years. And Alessandro Colarossi argues, with the help of his friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that Artificial Intelligence research will hit a dead end because of a failure to appreciate that consciousness must be embodied to be complete; just building a complex electronic brain on a laboratory bench won’t be good enough.

This year sees the 500th anniversary of The Prince, Niccolò di Machiavelli’s notorious masterpiece of political theory / handbook for aspiring dictators. To mark the anniversary we have two articles on the wily Florentine diplomat whose name gave the English language an adjective (Machiavellian) and a synonym for the Devil (Old Nick). Machiavelli was a pessimist about human nature, believing that most people tend to be lazy and unambitious, and aren’t greatly interested in developing virtue in themselves although they admire it in others. He was the first to openly conceptualise a split between ethics and politics; earlier writers assumed that being virtuous is important for a political leader, but Machiavelli flatly denies this. If you want to be a ruler it is useful to appear virtuous, as virtue is admired, but actually being virtuous is not helpful and can be a hindrance. What is important is how you relate to the people. Being liked is fine, but it is not as stable a bond as that created by fear, because people easily transfer their positive likings to others but fear isn’t transferrable in this way; they will always fear you. So you should aim to be feared, but you shouldn’t allow yourself to become hated because hatred is destructive and breeds rebellion. You can use violence but don’t be excessive as that will create hatred… The Prince is a ruthlessly practical book, illustrated with examples drawn from Machiavelli’s wide experience as a diplomat and courtier. No wonder his reputation is sulphurous.

Our contributors give a good sketch of Old Nick’s life and ideas, and both suggest that he was no more immoral than other political schemers of his time (and since) and that his near-demonic reputation is mainly a result of him simply being far more candid than his peers. Almost everything about Machiavelli is controversial, even including whether the articles about him in this issue should be part of our section on ‘the self’. After all, in some ways he seems a philosopher of ruthless self-interest. However, along with his unabashed advocacy of treachery, deception, and murder in the pursuit of power, he also argued that such actions could be justified only if they resulted in a better outcome for society at large, and not otherwise. In sixteenth century terms, that made him practically a saint!

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