The I in Me

Thomas Nagel

  • Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics by Galen Strawson
    Oxford, 448 pp, £32.50, ISBN 0 19 825006 1

What are you, really? To the rest of the world you appear as a particular human being, a publicly observable organism with a complex biological and social history and a name. But to yourself, more intimately, you appear as ‘I’, the mental subject of your experiences, thoughts, feelings, memories and emotions. This inner self is only indirectly observable by others, though they ordinarily have no doubt about its existence, as you have no doubt about their inner lives.

One of the enduring questions of philosophy is whether there really is such a thing as the self, and if so, what it is. Descartes famously thought that it was the thing of whose existence he could be most certain, even if he doubted the existence of the physical world and therefore of the human being called René Descartes – because in thinking, he was immediately aware of his own existence as the subject of his thought. Others have argued that this idea of the self is an illusion, due to a misunderstanding of how the word ‘I’ functions: in fact it refers to the human being who utters it, and it is you the publicly observable human being, and not anything else, that is the subject of all your experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Galen Strawson’s book Selves, a work of shameless metaphysics, argues that selves exist and that they are not human beings. However, Strawson is a materialist and does not think that your self could exist apart from your central nervous system. He holds that your experiences are events in your brain, and that if there is a self which is their subject it too must be in the brain. But he is a materialist of an unusual kind: a realist about experience and an anti-reductionist. Strawson believes that although experiences are events in the brain, experience cannot be analysed in terms of the physical properties of the material world, so the material world is much more than the world described by physics – at least in the case of brains, and perhaps quite generally.[*] This means that the conscious brain has a mental character that is not revealed by the physical sciences, including neurophysiology.

Strawson contends that there are two uses of the word ‘I’, or the grammatical first person, and that they are familiar to us all. One refers to the public human being, as when you say: ‘I’ll meet you in front of Carnegie Hall at a quarter to eight.’ The other refers to the subject of consciousness, as when you think, ‘I hear an oboe,’ or ‘cogito ergo sum.’ The argument of the book proceeds from phenomenology – an introspective examination of the subjective character of experience – to metaphysics, a conclusion about the existence and objective nature of selves. The results are radical and unexpected.

Strawson begins from the essential inner polarity of consciousness: all conscious experience is experience for a subject. It has been objected that Descartes was entitled only to observe that thinking was going on, and nothing more, but Strawson says this is wrong: there cannot be thinking without a subject. The character of an experience or conscious thought is what it is like subjectively for someone or something to have it, and this is as true for sea-snails, if they have experience, as it is for humans.

What is this subject? As presented in experience, it must be a single mental thing. (That does not exclude its also being physical, but phenomenology tells us nothing about that one way or the other.) However complicated the contents of my consciousness at any moment – if I am listening to Schubert, watching the sunset, drinking wine and trying to remember where I put the car keys – all of it is co-present to a single subject. If selves exist in reality, according to Strawson, they must be mental individuals of this kind, for which he coins the unappealing term sesmet – short for ‘subject-as-single-mental-thing’.

Suppose you are persuaded that in one sense you use the term ‘I’ to refer to such an inner thing. What else does phenomenological introspection tell you about it? For most of us, one of its conspicuous features is temporal extension. Even if you in this sense are not a human being, you as subject have existed approximately since the birth of the human being that you also are, and will continue to exist until his or her death. The question can also be posed whether you existed before that organism’s birth and whether you will survive its death. Experience presents us with a sense of the temporal extension of the self, through memory of the past and anticipation of the future. You remember ‘from the inside’ your past life, and apprehend those experiences as your own (think of the present shame or guilt that even a distant memory can produce). You anticipate future experiences as things that will happen to you, this self, not just to a later stage of the organism, and you fear your own future pain in a way that you don’t fear the future pain of others – because it will be yours.

Strawson contends, however, that this natural belief in the persistence of the self is probably an illusion. To begin with, if the self is a single mental thing, how can it persist across temporal gaps in consciousness? If, as most of us assume, we pass part of each night in dreamless sleep, what is it, apart from the human being, that loses consciousness late at night and regains it in the morning? How can there be a mental subject, persisting over such an interval, whose identity over time makes it the case that the subject who hears the alarm clock go off is the same one who saw the late news on television the night before? Strawson holds that the mere physical persistence of the brain is not enough. He agrees with Descartes’s surprising claim that the existence of the mind is inseparable from consciousness – that the self is always conscious. Strawson interprets this, plausibly, not as the claim that the self is a type of persisting substance that, in addition to its other properties, is necessarily also conscious, but rather that the self is nothing but persisting, unified consciousness. In Descartes’s vocabulary, its essence is thinking, and nothing else. This means that the persistence of the self over time must be mental persistence, and that it demands a specifically mental unity, a diachronic unity analogous to the synchronic mental unity of the subject of experience at any one time. This cannot be supplied either by the brain or by the existence of an immaterial soul, conceived as a persisting substratum in which experience inheres.

This leads Strawson to radical conclusions. Not only does the self not persist across gaps in consciousness; it also doesn’t persist across the shifts in the content of consciousness that occur constantly in the course of waking life. One might think that this attack on diachronic identity conflicts with the fact that consciousness always involves time. There can be no experience that lasts no time at all, and the content of any experience is always what is going on in some interval of subjective time – the hearing of a word, the sight of an oncoming bus, the feel of a blast of cold wind. In fact, the nature of the short temporal interval that is experientially present to consciousness at each moment – the specious present, as it is called – is one of the most puzzling things about the experience of time. But while Strawson grants that the self has some persistence over time in virtue of this diachronic unity of moment-to-moment experience, he believes the requisite mental unity does not extend very far.

Strawson holds that our selves are much more short-lived than we normally take them to be, and that the subjective experience of the self does not require that it persist beyond the lived present, which lasts for less than a second. That may be good enough for sea-snails, one might think, but what about us? Here Strawson offers his most startling observation: he himself does not have the sense of subjective persistence that, I assume, most people have. It does not seem to him that the self which is the subject of his present experience existed in the past, or will exist in the future. When he remembers something from the inside, it does not come with the sense that it is he who was the subject of the remembered experience. He claims that this is true even when he feels embarrassed at the memory. ‘The episode of consciousness is certainly apprehended from the inside, and so I take it for granted that it is mine, if I care to reflect: I take it for granted that it is an episode of consciousness of the human being that I am. But there is no sense, affective or otherwise, that it was consciousness on my* part.’ (The asterisk indicates the use of ‘my’ to refer to the subject of present consciousness.) ‘My past is mine* in the sense that it belongs to me*, but I don’t feel that I* was there in the past.’ And more:

When I consider myself in the whole-human-being way I fully endorse the conventional view that there is in my case – that I am – a single subject of experience – a person – with long-term diachronic continuity. But when I experience myself as an inner mental subject and consider the detailed character of conscious experience, my feeling is that I am – that the thing that I most essentially am is – continually completely new.

I do not understand what it would be like to live like this, to feel ‘that there simply isn’t any “I” or self that goes on through (let alone beyond) the waking day, even though there’s obviously and vividly an “I” or self at any given time.’ If Strawson experiences guilt or shame for episodes in the past, it must be very different from mine.

However, this strange phenomenology of impermanence makes palatable to him the equally strange metaphysics to which his arguments drive him. Because the diachronic unity of the self, like its synchronic unity, must be a purely experiential unity, he is led to the conclusion that the self is a ‘thin subject’ – something that exists only if experience exists of which it is the subject. Further, this thing cannot be distinguished from its properties, and those properties are exhausted by the experience, which is in turn identical with the experience’s contents. (Strawson maintains that no object can be distinguished from its properties – another piece of radical metaphysics.) The result is that the self which exists at any time is simply a unified experiential process or episode. In light of materialism, the self can be presumed also to be a neural process: ‘a synergy of neural activity which is either a part of or (somehow) identical with the synergy that constitutes the experience as a whole’. But even though it has physical features, it is single, and therefore a self, only in virtue of its experiential unity. Finally, by the standards of diachronic unity appropriate for the thin subject of an experiential process that is indistinguishable from its content, there is no reason to think any self outlasts the lived present of experience – let alone that it lasts as long as a human life.

If each self is as impermanent as that, it is also, as Strawson says, extremely superficial: it has no ‘ontic depth’. The self that is the subject of your present experience does not know algebra or French, or how to make an omelette, and it does not have political convictions. But such things, says Strawson, can find an adequate home not in the fleeting sequence of selves but in the persisting human being, with its persisting brain, which stores the capacities and dispositions that allow us to attribute these more stable properties. Materialists, he says, ‘take the mind – the mind-brain – to have non-experiential being in addition to experiential being, non-experiential being that provides all the ontic depth anyone could possibly want.’

‘Philosophy, like science,’ says Strawson, ‘aims to say how things are in reality, and conflict with ordinary thought and language is no more an objection to a philosophical theory than a scientific one.’ Yet his conclusions depart so far from the idea most people have of themselves that it seems natural to describe him as offering not a theory of the self, but rather the view that there is no such thing as the self, distinct from the human being. If he is right, there are only human beings, who persist in time, and who undergo a constantly changing sequence of experiences, each having the irreducible character of subjectivity. He asks us to give up the powerful conviction that the I who is the subject of my present experience has existed for a long time, that it was also the subject of the experiences I remember from the past, and that it will be the subject of the experiences that the human being who I am will undergo in the future. At the very least, we are convinced that this could be the case, so that it must make sense.

To sustain this conviction calls for a different metaphysics of the self, though I do not have one to offer. Philosophers have not been very successful in devising credible accounts of the identity of the self over time, and Strawson’s arguments help us to see why this is so. It seems to require that a single mental subject should be capable of existing without any consciousness and through vast changes of experiential content, but it is not clear that the mere physical existence of the brain is sufficient for this, and an immaterial substance may be no better.

Strawson is convincing as to the inadequacy of the deflationary strategy of arguing that the reference of ‘I’ is entirely parasitic on the public, third-person criteria of identity for human beings. I do not think we can resist his basic point that there are two uses of ‘I’, and that one of them refers to the inner subject. He illustrates it with a passage from A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, in which a ten-year-old girl suddenly realises that she is she, ‘this Emily, born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time, and encased in this particular rather pleasing little casket of flesh’ – and again with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop about a similar experience just before her seventh birthday. I suspect that many children have experienced with amazement the realisation that the self with which they are so familiar inhabits a particular public human being.

The book is packed with valuable commentary on philosophers whose writings on this subject Strawson admires, and in whom he finds allies: Descartes, Kant, Hume and William James in particular. It is also peppered with frequent interruptions from an interlocutor – set off in different type – who makes most of the objections that will occur to a careful reader. This is extremely helpful in following what is often an exhaustingly lengthy line of argument, replete with stacks of numbered propositions, terminological abbreviations, and numerical cross-references; sometimes the book is like an obstacle course, though Strawson obligingly suggests from time to time what you might want to skip.

Selves is a work of profound philosophical reflection by a philosopher of intellectual power and exemplary integrity, qualities that are liable to take you far off the beaten track. The result displays the imagination and audacity we have come to expect of Strawson.

[*] He is drawn to panpsychism, and has argued for it elsewhere, though he sets it aside in the present book. See Jerry Fodor’s piece on Strawson in the LRB of 24 May 2007.