The Sense of the Self

Galen Strawson

Human beings in different cultures are much more alike, psychologically speaking, than most anthropologists and sociologists suppose. There’s a great deal of substance to the idea of a common humanity – of profound emotional and cognitive similarities that transcend differences in cultural experience. It’s also true that human beings are very varied, psychologically, but the deepest psychological differences are those that can be found within a given culture. The cultural relativism of Emile Durkheim and others, elegantly renewed by Clifford Geertz and orthodox in large parts of the academic community is based on a serious underestimation of the genetic determinants of human nature, and a false view of mental development.

It’s partly for this reason, and partly because I have a Kantian confidence in the ability of philosophy to reach conclusions of extreme generality on this sort of question, that I expect my remarks about the self to apply, if true, to human beings generally. When it comes to the sense of the self, the difference between those who can’t sleep and those who can may be more important than any cultural differences.

By the ‘sense of the self’ I mean the sense that people have of themselves as being, specifically, a mental presence, a mental someone, a conscious subject that has a certain character or personality, and is distinct from all its particular experiences, thoughts, hopes, wishes, feelings and so on. I’ve no doubt that this sense comes to every normal human being, in some form, in childhood. It is perhaps most often vivid when we are alone and thinking, but it can be equally vivid in a room full of shouting people. It connects with a feeling that most people have had at some time, that their body is just a vehicle or vessel for the mental thing they really are. (Neither physical activity nor pain need diminish our sense of the independence of the self from the body; they’re just as likely to increase it.) I’m not claiming that the sense of the self automatically incorporates belief in an immaterial soul, or in life after bodily death. It doesn’t. Philosophical materialists have it as strongly as anyone else, although they believe, as I do, that we are wholly physical beings, and that consciousness evolved by purely physical processes.

Our natural, unreflective conception of the self seems to have six main elements. First, the self is thought of as a thing, in some sense. Second, it is thought of as specifically mental, in some sense. Third, it is thought of as single. Fourth, it is thought of as something that has a certain character or personality. Fifth, it is thought of as something that is ontologically distinct from all other things. Sixth, it is thought of as something that is a subject of experience, a conscious feeler, thinker, chooser. In considering each element in turn, I use the expression ‘the self’ freely, as a loose name for all the undeniably real phenomena that lead us to think and talk in terms of the self. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that the best thing to say, in the end, is that there is no such thing.

The first claim, that the self is thought of as a thing, is, in a way, the least clear. The general idea is this: it isn’t thought of as a state or property of something else, or as an event, or as a mere process or series of events. To this extent, there is nothing else for it to seem to be, other than a thing – not a thing in the way that a stone or a chair is, a sort of ethereal concrete object, but a thing of some kind. It is thought of, in particular, as something that has the causal character of a thing; something that can undergo and do things. Bishop Berkeley’s characterisation of the self as a ‘thinking active principle’ seems as good as any. In this old use, a principle manages to sound like a thing without sounding like a table or a chair.

The second claim, that the self is something mental, is also unclear, but the central idea is this: when the self is thought of as a thing, its claim to thinghood is taken to be sufficiently grounded in its mental nature alone; it may also have a non-mental nature, as materialists suppose, but its being a thing is not thought to depend on its counting as a thing considered in its non-mental nature. The self is the mental self. It’s true that people naturally think of themselves as possessing both mental and non-mental properties, but this doesn’t affect the standard conception of the mental self.

Although experience of the mental self needn’t involve any belief in an immaterial soul, it does incorporate elements that make that belief come rather naturally. The mental self can easily seem to exist self-sufficiently in a sphere of being quite other than that described by physics. Things are not as they seem, according to materialists; but they certainly seem as they seem, and this helps to explain how natural it is to think of the self as a specifically mental thing.

The third claim is that the self is thought of as single. But in what way? Not as a single assemblage or collectivity, as a pile of marbles is single, but rather, as a marble is single when compared with a pile of marbles. Furthermore, it is standardly thought to be single both when it is considered synchronically, i.e. as existing at a given time, and when it is considered diachronically, i.e. as a thing that persists through time. I will take ‘synchronic’ to apply to any consideration of the self during what is experienced as a unitary or ‘hiatus-free’ period of consciousness. ‘Diachronic’ will then apply to any period that includes a break or hiatus. Truly unbroken periods of experience are, I suggest, almost invariably brief: a few seconds at most, a fraction of a second at the least.

I’ve said that we normally have a sense of the singleness of the self. Some, however, may claim to experience it as fragmentary or multiple, and most of us have had experience that gives us – we feel – some understanding of what they mean. In fact there are reasons for thinking that the experience of multiplicity can only really affect the sense of the self diachronically considered, not synchronically. But this may be doubted: we may be subject to rapidly changing and overlapping moods, and conflicts of desire. Our thought processes can become extraordinarily rapid and tumultuous, disparate contents tumbling over one another. This may be claimed to involve experience of the self as synchronically multiple.

To experience conflicting desires is not to experience the self as multiple, however. On the contrary, it’s one of the most vivid forms of experiencing oneself as single: as a single thing that feels conflict precisely because it is single. What about the mind racing chaotically? When this happens many people experience themselves as helpless spectators of the pandemonium, which is more likely to increase than to diminish their sense of being single. Furthermore, any supposed experience of the self as synchronically multiple will have to be an episode of explicitly self-conscious thought; but there is a crucial sense in which such experience is incompatible with genuine self-conscious thought. ‘The subjective “I” can never be ... divided, and it is this “I” that we presuppose in all thinking,’ as Kant remarks. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise, especially if they come from Paris.

The fourth claim is simply that the self is thought of as having character or personality, in exactly the same way as an embodied human being. This is hardly surprising, for we take it that our personality is a matter of how we are, mentally speaking; so if we think that our existence involves a mental self, we’re bound to think that that self has a personality.

The fifth claim is that the self is thought of as ontologically distinct. From what? The question has various answers. To begin with, the self is thought of as ontologically distinct from any conscious mental goings-on – thoughts, experiences and so on. It has thoughts and experiences but is not the same as them, or constituted out of them. A stronger version of this view holds that the self is distinct not only from any conscious mental goings-on, but also from any non-conscious mental features like beliefs, preferences, stored memories, character traits. Hume famously challenged the first of these views, proposing that the self, if it exists, just is a series of mental goings-on. Ordinary thought rejects this ‘bundle’ theory, however, as Hume later did himself, and endorses the second, stronger version.

A third and still stronger version rejects materialism, claiming that the self is ontologically distinct from anything physical. But this dualist, or idealist, idea is not an integral part of the sense of the self.

The sixth claim, that the self is a subject of experience, I take to be obvious. What is a subject of experience? The ordinary notion seems pretty clear: independently of any metaphysical commitments, each of us has a very good idea of what a subject of experience is just in being one and being self-conscious. The self is clearly not the only thing that is thought of as a subject of experience: it’s just as natural (or more natural) for us to say that a human being considered as a whole is a subject of experience – as are millions of non-human animals. Nevertheless, we have a tendency to think that in the human case it is above all the mental self that is the subject of experience.

What about the view that the self is capable of action, in thinking and choosing, for example? Perhaps I should add a seventh, separate, claim, that it is thought of as an agent, as ‘the source of effort and attention, and the place from which ... emanate the fiats of the will’, in William James’s words. This seems very plausible.

Suppose the seven elements capture the conceptual core of the ordinary human sense of the self. The question then arises whether they are all essential to anything counting as a genuine sense of the self. I will challenge the claims about personality and diachronic singleness.

The principal point to be made against the personality claim is simple. We already have a natural way of conceiving of the self according to which it does not have a personality, but is, strictly speaking, a mere ‘locus’ of awareness. Most people have at some time, and however temporarily, experienced themselves not just as neutral and unengaged, but as stripped of particularity of character: as a mere point of view. This may be the result of exhaustion or solitude, or it may just be how some people feel when they wake up. It may be the temporary result of abstract thought or a hot bath. It is also a common feature of severe depression, in which we experience ‘depersonalisation’ – an accurate term. Depersonalisation is pathological, but it is experientially real, and one can imagine getting stuck in this condition. (Some people do.) Equally, one can imagine a race of alien beings for whom it is the normal condition, but who still have a clear sense of the mental self as the locus of consciousness.

A very strong form of what may be lost in depersonalisation is recorded by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who talks of considering

my self-being, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man ... Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this self-being of my own.

This is bewildering. I find it quite hard to believe that Hopkins is telling the truth, and have yet to meet someone whose experience resembles his. For most people, their personality is something unnoticed, and in effect undetectable, in the present moment. It’s what they look through, or where they look from; not something they look at.

It is harder to dislodge the idea that a genuine sense of the self must incorporate a conception of it as something that has relatively long-term diachronic singleness or continuity. Yet that sense may be vivid and complete, at any given time, even if it has to do only with the present brief, hiatus-free stretch of consciousness. It may be said that although this is a formal possibility, it is remote from reality and from our interests: that life without any significant sense of the long-term continuity of the self is conceivable for aliens, but hardly for ourselves. Strictly speaking, all I need for my argument is the formal possibility; but it seems to me that life without any such sense of long-term continuity lies well within human experience. We can be fully aware that we have long-term bodily continuity without having any such sense of the self. The idea may have very little – or no – emotional importance for us. It may contribute little or nothing to the overall character of our experience. Human beings differ deeply in a number of ways that may affect their experience of continuity.

In considering these differences, I sometimes write ‘in the first person’, like William James, ‘leaving my description to be accepted by those to whose introspection it may commend itself as true, and confessing my inability to meet the demands of others, if others there be’. Clearly James doesn’t really believe that there are others unlike himself, any more than Hume does when he pretends to allow that some people may perceive a simple and continuous mental self when they introspect, although he is ‘certain there is no such principle in me’. My position is different. When it comes to the differences I am about to discuss, I believe that there are others quite unlike myself.

First, there are differences of memory. Some people have an excellent ‘personal’ memory (as philosophers call memory of one’s own past), and an unusual capacity for vivid recollection. Their personal memory may not be just reliable and retentive: it may also be highly active and regularly intrude into their present thoughts. Others have a very poor personal memory, which may also be quiescent, and almost never intrude. These differences of memory are matched by equal differences in the force with which people imagine, anticipate or form intentions about the future.

These differences interact with others. Some people live in narrative mode, and wrongly assume that everyone else does the same: they experience their lives in terms of something that has shape and story, a narrative trajectory. Some of them keep diaries with posterity in mind, and imagine future biographies. Some are self-narrators in a stronger sense: they regularly rehearse and revise their interpretations of their lives. Some are great planners, and knit up their lives with long-term projects. Others have no early ambition, no later sense of vocation, no interest in climbing a career ladder, no tendency to see their life as constituting a story or development. Some merely go from one thing to another, living life in a picaresque or episodic fashion. Some people make few plans and are little concerned with the future. Some live intensely in the present, some are simply aimless. This can be a basic fact of character or the outcome of spiritual discipline; it can be a response to economic destitution – a devastating lack of opportunities – or vast wealth. There are lotus-eaters, drifters, lilies of the field, mystics and people who work hard in the present moment. There are many possibilities. Some people are creative although they lack ambition or long-term aims, and go from one small thing to the next, or produce large works without planning to, by accident or accretion. Some people are very consistent in character, whether or not they know it, a form of steadiness that may underwrite experience of the self’s continuity. Others are consistent in their inconsistency, and feel themselves to be continually puzzling and piecemeal. Some go through life as if stunned.

I’m somewhere down towards the episodic end of this spectrum. I have no sense of my life as a narrative with form, and very little interest in my own past. My personal memory is very poor, and rarely impinges on my present consciousness. I make plans for the future, and to that extent think of myself perfectly adequately as something with long-term continuity. But I experience this way of thinking of myself as remote and theoretical, given the most central or fundamental way in which I think of myself, which is as a mental self or someone. Using ME to express the way in which I think of myself, I can accurately express my experience by saying that I do not think of ME as being something in the future.

It is January as I write this. The thought that I have to give a Wolfson College Lecture in March causes me some anxiety, and this has familiar physiological manifestations. I feel the anxiety naturally and directly as pertaining to me even though I have no sense that it will be ME that will be giving the lecture. Indeed it seems plain false to say that it will be ME. And this is how it feels, not something I happen to believe for theoretical reasons. So why do I feel anxiety? Doubtless because my susceptibility to it is innate and ‘hard-wired’, connected with the instinct for self-preservation: my concern for my future, which is within the normal human range, is biologically grounded and autonomous in such a way that it persists as something immediately felt even though it is not supported by any emotionally backed sense on the part of ME now that ME will be there in the future.

My experience of the self is just one kind among others; no doubt some people have it in a more extreme form. It matters here only insofar as it supports the claim that a sense of the self need not necessarily involve experience of it as something with long-term continuity. This experience may be common, but it is not universal, it fades over time in some, and is withered, in others, by reflection.

Some think that conscious experience flows, that this is simply given prior to any theoretical suppositions. According to James, ‘Consciousness ... does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as “train” or “chain” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described ... Let us call it the stream of consciousness, or of subjective life.’

This seemed a good move in 1890, given the dominant psychological atomism that inspired the metaphors of trains and chains, collections, bundles and heaps. But perhaps we have now been misled in the opposite direction, into thinking consciousness more fluent than it is. This is important: for if consciousness does feel stream-like then this may be part – although only a part – of the explanation of why many people have a sense of continuity. In fact I think the metaphor of the stream is inapt, even though streams contain pools and falls – not to mention weeds and stones. Thought has very little natural continuity or experiential flow – if mine is anything to go by. It keeps slipping from mere consciousness into self-consciousness and out again. It is always shooting off, shorting out, spurting and stalling. James likened it to ‘a bird’s life ... an alternation of flights and perchings’ (the idea is beautifully developed), but even this image retains strong continuity insofar as a bird traces a spatio-temporally continuous path, and it fails to take adequate account of the fact that trains of thought are constantly interrupted by detours, fissures, byblows and white noise.

This is especially so when we are just sitting thinking. Things are different if our attention is engaged by some ordered and continuous process in the external world, like a fast and exciting game, or music. In this case thought or experience may be felt to take on the ordered continuity of the phenomenon which occupies it. But it may still cut out and restart, or flash with extraneous matter from time to time, and it is arguable that the case of solitary speculative thought merely reveals in a relatively dramatic way something that is true to a greater or lesser extent of all thought. Joyce’s use of full stops in Ulysses makes his depiction of consciousness more accurate in the case of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus (who have many) than in the case of Molly Bloom (who has none). There may be some difference between the sexes – Virginia Woolf claimed that Dorothy Richardson had ‘invented the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’ – but it is not normally so marked. Molly Bloom’s great flood of words resembles speech more than thought.

Radical disjunction does not occur only at the level of content. Switches of subject-matter can be absolute, and still be seamless in that they involve no sensible temporal gap or interruption of consciousness. It seems to me that the experience of seamlessness is relatively rare. When I’m alone and thinking and consider my thinking I find that the fundamental experience is one of repeated returns into consciousness from a state of complete, if momentary, non-consciousness. The (invariably brief) periods of true continuity are usually radically disjunct even when it is the same thought (or nearly the same thought) that I return to after an episode of absence. It is as if consciousness is continually restarting. It keeps banging out of nothingness; it is a series of comings-to.

Some hiatuses involve complete switches of focus and subject-matter. Others occur between thoughts that are connected in subject-matter, or when we are attending to something in such a way that we hardly notice the hiatus because the content of experience is more or less the same afterwards as before. In this case, the hiatus may be a mere caesura, an entirely accidental feature of the mechanism of consciousness. But it is likely that it is also functional in some way, part of a basic process of regirding attention: a new ‘binding’ of the mental manifold, a new synthesis in the Kantian sense. The hiatus is often fast: it’s not hard to overlook the absolute fugues and interstitial vacancies of consciousness – just as we overlook the blinks of our eyes. But they are easily noticeable when attended to, available to memory in our current state of consciousness.

Perhaps this is a rash generalisation from my own case, or an unwitting confession of schizophrenia. I think, though, that introspection will reveal the same to everyone, if in different degrees. It’s true that belief in the reality of flow may itself contribute to an experience of it, but the appearance of flow is undercut by even a modest amount of reflection.

Perhaps the experience of disjunction is an artefact of introspection, however: perhaps the facts get distorted by the attempt to observe them. Perhaps unexamined consciousness has true flow. The reply to this objection is, first, that even if the appearance of disjunction were partly – or even largely – an artefact, this would be a striking fact about how consciousness appears to itself, important when considering the underpinnings of a sense of continuity. A second reason the objection seems wrong is that awareness of disjunction can surface spontaneously: we can become aware that this is what has been happening, rather than seeing it happen only when we look. In a sense, the issue is undecidable, for in order to decide it we would need to be able to observe something while it was unobserved.

Insofar as it finds support in the moment-to-moment nature of consciousness, then, the sense of continuity does not derive from a phenomenon of steady flow, but from other sources – such as the constancies and coherences of content that often link up experiences through time, and, by courtesy of short-term memory, across the radical jumps and breaks of flow. I work in a room for an hour; I look up at the rain on the window and turn back to the page; I hold the same pen throughout. Examined in detail, the processes of my thought may be scatty. And yet I am experientially in touch with a great pool of constancies and steady processes of change in my environment, which includes my body. These constancies and steadinesses in the contents of consciousness may seem like fundamental characteristics of its operation, although they are not. And this in turn may support the sense of the self as something truly continuous throughout the waking day, and smooth the path to the idea of it as an entity that may be continuous also during sleep, and so from week to week to month to year.

Although I have no sense of seamless flow in the process of consciousness, it doesn’t immediately follow that I have no sense of the continuing mental self. When we first try to think about our sense of the self – and to think about it, rather than simply have it, is already difficult – our first reaction may well be that it does present the self as a single thing continuing throughout the waking day: something that has all the interrupted thoughts and experiences but is not itself interrupted. This reaction is backed up by our awareness of our continuity as embodied human beings with robustly persisting sets of basic beliefs, preferences, mental abilities and so on. In my case, however, the reaction is weak, and soon undermined. As I think further about my mental life, I’m met by the sense that there is no ‘I’ that goes on through the waking day (and beyond). I feel I have continuity only as an embodied human being. If I consider myself as a mental subject of experience, my sense is that I am continually new.

I don’t mean new or different in respect of personality and outlook. I have an adequate grasp of the similarities that characterise me from day to day. And yet, when I consider the fundamental experience of myself as a mental self, my feeling is that I am continually new. In his autobiography, John Updike writes: ‘I have the persistent sensation, in my life ... that I am just beginning.’ This seems exactly right. The experience of the ‘I’ as in some sense new each time is (I suggest) fundamental and universally available, although it is occluded for many by familiar and contrary habits of thought, and may emerge clearly only on reflection. I feel I’m a nomad in time, although the metaphor is intussusceptive, because it is the ‘I’ itself that has the transience of abandoned camping-grounds.

Research by Pöppel shows that the conscious now’ is about three seconds long: this is the most we can hold together at any one time, experientially speaking. ‘In this sense,’ writes Miroslav Holub, ‘our ego lasts three seconds.’ His claim is tangential to mine. I don’t think that the brevity of the ‘conscious now’ necessarily contributes to the sense of hiatus or newness, for our experience could resemble a narrow beam of light sweeping smoothly along. The length of the ‘conscious now’ may set an upper limit on hiatus-free periods of thought, but it doesn’t follow that there will always be conscious experience of hiatus within any four-second period (there may be none for days). Nor, crucially, am I claiming that the self will never appear to last longer than the conscious now, when reflected on. My use of the word ‘long-term’ is vague but not idle: the self can certainly be felt to persist throughout a period of time that includes a break or hiatus, and its temporal extent may appear very different in different contexts of thought (fear of death raises interesting questions).

Some may doubt my claims about how I experience consciousness; those who do not may think I’m part of a small minority. Experience like mine may be thought to be the unnatural result of doing philosophy, or drugs. But even if the experience of disjunction was specifically the result of philosophical reflection, it wouldn’t follow that it resulted from philosophy distorting the data. Philosophy may simply make us examine the already existing nature of our experience more closely. Even if the experience were unnatural or uncommon in daily life, it would not follow that it gives a less accurate picture of how things are; for many natural experiences represent things inaccurately. More important, the experience may be natural in the sense that any ordinary human being who considers the matter will find that he or she comes to have it.

Human beings, then, can have a vivid sense of the self without having any sense of it as something that has either personality or long-term continuity. Does this improve the prospects for the claim that a sense of the self could be an accurate representation of something that actually exists – even if materialism is true? I think it does, although the full argument would require a careful statement of what it is to be a true materialist, further inquiry into the notion of a thing, and a challenge to the problematic distinction between things and processes. Perhaps the best account of the existence of the self is one that may be given by certain Buddhists. It allows that the self exists, at any given moment, while retaining all the essential Buddhist criticisms of the idea of the self. It gives no reassurance to those who believe in the soul, but it doesn’t leave us with nothing. It stops short of the view defended by many analytic philosophers, according to which the self is a myth insofar as it is thought to be different from the human being considered as a whole. It leaves us with what we have, at any given time – a self that is materially respectable, distinctively mental, and as real as a stone.