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.

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