The Self?Review - The Self?
by Galen Strawson (Editor)
Blackwell, 2005
Review by Natalie F. Banner
Jan 8th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 2)

The Self? is a collection of six papers based on a conference at Reading University in 2003 edited by Galen Strawson, covering a broad range of issues in the metaphysics, ethics and phenomenology of the self. In spite of the long, well-trodden historical tradition in philosophy of questioning the nature of the self, the collection gathers together some incisive, original argumentation from vastly differing theoretical perspectives. The question mark of the title indicates an overarching theme that suspends judgment on the question of whether there actually are such things as selves, with four of the papers instead concerning what kind of thing the self is or could possibly be.

In Chapter 1 Barry Dainton offers a phenomenological account of the self based on the natural inclination to suppose that divergence between one's self and one's stream of consciousness is, in principle, impossible. In taking the phenomenal relations between experiences in a single stream of consciousness seriously Dainton argues that in order to do justice to the phenomenology of continuity, an account that accepts there are diachronic connections between all phases of a stream of consciousness must be embraced. He then proposes a number of hypotheses regarding the relation between co-streamal experiences (that is, occurring in the same stream of consciousness) and consubjectivity (that is, belonging to the same self).

The latter half of the paper is an attempt to retain an account of self grounded in phenomenal experience in the face of a significant problem: that there are gaps in phenomenal continuity in dreamless sleep. Dainton's response is based on the underlying concept of an 'Experience Producer' (EP); an entity that has the capacity to produce unified experiences. Being a self is thus based upon the idea of being an EP and having the power or capacity to generate experiences, Yet Dainton seeks to retain the notion that identity conditions of the self can be stated only in experiential or phenomenal terms. Although Dainton does not explicitly mention the object/process dichotomy that springs up elsewhere in the collection, his focus on the capacity or potential to generate experience reflects his underlying commitment to the idea of selves as properties and not as objects.

In Chapter 2, Ingmar Persson considers the conditions of selfhood to argue that selves, or the reference of the indexical 'I', are not and cannot be things of any kind. Taking as his starting point the idea that if a self is anything at all, it is a subject of experience to which experiential states are attributable: this is what Persson refers to as the owner aspect of the self. Further, a self is something which is aware of itself; an aspect referred to by Persson as the phenomenal aspect of selfhood. This aspect is constituted by one's proprioception (the awareness we have of the position of our bodies in 3-D space). The term "subject of experience" is utilized to refer to entities that possess both aspects. A wedge is driven between subjects of experience and selves by the aspect of introspective awareness: a subject must be aware of himself as an owner of experience in order to be considered a self. Plugged into this account is an essential self-referential function, such that tokens of the term 'I' necessarily refer to the physically perceived producer of the token, construed by phenomenal awareness aspect of the self. Several substantial difficulties are immediately apparent with these remarks. For example, although he makes a vague gesture towards the evolutionary value of self-awareness it is by no means clear that this is an essential aspect of selfhood. This problem, combined with the dubious supposition that the self is something that 'owns' experiences, threatens to undermine the foundations of Persson's whole discussion yet it is given surprisingly little attention.

Persson attacks the intuitive notion that it is our bodies that fulfil his criteria. Bodies fail to satisfy the essential conditions of selfhood: they are neither non-derivatively the owners of experience nor are they essentially transparent to us. Hence selves are not identical to bodies. Having failed to find any alternative to satisfy these conditions, Persson concludes that 'we' as selves are not identical to any kind of thing. The thesis is not entirely negative however, as Persson gestures towards reconceiving the kind 'self' in functional rather than natural terms. Quite what this entails is not developed further in the paper and one is left wondering quite how an account that goes so strongly against intuition could possibly make sense.

Marya Schechtman in Chapter 3 by contrast takes seriously our pre-philosophical intuitions regarding selfhood and discusses two ostensibly conflicting views of expressions of the self based on two natural situations where we are minded to exclaim that someone is not being himself. When someone is in a situation whereby he lacks self-control we are inclined to say he is not being himself, yet paradoxically we may say this is the situation in which he is most fully himself, perhaps revealing his 'true nature'. Hence the question is raised: how can one fail to be oneself? Underlying both intuitions is, Schechtman argues, the possibility of being alienated from one's life, thus implying there is conceptual space for a schism between one's lived experience and one's self. Centering the writings of Harry Frankfurt on the idea of wholeheartedness, Schechtman attempts to develop an account of what it is to "be oneself" that accommodates this possibility and makes sense of these apparently conflicting intuitions. This account is based upon the idea of selves as being "comprised of a set of natural inclinations and traits" (p.50) which are partly constituted by a desire for a type or way of life that is meaningful and thus comprise our "natures". We can thus fail to be ourselves if we act in such a way as to fail to express our natures, although these may not always be transparent to us. Schechtman cites the need for balance between constraint and liberty as being a defining feature of being oneself, although the relation between being oneself and being a self (a relation that would enable this paper to tally well with others in the collection) is not articulated.

Galen Strawson's 'Against Narrativity' in Chapter 4 offers a refreshing defiance of the current fashion in various disciplines to appeal to one's sense of self as essentially narratively construed. Having distinguished between a psychological Narrativity thesis that people actually do construe their lives in narrative form, and the ethical Narrativity thesis that one should construe it as such, Strawson quickly demolishes the descriptive thesis with a straightforward empirical denial whilst adamantly rebutting the second. He suggests that there may well be "Diachronic" people who experience their self as having existed in the past and being projected into the future, but insists that this is not the only way of construing one's life and that he himself is an "Episodic" person (finding himself in the illustrious company of such greats as Virginia Woolf and Bob Dylan). Strawson admits that something of a stand-off results between advocates of the psychological Narrativity thesis and himself, as empirical arbitration is impossible: Strawson will flatly deny any claim that we are essentially Diachronic, citing his own experience in his defense. This paper has a leisurely, humorous tone that belies its complexity but certainly provides an antidote to loose, unreflective talk of narrativity pervading, among others, contemporary psychology, psychiatry and anthropology.

In Chapter 5, Bas van Fraassen somewhat surprisingly opens with a quote from Sartre before hastily reminding the audience he in no way aligns himself with the Existentialist tradition. His aim is to use normal pre-philosophical intuitions to power a compelling reading of Sartre's remark "I am in this world, but not of this world" (p.87) whilst retaining materialism. In a similar vein to Persson, van Fraassen denies the self is identical with either the body or the human being as a whole, yet he diverges from Persson in wishing to retain the notion of a self as some kind of substance. However the notion employed, if it can be referred to as "substance", signifies a radical departure from the traditional notion of substance as something capable of existing independently of other created beings. Van Fraassen is quite willing to abandon such metaphysical criteria to achieve without trivializing the claim that the self is not a thing yet is not nothing. He uses a literary example to illustrate his problematic, that of the fictional bodiless knight Agiluf and his squire Gurdaloo who cannot distinguish himself from the surrounding environment. Having demonstrated the inadequacy of criteria to distinguish one's body from other parts of nature via physical, psychological, phenomenological or social criteria, van Fraassen argues the relation between one's self and body cannot be one of identity. Similarly rejecting supervenience theories about the relation van Fraassen concludes that what can be said about the self is that it is a subject of experience, and that this an intuitive, innocuous fact that does not require heavy metaphysical artillery to defend it.

Finally Chapter 6 sees Peter van Inwagen describe his "incredulous stare" reaction to Galen Strawson's theory of the self (not presented in this collection); a theory van Inwagen cannot quite bring himself to believe that Strawson genuinely believes. The paper sees van Inwagen engaging in a hypothetical debate, attempting to pre-empt Strawson's responses to his criticisms of the metaphysical component of the former's theory of SESMETS (Subjects of Experience that are Single MEntal Things). For instance, regarding Strawson's insistence that selves or SESMETS are real things, van Inwagen enquires as to the nature of the properties these real things must possess. Using a hypothetical dialogue with Strawson, van Inwagen argues the former would cite van Inwagen's susceptibility to the metaphysical object/process distinction as the source of his discomfort and line of questioning about the properties of selves. The paper proceeds with a series of responses and hypothesized counter-responses from the critic of the object/process dichotomy. The collapse of this distinction is essential to Strawson's general metaphysical framework underpinning his theory of selves, for the following reason. On the one hand, selves must be temporal processes, episodes in a person's mental life, but on the other the referent of the term 'I' must be an object if it is to successfully refer. Van Inwagen professes "bewilderment" in the face of Strawson's rejection of the dichotomy, which is perhaps surprising as Strawson is by no means the only philosopher to have propounded this general metaphysical framework. I confess to finding van Inwagen's strategy of developing his own alternative metaphysical framework baffling if it is intended as an attempt to derail Strawson's theory of selves; there are surely bigger fish to fry and more obvious targets than Strawson if one is to go to the lengths of developing a metaphysical theory in which the dichotomy between objects and processes is retained.

In summary, this is a well-edited, concise collection of papers that could serve to revive interest in the metaphysics of selfhood, particularly those papers following the current trend in incorporating phenomenology into more traditional fields of analytic philosophy. There are a number of threads running through the papers, in particular, the metaphysical dichotomy between objects and processes and the nature of substances strike at the heart of van Fraassen's and van Inwagen's papers. However, it would perhaps assist the cohesion of the collection if the papers were not quite so self-contained: several authors covering similar ground but possessing strikingly different and incompatible views seem either unaware of or unwilling to engage with one other, although this may simply reflect a limitation of producing a short collection. Strawson does a fine editorial job in his comprehensive introduction to the papers, but there is fertile ground for debate here and the isolation of each paper feels to the reader like something of a missed opportunity. Nonetheless this collection would be of interest to anyone keen to gain a grasp of the current state of play in debates about the metaphysics of the self.

© 2008 Natalie F. Banner

Natalie F. Banner, PhD Research Student, Institute for Philosophy, Diversity & Mental Health, Centre for Ethnicity & Health, University of Central Lancashire

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