What Is A Self, and Why Should You Care?

Copyright 2010 Bruce W. Hauptli

I am a Swiss-Welsh-Irish-Scottish-English-American whose ancestors came to this country from 1630-1903. My most recent immigrant ancestor was my grandfather, Herbert August Hauptli (born: 11/01/1890 in Thal, Switzerland; died 11/25/1945 in Dubuque, Iowa). He arrived in the U.S.A. in 1903. He entered Columbia University and took a degree in Chemical Engineering (1909). He served for a year as an Assistant Professor, then went to work for industry. The least recent immigrant ancestor I have uncovered is Robert Lockwood (died 1658). He arrived on the Arabella in Winthrop's fleet at Salem in 1630, and settled near Watertown, Mass. He moved to Fairfield, Conn. in 1646. His great-great-great-great-grandson was Abraham Lockwood 2nd who was a revolutionary soldier in Captain Samuel Scott's Company of the Vermont Militia. I was born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1948, graduated from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California in 1966 (having lived also for several years in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan). I received my B.A. in mathematics from Lawrence University and my A.M. and Ph.D. in philosophy from Washington University. I married Laurie Vaile in 1968, and we have two children who are 34 and 33 years old. My favorite composers are Ludwig Beethoven and Jim Morrison. I enjoy watching The Daily Show, Law and Order SVU, and Dr. Who, and can’t wait for the next game in this year's World Cup.

Does any of that really tell you who I am?

I don’t think so! In what follows I raise a number of features or characterizations of selves as I try to get a better idea of what a self is. You should be aware of the fact that other thinkers would stop at various points on this journey saying that at that point I have, finally, provided just those features which are important. Others, of course, would take a different journey (one which covers the same points in another order, or even one which visits other points altogether).

I. Am I My Body?

Who (I will not say "what") am I? Well, am I this body [thump chest]? No, surely not. While we all have a strong "body image," you may, as am I, be actively engaged in a set of regular activities aimed at radically changing your body. I don’t think of this as, really, changing who I am—if anything, given my age, such activities are really an attempt at self-maintenance rather than self-definition! Given that I have had knee replacements, I have to conclude that I am not my body.

     In saying this, I mean to say that I think that this [thump chest again!] isn’t what I am essentially speaking.1 To state what the "essence" of something is to try and state its "necessary and sufficient conditions." Necessary conditions may be described as "those which must be there for an event to occur" (thus paying your parking fines is necessary for graduation), while sufficient conditions are conditions such that the event must occur (thus a direct double shotgun blast to the head is sufficient for death). Note that conditions may be sufficient without being necessary (as in the example), and that necessary conditions need not be sufficient (as in the example).

II. Is Subjective Consciousness Necessary?

If my body isn’t, essentially, me, what is? Is it my mind? Well, what would that be? Minimally, I suppose (there I am again!), it would be a consciousness. But, what is that? How is it different from a body?

Drop the lectern. Who heard the noise? Your body? Your mind? Some composite of the two?  

What I want to contend, to start out here is that whatever/whomever I am, and whatever/whomever you are, being a self is, in part having certain subjective experiences. What do I mean? Well the lectern-dropping example is a start:

subjective experiences have an inherent first-personal element;

the having of them really allows for no serious question as to whom it is who has them—I can’t experience pain (or heartache, or love) and wonder whether or not it is I who has these experiences;

of course, I can be wrong in my identification or description of them—I can confuse lust and love, and, perhaps, even pleasure and pain; and

it makes no sense to say that others have my sensations. While we might have experiences which are qualitatively identical, there seems to be no way to verify that this is the case.

III. Two Sorts of Subjective Selves, and The Importance of Memory and Expectation:

Now the mere having of subjective experiences is not quite enough to get the sort of self I want to be talking about. To see this, ask how "long" subjective experiences last. This leads to a distinction between two sorts of subjective selves:

the "occurrent" subjective self—one which exists only as long as the experience it is having, and

the "substantial" subjective self—one which exists over or through a series of distinct experiences.

Surely an occurrent self is not a rich enough concept for us when we ask about ourselves! Indeed we don’t simply want a self which exists through a series of experiences, most of us would want a self which extends both backward and forward in the field of subjective experience. That is, we want one which has both memories and expectations.

You (and I) would think that if we were deprived of our memories (like, say, the protagonist in the movie Memento)2, we were no longer what we, essentially were.  While there are specific memories that I would like to get rid of, to loose them all would be to cease to be me.

Similarly, I think we conceive of ourselves as stretching into the subjective future. You, for example, are actively thinking about the project or paper you will do for this course, you may have plans for the up-coming semester break, etc. Without memories, expectations, plans, hopes, aspirations, etc., we would be very different kinds of things.

IV. Subjectivity Is Not Enough:

Well, is being a forward-and-backward-leaning subjective experiencer enough?  Is that what a self is?  Only a solipsist could be happy with such a characterization.  A solipsist would be someone who believed that the universe consisted only of herself and her subjective experiences. Such individuals do not have any trouble with Bishop Berkeley’s question ("if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound")—the solipsist says that without her consciousness, "there is no tree or woods (or, indeed, anything else)!" Solipsists are caught in a world which is essentially theirs. While they allow for their own first-personal subjectivity, they allow for nothing else--really.  So it makes no sense to try and talk to, or about them.  This can't, then, be what a self is. 

     Many psychologists contend that the sense of self comes only with a sense of others, and I certainly conceive of myself as actively engaged with other selves (note that I don't say "bodies" here). While I wrote this lecture in front of my computer in my office and in my study at home, I wrote it for you, I answered my phone and e-mail, I talked with my wife, and I thought a lot about other selves!

     But is the fact that I see myself as engaged with others merely an accidental feature of myself, or is an intersubjective element essential? Well, consider your own case. While I don’t really know you individually, my experience leads me to believe that you have spent a good portion of the last four years actively seeking others. I mean, of course, your regular trips to the Grove, South Beach, and other locals where you can, hopefully meet that individual who will help you feel complete (I know, some of you may be seeking animals, but we will let that pass without further comment).

     There is only one person a solipsist can love (or hate), only one person she can talk to, only one person she can play tennis with, etc. Most of us would not be content to say that our selves were only accidentally engaged with other selves! We need others!

     Now I am not sure that I can prove that the intersubjective factor is "essential" to a correct characterization of the self. In addition to the psychologists who claim that a self-conception requires a conception of others, however, let me appeal to our linguistic ability, and to the contextual character of our conceptualizations as evidence of the importance of this factor.

I don’t think an individual could speak or learn a language all on her own. Philosophers call the view I advance here the "private language argument," and I can’t do it justice in this lecture. The simplest element of the argument is that to meaningfully use terms descriptively, one needs to have an independent source of verification that one is using one’s terms consistently . If I am the only speaker of my language, that is, there is no one but me to appeal to when the question arises whether or not I am using a term, "@#$%^&*" for example) correctly—whatever I say goes! If there is no independent check, then talk of either correct or incorrect usage becomes meaningless.  While the referees in soccer make the calls, we all agree they can be wrong--and given some of the calls in this year's World Cup, perhaps they have been granted too much authority by FIFA!  They get the authority to make the calls, but they don't stand as the sole judge of the correctness of their rulings. 

If this argument is good, then language use (even minimal conceptualization also) requires others, and just as I think memory and expectation are necessary if we are to be talking about a sufficiently rich subjective experiencer, so language and conceptualization seem to me to be necessary if we are to be talking about a sufficiently rich conception of selves.  

-Of course, we could be addressing a question like do dogs (or earthworms) have selves, and what are such selves like, and certainly there may be some [primitive] selves which are such without using language or engaging in conceptualization. But I take it that I am supposed to be speaking of "human selves" here, and language use (and extensive ability to conceptualize) certainly seems requisite to such talk!  Without these abilities we would be akin to the person who has lost memory--a self one would not want to be! 

     Many individuals offer a "social" or "cultural" characterization of the self. They contend that the emphasis upon first-person subjective experience is itself the off-spring of a specific cultural orientation. Thomas Hobbes [1588-1679], for example, thinks of individuals [or selves] atomistically (that is as separate and whole individually, and drawn to society only for individual convenience and gain). Hobbes’ selves are essentially egoistic—they only value themselves, they only care for themselves, and any concern they have for others is actually disguised self-love.

Quickly discuss the egoist and his self-love and how important some other sort of love is for us. 

Many of Hobbes’ critics think he misreads his own economic and cultural situation, and takes the resultant picture as if it were a snapshot of the nature of human beings. Feminist critics point out that without someone to care for, nurture, and protect children, Hobbesian children would never survive (let alone prosper), and they contend that he misses our natural sociability.

     I will not develop these critiques further, but simply point out that intersubjectivity is essential even if one adheres to Hobbes’ atomistic orientation. For him an essential feature of the world his selves find themselves in is that it is inhabited by other Hobbesian selves. Moreover, it is their self-concern, self-interest, and egoism which constitutes their primary problem and challenge. Hobbes is no solipsist—he finds himself in a challenging association with other egoists!

     Hobbes points our discussion in another direction however. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, in

...1666, when the House of Commons prepared a bill against atheism and profaneness, that Hobbes felt seriously endangered; for the committee to which the bill was referred was instructed to investigate [his] Leviathan. Hobbes, then verging upon 80, burned such of his papers as he thought might compromise him....3

So, Hobbes sees his “atomistic individuals” as inhabiting a world filled with other such selves.  Of course those who adhere to a “social” view will usually not adhere to Hobbes’ “social contract” view—they will often maintain that individuals are essentially “social beings.”  Here the views of Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers may be important.  Many of them see the self (or individual) as essentially social (as a member of a family, class, and city-state or empire).

Well, are we finally there?

Is a self a forward-and-backward leaning subjective experiencer placed in inter-subjective contact, association, and communion with other such selves?

V. Intersubjectivity Is Not Enough—An Essential Role for the Transcendent?

Many of you, I suspect, would contend that we have not yet come to the core of ourselves because while I have gone beyond subjectivity to intersubjectivity, I have not yet gone on to the most important element of a self—its connection to the transcendent. In short, while I have offered a "communitarian view" (one which emphasizes that selves are to be found in an intersubjective context), the sociability I have mentioned thus far is one which Karl Marx [1818-1873] could be completely comfortable, where as St. Augustine [354-430] would want to talk about one very specific other self—a transcendent deity. For him to conceive of oneself wholly separated from the deity would be to wholly misconceive the self. Bereft of the appropriate connection to the transcendent being, a human self would be incomplete, unfulfilled, despondent, and detached (dare I say "alienated") according to him

     The title of one of St. Augustine’s The City of God [426] provides us with a valuable suggestion as we explore conceptions of the self. For him, to conceive of oneself correctly, one must conceive oneself as, that is essentially as, a citizen of a divine city with a transcendent ruler. Of course Augustine recognizes that there are individuals who are "outside" the city. Some have rebelled, some have otherwise distanced themselves from the status of true citizens (though they may regain residency status), but all selves are to be seen within the context of their relationships with this city and its sovereign. For Augustine, and most medieval thinkers I think, the subjectivistic beginning point I started from would seem entirely alien. The fundamental conceptions of the self would involve reference to a set of concepts centered around sin, damnation, and salvation; and the answer to the question "Who am I?" would certainly take the initial form of "a sinner seeking salvation."

     Now I must confess that I am not a transcendentalist or supernaturalist. Indeed, I am a naturalist, so this last factor is not one I would assign the above degree of importance to. Moreover some transcendentalists will place so much importance upon the above characterization, that they will not want to follow me as I offer one additional factor to our picture. Instead of deciding one way or the other way at this point, however, please consider the following.

VI. Objectivism and The Self:

When mention of Augustine’s deity is made, can mention of Charles Darwin [1809-1882] be far behind? Some would contend that the discussion of the self proceeded too quickly at the beginning of this lecture. I "discarded" the body right away as nonessential, but surely a Darwinian sees us as creatures who have a tenuous toe-hold in an ecological niche which presents us with our central nature and problems. While Darwinian naturalists could allow much of what we have said so far (that we are, in part, backward-and-forward-leaning subjective experiencers placed in intersubjective contact, association, and communion with other such selves, they would certainly maintain that an essential part of what and who we are is only to be understood in terms of the biological, physiological, and ecological context which we find ourselves in.

      In short, they would contend that we can not "discard" reference to the body here--they would deny the essentially "subjectivistic" beginning point implicit above. For them, it is (and is essentially) important to who and what we are. Indeed the Darwinian would certainly contend that some of my desires (my subjective states) are the result of my biological being—the sexual desires which I have may have a strong cultural (or intersubjective) dimension, but they are surely also related to the fact that I am the kind of creature I am. If I were a simple earthworm, able to reproduce by simple "division," I would be a very different being! 

     Of course one need not adhere to Darwinism to be a naturalist any more than one need to adhere to Catholicism to be a transcendentalist. Like the "intersubjectivist," however, these individuals contend that "subjectivity" (even when enlarged in the manner I recommended) is "not enough"—a self is something more than a "center" of subjective experience.

     Obviously, someone could emphasize that all the factors I have mentioned are important! Such a thinker would see us as

forward-and-backward leaning subjective experiencers placed in intersubjective (indeed, cultural) contact, association, and communion with other such selves (both mundane and transcendent) who are also situated in a "natural" environment which influences strongly what we are, what we experience, and what problems we must address.

VII. Well, Are there, really, SELVES?

The experienced students in the class know the lecture isn’t over yet. They know this because I haven’t even got around to speaking about the reading I asked you to do, and, surely, I am not going to miss the opportunity to talk about the reading!

     Daniel Dennett reminds us that there aren’t "really" centers of gravity. While such a concept is incredibly useful and important, he points out, it is an abstractum. According to him selves are like centers of gravity:

a self is also an abstract object, a theorist’s fiction. The theory is not particle physics but what we might call a branch of people-physics; it is more soberly known as phenomenology or hermeneutics, or soul-science (Geisteswissenschaft).4

At the end of his essay, Dennett cites David Hume [1711-1776] who claimed that whenever he looked, he couldn’t "find himself." Well, when I shaved today, did I see myself? I don’t think so. When I focus my attention on my subjective experience, do I "experience" myself? I don’t think so—but here I encourage you to pause and experiment:

concentrate on your experience...do you "find" yourself?

Perversely, self-knowledge, and (self-experience) don’t seem at all easy.

     Of course, the fact (if it is a fact) that something is hard to detect doesn’t establish that it is an abstractum. Moreover Dennett doesn’t really seem to believe that selves are like centers of gravity. Nonetheless, we should be sensitive to the possibility he suggests (that there are not, really, selves). The fact that so many philosophers have spent so long trying to characterize and explain the self could most easily be explained by the claim that these things aren’t real.

     Or, to speak more carefully, this could be so explained except for one fact:

who could make such a claim?

In other words, suppose Daniel Dennett maintains that there are no selves—that they are useful abstracta like centers of gravity, but they are not, really, existent.  I would want to ask him:

Who says there aren’t selves?

A careful study of Hume shows that it is his inability to "find" his self, and his inability to meaningfully conclude he isn’t a self, which together lead him to skepticism. But, as I noted, Dennett doesn’t seem to say that selves are fictional abstracta. What does he say about selves?

VIII. Novelists, Fictional Selves, and Autobiography:

Dennett draws our attention to fictional selves (characters in novels, plays, movies, poems, etc.). He points out the similarities and differences which fictional selves have to their real counterparts. He points out that there is an indeterminacy in fictional selves which we don’t find in their real counterparts:

while it seems clear that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have three nostrils, it is not at all clear that he either does or doesn’t have a mole on his left shoulder blade.5 I am fairly certain that Harry Potter doesn’t have an ear ring—if he did he would have to remove it before he returned to the muggles he lives with during the summer vacations. It is wholly unclear to me, however, whether Heromine has ear rings. Moreover, we could well learn that Harry has acquired such jewelry! While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [1859-1930] is dead, and (assuming he didn’t speak to the issue) there can be no fact of the matter regarding Holmes’ mole, Ms. J.K. Rowling is still alive, however, and she might come to write a new novel about Harry where so we might come to know that he had, an ear ring!

Now Dennett isn’t really interested in these two British authors. He is interested in another sort of character—the [human, non-fictional] self:

…we are all virtuoso novelists who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour, more or less unified, but sometimes disunified, and we always put the best "facts" on if we can. We try to make all our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography.
  The chief fictional character at the center of that autobiography is one’s self. 6

Now I think his remark can be taken three ways: as silly, as important, and as profound.

     It is a silly if you take it minimalistically and on the surface. Autobiographies are not fiction—they aren’t novels. They are a specialized form of biography, and all biographies are accounts of actual lives. For this reason, they aren’t "about" fictional characters, but real ones! The biographies which are autobiographies, of course, are accounts of the life of the author.

     Of course, since we are all inclined to misdescribe, misidentify, and to reinterpret events and agents, we should never take autobiographies as purely authoritative! Indeed, my friends have learned to take some of my stories about my past with a grain of salt—they doubt (and should doubt) the veracity of these accounts. Sometimes I may be actively dissembling; but sometimes I tell stories which I have told and retold so often, that I myself believe they are true. For this reason, you would be well-advised to wonder about my vivid memories of my childhood in Havana! For this reason his comment about our autobiographies being about "fictional characters" is important—we edit, interpret, reinterpret, and, perhaps, even invent elements of these self-portraits.

     The profound sense in which we should take Dennett’s comment takes its cue from our propensities to misdescribe, mischaracterize, and reinterpret. From this beginning point we note that few of us are yet ready to write our autobiographies. This is because most of us are still actively engaged in a process of self-definition. We are more like J.K. Rowling than like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—we are now actively writing our stories (well, she has said she has stopped writing those stories, more's the pity, but perhaps as she continues to develop her life story, more Potter stories will come). If we take Dennett’s suggestion to heart, we recognize that as we continue to define ourselves (via our rememberings, expectings, theorizing, and acting), we can (and do) change ourselves—sometimes fundamentally. One can adopt a critical attitude, become a fan of FIU Football, change one’s sexual identity, or become born again. Here one radically redefines one’s self, and this "editorial responsibility," is what Dennett profoundly draws our attention to.

     Like the author of a fictional novel, as we "write our autobiographies, we can change our central character’s defining characteristics. Clearly good fictional authors have an idea where they are going (J.K. Rowling may begin with Harry Potter in the world of the muggles, but surely she knew he was going to discover his true character, and surely she had ideas about how it would develop through the series of books)!

     Unfortunately, we can’t "rewrite" our stories—some of who or what we are is "defined" by what we do, and once you have done some things, there is no escaping their influence upon who you are—thus we find the origins of regret, pride, shame and courage. Moreover, our earlier actions set constraints upon our stories. We don’t get to start each day with a blank slate. However confused you are about who you are, and however much you want to change who you are, you begin each "chapter" where you last left off.

     Nonetheless, Dennett is certainly correct to draw our attention to our role as authors of ourselves. In effect, he encourages us to take responsibility for the narratives we are writing. While you may at times feel like you are "many characters" who are "in search of an author," and while your life story is partly conditioned by your past, your family, your culture, your religious beliefs, and by your biology, you must ultimately take responsibility for the story you are writing.

     There are many factors which make "normal writing" difficult for all of us. We have to decide whether to employ the active or passive voice; whether to write in the present, past, or future tense; whether our sentences are garbled and awkward; and what style works best for us. Moreover, at least for the writing we do here at the University, we have to decide whether to plagiarize, obfuscate, employ sexist language, etc.

     The “additional characteristic” of selves which I am drawing your attention to in this discussion of Dennett is that your self is something which you “make” and, thus, something you are responsible for.  That is, selves have a moral aspect, and the kind of character you “write” is one you bear responsibility for.  Now a writer’s responsibility for her fictional characters is not as significant as is your responsibility for the central character of your autobiography!

     The "narrative responsibility" I am highlighting is a very serious one.  If your biography is plagiarized, the life you live is really not yours. If your biography is garbled, unclear, contradictory, or without a coherent thesis, then the "fault" is wholly your own—you had the opportunity to edit, revise, and critically consider before you hit the "send" button. There are many editorial choices, of course. You can (and should, I contend) be concerned whether or not the biography you are writing is "beautiful."—but that is another story.


1 “Essentialists” contend that there are precise characterizations of “things,” and they seek such characterizations.  Thus they believe that one can say exactly what triangles are (“closed three-sided figures”).  I am not an essentialist, and certainly not about “selves.”  Nonetheless dealing with this would take us too far afield here, and I will adopt the essentialists’ way of speaking throughout this lecture. Back

2 Memento [2001], by Christopher Nolan.  Cf.,
   http://dir.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/2001/06/28/memento_analysis/index.html  for an excellent account of the movie.  Back

3 "Hobbes, Thomas," Britannica Online (http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/273/17.html, accessed 15 January 1999.  Back

4 Daniel Dennett, “Why Everyone Is A Novelist,” The Times Literary Supplement, September 16-22, 1988, pp. 1016, and 1028-1029.  The essay is reprinted in The Place of Mind, ed. Brian Coony (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2000), pp. 466-474; and this citation is taken from p. 467 of the reprint.  All further references are to the reprinted version.  Back

5 Cf., ibid., p. 468.  Back

6 Ibid., p. 473—emphasis added to the passage.  Back

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