- What am I1? What kind of entity, what kind of being? To what exactly does the term “I” refer? The dictum from Greece, "know thyself", courses through Western philosophy; it echoes in calls from Gnosticism, Vedanta, and Samkhya yoga to uncover our own true nature. The wide range of theories is somewhat surprising: soul, material object, Turing machine realization, Atman as Brahman, and so on. Since one of the self's distinctive properties, surely, is its capacity for self-consciousness2, you would think that if it knew anything, it would know its own nature. Yet the self is a problem and puzzle to itself. A theory should explain both the self's special awareness and its continuing mystery, even to itself.
- Our desire to know our natures is not solely theoretical. This knowledge by itself will not settle the question of how we ought to live, but in fixing the range and limits of the possibilities open to us, it determines what alternatives we choose among when we choose how to live and be.
- We each want to understand not only the kind of being we are, but also what constitutes our individual identity as a particular being of that kind. If what we are3 is persons, to use a relatively neutral term, we want to know what differentiates or individuates one person from another. Even things as basic as how to count persons can be baffling. If an exact physical replica is made of you, with the same exact psychology and (apparent) memories, are there two persons or one? When "multiple personalities" are exhibited in alternation by one human body, how many persons are there? If the corpus callosum between the right and left cerebral hemispheres is severed, how many persons are there? We also want a view of when events constitute a change in the same person, as opposed to his destruction followed by the substitution or creation of another person. It is this topic, the identity of a person through time, that the philosophical literature refers to under the rubric: personal identity. A view of the kind of entity a person is, of what differentiates one person from another and in what his identity over time consists, is a view from the outside, so to speak. Viewing ourselves from the inside, we also each want to understand what makes ourself a particular one of those persons.
- The very puzzling questions that arise, quickly, in trying to understand the nature of the self, together add up to the question: how is the self possible? (Presumably, this is a question we can investigate without being tempted to wonder whether the thing is, after all, possible.) I shall not be able in this chapter to consider all these questions, not even all the most important ones.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)