- Modern thought literally begins with the self. Rene Descartes, beginning his Meditations of 1641 from a stance of methodical doubt, quickly discovered that there was one thing he couldn’t doubt: that he himself existed. This conclusion, in turn, was based on his experience of himself as a conscious being – hence, "Cogito, ergo sum" and "Sum res cogitans".
- More recently, the editors of the New York Times Magazine, in one of six special issues celebrating the year 2000, dubbed the previous 1000 years "The Me Millennium": This sense of self is critical to our status as persons. In fact, philosophers often use the terms self and person interchangeably: a capacity for self-awareness is necessary for full personhood. One has a sense of self if one is able to entertain first-person thoughts, and if one possesses first-person knowledge. The eye cannot see itself, but the self somehow knows itself: the simultaneous status of self as subject and object of awareness is one of the enduring problems of philosophy.
- For human beings, at least, and perhaps for some other animals as well, cognition is not simply directed at the external environment. Our minds also turn inward, permitting us to acquire, store, retrieve, and use knowledge about ourselves – which raises a further issue, stated eloquently by Gordon Allport: Although the self is a thorny metaphysical problem for philosophers, raising questions about mind and body, the homunculus, and whether teleporters1 can replicate2 subjective identity as well as material existence (Gallagher, 2000; Gallagher & Shear, 1999), cognitive psychology offers a simple answer to James’ question: the self is a mental representation of oneself, including all that one knows about oneself (Kihlstrom & Cantor, 1984; Kihlstrom et al., 1988). The I who knows the me is the same I who knows everything else, and the mental representation of this knowledge is no different, except perhaps in intimacy and richness, than is the mental representation of anything else I know. The solution is perhaps too simple, but it was the solution offered by William James (James, 1890/1980), and it is a start.
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