Review of Galen Strawson's 'Selves'
Jenkins (Phil)
Source: Metapsychology Online Reviews - Volume 14, Number 09, 2010
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  1. Galen Strawson, analytic philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, tends to hold contrarian views about metaphysical subjects. While being one of England's—nay the world's—most respected analytic philosophers, in various places he argues against free will, for panpsychism, and here, in a debate that tends to be lopsided toward the view that selves don't exist, for the existence of selves. One might think that such bold moves yield interesting reading, and, perhaps counterintuitively for a 472 page work of metaphysics, one would be quite correct. However, one must come prepared to wade in very deeply into the subject indeed. This book is not for the faint of philosophical heart.
  2. In Selves, Strawson not only argues that selves exist, but he argues they exist as concrete physical objects. The key lies in how Strawson conceives of the physical. Physical reality does not consist of substantive objects that are independent of their properties, but rather as events or actions. That is, he has a process view of physical objects whereby tables, chairs, cheese, and armadillos, etc. are ultimately made of "collocations of patterns of energy, fabulously diaphanous process entities whose existence involves a constant interchange with the quantum vacuum." (12) This view results in selves being no more problematic than other physical objects.
  3. After the first of eight parts lays out what Strawson intends to do, in parts two through five he analyzes selves phenomenologically -- a project he argues is essential. Then in sections six through eight he takes the results of the analysis earlier gained and makes his metaphysical case for the existence of selves. This strategy to describe the target phenomena experientially seems a reasonable thing to do given that the target phenomena, perhaps the hardest thing in the world to describe at all, can only be known through first-hand experience. Strawson's peculiar expertise is his ability to make the most outrageous metaphysical views seem quite sensible.
  4. Strawson gives and discusses many arguments and delves nonchalantly into a plethora of positions; in fact the book reads – like many great books - much like a conversation with someone who has thought about little else than his subject for decades. Part of the project of defining the self involves what Strawson calls the Whittling Argument which is a series of claims and arguments about what essentially must belong to the self. For instance, reflecting closely on our experience tells us that selves must necessarily have four essential properties: subject, single, mental, thing. Fitting these into the unattractive acronym sesmet, he says that we experience ourselves as subjects, as being single (rather than plural), as being mental (rather than bodily) and as a thing (having bounded limits). This is an austere definition of what it is to be a self, running contrary to the view of many that selves are shaped by life experiences.
  5. For instance, how, one may ask, can one leave out one's gender from an adequate account of one's sense of self? Don't we routinely take our experiences to constitute 'who we are'? Perhaps though these are add-on considerations and are not necessary for a strict definition of a self in Strawson's sense. But then, how is it that most of us have the experience of being unique individuals? Making a distinction between two individuals doesn't seem possible if the only properties we have to go on are those four (subject, single, mental, thing). In fact, late in the book, Strawson argues that objects are nothing over and above their concretely existing properties, yet one wonders how this could be when the properties he lists are so devoid of content. None of the four appear to be more than generalizations, without the particular nature that would distinguish two selves from each other.
  6. Perhaps this is problem, and perhaps not. If some of Strawson's results seem counterintuitive, he does make a compelling case for there being selves at all, and this appears to be the main point of the book. Maybe the most interesting part of the book for me was his comparison of the processual nature of the self with the processual nature of physical reality in part six. If selves do shift over time (though I'm still nagged by how such general properties can 'change' over time; what aspect of subject, single, mental, and thing is capable of change?) then so too do physical objects, as post-1925 physics reminds us. Physical objects are mostly space and electric charge; at the quantum level it's clear that the world would not appear to us in the way it does now. Why should we cast selves out of our ontology merely because they have a shifting, dynamic nature? Moreover, our selves are the surest metaphysical thing we know to exist (just ask Descartes).
  7. Selves is a challenging read; an extensive (if not massive) and detailed excursion into the rocky metaphysical terrain concerning one of the most difficult questions in philosophy. But Strawson, son of another renowned twentieth century philosopher (P. F. Strawson), applies a masterful grasp of the subject and has given us one of the most thorough, well-argued books on the existence and nature of the self in recent years. If you are a certain kind of person -- one who likes hefty tomes on metaphysics for instance -- this may be just the book for you. If not, well, if you apply yourself, you might just learn an awful lot about a very hard subject. And what better way to impress your friends and family than to start talking metaphysics at your next family gathering?

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