Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death
Sorabji (Richard)
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Author’s Introduction (Full Text)

  1. The subject of this book is the idea of the Self, and I will start with that. But gradually there will emerge implications for life and death, and how we should view them. Parts of the book are more historical, others largely philosophical, although these categories are never separate1.
  2. My original interest in the self stemmed from my discovery at the age of six that mortality applied to me and not just to insects. Initially, that interest led to a focus on certain types of question about the self, particularly whether it made sense to think of the same person as existing again after the interruption of death, and what made people distinct from each other. Those questions of personal identity and difference have indeed provided the main focus for much modern philosophy of the self. But actually the subject is much wider, and even for someone whose interest remains confined to mortality, other relevant aspects of selfhood need to be considered. The process of writing a book on the self and of taking in ancient treatments of selfhood led me to realize that the subject is much wider again. The Greeks from early on were interested in the idea of a human’s true self. Later, they became interested in identity in a different sense, the individual’s identity or persona. They were also interested in self-awareness, its possibility, its value as a route to the deepest truths, and eventually, but not until much later, its supposed certainty.
  3. These ancient interests created a huge range of conceptions of self, which contrasted with the very minimalist or negative views prevalent in the tradition stemming from the English philosophers Locke and Hume. The many denials in the current English-speaking tradition that there is any such thing as self seemed wrong to me. And the views of self connected with this denial seemed to me impoverished compared with the rich variety of conceptions in Antiquity. I could not believe all of these ancient conceptions, but some of them seemed to me to contain truth, and I felt something had been lost in neglecting them. There was still more to be gained, I thought, from the separate ancient and medieval controversy on selfhood between Buddhists and Hindus.
  4. In parts II, III, VI, and VII of the resulting book, I focus on the aspects of selfhood that I have described as the most familiar ones: personal identity and difference. Part II is concerned with the question what constitutes the same person at different times, part III with what differentiates people at the same time, or even outside of time. Parts VI and VII return to the question of identity at different times, but with a difference. In these later stages of the book, I am less concerned with introducing texts for analysis and discussion, except for some Indian texts, and more concerned with engaging in philosophical reflection on the issues.
  5. I discuss less familiar aspects of selfhood, particularly in part IV, where I consider the idea of a person’s identity in the different sense of a persona in ethics, and in part V, where I deal with questions of self-awareness. These issues are interconnected because to create a persona and act in the light of it, one needs self-awareness. But parts IV and V also connect with the other parts. Already part III introduces Plato’s idea of the true self, the same for everyone, reason or intellect. The idea of persona in part IV individualizes that idea. Each individual has a distinct individual persona, which is in some ways like a true self. But there are differences: it is not an essence but at most a nature, something that can be molded and either developed or to some extent opposed. Other parts of the book connect with the theme of self-awareness in part V. Thus the case in part VI against people being no more than embodied streams of consciousness turns on our needing, for purposes of ethics and agency, to be aware of the self-same self at different times.
  6. Chapter two of part I is a special chapter in that it introduces some issues that are not further developed in the rest of the book, and some of these issues connect with self-awareness too. Thus the idea of finding ultimate truths or realities within, discussed in chapter two depends on an intense form of self-awareness. Chapter two also introduces the Stoic idea of the newborn’s natural attachment to its own body, an attachment that starts from a self-awareness of one’s own body.
  7. Nowadays philosophers tend to separate such discussions up. Charles Taylor’s seminal Sources of the Self2 is about something like the personae that people have had at different times in Western history. He does not, like Derek Parfit, discuss metaphysical questions about what sort of self can be supposed to exist in the universe. Conversely, many discussions of the self confine themselves to such metaphysical issues. Marya Schechtman is unusual in her book, "Schechtman (Marya) - The Constitution of Selves", in comparing metaphysical ideas about the self with ideas about a person’s identity in the sense of persona, and finding the latter more important. Parfit’s outstanding "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" is itself unusual not only in that it is wide enough to draw very interesting conclusions about ethics as well as metaphysics, but also in that it rejects the usual metaphysics according to which it is very important whether a person at one time is identical with a person at another time. Because he rejects the importance of this identity, he is able to take the view that major changes of value can produce a different self. They do this not by changing the metaphysical situation and making a person cease to be identical with a former self. Rather, on Parfit’s view, the changes of value can alter the closeness of links in a stream of consciousness, and it is that, rather than identity, that really makes a difference to what self there is. He thus turns out to share a view with those whose interest is in personae, that people can contribute to creating their self, just as they can contribute to creating their persona.
  8. I think there is value to seeing the wider canvas and taking in the wider range of questions that were discussed in Antiquity, both because of their intrinsic interest and because of their interconnections.
  9. I now offer a guide to the structure of the book by providing a summary of the topics to be discussed.

In-Page Footnotes ("Sorabji (Richard) - Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death")

Footnote 1: Breakdown:-
  • Life: chapters five, eight to ten, thirteen, and fifteen.
  • Death: chapters three, six, eight, ten, and sixteen to nineteen.
  • Largely philosophical: chapters one, end of three, four, eight, nine, end of fourteen, fifteen, seventeen to nineteen.
  • Chapters five and twelve bear on Locke and Descartes.
Footnote 2:

For the full text, see Sorabji - Self - Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, And Death.

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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