Philosophers ask: What do we mean by “self”

problems-of-the-selfPsychology is a relatively recent discipline (late 19th century). With a few notable exceptions (William James, neo-Freudians, humanists), psychologists largely ignored the self until the late 20th century. Only with the decline of behaviorism and psychoanalysis did the self emerge as a topic worthy of consideration.

Philosophy, on the other hand, has a long history of examining the self. In the East we have the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, and the teachings of Gautama Buddha. In the West, we have Plato, followed by pre-Enlightenment religious philosophers who were concerned with the sinful qualities of the self (egotism, pride, selfishness). During the Enlightenment, various philosophers — Descartes, Locke, Hume, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Kant — weighed in on the subject. Ever since that time, philosophers have continually disagreed on the nature of the self.

Philosophers refer to “the problem of the self.” This “problem” includes such questions as: Is there a self? Can we know it? What is the nature of self-awareness? How does the self relate to the mind and the body? What (if anything) does the self have to do with the brain?

There is no problem of the self

In an article called There is No Problem of the Self (PDF), Eric T. Olson argues that there are so many disparate uses (and thus meanings) of the term self that philosophy should consider abandoning the word altogether. When a discussion claims to be about the self, he says, it’s really about something else. Since a problem has to be about something, and philosophers can’t agree on what that is, there is no problem of the self.

Olson lists eight answers philosophers might give to the question “What is a self?” (and I’m sure he could have given many more).

Three of Olson’s answers are similar to those offered by psychologists Leary and Tangney, discussed in the last post. (quotations in what follows are from Olson)

  • Self as the total person (“One’s self is just that person, himself”)
    So, if you mean person, why not just say person, not self.
  • Self as Experiencing Subject (“One’s self is an aggregate of or a construction out of one’s sense-experiences”)
    One of Olson’s objections to this definition: “Can a bundle of thoughts ride a bicycle?”
  • Self as Beliefs about Oneself (“One’s self is a psychological or behavioural attribute of one”)
    Olson’s objection: “No one seriously supposes that he is a psychological attribute. No psychological attribute could think about Vienna, or sleep badly, or drink coffee.” Better to call beliefs about myself my self-concept.

Olson dismisses one possible answer as of historical interest only:

  • One’s self is that unchanging, simple substance to which one’s impressions and ideas have reference
    This was the view of David Hume, and while it may be of only historical interest to Olson (who is discussing Western philosophy), it is the essence of how the self is understood in much of Eastern philosophy. Hume believed that we have a bundle of sensations, and we associate them with something we call a self. Buddhist philosophers believe that when we carefully observe our inner states, what we find are mere fleeting sensations, not something that persists over time.

The four remaining answers:

  • One’s self is the inner subject of one’s conscious experiences
    If I am the subject of my conscious experiences, then I am my self. But suppose — as in Eastern philosophies — there were no selves. Then I wouldn’t exist. This seems like another example where person would be more accurate than self.
  • One’s self is that indescribable and unidentifiable private, inner being within one
    Simply saying that the self is “inner and ineffable” does not explain what the self is.
  • One’s self is what one values above all else
    Not a useful definition, since there may be many things one values above all else. For example, Chopin: “The piano is my second self.”
  • One’s self is the unconscious mechanism responsible for the unity of one’s consciousness
    This reduces the self to a part of the brain, not something that can be identified with a person.

The seductions of the word self

I find it interesting that it is the psychologists (Leary and Tangney) who advocate for precision in terminology. Perhaps this reflects psychology’s need to be seen as a science. For Olson, on the other hand, this is not an issue. He’s content to recommend abandoning the term. Philosophers, of course, have the self-confidence that comes from knowing philosophy was science (natural philosophy) just a few short centuries ago.

All this leaves me somewhat self-conscious about using the word self. Olson writes: “The problem is that people use the word ‘self’ as if everyone knew what it meant when in fact there is no agreement about what it means.” Since I’m neither a psychologist nor a philosopher, I think I’ll just use common sense and hope that my meaning will be clear from my context.

But in case I’m open to second thoughts about this, I’ll close with a few more intimidating remarks from Olson on not using the word self:

One of the unfortunate consequences of using the word ‘self’ in doing philosophy is that it encourages us to look for entities that we have no other reason to believe in. Once we have accounted for people, their mental features, their relation to those human animals we call their bodies, and so on, we think we need to say something about “the self” as well. There is no good reason to think so. …

[I]f the word ‘self’ really has no agreed meaning, and leads us into troubles we could otherwise avoid, and if we can easily get on with our legitimate philosophical inquiries without it, there can be no reason, other than tradition, to continue to speak of the self.

Related posts:
Psychologists ask: What do we mean by “self”
The philosophical value of a “no self” perspective

Image source: Barnes & Noble


Eric T. Olson, There is No Problem of the Self (PDF), Journal of Consciousness Studies 5: 645-57, 1998


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