Philosophical Aspects of Self Research Paper

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There are two related ways in which philosophical reflection on the self may usefully be brought to bear in social science. One concerns the traditional problem about personal identity. The other concerns the distinctive kinds of social relations into which only selves can enter. Sustained reflection on the second issue reveals striking analogies between some of the social relations into which only selves can enter and certain first personal relations that only a self can bear to itself. These analogies entail two possibilities that bear on the first issue concerning personal identity, namely, the possibility that there could be group selves who are composed of many human beings and the possibility that there could be multiple selves within a single human being.

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Section 1 outlines the classical problem of personal identity that was originally posed by Locke and continues to generate philosophical debate. Section 2 discusses some of the distinctive social relations into which only selves can enter. Section 3 draws several analogies between such social relations and first personal relations. Section 4 shows how these analogies point to the possibilities of group and multiple selves. It closes with some cautionary remarks about how overlooking these two possibilities can lead to confusions about methodological individualism.

1. The Philosophical Problem About Personal Identity

To have a self is to be self-conscious in roughly the sense that Locke took to be the defining mark of the person. In his words, a person is ‘a thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can think itself as itself in different times and places’ (Locke 1979). In general, all of these capabilities—for thought, reason, reflection, and reflexive self-reference—tend to be lumped together by philosophers under the common heading of self-consciousness. Except in some generous accounts of animal intelligence, it is generally assumed that the only self-conscious beings are human beings.

Locke famously disagreed. This was not because he believed that there are other species of animal besides the human species that actually qualify as persons (though he did discuss at some length a certain parrot that was reported to have remarkable conversational abilities). It was rather because he thought that the condition of personal identity should not be understood in biological terms at all; it should be understood, rather, in phenomenological terms. A person’s identity extends, as he put it, exactly as far as its consciousness extends. He saw no reason why the life of a person so construed, as a persisting center of consciousness, should necessarily coincide with the biological lifespan of a given human animal. In defense of this distinction between personal and animal identity he offered the following thought experiment: first, imagine that the consciousnesses of a prince and a cobbler are switched each into the other’s body and, then, consider who would be who thereafter. He thought it intuitively obvious that the identity of the prince is tied to his consciousness in such a way that he would remain the same person—would remain himself—even after having gained a new, cobbling body (similar remarks apply to the cobbler).

Many objections have been raised against Locke’s argument and conclusion. It still remains a hotly disputed matter among philosophers whether he was right to distinguish the identity of the person from the identity of the human animal (Parfit 1984, Perry 1975, Rorty 1979). This philosophical dispute has not drawn much attention from social scientists who have generally assumed against Locke that the life of each individual self or person coincides with the life of a particular human being. The anti-Lockean assumption is so pervasive in the social sciences that it serves as common ground even among those who take opposing positions on the issue concerning whether all social facts are reducible to facts about individuals or whether there are irreducibly social facts. Both sides take for granted that the only individuals in question are human beings.

Prima facie, it seems reasonable that social scientists should disregard Locke’s distinction between the self or person and the human being. For something that neither Locke nor neo-Lockeans have ever done is offer an actual instance of his distinction. All they have argued for is the possibility that a person’s consciousness could be transferred from one human body to another and, in every case, they have resorted to thought experiments in their attempts to show this. There is a significant difference between Locke’s original thought experiment about the prince and the subsequent neo-Lockean experiments. Whereas his simply stipulates that a transfer of consciousness has occurred, the latter typically describe some particular process by which the transfer of consciousness is supposed to be accomplished—as in, for example, brain transplantation or brain reprogramming. However, although this might make the neo-Lockean thought experiments seem more plausible, there is no realistic expectation that what they ask us to imagine will ever actually come to pass (Wilkes 1988). Because this is so, they have no particular bearing on the empirical concerns of social science.

Nevertheless, it is important to be clear about whether the anti-Lockean assumption that informs social science is correct. For the way in which we conceive the boundaries that mark one individual self off from another will inevitably determine how we conceive the domain of social relations that is the common subject of all the social sciences. So we need to be absolutely clear about whether it is right to assume, against Locke, that the identity of the individual is at bottom a biological fact.

As the next two sections will show, there are reasons to side with Locke. But these reasons differ from Locke’s own in several respects. Unlike his, they are not derived from thought experiments. Furthermore, they support a somewhat different version of his distinction between the identity of the self or person and the human being. Finally, they invite the expectation that this version of his distinction can be realized in fact and not just in imagination—which makes it relevant to social science after all.

2. The Sociality Of Selves: Rational Relations

Starting roughly with Hegel, various philosophers have mounted arguments to the effect that self-consciousness is a social achievement that simply cannot be possessed by beings who stand outside of all social relations (Wittgenstein 1953, Davidson 1984). The common conclusion of these arguments is overwhelmingly plausible. But even if the conclusion were shown to be false, it would remain true that many self-conscious beings are social and, furthermore, their social relations reflect their self-consciousness in interesting ways. In order to gain a full appreciation of this fact, we must shift our attention away from the phenomenological dimension of self-consciousness that Locke emphasized in his analysis of personal identity, and shift our attention to the other dimension of self-consciousness that he emphasized in his definition of the person as a ‘being with reason and reflection.’

One need not cite Locke as an authority in order to see that reflective rationality is just as crucial to selfhood as its phenomenological dimension. For it obviously will not do to define the self just in phenomenological terms, as a center of consciousness, and this is so even if Locke was right to analyze the identity of the self or person in such terms. After all, some sort of center of consciousness is presupposed by all sentience, even in the case of animals that clearly do not have selves, such as wallabies or cockatoos. It also will not do to suppose that selfhood is in place whenever the sort of consciousness that goes together with sentience is accompanied by the mere capacity to refer reflexively to oneself. For, assuming that wallabies and cockatoos can represent things (which some philosophers deny (Davidson 1984)), it is very likely that some of their representations will function in ways that are characteristic of self-representation. Consider, for example, mental maps in which such animals represent their spatial relations to the various objects they perceive; such maps require a way to mark the distinction between their own bodies and other bodies, a distinction which is not inaptly characterized as the distinction between self and other (Evans 1982). Self-consciousness in the sense that goes together with selfhood involves a much more sophisticated sort of self-representation that incorporates a conception of oneself as a thinking thing and, along with it, the concept of thought itself. Armed with this concept, a self-conscious being cannot only represent itself; it can self-ascribe particular thoughts and, in doing so, it can bring to bear on them the critical perspective of reflective rationality.

Whenever selves in this full sense enter into social relations, they enter into relations of reciprocal recognition. Each is self-conscious; each conceives itself as an object of the other’s recognition; each conceives the other as so conceiving itself (i.e., as an object of the other’s recognition); each conceives both as having a common nature and, in so doing, each conceives both as so conceiving both (i.e., as having a common nature). Since this reciprocally recognized common nature is social as well as rational, it affords the possibility of the social exercise of rational capacities. Thus, corresponding to the capacity to ascribe thoughts to oneself, there is the capacity to ascribe thoughts to others; corresponding to the capacity to critically evaluate one’s own thoughts there is the capacity to critically evaluate the thoughts of others; and together with all this comes another extraordinary social capacity, the capacity for specifically rational influence in which selves aim to move one another by appealing to the normative force of reasons. Such rational influence is attempted in virtually every kind of social engagement that takes place among selves, including: engaging in ordinary conversation and argument; offering bribes; lodging threats; bargaining; cooperating; collaborating. In all of these kinds of engagement reasons are offered up in one guise or another in the hope that their normative force will move someone else.

3. Analogies Between First Personal And Social Relations

It is because selves have a rational nature that analogies arise between their first personal relations to their own selves and their social relations to one another. Here are three examples.

3.1 Critical Evaluation

It is a platitude that the principles of rationality are both impersonal and universal. They lay down normative requirements that anyone must meet in order to be rational, and they constitute the standards by which everyone evaluates their own and everyone else’s rational performances. It follows that when we evaluate our own thoughts by these standards, we are really considering them as if they were anyone’s—which is to say, as if they were not our own. We sometimes describe this aspect of critical self-evaluation with the phrase ‘critical distance.’ There is a specific action by which we accomplish this distancing: we temporarily suspend our commitment to act on our thoughts until after we have determined whether keeping the commitment would be in accord with the normative requirements of rationality. If we determine that it would not be in accord with those requirements, then the temporary suspension of our commitment becomes permanent, and our critical distance on our thoughts gives way to literally disowning them. But before getting all the way to the point of disowning our thoughts we must first have gotten to a point where our relations to our thoughts are rather like our relations to the thoughts of others. For, whether we decide to disown the thoughts under critical scrutiny or to reclaim them, the normative standards on the basis of which we do so are necessarily conceived by us as impersonal and universal. In consequence, there is a straightforward sense in which we are doing the same thing when we apply the standards to our own thoughts and when we apply them to the thoughts of others. There is this difference, though: whereas self-evaluation involves distancing ourselves from our own thoughts, evaluating the thoughts of others involves a movement in the opposite direction. We must project ourselves into their points of view so that we can appeal to their own sense of how the principles of rationality apply in their specific cases. This sort of criticism that involves projection is sometimes called ‘internal criticism,’ in contrast with the sort of ‘external criticism’ that proceeds without taking into account whether its target will either grasp it or be moved by it (Williams). This difference between internal criticism of others and self-criticism—the difference between projection and distancing—does nothing to undermine the analogies between them. On the contrary, for by these opposite movements two distinct selves can bring themselves to the very same place. That is, when one self projects itself into another’s point of view for the purposes of internal criticism, it can reach the very same place that the other gets to by distancing itself from its own thoughts for the purposes of self-criticism. Moreover, there is a sense in which what the two selves do from that place is not merely analogous, but the very same thing. Each of the two selves brings to bear the same critical perspective of rationality on the same particular self’s thoughts. The only difference that remains is that in the one case it is a social act directed at another, whereas in the other case it is a self-directed act.

3.2 Joint Activities

Just as internal criticism of another replicates what individual selves do when they critically evaluate themselves, so also, joint activities carried out by many selves may replicate the activities of an individual self. For the purposes of such activities, distinct selves need to look for areas of overlap between (or among) their points of view, such as common ends, common beliefs about their common ends, and common beliefs about how they might act together so as to realize those ends. These areas of commonly recognized overlap can then serve as the basis from which the distinct selves deliberate and act together and, as such, the areas of overlap will serve as a common point of view which is shared by those selves. Whenever distinct selves do deliberate together from such a common point of view, they will be guided by the very same principles that ordinarily govern individual deliberation, such as consistency, closure (the principle that one should accept the implications of one’s attitudes), and transitivity of preferences. All such principles of rationality taken together define what it is for an individual to be fully or optimally rational. For this reason, they generally apply separately to each individual but not to groups of individuals. (Thus, different parties to a dispute might be rational even though they disagree, but they cannot be rational if they believe contradictions.) The one exception is joint activities in which such groups of individuals deliberate together from a common point of view. To take a limited example, you and I might deliberate individually about a philosophical problem or we might do so together. If we do it individually, each of us will aim to be consistent in our reasoning because that is what the principles of rationality require of us individually. But these principles do not require us to do this together; which is to say, you and I may disagree about many things without compromising our ability to pursue our individual deliberations from our separate points of view in a completely rational manner. What would be compromised, however, is our ability to work on a philosophical problem together. We cannot do that without resolving at least some of our disagreements, namely, those that bear on the problem. This means that if we truly are committed to working on the problem together, then we should recognize a sort of conditional requirement of rationality, a requirement to achieve as much consistency between us as would be necessary to carry out our joint project. Although we needn’t achieve overall consistency together in order to do this—that is, we needn’t agree on every issue in every domain—nevertheless, we must resolve our disagreements about the relevant philosophical matters. When we resolve these disagreements we will be doing in degree the very same thing that individuals do when they respond to the rational requirement of consistency. The same holds for the other principles of rationality such as closure and transitivity of preferences. For, in general, whenever distinct individuals pursue ends together, they temporarily cease deliberating and acting separately from their individual points of view in order to act and deliberate together from their common point of view. They will also strive to achieve by social means within a group—albeit in diminished degree—the very sorts of rational relations and outcomes that are characteristic of the individual self (Korsgaard 1989).

3.3 Rationality Over Time

Although there is some sense in which individual points of view are extended in time, the deliberations that proceed from such points of view always take place in time from the perspective of the present. The question immediately arises, why should an individual take its future attitudes into account when it deliberates from the perspective of the present? The question becomes poignant as soon as we concede that an individual’s attitudes may change significantly over time. Thus, consider Parfit’s Russian nobleman who believes as a young man that he should give away all of his money to the poor, but who also believes that he will become much more conservative when he is older and will then regret having given the money away. What should he do? Parfit answers as follows: if he recognizes any normative pressure toward an altruistic stance from which he is bound to take the desires of others into account, then he must extend that stance to his own future desires as well—regardless of the fact that he now disapproves of them (Parfit 1984). Other philosophers have also insisted on parity between the normative demands of prudence and altruism. Among moral philosophers, the parity is often taken in the positive way that Parfit does, as showing that we have reason to be both prudent and altruistic (Sidgewick 1981, Nagel 1970). But some philosophers have taken it in a negative way, as showing that we lack reason to be either. According to them, it follows from the fact that deliberation always proceeds from the perspective of the present that rationality does not require us to take our own future attitudes into account any more than it requires us to take the attitudes of others into account. If they are right, then the rational relations that hold within an individual over time are comparable to social relations within a group (Elster 1979, Levi 1985). However, anyone who is struck by this last suggestion—that an individual over time is, rationally speaking, analogous to a group—would do well to bear in mind what the first two analogies brought out, which is that the social exercise of rational capacities within a group, can, in any case, replicate individual rationality.

4. Group Selves And Multiple Selves

It might seem implausible that the normative analogies between first personal and social relations could ever jeopardize the metaphysical distinction between them, which is grounded in whatever facts constitute the identity and distinctness of selves. According to Locke these facts are phenomenological; according to his opponents, the facts are biological. In both cases, the metaphysical facts on offer would clearly be adequate to ground the distinction between first personal and social relations, and this is so no matter how deep and pervasive the analogies between these two sorts of relations might be at the normative level.

Yet there is a way of thinking about the self that calls this into question. It is the very way of thinking that predominated in Locke’s initial definition of the person as a being with ‘reason and reflection.’ When we emphasize this rational dimension of the self, we will find it natural to use a normative criterion in order to individuate selves. According to this normative criterion, we have one self wherever we find something that is subject to the normative requirements that define individual rationality. There is some disagreement among philosophers about exactly what these requirements are. But, even so, we can say this much with confidence: it is a sufficient condition for being a rational individual who is subject to the requirements of rationality that the individual have some conception of what those requirements are and is in some degree responsive to them—in the sense of at least trying to meet them when it deliberates and accepting criticism when it fails to meet them (Bilgrami 1998). Of course, such criticism might issue from without as well as within, since a rational individual in this sense would certainly have the conceptual resources with which to comprehend efforts by others to wield rational influence over it. This ensures that there is a readily available public criterion by which such rational individuals can be identified for social purposes: there is one such individual wherever there is an interlocutor whom we can rationally engage. It must be admitted that, due to the analogies between first personal and social relations, the boundaries between such individuals will not always be clear. Yet this does not mean that the normative conception of the self is inadequate or unworkable. It only means that the conception has unfamiliar and, indeed, revisionist consequences. For, if we press the analogies to their logical limit, it follows that there can be group selves comprising many human beings and, also, multiple selves within a single human being (Rovane 1998).

Take the group case first. We have seen that, for the purposes of joint activities, distinct selves must find areas of overlap between their individual points of view which can then serve as a common point of view from which they deliberate and act together. We have also seen that such joint deliberations replicate individual rationality in degree. Now, suppose that this were carried to the following extreme: a group of human beings resolved to engage only in joint activities; accordingly, they resolved to rank all of their preferences about such joint activities together and to pool all of their information; and, finally, they resolved always to deliberate jointly in the light of their jointly ranked preferences and pooled information. The overlap between their points of view would then be so complete that they no longer had separate points of view at all. They would still have separate bodies and separate centers of consciousness. But, despite their biological and phenomenological separation, they would nevertheless all share a single rational point of view from which they deliberated and acted as one. Consequently, they could also be rationally engaged in the ways that only individual selves can be engaged. There is good reason to regard such a group as a bona fide individual in its own right (Korsgaard 1989, Rovane 1998, Scruton 1989).

Now take the multiple case. Recall that it might be rational for an individual to disregard its future attitudes when it deliberates about what to do in the present, in just the way that it might be rational (though possibly immoral) to disregard the attitudes of others. If the normative demands of rationality are thus confined to one’s own present attitudes, then one’s future self will be no more bound by one’s present deliberations than one is presently bound to take one’s future attitudes into account. In other words, one’s future self will be free to disregard any long-term intentions or commitments that one is thinking of undertaking now. The point is not that there are no such things as long-term intentions or commitments. The point is that when one makes them one does not thereby bind one’s future self in any causal or metaphysical sense. It is always up to one’s future self to comply or not as it wishes, and one could not alter this aspect of one’s situation except by undermining one’s future agency altogether. Although this may seem alarming, it does not follow that individual selves do not endure over time. All that follows is that the unity of an individual self over time is constituted by the same sorts of facts that constitute the unity of a group self. Just as the latter requires shared commitments to joint endeavors so too does the former, the only difference being that the latter involves sharing across bodies while the former involves sharing across time. This serves to bring out that the metaphysical facts in terms of which Locke and his opponents analyze the identity of the self over time are, in a sense, normatively impotent. The fact that there is a persisting center of consciousness, or a persisting animal body, does not suffice to bind the self together rationally over time. And, arguably (though this is more counterintuitive), such facts do not even suffice to bind the self together rationally in the present either. That is why we are able to understand the phenomenon of dissociative identity disorder, formerly labeled multiple personality disorder. Human beings who suffer from this disorder exhibit more than point of view, each of which can be rationally engaged on its own. Since none of these points of view encompasses all of the human host’s attitudes, there is no possibility of rationally engaging the whole human being. At any given time one can engage only one part of it or another. Each of these parts functions more or less as a separate self, as is shown precisely by the susceptibility of each to rational engagement on its own. Although these multiple selves cannot be rationally engaged simultaneously, there is good reason to suppose that they nevertheless exist simultaneously. While one such self is talking, its companions are typically observing and thinking on their own (this generally comes out in subsequent conversation with them). Furthermore, these multiple selves who coexist simultaneously within the same body are sometimes ‘co-conscious’ as well—that is, they sometimes have direct phenomenological access to one another’s thoughts. But their consciousness of one another’s thoughts does not put them into the normative first person relation that selves bear to their own thoughts; for they do not take one another’s thoughts as a basis for their deliberations and actions. Thus neither their shared body nor their shared consciousness suffices to bind multiple personalities together in the sense that is required by the normative conception of the self. On that conception, they qualify as individual selves in their own rights (Braude 1995, Rovane 1998, Wilkes 1988).

Between these two extreme cases of group and multiple selves, the normative conception provides for a wide spectrum of cases, exhibiting differing degrees of rational unity within and among human beings. The conception says that whenever there is enough rational unity—though it is hard to say how much is enough— there is a rational being with its own point of view who can be rationally engaged as such and who, therefore, qualifies as an individual self in its own right.

5. Implications For Methodological Individualism

It is not the case that all of the facts about the Columbia Philosophy Department can be reduced to facts about its members atomistically described. Nor is it the case that all of the facts about that department can be explained by appealing to facts about its members atomistically described. Why? Because sometimes the members of the department stop reasoning from their own separate human-size points of view and begin to reason together from the point of view of the department’s distinctive projects, needs, opportunities and so on. When the members of the department do this, they give over a portion of their human lives to the life of the department in a quite literal sense, so that the department itself can deliberate and act from a point of view that cannot be equated with any of their individual points of view. Outside the context of this research paper, this claim about the Columbia Philosophy Department might naturally be taken to contradict methodological individualism. This is because it is generally assumed that the only individuals there are or can be human individuals. That is what leads many to interpret the facts about the Columbia Philosophy Department—insofar as they cannot be properly described or explained by appealing to facts about its individual human members atomistically described—as irreducibly social phenomena. However, this interpretation fails to take account of the way in which the department instantiates the rational properties that are characteristic of the individual self (vs. a social whole).


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