Alt! Who Goes There? (Part 2) An Essay by Extropia DaSilva


In philosophy, investigations into the nature of self-consciousness can be divided into two main theories. ‘Theories of self’ attempt to determine what kind of thing the self is, or attempt to show that it is not a ‘thing’ at all. ‘Theories of personal identity’ are primarily concerned with personal identity over time. In other words, they set out to explain why a person at one time is (or is not) the same self as someone at different times. Both theories are thought to be expressions of the concern that the self will endure. This suggests that, where there is evidence of a belief in an afterlife, one will find people who thought about the nature of the self.

That being the case, theories of self are very old indeed, with origins going back further than human history. Paleontologists have discovered Neanderthal graves in which the dead are buried along with carefully arranged stones. Anthropologists interpret such activity as signifying a belief in an afterlife. They look to traditional cultures in order to try and understand what kind of rituals and behaviours early hominids might have exhibited. In traditional cultures, deceased ancestors are considered to part of society, and people routinely communicate with them. One major way in which afterlife beliefs in these cultures differs from, say, Christianity, lies in the notion that becoming an ancestor is neither a reward for worthy living in this life, nor a punishment one must work to avoid. It is, instead, simply a part of life, like the transition from child to adult.


What we would recognise as Western views about persistence of self first rose in Ancient Greece. As far as theories of personal identity are concerned, Greek thinkers came up with three types of answers. Plato argued that reality consisted of two worlds. There was the material world, and there was an immaterial, changeless realm. It was in that latter realm that a person’s soul resided. According to Plato, the soul was ‘simple’. Not in the sense of being easy to understand, but in the sense of not being composed of more elemental parts. Socrates had argued that corruption happens when the elemental parts of an object come apart. That being the case, whatever was ultimately simple had to, by definition, endure forever. So, one’s personal identity and immortality was ensured by the existence of one’s simple soul in this changeless realm.

Aristotle put forward a theory that was also based on the premise of a ‘simple’ soul, but which differed from the Platonic worldview in a couple of ways. Aristotle believed reality consisted of one world, with a changeless dimension in which ‘nous’ (‘reason’ or ‘intellect’) resided existing in every material object. He believed there was only one ‘nous’, shared by all humans. So, what survived bodily death was that which all humans have in common. Personal identity was not maintained in the afterlife.

It was the Platonic view of the soul that was developed into Christian concepts of the afterlife. Today, the use of the word ‘soul’ persists in religious beliefs and popular culture, but it failed as a useful scientific theory. Dualism (the idea that one’s self resides in a nonmaterial realm separate from the body) raised more awkward questions than it answered. These days, the dismissal of an immaterial, simple soul as a theoretically-sound concept of personal identity is the stuff of introductory lectures in psychology and philosophy.


The third theory put forward by the Ancient Greeks was ‘atomism’. According to this theory, all physical objects are ultimately composed of changeless fundamental building blocks. In the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume underwent a period of intense introspection, during which he attempted to catch a glimpse of his ‘simple and continu’d self’. It turned out, however, to be entirely illusive. “I always stumble on some particular perception or other… I can never catch myself at any time without a perception”. This lead Hume to the conclusion that perceptions were all that existed. So what about the self? Where was ‘I’?

Gilbert Ryle came up with an analogy to illustrate Hume’s theory about the self. He imagined a foreigner arriving in Oxford, asking to see its famous university. A guide shows him around various colleges, playing fields and libraries. “Very nice”, says the foreigner, “but you still have not shown me the university”. The foreigner’s mistake was to think ‘Oxford University’ is a single building like ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ or ‘Sidney Opera House’. “The university”, Ryle explained, “is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized”. Just as Oxford University has no existence beyond a convenient label for a number of more-or-less independent colleges, Hume believed the self had no existence beyond a vast bundle of sensory perceptions. Bruce Katz put it like this:

“In Humean terms, then, there is no Thinker, just thoughts, although the contents of at least some of those thoughts are about a hypothetical person who exists apart from such thoughts and who exists over time”.

Theories such as this, which treat the self as a mere collection of elements organized under a convenient label, or even as a kind of conceptual illusion, are known as ‘deflationary accounts’. They stand in direct opposition to ‘simple’ views which, remember, identified the self with an unchanging immaterial soul. From the viewpoint of material atomism, though, all that really exists are physical building blocks. These building blocks sometimes come together and form reasonably stable patterns, to which we apply labels and imagine an identity above and beyond the ‘atoms’ of which such patterns are ultimately composed. “A waterfall has no real existence beyond the collection of moving water molecules…that are its constituents”, explained Katz. “Likewise, the self could be seen as a related collection of memories, fears, beliefs etc, but nothing whatever beyond this”.

So, the transition from the Platonic ‘simple’ view of the self, to the viewpoint of material atomism, was a transition from unity to fragmentation. According to Raymond Martin and John Barresi, “this is closely related to a transition in beliefs in which the soul began as unquestionably real, and the self ended up as arguably a fiction”. This happened largely because science found it convenient to divide the self up into more manageable concepts, and later found there was no need to put the pieces back into a unified whole in order to get on with research.


Most famously, Freudian psychology divided the self into id, ego, and superego. “Psychology in the West has tried to problematize the singular self for a long time- all the way back to Freud”, commented Tom Boellstorff. Freud was a realist where his theoretical postulates of id, ego and superego were concerned, believing in a real, biological basis for each component of his system. Jacques Lacan went a step further in fictionalizing the self in his ‘mirror theory’.

Lacan believed that the transition from infant to adult occurred in three stages, which he called ‘Real’, ‘Imaginary’ and ‘Symbolic’. According to Lacan, when a baby is born, it has no sense of self or of a unified body. The infant cannot distinguish itself from its mother, or any other object. As far as the infant’s subjective state is concerned, all that exists are needs, such as need for nourishment and need for comfort, which are, ideally, met. Lacan marked the transition from this ‘real’ phase to ‘imaginary’ via a conceptual leap made by the infant when confronted with its own reflection in a mirror. As it looks back and forth between the image in the mirror and a real person (usually its mother), the infant acquires the idea that it is a whole person. It identifies the mirror image as ‘me’.

Lacan argued that this is a mistaken assumption. The mirror image cannot be ‘me’ because it is an external object. But, far from correcting its mistake, other people reinforce the belief that the reflection is ‘me’ by pointing to it and saying things like ‘look, that is you’. Thus, the ego, according to ‘mirror theory’, is a fantasy based on an identification with an external image.

Other theories place an emphasis on the other person (more specifically, other people) as the ultimate source of ‘I’. In ‘Mind, Self and Society’, George Herbert Mead wrote, “the self…is not there at birth, but arises from the social experience and activity”. In his theory, which is called ‘symbolic interactionism’, it is the attitudes others hold towards us; how they react in our presence, that provides the looking glass in which we see our self. Mead considered language, play, and games (which all rely on shared symbols, roles and rituals) to be crucial in the development of personal identity. The roleplaying child must internalize her own role, along with that of everyone else. At a later stage in development, the various others in varying situations become subjectively integrated into what Mead called ‘the generalized other’. That is: the dominating view of the society or culture to which that individual belongs. According to symbolic interactionism, self-consciousness emerges only when an individual acquires the ability to view oneself from the standpoint of the ‘generalized other’.


As the 20th century progressed, ‘social identity’ along with ‘racial identity’, ‘gender identity’, ‘ethnic identity’ and so on, took precedence over the notion of ‘personal identity’ in scientific contexts. Similarly, in scientific contexts (specifically psychology) if the self ever showed up at all, it was in what Raymond Martin and John Burresi called ‘its many hyphenated roles, such as self-image, self-conception, self-discovery…by the end of the 20th century the unified self had died the death, if not of a thousand qualifications, then of a thousand hyphenations’. In other words, as far as modern scientific and philosophical theories of self and personal identity are concerned, the ‘self’ has been thoroughly dismantled as a unitary object of study.

Does that mean the unitary self is not real? In some sense, it very much is. One must take care to distinguish between the ‘unified self’ as a scientifically-useful notion, and the ‘unified self’ as a PRACTICALLY-useful notion. As Tom Boellstorff said, ‘Modern Western culture really does (in most cases) really push the single self thing, the whole idea of identity, passports, etc”. Notions of a unified self and a consistent personal identity are obviously of great practical importance in everyday life. Language too (‘I want’, ‘I need’) compels us to take a subjective point of view that we are enduring entities.

But not always. Sometimes language implies the self is not so unitary. People say ‘I just wasn’t myself’, and in doing so they acknowledge the existence of a person other than the one who is speaking. How can that be? Surely, that runs contrary to the common-sense observation that, in RL, we each have ONE body, ONE brain, and so we must have ONE self? The next essay will turn to scientific studies of the brain for an answer.

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