Book reviews by Sangharakshita


Searching for me, Me*, or I?

Models of the Self Edited by Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Shear Published by Imprint Academic ISBN 0 907845 40 1

This review was first published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, March 17th 2000.

As one who is an author of three volumes of memoirs, and who is currently engaged in adding a fourth to the series, I have sometimes stopped and asked myself who this "I" whose history I have been recalling and recording really is. Did the self that I experienced as the subject of those memoirs in fact exist, and if it did, what was its nature? Was it permanent or impermanent, simple of composite, physical or mental, or both, or neither?

Questions such as these have been mooted from ancient times. While for Aristotle "who I am" is closely tied to embodied existence and yet transcends it, for Plato and Augustine the animal elements are excluded from the human essence. In the modern era Descartes's thesis that the self is a single, simple, continuing and unproblematically accessible mental substance came to dominate European thought, providing a background for Locke's discussion of the problem of personal identity and Hume's reduction of the so-called self to a stream of particular perceptions.

Yet Hume's analysis notwithstanding, we continue to experience a sense of self, and contemporary responses, in part, have been attempts to explain how this is possible. If the self is not an Aristotelian soul or psyche or a Descartian substance, why do we still believe we have a certain identity over time? The responses to the problem vary immensely. They include the assertions that there is no self, that it is a fiction, a matter of brain processes, a sociological locus, a centre of narratives (as in the case of my memoirs, for instance), or that it belongs to an ineffable category all its own. Thus there is no consensus, and both our commonsensical and philosophical notions of self have been rendered utterly problematic. This lack of consensus suggests that, like consciousness itself, the problem of the self is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon, and no one discipline on its own will be able to capture it in an adequate way. A cross-disciplinary approach is obviously the answer. In Models of the Self, Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Shear have brought together 28 essays by 31 writers (three are co-authors). They develop divergent models of the self, grouped under six sectional headings and representative of their respective approaches, whether philosophical, psychological or neuroscientific, addressing such questions as what is meant by the self, whether it consists of an enduring thing or function, whether there are aspects of the self that are not reducible to such things as brain functions, linguistic and social phenomena, or consciousness, or all of them collectively.

With questions concerning the existence and nature of the self having first been debated by philosophers, it is fitting that a contemporary discussion should be inaugurated by a philosopher. Models of the Self opens with an essay on "The Self" by Galen Strawson, which the editors diplomatically characterise as "intriguing". Most of the other authors make reference to this chapter, and Strawson responds to their comments and criticisms at the end of the volume.

For Strawson, the problem of the self arises not from an unnatural use of language but from a prior and independent sense that there is such a thing as the self. It is therefore a real problem and requires, he thinks, a metaphysical approach; but he also thinks that metaphysics must wait on phenomenology. "One must have well-developed answers to phenomenological questions about the experience of the self before one can begin to answer metaphysical questions about the self".

Starting then, with the phenomenological fact of the ordinary, human sense of the self, Strawson proposes that people experience themselves as being: a thing, in some robust sense; a mental thing, in some sense; a single thing that is both synchronically considered and diachronically considered; ontically distinct from all other things; a subject of experience, a conscious feeler and thinker; an agent; and a thing that has a certain character or personality. Though admitting that most of these properties can be contested, and that the list may contain redundancy, Strawson believes that it provides a framework for discussion, and that nothing essential to a genuine sense of the mental self has been omitted. Keeping to this framework he argues for a mental self, of which the apparent necessary unity is only synchronic, not diachronic, so that each one of us is properly understandable as a sequence of many selves, existing and following each other one at a time, like a string of pearls. "The basic form of our consciousness is that of a gappy series of eruptions of consciousness from a substrate of apparent non-consciousness." Strawson suggests that each shortlived "pearl" is an individual physical thing, namely a set of neurons in a certain state of activation. He also states his belief the "the Buddhists have the truth when they deny the existence of a persisting mental self in the human case" and makes a fascinating and potentially fruitful distinction between thinking of oneself in terms of I and thinking of oneself, more fundamentally and existentially, in terms of what he characterises as Me*.

The authors of the four essays that make up the opening section of the volume are largely critical of Strawson's approach. Kathleen V. Wilkes disagrees with his idea that "the self", being synchronic, needs to have little or nothing to do with time-related plans and emotions; John Pickering, for whom the self is a semiotic process, takes him to task for excluding the experience of being a social self from the meaning of "the self" in a stricter ontological sense; and Eric T. Olson, while not actually referring to Strawson, in effect undercuts his position by arguing that there is no problem of the self, discussions under the heading of "self" being really about other things. Only Andrew Brooks is "in complete sympathy" with Strawson's conclusions, though he wants to look at certain aspects of the framework of argument and observation used to reach them. In the section on "Developmental and phenomenological constraints", Dan Zahavi takes issue with Strawson's understanding of phenomenology, arguing that only a phenomenology guided in a methodological fashion, of the sort intiated by Edmund Husserl, would be adequate to discover a genuine sense of self.

For me, some of the most interesting responses to Strawson's essay are found in the section "Meditation-based approaches". Here Steven laycock, looking at Sartre's notion of the transparency of consciousness from a Buddhist point of view, argues that since consciousness itself is unidentifiable, and cannot be distinguished from the objective contents of one's awareness, the "I" necessarily remains hopelessly anonymous. None of Strawson's "pearls" can succeed in representing the self, even the self of a moment. Jeremy Hayward presents a rDzogs-chen (Tibetan Buddhist) interpretation of the sense of self. This model of self/non-self, which is grounded in the disciplined method shamatha vipashyana meditation, agrees with Strawson's analysis as far as the discontinuity of the self, but elaborates the momentary self not as any kind of thing, but as an energy process having both particle-like and field-like aspects. The moment-by-moment appearance of a sense of self arises in stages over a finite duration from a background of non-dual intelligence and energy.

In the final essay, Strawson responds at length and mounts what the editors think is a convincing defence of his position, though not without strengthening his argument in certain respects and modifying it in others. Having thanked those who commented on his paper, he begins by characterising the result as "a festival of misunderstanding" - adding, optimistically, "misunderstanding is one of the engines of progress". In similar vein, he concludes by observing: "Interdisciplinary discussion throws up a chaos of uses, but this turns out to be part of its value." The layperson may be forgiven for thinking that the chaos thus thrown up is not so different from the dust that, according to Berkeley, philosophers raise and then complain they cannot see.

In principle, Models of the Self should be of interest to all thinking human beings, but I suspect that, covering as it does such a wide range of disciplines, most readers will be content to sample the volume in accordance with their particular specialist concerns. For my part, I have found many of the contributions stimulating, and in places illuminating, but I shall return to the writing of my memoirs very little wiser about the existence and nature of the self that is the subject of my narrative.