In its normal use the English expression “self ” is not even quite a word, but something that makes an ordinary object pronoun into a reflexive one (e.g., her into herself). The reflexive pronoun is used when the object of an action or attitude is the same as the subject of that action or attitude. If I say Mark Twain shot himself in the foot, I describe Mark Twain not only as the shooter but as the person shot.
In this sense “the self ” is just the person doing the action or holding the attitude that is somehow in question. “Self ” is also used as a prefix for names of activities and attitudes, identifying the special case where the object is the same as the agent: self-love, self-hatred, self-abuse, self-promotion, self-knowledge.
“The self ” often means more than this, however. In psychology it is often used for that set of attributes that a person attaches to himself or herself most firmly, the attributes that the person finds it difficult or impossible to imagine himself or herself without. The term identity is also used in this sense. Typically, one’s sex is a part of one’s self or one’s identity; one’s profession or nationality may or may not be.
In philosophy the self is the agent, the knower and the ultimate locus of personal identity. If the thought of future reward or punishment is to encourage or deter me from some course of action, I must be thinking of the person rewarded as me, as myself, as the same person who is now going to endure the hardship of righteousness or pass up the enjoyments of sin in favor of this ultimate reward.
But this same self comes up in much more mundane transactions. If I pick up the cake and shove it in this mouth rather than that one, is it not because I think it will be me, the very same person who picks up the cake, that will have the pleasure of tasting it?
A straightforward view of the self would be that the self is just the person and that a person is a physical system. This view has been challenged on two fronts. First, the nature of freedom and consciousness has convinced many philosophers that there is a fundamentally nonphysical aspect of persons.
The second challenge stems from puzzling aspects of self-knowledge. The knowledge we have of ourselves seems very unlike the knowledge we have of other objects in several ways, and this has led some philosophers to rather startling conclusions about the self.
In his Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein tells us that “I am my world” and that “‘the world is my world’” (1961, 5.63, 5.641). This should lead us to the rather surprising conclusion that I am the world, or that at least Wittgenstein was. He draws at least one conclusion that would follow from this: “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.”
The contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has been led to a possibly less radical but still quite dramatic view. According to Nagel, when he says “I am Tom Nagel,” at least in certain philosophical moods, the “I” refers to the “objective self,” which is not identical with but merely contingently related to the person Tom Nagel. This self could just as well view the world from the perspective of someone other than him (Nagel, 1983). We need to discuss the puzzling features of self-knowledge that give rise to such views.
At least some of these peculiarities of self-knowledge can be explained by taking self-knowledge to be a species of agent-relative knowledge. There are two quite different ways of cognizing objects (people, things, places, and times).We can think of them via their relationship to us, the role they are playing in our lives at the moment of thought: the object I see; the present moment; the place I’m at; the person I’m talking to.
We need to think about things in the first way, when we are picking up information about them perceptually or interacting with them, since ways of knowing and acting are tied to these agent-relative roles. I can learn about the here and now by looking; I can learn about the person I am talking to by asking questions, and so forth.
But these agent-relative roles cannot be our only ways of thinking about objects of more than passing interest to us. Different objects play the same agent-relative roles at different times, and at any given time many of the objects we wish to retain information about will not be playing any agent-relative role for us. And we cannot accumulate information along such roles.
Suppose I am in Tokyo on Tuesday but return to Palo Alto on Friday. From the facts that on Tuesday I truly thought “Japanese is the official language here” and on Friday I truly thought “Senator Stanford used to live near here”it does not follow that there is some place where Japanese is the official language and near which Senator Stanford used to live.
In order to retain and accumulate information about objects, to construct and maintain a coherent picture of the world, we need to have a way of conceiving of objects as existing independently of us, as occupying and then ceasing to occupy various agent-relative roles.
That is, we need objective ways of thinking about objects. We keep track of them by names or descriptions that do not depend on their relationship to us: Cordura Hall, 4 p.m., June 23, 1995, the southernmost town in Santa Clara County, Aurora Fischer.
These serve as our fundamental ways of thinking about those objects. Recognition consists in connecting our objective ways of thinking of objects with the roles those objects play at a given moment. Consider the knowledge I might express with “Today is July 4.”
This is knowledge that a certain day, objectively conceived (“July 4”), is playing a certain role in my life; it is the present day, the day on which the thinking and speaking take place. This kind of knowledge, “knowing what day it is,” is quite crucial to successful application of other, more objective knowledge. If I know that the party is on July 4 and know that today is July 4, then I will form the right expectations about what the day will be like.
Similarly, I may be in Kansas City and know that Kansas City is a good place for a steak dinner. But if I do not know that I am in Kansas City, if I do not realize that Kansas City is playing the “here” or “this city” role in my life at this moment, I will not be able to apply the knowledge that Kansas City is a good place for a steak dinner.
Self-knowledge as Agent-relative Knowledge
|Self-knowledge as Agent-relative Knowledge|
“Self ” is really the name of such an agent-relative role, that of identity. As with other agent-relative roles, there are special ways of knowing and acting that are associated with identity. If Mach had wished to know, during the interval while he was confused, if the shabby pedagogue he was seeing had lint on his vest, he would have had to walk over to him and look.
If Mach had wanted to know if he himself had lint on his vest, he could have simply lowered his head and looked. Had he done this, he would have had no doubt about whom the lint was on. If Mach found lint and wanted to brush it off, he would engage in self-brushing, a quick movement of the hand across one’s front that each of us can use to remove lint from our own vest and no one else’s.
Unlike the other agent-relative roles, identity is permanent. I will talk to many people, be in many places, live through many times in the course of my life. But there is only one person I will ever be identical with, myself. Hence, accumulation along “I” is valid, unlike accumulation along “here” or “now” or “that man.”
Earlier we rejected the straightforward account of self-knowledge, as knowledge about a person by that very person. Now we can put forward an alternative. Self-knowledge is knowledge about a person by that very person, with the additional requirement that the person be cognized via the agent-relative role of identity.
This agent-relative role is tied to normally self-informative methods of knowing and normally self-effecting ways of acting. When these methods are employed, there will be immunity of misidentification as to who is known about, or who is acted upon.
This role can serve as a person’s fundamental concept of himself or herself. In this way our self-conceptions have structures that are different from our conceptions of other individuals of importance to us. If we understand the special way in which a person’s self-knowledge is structured, we do not need to postulate anything but the person himself or herself for the knowledge to be about.