The Natural Self

Many thanks to John Schwenkler for inviting me to outline here at The Brains Blog the main ideas in my book The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance (Oxford University Press, new in paperback 2015). I’ll sketch the overall picture in this blog and follow up with two more in which I’ll draw on Indian theory to add substance to the picture. I bring in Indian theory because methodologically I am an advocate of cross-culturalism or  cosmopolitanism in philosophy, the view that philosophy—and especially philosophy of mind—must make appeal to a plurality of intellectual cultures if it is to avoid parochialism in the intuitions that guide it and the vocabularies in which it is phrased.

The reconciliation of naturalism with the existence of a first-person perspective is the first work of a theory of self. The views of ourselves as corporeal beings and as “presences of self to self” seem to pull in different directions, for we stand in two relations to ourselves, one of which is as to a corporeal being and the other as to a subject of experience. My aim in The Self is to reclaim the self as a naturalistically respectable item with a legitimate role in the explanation of subjectivity as the occupant of a genuine first-person stance. A natural self is metaphysically dependent on the body from which its states emerge and upon which they supervene, and it survives no longer than the body does; but it does not have the same identity conditions as the body, and neither are the mental states of the self reducible to physical states of the body. For a body to have a self is for it to have the capacity to assume a first-person stance, a fact which I see as being closely associated with the idea that mental states are owned and not merely occurrent. For a self to have a body is for it to have capacities for agency and sentience, activities which I claim are criterial to a relation of common ownership as delimited by normative emotional response. 

A theory of self must do two things. It must tell us what kind of thing a self is: an immaterial substance; a suitably interconnected series of conscious experiences; the categorical basis of such a series; or something else. But a theory of self must also give us materials to answer, within the specified kind, the question: “Which one is me?” This question is often overlooked, but to neglect it is to court solipsism. The theory of self I defend is a version of what I describe as the Ownership View, one in which first-person stances are individuated by ownership relationships that necessitate embodiment. My view is that in a account of full human subjectivity three distinct dimensions in the concept of self are equally in play, corresponding to three dimensions in the notion of ownership. There is a participant self, the inhabitation or occupation of a first-person stance, “ownership” involving rational relations of participation or endorsement. For a state to be owned is for it to engage the whole of one’s being through its potential to make normative demands on any other owned state: this is what gives substance to the ideas of inhabitation, participation and endorsement that attributions of ownership imply. Ownership entails embodiment because some of these demands can be satisfied only in action. Then there is an immersed self, the element of first-person presentation in the content of consciousness, “ownership” now referring to a phenomenologically present sense of mineness. Finally, an essential role is played by subpersonal and embodied mechanisms of attention, integration, monitoring and information-retrieval in explaining the unity of the self as a single immersed and participatory subject. We might call this integrating and comparing mechanism the underself.

When Kierkegaard speaks of a relation which is the “synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity”, where “the self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself”, he is broaching the means by which a self is constituted through unification of separate factors. I claim that the relevant factors are not the ones he mentions but rather what I label participation and immersion. Where I disagree with Kierkegaard is also in his claim that synthesis is established from above; my view is that it is established from below, in the procedures of an unconscious integrating mechanism. The interplay between immersion and participation, mediated by and grounded in mechanisms of integration, is constitutive of self, and of the unique self that one is. And, I claim, all is in harmony with the idea of the natural, a liberal naturalism that appeals to what is “in our nature” as social human beings, that is to say, to whatever is “a condition of our humanity”, a naturalism not exclusive of the normative.

Peter Strawson is right to say that “our desires and preferences are not, in general, something we just note in ourselves as alien presences. To a large extent they are we”. My desires and preferences are me because in accepting them I acknowledge their demands as my own, an acknowledgement that roots the desires and preferences in my whole being in such a way that any other state that is also me is subject to revision in the light of them. They are me because in accepting them I make myself a participant in the commitments they incur, in the world as they represent it, both in its factual content and in the gerundival description of paths to be followed and goals to be shunned. They are me because I am aware of myself in them, an awareness that creates a range of me/not-me contrasts in such a way that the phenomenal presentation of the desire as my own consists in the call it makes on a body of information I have about myself, including my commitments, capabilities, and values. That is to say, they are me because my immersion in them consists in their rootedness in deep levels of my psyche, and not in the mere reflexivity of representation. They are me, in short, because I am engaged by them and alive to them. And this interplay between immersion and participation might require a herculean effort of ratiocination were it not for the fact that my desires and preferences are also me because beneath the ground-level of consciousness they are bound by subterranean roots to the rest of me, in unconscious procedures of integration, comparison, monitoring, and feedback.

In the next two blogs, I’ll say more about the nature of immersion (phenomenology of for-me-ness) and participation (ownership as normative endorsement), and the relation between them.


  1. Hi Jonardon,

    I’m afraid I find all of this somewhat nebulous. Let me ask a question in an effort to make these ideas more concrete: would it ever be possible for a computer, or a computer program, or a robot to have a self? If not, which criteria rule it out? If so, how could we recognize the presence of a self?

    Best regards, Bill Skaggs

  2. Bill, I agree that the theory is quite abstract. Nothing in this theory of self entails animalism: there is no reason why non-biological bodies should not have complexity sufficient for the emergence of a mental life. The acknowledgement of others as others is the task of empathy, and I am not presenting a theory of empathy in this book, though I do in a new book I am currently working on.

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