What is a self? Merely a human being? Or perhaps a soul? Hume claimed he could not find a self when he looked within, only a succession of impressions.
What is a self? Here’s is a really simple answer. I’m a self, namely, myself. You are a self, namely, yourself. A self is just a person, a living, breathing, thinking human being. We use the particle ‘self’ to form reflexive pronouns, like “myself” and “yourself”, and these pronouns, refer to persons. So there’s the simple theory of selves: selves are persons.
But many philosophers would say that there is a difference between myself--- that’s just me, John Perry --- and my Self. This self as some sort of inner being or principle, essential to, but not identical with, the person as a whole. It is that in me that thinks and feels.
I think it’s useful to distinguish three concepts, that appear in the literature on selves, allowing the possibility that they may all stand for the same thing. There is the self, the mind, and the soul.
By “mind” we mean that part of me that has sensation and perception, beliefs and desires, and initiates action; some philosophers think it is no more than the brain or central nervous system.
The mind is basically a common sense notion, that provides a subject for philosophers. The soul, in contrast, is basically a religious or theological concept. The soul is something that is supposed to bear the responsibility for sin, as well as for good act. And, at least in Christianity, it is what is supposed to survive death, and continue to exist in heaven or hell, depending.
The self is usually conceived in philosophy as that which we refer to with the word “I”, at least in its more serious uses. It is that part or aspects of a person that accounts for personal identity through time; in spite of all the ways I have changed since I was fifteen --- that last time I remember committing a significant sin --- I am the same self I was then, and I will be the same self tomorrow and next week and next year, if I live that long.
There is an importantly different use in psychology of “identity” and “self”. Basically one’s self, or one’s identity, is constituted by those attributes one identifies with most strongly; what one thinks of as most important about oneself. I live in Palo Alto and I am a philosopher. I can easily imagine moving to Mountain View or San Francisco. Being a Palo Altan is not part of my identity. But it is hard for me to think of myself as anything but a philosopher: it is part of my identity in the psychological sense.
Suppose a traumatic event occurs, and I decide to give up philosophy, buy a vineyard, and devote myself to the mysteries of merlot instead of those of philosophy. Psychologicaly, we might say my identity has changed, but not philosophically. I am the same person, the same self, I have merely changed in basic ways.
Now, using the terms in their philosophical sense, lots of thinkers have, identified the mind, the self, and the soul. That, as I understand it, was Descartes' view.
He thought that there is this part or aspect of me, the thinking part. This is what I refer to with “I”: I think therefore I exist. I can imagine existing even if I have no body, which I can conceive to continue existing in heaven or hell. Who I am, and what I am, remains the same, through all the changes in my physical being. The molecules that constitute me may change, but not my mind-soul-self. It is this mind-soul-self that God created “In his own image”.
I think its fair to say that this Cartesian mind-soul-self is the basic account of the self, to which philosophers over the past couple of hundred years have reacted. I’ll mention a couple of highlights.
Hume argued that Descartes was wrong; he could find no inner unchanging self, that remained the same; all he can find is a bundle of thought and sensation, in constant flux.
Kant thought Hume had a point, but that we had to believe in some principle that held this flux together, even if we couldn’t find it in the empirical world. This was his famous transcendental self, the unity that we don’t find in experience, but must posit to make sense of experience.
Lots of contemporary philosophers believe the brain is the mind. They don’t believe in Descartes' separate thinking substance. They don’t believe in Heaven, Hell, or the soul. What should such philosophers think about the self. Should they deny that there are selves? Can they get around Kant’s transcendental reasons for positing a self?
Well, I am such a philosopher, and I think we should believe in the self, in just the way I indicated at the start: My self, is just myself, that is me, the live human being, sitting here before you. You can go to my website, http://john.jperry.net, download the C.V., and click on articles with the word “self” in them to see defenses of this view. Have I convinced anyone? Not many.