Friday, October 10, 2008

Who are we? Making sense of the self

Cautious intellectual historians are perennially concerned with the need to avoid anachronism, to sidestep the fallacy of imposing their categories and modes of analysis upon thinkers in the past who had neither the intellectual framework nor the lexicon to express our contemporary concerns. One of the key areas in philosophy that relates to this context is how we move from our language of souls to selves in discussions of personhood, identity, belonging and individuality. Contemporary accounts focus on narrativity, on the autonomous Promethean self so beloved of Enlightenment liberals, on conventional contexts of communities. The concern for the self is central to who we are, how we are, where we are and why we are.

Richard Sorabji is a philosopher deeply engaged with the history of the discipline. For those familiar with his work, this volume is another excursus into the history of the concept of the self in ancient, mediaeval and modern philosophy, taking in arguments from the Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions as well. In contrast to earlier volumes, he engages more extensively with philosophical traditions beyond the Western canon. But this is not merely a collation of textual commentaries but rather a careful scrutiny of texts and arguments deployed in favour of his position on the nature of the self. For Sorabji, the concept of the self is of critical importance to attitudes to perception, knowledge, moral agency and death. He argues that the self is a fundamental reality that owns the body, its states, experiences and acts, in contrast to the Lockean, Epicurean position defended by Derek Parfit in which the self is defended as a stream of psychological continuity. We need to know who we are and have a notion of our individual selves before we can grasp the world.

After the introduction, the main argument of the book is divided into seven parts, beginning with a formulation of his position defending the existence of an individual self that owns psychological states, moving through discussions of unified personhood over time, examining the ethical implications of personhood, shifting to arguments about knowledge, especially self-knowledge, rejecting psychological duration as a definition of the self found in Parfit among others, and ending with a slightly unsatisfactory discussion (at least one which offers little solace) on the afterlife of the self. In this way, his examination of the self begins and ends with the sense of his own mortality. His concern lies with the metaphysics of the person and not merely with the individual as a bundle of properties united by a psychological unity of consciousness.

Part I entitled ‘Existence of Self and philosophical development of the idea’, comprises chapters 1 and 2. In the first, Sorabji briefly surveys and criticises some analytic arguments against the existence of a self and states that the concept of the self and debates around it stretch back into ancient thought. The self is an embodied subject that owns its body, characteristics, acts and psychological states. The second chapter affirms that the ancients had a concept of self, albeit some Platonists among others insisted that this self could exist in a purely noetic disembodied form, a position that is different to Sorabji’s embodied self. The rational soul/self whose true abode is the noetic realm is therefore not his prime concern. He discusses sixteen different textual instances and notions of self in ancient literature and defends Foucault’s contention that the ancients were as concerned with the ‘souci du soi’ as moderns are, pace Charles Taylor and Pierre Hadot among others.

Part II examines ‘Personal identity over time’ and comprises chapters 3-5 analysing the nature of individuality over time. Chapter 3 examines ancient accounts of persistence, while chapter 4 focuses upon a critique of Parfit’s views, reinforced by his critique of the Epicurean-Lockean conception of the self in chapter 5. This last chapter continues a certain tendency in areas of philosophy to discern continuities between the ancient, mediaeval and early modern philosophers acknowledging Locke’s debt to the Epicureans. Chapter 4 discusses the opposition between a notion of personhood as fission, where the individual splits into many, and fusion where many individuals merge into one, drawing upon Bernard Williams’ principle that survival is non-relative, that is, unconnected with what happens to others.

Part III, ‘Platonism’, comprising chapters 6 and 7, examines two well known alternatives to his views: the Platonic impersonal self, and the self as a subject-less bundle. The latter chapter in particular examines differentiation of individuals by qualities, place and matter, and juxtaposes Aristotle and Aquinas’ defence of personal immortality against Averroes’ rejection. Sorabji does not examine why these alternatives fail or are inadequate accounts.

Part IV on ‘Identity and persona in ethics’, comprises chapters 8-10 and traces the development of the concept of identities and individual personae in ancient philosophy and its implications for practical reasoning, drawing on the views of Stoics such as Cicero and Epictetus, Platonists such as Plutarch, and Aristotle, and examines the relationship between these views and contemporary accounts of the ‘practical self’ in the works of Charles Taylor and others concerned also with narrativity. Central to this section is the discussion of the Aristotelian concept of proairesis, which is fundamental to the account of moral agency of a subject.

Part V on ‘Self-awareness’, comprising chapter 11-14. Sorabji argues that the unity of self-awareness is a function of a single owner and not of a single faculty. He analyses and questions various ancient arguments for the claim that self-awareness is indubitable, focusing on Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna (the homo volans argument). It is unclear why these arguments are somewhat inferior to his assertion of the unitary subject that is the embodied self. Taking Avicenna, and other arguments in Islamic philosophy, the self that is the rational soul possesses a faculty that is a unity-in-diversity and also remains a subject that is a unity-in-diversity with respect to its ontological status within the pyramid of being. What is perhaps missing from this account is the argument in Porphyry and later Islamic traditions of self-knowledge and by extrapolation knowledge of others as a unitive process that both retains and dissolves subjectivity.

Part VI entitled ‘Ownerless streams of consciousness rejected’, comprises chapters 15 and 16 and is the core of the critique of Parfit's account of persons in terms of psychological continuity, placed alongside Indian debates on personhood, drawing upon Nyaya’s affirmation of a subject for consciousness in opposition to Buddhist ‘psychological streams’ and the ‘empty self’. Here. Sorabji deploys Vātsyāyana’s concept of ‘I touch what I see’ against Nāgārjuna’s emptiness and abandonment of persons.

The final part ‘Mortality and the loss of self’, comprising chapters 17-19, examines whether or not the fear of personal annihilation is irrational and how we might survive in three modes: resurrection, reincarnation and disembodied survival. The last option he finds particularly problematic because of his rejection of differentiation and individuality in absence of the body, and yet this is the position that many mediaeval philosophers, especially in the Islamic tradition defended rigorously on Aristotelian grounds. The first option is merely unscientific. But what do we make of the fear of non-existence in the future? He argues that the horror of annihilation is irrational (which will be of little consolation), while allowing for the possibility of circular time and backward causation (drawing on Dummett for this point). Philosophy cannot eliminate horror but it could stem it from growing. He puts forward an old argument: since we do not feel horror at a prior non-existence, we should not feel horror at our posterior non-existence. But this assumes that we believe that we had no previous existence prior to our embodied self, a point outright rejected by the Platonic tradition and by philosophers in the Islamic tradition such as Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā.

At times, Sorabji is rather uneven in his judgements and he does not address two key questions: what exactly does it mean to ‘own’ psychological states, and why is the concept of the self as ‘me and me again’ (as he points out early on) not a case of what the mediaevals called mental existence? It seems that there is some conflation of metaphysics and psychology involved. Furthermore, while he states at the outset that the existence of the self does not require proof but disproof, one wonders whether this would really satisfy the analytic thinkers whom he criticises. The two alternatives to his account of the self, namely the self as a stream of ownerless consciousness and the self as a disembodied and immortal rational being, are never conclusively refuted. Despite these reservations, this is quite an excellent volume from which one will no doubt learn much, and the juxtaposition of ancient thinkers to mediaevals and moderns, Islamic thinkers along with Buddhists demonstrates an awesome mastery of different philosophical traditions and a deep learning. The argument is clear, coherent and precise and the presence of a few gaps and assumptions left unexplained does not detract from the achievement.