Mystics in all ages describe the self as an infinite, stable and ever-present phenomenon. But modern physics describes the world as a self-designing organism, while science gives us a detailed description of the mechanisms our brain uses to construct the illusion of the self. Could it be the illusion of self as a separate being that is keeping us in a state of anxiety and fear and leading us astray as a society at this very delicate point in evolution? What is the self? Does it exist?
Descartes claimed that we cannot doubt the existence of self as a thinking subject. But David Hume maintained that there's only a bundle of perceptions and thoughts, no underlying self. Buddhists also reject the existence of a self which persists through time, as a consequence of a rejection of permanence generally. This sounds counter-intuitive to the western ear. What does this mean for ethics and our conception of mind? Joe Gelonesi interviews Alison Gopnik and Monima Chadha.
The Buddha's teachings on the self and on non-self are some of his most subtle, interesting, and unique doctrines. In this video Doug Smith looks at the subtle doctrine of the self taught by Buddhism. Is there a self? Well, yes and no. Smith compares the Buddha's view of the self with that of two western philosophers, the empiricist David Hume (see video above) and the inimitable Derek Parfit (see videos below).
Philosopher Derek Parfit discussing personal identity in the documentary Brainspotting, a two-video series (9:23) (10:08). Parfit's interesting view of personal identity is strangely similar to and illustrative of the view of the Self in Buddhism. What is it, exactly, that is the basis for our belief that I am me and there could not be two of me existing simultaneously? Parfit presents a vivid and startling thought experiment to show the utter craziness of personal identity.
"Don Quixote and the Narrative Self" ~ Once upon a time a philosopher wrote an article called ‘Don Quixote and The Narrative Self’. He commenced by saying: In this essay, I will discuss the question of whether our selves are constituted by narratives, ie stories. Are we like Don Quixote, whose self was created by his reading of medieval romances: are we Homo quixotienses, the narrative self? Or are we rather like the protagonist of Sartre’s novel Nausea, Antonin Roquentin, whose life did not form any narrative unity? Are we in other words rather Homo roquentinenses? (10 minute read)
In this Wireless Philosophy video, Elisabeth Camp (Rutgers University) introduces the narrative view of personal identity and its major problems. (9:11)
This video presents a brief but insightful overview of the Mind-Body problem. Our bodies – the physical, biological parts of us — and our minds — the thinking, conscious aspects — have a complicated, tangled relationship. Which one primarily defines you or your self? Are you a body with a mind or a mind with a body? Maryam Alimardani investigates.
This short video that was made for a Media and Social Justice class presents some of the basic ideas of the French/Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) with a focus on the idea of the Other, which has a centrally important place in Levinas's philosophy. (11:49) [note: I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Levinas's philosophy. You can find this under "Books" on this website. Also, I have published several articles on Levinas's ideas, located under "Articles." Read @ your own risk!]
Jacques Lacan's (1901-1981) idea of “the mirror stage” involves a key insight about human identity and relations with others which develops from the crucial experience of when children first recognize their image in a mirror. Before this, the child is unable to clearly separate Self and Other. Thus, Lacan argues that human individuation cannot issue from the "natural" development of any inner wealth of selfness that is supposedly innate. Rather, the "I" is an Other from the ground up for Lacan….
What is othering? From a psychological or psychotherapeutic perspective, one type of othering is when we deny the innate worthiness or dignity of other people and we project onto them negative aspects of our self that we deny in ourselves. But a second type of othering is when we other ourselves. For example, as Lacan suggested, our ego can ‘other’ our unconscious part of ourselves, our true self, which can be a painful process of self-denial. We can get beyond it if we acknowledge who we are.