Who or What is the Self?

15851875284_d0737a84a9_o[Image: Bruce Riley]

In my first comprehensive exam, I gave an overview of Hadot’s claim that ancient philosophy was conceived as a way life, as an existential path characterized by spiritual exercises rather than a set of merely theoretical or academic positions. I noted that for Hadot the concerns of theory and intellectual discourse are integrated within the spiritual exercises of philosophy—in other words, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions for living a philosophical life—and that philosophical practice from Hadot’s perspective must also include the arenas of practice, aesthetics, values, and action. On Hadot’s reading, the philosophical exercises that unite these domains are those of a self developing a relation to itself through contemplation, meditation, and self-examination; by dialectical engagements with one’s self, one’s interlocutors, and one’s mentors; and with a political and social commitment to participating in one’s community or city, as typified by Socrates’s relation to his city, Athens.

I noted further that the practices of philosophy do not exist for the sake of psychological healing or integration alone, although they may afford both, and that these practices are generative of new access conditions in the self’s relation to itself and to being in general, conditions that in turn make doing philosophy possible. The philosophical imperative in this sense involves both care of the self (epimeleia heautou) and knowledge of the self (gnōthi seauton), to borrow again from Foucault’s work. In the context of Hadot’s conception of philosophy, I then argued that first philosophy is not metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, or epistemology, but practice, and specifically the practice of a self relating to itself. Philosophy on this view is a practice of learning to attend to oneself; it is a way of learning to look at one’s own sensing. Philosophy is about looking at sensing, or, better, philosophy is about understanding the processes and conditions by which sense is made in one’s life.

As an exercise of attention, philosophy shares important features with other forms of exercise, such as the physical exercises engaged in by athletes as they transform their bodies in the gymnasium, or the meditative exercises of contemplatives as they practice in their enclaves. The broader term I introduced for such modes of training was askēsis, a term that can be applied to philosophers, athletes, and contemplatives alike. Recall that askēsis is an intentional practice whereby the self gets to work on itself through diet, meditation, study, dialogue, physical training, therapy, and so on. The goal of askēsis is to create transformations, mutations, or conversions in perception, especially in one’s in-the-moment experience of various phenomena.

While askēsis can refer to a large number of transformative practices, Hadot emphasized that across the schools of Platonism, Neopythagoreanism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Pyrrhonism, Epicureanism, and beyond into medieval, modern, and contemporary schools of philosophy, the central mode of askēsis was one of a self developing a relation to itself, an askēsis expressed in numerous ways, including as a kind of self-duplication, as a suspension between sensation and representation, as a temporal distance from immediate experience, as a death of the self, as an illumination in the field of sense, as a dialectics of the self with itself and others, as a training in concentration and attention, as a rejection of unexamined authority, and as a mode of self-making in the direction of the good and the true.

In these discussions, I accepted at face value the notion of the self. In other words, while I explored how the self can engage in acts of self-care, self-examination, and self-making, I let the self show up in these passages as something simply given, at least insofar as its genesis and ontology are concerned. In my second comp exam, then, I will take up in its metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic forms the question, What is the self? As in the last exam, where I tried to give an integrative sense for Hadot’s approach to philosophy rather than a complete exegesis of his texts, I will not offer here a linear or exhaustive reconstruction of conceptions of the self. Instead, I aim more modestly to bring into view the fact that the self is itself a problem or a question that cannot be taken as something simply given.

It is important to note in this context that philosophers, scientists, and contemplatives do not agree on what a self is or if a self even exists, and thus while a complete taxonomy of self and no-self conceptions is beyond the scope of this chapter,[1] I will take up the question specifically in relation to Hadot’s conception of philosophy as a spiritual practice. Asking the question of the self—the perennial inquiry that asks, who or what am I?—is itself a philosophical and spiritual practice. In this sense, if philosophy is a way of life and a spiritual practice, and if the eminent spiritual exercise practiced across different philosophical schools of training is an askēsis of the self—a splitting of the self to itself, a self setting to work on itself in a community of practice—then it is worth considering, if not demanded, that the question of the self be taken up in the context of Hadot’s approach to the philosophical life.

There are many questions that orbit the central inquiry of who or what is the self. For instance, is the self a necessary condition for experiences of thinking, feeling, and perceiving? Is the self fully caught up in these experiences or does it stand apart from them? Does it alternate between more than one of these poles? Is the self an unchanging substance or is it a variable activity or process? Are the processes of experience identical to the subject of those experiences? Is the self just a concept, a necessary but illusory fiction? Or is the self equivalent to the body, simply a first-person way of talking about physiology? And if it is not just the body, what else is it and what does this something else mean for scientific and naturalistic worldviews? The point of this chapter is not to treat each of these questions separately but to practice approaching them from different points of view, as shades of possibility revealed or created through different practices of inquiry.

To get at these questions and the practices that might answer them, I return again to the basic approach to philosophical practice laid out by Hadot, namely, that the key exercise, the primary askēsis, is to engage in a mode of self-examination that is presupposed by any and every attempt to navigate into, through, and beyond the question, who or what is the self? My approach is to treat the question itself as a practice and to treat the answer to the question—whatever that answer turns out to be—as a result of that practice. In this sense, Hadot’s practices of the self bare a strong resemblance to what Evan Thompson, borrowing from Buddhist traditions in Indian philosophy, calls “I-making” (ahamkāra), that is to say, at minimum, the self is enacted by a variety of sense-making and self-specifying processes that must be deployed and maintained within different environments across time.

One can also find a similar approach to these questions in the work of Peter Sloterdijk, who offered what he called a side view of the history of art, science, and philosophy. Sloterdijk’s is an approach that foregrounds the practices that create artists, scientists, and philosophers in the first place. The side view of philosophy does not describe philosophical knowledge, systems, concepts, disputes, or figures as ready-made objects of investigation. Instead, it traces the history of practices and techniques that enabled those who engage in philosophy to perform their work. In this way, the Greek aphorism I discussed earlier, “know thyself” (gnōthi seauton), which is inscribed onto the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is joined in Sloterdijk’s work with an equally forceful injunction, drawn from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The line reads simply, “You must change your life.” In taking up the side view, Sloterdijk resembles the Socrates of Plato’s Apology. Philosophy, says Socrates, is not so much about knowing this or that as it is about being this or that way (29d–e).

This task of questioning, given to Socrates by the Oracle at Delphi, is what drives those around Socrates to examine truth and knowledge from within their own souls, as an askēsis of self-examination. Sloterdijk’s side view charts this history of askēsis, in a way re-framing the question, What is philosophy? by asking instead, Who is the philosopher? This move re-centers questions of knowledge to questions of the person, where knowledge becomes a question of shaping the individual. Here is Sloterdijk on history as a history of training practices:

Just as the history of science usually presumes that the scientists who do their disciplines already exist, the history of art has assumed since time immemorial that artists are the natural protagonists of the business that produces works of art, and that these players have always existed as well. What would happen if we rotated the conceptual stage ninety degrees in both cases? What would happen if we observed artists in their efforts to become artists in the first place? We could then see every phenomenon on this field more or less from a side view and, alongside the familiar history of art as a history of completed works, we could obtain a history of the training that made it possible to do art and the ascetism that shaped artists.

Sloterdijk’s emphasis on practice is similar to Hadot’s sense of philosophy as a way of life, and it forms the basic method of this essay. The more important question then is, what are the moves and practices, if any, that are general to all practices of self-making? These are a few of the themes I’ll be exploring in this essay. I’ll no doubt post the results of this inquiry here when the time comes.

[1] Such an undertaking has been attempted in, for example, Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self, Richard Sorabji’s Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death, Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self, Dan Zahavi’s Subjectivity and Selfhood, and Mark Sidertis’s, Evan Thompson’s, and Dan Zahavi’s Self, No Self?, which includes not only Western perspectives but Indian ones as well.


  1. good stuff will come back later and give a closer read, did I ever send you:
    Rabinow Dewey and Foucault, What’s the Problem
    “This article explicates a valuable but undernoticed point of contact between John Dewey and Michel Foucault. Both agreed that thinking arose in the context of problems such that the work of thought for both proceeds by way of working through and working over problems. Both affirmed that thinking arose in problematic situations; that it was about clarifying those situations, and that ultimately it was directed towards achieving a degree of resolution of what was problematic in the situation. Both agreed that thinking—or inquiry—was not fundamentally about the representations of a situation; either those produced by a contemporary thinker or as an exercise directed at historical materials. Both agreed that a history of ideas as autonomous entities, distorted not only the process of thinking as a practice, but also the reasons for which it had been engaged in, often with a certain seriousness and urgency, the first place: that is to say, such approaches covered over the stakes. Both agreed that the stakes involved something experiential and entailed a form of logic (or in Foucault’s later vocabulary a mode of ‘veridiction’), in which the thinker could not help but be involved.”

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  2. Very interesting! I’m excited to see this develop. You mention a few times the self relating to itself, and now Kierkegaard is ringing in my ears: “The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.”

    Regardless of that dialectical circus, the relational point seems to have something to do with reflexivity. One of the things that is striking to me is that Hellenistic philosophers were not talking about “the self” or “self-care.” They were using reflexive pronouns. It’s a third-person reflexive pronoun in epimeleia heautou and second-person in gnōthi seauton. The reflexive relation suggests that the self could never be substantive. Something of that reflexivity is evident in the you/your of Rilke’s “You must change your life.” The phrase “I must change my life” would’ve ruined that poem, right? If the self is this reflexive relationship of becoming myself by working on myself, then I’d agree that first philosophy is the practice of that reflexive relationship. So…here are my questions.

    1. Aren’t you saying that ethics is first philosophy? The “e” in ethos is the root of Greek reflexives, and the suffix (-thos) makes it substantive, so ethos means something like itselfity or myself-ness, or in a more Latin phrasing, “seity.” Ancient Greek philosophers generally agree on this sense of ethics as the making of oneself, often drawing on the sense of virtue in Plato and Aristotle.

    2. If Aristotle knew that ethics is the making of the self, without which no philosophy is possible, then why did he say that proto philosophia (first philosophy) is not ethics but the study of “being as being” (ontology)? I guess the hint is in your title: Who or What Is the Self? That question presupposes a meaning of “is.” Asking the question of the self presupposes some understanding of what “is” means. For me to become a subject, myself has to become something/someone that I “am.” Reflexivity could not produce a subject unless there is already a copula at work, so thinking the meaning of being is required to think the self. So, isn’t Aristotle right that first philosophy is the study of being?


  3. That’s a great line from Kierkegaard, Sam. I was just talking with Matt about his TSV essay on German idealism where he cites Fichte as saying something similar. These are good examples I think of what Hadot is talking about.

    I’m taking up a bit of the reflexive / reflective distinction in the essay in terms of Charles Taylor’s work, but as for the question about first philosophy, I think I’m getting at something more basic: If we’re having a conversation about whether or not ethics or studying being as being or epistemology or anything else is first philosophy, then we’ve already done quite a bit of work to even get to the question in a way where an answer, any answer, could even make sense and be discussed.

    That work is either pre-philosophical in the sense that whatever that work *is* isn’t yet philosophy, properly understood, or, alternatively, the work of getting to the question of first philosophy is in some sense also already philosophy. In which case, philosophy is always pre-philosophy, or something like it, and that “pre-” is always something like practice. So it’s always practice, whether it’s epistemic, ethical, or ontological practice. (Dialectical circus, for sure.)

    As for Aristotle, I’d think about it this way: Being must have ontological priority, while transcendental philosophy or epistemology must have methodological priority, a move which implies something like an even earlier distinction between epistemology, aesthetics, and ontology, . . . which presupposes a being that can be sorted . . . But, again, to begin sorting these terms we’d have to already have some training in how to even make those distinctions, no?

    So it comes back to that basic askesis or practice of epoché of some kind. Yes / no?

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    • yes good I take it you aren’t after a theory of sort of perspective (knowing about if you will) but rather a knowing-how, a learning by doing (and doing is what we be).
      Reminds me of Wittgenstein’s critique (fairly or not) of Augustine on how we learn how use words (by pointing at, triangulating with, objects if memory serves) and Wittgenstein wants to point us back to all the skills/orientations/scaffolding that need to be developed for such a higher form of learning/attention to ever take place.

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    • Very nice. I like the idea of philosophy as always (already?) pre-philosophy. I think that might have something to do with Laruelle’s notion of philosophy as non-philosophy, except where we’re talking about practice and askesis he talks about decision. I might just throw in ethos alongside askesis.


  4. before you lose yer library privileges check out The Experimenters by Eva Diaz where among other things follows experimental/experiential education by Albers and company at Black Mtn
    “experience of ambiguity is part of the process of perceiving. By pictorial ambiguity I refer to the possibility of the painter representing the the perception of a thing, and representing it for viewers, in such a way as to encourage the mind to dwell on perceiving as a process: the painter’s experience of an object as coming into its own, distinguishing itself from other things, taking shape.”

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  5. Love the essay….Love the comments.

    Sam, you said: “The reflexive relation suggests that the self could never be substantive. ”

    But could it? Perhaps it could be substantive, ontologically, as a composition of relations….and this system and process of relations is what is substantive, thus giving the possibility of a reflexive “self” in the first place? And as the degree, depth, and width of these relations are too numerous to grapple with, in their totality, in that sense could the self be said to “never be substantive?”

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    • Ah, yes, I’d be okay with saying that the reflexive relation could be substantive in an ontological sense as a composition or assemblage of relations or relatings. I meant substantive in the grammatical sense. I don’t think the self can ever really be referred to with a noun. As a word that describes/modifies a practice (care of the self), self is an adjective (“self” modifying the gerund “care”). If that adjective became a noun, it would be called a substantive. The ontologically substantive self (the relating that relates to itself) is not referred to by the word “self” but by the whole phrase, “care of the self” (cura sui), where “self” shows up in the reflexive position.

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    • doesn’t substantive mean separate and independent existence?
      you don’t have a self anymore than you literally have memories (not like having a heart or any other object) this is a figure of speech (conceptual personae if you prefer) for some things we do not some thing we have or that otherwise exists, perhaps part of why Whitehead as a process thinker was worried about the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, knowing as Wittgenstein did that we can be bewitched by “grammar”.
      I do wonder about the reflexivity and to what we degree we can be aware/mindufl of un-conscious biases (including most of our neural, writ large, doings) and the degree to which we can truly doubt experiences/impressions (I don’t think for example you can bring yourself to doubt something that you know to be true just by having knowledge about contingency or human fallibility or even of how you have changed your mind/position in the past), I think a more likely fruitful way of framing a project like this is (after folks like Alva Noe) to work on replacing one habit/skill with another, so that framing something as a problem or experiment is really a way of changing the subject/use.
      I think it might help to remind ourselves that human-beings are always already manipulating our environs, see M-Ponty on touching one hand with the other.
      “The characteristic approach of Merleau-Ponty’s theoretical work is his effort to identify an alternative to intellectualism or idealism, on the one hand, and empiricism or realism, on the other, by critiquing their common presupposition of a ready-made world and failure to account for the historical and embodied character of experience. In his later writings, Merleau-Ponty becomes increasingly critical of the intellectualist tendencies of the phenomenological method as well, although with the intention of reforming rather than abandoning it. The posthumous writings collected in The Visible and the Invisible aim to clarify the ontological implications of a phenomenology that would self-critically account for its own limitations. This leads him to propose concepts such as “flesh” and “chiasm” that many consider to be his most fruitful philosophical contributions.”

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      • I agree with most of what you’re saying here, dmf. I think the degree of reflexivity is smaller than we sometimes take it to be, especially when it comes to things like ingrained habits, biases, and addictions, and certainly with neural underpinnings, which as we know are basically completely opaque to introspective methods. And I like this example of doubting and believing. One either believes something to be true or one doesn’t, and that initial execution seems to happen automatically. It’s only after the fact that any work might be done about it, and then, as you say, it’s about replacing one with thing another, at least in ordinary contexts.


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