Metaphysics and Representations: Who or What Is the Self? (Draft 1)

yellowtrace_Andreas-N-Fischer_schwarm_III_blau[Image: Andreas Nicolas Fischer]

In an earlier essay, 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.[1] 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.

My point in saying that practice is first philosophy is not made to undercut the fact that philosophical inquiry must often start with a certain branch of philosophical inquiry, it is rather to say that if one is having a conversation about whether or not ethics, metaphysics, epistemology or anything else is first philosophy, then one has already done quite a bit of work to even get to the point where an answer, any answer, could make sense and be discussed. That work is either pre-philosophical in the sense that whatever that work is is not yet philosophy, properly understood, or, alternatively, the work of getting to the question of first philosophy is in a sense already philosophical, in which case, philosophy is always pre-philosophy and that “pre” always involves practice. Philosophy on the view I’m arguing for here is thus at first always practice, whether it is epistemological, ethical, or ontological practice, or, as is often the case, a mixture of several practices of attention, aimed at different concerns.

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 this chapter, then, I take up in its metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic forms the question, What is the self? As in the last chapter, 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,[2] 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, though I will also offer answers to each of them.

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 bear 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, and through different practices of self-making.

Thompson’s enactivist view of sense-making provides a general framework of which Hadot’s treatment of philosophy as embodied perceptual transformation is one higher-level human instantiation. If as Thompson says “living is sense-making in precarious conditions,”[3] then philosophy is one of the ways humans act upon the sense-making apparatus itself. In other words, the practices Hadot foregrounds in his work can be read as sets of actions individuals execute upon themselves to modify their sense-making capacities. Thompson’s work is a key reference point here not only because his work on Indian Buddhist philosophy bares a strong resemblance to the practices Hadot emphasizes, but also because his version of enactivism offers a framework for understanding a self at its most basic level. As David Fiordalis, editor of the comparative anthology Buddhist Spiritual Practices: Thinking with Pierre Hadot on Buddhism, Philosophy, and the Path notes, “Hadot provides an alternative framework for understanding philosophy as a practice and a discipline, and in doing so, he gives us a different model for comparing exemplars of philosophical discourse from the Western tradition with those from Buddhist and other non-Western intellectual traditions.”[4]

Thompson’s framework, drawing from Western philosophy (and especially phenomenology), cognitive science, and Indian Buddhism, suggests that whatever else a self is it is at minimum rooted in an organism’s rudimentary self/nonself distinction, though this basic capacity does not necessarily by itself imply abilities for conscious self-reference. In more complex organisms such as human beings, however, sense-making capacities include capacities for self-reference and for the generation of multiple kinds of self, for multiples kinds of I-making achieved through acts of self-specification and self-perpetuation. This is a process-oriented view of the self. Here’s how Thompson’s describes his view, “The self isn’t a thing or an entity at all; it is brought forth or enacted in the process of living.”[5] As he continues to frame his position, he writes, this “feeling that ‘I am’ . . . is a process that enacts an ‘I’ and in which the ‘I’ is no different from the I-ing process itself.”[6]

While Thompson’s account of I-making in an Indian Buddhist context is similar to Hadot’s accounts of askēsis in the Ancient Greek one, a comparative assessment of these traditions is outside the scope of this chapter. It is worth noting, however, that the central askēsis of a self relating to itself—which Hadot diagnoses as central to Platonism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and so on—is central also to Indian Buddhist contemplative practice, makes the askēsis of the self a seemingly widespread, cross-cultural practice, at least in its most basic and general forms. This larger analysis aside, what is essential for my purposes in this chapter is to investigate further the possible philosophical positions one might take with regards to I-making, the organism, and the world. This is the task I turn to in the next section, where I survey the works of philosophers and cognitive scientists for empirical, phenomenological, and metaphysical responses to the question of the self. In particular, I draw on Thompson’s work in the context of his debates with the philosopher of mind Thomas Metzinger and the phenomenologist Dan Zahavi. What’s at stake in these debates is how one should read the relations among the self, the organism, and the world, and what amount of reality, if any, one should afford the self in relation to these other domains.

The Metaphysics of the Self Construct

In his work Being No One, Metzinger observes that what one might take to be a self is better seen as a shifting representational construct, a self-model rather than a pre-established, independently existing self-fact. A self for Metzinger is not some given universal substance shared by all humans everywhere; it is rather the contingent and virtual offspring of ecologically situated subpersonal cognitive architectures. For Metzinger, this phenomenal self is more properly understood as a cluster of automatic information processing systems engaged in acts of fictitious self-modeling, where the representational construct merely obscures the subpersonal functioning of the organism.[7] Instead of a universal subject, Metzinger refers to the wider phenomenal state space, the arena in which all conceivable self-models are constructed.[8] This arena yields an incredibly large number of possible self-conceptions, a situation that leads Metzinger to deride the reality of the self-construct itself, giving it only an illusory, epiphenomenal metaphysical status. As Metzinger famously stated, “No such things as selves exist in the world: Nobody ever was or had a self.”[9]

In Metzinger’s account, then, there is no real thing called a self, there are only processes of self-modeling, processes that have the central property of being completely transparent as models. In other words, the self-model’s transparency is invisible in one’s experience of the world. One sees with and through the self-model, but one never sees the model for what it is—a fictitious representation. As Metzinger puts it, “[The conscious self-model of human beings] is a wonderfully efficient two-way window that allows an organism to conceive of itself as a whole, and thereby to causally interact with its inner and outer environment in an entirely new, integrated, and intelligent manner.”[10] The self for Metzinger is better seen as a transparent model that de facto cannot be seen or experienced as the representation that it is. The self-model on this view is an undetectable medium by means of which experience is shaped in consciousness. Metzinger writes, “The transparency of the self-model is a special form of inner darkness. It consists in the fact that the representational character of the contents of self-consciousness is not accessible to subjective experience.”[11]

It is reasonable to ask what role an unreal and inaccessible self-model could play in experience or in the larger casual system of nature. Metzinger’s point here is not that the self-model has no purpose, but that it is not what we take it to be in our felt sense first-person experience. For example, Metzinger notes that one crucial purpose of the self-model is to internally represent the inner states of the organism, to predict its own future needs and actions, and to anticipate the behaviors of other phenomena in its environment.[12] The self-model is on this account heavily invested in self-investigation and prediction. “Self-consciousness,” Metzinger writes, “is the capacity to become the object of one’s own attention.”[13] All other representations are on Metzinger’s view embedded in this primary self-representation, and more precisely, in the representation of an inner and outer distinction. As Metzinger notes, “For beings like ourselves, the representation of a self–world boundary is the most fundamental characteristic of our representational state space: all other forms of representational content always belong to at least one of those two categories, which, in standard situations, form an exhaustive distinction within reality itself. Everything belongs to either the self or the world.”[14]

That the self-model is a process and not a thing, a transparent and inaccessible representation, leads Metzinger to his no-self stance. He writes, “Under a general principle of ontological parsimony it is not necessary (or rational) to assume the existence of selves, because as theoretical entities they fulfill no indispensable explanatory function. What exists are information-processing systems engaged in the transparent process of phenomenal self-modeling. All that can be explained by the phenomenological notion of a ‘self’ can also be explained using the representationalist notion of a transparent self-model.”[15]

To be sure, there is good empirical support for Thompson’s and Metzinger’s view of the self as process brought forth by an organism within its life cycle. The issue here is over how to think about the ontological status of the self-model, rather than about how to read the process-oriented and situated status of the self per se. For example, the cognitive scientist Lisa Barrett observes that the human organism is able to generate multiple self-conceptions and self–world understandings.[16] On Barrett’s account, the brain can generate different kinds of minds from the same set of physical organs, neuronal networks, and hemispheric and cortical physiologies through an ongoing process of wiring and rewiring, giving rise to highly diverse sets of mental events.[17] “The human brain evolved,” Barrett writes, “in the context of human cultures, to create more than one kind of mind.”[18]

The diverse possibility space within which multiple kinds of minds emerge is on Barrett’s account a result of the fact that the brain is a complex system replete with plasticity (referring to the brain’s ability to change over time), degeneracy (through which different sets of neurons are able to produce the same outcomes), and multipurpose circuitry (where the same networks of neurons are capable of executing multiple different tasks in distinct settings). In Barrett’s words, “The brain is high-complexity because, within one physical structure, it can reconfigure its billions of neurons to construct a huge repertoire of experiences, perceptions, and behaviors.”[19] For Barrett, then, a mind is not equivalent to a brain. Rather, a brain is a necessary but insufficient condition for having a mind.

While Metzinger and Thompson both offer process-oriented accounts of the self, they disagree on the metaphysical weight such an account should be afforded. Their disagreement also opens out into an important and subtle question, namely, what is the relation between the self-model and the organism who generates it? Following the Indian Buddhist account of dependent origination—the so-called “middle way” view that sees the self neither as independent substance nor as lacking reality altogether—Thompson argues against what he describes as the “neuro-nihilism” of philosophers like Metzinger. Here is how Thompson depicts this position, “We find this nihilist extreme today among those neuroscientists and neurophilosophers who, realizing that the brain offers no home for a substantially real self, come to the conclusion that there is no self whatsoever and that our sense of self is a complete illusion.”[20] On Thompson’s reading, the neuro-nihilist imports a particular view of the self—the self as independent substance—and takes aim, assassinating the validity of this position by bringing to bear the full power of modern cognitive neuroscience. Thompson continues, “Neuro-nihilism assumes that were the self to exist, it would have to be an independently real thing or indivisible entity. The problem is that there is no such thing or entity in the brain. So, if it seems to us that we have or are an independently real self, then our sense of self must be created by our brain.”[21]

Thompson for his part counters the neuro-nihilist image with Tibetan Buddhist concepts of dependent origination, concepts which he sees as consistent with his own accounts of enactivism, self-specification, and sense-making, and with aspects of the Western philosophical tradition, especially as articulated by the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose approach to phenomenology centers the body’s sensorimotor relation to its environment.[22] Buddhism, enactivism, and phenomenology, then, all support a similar understanding of dependent origination while drawing on different vocabularies, methods, and traditions.

In Thompson’s summary, there are three primary aspects to dependent origination. The first aspect is that all beings depend for their existence on sets of interdependent causes and conditions that lead to the emergence and perishing of that being. The second aspect is that all beings are mereologically dependent in the sense that each one depends on constituent part­–part relations and part–whole relations that allow the being to continue existing in time and place. These relations are complex and multidirectional in the sense that organisms rely on organs, organs rely on cells, cells rely on organelles, and so on, but also that organelles rely on cells, cells rely on organs, and organs rely on organisms, making mereological dependence a two-way street between bottom-up and top-down dependency. The third aspect is that all phenomena are conceptually dependent in the sense that the identification of what counts as a single whole depends upon the concepts one brings to bear in the identification process.[23] In summary, dependent origination includes causal, mereological, and conceptual dependence.

The aspect of concept dependence also implies scale dependence: Wholes are conceptually partitioned in consciousness across scales of being (from micro to macro), meaning wholes emerge or disappear depending on the scale applied. As Thompson notes, conceptual dependence is a more subtle form of dependence than the other two. Thompson writes, “What we mark off as a system depends on our cognitive frame of reference and the concepts we have available . . . [but] such conceptual dependence doesn’t mean that nothing exists apart from our words and concepts, or that we make up the world with our minds.”[24] The reality of conceptual dependence is what links practices of sense-making with practices of I-making, and it is the conceptual dependence of notions of the self that give rise to the great variety of self-concepts one finds in the literature, and, consequently, of the different self–world relations that one finds across history and culture, a point I’ll return to in more detail below.

The phenomenologist Dan Zahavi also offers his own criticism of Metzinger’s position, joining Thompson in interrogating Metzinger’s metaphysical stance on the self. Zahavi writes of Metzinger, “In his view, a phenomenological account of selfhood has no metaphysical impact,”[25] and then immediately counters with his objection,

If we were to wholeheartedly endorse [Metzinger’s] metaphysical principle, we would declare illusory most of the world we live in and know and care about. Why not rather insist that the self is real if it has experiential reality and that the validity of our account of the self is to be measured by its ability to be faithful to experience, by its ability to capture and articulate (invariant) experiential structures.[26]

Again, while Zahavi’s and Thompson’s metaphysical stances to the reality of the self differ from Metzinger’s, the differences among the three philosophers are rooted less in strong disagreements about cognitive science research than they are in the appropriate ontology of experience; the issue is distinctly metaphysical more than it is empirical.[27]

Zahavi’s own account of what a self is, like Thompson’s, is not a retreat into an independent substance view of the self but rather towards what he calls a “minimal” or “core self.” Zahavi describes the minimal self in this way, “In short, the self is conceived neither as ineffable transcendental condition, nor as a mere social construct that evolves through time; it is taken to be an integral part of our conscious life with an immediate experiential reality.”[28] By affording immediate experiential reality a metaphysical status in his philosophical image of the self, Zahavi offers what one could describe as a naturalism that includes in its metaphysics the aesthetics, capacities, and consequences of different representational constructions, including the impact and effects of different self-constructions, in whatever forms they finally take.

For Zahavi, then, his image of the self is a situated, process-oriented construct, but it is not an entirely relative fabrication either. It is precisely the self’s status as universally and structurally situated and constructed that unites the various self-conceptions one might generate. Here’s how Zahavi describes it, “Whereas we live through a number of different experiences, the dimension of first-personal givenness remains the same. In short, although the self, as an experiential dimension, does not exist in separation from the experiences, and is identified by the very first-personal givenness of the experiences, it may still be described as the invariant dimension of first-personal givenness throughout the multitude of changing experiences.”[29]

Self-conceptions on Zahavi’s view thus emerge within a broader phenomenal state space in much the way that Metzinger describes, but the self-concept’s status—the self’s conceptual dependence, as Thompson would say—as interdependent with the first-person architecture does not mean it is not a real thing; it simply means that its ontology should be understood as part of a broader experiential domain that includes experience, self-awareness, and selfhood.

Zahavi’s account of the self-concept is in this way not different in kind from his phenomenological account of experience and perception as such. Here is how in general terms Zahavi describes phenomenology, “Phenomenology pays attention to the givenness of the object, but it does not simply focus on the object exactly as it is given; it also focuses on the subjective side of consciousness, thereby illuminating our subjective accomplishments and the intentionality that is at play in order for the object to appear as it does . . . when we investigate appearing objects, we also disclose ourselves as datives of manifestation, as those to whom objects appear.”[30] The subject “to whom objects appear” is precisely the kind of self-model that Metzinger suggests is essential for representing and predicting the inner and outer environments that every human must navigate, regardless of the specific goals or needs.

Understanding the terms of art in Zahavi’s quote—and especially the notions of intentionality, givenness, and subjective accomplishment—is thus essential to understanding Zahavi’s account of the self, and his view of the nature of experience in general. Phenomenologists do not use the word “intentionality” in its common sense definition of “doing something on purpose” but rather to center the aboutness or directedness of ordinary conscious experience. In other words, ordinary episodes of lived experience are always directed towards some object, thought, event, belief, or feeling. How these phenomena appear in the experience of the individual is described in terms of their “givenness” to consciousness. Episodes of conscious experience are related to the ways acts of intentionality render phenomena in perception, and thus the skills of intentionality one possesses are best read as subjective accomplishments; they are efforts of perception that give phenomena to experience in different ways.

For a phenomenologist like Zahavi, then, experiences of understanding a phenomena to be a certain way—to mean what it does to the individual having the experience—vary in accordance with the skills of perception the individual brings to the encounter. As Zahavi observes, “The same object can be given in a variety of modes.”[31] The phenomenologist responds to this dynamic by investigating the gap between the intentional representations of a phenomenon as it is given to consciousness and the intrinsic properties of the phenomenon itself, reasoning that often times what one takes to be differences attributed to the properties of objects are better understood as differences in intentional attitudes issuing from the subject. This is why, as Zahavi suggests, “The same object, with the exact same worldly properties, can present itself in a variety of manners.”[32]

While Zahavi’s account of the self-construct is not immediately different in kind from other intentional or subjective accomplishments, it does differ from other intentional relations in one crucial way: Zahavi suggests that the minimal self is “pregiven.”[33] To say that the self is pregiven simply means that whatever presentation an appearing object takes in our intentional achievements, that object has as its precondition of appearing a subjectivity before which the object appears. The minimal self for Zahavi is thus a precondition for experiencing any kind of person, object, event, or world whatsoever. Insofar as we humans are organisms that encounter phenomena in a world, argues Zahavi, we have if we investigate the plurality of such possible experiences a minimal self that accompanies each of these experiences, and it is only through the variety of these intentional stances that we encounter and discover the world in which we live and the aims, values, and purposes that guide our actions as we move through it. Contra Metzinger, Zahavi suggests that a human has as a constituent part of its being a pregiven minimal self, and its status as an ever-present background of other intentional states makes including the minimal self a necessary feature in the ontology of experience.

There are also important practical and therapeutic dimensions to Zahavi’s and Thompson’s positions that are not easily accounted for from Metzinger’s point of view. For example, of the Greek aphorism “know thyself,” which has followed us throughout these pages, Zahavi writes, “Only a being with a first-person perspective could make sense of the ancient dictum ‘know thyself’; only a being with a first-person perspective could consider her own aims, ideals, and aspirations as her own and tell a story about them.”[34] Even a move like Metzinger’s—a move to undermine the reality of first-person experience—happens always within the structures of awareness made possible only in the first person. This much Metzinger would agree with, as for him it is through the self-model that self-consciousness can take its own self as an object of investigation. But why, then, call this crucial developmental maneuver an illusion if it is only through acts of investigation deliberately taken up in the first-person mode that the self’s abilities, character, convictions, habits, and dispositions are acted upon?

Thompson has also noted the more specific link between volitional consciousness and contemplative training (of which the injunction “know thyself,” as we saw in the previous chapter, is surely an archetypical example).[35] Thompson’s contemplative neuroscience method approaches attention, awareness, and emotion regulation as trainable skills. As with the trainability of intentional skills in general, Thompson claims that contemplative practitioners are able to generate new data about conscious states unachievable without training; are able to enhance capacities for focused attention, one-pointed concentration, and metacognition; and are able to give more accurate first-person reports of their own mental states than their nontrained peers.[36] Moreover, Thompson argues, contemplative training provides a means by which a psychological action like contemplative practice can intervene on the biological or physical state of the organism, including by initiating changes to neural activity, immune function, and hormonal patterns.[37]

In other words, Metzinger’s claim ought to be countered not simply on the grounds that one has a romantic attachment to appearances, aesthetics, and untrue fictions, but more precisely because the minimal sense of self is an integral part of living and making one’s way through the world, and is especially crucial to acts and practices that involve I-making. There is, if we accept Thompson’s view, a causal relationship between the intentional acts of the contemplative practitioner, their modes of I-making, and the structure and functioning of the organism, and this causal relationship ought to lead one to re-think the ontological status of the self.

On these more general points, one can see how Thompson’s contemplative neuroscience method is but one branch of what he elsewhere calls neurophenomenology (a program to which Metzinger in Being No One also subscribes). Thompson describes this larger research program in this way:

The most important feature of this approach, for our purposes here, is that experience is not seen as an epiphenomenal side issue, but is considered central to any adequate understanding of the mind, and accordingly needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner. Phenomenology and experimental cognitive science are thus seen as complementary and mutually informing modes of investigation. Neurophenomenology builds on this view with the specific aim of understanding the nature of consciousness and subjectivity and their relation to the brain and body. The working hypothesis of neurophenomenology is that phenomenological accounts of the structure of human experience and scientific accounts of cognitive processes can be mutually informative and enriching.[38]

For Zahavi and Thompson, then, there are practical, phenomenological, and metaphysical reasons for rejecting Metzinger’s view of the self as having no metaphysical impact.

To make the point in a more general way, I-making matters for aesthetic and epistemological reasons, because different types of self have different capacities; and I-making matters for political and ethical reasons, both in the sense that who or what a self is has changed over time, and because the types of self that have been coded with different kinds of legal and political rights have not been stable or equitably distributed across history either. These facts demand a view of the self-construct that accepts its legal, political, ethical, and metaphysical reality, without losing hold of its situated, process-oriented, and constructed character. As Thompson notes, I-making happens on biological, social, and psychological levels,[39] such that one is obliged to say that, while the circulations among these levels is no doubt complex, it is not the case that any one level can operate with a freedom independent from the others, or that one level can totalize the rest. In other words, psychological freedom is limited and constrained by social and linguistics conditions, while social and linguistic conditions are themselves limited by the biology of human organisms, even as both psychological and social conditions can change the biological possibilities present within a human being’s life time, as Thompson’s neurophenomenological framework attests.

Finally, Zahavi’s and Thompson’s points about the ongoing circulation among conceptions of the self, conceptions of others, and conceptions of the world is not lost on historians of the philosophical tradition like Charles Taylor. In fact, they make good empirical and biological sense out of why the qualities of self change so much over time and place. Taylor’s book Sources of the Self is one wide-ranging exegesis on the question of what it is to be a human agent, an investigation that tracks how shifts in moral claims, ontological accounts, and epistemological frameworks hang together in complex and recursive ways; how these domains are also tied to transformations in the definition of reason and the changing boundaries between subject and object; how the distinction between internal subjective claims and external objective ones is not localized in a stable or consistent way; and how there is an ongoing tension in the literature and practice of philosophy between discovering and creating the self,[40] all shifts that can be made sense of within a constructivist, neurophenomenological account of the self.

To take just one arc from one of these traditions, the fact that the various adumbrations of self-conceptions found in the Western tradition—including, for example, Descartes’s cogito, Lock’s punctual self, Kant’s transcendental subject, Merleau-Ponty’s tacit cogito, Heidegger’s dasein, to name only a few—are in some ways mutually exclusive does not immediately point to a fatal flaw in philosophical procedure, but rather draws to the foreground the fact that a large enough phenomenal state space can play host to a large number of selves, and that practices of I-making play to an extent not immediately evident a substantial role in the emergence, properties, and capacities of such possible selves. Does this mean that any kind of self is possible? This is not likely, given the constraints of the physical organism and the requirements placed upon it by the surrounding environment, but clearly a large number of selves are possible.

Multiple Selves and Multiple Practices

I am arguing in this chapter for a philosophical understanding of the self as real and constructed, but regardless of how one finally treats the metaphysics of possible selves, the facts of conceptual dependence, volitional training, and I-making (Thompson), the high-complexity of the brain (Barrett), the wider phenomenal state space within which selves emerge (Metzinger), and the circulation between experience, self-awareness, and selfhood (Zahavi) together help to explain the wide variety of self conceptions one finds historically, within any one tradition, and cross-culturally, across the planet. Thus while I disagree with Metzinger’s final metaphysical position on the nature of the self, his insertion of a gap between the self-model and the organism is worth holding onto, as the gap explains the existence of multiple self-constructs, whilst still acknowledging that the human phenomenal state space is influenced by the capacities of the human body and nervous system, the environmental context of the organism, and the social and historical conditions of the person. Thus while the possibilities and constraints surrounding I-making are not immediately clear and are worth exploring in more detail, at minimum these multiple levels of complexity must factor into any investigation into the nature of the self.

The approach I take up in the remainder of this dissertation, then, is one described by the German philosopher 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; in other words, it’s a historical interpretation that centers practices of I-making over static conceptions of the self. 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.[41]

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 dissertation. The question then is, what are the moves and practices that are general to practices of self-making? It is to this inquiry I turn to next.

References

Foucault, Michel. 2001. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981–1982. New York, NY: Picador.

Hadot, Pierre. 2004. What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

———. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Horujy, Sergey, S. 2015. Practices of the Self and Spiritual Practices. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Metzinger, Thomas. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

———. 2018. “Are you Sleepwalking Now?” Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering

Seigel, Jerrold. 2005. The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Sloterdijk, Peter. 2012. The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as Practice. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

———. 2013. You Must Change Your Life. Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press.

Sorabji, Richard. 2006. Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Thompson, Evan. 2007. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

———. 2008. “Neurophenomenology and Contemplative Experience.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, edited by Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson, 226–235. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

———. 2009. “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness.” In Nancey Murphey, George F. R. Ellis, and Timothy O’Conner (eds.), Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will, 187–197. Springer.

———. 2015. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2005. “Being Someone.” Psyche, 11(5): 1–20.

———. 2008. Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

[1] Foucault, Hermeneutics of the Subject.

[2] 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.

[3] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 328.

[4] Fiordalis, “Introduction,” 9.

[5] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 324.

[6] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 325.

[7] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 128.

[8] Metzinger, “Are You Sleepwalking Now?” https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering

[9] Metzinger, Being No One, 1.

[10] Metzinger, Being No One, 1.

[11] Metzinger, Being No One, 331.

[12] Metzinger, Being No One, 327.

[13] Metzinger, Being No One, 317.

[14] Metzinger, Being No One, 315.

[15] Metzinger, Being No One, 337.

[16] Barrett, How Emotions Are Made, 279.

[17] Barrett, How Emotions Are Made, 279–281.

[18] Barrett, How Emotions Are Made, 280.

[19] Barrett, How Emotions Are Made, 282.

[20] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 322.

[21] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 322.

[22] See Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being and Mind in Life.

[23] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 330–331.

[24] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 332.

[25] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 128.

[26] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 128.

[27] Here’s Zahavi from his essay “Being Someone” (a retort to Metzinger’s own Being No One) on where Metzinger overlaps with but then ultimately departs from his phenomenologist peers: “There is, superficially at least, a rather striking overlap between Metzinger’s description and the account favored by numerous phenomenologists. That is also where the agreement ends. The phenomenologists would argue that the self is real if it has experiential reality, and that the validity of our account of the self is to be measured by its ability to be faithful to experience, by its ability to capture and articulate (invariant) experiential structures. By contrast, Metzinger argues that it would be a fallacy (what he calls the error of phenomenological reification) to conclude from the content and structure of phenomenal self-experience to the literal properties of an internal and non- physical object, which is what Metzinger takes the self to be” (11).

[28] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 106.

[29] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 132.

[30] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 123.

[31] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 118.

[32] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 122.

[33] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 126.

[34] Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 129.

[35] Thompson, “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness.”

[36] Thompson, “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness,” 187–188.

[37] Thompson, “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness,” 194–195.

[38] Thompson, “Neurophenomenology and Contemplative Practice,” 227.

[39] Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, 325.

[40]  What is it to be a human agent? (ix); moral claims, ontological accounts, and epistemological frameworks (5); the modern sense of inwardness (21); transformations in the sense of reason (21). Localization and the changing inside / outside distinction (111). The tension between discovering and creating the self (112).

[41] Sloterdijk, The Art of Philosophy, 9.

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. Continue reading

Skills of Perception

I’ve been suggesting that the basic constituents of experience are neither ideas nor representations but activities of thought capable of generating ideas and representations. On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person; it is a skill of combining the manifold of sensibility into the semantically hued diorama of meaningful experience that all people experience as they navigate the world. As a skill of perception, experience can be said to consist in various levels of detail and nuance; it is shot through with skillful means at the ground level, means trainable and plastic in nature. Indeed, if one takes the position that philosophy is an activity that intervenes upon the initial order of skilled perception, then it becomes clear that philosophy is a means for acting upon action. Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity, one that makes contemplation—in the sense of marking out a space for observation—its own kind of skilled action, executed in an environment.  Continue reading

Practices of Perception

In my dissertation summary, I linked the works of Evan Thompson, Pierre Hadot, Peter Sloterdijk, and Michel Foucault in terms of each philosopher’s emphasis on what we could call skills of perception and action, each suggesting a view of philosophy as practice. In Pierre Hadot’s work What is Ancient Philosophy?, for example, we find a view of the history of philosophy as a history of practices of self-transformation and self-overcoming (up to and including considerations of just who the “self” is that is overcome).

Despite the implications of his title, Hadot sees the emphasis on practice as also prevalent in modern philosophical figures, including Descartes, Kant, and Montaigne. In principle, we could take a practice view of any tradition of philosophical thought, as many of Hadot’s commentators have done. This is largely the same approach that Peter Sloterdijk takes. In The Art of Philosophy, Sloterdijk introduces us to his method of reading the history of art and science (and philosophy, as the work will show): Continue reading

Spaces of Freedom

It’s been just over a year since I posted anything new here, but that’s not for lack of study or engagement on my part. Work—both intellectual and vocational—continues apace. Readers may be interested to know that I’ve started pursuit of a PhD here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Below I’m sharing a short description of my plans for the dissertation. Things may change a bit here and there as I complete various sections of the dissertation, but I expect to follow pretty closely the below summary. I’m not sure what will become of Knowledge Ecology at this point. I may start afresh with a new blog. I may continue blogging here. I might abandon the Internet all together. Who knows.

The thing about blogging—both positive and negative—is that it puts on offer a continuous stream of output, an ongoing account of one’s thinking and development. This has the double effect of providing greater context for one’s writing but also makes it difficult, at least psychologically for me, to separate oneself from earlier work in the way that writing books or articles naturally provides. The Internet tends toward a pathological amount of continuity and interconnectivity that I think many of us writing in this medium would be wise to rail against. In any case, enjoy the PhD ruminations.

Continue reading