Skip to content

the many that are one

November 5, 2009

[LRB] [In his book Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics Galen] Strawson contends, however, that this natural belief in the persistence of the self is probably an illusion. To begin with, if the self is a single mental thing, how can it persist across temporal gaps in consciousness? If, as most of us assume, we pass part of each night in dreamless sleep, what is it, apart from the human being, that loses consciousness late at night and regains it in the morning? How can there be a mental subject, persisting over such an interval, whose identity over time makes it the case that the subject who hears the alarm clock go off is the same one who saw the late news on television the night before? Strawson holds that the mere physical persistence of the brain is not enough. He agrees with Descartes’s surprising claim that the existence of the mind is inseparable from consciousness – that the self is always conscious. Strawson interprets this, plausibly, not as the claim that the self is a type of persisting substance that, in addition to its other properties, is necessarily also conscious, but rather that the self is nothing but persisting, unified consciousness. In Descartes’s vocabulary, its essence is thinking, and nothing else. This means that the persistence of the self over time must be mental persistence, and that it demands a specifically mental unity, a diachronic unity analogous to the synchronic mental unity of the subject of experience at any one time. This cannot be supplied either by the brain or by the existence of an immaterial soul, conceived as a persisting substratum in which experience inheres.

This leads Strawson to radical conclusions. Not only does the self not persist across gaps in consciousness; it also doesn’t persist across the shifts in the content of consciousness that occur constantly in the course of waking life. One might think that this attack on diachronic identity conflicts with the fact that consciousness always involves time. There can be no experience that lasts no time at all, and the content of any experience is always what is going on in some interval of subjective time – the hearing of a word, the sight of an oncoming bus, the feel of a blast of cold wind. In fact, the nature of the short temporal interval that is experientially present to consciousness at each moment – the specious present, as it is called – is one of the most puzzling things about the experience of time. But while Strawson grants that the self has some persistence over time in virtue of this diachronic unity of moment-to-moment experience, he believes the requisite mental unity does not extend very far. (read review)

read Strawson’s essay, The Self

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: