The Self

Week of: 
February 24, 2013
What is it: 

What is a self? Merely a human being? Or perhaps a soul? Hume claimed he could not find a self when he looked within, only a succession of impressions. But other philosophers seem to find transcendental selves, momentary selves, and objective selves, among others. Do the modern physical and biological sciences shed light on the self, or do they suggest there is no room – and no need – for such things? John and Ken examine their selves and others with Jenann Ismael from the University of Arizona, author of The Situated Self.

Listening Notes: 


John and Ken begin the show by discussing the self—what exactly is it? John initially suggests that everything that is alive is a self, but Ken pushes back, suggesting that the self is actually something hidden and inner. John proposes instead that the distinctive feature of the human self is our self-awareness, asking what it is that we’re aware of when we’re self-aware. John then tries out Hume and Kant’s ideas of the self, but Ken resists these as well as the idea of the self as a soul, admitting that philosophers really have made quite a mess of the concept of the self.


The two are joined by Jennan Ismael, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, and author of The Situated Self. Best known as a philosopher of physics, Ismael shares that her interest in the philosophy of physics is what first led her to consider the self. If we take physics as telling the final story of the universe, we’re faced with figuring out how exactly we fit into this picture. The soul poses an interesting challenge for physics.


Ismael says that for her, the self just is an inner point of view. This captures the colloquial sense of the soul, but is also importantly different from the soul as an inner immaterial object. Ken suggests that for the sake of argument they deny such an immaterial soul exists at all. John then pushes back on Ismael’s idea of the inner point of view. To this Ken adds that instead it seems as though the self has an inner point of view, rather than being one. To counter this, Ismael proposes thinking first about the emergence of the self, through the creation of a self-history, in order to make clear how this internal perspective arises. John, not convinced by the division between external and internal perceptions, argues still that the self just is him. He suggests that ultimately our minds are less united than we think, and more like ant colonies, which definitely do not have internal points of view.


The three move on to considering the role of introspection. Can you have a coherent self without self-reflection or the creation of a certain personal narrative? John and Ismael agree on distinguishing between a working and philosophical conception of the self. As a closing thought, Ken wonders whether there’s something to the Buddhist approach of just avoiding the question all together. They conclude on a note of agreement: Buddhists and philosophers both know a lot about the self, through thought and introspection.


Roving Reporter (seek to 6:06):

Caitlin Esch speaks with split-brain patient Valery about the experience of having the communication pathways between her left and right brain surgically severed. This procedure makes it so that the two sides of the brain can’t communicate and results in some odd behavior, like hands acting independently of each other. It’s as if Valery now has two separate brains, showing that there’s no central director behind our brains.


60-second Philosopher (seek to 49:06):

Ian Shoals quickly reflects on the moment we come to know ourselves. How do we know the person we’re going to be, and how do we know when we’ve become that person?

Jenann Ismael, Professor of Philosophy, University of Arizona

Related Resources: 

Web resources:

Chudler, Eric. “One Brain…or Two?Neuroscience For Kids.

Dennet, Daniel (1992). “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity.” In Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives.

Meyers, Diana (2010). “Feminist Perspectives on the Self.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Olson, Eric T. (2010). “Personal Identity.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Schwitzgebel, Eric (2014). “Introspection.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

 “The Split Brain Experiments.”



Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy.

Hood, Bruce (2013). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. ISBN-13: 978-0199988785.

Ismail, Jennan (2009). The Situated Self. ISBN-13: 978-0195375039.

Perry, John (1978). A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. ISBN-13: 978-0915144532.

Perry, John (2002). Identity, Personal Identity, and the Self. ISBN-13: 978-0872205208.

Perry, John (2008). Personal Identity. ISBN-13: 978-0520256422.

Sartre, Jean Paul. The Transcendence of the Ego.

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