Questions about the self are typically posed as questions about persons or minds, about such self-reflexive capacities as SELF-KNOWLEDGE and self-reference, or about the semantics and pragmatics of "I." For example, we think of the self or person as something that endures through changes in its mental states; but what is it that makes us the same person now who we were ten years ago? Among those who reject the idea of a nonphysical substance or soul, the debate has focused on the relative importance of bodily continuity (especially continuity of the brain) and psychological continuity (Williams 1973; Parfit 1984). Because the focus on psychological continuity entails that there could in principle be more than one person in a single human body, the debate has clear implications for controversies in clinical psychology such as that surrounding multiple personality subjects (Hacking 1995). More recently the debate has expanded to include such normative issues as the nature of the justification of the sacrifices that we ordinarily make for our future selves (White 1991; Rovane 1997), raising the question whether personhood is a metaphysical or a normative concept.

Besides thinking of ourselves as enduring, we have the idea of ourselves as agents -- as subjects of actions and not merely objects to which things happen. This raises the issue of whether we could make sense of agency, freedom, and responsibility if all our actions were causally determined or, indeed, whether we could do so even if they were uncaused and random. Compatibilists hold that free will is not a matter of our actions being uncaused but of their being caused in the right way -- for example, by a process of deliberation that is uncoerced, uncompelled, and so forth (Ayer 1954). But this leaves open the question how we could be justified in allocating and accepting responsibility for actions that were determined to happen long before we were born (Strawson 1962; White 1991). Another issue that compatibilism leaves unresolved is over the nature of the experience that grounds our concepts of freedom and agency. This topic has been addressed extensively in the existentialist and phenomenological traditions and is currently under investigation in psychology (Heidegger 1962; Sartre 1956; Merleau- Ponty 1962; Neisser 1993: Introduction).

Our concept of the self, however, is not simply that of an enduring entity to which certain mental events and actions are ascribed. We normally assume that our knowledge of ourselves as subjects is nonobservational and noninferential and thus unlike our knowledge of ordinary physical objects. One reason is that our thoughts about ourselves as subjects (thoughts expressed in terms of "I") seem to enjoy an immunity to error that those regarding external objects lack. Although one might be mistaken about whether a body that one could observe was one's own, there is no possibility of losing track of oneself as a subject or of mistaking another subject for oneself or another mind for one's own (Shoemaker 1968). But though our knowledge of ourselves as subjects is apparently not a matter of external observation, it seems that anything to which we could have introspective access would be a mental state and not the enduring subject that has that state. David HUME (1888) concluded on this basis that we have no access to an enduring self and indeed that none exists, a position subsequently taken up by Ernst Mach (1939) and Moritz Schlick (1949).

Self-reference raises some of the same problems as self-knowledge and provides similar reasons for skepticism about the self. How does the term "I" refer? Evidently not through any associated linguistic descriptions, in that we can imagine experiencing amnesia while anesthetized in a sensory deprivation chamber and thinking "I won't let this happen again!" (Anscombe 1975). In such a situation we could not frame a description that would pick us out uniquely. Nor is it adequate to say simply that "I" refers demonstratively, because we normally perceive the object that we demonstrate. Anscombe (1975) has argued on the basis of considerations of this kind that "I" does not refer.

But neither the claim that "I" does not refer nor its denial answers the most basic question underlying the issues of self-reference and self-knowledge and the most basic question associated with the self -- How are we given to ourselves when our access to ourselves is most immediate? One approach to this question is suggested by work in phenomenology and by contemporary psychologists influenced by James Jerome GIBSON (Heidegger 1962; Sartre 1956; Gibson 1986; Neisser 1988). These theorists hold that what we are given is a pragmatically structured world of opportunities and liabilities. These are perceived directly and immediately; they are not interpretations imposed on a neutral sensory field the perception of which is more direct or immediate. Gibson's term for what is given in such experiences is AFFORDANCES.

As both Sartre and Gibson make clear, in being given a world of human possibilities and things to be done -- of doorways that we can walk through and streetcars we can catch if we hurry -- we are given ourselves implicitly. A world of affordances is one in which we are necessarily implicated. To see the chair as something to sit on is to be given to ourselves (implicitly) as having a certain size, weight, and shape and a certain capacity for movement and action. And our perceiving the speeding car as a threat says as much about our vulnerabilities and liabilities to destruction as it does about automobiles (Warren and Whang 1987; Mark 1987).

The notion of a self implicit in our perceptual experience of the external world raises the question how such a self is related to our explicit conception of ourselves as objective entities. Strawson (1959) poses a similar question by asking how we can have a conception of an entity to which we ascribe both mental and physical properties. And the question how we can ascribe both mental and physical properties to ourselves raises many of the same issues as the question how we can ascribe the same mental properties to ourselves and to others. The problem is that our basis for the ascription of mental properties to others (observation of behavior) is so radically different from our basis for self-ascription that a commitment to the idea of meaning as use suggests that mental predicates must change their meanings from first-person to third-person contexts. This, in other words, is one version of the problem of other minds.

If views like those of Gibson and the phenomenologists that take the agential perspective as basic are correct, however, this way of posing the problem may exaggerate the asymmetries between ourselves and others. Recent research suggests that our capacity to engage in joint or complementary actions with others is in place at birth in the form of a capacity to engage in and recognize mimicry and slightly later in the ability to share affect in expressive exchanges (Meltzoff and Moore 1995; Stern 1985). This points to the possibility that our access to the other subjects' agential characteristics may be at least as direct as our access to their objective makeup. For example, just as we are given ourselves implicitly in the possibilities we see for individual action, the possibilities we see for acting jointly may give us an implicit other -- a notion similar to Sartre's (1956: part III, chap. 1) understanding of Heidegger's "being-with." Alternatively, what we perceive most immediately may be a relation of INTERSUBJECTIVITY -- "an appropriate match between the nature/direction/timing/intensities of two people's activities" (Neisser 1988: 41). If this general approach can be sustained, then the question how we can ascribe mental properties to an objectively characterized other is misleading. From the agential perspective the problem is rather one of acquiring a more objective conception both of one's partner and of oneself. And, as a large body of contemporary work in psychology suggests (Neisser 1993; Cicchetti and Beeghly 1990; Butterworth 1982), this reformulation may prove more tractable than the original problem.

See also

-- Stephen L. White


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1975). The first person. In S. Guttenplan, Ed., Mind and Language: Wolfson College Lectures. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ayer, A. J. (1954). Freedom and necessity. In A. J. Ayer, Ed., Philosophical Essays. London: Macmillan.

Butterworth, G. E., Ed. (1982). Infancy and Epistemology: An Evaluation of Piaget's Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Cicchetti, D., and M. Beeghly, Eds. (1990). The Self in Transition: Infancy to Childhood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hacking, I. (1995). Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. New York: Harper and Row.

Hume, D. (1888). A Treatise of Human Nature. L. A. Selby-Bigge, Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mach, E. (1939). The Analysis of Sensations. New York: Dover.

Mark, L. S. (1987). Eyeheight-scaled information about affordances: A study of sitting and stair climbing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 13:361-370.

Meltzoff, A. N., and M. K. Moore. (1995). Infants' understanding of people and things: From body imitation to folk psychology. In J. L. Bermúdez, A. Marcel, and N. Eilan, Eds., The Body and the Self. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Neisser, U. (1988). Five kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophical Psychology 1:35-59.

Neisser, U., Ed. (1993). The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rovane, C. (1997). The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sartre, J.-P. (1956). Being and Nothingness. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Schlick, M. (1949). Meaning and verification. In H. Feigl and W. Sellars, Eds., Readings in Philosophical Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Shoemaker, S. (1968). Self-reference and self-awareness. Journal of Philosophy 65:555-567.

Stern, D. N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Strawson, P. F. (1959). Individuals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Strawson, P. F. (1962). Freedom and resentment. Proceedings of the British Academy 48:1-25.

Warren, W. H., and S. Whang. (1987). Visual guidance of walking through apertures: Body-scaled information for affordances. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 13:371-383.

White, S. L. (1991). The Unity of the Self. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Williams, B. (1973). Problems of the Self. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Further Readings

Bermúdez, J. L., A. Marcel, and N. Eilan, Eds. (1995). The Body and the Self. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Campbell, J. (1994). Past, Space, and Self. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Cassam, Q., Ed. (1994). Self-Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cassam, Q. (1997). Self and World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1992). The self as a center of narrative gravity. In F. Kessel, P. Cole, and D. Johnson, Eds., Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Eilan, N., R. McCarthy, and B. Brewer, Eds. (1993). Spatial Representation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Elster, J. (1986). The Multiple Self. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, G. (1982). The Varieties of Reference. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, S., and J. Shear, Eds. (1997). Special issue: Models of the self. Journal of Consciousness Studies 4:385-540.

Husserl, E. (1950). Cartesian Meditations. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

James, W. (1950). The consciousness of self. In The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover.

Lewis, M., and J. Brooks-Gunn. (1979). Social Cognition and the Acquisition of Self. New York: Plenum.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peacocke, C., Ed. (1994). Objectivity, Simulation, and the Unity of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Radden, J. (1996). Divided Minds and Successive Selves: Ethical Issues in Disorders of Identity and Personality. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Sartre, J.-P. (1957). The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Shoemaker, S. (1963). Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tugendhat, E. (1986). Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wilkes, K. (1988). Real People: Personal Identity without Thought Experiments. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958). The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Blackwell.