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I Am a Lot of Things: A Pluralistic Account of the Self

Jiri Benovsky
From the journal Metaphysica


When I say that I am a lot of things, I mean it literally and metaphysically speaking. The Self, or so I shall argue, is a plurality (notwithstanding the fact that ordinary language takes “the Self” to be a singular term – but, after all, language is only language). It is not a substance or a substratum, and it is not a collection or a bundle. The view I wish to advocate for is a kind of reductionism, in line with some – but not all – broadly Humean ideas. In short, I will defend the view there are the experiences and mental states we have, and that’s it: no additional substances, and no bundles. This does not mean, however, that there is no Self – the Self simply is the experiences. I will try to articulate and defend this view by showing that it can accommodate what I take to be the three main desiderata for any theory of the Self to satisfy: first, that the Self is the subject of experience (a subject of mental states, in general); second, that there is a unity to the Self in the sense that our (conscious, phenomenal) experience is at least partly continuous or ‘stream-like’; and third, that we do not die when we go to sleep or when we otherwise don’t have any (conscious, phenomenal) experiences.


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  1. 1

    When it comes to arguing about the Self from a metaphysical point of view, philosophers traditionally tend to form two allegedly opposing camps. On the one side, there are the friends of a very broadly Cartesian conception of the Self as being a substance or substratum (various versions of this type of view include Descartes (1984), Reid (1785), Gallie (1936), and Lowe (1996)). On the other side lies a more or less united alliance of friends of various kinds reductionism of this substance, either in the form of some type of a broadly Humean bundle theory (such as Hume (1978), and recently Dainton (2008, 2012)), or – more radically – in the form of an eliminativist theory (see for instance Johnston (2010) and Olson (1998)). In Benovsky (2008, 2009), my business was to show that, in general, bundle theories and substratum theories are in fact not very different from each other, and that, in particular, when it comes to the Self, it makes little difference to choose one camp or the other. I will not press this issue here; rather, in this article, I will try to say something positive about the metaphysics of the Self, and instead of doing meta-metaphysics, I will try to articulate what I take to be the correct “first-order” view.

  2. 2

    There are some similarities – but only some – between my view and Parfit’s (1971, 1984) reductionism, as well as Galen Strawson’s (1997, 1999) Pearl View (a view which itself comes structurally close to the Stage View about persistence through time and personal identity (see Sider (2000, 2001) and Varzi (2003))), and – as far as I am able to tell – the Buddhist view of the Self. Of course, there are also obvious important dissimilarities.

  3. 3

    Merricks (2001) is an excellent example and elaborate defence of such a view. Various – and different – variants of such a type of view include, inter alia, Van Inwagen (1990), Heller (1990), and Unger (1979). Heller (2008) is a very good place to look for a recent detailed discussion of an eliminativist-like relationship between tables and fundamental components arranged tablewise.

  4. 4

    See Merricks (2001, 8–9) for this claim, and Benovsky (forthcoming) for a detailed discussion of this issue.

  5. 5

    John Locke held an interesting view on this issue; see Benovsky (2012) for a detailed discussion.

  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9

    Locke (1975, Book II, especially Chap. 14).

  10. 10

    For philosophical discussions of these, see Scholl (2007) and Paul (2010), Benovsky (forthcoming).

  11. 11

    In Benovsky (2013, §5), I discuss a different but dialectically parallel case which concerns the debate about presentism and the specious present theory. Some claim that the two are contradictory since presentism claims that there exists only one instant – the present time – while specious present theorists such as extensionalists claim that our experience is temporally extended (thus, it requires more than one instant to exist). The idea I argue for here is that one needs to make a distinction between metaphysical temporal extension and phenomenal temporal extension. Extensionalists need the latter but not the former, and thus their view is entirely compatible with the truth of presentism – indeed, presentism and the specious present theory and entirely orthogonal and independent views, or so I argue.

Published Online: 2014-3-13
Published in Print: 2014-4-1

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