In previous posts (part 1 and part 2) I have described the modern notion of the “self” and tried to explain its appeal. Modern belief in the self consists in the conviction that the human person is bare consciousness without additional definition — an irreducible consciousness that floats free of determination or definition by anything exterior to itself. In other words, the modern “self” is autonomous (self-defining) consciousness. In our current milieu, this sense of “self” is unconnected to history, biology, religion, or social role. This understanding of the “self” ought to be rejected for several reasons.

Perhaps the clearest argument against the modern idea of the “self” is this: there is no experience that can verify the existence of the self as “bare consciousness,” nor can there be. To put it another way, this idea of the “self” is groundless and devoid of verification. Obviously, there can be no tangible sensations of the “self” — the very idea of the self precludes such evidence. In addition, any inner experience — if such is possible — will include an image or memory. Go ahead and try to experience the self and you will find nothing but images and memories. Of course, memories and images are very important elements of the human condition, but they are not an experience of pure autonomous consciousness. Perhaps, however, our evidence for the “self” as bare autonomous consciousness is our awareness of our own awareness. This seems promising at first, but it leads nowhere, because we the object of the underlying act of awareness will still be something like an image or memory, not bare autonomous consciousness. You get the following sentence: I am aware that I am remembering a summer day in 1995. There is no experience of the self as such and therefore little reason to believe in its existence.

In addition, the idea of the self is conceptually uninformative and empty. If we speak of the self as self-defining consciousness, we literally cannot get any idea or understanding of it. For awareness just taken on its own does not tell us much. Every informative instance of consciousness is awareness of something or the other. We have no meaningful experience of awareness without an object. Edmund Husserl is helpful on this point: consciousness is awareness of something or the other. Now one might insist that it is possible to “abstract” out a notion of awareness from the many individual instances of awareness, but this will not do, for any and every instance of experienced “awareness”, consciousness involves “awareness of something or the other.” Without an object, undefined awareness becomes a meaningless phrase. In fact, if one where to abstract the idea of the self from experience, we would arrive at a notion of awareness that is wholly other-directed and meaningful only in relation to awareness of something else. The idea of the “self” is never more nonsensical than in pure isolation. One could multiply criticisms — ethical and epistemological — but at this point, it will be more useful to turn from criticism to explanation and reconstruction.

The essential mistake regarding the “self” is to infer the existence of a distinct entity merely on the basis of a descriptive-linguistic operation. As I indicated in an earlier post, there is nothing wrong with the grammatical, everyday use of the term “self.” In this context, “self” simply signifies something of my own — it simply makes the speaker the subject of the description. This is well and good. We need to be able to describe our first-hand experience to others. But to infer from this the reality of a separate and autonomous entity is not only a grotesque non-sequitur, but it is also deeply misleading. Essentially, we end up reinventing a Cartesian “ghost in the machine”. No thank you. Of course, it would be excessive to suggest that we should get rid of the ordinary usage of the self. Nevertheless, I think we need an alternative notion for philosophical reflection, culture, and personal identity.

First, we need to recognize that the human person is not reducible to any of his parts. The human person is not an ego, ghost in the machine, or isolated consciousness. Although it is true that the rational soul is naturally undying, outside of God’s grace the separated soul is in a deficient ghostly state. This is why the resurrection of the body is a reasonable Christian belief. The subject of my actions, passions, and relationships is not some mental entity inside of me, it is the whole person — body and soul. It is so important in this matter to recover the form-matter unity of the human person. A human person has a soul, but he is not simply or essentially a soul. Likewise, the human person is not reducible to the body. The fundamental identity of the human person (philosophically speaking) is the living, rational body. This is what I call the classical-Christian view. This is important because the body is objective and verifiable and the body has a history and definite relations.

On the classical-Christian (CC) model, one does not need to find himself or define himself. The human person is right there: an objective subject, with a specific sex and an entire list of physical attributes. No angst or self-definition needed. Next, as communitarians have long argued, the human person is an historical and social subject. Each man has a history and specific social relations. I am a man from Tennessee; I am a father and brother, and friend to specific men and women; I am a teacher and philosopher. On and on. I do not need to find myself; I only need to embrace the history and social relations that inform my being. Finally, as rational, I am a subject of truth open to beauty, wisdom, and God. All of this is ready to hand and rather obvious to be frank. It is only made obscure by the myth of the “self”, which emerged from the early Enlightenment. In closing, it is hard not to avoid the thought that the notion of the “self” was never really about ontological identity, but ethical rebellion. The CC model is clear and consistent with faith and right reason, but it does not chime with the modern hankering after autonomy.

Final point: the myth and the problem of the self only arises when man aspires to autonomy (self-law); when man sets aside the intoxication of autonomy and returns to sober maturity, the myth of the “self” evaporates and the solid truth of reality, history, and God shines forth in his own being.

For more philosophical content from Dr. Smith, consider purchasing his new book, Understanding Modern Political Ideas. In this text, Dr. Smith examines modern political ideas in the light of classical philosophy and develops an approach to reforming the American Republic based on a classical and Christian understanding of the human person.