Friday, June 10, 2011

Searching for the True Self

Joshua Knobe writes a piece for The Stone, a forum for contemporary philosopers in The New York Times Opinionator. The issue posed is:
...which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?

Many believe that the true self lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions...If we look to the philosophical tradition, we find a relatively straightforward answer to this question. This answer, endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways, says that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.

...people outside the world of philosophy...are immediately drawn to the very opposite view. The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.
Knobe describes an 'experimental philosophy' experiment done with another colleague that presented a series of question to liberals and conservatives and found a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self. Conservative participants were more inclined to say that a person’s true self had emerged on conservative items, while liberals were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on liberal items.

Knobe has an appointment at Yale in both Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is a co-editor, with Shaun Nichols, of the volume “Experimental Philosophy.” Given his cognitive science appointment, I am struck that he doesn't bring up the question of whether "The True Self" is a viable concept at all, given what we now know about how our brains clearly construct not one, but a multitude of selves, all of which are essentially confabulations tested by their utility (see the sundry web lectures I list in the left column of this blog).


  1. Quite so. I wonder if we reduce the confabulations, will we have more of life?

  2. Tom of the Sweetwater Sea9:26 AM

    I have known a couple of people that had strokes. When I next met them I was worried about what I would find. I was relieved that, even though they had some problems, it was still the same person inside.

    I just want to point out that the "true self" may mean more than that aspect discussed in this blog.


  3. Anonymous1:38 PM

    The idea of a true self is indeed a problematic one from a neuroscientific point of view as it requires defining 'trueness' as an attribute. However, from a practical standpoint, I think, the self that one presents the maximum amount of time, statistically, could have some value in social sciences.

    Couldn't find the link to the sundry lectures, Deric.

    -Debayan (natselrox)

  4. Opps, you are right, the left column has the podcasts of the "I-Illusion" and "Beast Within" lectures. The web lecture versions are found via the HOME link at top left. The Metzinger model described in the "Making Minds" talk April 28 (link in left column) is also relevant.

  5. I am fond of Daniel Dennett's notion of the self as the "Center of Narrative Gravity". Like the physics concept of a center of gravity, "The Self" is a useful abstraction, but which does not exist in reality as a "thing". The "Narrative" part is that We (our selves) are the center of the stories our brains spin about ourselves, and that center changes over time, can be somewhat nebulous, and doesn't necessarily move straight from one place to another.

  6. Debayan9:49 PM

    Thanks a lot!

  7. Aye, I have to agree with the above posters; the notion of a "true self" is somewhat nonsensical. Our "self" varies according to the context it finds itself in, so the "true self" would be--what--the self in a vacuum? :P

  8. J. Miettinen7:49 AM

    What this says to be True Self seem to be just attributes that define boundaries of our internal territory. It's is not unlike any territory of a territorial animal that provide safety and food, maybe also mating possibilities.

    Is there really any True Self inside those bounds? Or are there just the attributes that define the bounds and we think it's our True Self because we identify with it without ever questioning if it's the whole truth or even a truth at all?