Philosophical Perspectives on the Self

by Joao Fonseca (Volume editor) Jorge Goncalves (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 330 Pages


For the last decade the topic of the Self has been under intense scrutiny from researchers of various areas spanning from philosophy, neurosciences, and psychology to anthropology and sociology. The present volume addresses the Self under different and influent philosophical perspectives: from phenomenology and psychoanalysis to metaphysics and neurophilosophy and discusses several and distinct problems such as personal identity, the core/narrative self-distinction, psychopathologies, the mind-body problem and the nature of the relations between self, consciousness and emotions. The book reflects these different philosophical problems and approaches and aims to provide a map of current philosophical perspectives on the topic of the Self.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Metaphysics and Personal Identity
  • Animalism and the Remnant-Person Problem
  • Will I ever be a Cyborg?
  • Part II. Epistemology and Phenomenology
  • How Consciousness explains the Self
  • Self-Knowledge, Introspection and Memory
  • Imagination as a Bodily Pattern: thinking about Sartrean´s account of Consciousness
  • Feelings and the Self
  • Part III. Cognition, Psychology, Neuroscience
  • De Se Attitudes and Semiotic Aspects of Cognition
  • The Division of the Mind: Paradoxes and Puzzles
  • Empirical and conceptual clarifications regarding the notion of ‘Core-Self’ from Gallagher’s and Merker’s Behavioural-Neuroscientific Proposals
  • Part IV. Ontology and Taxonomy
  • Core Self and the Illusion of the Self
  • The Reality of the Virtual Self as Interface to the Social World
  • Conceptual Personae of the “attentional self”
  • Notes on Contributors


We would like to thank, first and foremost the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology for their support in funding the Research project The Cognitive Foundations of The Self (PTDC/FIL-FCI/110978/2009).

We also would like to thank Peter Lang for all the help during the process and the Instituto de Filosofia da Linguagem for all the support and facilities.

Finally, we wish to thank the following people: António Marques, Nuno Venturinha, Inês Hipólito, Daniel Ramalho and all the collaborators in this volume, among whom Peter Olson for his patience and sheer professionalism.

Lisbon, November 2013
João Fonseca and Jorge Gonçalves


I. The Background

The quest for the nature and scope of the human Self has been one of the most important intellectual tasks in western thought. Nevertheless, It was not until Descartes and the rise of modern philosophy, that the cluster of problems we now associate to the notion of ‘Self’ were identified as such (eg.: self-identity, the nature of self-reflection, the epistemological status of self-evidence, the unity of conscious experience, among others). What was more, this set of problems were taken to be among the most crucial philosophical tasks to be addressed in the upcoming centuries. The work of such diverse authors as Hume, Lock, Kant, Nietzsche, William James, Husserl, Wittgenstein, or Sartre, to name just a few, testifies this importance.

In the last 10 to 15 years the topic of the Self has strongly re-emerged. This renewed interest is illustrated by the number of recent collections of essays and anthologies (Gallagher, 1998; Kircher, 2003; Gallagher, 2010). One of the main factors holding behind such interest has to do with the recent burst of different methodologies and approaches adopted to face the set of problems related to the Self. These methodologies include but go beyond the more traditional philosophical approaches (like phenomenology or linguistic analysis) (Dan Zahavi, 2005; Perry, 2002), into empirical researches in the areas of cognitive psychology (Gallagher, 2005, 2008; Hofstadter 2007) several branches of the neurosciences (Damasio, 1999; LeDoux, 2002; Kircher, 2003), analysis of psychiatric pathologies (such as schizophrenia) (Parnas, 2010) and other disciplines and methodologies related to the interdisciplinary field of current cognitive sciences and even social theorists and cultural analysis (Elliot, 2007).

These are, thus, exciting times in what the studies regarding the notion the ‘Self’ are concerned: neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are accessing this notion by providing empirical methods and scientific tools (redefining and revolutionizing the way the western ← 9 | 10 → tradition approaches the problem) philosophers and cognitive scientists from various traditions are rediscovering old methodologies like phenomenology and psychoanalysis and, psychiatric approaches to cases like schizophrenia are establishing links with philosophical proposals concerning the nature of the self and its ontological status. Succinctly, the last decade has seen the reemergence of the interest on the notion of ‘Self’ under a new interdisciplinary umbrella.

As a drawback the adoption of such different approaches and methodologies seems to result in a proliferation of unarticulated and, most of the time, incommensurable concepts and results. Gallagher and Zahavi (2008, pp. 197–198) identify this problem:

[T]his disparity, which is both problematic and productive, is directly related to the variety of methodological approaches taken within philosophy and in related interdisciplinary studies of the self. They include introspection, phenomenological analysis, the use of thought experiments, empirical research in cognitive and brain sciences, and studies of exceptional and pathological behaviour. One problem to be posed in this light is whether different characterizations of self signify diverse aspects of a unitary concept of selfhood, or whether they pick out different and unrelated concepts.

Therefore, this new transdisplinary approach comes with a cost: a taxonomical confusion and fragmentation inherent to the proliferation of so distinct methodological approaches. In itself, this consequence constitutes an unfortunate obstacle to the very progress in the field of the studies about the nature of the ‘Self’. Where it should be expected conceptual unity there is, instead, incommensurability and lack of communication.

We believe that Philosophy, given its general, far reaching, synoptic and conceptual approach is specially suited to overcome this unfortunate scenario by providing conceptual clarification that facilitates the establishment of links between disciplines. The present volume is an attempt to a first approximation to different sub-topics and methodologies about the Self from a Philosophical standpoint.

It should be stressed that, and as stated in the quote above, philosophical approaches to the problems of the self are, by themselves, everything but unified and monolithic. This diversification can be understood at two different levels: the level of the different methodological tools used, and the level concerning the diversity of topics and problems. Within the first level; the methodological one, a further division is useful: the distinction ← 10 | 11 → between, on one hand philosophical methodologies proper (Phenomenology, Conceptual/Linguistic analysis, third-person accounts) and, on the other, the relation established between Philosophy and other scientific approaches (Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, Artificial Intelligence, psychiatry).

At the level of the different philosophical topics related to the Self they include: the problem of personal identity, discussions regarding the ontological status of the Self, the topic of self-knowledge and Immunity to Error trough Misidentification, modern assessments to the Mind-Body Problem and the nature of the relations between Self and consciousness and emotions.

This collection of essays aims to provide a non-exhaustive map of this diversity within contemporary philosophy on the Self at both identified levels. It reflects the pluralism of philosophical perspectives associated with the problem (or set of problems) of the Self. Besides providing a general view on such diversity, we aim, at the end of the day and more implicitly, to suggest possible bridges unifying and relating apparent protracted and unrelated data and methodologies.

II. The Essays

Part I. Metaphysics and Personal Identity

ERIC T. OLSON explores his original proposal according to which persons are animals, i.e., complete organisms. In ‘Animalism and the Remnant-Person Problem’, Olson discusses a reading of the transplanted brains thought experiment. Animalism clashes with the conviction that we should go with our transplanted brains. A good reply is that if animalism were true, we could explain easily enough both why the conviction is false and why it seems compelling. But another objection cannot be answered so easily. Animalism seems to imply that the detached brain would be a person who comes into being when the brain is removed and ceases to exist when the brain gets into a new head. And this seems absurd. The article argues that, although ← 11 | 12 → this is equally problematic for many views besides animalism, it has no obvious solution.

In ‘Will I ever be a Cyborg’ RUI VIEIRA DA CUNHA criticises Olson’s views. Vieira da Cunha states that although very attractive, in no doubt because of its appeal to a scientific worldview, animalism is not without its problems. In Olson’s own brand of animalism, the Organism View, one of those problems is the answer to be given to situations of inorganic replacement, which this paper explores in a very specific thought experiment. If indeed Olson is right in saying that animal or human animal or organism is what best serves as a substance concept in the case of beings like you and I, then it seems a hard task for the animalist to account for the intuitions arising from the thought experiment in this paper, at least without changing substantially the concept of organism.

Part II. Epistemology and Phenomenology

In ‘How Consciousness explains the Self’, KLAUS GÄRTNER asks for an epistemological access to the Self in order to answer some ontological questions regarding its own existence. When we talk about the metaphysics of the ‘Self’ we want to know something about the ‘Self’s’ nature. Since in Philosophy of Mind it is less than clear if the ‘Self’ exists or not, it seems that we need a way to analyze it. A natural suggestion is that Consciousness might give us the access we are looking for. The article suggests a way of how a concept of the ‘Self’ can be tight to a concept of Consciousness. The key to establish such a conceptual connection is Self-Consciousness. Such a relation has the advantage that the ‘Self’ is not isolated, it is rather connected to a phenomenon that is interdisciplinary studied. After testing this idea in a case where the ‘Self’ is compromised (schizophrenia), the article suggests that a concept of the ‘Self’ depends necessarily (but not sufficiently) on a concept of Consciousness.

In ‘Self-Knowledge, Introspection and Memory’ ANTÓNIO MARQUES claims that self-knowledge by introspection (s-ki) leads to the question of the status of the content of retrodictions, wich are memory dependent statements. These are in specie different of retrodictions that are ← 12 | 13 → not memory dependent and therefore s-ki expresses itself in statements that have not truth value. Furthermore the fact that s-ki has a dual time structure (the representation at time 2 of an event or experience of a past time 1) doesn’t mean that any s-ki retrodiction is a kind a of a meta-representation (a representation of representations). Finally, Marques states three other claims, namely: 1. s-ki contains a dual time structure based on memory, 2. it must be direct (non mediated by any exterior observer) and 3. it must have first-person authority.

CLARA MORANDO’s article aims to identify and analyze the phenomenon of imagination in Sartre’s philosophy, intending at the same time to clarify some possible connections between imaging skills as a specific activity of consciousness and the way physical bodies essentially incorporate those kinds of data. A synthetic explanation about how Sartre sees his theory of imagination is outlined. The article questions in what way this theory can contribute to a more accurate idea of psychophysical relations, contending that it makes no sense to employ the expression ‘psychophysical relations’ simply because the mind is the body and the body is the mind. Metaphysically, “imaginative consciousness”, seems to be the very core of the “transcendental consciousness”, since it can be compared to a simple intentional movement towards ‘objects’, also characterized by an essential “nothingness” and a great proximity to the “phenomenon of quasi-observation”, which is not genuine observation.

In ‘Feelings and the Self’ DINA MENDONÇA starts by noticing that philosophers of emotion agree that emotions always implicate a self. However, it is not at all clear within the literature what kind of self, nor what kind of implication, philosophers have in mind. The article argues for a situational approach to the nature of emotions by, first, showing how a situational approach brings to the surface the interesting connections between the self and emotions, and second, by showing how this approach allows us to understand how emotions contribute to the constitution of the self. While the first part lays down the situational approach to emotion and the many ways in which the implicated self can be understood, the second part looks at some emotions (fear, love, pride and jealousy) in order to illustrate and elaborate on the conceptual map constructed in the first part. The article concludes indicating the open-ended character of both emotions and self. ← 13 | 14 →

Part III. Cognition, Psychology, Neuroscience

In ‘De Se Attitudes and Semiotic Aspects of Cognition’ ERICH RAST explores the connection between so-called de se puzzles that are well-known in the Philosophy of Language to Jackson’s Knowledge Argument. De se puzzles attempt to show that references of an agent to herself formulated in a 3rd-person perspective do not necessarily have the same explanatory power for the agent’s behavior than corresponding 1st-person self-ascriptions, while the Knowledge Argument attempts to refute physicalism by showing that the way a certain color feels, its phenomenal character, cannot be explained or emulated by mere physical knowledge no matter how exhaustive it may be. According to Rast, both puzzles need to be addressed from the perspective of the semiotics of cognition. Drawing from a computational metaphor he suggests a trivializing interpretation of the puzzles according to which actual thought tokens of one sort cannot be replaced by tokens of another sort because these play different roles in cognition. From this perspective the irreducibility asserted by both kinds of puzzles is ultimately the result of the (trivial) difference between actually cognating and explaining cognition.

In ‘The Division of the Mind: Paradoxes and Puzzles’ VASCO CORREIA, starts by the claim according to which divisionist models of the mind argue that irrational phenomena such as akrasia and self-deception can only be understood if one assumes that the mind is somewhat differentiated in relatively autonomous sub-systems. Yet, the divisionist postulate seems to be intrinsically paradoxical in many regards. The article reviews some of the most influential divisionist models and argues that each of them leads to specific inconsistencies. It is not to suggest, however that the mind cannot possibly suffer any sort of partitioning, and even acknowledges this possibility in pathological cases of mental dissociation. Instead, Correia claims that the divisionist hypothesis is not necessary to account for ordinary cases of irrationality. This analysis relies on a unitary account of the mind which maintains that irrational attitudes typically derive from conflicts that take place between individual mental states (e.g., a desire and a belief), and not between differentiated parts of the mind.

In ‘Empirical and conceptual clarifications regarding the notion of ‘Core-Self’ from Gallagher’s and Merker’s Behavioural-Neuroscientific ← 14 | 15 → Proposals’ JOÃO FONSECA addresses the problem of conceptual fragmentation brought about by the methodological and disciplinary diversity concerning current scientific studies on the Self. Fonseca focuses specifically on two different proposals regarding the nature of Core (or Minimal)-Self: Merker’s evolutionary perspective and Gallagher’s phenomenological one. Each one corresponding to very different proposals for the neural implementation of Core-Self: Merker’s brainstem/sub-cortical and Gallagher’s pre-motor cortex suggestion. At a first approximation these two proposals seem mutually incompatible. By deploying a model-theoretic framework for theoretical concepts of behavioral neuroscience, Fonseca tries to uncover some of the underlying principles sustaining both proposals. Using the instrumental and fundamental notion of ‘Nested Concept’ within such framework, he shows how the two proposals can relate to each other. Fundamentally he shows that Merker’s and Gallagher’s suggestions of Core-Self (including their different proposals for its neuronal implementation) are related in a common nested conceptual relation formally defined. Such nested relation provides conceptual clarity and empirical unification into a hitherto fragmented and confused scenario. By bringing both proposals under the same formal conceptual framework Fonseca shows how to gain conceptual and taxonomic clarification, explanatory richness and bridges, both conceptual and empirical, between different disciplines and practices regarding current scientific studies on the Self.

Part IV. Ontology and Taxonomy

The concepts of consciousness and self have been central in contemporary philosophy of the mind. Inevitably, this lead to the recuperation of a few conceptions from classical Phenomenology, starting with Husserl. It is the case of the concept of “pre-reflective self-consciousness”. The approach of these philosophers is not existential, but what could be called “biological” in the sense that they considered consciousness and self as natural phenomena, explained scientifically. One of the problems that these philosophers intended to resolve is the renowned problem of the self that was initially formulated by David Hume and more recently by Metzinger, among others. In his article JORGE GONÇALVES, departing ← 15 | 16 → from scientific data regarding the developmental origins of the self, argues that the concept of pre-reflective self-consciousness does not solve the problem. In spite of the facts not being conclusive, Gonçalves states that there are good reasons to reject the idea that the entire form of phenomenal consciousness assumes a feeling, no matter how small, of self.

In ‘The Reality of the Virtual Self as Interface to the Social World’ ROBERT CLOWES explores the idea and implications of the virtual self. This idea has so, up until now, been most associated with the philosopher Thomas Metzinger phenomenal self model hypothesis (Metzinger, 2004, 2009). Metzinger takes the idea to imply a “no self” thesis (Metzinger, 2011). Clowes’ paper puts the idea against a background of virtualist representation (Clowes & Chrisley, 2012) and from here questions the metaphysical implications which are often drawn from the idea of the virtual self.

Clowes’ paper starts with a review of the perplexing place of virtuality more generally in theorizing about mind. His paper then focuses in on the arguments Metzinger employs to argue for a virtual self, asking whether Metzinger’s approach can be cast into a broader virtualist framework. Arguing that indeed it can, Clowes then attempts to show that while Metzinger gives us an interesting way to think about the self that the conclusion he draws from them about the non existence of self are unwarranted.

In this context, the final part of the paper attempts to show that the virtual self may in fact be a useful way of making the self theoretically tractable for further scientific investigation including in the context of psychopathology. The paper concludes that the concept of the virtual self may not only be a useful theoretical tool but it may be real enough to supply the conceptual roles required in much theorizing around the self. Concluding that the virtual self does not need imply a “no self”, Clowes concludes it may in fact be a useful way of unifying several current ideas about self. The virtualist view of self may be best thought of as a fruitful scientific reduction rather than an elimination as Metzinger argues.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Phenomenology Psychoanalysis Emotion Consciousness Personal identity
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 330 pp.

Biographical notes

Joao Fonseca (Volume editor) Jorge Goncalves (Volume editor)

João Fonseca is a Post-Doc researcher at New University of Lisbon. His main research interest is philosophy of neuroscience. His area of competence is philosophy of neuroscience with particular interests in topics such as: the critical assessment to the mainstream neuro-behavior explanation of instrumental fear-conditioning, the quest for the evolutionary origins of self and consciousness and the links between phenomenology and neuroscience. Jorge de Almeida Gonçalves was born in Lisbon. He graduated in Psychology (1988) and in Philosophy (1997), both in Lisbon. He has a Master’s degree in Philosophy (2002) and a PhD (2007) also in Philosophy. Between 1988 and 1999 he worked in Clinical Psychology. He currently works at the Institute of Philosophy of Language (New University of Lisbon) and his current research interests are consciousness and self studies, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of psychiatry, and philosophy of film.


Title: Philosophical Perspectives on the Self