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Kirby 1 Samantha Kirby Dr. Graham Modern Philosophy 332W 25 April 2016 Introduction The concept of the “stable self” is that there is something consistent and unchanging that gives every human a unique personal identity. While many philosophers and theologians believe that personal identity and selfhood are the crux of human life, there are others who believe that personal identity is merely a fictitious construct of the mind. This paper will aim to reconstruct strong arguments for both positions in order to show that, though the argument against selfhood appears to stronger, it does not completely rule out the possibility of the existence of a stable self. Arguments Contending That There is a Stable Self A person who believes that there is a stable self would contend that there is something invariably consistent about the personal identity of another human, and that this identity continuously defines a person throughout the entirety of their lives. This notion was widely supported in the mid-1600s, when the idea of personal identity was important for religious purposes. Patrick J. Connolly, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, states that: Christian Doctrine held that there was an afterlife in which virtuous people would be rewarded in heaven and sinful people would be punished in hell. This scheme provided motivation for individuals to behave morally. But, Kirby 2 for this to work, it was important that the person who is rewarded or punished is the same person as the one who lived virtuously or lived sinfully. And this had to be true even though the person being rewarded or punished had died, had somehow continued to exist in an afterlife, and had somehow managed to be reunited with a body. So it was important to get the issue of personal identity right (Connolly) For religious purposes, a stable self seemed necessary. If a person committed a punishable crime, but was then able to claim a new identity (one which had not committed a crime), then how could this new identity be held responsible for something done by an entirely different person? In addition, identity would have to be consistent even after death. For those who believed in an afterlife where people would be ultimately judged for the morality of the decisions they had made while living, a stable identity also seemed necessary. If identity were capable of being changed in life or death, then there seemed to be no way to hold people culpable for their actions. John Locke, a prominent philosopher from this time period, contended that there was a stable self, and that memories were major proponents of selfhood. Locke claims that “For as far as any intelligent being can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had of it at first, and with the same consciousness it has of any present action; so far it is the same personal self” (547). The argument is made that the self is formed through the memories that it has, and that because the memories are continuous, so must be the self that remembers them. This would entail that part of what makes a person the same through time is their ability to recognize past experiences as belonging to them (Connolly). Some have criticized Locke for openly admitting to the shortcomings of the mind when he states that, “…that is, the Kirby 3 consciousness being interrupted always by forgetfulness, there being no moment of our lives wherein we have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view…” (547). Marina Williams, a published essayist in Oxford Journals, however, makes the claim that “Memory may be weak, self-consciousness difficult, reason flawed and memory creation problematic, whereas the memory Locke posits is perfectly whole and readily available to the rational mind…The form of memory that Locke envisages seems to be similar to…voluntary memory, accessed to the conscious being through reason…” (123). Neither Locke nor Williams believe the admissions that the mind is capable of forgetting past events, or that it is unable to remember the entirety of past events at once, are not enough to discount the notion of a stable self. Lock is not referring to the mind in general; he is referring to rationality. While a person may forget certain events, they are perfectly capable of using rational thinking to make the assumption that because there is continuity between the events that they can remember, there should also be continuity between the events that they cannot remember. Arguments Against the Western Notion of a Stable Self David Hume, a prominent philosopher from the mid-1700s, believed that there was no such thing as personal identity and that a stable self could not exist. Instead, Hume proposed that humans were “…nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement” (Hume 321). As an empiricist, Hume believed that knowledge could only be derived from sensory perceptions and the reflections on sensory perceptions. Because of this, Hume claims that “…when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the Kirby 4 perception” (Hume 321). If self were to exist, then it should be able to exist independently of other sensations. However, Hume finds that whenever he tries to reflect on what it is that constitutes as his “self,” all he can ever find are the memories of past sensations and feelings. If self was then reliant on sensations, then the self could not be stable, for new perceptions replace old perceptions more quickly than any human could ever measure. Hume claims that when humans attribute personal identity to themselves or to other humans, they are making a mistake; he believes that “…identity is nothing really belonging to these different perceptions and uniting them together but rather is merely a quality which we attribute to them because of the union of their ideas in the imagination when we reflect upon them” (324). Hume believes that we merely grow accustomed to certain things, so we subjectively link them together. Furthermore, Hume believes that memories are not reason enough to prove the existence or need for a stable self. Though philosophers like Locke believed that the continuous memory of a person was enough to show that they had a personal identity, Hume finds error in their argument. Hume states that, “…the identity of our persons beyond our memory can comprehend times, circumstances, and actions which we have entirely forgotten, but supposing in general, to have existed” (325). The problem with memories is that they can be forgotten. Very few people would admit to being able to remember their infancies, and many would likely admit to forgetting things that have happened to them throughout their lives. It is somewhat hard to accept that continuous memories prove that there is a self—for if memories can be forgotten, and memories are self, then self, too, could be forgotten. And if self could be forgotten, then it would prove to be unstable. In addition to this, many people would also likely admit to recalling memories in a manner that was inconsistent with the way the event happened in actuality. Hume Kirby 5 concludes that “…the present self is not the same person with the self of that time” and that “…memory does not so much produce as discover personal identity by showing us the relationship of cause and effect among our different perceptions” (325). It also seems relevant to acknowledge the fact that it is widely taken for granted that the concept of personal identity exists mainly in Western ideologies and certain theologies. If the question, “does personal identity exist?” were asked to a group of Americans, they would likely find it a strange question because they were raised in a society that praises individualism and advocates that people are “their own person.” However, this concept is completely absent in some cultures and religions. Buddhists, for example, do not believe in personal identity. In addition to this, many Buddhists would argue that even if there were such a thing as a stable self, it would not necessarily be a good thing. In his book Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration, Jeffery Rubin, a psychotherapist in a private practice in New York, presents his readers with the image of cork floating away in a small brook. As it flows through the water, bits of the cork begin to break off and separate until the cork is no longer distinguishable (Rubin 57). Rubin claims that from a Buddhist perspective, the same thing happens to humans: as they age, they continuously change until they are hardly recognizable. Eventually, they will cease to exist entirely (58). Rubin then goes on to say that, for a Buddhist, this is simply how life works—but that, for a person from Western society, “…sense of nonbeing—[the] experience of ontological weightlessness and nonexistence—[would] seem to be more of a living hell than an exalted nirvana” (Rubin 58). The idea of selflessness does not have to be a morbid or pessimistic one. In fact, Rubin goes on to say that relinquishing personal identity could actually benefit people. He asks his readers to consider if: Kirby 6 …The self-preoccupied, individualized self that pervades Western civilization [is] an epiphenomenon of the maladaptive and anxiety-generating ways of western life? Would the elimination of some of the irrational and antihuman ways of being that are encouraged by Western societies result in a different, less selfcentric self-system? Would self-centricity not arise in a person who did not experience anxiety? (58) From here, Rubin concludes by stating that “The sense…that there is something to call ‘me;’ something that has its own body, feelings, fantasies, goals, dreams, pains and ideals—the sense that I am a self—is…perhaps the linchpin of human life” (59), and that this way of thinking is incredibly detrimental to the human psyche. If there does not exist a stable self, but humans lead their lives believing that there must exist a stable self, then they will ultimately be left with feelings of anxiety and fear. Why I am Still Left Questioning Though I find Hume’s argument against selfhood and personal identity to be stronger and more compelling than the arguments in favor of selfhood, I think that there are some important factors that Hume either did not take into consideration or did not explore thoroughly. It is possible that these factors could still allow for the possibility of the existence of a stable self. Hume claims that “The mind is a kind of theatre where several perceptions successively make their appearance, pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations” (Hume 321). This statement implies that there is a kind of audience member capable of reflecting on the given “performance.” Hume fails to acknowledge what exactly it is about humans that enables them to reflect and to think about sensations and perceptions. I would Kirby 7 imagine that if all we are is a bundle of perceptions, all we would be is the perceptions as we experienced them. However, humans are able to reflect and to think, and because Hume does not address this (and because I have a hard time reconciling the notion that perceptions are capable of reflecting on other perceptions), I believe that there could still be a stable self that is capable of reflecting. What’s more, I think that humans are often inclined to do things for a reason. Though I find the Buddhist perspective on selfhood to be very compelling, I can’t help but wonder why it is that a large group of humans would so insistently pursue personal identity and cling to it so desperately if it were merely a fictitious conception made up in their own minds. And why, when confronted with the possibility of no personal identity, do people feel such a strong emotional obstinacy? Because these issues seem to have been glossed over or omitted altogether by philosophers like Hume, I believe that a stable self cannot yet be ruled out as a possibility. Conclusion In conclusion, I think that the argument Hume makes is stronger than the argument philosophers and theologians such as Locke have made. There does not yet seem to be an accurate way to describe what constitutes as self or why that self would be stable. However, Hume’s argument does not address several important factors, and because of this, I believe that an argument can still be made for the existence of a stable self. Kirby 8 Works Cited Connolly, Patrick J. “John Locke (1632—1704).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. Web. 3 April 2016 Hume, David. “Section 6: Of Personal Identity.” 2000. Readings in Modern Philosophy. Ed. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins. Vol. II. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Print Locke, John. “Of Identity and Diversity.” 2015. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Ed. Peter J. Simon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Print. Rubin, Jeffery. Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration. 1996. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. Print. Williams, Marina. “For John Locke, Memory was a Condition, Sine Qua non, for Selfhood. To What Extent is this Idea Prefigured, Referenced, Critiqued and/or Parodied in Montaigne’s Essais, du Cote de Chez Swann and Molloy?” Oxford Journals. Vol. 33. Web.