Not so contemporary after all

I confess, I was feeling quite contemporary reading this almost-up-to-date psychology and behavioural economics on the elusive nature of the self. Julian Baggini’s book, ‘The Ego Trick‘ (2011) was an eye-opener into the moral and legal issues created when we lose the idea of the unitary self and start to think of decision making as an outcome of rival ‘modules’ in our brains. I’ve been wrapping my head around that one ever since.

So, imagine my dismay when I discover that the debate began centuries ago!

I’m in the middle of reading Roy Porter’s (2003) ‘Flesh in the Age of Reason‘. In this book, Porter explores the shifting understandings of the self and the relationship between body and mind/soul during the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain. In Chapter 4, Porter explores the work of the philosopher, John Locke. According to Porter, Locke’s critique of Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ led to all sorts of difficult questions about the nature of the self “Could there be any stable, constant, individual self at all? If there could, what was its nature and how did it grow?” Locke’s conclusion was, apparently, experience lay at the heart of knowledge and self-consciousness accompanied all experience; therefore the “self-consciousness which defined and sustained the ego was ‘the condition of being awake’.”

One of the problems with this was that, self-consciousness was not continuous. Every day, each of us sleeps and our self-consciousness is thereby broken into discontinuous, daily fragments. Other problems lay lurking in this idea..

Locke, it seems, had a side kick in a man called Anthony Collins who was less careful in his statements and more willing to get into a good debate. He wrote:

“If a man charges me with a murder done by some body last night, of which I am not conscious; I deny that I did the action, and cannot possibly attribute it to my self, because I am not conscious that I did it. Again, suppose me to be seized with a short frenzy of an hour, and during that time to kill a man, and then to return to my self without the least consciousness of what I have done; I can no more attribute that action to my self, than I could to the former, which I had supposed done by another. The mad man and the sober man are really two as distinct persons as any two other men in the world.”

This was written at the turn of the 17th to 18th Century. Any sense of smug self-congratulation went out the window when I discovered this 300 year old debate covering the same topic. To be fair, the terms of the debate have changed and the contemporary responses to these challenges are quite different to those of the Enlightenment. Still, it’s humbling to realise that 3 centuries worth of catching up to do.



About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, identity. Bookmark the permalink.

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