Strawson, Selves

I’ve been on “spring break” the past week, which has featured many delights, including a trip with my daughter to Preston, ID (where we dined on Arctic Circle burgers and then drove back home).

A separate delight has been reading Galen Strawson’s Selves. His aim is to understand what selves would be, and whether any exist. He whittles down the notion of a self to just this: a single subject of experience which regards itself as a single mental thing. It is fundamentally what Descartes affirms with his cogito, ergo sum. That’s not to say anything else: it’s not to say it’s a soul, or a thing existing over years or eons, or immaterial, or material, or free in its choices, or morally responsible, or even able to make choices, and so on. It is just a “subject of experience-as-single-mental-thing” — or “sesmet”, as he decides to call it.

I’m at the part where, having defined sesmets, he’s about to argue that there are some. But the book has been a delight because of the questions it raises about one’s own consciousness. So, for example, I have been trying to pay closer attention to my thoughts, and separating any pure sense of self from the contents of my thoughts — in other words, separating awareness itself from that of which I am aware. A useful metaphor (for me) has been that of carrying luggage. We carry luggage with us wherever we go, meaning that we have our clothes, belongings, toothbrushes, but also our beliefs, our names, our feelings, our plans, our self-conceits, and basically everything that we have only in virtue of remembering that we have it. But we are not our luggage; our awareness can be distinguished from all the stuff we have to remember that we are/have. Bearing this in mind has already made me a more patient person.

This basic awareness, Strawson suspects, exists as an entity for maybe three seconds (and maybe less) before being displaced by a new awareness which inherits the beliefs (etc) of the old one. Our consciousness is always on the move, always on the make, shifting and crashing and running away before being recaptured and pulled back to new tasks.

Strawson beautifully describes the phenomenal feel of this movement in a discussion of whether the so-called stream of consciousness is much like a stream (no, it isn’t), and invokes Harold Brodkey’s assessment:

Our sense of presentness usually proceeds in waves, with our minds tumbling off into wandering. Usually, we return and ride the wave and tumble and resume the ride and tumble … this falling off and return is what we are.

This still sounds watery and surflike, though, and consciousness also features sharp-edged, darting breaks and thumpy collisions. Anyhow, it’s fun to think about thinking in this way; it’s phenomenology but without the obscure, pretentious jargon. Alternatively, it’s analytic philosophy, but by someone who actually has subjective experience.

It’s also a delight to read Strawson’s footnotes, and see how he connects his introspective philosophy with what he’s found in Joyce, Woolf, Buddhism, Hume, Kant, etc.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Strawson, Selves

  1. Great post. I’m planning to read the book in the next three months, but I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything in discussions about Strawson’s book about the notion of unconscious selves. Does he not touch on that topic?


  2. Huenemann says:

    No, he doesn’t. But it would be interesting to learn his views on the subject. He might pare down “self” to just its conscious part, so that by definition there are no unconscious selves. But, given his leaning toward panpsychism, he’s got to say that there are lots of things out there with mental dimensions that aren’t conscious. (I don’t think he thinks the Moon is conscious.) And some of those things, closer to home, could affect the contents of our consciousness.


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