The real essence of the self

Michaela Košová


This paper is concerned with the philosophical problem of the self. It confronts different theoretical approaches in order to find an alternative view which would both integrate and transcend them. First, it introduces Colin McGinn’s ideas about the recalcitrance of the self and his critique of the usual attempts to domesticate the self by reducing it to familiar concepts, to deem it irreducible or mysterious, or to eliminate it altogether. Based on the refusal of these conceptions McGinn proposes a view called “transcendental naturalism”: the hidden objective structure of the self exists which makes everything fall into place but we are unable to grasp it because of our cognitive limitations. Secondly, we turn to Daniel Wegner and Daniel Dennett who base their ideas on psychological research and come to the conclusion that the self (minimal and narrative) is a useful construction necessary for our functioning as complex social beings in the world of responsible agents. Finally, we confront the two theories while getting inspiration from Donald Davidson’s “anomalous monism”. The usual approaches, criticised by McGinn, are indeed unsatisfactory but if we consider Wegner’s and Dennett’s ideas and understand the self as an important mental concept, we don’t have to resign to transcendental naturalism. Similarly to Davidson’s “mental events”, the self (being a mental concept) is completely natural and dependent on the physical events (certain brain functions) while at the same time it escapes strict scientific descriptions and laws. My conclusion is that the philosophical problem of the self dwells not in the fact that we are cognitively limited but rather in the fact that we are able to conceptualise the world in two mutually incompatible ways – on the one hand, we are scientists viewing the whole reality as purely physical, on the other hand (and perhaps primarily), we are complex beings who need to interact with others in the realm of mental events such as propositional attitudes belonging to free responsible persons.


self, person, transcendental naturalism, minimal self, narrative self, anomalous monism

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Published by the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic.
ISSN: 1212-9097