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Book Review - Models of the Self
Models of the Self
by Shaun Gallagher andJonathan Shear (editors)
Imprint Academic, 1999
Review by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D.
Nov 3rd 2001

This book is a thorough and very scholarly examination of what we mean when we say, "myself." It is not an easy read at times, but the essays presented offer such a diversity of interrelated research data and informed opinion that anyone interested in the topic of 'the self' should definitely have it as a reference book on the shelf. The first chapter by Galen Strawson, originally published in 1997, is the keynote or 'target' piece to which the other essays respond either directly or obliquely. The final chapter is Strawson's response to those critiques. The intervening 26 chapters span a wide range of fields including philosophy, mysticism, child development, physics, psychology, psychopathology, and neuroscience. The contents consist of discussions-some very technical-about an adequate description of self-consciousness (phenomenology) and the question of whether a 'self' even exists (ontology). It is not at all a self-help sort of book for discovering oneself, nor is it a sociological or psychological discussion of people and their personalities.

In the opening chapter Strawson presents eight responses to what he calls "the local phenomenological question" (What is the human sense of the self?) and "the general phenomenological question" (What senses of the self are possible?). He offers some of these as preliminary to answering the factual question 'Does the self exist?' and as an aid to any future metaphysical discussions of the topic. Among his eight answers, perhaps the most contentious are his suggestions that the self is a typically mental thing (with the word 'thing' denoting a kind of object), and that there are many ontically distinct selves in one person due to the transitory and intermittent nature of self-awareness (his 'string of pearls' view). Of course, the self defined as a mental thing clearly flies in the face of feminist and postmodern conceptions which hold the self to be not only a mental phenomenon but also interrelated (social), corporeal (physical) and affective (emotional).

In the second essay K. V. Wilkes challenges Strawson's conception of a person being multiple selves over time. Wilkes and, in the next chapter, John Pickering also refute Strawson's notion of an isolable self essentially removed from social influences and interactions. Pickering then argues that the self is not only a social thing but something more like an organic process. Wilkes's and Pickering's essays are part of the fist section which offers primarily philosophical points of view and includes Andrew Brook's support and enhancements of Strawson's arguments, and Eric T. Olson's dismissive proposition that the word 'self' is in fact empty and should simply be avoided in philosophical and scientific discussions.

The second section is a collection of five essays on the cognitive and neuroscientific models of the self. Their authors discuss everything from exactly where the awareness of various bodily sensations are located in the brain and how injury or illness affect this, to the relationship between the emotions and neural mechanisms, how computational mechanisms make self-consciousness functionally adaptive, how the observation of robotic behavior has shed light on the perceptive and predictive functions of consciousness, and the role of inner speech in consciousness. The first four of these chapters are meticulously empirical, while the last one does a wonderful job of appreciating the value and meaning of talking to oneself.

The third section contains two chapters offering research findings in child development which suggest an early physical and ecological foundation for a sense of self that is quite different from Strawson's cognitivism, and two chapters which first criticize directly Strawson's narrowly applied phenomenological methodology and then suggest improved alternatives.

The fourth section deals with pathologies, and begins with a discussion of the limitations inherent in any conclusion about a 'self' that is abstracted from normal experience or contextualized activity. The second chapter, titled "On Being Faceless," is a fascinating exploration of individuals who suffer from various facial problems, illustrating the importance of an embodied (within the face) and socially interactive conception of the 'self.' A chapter on what can be learned about the 'location' of the self from individuals diagnosed as schizophrenic is followed by a chapter which points out that an examination of the unusual experiences of brain damaged individuals suggests that the unitary sense of 'my-self' is physically locatable within the normal organic structure of the brain and can be lost through injury or surgery. But the essays in this section give a rather narrow perspective on the self since they intentionally advance a neurobiological model of the adult mind. For example, Louis Sass's detailed symptomatic description of schizophrenia suggested to me that a strong causal factor of this condition may be social interference in early self development, but Sass discusses only a neurobiological explanation."Conspicuously absent also are accounts of individuals with severely abnormal brains who live quite normal lives, such as, for example (my favorite) the young British man discovered to have a brain the size of a walnut while he was an Honor student at university. This sort of case raises serious questions about claims that the sense of self may be mapped onto particular organic structures of the brain, and that therefore these structures are always necessary for a 'normal' sense of self.

The fifth section is a good counterbalance to the previous one since its contents are perhaps the most antithetical to neurobiological explanations and the materialist (phenomenological) views of Strawson's axis chapter. Five authors discuss mystical and meditative approaches to the discovery of, and definition of, the self. They deal with themes such as the sense of 'self' as a 'field' which extends beyond a single human body, the Buddhist conception of egoless self-consciousness that is not unlike Strawson's 'string of pearls' and yet very different, the 'self' being like a mirror's reflecting nature rather than like the mirror itself, how Eastern philosophical conceptions of the self as "absolutely devoid of phenomenal content" can resolve the seemingly unresolvable problems pointed out by Descartes, Hume, and Kant, and the difference between-and the duality inherent in-the 'I' of core subjective awareness and the 'self' which is observed. These essays offer enlightening alternatives to Strawson's "impoverished worldview of reductionist materialism."

The sixth section, with the general title "Further Methodological Questions," begins with a discussion of the problems inherent in attempts to define the self without resorting to reductive psychophysical descriptions. It continues with a short chapter which explains why the self as subject is not an analyzable object and consciousness is not a property that 'belongs' to anything. This is followed by a thought-provoking chapter which demonstrates how philosophical 'thought experiments' that are meant to illustrate aspects of the self (in which the 'person' in a story is not at all like a real person) may allow students to make sense of far-fetched cases but often fail to lead to any sort of reliable judgments. Finally there is a chapter which points out the problems inherent in a natural science approach to an understanding of ourselves (to which phenomenology aspires) in which the attempt to explain typically degenerates into mere description.

The last section consists of Strawson's reply to the other authors. In a style so characteristic of Western academic philosophers, his first observation is that the responses to his initial essay are simply "a festival of misunderstanding." He then proceeds to re-explain his particular perspective on the self which he presented in the first chapter-the self understood as an internal mental presence-in light of the criticism received from the other authors. Strawson's general conclusion is that his model of the self still holds despite the criticisms since the authors of those other chapters were simply presenting alternative, not eliminative, models. This final chapter therefor adds little new material, but it is an instructive example of a complex rebuttal.

The writing in this book is first class. The essays are collectively a deep well of information and insights that will be a lasting and valuable source to anyone interested in the physical or metaphysical nature and experience of the 'self' (despite a rather minimal index). While Strawson's opening essay is central to many of the discussions, a comprehension of the contents of most chapters does not require the reader's familiarity with Strawson's point of view. In other words, while each chapter is a response to Strawson, most chapters easily stand on their own. But please note that this is not a casual read; the technical nature of some passages will make it a struggle for those who are not comfortable with the level of concentration required in dealing with academic material.

© 2001 Peter B. Raabe

Peter B. Raabe teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the book Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001).