Shoemaker on Galen Strawson’s “Selves”


Selves : an essay in revisionary metaphysics

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NDPR has just released a review, written by Sydney Shoemaker (Philosophy, Cornell University), of Galen Strawson’s Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics (Oxford Univ. Press 2009). To access the review, click here. (By the way, Strawson will be speaking on Feb. 17 at Boston University, as part of their 2009-10 lecture series on narrative and narrativity, and Amelie Rorty will be responding to his paper: it promises to be a fascinating exchange; click here for more information.)

Here are the first and last paragraphs of Shoemaker’s review:

This brilliant and provocative book is about more than its title suggests. It contains substantial discussions of a wide range of metaphysical topics, including materialism, the notion of an object, the categorical/dispositional distinction, the subject/property distinction, and the nature and experience of time. But its central focus is on what selves would have to be and whether there are any. Strawson’s view, similar to a view he finds in William James, is that selves are what he calls thin subjects, entities distinct from “full human beings” which, because they exist only when there is experience, normally have very brief duration. This is the “Transience View of the self”. He ends by defending the view that each self is identical with the experience of which it is a subject and with the content of that experience.


Having voiced my doubts and misgivings, I should repeat that I found this an impressive book. Throughout the level of philosophical intelligence is very high, and the discussion is historically and scientifically well-informed, and often insightful and illuminating. The phenomenological observations, for example those in the discussion of the stream of consciousness, are often very acute. The writing is often brilliant. Despite the felicitous style, the complexity of the issues and the arguments make it not an easy book to read. But it is a rewarding book to read, even for those, like myself, who are unpersuaded by its central claims.

And here is OUP’s description of Strawson’s book:

What is the self? Does it exist? If it does exist, what is it like? It’s not clear that we even know what we’re asking about when we ask these large, metaphysical questions. The idea of the self comes very naturally to us, and it seems rather important, but it’s also extremely puzzling. As for the word “self”–it’s been taken in so many different ways that it seems that you can mean more or less what you like by it and come up with almost any answer. Galen Strawson proposes to approach the (seeming) problem of the self by starting from the thing that makes it seem there is a problem in the first place: our experience of the self, our experience of having or being a self, a hidden, inner mental presence or locus of consciousness. He argues that we should consider the phenomenology (experience) of the self before we attempt its metaphysics (its existence and nature). And when we have considered what it’s like for human beings (assuming we can generalize about ourselves), we need to consider what it might be like for other possible creatures: what’s the very least that might count as experience of oneself as a self? This, he proposes, will give us a good idea of what we ought to be looking for when we go on to ask whether there is such a thing-an idea worth following wherever it leads. It leads Strawson to conclude that selves, inner subjects of experience, do indeed exist. But they bear little resemblance to traditional conceptions of the self.

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