Volume 15, Issue 1, Spring 2001
The Importance of Being a Self
A traditional belief is that there is but one self to a body, and that each of us has a single biography and personality. Varieties of this monistic view have dominated most of mankind’s intellectual history in philosophy, science, religion, and psychology, as well as legal and social theory. It has been challenged by appeal to those people whom psychiatry labels “multiple,” or “dissociated” personalities who, some claim, are “multiple selves.” This may be adequate if the self is explained by reference to personality. But if the self is characterized in terms of self-awareness, its numerical identity will be independent of that of the individual’s personality. On this account, the self is a biological ability that forms the basis of subjective reality without determinately enumerating the subject living it. The concept “self” is ambiguous and contextually sensitive; its meaning can vary with circumstances. On conceptual, ethical and existential grounds, a minimal conception of the self should be adopted without thereby excluding complementary stronger notions of the self. In principle, one organism could thus simultaneously be one and many selves in different meanings of that term. In human societies, the importance of being a self can hardly be overestimated, and any denial of this status must therefore carefully be considered.