2. John Chaffee, Ph.D
Professor of Philosophy at The City University of New York.
He is nationally recognized figure in the area of Critical
Thinking. Having authored leading textbooks like “Thinking
He has received grants from the National Endowment for
the Humanities. The for foundation, the Annerberg
Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
He has been selected as New York Educator of the Year
Received the Distinguished Faculty Award for Diversity in
Teaching in Higher Education
3. “The cornerstone of Socrates’
philosophy was the Delphic
Oracle’s command to ‘Know
thyself” (Chaffee, 2013)
4. Know Thyself?
The cornerstone of Socrates’s philosophy was the Delphic Oracle’s
command to “Know thyself.” But what exactly does that mean?
Who exactly is your “self”? What are the qualities that define it?
What differentiates your particular “self” from all others? What is
the relation of the “self” you were as a child to the “self” you are
now? What is the relation of your “self” to your “body”? How does
your “self” relate to other “selves”? What happens to a “self” when
the body dies? In what ways is it possible for you to “know” your
“self”? In what ways might you never fully know your “self”? What
do you mean when you say, “I don’t feel like myself today” or
when you encourage someone else to “Just be yourself!”
5. The concept and nature of the “self” has been an
ongoing, and evolving, subject of inquiry among
philosophers since the time of Socrates. To grapple
with the concept of self is to begin to explore what it
is to know, to believe, to think, to be conscious
6. The Soul Is Immortal: Socrates and Plato
For Socrates and Plato, the self was synonymous
with the soul. Every human being, they believed,
possessed an immortal soul that survived the
Plato further defines the soul or self as having three
components: Reason, Physical Appetite, and Spirit
(or passion). These three components may work in
concert, or in opposition
7. The Self Is Consciousness: Locke
John Locke argued that consciousness—or, more
specifically, self-consciousness—of our constantly
perceiving self is necessary to “personal identity,” or
knowledge of the self as a person.
Instead of positing that the self is immortal and
separate from the body, Locke argues that our
personal identity and the immortal soul in which that
identity is located are very different entities.
8. There Is No Self: Hume
David Hume went radically further than Locke to
speculate that there is no self or immortal soul in the
traditional sense. Our memories and experiences,
Hume argued, are made up of impressions and ideas
with no one “constant and invariable,” unified
identity. When we are not actively perceiving, or
conscious of ourselves perceiving, Hume notes,
there is no basis for the belief that there is any self.
9. We Construct the Self: Kant
If Hume’s view of the mind was a kind of passive
“theatre” across which random experiences flitted,
Kant proposed an actively engaged and synthesizing
intelligence that constructs knowledge based on its
experiences. This synthesizing faculty—Kant’s
version of the self—transcends the senses and
In addition, Kant proposed a second self, the
empirical self or ego, which consists of those traits
that make us each a unique personality.
10. The Self Is the Brain: Physicalism
Materialism holds that the self is inseparable from
the substance of the brain and the physiology of the
body. Contemporary advances in neurophysiology
allow scientists to observe the living brain as it works
to process information, create ideas, and move
through dream states. Philosopher Paul Churchland
argues that a new, accurate, objective, and
scientifically based understanding of our “selves” will
“contribute substantially toward a more peaceful and
11. The Self Is How You Behave: Ryle
Gilbert Ryle solves the “mind/body problem” by simply denying the
existence of an internal, nonphysical self, and instead focus on the
dimension of the self that we can observe—our behavior.
Ryle provides a devastating critique of Descartes’s dualism by
characterizing it as “the ghost in the machine” metaphysic that has
infiltrated every area of our culture, a view that makes no conceptual
sense. Just as a visitor to a college might commit a “category mistake”
by wanting to see “the college” after viewing all of the parts of the
college, so we make a category mistake when we seek to find a “self”
which is apart from all of the public behaviors of our selves.
Many people believe that Ryle’s effort to reduce the rich complexity of
human experience to a compilation of observable behaviors is a much
too limited view of the human self and the world we inhabit.
12. Buddhist Concepts of the Self
Buddhist doctrine holds that the notion of a permanent
self that exists as a unified identity through time is an
illusion. For Buddhists, every aspect of life is
impermanent and all elements of the universe are in a
continual process of change and transition, a process
that also includes each self as well.
Accordingly, the self can best be thought of as a flame
that is continually passed from candle to candle,
retaining a certain continuity but no real personal
According to Buddhist philosophy, the self is composed
of five aggregates: physical form, sensation,
conceptualization, dispositions to act, and consciousness.