Overview of Theories of The Self

Response Notes from Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, & Indian, a collection of essays edited by Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson and Dan Zahavi (2011):

Diachronic identity is a component of the substantialist view of the self. It refers to the persistence of an enduring entity over time, and can be used as a theoretical depiction of one of the modes of ordinary living in which a person can feel to be the same person at several different point in time. ‘Diachronic’ literally means that something is identical from one point in time to a separate point in time. In ordinary living, a person might characterize their diachronic identity as the persistence of their personality, value system, vital focus, etc., throughout their life. The theory of diachronic identity can also be related to the notion of a narrative self. The narrative self involves building up a story about oneself where the self as both a character and an author, as an entity that is simultaneously living out and making up the story of our lives. Further, this substantialist view of the self describes the self as something that can account for a central unity that allows the current contents of consciousness to be apprehended alongside past and potential future contents in a single unified system. We call the felt and perceived unity between conscious states “I” or “ego.”  Substantialists see the self as something that exists over or above its many states or components, and may be seen as identical with or distinct from those states or components. This relates to the theory of self-similarity in fractals, where the component parts are identical to the whole even though the whole is an emergent unity created from the parts. This is one way of negotiating the issue of having a conscious process which can reflexively watch itself and have an ongoing stream of consciousness at the same time, like the measurement of a moving point. Wittgenstein opposes the reality of diachronic identity, and  argues “…to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that is identical to itself is to say nothing at all.”

There are non-substantialist theories that describe the self as a property that emerges with each presentation of a new thought. Non-substantialists argue that the self is momentary and transient, that it comes into being with each occurrence of consciousness. In this sense, the self is consciousness and not separate from it. Non-substantialist theorists do not see the self as an agent or author, but instead as more of a witness. Thus, the non-substantialists view the narrative self as something that promotes  social harmony and rational autonomy based on a specific cultural value set and social structure. Hence, from the non-substantialist view, the narrative self begins to look like a useful fiction. In Buddhist philosophy, the ordinary sense of self in the sense of the narrative self is posited as the source of all suffering. They argue that there is no entity that might serve as the referent of “I.”

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