Self-knowledge is the knowledge of one’s impressions, thought processes and beliefs, encompassing both the individual’s mental and psychological states. Even ordinary language attributes to each one a “self”, a unique aware entity. Different philosophers have given different accounts as to how self-knowledge is obtained, and some have gone to the point of arguing whether there even exists is a self. The “I” in the Cartesian viewpoint is quite strong, and in epistemological terms, often stated as follows:
“I can abstract from the supposition of all external things, but not from the supposition of my own consciousness.”
Hence, the famous French rationalist Descartes attributes a thinking self to each individual. Many philosophers have presented the stance that there must be a self, an identity from wherein actions, emotions, and intentions emanate- a source of perception to another observer.
However, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume destroys the idea of the self by claiming that there is indeed no self, and the self is merely an illusion generated by sensory experiences. Even if there were such a self, it would mean a consistent entity to define a distinct identity. However, since all our impressions constantly morph and mold, there can be no such self.
The nineteenth-twentieth century American philosopher and psychologist William James adds that there are two kinds of “self”- one being our present state, which is recognized as “I”, and the other being the collection of experiences which we accept as our identity (our tastes, interests, habits etc.) which is recognized as “me”. The rationalist empiricist goes on to argue that they are both ways to connect our experiences and perceptions together, which really are scattered and discrete. Hence, there is no continuous self, only a series of scattered illusions. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett regards the self as analogous to the concept of the center of gravity, an intangible idea devised to make things simpler.
Perhaps one of the most intriguingly perplexing concepts in Buddhism and modern philosophy alike is the concept of “no self”, suggested by Hume and the Buddha. Anatta, simply translated as “no self” has a far deeper meaning though. It denies the existence of a self, and that the self (or the ego) is the primary source of all suffering and pain. Buddha links the self to “skandhas”, or bundles of unfulfilled cravings, desires and desires- which is similar to Hume’s Bundle Theory.
Although I am deeply convinced by Buddha’s and Hume’s views on the subject, I feel that even though intense skepticism may render the concept of the self absurd and dubious, the self is not completely pointless and ludicrous. Even if it is an illusion, a maaya, the recognition of a self plays a vital purpose in the biological and evolutionary chains. I don’t think I could survive without the sense of an identity, no matter how vague and discontinuous my “self” really is. In fact, I do acknowledge the fact that the self is never a continuous, consistent chain of identity, rather the word is just a reference to a constantly evolving nothingness. However, I do agree that the self is indeed an artificial construct which relies on impressions, memory and perceptions, all of which can be deceptive. Hence, we cannot clearly define a self, or reason that there is no self at all. For a person who has lost his memory in a car accident, the self suddenly terminates as memory disappears. Similarly, for a person who has changed his habits and behavior for the better to tread on a newfound path in life, the self is again dissolved into nothingness. This establishes that the self cannot be linked to memory or behavior.
I believe that the question of the self really involves three parts: the analytic question, i.e. what all are the conditions for the self to really be, the existential question, i.e. do selves really exist in the physical world, and lastly, the persistence question, i.e. what conditions are required for the self to persist over time? I really doubt the persistence part, since the self can be discontinuous to the scale of milliseconds- a sudden life changing realization, a sudden eruption of anger, an unforeseen change in attitude.
The discussion of the self often leads me to an awakening dream-like state of finding a lost piece, a piece that exists and does not exist at the same time, an object gently pressing its projection on reality, and then disappearing during moments of deliberate meditation. Again, what does meditation or introspection really mean without a self?
There are definitely loose ends to this argument, which makes it such a celebrated topic in philosophy.