2008/01/16

The ever-shifting self

If you've seen my notes on William James and Daniel Dennett, or if you've read my book Hispanic Nation, you know I'm fascinated by the processes by which we assemble, disguise and change our "identities" -- or to put it in older terms, how we perceive and project our "selves." The intro by Christopher Looby to this early American novel, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird, reminds us of David Hume's very radical interpretation of this problem -- which is also the subject of Bird's novel. If you haven't read or don't remember Hume's argument (basically, that the "self" is an illusion), click on the link to Looby's introduction and do a search for Hume.

2 comments:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

I listen regularly to a radio program with is available to down load called Philosophy Talk. It is run by two profs form the Stanford philosophy dept, sort of the Click and Claque of the intellect. Sometimes they are very good. The did a program on Personal identity which is relevant. You can download it from http://www.philosophytalk.org/notesPastShows.htm.

There’s another take in a novel called If I Were You (Si j'étais vous) by Julien Green (the American author who wrote in French, not to be confused with the English novelist Henry Green). At the beginning of the novel the protagonist makes a pact with the Devil that enables him to become another person. What does this mean? It is not like the transposed brain s trick discussed on philosophy talk. Rather the consciousness of the protagonist enters the consciousness of the other person, both merging and not merging. As I recall (another person with my name read this book decades ago so it’s not fresh in my consciousness) this process is subtle and intriguing, not at all hokey or simple-minded. As time passes the protagonist becomes more and more integrated with his host’s identity. The protagonist has a magic formal to recite to return to himself, and, as he merges more fully with his host, he risks forgetting it (this is the ticking clock of the novel). I won’t give away the end, but Green was a believing Catholic and took things like pacts with the Devil seriously.

gef said...

Thanks! I'll check out that radio program. The topics listed at "Past shows" look fascinating.