Who am I?

Rene Descartes said famously that I am a thinking substance and thus, presumably, that every self or subject is a thinking substance. That claim is, however, flawed. Does the statement that I believe this or that mean that there is a substance somewhere that believes this or that? Does the claim that I am in pain mean that there is a substance somewhere that is in pain? In these two cases we are not making factual statements about substances but we are affirming a belief of our own and expressing our own pain. Wittgenstein concluded that we don’t, in fact, use the word “I” to refer to anything. There is no such thing as the I, the self, or subject that the word “I” could refer to. Following Lichtenberg, he suggested that our grammar may mislead us. We tend to assume that a noun has meaning always by referring to some object and we hold that the same is true of the pronoun “I.” But both assumptions are wrong. We should think, instead, of sentences like “I am in pain,” Lichtenberg said, as we do of “It is raining.” In the latter case there is obviously no it that does the raining and so, similarly, we should conclude that there is no I that has the pain.

But this Lichtenberg-Wittgenstein view has difficulties of its own. Let us grant that we say “I am in pain” in order to express pain. Wittgenstein goes so far in this case as to maintain that we could actually replace the sentence with a moan to the same effect and thus with something that doesn’t contain the word “I” at all. But what about “Yesterday, I was in terrible pain”? This must be a true or false statement about an incidence of pain. It is certainly not an expression of pain. But the statement doesn’t mean that somewhere or other there was terrible pain yesterday. It means to say that I was the one who suffered. But who then is that I?

When I am asked who I am, I will usually recite certain facts about myself. But when I think about myself, I think rather of my life experiences, my hopes and aspirations. Others may identify me with some external characteristics: the appearance of my face, the sound of my voice, certain characteristic ways of moving. To myself I am, however, someone with certain experiences, feelings, memories, thoughts etc. And here I get back to the theme of privacy, to the fact that the large body of my experiences, feelings, memories, thoughts, etc. is not in practice accessible to others. The one who I am is not a substance with its own identity from the first moment of my existence. I become myself, I become who I am, rather, in the course of my life, as experiences, feelings, memories, thoughts accumulate. But this being who I have become is not fully transparent to others. I relate to it in a way in which I don’t relate to anyone else. I am a being with hidden, secreted corners and I am aware that others are in this respect just like me. (The question of the nature of the self and that of the degree to which our sensations, feelings, thoughts are private belong thus together.) Click here

In proposing this view, I am turning one of Wittgenstein’s arguments on its head. It is one of the few explicit arguments in his Tractatus – one that concern the self or subject. Wittgenstein argues in that passage that there cannot be a thinking self. Such a self, he says, would have to be simple, but a thing that thinks must have an internal complexity in order to entertain thoughts since facts and propositions have both a complex structure. I want to turn this argument around and conclude that a thinking self cannot be a simple substance but must be complex and that its complexity is determined by the complexity of its experiences, feelings, memories, thoughts.

One conclusion Descartes and his followers drew from their picture of the self as a simple substance was that this self could not come into existence or cease to exist through the normal processes of growth and decay. These would be always processes of composition and decomposition but in a simple substance there would be neither. This seemed to him to give us some assurance of the immortality of the soul. The alternative picture of a complex soul or subject allows us, on the other hand, to see this subject precisely as something that is formed in a natural way and that dissolves again in a natural fashion as our experiences, feelings, memories, thoughts disintegrate and fade away.


  1. I like your thought here.

    For some reason I am reminded of a line by Gershom Scholem: “Totalities are only transmittable in an occult fashion. The name of God can be addressed but cannot be said. For it is only what is fragmentary in language that makes language sayable in the first place.”

    I wonder if your notion of the self as complex—as a complex—can be thought in terms of fragmentarity as well. That is, as if the experiences, feelings, memories, and thoughts which (as you say) “disintegrate and fade away” are also always fragments within a totality of experiences, feelings, memories, and thoughts. Such a totality cannot be ever had *as* experience, thought, etc. And so, following Scholem, could one suggest that it is only what is fragmentary in selfhood (or the “I” or the subjective position) that makes selfhood conceivable in the first place? … The self as an aggregate, an accumulation of fragments working together and building off one another.

    I think, too, of Schlegel’s line in this regard: “Every person is only ever a piece of themselves.”

  2. The first person singular pronoun refers to the speaker of the utterance, the constructor, the agent of the production of the meaning of the sentence, and it does that whatever grammatical position it is in (yes, even possessives). The referent, as it happens, is always an animated body, but may be reciprocally related to an addressee that could do the same thing themselves.

    The self, in each case, is what is using the body they have to get about in the world and act in interaction with it and try to understand why it is the way it is and appreciate that it exists at all, etc. It has a complexity and at the same time a unity. (Unity, not “simplicity”; the notion of ‘substance’ is not needed in this context.) This unity is a necessary feature, since it guarantees that the complexity has a logical structure, which is what opens up all the possibilities. How do we know there are not more inclusive structures, if we are not restricting ourselves to bodies; e.g., we all speak a language of our communities. This is a possible response to your question, and I had this response, but I (at least) will continue to ponder it.

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