The Different Notions of Self

Over at Quartz, Tim Urban offers a fairly fun and comprehensive rundown of all the theories of self — what makes you, you. It is an often maddening topic that has been reflected upon and debated by philosophers and average folks alike for about as long as we’ve been capable of higher thought.

Though it is a long read, it is well worth your time if you want to understand, in an often humorous and digestible way, the different arguments for what makes our identity and how. I am especially fond of this excerpt.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particular theme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.

For my part, I think the self is an amalgamation of different elements, namely continuity of narrative combined with data. Of course, no concept is without its shortcomings and gaps, which is what makes the discussion about self so timeless. As the author alludes towards the end of that snippet, there is just something fundamentally intangible about the self, something many of us just know without any explanation.

What do you think?

Lessons from Benjamin Franklin on Business Success

Ultimately, for Benjamin Franklin, the question of how to succeed in business could not be divorced from how to succeed in life and, therefore, the ends to which one should live. To live like a king seemed distinctly un-American. To live for no one else seemed unimaginable. If Americans view things differently today, perhaps that says less about how we succeed in business than what we believe it means to lead a life well lived.

—  John Paul Rollert, “How America Lost Track of Ben Franklin’s Definition of Success”, The Atlantic

Listen Freely to John Rawls’ Lectures on Modern Political Theory

One of history’s most cited and influential thinkers, American moral and political philosopher John Rawls is responsible for introducing some of the most seminal concepts in modern political theory. His many books and essays, in particular his magnum opus A Theory of Justice (1971), remain standard in many courses of political science and law.

While I do not have the time to highlight the many Rawlsian ideas that have deeply impacted me — namely public reason and the veil of ignorance — I invite you to learn more for yourself by checking out these full lectures made freely available by the Harvard Philosophy Department via Open Culture. 

In these talks, Rawls explains and expands on his core principles: equality of opportunity and the “difference principle”, which states that any and all inequality should benefit the least well-off members of a society. Rawls’ brand of political liberalism (also a title of one of his books) has influenced presidents, judges, and legislators with arguments directly contrary to some of the right’s ideological architects, many of whom in fact wrote in reaction to Rawls. We are free to accept his claims or not, but Rawls’ significant contribution to the terms of modern political discourse is inarguable.

See them here or get them all here. These lectures are well worth your time, especially if you are among the millions of people living in democratic societies who are concerned about where society and politics are headed. Please feel free to weigh in or share your reactions.

John Locke — Far From the Paragon of Classical Liberty

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

The true liberal tradition is represented not by Locke, but by John Stuart Mill, whose wholehearted commitment to political freedom was consistent with his eventual adoption of socialism (admittedly in a rather refined and abstract form).

Mill wasn’t perfect, as is evidenced by his support of British imperialism, for which he worked as an official of the East India Company, and more generally by his support for limitations on democratic majorities. But Mill’s version of liberalism became more democratic as experience showed that fears about dictatorial majorities were unfounded. By contrast, Locke’s classical liberalism has hardened into propertarian dogma.

As Mill recognized, markets and property rights are institutions that are justified by their usefulness, not by any fundamental human right. Where markets work well, governments should not interfere with them. But, when they fail, as they so often do, it is entirely appropriate to modify property rights and market outcomes, or to replace them altogether with direct public control.

Received ideas change only slowly, and the standard view of Locke as a defender of liberty is likely to persist for years to come. Still, the reassessment is underway, and the outcome is inevitable. Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement. His classical liberalism offers no guarantee of freedom to anyone except owners of capitalist private property.

— , “John Locke Against Freedom

We Need More Philosophy in Public Life

In several posts (most recently here) I have advocated for philosophy to play a bigger role in society, policymaking, and public life. Philosophy should be standard part of primary and secondary school curricula, and professional philosophers should be consulted by both public and private sector institutions. Average people should utilize the tools and principles of philosophy, such as free inquiry and rational argumentation, and apply it to a broad range of matter of human concern, from metaphysics to ethics.

Writing for NPR, psychologist Tania Lombrozo similarly argues that philosophy should be a part of national and social issues, with philosophers themselves needing to play a bigger role in the topics, controversies, and concerns going on in the public sphere.

Many questions fall under the purview of philosophy precisely because they’re entangled in values — they’re not only about the science, the realm of the factual. And in the case of climate change, there’s no less at stake than the fate of our species and our planet.

What responsibility do the rich have to the poor when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change? What responsibility do developed countries have to poor countries? What obligations do we have to future generations? What obligations do we have to other species? Is there intrinsic value to biodiversity?

Answers to these questions will guide policy and politics. Let’s hope we answer them wisely — with the thoughtfulness, care and rigor that characterize the best philosophy.

Like any academic discipline, philosophy has its specialties and subspecialties, its own jargon and insider disputes. I admit: A lot of philosophy can be obscure, at least to the uninitiated. And a lot of philosophers do spend their time in the field’s inner crannies (just like scientists and any other specialists), shielded from the 24-hour news cycle. (Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, a philosopher writing a book about knowledge and knowledge ascriptions, joked last week in a tweet: “I keep accidentally thinking about the world instead of focusing like I should on the semantics of knowledge ascriptions.”)

To paraphrase Shannon Rupp, there is no aspect of your life that does not benefit from being able to think with clarity. Whether you are a professional philosopher or an enthusiast like myself, there is a lot to gain from applying a philosophical mindset to the pressing social, political, economic, and moral issues of our time. There will certainly be no shortage of arguments, debates, and discussions to be had — at the very least let us imbue them with proper perspective and intentions.

Better People and Better Societies Through Philosophy

But a smattering of undergrad philosophy classes taught me something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought. Name me one aspect of your life that doesn’t benefit from being able to think something through clearly.

— Shannon Rupp, Be employable, study philosophy

While widely viewed as the purview of ivory tower academics and haughty intellectuals, philosophy — which broadly studies every matter of human concern from morality and values to the nature of reality — has plenty of everyday, practical applications. We come across dilemmas or issues everyday that can be addressed with philosophical values of critical analysis, open discourse, and rational argument.

We may not see the mundane decisions we make on a regular basis as a form of philosophical engagement — again, there’s that image problem of philosophy being too esoteric or aloof — but any time you must make a choice, learn about something, or interact with someone on either a professional or personal level, you benefit from knowing how to think better and how to justify your decisions.

Philosophy allows you to choose the more virtuous path when facing a moral dilemma (how should I resolve this conflict with my friends? How best to respond to an injustice I witnessed?), what is true and why (which source should I trust? why should I trust it?), and even how to live (what is a meaningful life? Where do I find my purpose? How can I be a good person?).

And just imagine how beneficial it would be if society as a whole was comprised of individuals who not only care about thinking and acting better — a value instilled by philosophy — but who have the tools and approaches necessary to ensure that end?

Scott Samuelson at The Atlantic touches on this when defending against the common refrain that philosophy, and humanities in general, are at best secondary and at worst worthless when compared to more “practical” subjects like business or applied science.

Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominantly offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only”.

That is because being a free person means making decisions — in our interactions with one another and in our participation in political and civil institutions — that are best done with a clear and rational mind. Other skills and fields of knowledge are important too of course, but anything and everything you do involves a thought process that can and should be refined by philosophical values.

Obviously, teaching people philosophy is not, on its own, going to solve society’s problems. On both an individual and collective level, humans will always be susceptible to vice, lapses in judgement, poor thinking, and the like. There is no avoiding that (at least for the foreseeable future), but it can be mitigated by instilling into generations of people the principles, tools, and mindsets that help us to resolve problems, both internal and external, more effectively.

What are your thoughts?

Why Study Philosophy?

The Atlantic has a great interview with philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, which among other things discusses the relevance and importance of philosophy as a discipline (Goldstein is well known for promoting the benefits of philosophy to moral progress and advancing the human condition).

I recommend reading the whole interview hyperlinked above, but the following excerpt most stood out to me. It addresses the rather common claim that philosophy has not changed or progressed much throughout history.

There’s the claim that the only progress made is in posing problems that scientists can answer. That philosophy never has the means to answer problems—it’s just biding its time till the scientists arrive on the scene. You hear this quite often. There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. Plato would be constantly surprised by what we know. And not only what we know scientifically, or by our technology, but what we know ethically. We take a lot for granted. It’s obvious to us, for example, that individual’s ethical truths are equally important. Things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to him. He makes an argument in The Republic that you need to treat all Greeks in the same way. It never occurs to him that you would treat barbarians (non-Greeks) the same way.

It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

It is interesting to see how many arguments, claims, and philosophical concerns of today have existed throughout history, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks (and no doubt other civilizations for which we have no records). Many of the issues and considerations we struggle with are timeless and inherently human in nature, but that does not mean we do not progress in both how we think about these things and what we do about it.

Improving our moral framework and understanding of the world are each continuous and long-term projects, and once we see the bigger picture and take the long view, we come to better appreciate why philosophical discussion and inquiry are so vital in the grand scheme of things.

What are your thoughts?

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to for the list.