“Where’s the Self?”

"Woman Combing Her Hair Before a Mirror" Degas, 1877

“Where’s the Self?”

The other night I had a dream in which I was driving east on Route 313 looking for a definition of the self. Continuing east, I had just passed the crossroad of Route 263 when I realized that such a definition had been available on 263, but it was too late. I had already driven past it. Still continuing down 313, presently I came to a youth seated cross-legged on a raised platform in the middle of the road. He was wearing a grey jumper over a white, short-sleeved shirt and I thought he might be Chinese, though not from abroad. I must have looked at him questioningly because he said, as if in answer to my question,

“I am the self.”

Not The Self with a capital “S.” The lower case self, the kind you or I might have.

That is, we might have selves of our own, except that the more up-to-the-minute theories — from cognitive science, identity theory and all the post-modernisms — deny that the selves we think we have are real selves.

What are our apparent selves assumed really to be, then? The shakeout of our genetic codes, the accidents of our experience, the social conventions thrust upon us, and so forth. The way the pieces fell out, what we’ve got are collages. Shake ‘em again and they’ll fall out some other way. Accidents will happen. Accidents are nothing personal.

My dream was a relief to me, since it said that it was not too late for me to define the self. I hadn’t driven past the definition I sought. On the contrary. The self, plain and obvious, was straight ahead. I couldn’t miss it.

The dream might seem enigmatic and in need of strenuous decoding, but in fact I was in no doubt as to what it signified.

Years ago I published a philosophical book titled A Good Look at Evil. The book had to offer a definition of evil for any reader curious about that topic. Since evil sets out to destroy what is “good” about a person’s life, the book also had to explain evil’s target: “good.”

Up to that date, I had read a fair amount of philosophy, ancient, modern and recent, but hadn’t found the answers in any philosopher I had read. My two questions were:

What is evil?

What is the good that evil seeks to destroy?

So where did I go to get answers? To my personal experience. Although I prefer it if life unfolds harmoniously and agreeably, more than once in my life I’d met persons who wished me the greatest harm they could think up and who managed to get a lot of that harm done with impunity.

In A Good Look at Evil, for the first time, I was figuring out how to spot such individuals. FYI, they don’t come wearing Halloween costumes. Sorry, kids, they don’t call themselves “Vampires.” They come decked out like good guys. That’s the problem. Unless you’ve got radar I don’t posses, the only way to detect them is through their tactics and aims. This takes time. Normally we don’t like to look at unpleasant things over a lengthy stretch of time: days, months, years.

That being the case, more likely than not, the first time you’ll notice evil will be the time it visits you. In that case, it’s of prime importance to realize what’s going on.

They know.

You don’t know.

What is it the bad guys know? Here’s what: You are trying to live out the story of you. You have hopes. You hope you have the means of realizing your hopes, or some of them, the ones nearest to hand. As you walk into the fray of your life, you will acquire a better sense of what you’ve been trying to do. It’s not all laid out in advance. If the hopes are blocked, you’ll try other means. If both means and ends are found beyond reach, you may have to revise again, till you get to the best realizable end worth fighting for. This is the story of your life. It’s important to keep track of it all the way.

What evil does is disrupt the story, either removing the instruments by which you can get to realize your aims or playing with your mind till you lose track of your aims.

That’s the case I lay out in A Good Look at Evil. The book has gone out of print, but unfortunately the phenomenon hasn’t lost any steam. It’s still around – evil – and plenty of it!

While I was in San Antonio talking to editors about Confessions of a Young Philosopher, the book I just finished, almost in passing came an offer from a west coast publisher to reprint A Good Look at Evil. Since publishing it, I’d written two essays that could be attached to the updated reprint as the final two chapters.

The first essay makes clear how, when you freely spoil your own story, you are losing hold on the self that is to be found via its story. The second essay shows how you can tell when Providence steps in to help you hold on to the self that has a story to tell. Of course, you can’t prove it was God who helped, but the essay offers reasons not to feel like a fool if you happen to think God did. So the additional chapters would make the book’s point much clearer.

So where’s the self? It’s found in the acts of living and defending one’s story. Is the self at risk? Yeah it is. Evil is absolutely out to get it. Just as the detection of a gravitational field counts as evidence of a planet in the vicinity, so the trajectory of evil is evidence that the self is real. It’s not just a social construct to be rearranged at convenience. The bad guys know it’s real and personal.

Now back to my dream. What do I think it means? In the original edition of the book, I may have missed the chance to underscore that point about the self and how to define it. So in my dream too, I thought I had “driven past it.” But no, I now have a contract to reprint A Good Look at Evil, with two additional chapters that make clearer the book’s point:

the existence of evil

is evidence

for the reality of the self.

Nothing could be plainer and straighter than this new chance I have – except maybe the youth in my dream, seated in the middle of the road I’m on, dressed in plain garb, from a city closer to Asia than we are on the East coast, who tells me in plain American accents that I’ve come as far down the road as I need to, but not too far, because here he is: the self in lower case that I was looking to define:

the self we all have.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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