The “True Story” of the Self


Watching the movie Stranger than Fiction triggered some questions and thoughts about the idea of the self or personal identity as a fictional character. Here are some excerpts of an academic essay I wrote in 2010 as an independent study for my Master’s degree in Humanities. The essay is about Daniel Dennett’s narrative theory as represented in his article “Why Everyone Is a Novelist” which summarizes his view of the self.

Because of its interrelation with the issue of survival and human responsibility, the concept of personal identity or the self has always concerned philosophers throughout history. Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of mind, introduced a narrative theory of the self, which is the topic of this paper. To pinpoint the strengths and the weaknesses of Dennett’s theory and evaluate it efficiently, it is important to look at other views of earlier philosophers regarding personal identity. I will start with Descartes’ simplified view of the immateriality of the self, and will end with Hume’s bundle theory of the self, in order to make sense of Dennett’s account of the self as a narrative center of gravity. Explaining Dennett’s motivation in introducing his theory and shedding light on its details will enable me evaluate Dennett’s theory as represented in his article “Why Everyone Is a Novelist” (Dennett).

While constructing the foundation of true and false and the criterion of certain truth, Descartes drifts away to talk about his existence and what his self consists of; “whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain” (Descartes Part IV, par.1). Descartes thinks of the self as an immaterial substance that thinks. Asserting its immateriality, he confirms both its independence of any material substance, including the human body, and its indivisibility. According to him, the existence of the self does not require the existence of any external substance distinct of it, “I concluded that I was a thing or substance, whose whole essence or nature was only to think, and which, to exist, has no need of space or of any material thing or body “ (Descartes Part IV, Par.2). Clearly, Descartes explains his views of the self by using the first person pronoun as if the “I” in his text is supposed to mean everyone or as if he was a representative of all human beings. It follows that he equates the Self to the soul and the mind or any immaterial substance.

Unlike Descartes, David Hume seems to associate the Self with perceptions, which he finds inseparable from the very nature of the self. Hume proposes that the self is intangible and is indefinable since he cannot catch what he calls his self without catching a perception. In other words, he cannot be conscious of his self without capturing a consciousness of some kind of perception. Thus, Hume asserts that humans are “nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions” (Hume 193). Accordingly, Hume denies the existence of what we call personal identity. In fact, he even thinks philosopher’s attempts to prove the existence of personal identity is a failure, because he believes our concept of personal identity to be imaginary. Hume specifically mentions Berkeley when referring to the fictional dimension of the concept of personal identity, “There are some philosophers (e.g. Berkeley) who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence, and are certain of its identity and simplicity” (Hume 192). Actually, Hume not only thinks that the attempts of those philosophers to prove the existence, continuity and simplicity of personal identity are a matter of imagination, but he concludes that our consciousness of the existence of the self is an imaginary matter as well.

The fictional dimension of Hume’s view of the self is illustrated in his analogy of the human mind as a theatre where “perceptions make their appearances, pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations” (Hume 193). Hume thinks of human perceptions as different characters or different masks that characters put on in a theatrical performance. For Hume, those masks or characters resemble human perceptions because they are unable to reflect the real identity of people who are wearing them; similar to the way different perceptions themselves do not represent the mind’s identity. Actors may identify with the characters the roles of whom they are playing, but no matter to what degree actors identify with them they are not those characters. Similarly, the varying perceptions that one experiences constantly might seem to constitute the true Self. However, those perceptions in fact are the masks that self puts on to maintain the unity and the consistence of its own identity. While characters and perceptions cannot escape this endless, multiplicity, the identity of both, the theatre and the self, always stays the same, “it persists, while the actors come and go” (Hume 194).

According to Hume, what enables people to keep track of the succession of their perceptions is memory. Thus, he considers memory the source of personal identity. Hume finds in the existence of memory the only explanation of the emergence of a sense of continuity in the succession of perceptions in one’s mind. Storing perceptions with the aid of memory is what helps us “extend the same chain of causes, and consequently the identity of our persons beyond our memory, and we can comprehend times, and circumstances, and actions, which we have entirely forgot but suppose in general to have existed “(Hume 200). In other words, the existence of memory is what enables us relate causes to effects and create a mental conception of everything in our world according to our comprehension of the perceptions sorted in our memory. Consequently, our conceptions of the world, including the self, are not factual, since they rely on recalling our perceptions of them from memory. Rather, Hume asserts the fictional aspect of personal identity and states; “The identity that we ascribe to persons is fictitious” (Hume 198). He denies the association of personal identity with “a soul or a substance that our identity consists in” (Hume 192).

Daniel Dennett embraced Hume’s fictional view of personal identity but attempted to develop a narrative theory of the self. Like Hume, Dennett does not believe that the self is real, but rather fictional. He adds that a self is just like the center of gravity of an object in physics; we assume that it resides in the center of an object but actually; it is only conceptual but not corporeal or factual. J. David Velleman in his journal article The Self as Narrator assesses Dennett’s theory and the conclusion he reaches regarding the true story of our lives. Velleman clarifies the reason of Dennett’s ascribing this theoretical aspect to the self, to “understand, and predict, and make sense of the behavior of some very complicated things” (Velleman 2). Velleman sees this reason as the function and the advantage of Dennett’s concept of the self as a “non-existent author of a merely fictional autobiography” (Velleman 2). In fact, the ability to understand human behavior enables us to predict that behavior. Moreover, predicting human behavior indicates knowledge of its causes and effects, and that knowledge in itself is a means to control human behavior or at least to direct it.

We can explain Dennett’s theory of personal identity in light of his concept of the Intentional Stance. The Intentional Stance is a theory that describes the behavior of any kind of being according to mental assumptions and properties. Dennett thinks that we establish this stance on the supposition of the rationality of the being or the thing we are thinking of. After that, we try to attribute some beliefs and then some desires to that same thing or being, before predicting its behavior according to our prediction of its goals and in light of its desires. On the foundation of this theory, Dennett explains the evolution of human consciousness, and argues that it is all a matter of “explanatory strategy” (Zawidzki 36). Accordingly, we can conclude that the objective of that process of mental attribution or explanatory stance is to comprehend the behavior of things and beings in our world. Therefore, Dennett describes our world as “mindless”, and thus he attempts to figure out how our narratives of “purposes, reasons, selves and consciousness emerge” from such an environment (Dennett 78). In addition, Dennett attempts to layout the constraints of constructing such narratives in order to “lampoon them as „just-so stories” (Dennett 78). Viewing our narratives as stories can give us a sense of power insofar that we, as the authors of those stories, can control the direction of our stories and make them correspond to our goals and desires.

This very notion can be applied to Dennett’s view of the self, since Dennett does not specify any kind of characteristics to be attributed to the beings whose behavior we are trying to comprehend. Perhaps we assume the rationality of our self, attribute beliefs and desires to it, invent goals for it and predict its behavior, in order to unify the different components of what we think our self is and to make sense of its actions. In fact, Dennett suggests applying intentionality to people as well as axes, meaning objects in general. He asserts that we presuppose the, axehood of an axe even though we do not assume that it is imbued with spiritual axehood (Zawidzki 34-37). Dennett believes that the real nature of both, people and thoughts is no different from the nature of axes, and thus should be understood the same way.

To describe how the self is not real, Dennett explains the self by applying it to scientific and literary analogies. The literary analogy Dennett refers to is, what may be called a self-character, which has a unified narrative and is employed to make sense of our experiences and our behaviors. He expands on this fictional self to claim that we act in our lives according to what is required for being that specific character or self. While creating this character, Dennett believes we undertake a special kind of thinking he calls “verbal thought” (Dennett 472), which Jerome Burner also refers to as “the narrative mode” of thinking. (McCarthy 10). He argues that much of our conscious thinking is “a variety of a particularly efficient and private talking to oneself” (Dennett 472). In fact, Dennett describes people as “confabulators” who are telling and retelling the story of their own lives (Dennett 471). Trying to self-protect themselves from conveying by mistake undesired information to others, people developed this behavior of talking to oneself or “vocalization” to a “habit of subvocalization” (Dennett 472). As a result, this “subvocalization” is represented in the human consciousness in a form of narrative or “verbal thought” (Dennett 472).

Like a novelist who cannot separate himself from his characters, Dennett thinks that we are all novelists; unable to separate ourselves from the self-character we create. In addition, trying to make everything happens fits with that character’s coherency; he argues that we do create a convenient narrative context for our self-character. The outcome of this process is a story of our lives, “We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography” (Dennett 473). If our lives are series of endless stories including the creation of our own fictitious selves, how can we know what the true story is, if there is any? Does it matter if our life story is true or false, since it is only a story after all? Dennett’s answer to this question is that “there is no true story” because he thinks that even attempting to figure out the true story in itself is a mere error, “If we wanted to settle what the true story was, we’d be falling into error” (Dennett 471).

Dennett expands on this point and affirms that human storytelling is similar to the spider’s web spinning or the beaver’s dam building, since we approach narration as “our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition” (Velleman 2). Storytelling can lead to self-protection, because understanding human behavior provides one with awareness of its strengths and weaknesses, which enables one to avoid both physical and emotional or psychological pain. Moreover, storytelling enables man to achieve self-control, because the ability to predict human behavior is what helps in controlling it. In addition, storytelling helps him to express his attitudes and characteristics, the thing that makes him more able to both, understand and define himself, to himself and to others.

Nevertheless, whether Dennett was concerned with proving the truthfulness or the falseness of our narratives, his main objective was to pinpoint the advantages of the narrative mode of thinking that we fall into, in helping us predict our behavior and control it in order to make our life easier. His depiction of the self in light of his narrative theory does not mean to give credit or priority to one narrative, even his own, regarding the conception of the self over another narrative. Dennett attempts to explain how the narrative technique develops and works in the human mind by observing its effect on the human behavior and without deciding about validity of one’s narrations. Knowing that the creation of our self-narration corresponds to the creation of characters in a novel can help us view our life in an objective approach, which can contribute to widening the perspectives of our life. Furthermore, focusing on the narrative aspect of the self, we will be able to reshape our selves by changing the context of our narration and /or by recreating a new narration for our lives.

To read the complete essay, find it on my academic blog.


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