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15 May 2023

There is no such thing as the self

Our personalities are more like episodes than sagas.

By Lamorna Ash

All the runners stop outside my block. They arrive regularly, like planes on descent towards an airport. On stopping, the runners’ hands come to their waists. They remember what it is like to be still. They look up to the sky and ask the runner gods for the courage to go on. Then they turn on their polyurethane heels and head for home. I don’t know why this stretch of road has become the runners’ staging post, but I could watch them all day. They stop outside my block one person, and start again someone new – only slightly altered, but enough for me to see the frame flicker between the self they had been and the self they are now.

When my mum visited last weekend, after several months of minimal contact between us, I told her about the runners. I wanted to use them as a metaphor for a column I was writing about selves, I said. The runners would be a way of conceptualising how I imagine the self – my self, every self – as a discontinuous, intermittent process, forever short-circuiting and flashing back into existence. She looked at me oddly, a What is my daughter on about now? kind of stare. 

I went on: I mean that the more incomprehensible and unconscionable the world seems to become, the more we try to nail distinct identities onto, and make fixed objects out of, the people we love. And I think that this desire is a conservative impulse, a flattening impulse. “Ahah! Like how people always treat me like a small person,” she replied. (Technically, my mum is a small person: 5ft and half an inch. The same height, she informed my dad on their first date, as Kylie Minogue.) “But I don’t feel like a small person.”

This is my mother, a woman able to see through the murk of things. To express in succinct, grounded terms a concept I’d been trying to get my head round for weeks, the one expressed in the philosopher Galen Strawson’s book-length essay on revisionary metaphysics, Selves. Strawson’s starting point is that the self – which he defines as our inner mental presence, the experience of being “alone in one’s head” – has a separate reality to the human being considered as a whole that we also are. My mother’s self is distinct from the small body in which it’s housed; it’s a thing far more strange, saccadic and holographic than that.

Strawson argues that people experience self, their own inner mental world, in one of two ways. Either they imagine it to be diachronic (he terms this the endurantist position: a self that exists and endures across time) or they see it as episodic, transient (the impermanentist position: we have many short-lived selves, each of which lasts no longer than the present moment, which for Strawson is less than two seconds). Either you think the “I” who sat outside your block and watched the runners pass yesterday is the same “I” you are now, or you think that your current “I” is another “I” entirely, regardless of the fact you are still the same human being you were yesterday.

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[See also: Everything my brother taught me about life]

Not only does Strawson experience his own self as episodic, he argues this is the true way in which selves function. Our belief that the self is something persistent and continuous is an illusion; in perceiving the world around us to be a stable, seamless environment, we presume our inner life must be ordered similarly. In doing so, “one is led to overlook the recurrent flicks and micro-crashes of consciousness, the tiny absolute fugues, the thought-blinks like eye-blinks, the interstitial vacancies”, as Strawson phrases it. Each of these miniature rifts and splits and pulses of consciousness stands for the nullification of one self and the dawning of another.

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While reading Selves I experienced weird trippy periods of self-estrangement. I would watch my hand making notes and think: I am writing notes with this hand, which remains my hand, but the “I” writing this part of the note is no longer the “I” that wrote the start of this sentence. I worked through Selves in a state of exhilaration. It felt true to me. Or, at least, I wanted it to be true for me. The philosophical framework a person chooses to foreground in their own life tells you a lot about the kind of life that person desires. I want to be freed from my self moment after moment after moment. I want to be a different self from the one I was ten years ago, five years, last week, two seconds ago, to imagine a long wave of selves surging up and falling away again behind me.

This notion of an ever-reforming self is not a waiver for behaving inconsistently. It does not release us from accountability for things our past selves have done. “A strongly impermanentist person may have a rocklike sense of self, and be very consistent over time,” Strawson notes. What it might do is free up the way we perceive ourselves and those around us, making greater space for one another’s complexities and our capacity to change. It might make the future feel less absolutely set.

Every time my mum’s train pulls in, I have the same stern word with myself: this time, you will treat your mother well. You will be the best version of yourself. And then she appears, and I find myself sullen, half-mute, retrograding into adolescence. We sit opposite each other in a café with our sandwiches and fail to communicate, except on, what seems to me, a formal, superficial level, under which lies the terrible residue of our shared history, all the usual difficulties that disfigure and make fraught mother-daughter bonds.

After she left, I felt more deflated than usual. What good is it believing we are all continually new, fresh-flaming selves, if it doesn’t help us escape our previous patterns of behaviour? But then her text came in, as it always does, “That was lovely! When shall we do it again?” This is my mum, a woman who doesn’t need a long philosophical essay to teach her that we get to try at our relationships a million times over. That next time there’s a chance we might be better selves, less wedded to the habits of their past incarnations.

[See also: How dating a couple set me free]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List