Wielding the Wittgensteinian Broom Against the “True” Self

June 13, 2011 at 08:45 (Bioethics, Neuroethics, Philosophy)

Every now and again, a topic falls neatly into your lap. Not only is it well past time to flex my blogging muscles again, but I have been encountering the same set of knotty questions repeatedly; first at several presentations during the Brain Matters 2 conference in Montreal, then in the pages of the New York Times courtesy of the influential and reliably innovative Josh Knobe, and even in a rather popular blog post on Neuroethics at the Core, penned (without collaboration from yours truly, lest you suspect me of double-dipping!) by my advisor and PI. And, of course, I performed something of a touch-and-go on the same matter myself in my previous post here on autonomy and free will. So, then, today’s fare is the self – what, if anything, makes it “true,” and when or whether may we consider it “the same” as it was before? 

My ruminations on this subject actually stretch back to my undergrad days (spoken as though they didn’t end a mere two years ago …), when I took a literature class with Leo Damrosch called “The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self.” To oversimplify grossly, the course identified two competing strains of thought about the self that emerged during the time. One, characterized chiefly by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy, stresses that every person has a deep-down, largely fixed, essential individual nature, that it is possible to either act in or out of accordance with this nature, and that the proper way to live involves accepting and acting in accordance with, rather than attempting to reshape, this deep self. In the NYT piece, Knobe cites the quintessential Shakespearean expression of this sentiment, from Hamlet – “to thine own self be true.” (That Shakespeare chose to put these words in the mouth of Polonius – blowhard, buffoon, recipient of the audience’s pity at best, contempt at worst – leads me to suspect that the Bard and Rousseau aren’t exactly in lockstep here.) The other, expressed first by Denis Diderot but most clearly formulated in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, is more or less defined by its implicit repudiation of the Rousseauean view: as Prof. Damrosch liked to put it, Franklin “viewed himself as a behaviorist experiment” – infinitely malleable and adaptable, and hence impossible to act ‘out of accordance’ with. One can scarcely worry about disharmony with one’s deeper nature when one conceives of it as nothing more than the sum of one’s perpetually evolving dispositions; “wherever you go, there you are.”

Since the Enlightenment, it would be safe to say, both schools of thought have existed alongside one another in Western culture, but the Franklin view has always been somewhat less represented, or at least less explicitly endorsed, than the Rousseauean one. Perhaps this is owing to the former’s counterintuitive nature: if I may indulge in a data-free claim about what ‘we’ all think (Knobe forgive me!), it certainly seems that we all have Rousseauean intuitions at least insofar as we all have had the experience of feeling inauthentic – think back to the last time you chuckled at an awkward, unfunny joke, out of courtesy. Empirically unguarded though my suggestion here may be, perhaps I am not venturing too far out on a limb: look back again at the NYT article, and you will note that the debate is introduced as concerning what constitutes the authentic self rather than whether the notion makes sense in the first place. Knobe’s interlocutors in the sixth and seventh paragraphs, philosophers and laypeople alike, are all assuming that there is a correct response to the dichotomy faced by Pierpont. To tip my hand entirely too early, I will posit that this assumption is itself a mistake; indeed, Knobe could reasonably drive much farther in critiquing the line of thinking behind the assumption. The Core blog post does this to an extent, but even there, I sensed a partial missed opportunity to double down on dissolving this philosophical perplexity. To begin tracing how I arrived at this conclusion, we can return to the Brain Matters 2 proceedings.

At the conference, back-to-back presentations  addressed the topic of personal identity and selfhood through a most provocative lens: the technology known as deep brain stimulation. For our purposes, you can conceive of DBS as an intervention that sets up a “remote control” for whatever specific part of the brain it is surgically targeted at; in the case of Parkinson’s disease, an electrode is implanted into the region most affected, and by activating the electrode via a switch implanted under one’s skin, one can essentially ‘turn off’ the symptoms. This was precisely the situation of the individual about whom Françoise Baylis spoke in her talk; the subsequent presentation by Jens Clausen adopted a more theoretical angle but treated similar ground. Baylis drew upon the content of her interview with this Parkinson’s patient to lay out her theory of personal identity, while Clausen engaged in conceptual analysis of the relevant ideas to make a case against the ethical salience of ‘no longer being the same person’ as a result of DBS. In both presentations, that notion – viz. that profound changes in the brain brought about by DBS (and, for that matter, by the conditions that necessitate such a treatment) can leave a person feeling as though they are no longer the same individual, leading to a kind of self-alienation – loomed large.

The ethical concern, at least prima facie, is that a shift in personal identity could amount to a grievous unforeseen side-effect of DBS – a technological recapitulation of that Biblical concern, “what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Indeed, Prof. Baylis’ presentation quite vividly communicated the DBS recipient’s profound dismay at effectively having been redefined as a person twice over – first upon developing Parkinson’s and a second time upon receiving the ability to temporarily relieve some of the worst motor-control symptoms in exchange for his ability to speak (unfortunately, activating the electrode interferes with some cognitive functions even as it restores others). In both Baylis’ and Clausen’s presentations, the emphasis fell heavily upon determining what genuinely counts as a change in personal identity, with the ethical deliberation thereby aimed at evaluating the riskworthiness of DBS when it really does alter the self. Presumably – though neither presenter interrogated this possibility much – this leaves room for cases in which the DBS recipient feels like a different person, but isn’t really so.

Hopefully, the relationship between the conundrum discussed in these past few paragraphs and the dichotomy of values and desires in the Knobe essay does not prove too obscure: deciding whether your first-order or second-order desires are more expressive of your true self, and determining whether you are the same person before and after a change in your brain occurs, both crucially depend upon a clear conception of what makes you you. In order to make those determinations, it would seem, one must be able to answer questions like “what parts of my psychology are truly constitutive of me, such that I am correct to identify with them?” or “what parts of my psychology are truly constitutive of me, such that if they are altered, so too am I altered?”

A distinctive perspective on these puzzles is advanced in the Neuroethics at the Core blog post: the self simply equals the sum total of the nervous system and its activity, so no part of it is any ‘truer’ than any other part, and to change anything, no matter how small, is in some way to modify one’s identity. On this neuroscientifically informed view, there is no question that DBS will bring about a shift in selfhood; it would be impossible for it not to, since it alters the brain, and you are your brain. In the case of Pierpont’s dilemma, the neuroessentialist response is that there is no single element or set of elements to one’s psychology that exclusively constitute the “true” self – rather, both one’s basic urges and one’s reflectively-considered values are equally part of oneself (since each has neural correlates), and hence it is impossible to ‘fail to be oneself’ in choosing one over the other, since in choosing either, the choice begins to be enacted by the brain, and thus the self comes to include the chosen desires and exclude the repudiated ones as the frequency and strength of each’s instantiation in the brain shifts.

One consequence of this selfhood-as-brainhood thesis is that it basically serves as an error theory for feelings of not-being-oneself.  The Parkinson’s patient experiencing the distress of self-alienation and the individual whose denial of his first-order desires in service of the second-order ones (or vice versa) afflicts him with the ache of an inauthentic existence – both of these individuals are simply mistaken to feel not-like-their-real-selves, since after all, your true self simply cashes out to whatever your brain is up to. It may be the case that assuaging such dismaying feelings is a psychological impossibility, but that is not what is at issue here; even if the phenomenology of self-alienation or inauthenticity is automatic and insurmountable, it is nonetheless, the neuroessentialist would claim, premised upon a mistaken implicit theory of personal identity. If our perceptions of being-the-same-person and being-true-to-oneself were properly keyed in to what really constitutes the self, then those perceptions would be “always-on” and completely unshakable.

There are features of the above conception that I very much admire. Notably, it firmly endorses the Ben Franklin notion of the self, or at least rejects the Rousseauean one. Better still, its point of departure is steadfastly naturalistic, highlighting the centrality of our understanding of the brain in navigating the mysteries of philosophy and psychology. Nonetheless, I prefer a somewhat different theory, one which, I believe, retains the virtues of the neuroessentialist view, especially its compatibility with neuroscience, while making some alternative philosophical moves. It also avoids several of the peculiar outcomes that arise from the neuroessentialist position. In particular, a worrisome implication of the stance articulated in the previous paragraphs relates to persistence of identity over time: it would seem that nobody can ever be the same person from one moment to the next. In identifying the self with the brain, the continuity of personal identity is completely abolished, since the brain is always changing. Unless the neuroessentialist theory doubles back on itself and specifies which parts of the brain have to remain the same in order for someone to continue on as the same person from time x to time y – at which point, of course, we find ourselves back at square #1 in the entire discussion – we are left with a theory of personal identity under which, among other things, a criminal at the time of his arrest can protest that “you’ve got the wrong guy!” and always be correct; the person who committed the crime had only a fleeting existence before he became someone different altogether, coincident with some change in his brain brought about by the consolidation of a new memory or somesuch.

Instead of holding on to the claim that “there is a thing that really is the self, and that thing is the brain,” I would contend that “there is nothing that really is the self over and beyond feeling like oneself.” I think of this as a Wittgensteinian approach because of the way it treats the Pierpont scenario in the NYT piece. Faced with a question like “which constitutes my true self: my instinctive urges or my deliberative values?” this stance asserts that there is no correct answer to the question, because the question itself is nonsense. We may as well have been asked, “which is a prime number divisible by 6: the color blue, or the letter Z?” Not only are we tasked with figuring out the nature of an entity that cannot exist, the specified candidates for what might possibly constitute the entity do not even properly apply to the concept. On the view I am proposing, there is no point or sense in wondering, “well, sure, I feel like a different person, but might I be mistaken? am I really the same person?” There is simply nothing there to ponder. One can feel inauthentic or authentic, different or the same, and nothing more need be added there; no wondering whether there is a deeper fact of the matter.

Hence, the risk of DBS is not that patients will actually become different persons, but merely that they may feel as though they are different persons (which is no small matter, and one of ethical concern!) – and pragmatically, this is a damn sight better than feeling compelled to inform a patient that her feeling of self-alienation is, properly speaking, an illusion, because (necessarily) she cannot be anyone other than herself – because she is her brain. In the Pierpont scenario, each of the conflicted protagonist’s options holds the possibility of him feeling true to himself, and thus neither one can be mistaken in any deeper sense. There is no problem of personal identity: the problem is dissolved once we clarify ourselves on what its terms could possibly mean. The endless quest for a ‘right’ answer is swept away once we perceive that there is nothing to be right or wrong about.

This is the view I favor, but no sooner did I arrive at it (while listening to the talks at Brain Matters) than I found it problematized as well. Do I feel that the problem I encountered for it will prove insurmountable? I am inclined to say that it will not, but so far I cannot conjure up a satisfactory workaround. The issue is as follows: if we cry off there being a “fact of the matter” about personal identity over time, how do we adjudicate cases in which two people disagree about whether an individual even seems like him- or herself? To frame it more concretely, suppose that an individual suffers extensive brain trauma, altering nearly every one of his personality traits, memories, and other psychological characteristics. Everyone who knew this poor soul before and after the trauma agrees that he is unrecognizable, in terms of personality. Nonetheless, from the perspective of the trauma-sufferer’s inner experience, he feels like the same person as before. Must we simply learn to live with the counterintuitive conclusion that the victim is still himself to himself but nonetheless a different person to everyone else?

How might this complicate end-of-life scenarios, in which cessation of life-sustaining treatment may hinge upon the question of whom the patient’s caregivers feel is being kept alive – the same person they have known and loved their whole lives, or, for all intents and purposes, a stranger inhabiting that loved one’s body? After all, our special relationships matter to us, in such a way that, I think, many of us may find it easier to allow an essential stranger to succumb to a terminal illness than than we would find it to allow the same for a loved one. But can the difference between the former and the latter really boil down to no more than subjective perception? Does the ease of concluding that someone is no longer the same person not create a moral hazard, way to dull the remorse from abandoning relationships of trust and care? What if two family members disagree as to the being-the-same-person status of a loved one on whose behalf they must make an end-of-life decision – sure, they can “both be right” about their conflicting perceptions, but inasmuch as the outcome of the medical decision is dictated by the perception each has, they cannot leave it at that; they must decide whose perception should take priority and drive the decision.

In general, the trouble is that sometimes, we find ourselves needing an answer to the question of who a person “really” is, and dispensing with the possibility of such an answer leaves us rather in a lurch. Still, for my money, better this lurch (if only slightly so) than the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it personal identity offered by the neuroessentialist view, and better either of those than committing to a theory that ignores the role of the brain in making us who we (feel like we) are.



  1. Jackson Kernion said,

    I recently had a conversation with my dad about Knobe’s article and I came to endorse a similar position. In general, I prefer Franklin’s take on the self to Rousseau’s and I like a Wittgensteinian approach; the ‘true self’ question isn’t grabbing ahold of any real distinction that can be made. But I do worry about one point you brought up:

    It does seem that you can identify stages of personal growth and these stages are marked by particular kinds of first-person experiences. I know that my ‘identity’ (or behavioral disposition… whatever) is not fixed, but it seems like I can have an ACCURATE feeling of no longer being the person I once was. All that is picked out by such feeling is a change in the functional organization of certain parts of my brain. (For a change in the functional architecture of my respiratory regulation wouldn’t change my identity).

    My beef with the question from the Knobe article has more to do with the application of ‘identity’ and less with how we actually conceive of it . For you shouldn’t ask, “Who am I, really?”, to help you make a life decision. You just make the decision and the decision itself constitutes who you are. You risk getting caught in a meta-question when asking the identity question. For you don’t know what you *should* want about until you pinpoint what you actually want.

  2. Bill K said,

    As always, it was a pleasure reading this rigorous and incisive article of yours, Roland. I hope we can expect to see more blogging from you in the immediate future. I hope you won’t mind if I offer a couple thoughts on the argument put forward here. I apologize ahead of time for silly oversights—as you know, ethics is not my forte.

    After some marvelous exposition and discussion, you put forward your view on these matters. We are faced with the question “What constitutes the true self?”, and are offered two possible answers: instinctive urges and deliberate values. You then make an interesting move: not only should we dismiss the question, but the answers on offer simply don’t cohere with the concepts in the question. In effect, I take it that you think proponents of one or the other view would be committing a category error of sorts.

    I shall make two remarks on how I understand your argument, and please correct me if I have misunderstood. First, given the context, I understand why instinctive urges and deliberate values emerge as viable candidates for “self-makers,” if you will. Of course this is basically the distinction Parfit makes between desires and preferences, a distinction that gets so much play in “Reasons and Persons.” But I also take it that you would not be opposed to extending this list, if only on historical grounds. There are many different views one might have about the facts about me which conspire to fix the properties of my self, with all the other facts about me being “sound and fury” as it were. Early modern philosophy is rife with examples: Cartesian souls, Lockean relations to past time-slices of yourself, and more. For what it’s worth, it seems reasonable that one might say “no no, neither desires nor preferences make me who I am. What fixes my “identity” at any given time is the sum total of my present relations to my past memories, so that if a memory of some heroic deed of mine looms especially large in my mind, I am properly characterized as being a courageous person.” And of course, what’s the trouble to your view if the list gets extended? No reason to deny particular answers to a question that have no answers, right?

    And this takes me to my next point: you deny that the question “What constitutes the true self?” makes any sense, but I think I sense trouble with how you’ve framed things. I take your claim to be a strong claim. That is, one might be an error theorist about the term “self,” and admit that while “self” expresses a coherent, cogent property, its extension is uniformly empty as a matter of actual fact. I suppose it’s conceivable to be an error theorist about the term “Cartesian soul”: it’s clear what property the term is intended to denote, but (as most will agree) its extension is uniformly empty in the actual world. An upshot of this claim is that there may be possible worlds (probably not nomological) in which “Cartesian soul” has a nonempty extension. I take your view, on the other hand, to be non-factualist: the term “self” does not even express a coherent property, and so the question “What constitutes the self” is, in fact, not even truth-conditional. That you have this view comes from the following observations: first, you say that the question is nonsense, which in my book generally means “not truth-conditional.” You don’t merely say that the answer to the question is “nothing” because there is nothing in the world that satisfies the term “self” in accordance with its meaning. Second, you use an example that, quite nicely I might add, demonstrates a property that, prima facie, almost everyone can be a non-factualist about: the predicate “is a prime number divisible by six.” To suppose that there is a possible world in which that predicate expresses a property stresses even our most liberal modal intuitions, and imputes too much coherence to the predicate. Third, you say that the entity cannot exist, and I read “cannot” to have modal weight here.

    Assuming this interpretation is correct, I shall proceed. Having suggested that the term “true self” is non-factual and non-truth-conditional, you go on to argue (a) responses such as “desires” or “values” to the question “what constitutes the self” commit a category error, and (b) there is no such thing as the self beyond feeling like oneself. I’d like to suggest that both of these moves are at odds with your claim that the question itself is non-factual or non-sensical. To begin with, you argue that the “specified candidates for what might possibly constitute the entity do not even properly apply to the concept.” My first hunch is to say that, if we can do even this much conceptual analysis on a predicate, surely we cannot be non-factualists about it. Your prime number example, however, shows that this is mistaken, for while the predicate “is a prime number divisible by six” is genuinely non-factual, we can still tell that we’ve committed a category mistake by suggesting that its extension includes either blue or the letter Z. Even so, there seems to me a serious gap between this claim, which is true as it goes, and concluding that even while “self” is non-factual, we know the domains of facts in the world which are and are not relevant for adjudicating disputes about self-hood. Doesn’t that just sound weird? Adjudicating disputes about selfhood even though the concept doesn’t make any sense?

    A plausible story can be told about “is a prime number divisible by six,” though. It’s a predicate with structure: it says of x that it’s a number, is prime, is divisible by six, and so on. Supposing that a person held as true the claim “No numbers are colors” and understood how the sentential operator AND works, they could claim that the predicate could not possibly have in its extension colors or letters, without understanding anything about primality, divisibility, etc. Of course, they then go on to realize that the predicate itself posits both P and ~P of something, and only then discovers that the predicate is non-factual. Perhaps there are more sophisticated stories about non-factualism to be told, but this seems good enough for me. This story, in particular, shows why we can disregard the predicate “is a prime number divisible by six” and still cry category error on respondents to a non-sensical question—its constituents make sense and delineate a domain of facts for appeal, but its (analytic?) entailments are contradictory.

    Can the same story be told about “self”? I doubt it. For while the concept of “prime number divisible by six” is clear and obviously non-factual, the concept “self” is murky and only putatively non-factual. For a category error to occur, the semantics have to be pretty well-worked out: for “University” (ala Ryle) the semantics are pretty clear; for “mind” they are not, hence why behaviorism was disregarded (it was a ballsy semantic thesis that “mind” simply means “behavioral dispositions” and this, it turned out, was untenable). If you want to hold on to the claim that values and preferences are categorically at odds with “self,” I think a good deal must be said regarding what content you see as being attributed to the predicate “self.” Of course, it seems that (given the Wittgensteinian impulse) this was a question you wanted to dodge—that is, wanted to regard as a chimerical problem. But I am suggesting that your claims require you to answer the question all the same.

    And, in fact, you have answered the question: all there is to ascriptions of selfhood is the feeling that one is the same self, or a numerically distinct self, at any given time. But my contention is that this answer, though plausible and in fact attractive, has turned its back on many of the motivations you hold throughout your article. You can no longer suppose that the question is non-factual, for to the question “what constitutes the self?” you have responded “the feeling that one is oneself.” Clearly if an answer can be given, the question is truth-conditional, and hence the predicate expresses a genuine property, which stands as a counterexample to the preceding suggestion that “self” cannot express a property. And what of your claim that values and preferences are categorically opposed to the notion of self? Well, all there is to the self is a feeling of being oneself, and desires and preferences are simply not that sort of thing. But that means that this feeling must be a necessary and sufficient condition for ascriptions of selfhood, with which particular schemes of desires and values are merely accidental. This seems contrary to the Wittgensteinian impulse. The claim that one’s true self is whatever one feels is suddenly bearing quite a bit of the argumentative burden.

    As far as I can tell, however, there is no reason to think that the notion of “self” inheres totally in phenomenological facts regarding whether one feels like oneself, and so on. First, there is the boring reason: there is no argument given to why we should think that this is all there is to the self. I think I understand the original argumentative strategy: certainly people sometimes “feel like themselves” or not, and so that seems non-negotiable. Furthermore, a series of non-factualist/Wittgensteinian considerations was supposed to show that there is nothing else to say about the self. But as I have suggested above, those considerations are not decisive. And so the claim that selfhood is totally determined by feelings of selfhood stands in dire want of justification. Second, I am nonplussed by talk of “feeling like oneself.” I simply do not know what it means. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and feel really dull-witted, and this pisses me off, and I might be inclined to say “that’s not who I am.” I might point to days when I am really incisive and say “that’s who I am,” but the feeling that my self, at this moment, is or is not in accordance with “myself” is presumably derivative of my desires and preferences: I only feel shitty on those mornings because I would prefer to be clear-minded, charming Bill and not hungover asshole Bill.

    I understand your hesitation with the whole conceptual analysis project: the hope that we might have neat, logically ordered, necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of terms like “self.” And certainly giving a semantics for “self” that is faithful to the totality of dispositions we have regarding its use and assent is difficult—but that’s a problem with semantics in general, isn’t it? And so my worry with these considerations is born out of my general worry about Wittgensteinian approaches—it’s too soon to give up. (I know Jackson will probably rail against this).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t see an argument for why ascriptions of selfhood should be totally limited to feelings that people have regarding their own selfhood. Of course, one might give plausible stories: perhaps (ala Dan Pollen and MBB92) it turns out that “selfhood” is a psychological natural kind, required for phenomenal consciousness, and if a global workspace theory comes out true, we can explain the manifold liaisons the self makes with other cognitive processes. Given this kind of plausible explanation, I do not see any reason why the problem of selfhood, in particular, should be “dissolved.” Nor do I see any reason why an answer to the question must be as presumptuous and pragmatically unwieldy as neuroessentialism.

    Again, bear in mind the caveat that philosophy of selfhood and identity are not at all in my training, and so I might have committed the egregious error of trying to brandish philosophy of language.

    -Bill K

    • Roland Nadler said,

      Jackson and Bill – thanks very much for your comments, and my apologies for being so late to respond. You’ve both elevated the discussion to serious philosophy-paper level, and I must confess I didn’t believe the original post to be up to the task! It’s a mutual compliment that your comments changed my mind :)

      Jackson – I take you to be saying that we can be right or wrong about *feeling* like ourselves, even if that doesn’t at all track the supposed property of *really* being ourselves. I am intuitively sympathetic to this at first. The more I think about it, though, the stickier a wicket it becomes. It seems like it is converging upon some other timeless disputes in phenomenology; what exactly would it mean to be mistaken about no longer feeling like oneself, or about still feeling like the same person? You suggest changes in the brain, which I think has the best hope of cashing out as a good answer, and there’s probably a good philosophy-cum-cognitive-psychology project to be had in fleshing that out. It won’t be easy, though: for after all, even the purportedly mistaken feelings about changed or constant selfhood, themselves, must ultimately be pinpoint-able as changes or (at the very least) activity in the brain. So it cannot be as simple as simply saying “this impression has a neural basis, and that other one doesn’t, which makes the latter mistaken” – rather it will have to be about deciding which *kind* of neural basis really counts. And that may lead us back, if not to square 1 of the same puzzle, to square 1 of an equally knotty one. Looking for psychological natural kinds in the brain that correspond to philosophical concepts is, as Josh Greene’s work attempting to do this for utilitarianism / deontology has unfortunately taught us (much though I wish it were otherwise!), unbelievably difficult business.

      Bill – if you hadn’t suggested “prolix” as a descriptor for your comment I’d just have called it sharp! You’ve very ably exposed two troublesome equivocations I made in the OP. One of them, I think, though, is easier to deal with than the other. But first, let me reconstruct. Forgive me if I’ve misread you or left out any other crucial features you wanted to highlight besides the two ambiguities.

      Equivocation the First: The extension of the predicate ‘true self’ is [contingently vs. necessarily] empty.

      (Alternately: the question ‘what constitutes the true self’ is [truth-conditional vs. not truth-conditional].)

      Equivocation the Second: The extension of the predicate ‘true self’ is [a particular kind of first-person experience vs. empty].

      I think it is clear from the way I have framed them here (and let me know if you think the framing is weasel-y) that it makes the most sense for me to embrace the latter option in E2, since otherwise E1 would be nonsense. And indeed, I think this is what I ultimately meant to do and did a less-than-ideal job of communicating. At least in this world (we’ll get to that qualifier later), I mean to claim that there is no actual entity / phenomenon / whatever else that answers to the description ‘true self.’

      So, then, your reading of me in the paragraph beginning “And, in fact, you have answered the question” turns out to be a misreading – but I hasten to emphasize that this is my fault, not yours! I failed to strongly indicate that I was committing to the empty-extension claim full-stop. That’s because I still think there is something special and important about the feeling-like-oneself phenomenon. In particular, my hunch is that this is what people are often *actually* picking out when they speak of the ‘true self.’ (Am I correct? This looks like a job for experimental philosophy!) Of course, the folk’s using ‘true self’ to mean ‘feeling-like-oneself’ does not *necessarily* make them identical or co-referential. Though I admit that is a plausible possibility on its face, I think that on a closer look, one must inevitably conclude that ‘feeling-like-oneself’ really cannot measure up to the task of counting as ‘being-oneself’; the latter is just too demanding.

      And it is this demandingness, I think, that I am so unsure how to specify in an exact way, and so I ended up committing E1. This turns out to have been your better catch: I was (not entirely consciously, but still) splitting the difference between the extension of the predicate ‘true self’ being necessarily empty versus just contingently so, or on whether the question of the true self is truth-conditional. (One thing that I cannot smooth out in my mind is the relationship between a predicate’s extension being necessarily empty and sentences invoking the predicate not being truth-conditional. My metaphysics senses are either dulled from disuse or were never quite that sharp to begin with.) I actually am most tempted to split the difference again, more explicitly: I want to say that there are some possible worlds in which the extension is non-empty, but they are surely quite nomologically different from any like our own. It’s probably the case that you could have Cartesian souls serving as stable seats of the self, but that would be a pretty outlandish universe once you think through all of the implications. Still, though, I haven’t got any ideas (yet) as to how I might argue this point.

      You make an interesting point about the relationship between feeling-like-oneself and desires/preferences. I am disposed to agree that they are connected, most probably in that the former is derived from the latter – though, I would add, it is likely derived from other things as well. (Depending, that is, on how capacious your concept of desires/preferences is; do they include, say, the projects or relationships that feel as though they matter to us in a partially self-constitutive way?)

      As for it being too soon to give up, well, we can talk at length about that sometime ;D I don’t feel that the approach is always quite best characterized as giving up, and at any rate, I think the best approach is the most fruitful one, but what counts as most fruitful is itself up for debate …

      Anyhow, I’ll be interested to know what you think of the moves I made here, especially the ones that I’m more shaky on.

      Thanks again to both of you!

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