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Exploring the essence of self in the western context Essay

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I certify that this literature review is my own work and contains no material which has been accepted for the award of any degree or diploma in any institute, college or university. Moreover, to the best of my knowledge and belief, it contains no material previously published or written by another person, except where due reference is made in the text of the dissertation.


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The most fundamental of the questions man asks himself in his lifetime are, “what/who am I ?”and “what is my purpose?” The curiosity over this issue of ‘the self’ has spanned human thought for millennia rooting from societal notion that “life cannot be just bricks and cement”. Due to the inherent nature of these fundamental curiosities mankind has struggled from ancient times to uncover these mysteries. In the western-context, this brief essay will try to explore the dimensions of the “essence of self” ranging from medieval to the modern conception of self.

It will review the theories of self starting with Aristotelian science and Christian doctrines and their eventual marriage by St. Thomas Acquinas’ moral theory. In effect, it then explores critical viewpoints and traces the development of Scientific Rationalization. Progressively, it debates Rene Descartes’ rationalist views shaping his dualistic conception of the self. Furthermore, it poses the contrasting empiricist views of John Locke where he places self-consciousness and memory as the variables to comprehend self. In addition, it contests David Hume’s proclamation of the self as fiction (Robinson, H., 2012).

The theories of self and identity gradually developed over a historical timeline resulting in modern thought on the subject. In this regard, it is important to understand its development initiation from religious conception in the west. Curiosity on these issues can be traced back to accounts of Aristotle, where he is of the view that everything in nature has a purpose and everything can be rationalized based on its intent and the purpose it served (Greetham, B. 2006, p.213). This is referred to as the ‘teleological’ view, which contributed to the formation of medieval world view formed by Christian dogma and the Catholic church (Cavalier, G.,1989).

This Christian conception viewed the world as being God’s creation and expression of his will which was cosmologically meaningful and structured. The purpose of things under this theology is God given and is a part of the ‘grand plan’ (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). This categorises the medieval belief of self, where humans have a certain place and purpose and the self is understood in terms of the role it plays in the grand plan of things. The medieval Christian conception of self was greatly inspired by the work of 13th century theologian St. Thomas Acquinas. In his opus he bridged the gap between faith and reason by linking Christian dogma and Aristotelian thought (O’Callaghan, R., 2010). In essence, he lived in a crucial juncture of western culture when the Latin translation of Aristotelian corpus was made available which in effect reignited the debate on relating faith and reason. His theories borrowed from Aristotle and Christian dogma and ethics which were consistently reaffirmed by the church over the centuries (auquinas from stanford).

The aforementioned medieval religious conception of self forms the basis Acquinas’ ethical premise on how we ought to act (Greetham, B., 2006). Right and wrong actions based on their compliance with human nature and its place “God-given natural order”, categorized as natural or unnatural. Hence, the self bounded and confined to serving a purpose. However, this religious world-view came under intense criticism with the advent of scientific advancement and rationality in the 16th and 17th centuries. Scientific thinking developed under the likes of Descartes and Locke and was reasoned based on the accomplishments of Galileo and Newton(Zalta, E., 2011).

They disregarded the place of divine-will in their conception of self, basing it on mere experience, empirical evidence and mathematical formulations. This shift of conception is termed ‘demythologization’, where everything works without a purpose and results from mechanical interaction of particles regulated by universal laws which can be mathematically formulated (Greetham, B., 2006). Consequently, began the search of the self by looking within for purpose and meaning.

The modern view of self is articulated in the works of 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. He pioneered the dualistic understanding of the human being, which is made up of the “mental substance (mind) and the physical substance (body)” (Warburton, N., 1992). Here, the body has physical properties like having weight and using space, whereas the mind is a non-material substance, responsible for thought and experience and hence is the abode of consciousness. In his view, the self is a spiritual “subject of experience” which is fundamentally different from the body and nature, where the body inessential and the mind can exist independently.

His radical scepticism led to the formation of the “Illusion argument”, where the bodily senses are deemed unreliable and thus the existence of the external world and body is uncertain. The only thing one can be certain of is that ‘I exist’. This is categorized under his famous proclamation -“Cogito ergo sum”, meaning “I think, therefore I am” (Cavalier, G., 1989). In essence, “the self is essentially mental” and the search for purpose and meaning should be searched within ourselves instead of classifying it under totality of nature.

In his endeavours, Descartes used the “rationalist approach” to knowledge, which solely relies on logic and scepticism . In contrast, his contemporary, English philosopher John Locke relies on the “empiricist approach”, where knowledge is acquired by the means of watchfulness and experience. His theology of self underlines the role of reason, consciousness and self-consciousness. As for Locke, he sees self-consciousness as a inseparable element in the conduct of any conscious action, like thinking and observing.

The perception of the world by the senses, awareness of personal identity, actions performed and its retention (memory) over time is what constitutes self-consciousness (Robinson, H., 2012). Personal identity here is quintessentially the self, in which memory is decisive variable as the consciousness of past actions is critical to being the same person; and selfhood is reliant on the consciousness and not the body. For instance, if a person has memories from a past life as Salvador Dali, then he is the same person in the current life with a different body.

These arguments however appear ambiguous upon correlation with Descartes’ accounts. However, Locke’s accounts differ where cites that it is not necessary that thinking, observation etc. to be the products of a non-material substance and leaves a prospect open that they could be of material origin. The self, Locke argues, is resultant from “continuity of consciousness” and not a ‘substance’ as proposed by Descartes (Greetham, B., 2006). Then again, there is a fallacy in these arguments; if the self is continuity of consciousness and memory retention then without the memory of past actions accountability for the actions is cannot be held (Cavalier, g., 1989). For instance, it could be hypothesized in Locke’s view, that a person who committed murder as a child, who grew up to become a doctor and then as an old man he cannot remember his crime as a child, hence in effect, he cannot be held responsible for the murder.

Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume continued in the empirical approach, maintaining that authentic knowledge is solely acquired on the basis of direct experience (Robinson H., 2012). He borrows from Locke, however, he reaches drastic conception where he conceives the self as fiction. Thereafter, he entirely disregards the “substance view of the mind”. He bases his conception strictly on experience or ‘perception’ and maintains that the existential claim for the inner substance should be discoverable by experience (Greetham, B., 2006).

Through his experience, Hume, found no such substance but instead only a variety of perceptions where there is no identity or self binding them. Academics refer to this view as the “bundle theory of substance”, where different perceptions are in eternal flux (Robinson H., 2012). However, Hume fails to identify a unifying factor and puts forth a vague understanding of the mind just being a bundle of perceptions. Consequently, the Cartesian theory of self gained an upper hand as it offers the unifying substance of mind in the conception of the self (Greetham, B., 2006).

The aforementioned theories of self significantly influence the post-modern conception of the self, as the subject has a tendency to develop over time (Cahoone, L., 2003). These western theories have borrowed from Eastern conceptions of self, which indicates ancient interaction between the west and the east. (Cavalier, G., 1989). In the contemporary world, the twentieth century has been the fore-bringer of brisk industrialization in the western world, begetting fast-paced consumer societies, where the people have little or no time for personal fulfilment (Cahoone, L. 2003). This along with advent of cultural pluralism, scientific rationalization and secularization of notions of religion has led to burgeoning interest in the conception of self (Olsen and Timothy, 2006, p.139).

On a personal basis, the theories of self explored here provided a clearer picture on the gradual development of understanding of self with a historical context and an insight into how these theories have shaped post-modern notions on the same (Collinson, P. et al, 2000). Descartes’ accounts and his emphasis on the soul substance worked as a bride between my eastern thought origin and modern western conception on the subject. However, Locke’s and Hume’s empirical approach and their emphasis on discovering self through experience is also profound to my conception of self. Their conclusions however appeared radical and absurd especially in the case of Hume where proclaims the self as being fictional.


Cahoone, L. (2003). From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Carlton: Blackwell. Cavalier, G. &. (1989). Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Collinson, P. &. (2000). Fifty Eastern Tihnkers. London: Routledge. Greetham, B. (2006). Philosophy. Norwich: Palgrave Macmillan. Jamal, T. a. (2009). The Sage Handbook of Tourism Studies. London: Sage. O’Callaghan, R. et al. (2010, December 21).

Saint Thomas Aquinas. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://plato.stanford.edu/: <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/aquinas/> Olsen, D.H. and Timothy, D.J. (2006). Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys. Oxford: Routledge. Robinson, H. (2012, Demember 21). Dualism. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://plato.stanford.edu/: <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/dualism/> Warburton, N. (1992). Philosophy. Abingdon: Routledge.

Zalta, E. (2011, September 21). Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy. Retrieved May 1, 2011, from www.http://plato.stanford.edu/: <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/aquinas-moral-political/>

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