On the Self

This piece was originally written for a philosophy class at the University of Toronto, and therefore was entered into an essay database committed to stopping plagiarism. Therefore, if you’re going to use or copy any of it, do make sure to contact me for the full APA/MLA citation. Thanks!



Being alive is inexplicable, I thought. Consciousness itself is inexplicable.”

Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved


If I returned to Canada having switched bodies with Kate Winslet, would my parents still recognize me as their daughter? Would they be able to see me in the same light as they did in my previous body? If we both were put in front of my parents, which would they choose to be me? The body they are used to, or the mind which holds the memories and thoughts we built together over a lifetime?

The answer to these questions lies in answering the following: which makes up the Self – the body, or the mind? David Hume suggests that the Self is made up of a set of experiences: a chain of memories and actions that culminate at the exact present moment of the consideration of the Self – that is to say, the moment one asks, ‘How would you describe yourself?’ the answer of that moment will define the Self.  Jonathan Glover speaks also of the physical self, which plays an intricate role in what ‘I’ can do, and how others see and treat ‘me’. An example, as introduced above, would be myself in the body of Kate Winslet – ‘I’ would still have my mind, and would still remember the time I fell off my bike when I learned to ride it, but I would be four inches taller, thinner, and look less Mediterranean. If this oddity occurred, and I was suddenly more conventionally beautiful, would I cease to be ‘me’? My automatic response would be yes, for I would suggest that the future ‘me’ will not progress in the same way that the past ‘me’ would have, given my different appearance. I will, therefore, conclude that it is not our memories that make the Self a reality. It is how others remember us, see us, and interpret us that will make the Self a complete entity. This includes how one sees one’s own Self. After switching bodies with Ms. Winslet, for example, I would no longer be considered short, and so would not experience any biases or inconveniences in relation to my height. As well, my physical ‘I’ would be more conventionally attractive and therefore would experience a more positive attitude during first impressions than ‘I’ would normally. This would influence the Self and its evolution into the Self of the next moment, and the next, and the next, creating a different Self than would have ever existed if I had stayed in my current body.

The Self, I would suggest, is a very fluid notion. It changes from moment to moment, growing and evolving into something new. It is most active when acknowledged, both outright and obscurely. That is to say, when unconsciously using the word ‘I’, such as, “I dislike Castle food,” one is stating something about their Self, thereby giving others a definition, if incomplete, about their own self. When consciously describing one’s Self, such as upon meeting a new person or writing an opinion paper, the one is forced to evaluate the Self, and the ideas that define this Self. What the ‘I’ in one’s Self thinks of abortion or religion or any other topic helps to create an image of the whole Self, thereby creating a persona which others may react to, and which the one – the conscious self – may choose to embrace or reject.

Because the Self is an ever changing thing, it therefore relies upon the reaction and acceptance of the Self which it is supporting. If one is morally opposed to the Self which it sees to be forming within itself, one may try to change the direction in which the Self is headed. If it is not opposed, the Self will continue to grow in whichever way it deems fit.

The Self in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, speaks to the importance of both the physical self and the mental self. Dorian’s physical appearance is so beautiful, almost heavenly, that he is perceived by those around him to be young, innocent, and virtuouswhile, in truth, he is sinful, old, and cruel. His Self, as defined by those around him and defined by he himself, are two completely different entities; both part of him, but neither a complete picture.

To draw together a full portrait of the Self from the above, the Self is a collection of aspects pertaining to a personality and figure existing in the past, present, and future. The Self cannot be explained with only one aspect of what makes a person: a person’s physical body holds tactile memories of the Self, such as mechanical skills and capabilities, and influences the Self’s representation to others; a person’s intellectual Self keeps one’s personality traits, memories, and thoughts. One without the other is an incomplete entity: they are both reliant on one another to exist, and their existence allows for the creation of the one complete Self.

The Self is he who thinks, ‘I want pie,’ and she who knows how to ride a bicycle; the man who knows how to knit, and the woman who is fixing an engine. The Self is she who remembers a moonlit embrace a dozen years ago, and he who may one day become a wonderful father. All these things – past, present, and future; skill, fault, and experience; body, height, and colouring – they all come together to make the Self.

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