Interactive Musings

Interactive Musings

Self and Existence

Posted on November 3, 2012 at 11:55 PM

Self and Existence



I've been having a merry time reading Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt, Liveright Publishing, New York, 2012.  As I've wandered, and engaged with, and surrendered to his guided tour through Western philosophy's approach to Being and Nothingness, I've wished that I had the sort of mind that could live up to, and keep up with his, and yet, I am grateful for the vastly entertaining Magical Mystery Tour he conducts. Toward the end of the book, the penultimate chapter, chapter 14, "The Self:  Do I Really Exist?", spoke to me.  What is "self" is a psychoanalytic question, of course, and has long been a philosophical question.  Part of the unfolding exploration of "what is self" in philosophical discourse is the familiar challenge, is there a continuity of self, or are there multiple selves comprising an "I"? 


We also come across that very same question in psychoanalytic thought --Jungian thought addresses this question in depth.  In Jungian thought, the Self is one of several archetypes -- and, if that is the case, then the archetypes contribute to making up our sense of self.  But the sense of self we have is not the archetypal Self, for the archetypal self is just part of a collection of selves.


Following Holt: we have the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" assertion of self.  After Descartes, we have Hume saying that the accumulation of perceptions is what we call the self.  We interpret our perceptions as meaning we are a self, when actually we are observing a series of perceptions, but that does not prove that there is a self.  Then Holt offers ideas from contemporary philosophers.  For instance, he says Galen Strawson thinks that "within each person's stream of consciousness, little transient selves constantly wink in and out of existence".  Strawson quote: "There simply isn't any 'I' or self that goes through (let alone beyond) the waking day".  Then Holt offers two requirements for the existence of self:  1) the self is the subject of consciousness.  2) the self is capable of self-consciousness.  And then he blows this apart by pointing out that something being both the subject and the object is what Schopenhauer called "a monstrous contradiction".  


And now for the creepy!  I'll mention one last philosopher Holt uses, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (yes, Fichte, the "father of German nationalism", the architect of "German idealism").  Fichte says that the "I" comes into existence by positing itself. "I = I", the logical law of identity.  And I = I becomes the sole necessary truth, and thus the ground for all other knowledge.  Thus all knowledge is self-knowledge.  Thus the transcendental subject creates the world!  What's creepy about this?  Not the idea itself -- what's creepy is that the "father of German nationalism" builds a philosophical concept straight out of the Torah!  I AM THAT I AM.  


Which brings us to the Kabbalistic concept that the Name of God contains all other names and attributes.  I AM THAT I AM.  All of creation is engendered by God, and contained by God.  In Lurianic Kabbalah, God fragments in order to create the world.  For creation to take place, God is both fragmented and whole, as is all creation.  According to the Torah, we are made in God's image.  If God can say, I am that I am, can we? Is each of us a self because each of us is a self, because we are?  Is our existence selfhood, because we were created out of fragmentation to become whole?  If each of us stands in relation, as Martin Buber tells us, in relation to ourselves, to others, to nature, to the world, to God, who is it who stands in relation to?  A self...???  Are we whole?


Do we surrender to existence, to existing?  And, to reverse Descartes' "I think therefore I am", because we are, because we exist, therefore we surrender, therefore we engage, therefore we relate?


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