The Self, Self-knowledge, and a Flattened Path to Self-improvement


This essay explores the connection between theories of the self and theories of self-knowledge, arguing (a) that empirical results strongly support a certain negative thesis about the self, a thesis about what the self isn’t, and (b) that a more promising account of the self makes available unorthodox – but likely apt – ways of characterizing self-knowledge. Regarding (a), I argue that the human self does not appear at a personal level the autonomous (or quasi-autonomous) status of which might provide a natural home for a self that can be investigated reliably from the first-person perspective, independent of the empirical sciences. Regarding (b), I contend that the most promising alternative view of the self is revisionary: the self is to be identified with the cognitive system as a whole, the relatively integrated collection of mechanisms that produces intelligent behavior (Rupert 2009, 2010, 2019). The cognitive system teems with reliable, though not necessarily perfect, indicators (cf. Dretske 1988) of its own properties or of the properties of its proper parts, many of which are available for detection by, or the control of, further processes, such as motor control. I argue that indicating states should be treated as potential vehicles of self-knowledge, regardless of whether they are truth-evaluable states, such as beliefs. The investigation of self and self-knowledge frames discussion of a final topic, of some gravity: the way in which self-knowledge might contribute to self-improvement. In this regard, I emphasize the efficacy of certain forms of alignment between, on the one hand, elements of the cognitive system corresponding to a more commonsense-based conception of the self and, on the other hand, processes associated with what is frequently referred to as ‘implicit’ cognitive processing (Evans and Frankish 2009).

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Robert D. Rupert
University of Colorado, Boulder


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