It has become fashionable once again to doubt the existence of the self. Particularly, philosophy of mind and psychology – two disciplines positioned better than any other to speak authoritatively on the subject of selfhood and the mental – ironically, and disappointingly, do not lead in the evaluation of the subject matter of their own supposed expertise but with increasing haste and sycophancy, follow the ‘harder’ disciplines of neuroscience and biology in their eliminativist project to reduce the mind down to the level of the brain, and thought to computation. That philosophy has given up the ghost in this unfortunate turn of events is in no way the fault of the neuroscientists or the biologists whose work, it must be said, does not only remain on but is the cutting-edge of science in its respective sphere of human knowledge. The rigour of empiricism is a quality to be emulated, not dismissed. (By all means, we need more of it!) But rather, the fault lies with us philosophers who are failing miserably to uphold and understand the rich tradition of thought and wisdom we are everyday proving ourselves more and more spoilt to have inherited. For it is, in my opinion, a scandal to human reason that philosophy has not yet proven the existence of the internal world, and is losing its hard-won position to speak with credibility on the concepts of the self, freedom, and consciousness to the mumblings of mystics and magazine stands. Philosophy seems to have forgotten its function. No wonder then that a growing number of scientists and academics consider it dead-weight. For to what purpose do we stand on the shoulders of giants if we choose to shut our eyes? By explaining away the existence of the self instead of explaining it philosophers are arguing themselves out of a job. (And judging from the dwindling number of philosophical positions in the academy, this appears to be one task philosophers have well nigh mastered!) The irony in all of this is that the study of the self – what it is and the way it is – is the raison d’etre of philosophy as such. More than just another concept among many, the ‘self’ is the very locus and ground of conceptualization in general; and thus no other discipline is prepared (or in my view, qualified) to rule on the matter without first consulting what philosophy has to say about it. And so, is the best response we can muster up to that perennial Socratic imperative to ‘Know thyself’ only to whisper, under our breaths, that there is no self to know? “The Self is dead! And we have killed him, you and I. We are his murderers.” Such a trajectory traces a familiar path downwards. And we are still falling. In the name of Truth we accelerate into oblivion. Straight, no chaser. The snake slithers down our throat. And now we are beginning to learn that nihilism is also an impossible religion.
November 1, 2012
The Failure of Philosophy