Journalist Kathryn Schulz has written a long piece on selfhood that is a lucid lay overview of the philosophical problem of the “self.” The story is framed as a meta-critique of the most popular self-help books, and Schulz points out that the entire enterprise of self-help is based on the tenuous, probably-false idea that there’s a mental-rational “You” that stands out from your bodily-craving “you,” a spirit that tries to give commands to a flesh. The everyday self-improver can’t understand why the “part of us” that knows the right thing to do has such a hard time getting the “rest of us” in line, and often chalks it up to a failure of will, a lack of mental effort.

Schulz takes a quick tour of philosophy (Augustine, James, Hume) to show how dubious this idea of the “self” really is. Neither philosophy nor science have explained how it is that we come to think of ourselves as an “I” and others people as “you” and “her” and “them.” Hume, for example, concluded that we are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.” Schulz proposes that, though many of us obviously need help, we could probably do with less “self.” Using her own attempts to get over her depression as an example, Schulz suggests that “heterogeneity and promiscuity” is the best approach: “Try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks.”

I think Schulz has understood a crucial insight that is still a minority one in Western thinking, and the lack of which contributes enormously to people’s frustration and confusion about what they are and how to live. People of earlier ages didn’t have “selves,” didn’t see themselves as “thinking things” inside their heads who had to get out of their own mind to interact with the world. There are many historical, intellectual and economic reasons why this shift happened, but in my branch of philosophy it’s typically pegged to a single supervillain: René Descartes. The revolution of Descartes’ thought was that the basis of human existence is thinking: I think, therefore I am. The fact that we know ourselves to be thinking inside our own minds makes it impossible to doubt that we exist. From this came the entire philosophical enterprise of proving that the external world also exists. We can’t doubt that we’re there, at least as a mind, but how do we prove everything we perceive isn’t an illusion?

Fast-forward 500 years, and nearly everyone in the Western world thinks of themselves as minds “inside” heads. A person is their mind, or the thinking part of themselves. This underlies the self-help industry and “positive thinking”; to take over thinking is to control the whole animal. But as Schulz points out, if this were possible, then there wouldn’t be a self-help industry. It turns out, it’s not so easy to separate your “I” who wants to be thin and disciplined from whatever the rest of your “self” is; strictly speaking, it’s not even really possible to know what your “I” is. How can your “I” want such radically contradictory things at different moments? How can it be such a different person, say, in your grandma’s nursing home and at a club at 3 a.m.? The simplest answer to the slipperiness and undecidability of your “self” is that you don’t have one, or at least don’t have the kind most of us are used to thinking we do.

Schulz doesn’t mention Heidegger in all this, but he’s very much relevant to the issue; in fact, one of the biggest questions of his philosophy is: Who are we? Not in a biological or cellular or neurological sense, but what does it mean to be a person? What is it like? Not surprisingly, his answer is very different from Descartes minds stuck inside heads doubting whether the world is real (Heidegger calls the so-called “problem of the external world” the “scandal of philosophy.”)

Humans, Heidegger says, are not primarily characterized by thinking; we’re already in the world, we already understand at a basic level what we are and what we can do, and we just do it. We don’t interact with the world primarily as a theoretical matter of geometrical space or measured time, but rather it “lights up” for us when it becomes involved in our purposes: places are closer or farther away, and periods of time seem longer and shorter, based on a massively complex understanding we have of our “world” and where we are going in the future. The most we can say that we “are” is something like a “site,” a place where all of this comes together in time. Most importantly, almost all of the things we understand about ourselves, everything that “matters” to us, comes toward us from outside, not inside.

Heidegger’s is a philosophical account of human experience that leaves much to other sciences; neurology, for example, may explain certain amounts of our everyday behavior or problems we encounter like depression. Biology explains sicknesses and diseases and how to fix them. But it has a key relevance to what we are as “selves” or “minds,” basically that we go astray looking for ourselves inside, or “deep down.” What’s there is dramatically contingent on what acts upon it from outside: the other people, the society, the language, the natural world, and most of all the passage of time. The idea we have ourselves as an “I” is mostly a rough, utilitarian way of simplifying matters that leaves out our complex relations with (and constitution by) other people and the world.

Whether or not you or I agree exactly with Heidegger, I think the kind of thinking about the self Schulz sketches is much more in line with reality than any sort of rational-hypothetical-scientific approach. We can “help” ourselves, but we probably won’t know how or realize we’re doing it intentionally; it will have been entirely an accident, as irreducible to specific intentional methods after as it was before. That’s why Schulz’s advice is so good: try everything you can, sample profligately, be “promiscuous.” Beyond a broad outline, what you “are” is a black hole (sad version) or a beautiful mystery (happy version), one that changes in every moment. All you can do is try.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.