Some Philosophical, Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects of the Self

Two lines of thought will be presented which strongly suggest that Cartesian Dualism, the theory that mind and matter/body are two distinct things, cannot be true. These two lines of thought are Aristotle’s view of the soul and some findings from brain-imaging research in schizophrenia. After that it will be argued that, whatever the self is, important parts of it include our relationships with others, some degree of personal autonomy and what we care about.


1. Aristotle on the Soul

Aristotle’s view of the relationship between soul and body in his De Anima offers an alternative both to Cartesian Dualism and to materialism, an alternative which is still very relevant today to the on-going mind-body debate. 

Cartesian dualism (named after the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes) is the theory that mind and matter/body are two distinct things. Materialism is the view that there is a place for mental phenomena in a purely physical world. By the way, the word ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’ used by Aristotle is very roughly equivalent to ‘mind’, but there are important differences, for instance for Aristotle all living organisms, including plants, have a soul.

There are two main objections to materialism: neither consciousness nor subjective qualia i.e. the subjective qualities of conscious experience (e.g. what it is like to see something red) seems compatible with materialism.

Neither Cartesian dualism nor materialism seems true, but what is the alternative? My claim is that Aristotle offers a possible alternative in his view of the soul.

Aristotle draws a distinction between matter and form: he thinks that a particular substance is a composite of matter and form:

Matter (hule)

  Form (morphe)




  bronze sphere



  humans, animals, plants


Matter is what persists through change when a new thing comes into being; the matter of x is what x is made of.

The form is the essence or nature of a thing, i.e. “the efficient cause”, an Aristotelian term which means the internal source of change and staying the same. Form (essence, nature, efficient cause) adds an explanation. For instance, it is possible, but very unlikely that the bricks for a house could happen to be moved around in such a way that the resulting constellation turns out to be a house. Rather what usually happens is that it is the art of building deployed by the builder to move the bricks around in a very particular way which explains how a house is constructed (Frede, 1997).

In summary, Aristotle has two conceptions of the soul: he sees it as both a set of capacities and as the primary principle of life or being alive. The soul is the form, nature or essence of the body. The notion of form is strong enough to account for all that we would want a soul to account for, the life, and the things living objects do. There is no need to introduce, in addition to the form, a distinct soul, either to account for the life of an organism as a whole, or for a mental part of it (Frede, 1997).

Aristotle concludes:

And so those who think that the soul does not exist without a body or that it is not a body have a good understanding. For it is not a body but belongs to a body, and for this reason it is in a body and in a body of a certain kind (De Anima, 414a19-22, own translation)

For this reason it is also not necessary to ask whether the soul and the body are one thing, just as it is not necessary to ask whether the wax and its shape are one thing, and, in general, whether the matter of each thing and that of which it is the matter are one thing (De Anima, 412b2-7, own translation)


2. Schizophrenia research

Neuroscientists think of the relationship between mind and body in two contradictory ways. First, some see it in terms of Cartesian Dualism, but that raises the problem that functional neuro-imaging research suggests a strong connection between mental symptoms and brain changes, not compatible with Cartesian Dualism. Here some recent schizophrenia research findings will be discussed as an example. Secondly, other neuroscientists seem to take the view that everything is physical or material (materialism). The problem here then is

what has been called by Bennett and Hacker (2003) the ‘mereological fallacy’, i.e. it is a mistake to ascribe mental capabilities, processes and states, such as knowing, believing, deciding and so on, to the brain. Instead they should be ascribed to the person whose brain it is. Bennett and Hacker quote the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1968):


Only of a human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees, is blind; hears, is deaf; is conscious or unconscious (Man könne nur vom lebenden Menschen, und was ihm ähnlich ist, (sich ähnlich benimmt) sagen, es habe Empfindungen; es sähe; sei blind; höre; sei taub; sei bei Bewuβtsein, oder bewuβtlos).


Schizophrenia is a complex and often incapacitating mental disorder which has nothing to do with having a split personality, but typically has a number of what are called “positive and negative symptoms”. The positive symptoms (i.e. symptoms which are present) are delusions and hallucinations, and the negative symptoms are deficiencies in various kinds of mental processes and capabilities, such as lack of motivation, poor concentration and memory, poverty of thought, and so on.

Schizophrenia research has tried to explain individual symptoms rather than the disorder as a whole, because it is methodologically much easier to do so. Schizophrenia may turn out to be a syndrome with several possible causes, but different symptoms can occur in one person at different times.

The first area of research concerns the notion that auditory hallucinations (usually hearing voices, when not being able to see the person or persons speaking) are in fact a kind of inner speech. We all use inner speech, for instance when imagining what a particular person might say to us in a specific situation.

Gould found in 1948 that a woman who was hearing voices almost continuously was actually murmuring to herself at the same time. When he amplified her subvocal speech with a microphone he discovered that the content of what the voices were saying to her was the same as the content of what she was murmuring (Frith and Johnstone, 2003). 

The psychologists, Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, put forward the idea of an articulatory loop. If people want to memorize a phone number, for instance, they often whisper the number to themselves (“the mind’s inner voice”) and continue to hear the sound of the number for a short time (“the mind’s inner ear”). They then have to repeat this procedure several times before they can remember the number, and this sets up an articulatory loop (Frith and Johnstone, 2003). 

The psychiatrist, Philip McGuire, asked normal volunteers to imagine someone talking to them (inner speech), and found increased activity in the left frontal lobe, i.e. the area of the brain associated with speech production. In other words the same area was being activated in inner speech as in ‘outer’, i.e. normal or overt speech. Another psychiatrist, Sukhi Shergill, found the same result in schizophrenic patients with auditory hallucinations. The inner speech model also seems to apply to what the German psychiatrist, Kurt Schneider, called “passivity phenomena” (experiencing that your mind is being interfered with or your body controlled by an external force or person) (Frith and Johnstone, 2003). 

This raises the question of why schizophrenic patients attribute auditory hallucinations and passivity phenomena to an external source. A possible answer depends on the notion of corollary discharge, which was first developed by the 19th century physiologist and physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz.  In1866 he noticed that if you move one of your eyeballs by gently pressing on the eyelid, the image from that eye wobbles. However if you move your eyes normally, for instance by looking round a room, the image of the room remains stable. He thought that the brain suppresses the moving images by sending first of all a message to the eye muscles to move the eyes in a particular direction and by sending at the same time a second message, or corollary discharge, to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, the part of the brain which processes the visual input. The corollary discharge “predicts”, so to speak, how the eye movements will affect the image of the room, cancels this out and thus creates a stable image. In effect the corollary discharge labels the movement of the image as “self-generated”, i.e. not originating from the external environment. 

This mechanism applies to other senses as well. When we speak, the sound of our own voice is suppressed, and when we move our arms and legs, e.g. when walking, joint-position sense is also suppressed (Frith and Johnstone, 2003). 

If this self-monitoring system goes wrong, there can be two effects, according to the psychologist, Chris Frith (2003): actions are no longer labelled as self-generated so one cannot easily distinguish between self-generated actions and those occurring independently of the person concerned, and the corresponding brain activity in the brain region responding to sensory consequences of one’s actions is not suppressed. Thus if auditory hallucinations are in fact inner speech, then they may not be labelled as self-generated but treated as if they come from an external source.

Interestingly, this may also explain why many schizophrenic patients can tickle themselves. If you try to tickle yourself you will fail, because you can “anticipate” the effect that tickling movements of your hands will have on your skin and so suppress this by means of corollary discharge. If schizophrenic patients have a deficient corollary discharge mechanism they will not be able to do this (Frith and Johnstone, 2003). 

In summary, the findings reviewed here suggest that schizophrenic patients suffering from auditory hallucinations and passivity phenomena may have a defect of self-monitoring. And, importantly for the discussion of Cartesian Dualism, the findings also suggest that there is a close association between mental symptoms and brain activity in patients with schizophrenia which does not seem compatible with either Cartesian dualism or materialism. 


3. Some key constituents of the self

Although it remains unclear what the self actually is, there are three ingredients which seem of central importance for any plausible conception of the self. It should be noted that “self” here is now understood as an entity in which mind and body are not two distinct things, i.e. it is being assumed that Cartesian dualism is wrong.

First, we are partly constituted by our relationships with other people (and partly constituted by some individual factors). The German philosopher, Hegel, held a stronger form of this view, and thought that we are entirely constituted by our relationships with others, and this greatly influenced Karl Marx. There are two philosophers who have showed how this can come about. The British philosopher, Bernard Williams (2002), thought that we can only have beliefs, and possibly desires, in the first place, if we engaged in “trustful dialogue” with others in which we could “steady the mind”, that is form and express these beliefs. If we could not steady our minds all we would have would be fleeting and fragmentary proto-beliefs. The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor (1991), held the view that “significant others”, i.e. individuals close to us whom we trust, have a profound influence on our desires and beliefs, which in some cases, e.g. our parents, might continue all our lives. 

Secondly, we need to have some degree of autonomy, but much less than we usually suppose. I take autonomy to be “self-determination” or “being one’s own boss”, or, to put it in more philosophical terms, “acting on one’s own reasons”. To have a life of our own at all we have to be able to act on our own reasons to some degree, otherwise we would be like a slave who has no life of his or her own at all. However, our personal autonomy is also greatly limited by a number of factors, which include chance, manipulation, oppressive socialization, cognitive distortions or biases and inner necessity. 

For reasons of space, we will consider only the last two of these factors, cognitive distortions and inner necessity. First, cognitive distortions. Two of the leading researchers in this field are the American-Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman (2011) sums up a lifetime’s research with Tversky and others on cognitive distortions. He draws a distinction between system-1 and system-2 thinking, and illustrates this with an example. If we are asked to multiple 2 by 3, we come up with the correct answer, 6, almost immediately, without having to think about it. The process is fast, unconscious, and does not have to be ‘switched on’, and the answer just comes into our mind, without our having to work it out consciously, i.e. there is no sense of ownership. But if we are asked to multiply 39 by 17, say, we have to consciously switch on a calculating process and we are aware of having produced the answer ourselves, i.e. we have a sense of ownership.  Cognitive distortions are produced by system 1. Kahneman’s many examples of cognitive distortions include the optimism bias (we view ourselves and our own capabilities, and to a certain extent the world in general, in a more optimistic light than the known facts would justify) and the bias blind spot (the unfortunate fact that we hardly ever notice our own cognitive distortions).

Thirdly, what we care about, namely our (individually distinctive) projects and commitments (Smart and Williams, 1973, Williams, 1981), are a crucial part of the self, and of self-realization (Crichton, 2013). These typically include our friends and family, ourselves, certain institutions (e.g. the company, school or hospital, say, where we work), the city or town where we have chosen to live, perhaps the place where we grew up or our country, certain values (moral, aesthetic) and, importantly, our projects.

This notion of what we care about was developed by the American philosopher, Harry Frankfurt (1998a, 1998b, 1999, 2004).  He describes 3 elements, namely affective, rational and volitional, the volitional element being the most important of the three, and five stages of caring about what we care about:


discovery (we do not choose what we care about)




a sense of fulfillment (in some cases)


When it comes to realizing the self, which we do by discovering and acting on what we care about, there is an intriguing connection between self-realization and what Williams (2002) has called ‘inner necessity’ (Crichton, 2013). The example of Martin Luther can help us understand this important connection. When he was told by Pope Leo X in 1520 and by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521 to recant his ninety-five theses criticizing certain aspects of Catholic dogma and practice, including the selling of indulgences, he is said to have stated, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” On the one hand, he wanted to make this stand, but on the other hand he felt at the same to that he had to do it. He felt this inner necessity because, given the sort of person he had become at this stage in his life, the desire to make this stand had become an essential part of his own self. Sometimes there is a conflict between what we want to do and what we think we have to do, but when it comes to realizing ourselves by acting on what we care about, then wanting to do something and feeling we have to do it coincide. By taking this stand Luther took a crucial, perhaps the most important step in his own self-realization, and, at the same time brought about a historic change which has reverberated down the centuries since then.


Paul Crichton, London, 2 September, 2014


This article is based on a lecture given by Paul Crichton at a conference on ‘The Origins of the Self: India and Greece’, held in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London on 21 June, 2014.




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