4 replies on “The relational self, and the value of comparative philosophy”

  1. This is a good article, considering newspaper articles can not go into depth like an academic essay. The author seems well informed on both sides (east and west) and relatively familiar with the history of the issues involved. After having read Henry Rosemont’s Against Individualism, which takes Chinese Confucianism as it starting point and completely rejects the existence of an individual self on a theoretical and practical level, the author of this NYT articles takes a reasonable approach to this debate, not forcing Eastern and Western ideas of the self to be mutually exclusive.

  2. This workshop must have been wonderful. The article links to its presentations, or notes for them.


    I keep hoping that one day I’ll get an answer to this kind of query, which may simply reflect my vast ignorance:

    I wonder what Baggini and the other participants meant by ‘self’ here—not ‘-self’ or ‘self-’, which are in common use meaning roughly “the same one as,” rather like a pronoun deferring to an antecedent or postcedent (like the Greek autos or the Chinese 子 and 己) but rather ‘self’ or ‘selves’ or ‘the self’ as a freestanding noun in its own right, a name for a kind of thing?

    I never feel I quite understand the term, but I’m not much of a reader anymore. If it has ever been in wide use in mainstream Anglophone philosophy, that’s a recent development. I want to say that the word has meaning only if either (a) it has a role in ordinary conversation, or (b) it has a definite role in a successful discipline, or (c) it is explicitly defined. Pretty much. And I have the impression that (a) and (b) are false, and that (c) is rare and definitions are wildly diverse. (See for example the Wikipedia articles “Self” and “Philosophy of Self.”)

    If Baggini & Co were all using the word ‘self’ to refer to the same thing, then they were right to think they had found they had different conceptions of that kind of thing. But he writes rather as though he and the other participants at the conference assumed there was no room for serious doubt about the term itself – which I find very strange.

    What might they have meant by ‘self’?

    • The affixes ‘self-’ and ‘-self’ are not limited to persons; sometimes the point is even to contrast with persons, as in the recent NYTimes headlines: “U.S. Proposes spending $4 Billion on Self-Driving Cars” and “When TV Turns Itself Off.”

      Still, based on the standard use of ‘self-’ and ‘-self’, one might speculate that the presumptive natural meaning of an invented independent word ‘self’ as applied to persons is to refer to persons qua in relation specifically to themselves (even or especially in contrast with others). If we can make sense of that. Of course, one wouldn’t find the word used this way in old China, because it’s not a Chinese word.

  3. And Ben, what do you mean by the word? Or can you give me an example of the kind of sentence from which one might learn to use the word correctly?

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