New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

The Ego Trick

Kate Kirkpatrick

What Does It Mean to Be You?
Julian Baggini
Granta 304pp, ISBN: 9781847081926
theegotrick.jpg What does it mean, if you are reading this review, that you are reading it? Who (or what) are you? Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick aims to untie the complicated philosophical knots that surround such questions - questions that philosophers such as himself group under the umbrella of 'the problem of personal identity'.

To the naked eye, calling personal identity a 'problem' might seem to over-complicate things (as philosophers infamously do). After all, 'you' are reading this review - whoever or whatever you are - and that's enough, isn't it? It's no surprise that philosophers aren't content to let things like this be. But there are important reasons why non-philosophers (to make a simplistic distinction between those paid and unpaid to think about such questions in life) should want to explore the question further, too.

Baggini's excellent book is divided into three parts. The first sets out to explore the common view that individual human beings have an essential 'me-ness'. Most people, Baggini suggests, believe that there is some kind of core, 'an ever-present feeling or sense' that makes them who they are. But are we right to believe in such an essence?  If so, what is it? Your body? The chemicals in your brain? your memories? an immortal soul?

Drawing on a wide range of sources - from experiences of the transgendered to recent experiments in neuroscience - Baggini finds all of these possible essences of the self wanting. His discussion is extremely engaging and interweaves not just voices from the history of philosophy but vox pops too, to excellent effect. It is unfortunate, however, that in the final chapter of this part (on the soul) he takes Richard Swinburne's view to be representative of the Christian tradition (and therefore grounds for whole-hog dismissal). The view offered by Keith Ward's recent More than Matter, for example, might have made for an interesting - and different - dialogue.

Having established that 'virtually no psychologists and very few contemporary philosophers' believe there to be a core of self, Baggini moves on to part two. If we are not simply our bodies, neurology, memories, or souls, perhaps we are constructions of both mind and matter? This, for some, seems a shaky foundation for a 'core'. For 'construction' has connotations of being contingent and accidental - other things could have been constructed, for example, or indeed the self might be vulnerable to deconstruction. Can a constructed self be called our 'essence' at all? Again Baggini draws on many and varied traditions in illuminating his ideas. From the researcher-turned-call-girl Belle du Jour, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and fascinating cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder (better but anachronistically known as Multiple Personality Disorder) we learn that the self is not always a 'unified' thing. Many experience 'internal conflict', but this could just as well be expressed as a conflict between two possible selves - having one identity or several is arguably a matter of degree.
Could it be, then, that our social experiences that shape us? Again he draws on experiences of the transgendered in exploring whether or not our selves are constituted by our social interactions (a view which, when coupled with memory, underlies much modern counselling and psychoanalytic work). After rejecting this source of self he delivers the punchline: the ego is a trick. 'There is no thing or part of you that contains your essence.'

At this point, however, we are only half-way through the book. So fear not: there is more say on the matter. The ego trick, as Baggini puts it, 'is to create something which has a strong sense of unity and singleness from what is actually a messy, fragmented sequence of experiences and memories, in a brain which has no control centre'. Though there is no single thing that 'is' our self, we have to function as if there were. In this sense, 'selves' do exist. But it is an error to think of the self as a specific 'substance or thing'. Rather, 'it is a function of what a certain collection of stuff does'. The word 'I', as he later puts it, 'is a verb dressed as a noun'.

Call me a romantic, but I find this definition slightly wanting in poetry. Admittedly, trying to define the self at all is, as Baggini says, 'like trying to nail custard to a wall'. (There's a reason philosophers have debated the problem for centuries.) Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect poetry in an exercise such as this. But Baggini seems to anticipate the romantics' distaste for such a definition: the next chapter proceeds to argue that explaining the self does not explain it away.

Before moving on to part three Baggini confronts a final (and particularly stubborn) assumption about the self - the idea of character. Whether defined by astrological signs, the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs, there is widespread belief that people fall into certain predictable types. Again, Baggini says: not so.
In the third and final part of The Ego Trick Baggini explores different conceptions of future selves: reincarnation, lives as long as Methuselah's (yes, there really are people who think human life will be prolonged to that extent this century), and Christian ideas of resurrection (again, via Richard Swinburne). The final chapter, entitled 'Living without a Soul', turns to the implications his view of self has on the way life is lived.

I won't spoil the ending by saying more. But I will say what it didn't touch on, which I wish it had. Baggini's prose is a model of popular clarity - engaging without compromising on rigour. I wish he had turned it to more of the ethical issues surrounding selfhood. How, for example, can we assign responsibility in light of his view of self? What does 'identity' mean for practical matters such as abortion? When does a human life (or 'self') begin, and when does it end? He refers to Alzheimer's in the early part of the book (on memory), but further discussion might have been enriching.

As intimated above, not all Christians would consider Richard Swinburne's theism representative of Christianity. One can speculate as to why this interlocutor was selected - Swinburne speaks the language of philosophy, making him more intelligible (to philosophers!) than many other believers, perhaps. But whatever the reasons, Baggini raises an interesting challenge. Here is an atheist who - unlike Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, et al. - will engage with Christian ideas on their philosophical merits. For those who believe there is more to the self than Baggini concludes - that is, that 'I' is more than a 'verb dressed as a noun' - the question remains: what is it?

Kate Kirkpatrick