The Decline of Self
The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has this to say on the subject of self:
self n., pl selves 1 a: the entire person of an individual b: the realization or embodiment of an abstraction 2 a (1): an individual's typical character or behavior (2): an individual's temporary behaviour or character b: a person in prime condition 3: the union of elements (as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person 4: personal interest or advantage 5: material that is part of an individual organism.
The French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre has this to say on the subject of self:
In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm -- because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn't recognize it anymore.
The existentialist movement, fairly recent in terms of human history, has found expression in some very different forms, from the religious examinations of Søren Kierkegaard to the solid atheism of Friedrich Nietzsche. One point upon which a fair number of existentialists have shared opinions, however, is that there is a strong element of uncertainty to human life: uncertainty, in particular, about just who or what this thing we call "self" is. This awakening to a dilemma concerning knowledge of, and connection with, one's self is one way in which the existentialist philosophers speak for a great many of the inhabitants of modernity. They voice our silent fear, our secret conviction, that the more we experience, the more we learn about ourselves, the less we contact the truth about ourselves.
I think it would not be unfair to assert that almost all human beings -- especially those who lived when existentialism was as yet an unknown philosophical mode, and thus lacked the benefit of being able to consider its proponents' arguments -- lay claim to knowledge, to possession, of their own selves. Indeed, to most rational humans, such would seem utterly natural and closed to debate. Our self is who we are, and if someone asks us, "Who are you?", do we not say "I am Michael" or "I am Christine", and know precisely what we mean by that? We have lived for our entire lives with our selves, we have experienced all the events that shape them. Do we not, one might say, define, by virtue of our very existence, what our selves are?
René Descartes, the famous seventeenth-century French rationalist, employed a self-authorizing philosophy that relied heavily on the assumption that it was possible to know critical information about the core of who we are. "But what then am I?", he asked himself,...