Reading List: The Self and the Neuroself

This reading list is a work in progress. If you buy the books from Amazon they give me 4% of their profit which I will donate it the South Yuba River Citizens League Otherwise avoid Amazon and support your local independent bookseller! If you don’t have one any more thanks to the destructive power of Barnes and Noble (avoid!), order used from far-away local booksellers on Abe. If you live in Brooklyn go here. If you live in Manhattan go here (though you may never get out). If you live near Grass Valley go here.

Starred (*) reviews represent those books that seem to have the best chance of shedding serious light on the topic.

*(2012) Jaak Panksepp The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions: This is on order, will hopefully review soon. See his article on The trans-species core SELF and reviewed below for a preview. Panksepp more or less follows a MacLeanian path, with more (but not the most) philosophy.

*(2012) Sebastian Seung Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are: From reading the reviews it sounds as though, like Gazzaniga, Ramachandran and others, Seung doesn’t go straight after the question of the self, but elides it by going after the question of what makes individuals unique.

(2012) Cristof Koch Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist: There are some indications that Koch is a panpsychic, but he does not develop his argument. In a tragic (but understandable) effort to appeal to a mass audience, Koch adopts a Lehreresque anecdote-driven chatty style that interferes with the development of his argument. I have heard rumors that Koch is simply nervous about outing himself as a mystic/panpsychic, but the bottom line is you can’t really know where he stands from this book.

(2012) Leonard Mlodinow Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behaviorI’m not sure about this one – eg, whether to look into it – but V.S. Ramachandran blurbed it, so that’s definitely worth something.

*(2012) Bruce Hood The Self IllusionA neuroscience-heavy book, generally consistent with my own thinking (for what that’s worth), in which he argues that the self is “a powerful deception generated by our brains” for evolutionary benefit.

(2011) V.S. Ramachandran The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human Ramachandran is the originator of the use of mirrors to treat alien hand syndrome – in which someone who has suffered a stroke (or other lesion) and no longer believes it is theirs. It’s a wonderful tool for thinking about the nature of the self, at what might seem to be its core: the belief that one owns things. I haven’t read this but from what I can tell Ramachandran doesn’t go after this ownership question with philosophical sophistication or even that much interest.  This should be double-checked.

(2011) Julian Baggini The Ego Trick: This is fundamentally a philosophy book, by a respected philosopher, and not a neuroscience book. Appears to be a bit of neuroscience in it, but not enough to classify it as a neuroself book. Baggini argues that the self is a process, or a verb, rather than an entity. We don’t “have” a self, we are one. Tries to account for the ever-shifting contents of the self, which interferes with the ability of psychologists and everyone else to define the core self.

(2011) Steven Porges The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation While not attacking the concept of the self direction, Porges implicitly takes aim at the idea that a self is the product of how a nervous system is regulated – how, that is, impulses- particularly affective impulses – are contained, modulated and transformed in the service of evolutionary needs. Similar in many ways to Schore’s work, but less psychodynamically informed.

(2010) Antonio Damasio Self Comes to MindTo be honest, I can never understand what Damasio’s main point is, or if it even ever changes.  I suspect he’s writing the same book over and over but can’t bear to find out. Even brief encounters with him – on television; we aren’t pals – leave me feeling the way I always end up feeling when I go shopping in the Jerusalem Souq: like something happened, but I don’t know what, and that I ended up with a carpet, but I don’t know why. I think his main thing is that the brain is a nested hierarchy and that it produces nested, hierarchically organized selves. But didn’t we all already know this? Since, like, Hughlings Jackson? Before I stopped taking him seriously, and just wrote him off as self-promoting intellectually vacuous shill, I poured over Descartes’ Error repeatedly, certain that I was missing something and that something brilliant was being said. I don’t believe that any more. Still, somebody should probably read this.

(2009) Todd Feinberg From Axons to Identity: Neurological Explorations of the Nature of the Self. I haven’t read this but would like to. Feinberg uses the classic neurology approach of using brain lesions and unusual cases to get at what might be going on in the production of a self.

*(2009) Thomas Metzinger The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the SelfPossibly the best (eg, most serious and intelligent) recent book on the implications of neuroscience for the self, Metzinger argues that the self does not exist per se but is a product of the brain that comes on and offline as necessary. It is not a thing. He ties this to an argument that reality – the thing we situate the self in – also does not exist per se but is also a product of the brain. It’s more or less a lot of Kant. He has a great 2003 essay titled Being No One outlining this argument titled he’s dumbed down for a popular audience as this book; it’s good reading to.

*(2009) Galen Strawson Selves: An essay in revisionary metaphysicsStrawson is famous (in philosophy of self circles) for arguing for something like the existence of a core self – what he calls “inner subjects of experience.” This is sometimes referred to as Strawson’s “pearl” model in which the self has layers, some superficial, some deep. He is seen as dissenting from the Humean tradition (that’s the tradition of David Hume), followed by Baggini, for example, of seeing the self as a loose “bundle” of attributes.

*(2009) Panksepp, J., & Northoff, G. The trans-species core SELF: the emergence of active cultural and neuro-ecological agents through self-related processing within subcortical-cortical midline networks. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 193–215.  Building on the work of Paul MacLean, Panksepp and Northoff argue that from a neural standpoint the self is an active participant in creating its world.

(2008) Michael Gazzaniga Human: What Makes Us Unique. Another book focusing on the qualities that make the human brain unique, and by inference what makes individual unique. It does not seem focused particularly on the neural basis of subjective experience.

(2007) Anthony Elliot Concepts of the Self: Pure social science, and apparently excellent. Haven’t read it. Reviews on Goodreads make it sound good. “Elliott covers symbolic interactionism, reflexivity, psychoanalysis, Foucault, governmentality, feminism, and postmodernism [and psychoanalysis]” according to one reviewer.

*(2007) Chris Frith Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World. His main argument is that a model of a self – of an intentional agent separate from the world it acts on – is actively produced by the brain. In this sense he thinks selfhood per se is an illusion.

(2003) Thomas Metzinger Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. A precursor to 2009’s The Ego Tunnel (see above).

(2003) Various Authors The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry:  I haven’t read this; in a general ways I find collections of articles lumped as books with brief and vague and non-partisan summaries at the front by editors not to advance the understanding of readers very much (though they are useful for those in the field to get updates about the thinking of colleagues.) Still, a good potential source of information if you’re willing to do some sifting.

(2005) Dan Zahavi Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. No neuroscience here – this is in the phenomenology tradition (a welcome change from the objectivity tradition in neuroscience!) that takes the experience of self seriously – as a thing-in-the-world. If you need an antidote to Dennett-type bullshit, this is it.

(2002) Joseph LeDoux Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are

(2000) Nick Mansfield Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. Focus is on psychoanalytic thinkers (Freud, Foucault, Nietzsche, Lacan, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, and Haraway – the last four of whom I’ve never heard of, and I walk around in this world!) No neuroscience to speak of. A good resource.

(1994) Alan Schore Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotion Regulation:  In a nutshell, Schore gives specific reasons for believing what most clinicians see, repeatedly, evidence of in practice: that children “download” their parents’ styles of affect regulation, and that there are certain critical periods in which this downloading occurs. Thus you learn how to manage anger, sadness, anxiety, hope. The self, in this model, seems more or less to be a self-regulating need-meeting entity formed at the boundary between nervous systems. Schore has tried to advance

*(1990) Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: Making of the Modern Identity. Generally regarded as a masterwork, with not a whit of neuroscience to be found, Taylor makes a move that I suspect could be fleshed out neuroscientifically. He connects the notion of the self to the notion of The Good. Anyone who (some would argue facilely) connects dopaminergic reward-seeking to The Good, and the experience of selfhood to dopamine, might be able to have some fun updating Taylor. Others might suggest we leave well enough alone.

*(1984) Derek Parfit Reasons and Persons (Section 3). Parfit’s claim to fame here is to dispute our intuition that you are the same person who had a 5th birthday party, or lost his virginity in a bathtub, or is going to die of lung cancer in 15 years. That is, he deflates the notion of the self using a temporal attack. It’s not clear if this is more than a gimmick to advocate that our duties to our future selves are similar to our duties to contemporary others – the future self is an other, according to Parfit – but the larger point is that Parfit is yet another thinker who doubts the existence of a true self.

(19??) Erving Goffman The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Written in the sociological tradition, and therefore largely avoiding the philosophical approach (let alone neurological approach) on this blog, Goffman nevertheless implicitly undermines the notion of a core self by describing the self as a dramaturgical self – an actor who plays different parts at different times, none of which is more real than any other.

Talcott Parsons Social Structure and Personality.


(1956) Frege The Thought.pdf


(1914) Ludwig Wittgenstein Notebooks: Like, it seems, almost all modern thinkers, Wittgenstein believes there is no such “thing” as the self.”The I is not an object” (8.8.16). “Where in the world is the subject to be found? The subject does not belong in the world: rather it is a limit of the world.” (5.632 -5.633) “The subject is not a part of the world, but a pre-supposition of its existence.” (2.8.16). “There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas [there are only thoughts]”(5.631) Wittgenstein believes in an empirical self – or  mind, which (confusingly) is traditionally mis-translated by Wittgenstein’s translators as soul – During this phase of Wittgenstein’s life, he believed there are only two types of things: objects and states of affairs, with facts being existing states of affairs. Multiple objects are arranged, for him, into states of affairs – much like atoms might be arranged into molecules. Elementary propositions in language ‘hook into the world directly’ and then these propositions are combined to create linguistic analogs of states of affairs, including facts. David Bell’s 1972 thesis on Wittgenstein’s theory of the self is the best thing I can find on him. Bell says one cannot understand Wittgenstein’s theory of self in isolation from his early (Tractatus, Investigations era) thought. In particular, Wittgenstein violates his own ban against trying to say something philosophically useful about the transcendental self. Wittgenstein, like Husserl and Kant, was a transcendental philosopher. He wished to know not what the self was, so much as how it is possible to know what a self can be.

(1890) William James Principles of Psychology Vol. 1 and Vol 2Here’s an excellent summary from John Barresi.”Over a hundred years ago, in his Principles of Psychology (1890), William James put forward a fascinating account of the self. In that theory, he makes a distinction between two aspects of self, the self as subject, or the “I,” and the self as object, or the “Me.” James goes on to investigate the nature of these two aspects of self. He concludes that the me comes in three basic types: the “material me”, the “social me”, and the “spiritual me.” As for the I, James concludes that, at least for the purposes of psychology, there is no need to postulate a subject of experiences, a metaphysical I that goes beyond the physical being who does the thinking. Rather, he concludes that ‘the passing thought … is itself the thinker’ (1890, p. 401).”

*(1781) Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure ReasonThe key quote: “How the ‘I’ that thinks can be distinct from the ‘I’ that intuits itself (for I can represent still other modes of intuition as at least possible) and yet, as being the same subject, can be identical with the latter; and how, therefore, I can say: “I, as intlligence and thinking subject, know myself as an object that is thought, in so far as I am given to myself as something other or beyond that which is given to myself in intuition, and yet know myself, like other phenomena, only as I appear to myself, not as I am to the understanding”  these are questions that raise no greater difficulty than how I can be an object to myself at all.” Good Stanford summary of Kant’s view of the self here.

*(1739) David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature: The famous quote is this: “Tis certain there is no question in philosophy more abstruse than that concerning identity, and the nature of the uniting principle, which constitutes a person. So far from being able by our senses merely to determine this question, we must have recourse to the most profound metaphysics to give a satisfactory answer to it.”

People to add eventually:

Rene Descartes, Aristotle, Socrates, Buddha, St. Augustine, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Mead, Freud, Goffman, Foucault, Chodorow, Kristeva and Baudrillard

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