The Self

On the Autonomy and Ecological Tie of a Person

Immanuel Kant
By Gottlieb Doebler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of a self plays a central role in Western philosophy as well as in the Indian and other major traditions. Three main types of views of the self can be discerned. One moves from Kant’s conception of rationally autonomous self, another from the so-called homo-economicus theory, of Aristotelian descent. Both those types of views theorize the independency of the first person from its biological and social environment.

Against those, a perspective that sees the self as organically developing within a certain environment has been proposed.

The Place of the Self in Philosophy

The idea of the self covers a central role in most philosophical branches. For instance, in metaphysics, the self has been seen as the starting point of inquiry (both in the empiricist and rationalist traditions) or as the entity whose investigation is most deserving and challenging (Socratic philosophy). In ethics and political philosophy, the self is the key concept to explain freedom of the will as well as individual responsibility.

The Self in Modern Philosophy

It is in the seventeenth century, with Descartes, that the idea of the self takes a central place in the Western tradition. Descartes stressed the autonomy of the first person: I can realize that I am existing regardless of what the world I live in is like. In other words, for Descartes the cognitive foundation of my own thinking is independent of its ecological relationships; factors such as gender, race, social status, upbringing are all irrelevant to capture the idea of the self.

This perspective on the topic will have crucial consequences for the centuries to come.

Kantian Perspectives on the Self

The author that developed the Cartesian perspective in the most radical and appealing way is Kant. According to Kant, each person is an autonomous being capable of envisaging courses of action that transcend any ecological relationship (customs, upbringing, gender, race, social status, emotional situation …) Such a conception of the autonomy of the self will then play a central role in the formulation of human rights: each and every human being is entitled to such rights precisely because of the respect that each human self merits in as much as it is an autonomous agent.

Kantian perspectives have been declined in several different version over the past two centuries; they constitute one of the strongest and most interesting theoretical core attributing a central role to the self.

Homo Economicus and the Self

The so-called homo-economicus view sees each human as an individual agent whose primary (or, in some extreme versions, sole) role for action is self-interest. Under this perspective, then, humans’ autonomy is best expressed in the quest to fulfill one’s own desires. While in this case, an analysis of the origin of desires may encourage the consideration of ecological factors, the focus of theories of the ​self based on homo-economicus see each agent as an isolated system of preferences, rather than one integrated with its environment.

The Ecological Self

Finally, the third perspective on the self sees it as a process of development which takes place within a specific ecological space. Factors such as gender, sex, race, social status, upbringing, formal education, emotional history all play a role in shaping up a self. Furthermore, most authors in this area agree that the self is dynamic, an entity which is constantly in the making: selfing is a more proper term to express such an entity.

Further Online Readings

The entry on feminist perspectives on the self at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The entry on Kant’s view on the self at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.