Diderot and Materialist Theories of the Self


Charles T. WOLFE*

Abstract. The concept of self has preeminently been asserted (in its many versions) as a core component of anti-reductionist, antinaturalistic philosophical positions, from Descartes to Husserl and beyond, with the exception of some hybrid or intermediate positions which declare rather glibly that, since we are biological entities which fully belong to the natural world, and we are conscious of ourselves as ‘selves’, therefore the self belongs to the natural world (this is characteristic e.g. of embodied phenomenology and enactivism).
Nevertheless, from Cudworth and More’s attacks on materialism all the way through twentieth-century argument against naturalism, the gulf between selfhood and the world of Nature appears unbridgeable. In contrast, my goal in this paper is to show that early modern materialism could yield a theory of the self according to which (1) the self belongs to the world of external relations (Spinoza), such that no one fact, including supposedly private facts, is only accessible to a single person; (2) the self can be reconstructed as a sense of “organic unity” which could be a condition for biological individuality (a central text here is Diderot’s 1769 Rêve de D’Alembert); yet this should not lead us to espouse a Romantic concept of organism as foundational or even ineffable subjectivity (a dimension present in Leibniz and made explicit in German idealism); (3) what we call ‘self’ might simply be a dynamic process of interpretive activity undertaken by the brain. This materialist theory of the self should not neglect the nature of experience, but it should also not have to take at face value the recurring invocations of a better, deeper “first-person perspective” or “first-person science.”

Keywords: materialism, self, first-person perspective, externalism

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