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Customer Review

on 21 March 2011
This book is a 'must read' for anyone who has ever wondered who they really are!

Julian Baggini adds rigour and readability to what could easily be a dry and confusing subject. Having said that the first half of the book is devoted to what the self 'obviously' isn't and is perhaps overlong, but then things start to hot up.

The author makes a convincing case for his theory that '"I" is a verb dressed as a noun.' It is not a 'thing' but what brains and bodies `do'.

So is self 'just an illusion'? No:

The self is really a 'bundle' of thoughts not a hard fixed 'pearl', but it is still 'real', just not what we generally assume it to be.

The self as 'no-thing' can't be destroyed by death but this doesn't mean it survives it! In as far as the self is real it will end in death! This is even less comforting than the often used non-dualist idea of 'how can something that was never born die?' But this isn't about comfort of course, neither is Stephen Batchelor's (Buddhist) idea that there is nothing (no-self) beyond the veil of appearances - all is impermanent and contingent. There is no 'transcendent' self.

Christine Korsgaard's theory of 'self-creation' is examined next: the sense in which the self is created from what is chosen and enacted. We are responsible because we are 'agents' and we 'are what we do'. This sounds very like existentialism to me. We are nothing beyond what we do and are condemned to freedom since we must do something.

This 'living without a soul' is explored further: according to Susan Blackmore bundle theory lends itself to determinism rather than free-will. This is quite convincingly explained. However having already given support to the idea of freedom and responsibility, Baggini suggests that rather than 'freedom' we use the compromised term of 'autonomy' whereby we can regulate our own behaviour based more on 'internal machinations' than on external events. But what are these internal machinations based on? and who is the regulator? This part of the book becomes rather vague and contradictory.

So has Baggini cast new light on the subject of self? Probably not, but he has clarified the terminology and linked the philosophical, scientific, religious and psychological ideas into a very thought-provoking whole. This considerable task alone merits the five stars.

Personally I don't think this investigation is radical enough in that it is undertaken within the context of the phenomenal world. It is to some extent about playing within boundaries rather than with boundaries (to borrow a James Carse expression). For example what if consciousness is the 'ground of all being' as proposed by non-dualist philosophers? (e.g as expressed by Jeff Foster (An Extraordinary Absence) or Tony Parsons (The Open Secret)). This would give a whole other starting point and resulting investigation.
However the case for the 'self' model that Baggini proposes sounds plausible, although his eloquence and clarity does not leave one thinking that we now have all the answers, but rather what new and greater implications these ideas may have. This is a good thing of course!

This is probably Baggini's best book to date and he stands virtually alone in being able to make incredibly complex and subtle philosophical ideas both accessible and entertaining.
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4.4 out of 5 stars