Selves and Social Ontology

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The ongoing philosophical (and to a good extent, the scientific) discussion of selves is in very poor shape, much like the discussion concerning minds and for much the same reason.

We talk as if selves are things, and of course, they are, but the sense of ‘thing’ that most seem to have in mind is the wrong one.  They hypostatize selves (and minds) in the manner of physical objects, which is why they search for them in a way that suggests they expect to find them somewhere, typically “in the brain.”  During a recent conversation on the self, in which I was insisting that there is one while my interlocutor was denying it, he asked me where the self was, as if my being unable to locate it in the manner that I might locate my pancreas proved something.

Brains are not boxes and selves are not items inside of them.  Or outside, hanging over them.  Or anywhere for that matter.  They are not that kind of thing.  Nonetheless, they exist and are as real as anything else.

The discussion, such that it is, remains stuck within the orbit of the reductive and eliminative materialisms that have had us in their grip since the Second World War, and it has been an unmitigated failure.  To see this, all that one has to do is consider the fact that David Chalmers and Panpsychism are actually taken seriously.  I mean, how can anyone think that we’ve learned anything useful about selves or minds or consciousness, over the last seven decades, if we are considering ascribing them to bits of dirt or mountains or “fundamental particles”?  (Hilariously, Chalmers seems to think that this last one is the most plausible – i.e. that it’s more likely that a muon has consciousness than El Capitan – as if anything could be more or less likely within the confines of a lunatic view like Panpsychism. (p. 1))

To keep this relatively brief, let me recall a few things that are foundational to my main point:

  • In a recent piece, I talked about social reality and said that it and the things in it are as real as anything else and that there is no plausible physicalist/materialist account of it or them. I also said that this entails no “queer metaphysics,” a la Mackie, but only the recognition that there are people, reasons, actions, and other social  and “institutional” entities and facts.
  • In my essay on free will, I suggested that agency is a property of persons, not of human organisms and that acting for one’s own reasons – which is what agency consists of – should not be taken as causal, in the sense of ‘cause’ understood in classical mechanics (or in contemporary physics). The idea was that ‘person’, ‘action’, ‘reason’, and ‘agent’ make up a family of concepts from which one or the other cannot be removed or replaced.
  • In “Self Made,” I denied that we – our selves –are our own creations, in anything deeper than the relatively superficial senses associated with the expression “He’s a self-made man.”
  • On numerous occasions, I’ve referenced Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and in particular, his argument that certain things must “stand fast” in every inquiry and practice, meaning that they are taken as given and not subject to skeptical examination or revision.

I’ve written and talked quite a bit about Sellars’ distinction between the Manifest and Scientific Images, the former being defined by Sellars as the one in which “the primary objects are persons.” (p. 9)  Towards the end of the essay, he wrote:

Thus, the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. (p. 40)

Developing this idea, what I want to say is that selves, how they represent other people and the world, their reasons for acting, and their actions, are ontologically basic with respect to social reality, insofar as they provide the ground from which social and institutional things and facts – including all manner of norms – spring.  If we are going to speak of currencies or countries or citizenship or laws or politics or morals, that there are selves and representations and reasons and agents and actors (and thus, actions) has to “stand fast” for any such discourse to even get started.  As Elizabeth Anscombe would put it, facts about selves, representations, reasons, and actions are “brute” relative to economic, legal, political, and other related types of facts. (p. 3)

Notice that I said that they are ontologically basic features of social reality, not a private mental one.  Who and what I am –the self, the person – is a function of myriad social factors.  It is a matter not just of how I represent myself, but how I am represented by other individuals and institutions: by my family; my people; my friends and acquaintances; my fellow residents and citizens; my city, county, state, and national governments; the law; even businesses and corporations, large and small.  And there are dimensions of personhood that social entities other than individual human beings can possess: companies can be held responsible for things they’ve done, for example, and political entities can act, as they do when nations declare war on one another or states secede from nations to which they once belonged.

In this sense, selves are to the Manifest Image what atoms or elementary particles are to the Scientific.  Selves and their distinctive activities – representing, intending, and acting – are what create and operate the social universe, out of which, in turn, they themselves are created.  They create but are also of the social world, for as Wittgenstein showed, to represent – to identify things from a point of view, which is at the heart of all action – is itself an inherently and irreducibly social activity.

The confusions and conflations that underlie the wrong turn we’ve taken with regard to selves and their distinctive modes goes back at least as far as the Enlightenment and especially, Descartes, but the current version stems roughly from the late 1960’s, when the dispute between neo-Wittgensteinians and scientific materialists as to the nature and status of the social sciences was decided in favor of the latter.  At the heart of this decision was the view that so-called “folk psychological explanations” – i.e. the accounts we give of peoples’ actions in terms of their reasons – should be deemed a variety of scientific explanation.  Selves, therefore, had to be identified with things and activities in the brain, representations and reasons with more things and activities in the brain, and actions with the various motor movements that those brain-things and brain-activities make happen.  This is true whether one’s outlook is that of the orthodox “Representational Theory of the Mind” associated with people like Jerry Fodor or that of the radical “Eliminative Materialist Theory of the Mind” peddled by the Churchlands, for the only real disagreement between the two is as to whether folk psychology is good science or bad.

What these folks have done is precisely what Sellars warned could not and should not be done: namely, they have attempted to replace parts of the Manifest Image piecemeal with parts of the Scientific Image.  Indeed, this is one of the things that Sellars, who can be obscure, was clearest about.  Writing at a time when the neo-Wittgensteinian view still enjoyed substantial respect within academic philosophy, he wrote:

The so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in recent British and American philosophy, particularly under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, has done increasing justice to the manifest image, and has increasingly succeeded in isolating it in something like its pure form, and has made clear the folly of attempting to replace it piecemeal by fragments of the scientific image. (p. 15)

In the Scientific Image, both substrate and discrete physical identities are particularly salient features of ontology, but even the most casual consideration of social reality must reveal that this is obviously untrue of the Manifest Image.  Substrate and discrete physical identities are not salient features of institutions and other social entities, whether currencies, countries, or criminal laws.  Any building can be the “Capitol.”  Any geographical location can be the “United States.”  Any substance can be used as “currency.”  It is only by way of myriad objects, representations, and social activities, scattered across space and time, that there are selves.  And in none of these cases is it really apt to say that the thing in question is the relevant motley collection of heterogeneous elements.  At that level of description the thing just isn’t there at all.

The attempt to find scientific counterparts for this or that bit of social reality was thus doomed from the start.  Just as you are never going to find the physical thing that is the United States or the law requiring you to have registration tags on your car, you are never going to find the physical thing that is the self.  Countries and laws and selves are not that kind of thing and their individuation does not cut in that sort of way.  Likewise, the attempt to view the activities of social entities in the manner that one views the activities of physical substances was also destined to end badly, exhibit A for which is the ever regrettable free will debate.  For it is only if one thought selves were things like pancreases or rocks or molecules that one could think that they are the sorts of things that cause and are caused, in the manner in which pancreases and rocks and molecules cause and are caused.  And it is only in the grip of such a picture that the fact that the activities of pancreases and rocks and molecules are determined by the causal laws under which they fall could lead one to think that the activities of selves – the actions of agents, which are defined in part, by their moral, legal, and other normative valences – are determined in the same way.  But in the absence of any such picture and all the confusions and conflations that come with it?  The issue doesn’t even arise.

To an extent, Sellars confused matters himself, by suggesting that it is the job of philosophy to make some sense of the relationship between the Manifest and Scientific Images; between the world as understood via physics and chemistry and biology and the world that includes selves and representations and reasons and actions and the normative systems and practices for which they are the building blocks.   This has been widely misinterpreted, I think, as suggesting that there is some conflict between the two images that must be resolved.  But Sellars himself indicates what the relationship is, at the end of the essay:

The conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living. (p. 40)

Our view of the world, then, a world that includes selves and the things selves have made, must include both the Scientific and Manifest images, combined in what Sellars describes as a kind of “stereoscopic” vision; one in which  the overall impression is of one world, but whose actual constituents, when taken even at the most fundamental ontological level, are heterogeneous.


  1. I don’t know why anyone would think that I was being contrarian. I really can’t understand what it would mean to say that something came into existence when my friend and I agreed to jumped into the river, and went out of existence when we had jumped.

    Rather, to me, it seems contrarian to insist that something really did come into existence at that moment, not just as a manner of speaking.


  2. Buying and selling doesn’t imply any sort of metaphysical existence. If I buy a contract then I pay some money so that I can perform the service and receive the money instead of the original party.


  3. Sometimes we should think past the “thing” metaphor. If you buy a low value mortgage based security then it seems you have purchased a thing that has the properties of increasing in value and giving you an income stream.

    But, really, you have loaned some of your money to some poor people to buy properties that they can only just afford. If they can pay back then you get a share of the interest you have paid, and if they can’t then – even better – they are kicked out of their houses to survive as best they can and the houses are sold and you get a share of the increased value of the property.

    Except that the housing market doesn’t always rise and when it falls there are more foreclosures and the sale garners less money than it was bought for and you have lost that money you loaned out. Then some big companies go bust and have to be baled out by the government and we get a worldwide financial crisis.

    Until it actually happens, it becomes hard to see that when you have all that encapsulated in a neat little “thing” called a security.


  4. Robin:

    How do you view the existence of software items then? Do you think The Electric Agora exists, or whatever word processor you prefer? Does it matter if we distribute all the functionality in the cloud?


  5. For the record, I didn’t post the AEON essay due to it’s complexity science angle. I was trying to follow up on ideas exploring the basis of the self. I thought Dicey Jennings emphasis on how we utilize attention under conditions of uncertainty as a creative and developmental source of self was interesting.

    How to integrate that idea with the knowledge that much of our cumulative dispositional leanings and capacities for action are acquired unconsciously was not addressed in the article. I think the Dicey Jennings definition decently captures the aspect of the self that could be said to genuine or authentic in the sense being the source of will or of having authorship over our own actions.

    Reading another AEON essay this Hannah Arendt quote seems to capture the alternative.

    ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’


  6. A long one….

    Hi Dan,

    I spent the morning rereading this essay and the preceding ‘Truth and Ontology’. Both, I think, are very important contributions to the discussion. On this reading of the essays I was left with a slight qualm, however, and if I can point to its source I would lay the blame at Anscombe’s feet. At least, my meager knowledge of what she has to say from what you included I find a bit troubling.

    I am struggling with the notion of ‘brute’ facts as somehow standing at the bottom of how we make sense of things. I don’t think it is wholly wrong, but I feel it perhaps makes its case from only one side of the coin, and worry that this somehow amounts to a misdirection in the way that magicians will draw your attention to one hand while the real work is being done by the other….

    I think you did the right thing in pointing out the disanalogy of social ‘things’ to physical ‘things’. I would be tempted to go one step further and question the analogy of social ‘facts’ to physical ‘facts’.

    Let me explain: One of the things nagging me is how to make sense of Wittgenstein’s peculiar way of presenting his ideas, his admonition to himself to *show* how things stand rather than to ‘say’ them. Why was this so important?

    As far as I can tell, it has to do with the difference between what one can do *within* the language game and the language game *itself*. Whatever ‘brute facts’ there are are either a part of what the language game does or of the language game itself. They are either moves in the game or (part of) the game itself….

    The thing I am hung up on, I suppose, is that the objects of social ontology you have brought to light seem to be connected with or have the status of ‘social facts’. That is, things for which it makes sense to grant evidence in favor of or against. We can measure them, in some sense. That seemed to be the way it was being discussed in the comments, at least…..

    Again, I am plagued by the idea that Wittgenstein wanted to warn us off from ‘explaining’ certain things, as if making them out as ‘facts’ was somehow the wrong thing to do. In particular I am haunted by these passages in On Certainty written barely seven weeks before his passing:

    318. ‘The question doesn’t arise at all.’ Its answer would characterize a method. But there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

    319. But wouldn’t one have to say then, that there is no sharp boundary between propositions of logic and empirical propositions? The lack of sharpness is that of the boundary between rule and empirical proposition.

    He answers a month later:

    501. Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it.

    On a whim I decided to look at all the places in OC where he mentions ‘logic’. These are from the three dozen or so entries where it appears (I rearranged their order in some cases to speak directly to a point), and I tend to think they collectively form a picture of where the idea of ‘brute’ facts gets hairy, especially, perhaps, with social facts.

    See what you think:

    36. “A is a physical object” is a piece of instruction which we give only to someone who doesn’t yet understand either what “A” means, or what “physical object” means. Thus it is instruction about the use of words, and “physical object” is a logical concept. (Like colour, quantity,…) And that is why no such proposition as: “There are physical objects” can be formulated.
    Yet we encounter such unsuccessful shots at every turn.

    98. But if someone were to say “So logic too is an empirical science” he would be wrong. Yet this is right: the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.

    109. “An empirical proposition can be tested” (we say). But how? and through what?

    82. What counts as an adequate test of a statement belongs to logic. It belongs to the description of the language-game.

    56. And everything descriptive of a language-game is part of logic.

    110. What counts as its test? – “But is this an adequate test? And, if so, must it not be recognizable as such in logic?” – As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting.

    318. ‘The question doesn’t arise at all.’ Its answer would characterize a method. But there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

    319. But wouldn’t one have to say then, that there is no sharp boundary between propositions of logic and empirical propositions? The lack of sharpness is that of the boundary between rule and empirical proposition.

    375. Here one must realize that complete absence of doubt at some point, even where we would say that ‘legitimate’ doubt can exist, need not falsify a language-game. For there is also something like another arithmetic.
    I believe that this admission must underlie any understanding of logic.

    401. I want to say: propositions of the form of empirical propositions, and not only propositions of logic, form the foundation of all operating with thoughts (with language). – This observation is not of the form “I know…”. “I know…” states what I know, and that is not of logical interest.

    474. This games proves its worth. That may be the cause of its being played, but it is not the ground.

    475. I want to regard man here as an animal; as a primitive being to which one grants instinct but not ratiocination. As a creature in a primitive state. Any logic good enough for a primitive means of communication needs no apology from us. Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination [Raisonnement].

    501. Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it.

    628. When we say “Certain propositions must be excluded from doubt”, it sounds as if I ought to put these propositions – for example, that I am called L.W. – into a logic-book. For if it belongs to the description of a language-game, it belongs to logic. But that I am called L.W. does not belong to any such description. The language-game that operates with people’s names can certainly exist even if I am mistaken about my name, – but it does presuppose that it is nonsensical to say that the majority of people are mistaken about their names.

    I would be inclined to view the ‘things’ of social ontology as more often counting as “logical concepts” than anything empirical. In other words, we need to see them as part of “the description of the language game”. All the ‘doubts’ you encountered in the comments displayed the same confusion we (philosophers) so often make in misapplying the analogy of physical things to social things: We go looking for a way to test what we are talking about as if our doubts were appropriate, not understanding the difference between the logic of the game and specific moves in the game. We mistake our measures for things that should be measured…… We go looking for ‘proof’ of the game’s rules. We are unclear when we are describing the language game and when we are acting within it.

    This is what it seems to me, at least…..

    Thanks for all you do! All the best,