“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity…Unluckily all these positive assertions are contrary to that very experience, which is pleaded for them, nor have we any idea of self, after the manner it is here explain’d…It must be some one impression, that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression…” –David Hume
Have you ever stopped to think about what makes you, you? Most people intuitively appeal to a kind of corporeal sense of themselves and reference their bodies. However, upon further inspection, most people would dispense with that intuition. For example, if someone were to wake one morning with his body intact as it was the day before, would he suddenly be a different person if he ended up losing his leg in a serious accident? Most would say no. We can take this idea further and suppose he lost the rest of his toes, his fingers, his hairs, etc. all one by one until he dies. Does he ever, at any point, become a different person (recall sorites paradox)? Again, most would say no.Even when we don’t lose body parts, our bodies are constantly changing (e.g., our cells are constantly being replaced). Thus our personal identities, or selves, don’t seem to be grounded in our bodies.
In an attempt to ground the self in something more stable, philosopher John Locke proposed that the unity and persistence of the self is grounded in a series of linked memories. However, there are a few problems with this idea. Upon further inspection, we can readily identify entire gaps in our own memories. Are we different people from one end of a gap to another? What about memories that don’t necessarily represent events that actually took place?
David Hume pointed out that though John Locke was right to point out that we gain a sense of a stable, persisting self through our memories, he was wrong to infer that our memories are what constitute our selves by arguing that the means of inferring identity cannot be identity itself. Hume argued that our intuitions about the self are grounded in perception. If these intuitions were correct and if there were a self that persisted from birth until death, then there would have to be a sustained perception during one’s entire lifetime. However, there is no such perception. Therefore, our intuitions about the self are wrong and the idea of a persisting self is unfounded.
To see how this is the case, you only need to look inward and pay attention to what’s going on inside you. In reality, your perceptions are ever evolving and changing. Your experiences–the things you think, feel, perceive, and believe–from early childhood are very different from your experiences today. Therefore, you cannot say that you are now the same person you were back then. If Hume is right, there is no you that exists from moment to moment, just what he considered a bundle of ever changing impressions (perceptions).
Okay, but how do we make sense of talk about the self? Our whole lives, and even significant aspects of our society and culture, are built around the assumed existence of selves. Does it make sense to punish criminals who committed crimes in the past? What about contracts? Do they not have any real force? Fortunately, there are ways to deal with this. Remember Derek Parfit? Though he agreed with Hume about the existence of a persisting self, he believed that Locke was onto something when he appealed to memory. Even though our memories can’t justify at least a workable definition of self, we can appeal to Parfit’s idea of psychological connectedness. For example, though the person you were last week is different from the person you are now, it is only different by a little bit. What matters is though those versions of you differ, they have a degree of psychological connectedness.
This is what ultimately gives rise to your sense of self. It is this notion of a felt sense that, though it cannot ground the existence of a self in any metaphysical reality, it can help us make sense of things like criminal justice and contractual obligations. It also helps us make sense of the fact that people change. For example, we are no longer anything like the people we were born as we have no psychological connection to who we were then. Most of us don’t have any such connections until we are toddlers, but even then those connections are very loose and faint.
Thus, even though there is no firm foundation for such things as selves or genders, we certainly do have a very strong felt sense of them. Therefore, what ultimately matters and what makes the most sense to talk about when discussing such things is that felt sense.