On Being Me: A Personal Invitation to Philosophy, by J. David Velleman (Princeton University Press), £10.99/$12.95
On Being Me attempts to package some fairly concentrated philosophical reflections in an accessible form. The book is short (87 pages) and attractively printed. The seven chapters have engaging titles like “Regretting What Might Have Been”, and “Wanting to Be Loved”, and are broken into short sections that range from two sentences to a couple of pages. The text is accompanied by a dozen clever and charming illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Emily Bernstein. And throughout, Velleman offers a resolutely first-person meditation that, in the spirit of Descartes, eschews technical jargon and scholarly references (although in the Preface he acknowledges his debts, which are primarily to contemporary Anglo-American thinkers such as Anscombe, Dennett, Frankfurt, and Parfit).
The goal of the book is to explore the nature of personhood from the subjective point of view. In doing so, it addresses some familiar philosophical questions: What makes me the same person over time? Is it rational to fear death? Am I really responsible for my choices? Velleman’s approach from the outset is hesitant and undogmatic; in places he even candidly declares himself confused.
A chapter titled “Wanting to Go On” focuses on the issue of personal identity over time. Velleman dismisses any talk of remembering experiences from a previous life. He assumes that those who make such claims are mistaking an idea or image for an actual memory. He also rejects the notion of a soul as some sort of personal essence that can be detached from one’s mundane existence in the material world. The soul, thus conceived, is an entity. But according to Velleman, he is not a thing but a subject of experiences, thoughts and feelings which is somehow linked to past subjects that he remembers being and future subjects that he anticipates being.
Quite what the connection is between these past, present, and future experiences is hard to pin down, but Velleman is interested in how they infiltrate one another in subtle ways. He says, for instance: “I usually imagine a future experience as including a memory of how I imagined it.” He even says that he wants his enjoyment of a meal to be enhanced by the memory he has, while eating, of having wanted it. Claims of this sort prompt the suspicion that a half century of philosophising (Velleman is professor emeritus at NYU) may have made his mundane experiences unrepresentatively reflexive. But he is surely right to see looking forward and backward as key to our sense of personhood. As he eloquently puts it: “the connections of anticipation and memory…. give me a life, not just a stretch of going-on-being but something with phrasing and cadences, beginnings and endings.”
The chapter titled “Fearing the End” is really devoted more to the experience of time passing than to anxiety about death. Am I moving through time? Or do different temporal segments of me succeed one another? Velleman plays with various metaphors in seeking to illuminate the issue. He imagines, for instance, his successive temporal segments as like railcars on a track, in which case death would simply be the point after which there is no more track (or cars). The analogy is suggestive, but it seems to express a somewhat detached, impersonal view of the problem rather than capture the phenomenological feeling of moving towards extinction.
Velleman devotes two of the longer chapters (“Aspiring to Authorship” and “Making Things Happen”) to the question of whether he is really responsible for his actions and decisions. Some of the discussion covers familiar ground: e.g. Does the present truth or falsity of a statement about what I will do in the future threaten the idea that my options are open? (Velleman thinks not, since a prewritten account of what I will do is still compatible with my being the author of my actions.)
In tackling the threat to personal responsibility posed by determinism, Velleman plausibly argues that if I am to be the true author of my choices, they must result from “causes of which I am the subject”. That is, they can’t just be the result of physical events involving my body (e.g. muscle contractions) or psychological happenings (e.g. a surging desire). He suggests that a certain sort of self-reflection may offer what he is looking for. I can reflect on why I have a certain desire or motive. And I can reflect on my motive for wanting to reflect. This meta-reflection will have the same motive as the initial reflection but seems more securely rooted in me as a subject. This idea of observing oneself do something that one does in order to be observed, thereby closing the gap between subject and object, is nicely illustrated with the analogy of a dancer monitoring their movements in a mirror.
In these chapters, too, Velleman’s self-observations sometimes perhaps involve more self-consciousness than is normal, necessary, or even plausible. In one place, for instance, he writes, “because leaving for the gym is what I’ve prepared myself to find myself doing next, I will get up and leave, so as not to end up wondering why I’m not leaving.” This strikes me as a rather peculiar motive. In his defence, though, Velleman admits at the outset that he offers no argument to prove that what he calls his “dispatches from an examined life” will be true of persons in general.