A Skeptical Approach to Selfhood and Identity in the History of Philosophy

“[P]ostmodernist critics […] insist that postmodernist art be oppositional. This opposition can be conceived in two ways: as counter to the modernist tradition, and/or as counter to the ruling ‘mythologies’ of Western culture, which, the theory goes, led to the creation of the modernist tradition in the first place. These same critics believe that postmodernist art therefore must debunk or ‘deconstruct’ the ‘myths’ of the autonomous individual […] and of the individual subject […]”

(Grundberg, Andy, ‘The Crisis of the Real’, in Wells Liz, [ed.], Photography Reader, London and NY: Routledge, 2003, p.168.)

  • Postmodernist’s deconstruct the western idea of individuality.
  • Made up Western myths to critique to display the one-sidedness of Western.
  • Lecture not designed to absolve Western from economic crimes but to question Western philosophy.

Thomas McEvilley:

  • Analyses and criticises Immanuel Kant without quoting Kant himself at all.
  • Quotes only Alfred Jules Ayer, a 20th-century philosopher, a follower of Hume, a philosopher who did not subscribe to Kantian development of Hume’s ideas.
  • Only makes reference to Kant in his footnotes, doesn’t quote Kant in his critique.

Leads to problems in understanding both Kant and Ayer.


“Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations […]. So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions.”

(Descartes, ‘First Meditation’ in Meditations on First Philosophy, edited by John Cottingham, NY: Cambridge University Press, p.12.)

  • Descartes uses a doubting everything method.
  • If you can’t doubt it, it must be true.

“Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false.” (Ibid.)

  • If you have any distrust towards an idea throw it away.

“From time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.”  (Ibid.)

Mistakes in explaining the world around us

Scenographia systematis mvndani Ptolemaici, 1660 (from Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica).

Sun circles the Earth, the Earth moves. Senses rejected, false.

“I will suppose then, that everything I see is spurious. I will believe that my memory tells me lies, and that none of the things that it reports ever happened. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are chimeras. So what remains true? […] I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something (or thought anything at all) then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case too I undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. […] I must conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward in my mind.” (Descartes, ‘Second Meditation’, p. 16)

  • What can give us certain knowledge? Reason and isolation from knowledge, senses untrustworthy.
  • Reason gain real knowledge.
  • God given reason- Hyperbolic doubt- Can’t trust world outside of mind.
  • “I think therefore I am” (Principles of philosophy)
  • If I doubt everything, illusion, reason tricked by devilish God, reason tells lies.
  • Subject doubting has to exist. “I doubt therefore I am”.
  • Light of reason, it is logically impossible that you don’t exist, Thomas Hobbs told Descartes objections, his philosophy was littered with problems.

David Hume 

  • Regards sense and information the only source of information on the world.
  • We are not born with God given knowledge of mathematics, etc. It is gained through experience.

“It must be some one impression, that gives rise to every real idea.”
(Hume, David, ‘Of Personal Identity’ in A Treatise of Human Nature, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1911, p.238.)

  • If concept of mind is true then objects such as, house, car, etc. must have somehow come to be through senses first.
  • Attraction- sounds like common sense, for example you can’t teach a toddler the colour red without showing it to them.

“[S]etting aside metaphysicians of [the Cartesian] kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearances; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propensity we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.”
(Hume, David, Ibid., p. 239.)


  • Under continuous change (morning and leaving)
  • Constant identical self- changing impressions attack.
  • Which impression of yourself? (happy, mad, sad ect.)
  • Objects outside ourselves and our identity.
  • Loads of objects that change all the time, how to describe- change is cognitive.

“In order to justify ourselves this absurdity, we often feign some new and unintelligible principle, that connects the objects together, and prevents their interruption and variation. Thus we feign the continu’d existence of the perceptions of our senses, to remove the interruption; and run into the notion of a soul, and self, and substance, to disguise the variation.”
(Hume, Ibid., p.241.)

  • Something substantially, they are the same- doesn’t make sense.
  • Planting a tree- don’t see anything for a while, in ten years there is a tree. Nothing similar between acorn and oak tree, how do we know it’s the same tree?
  • Spatial relations doesn’t mean they are related.

Selfhood and identity (continued existence of an identical self) is not a real idea but something we construct out of our imagination and memory – from previous experience.

Where memory is missing, the question whether there is any continuation to one’s identity remains unanswered.

Cindy Sherman

  • Costume changing

“Since she uses herself as her subject in all her photographs, we might want to call these self-portraits, but in essence they deny the self. […] Hers are perfectly poststructuralist portraits, for they admit to the ultimate unknowable-ness of the ‘I’.”
(Grundberg, Andy, ‘The Crisis of the Real’, in Wells, Liz [ed.], The Photography Reader, London and NY: Routledge, 2003, p. 170.)

Gerhard Richter

  • Creates multiple kinds of art- minimalist, expressionist, classical structure and minimalist, semi-scientific, experiments.
  • Refused to form a signature style.
  • His exhibitions look like group shows, there are many Richter’s.

“I like everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings. (Because style is violence, and I am not violent).”
(Gerhard Richter, ‘Notes 1964-1965’, in The Daily Practice of Painting, London: Anthony D’Offay Gallery/Thames & Hudson, 1995, p.35.)

  • Violence to oneself and viewers.
  • Art concerned unidentifiable, uncertainty.

My profound distaste for all claims to possess the truth, and for all ideologies – a distaste which I have often expressed, with varying degrees of skill (and which has shown itself so clearly in my pictures, in my way of working, in my whole attitude, that I myself have repeatedly ascribed it to an innate lack of structural capacity, or of courage, or of strength, or of the formal impulse, or of potency, or of creativity) – this now receives confirmation from such people as the physicist Dürr, the evolutionary scientist Riedland, and Konrad Lorenz, who say that our sole hope of survival lies in the ‘gropings of human self-doubt.’
(Richter, ‘Notes 1988’, Ibid., pp.170-171.)

  • Strong sense of uncertainty, virtue of it.

Roni Horn

  • Current self-juxtaposed with child self.
  • Gender theory – male and female name.
Roni Horn, You Are the Weather, 1994-1995.

Roni Horn, You Are the Weather (details), 1994-1995.

  • Same Icelandic girl photographed lots of times from different angles.

Her sitter’s face is a perfect façade, a kind of barometer that registers the subtle changes of the water below and the sky above. […] these images, though repeated, reveal little about the sitter. […] This treatment of the face smudges the distinction between object and subject. Just who is the “you”?
(Salvo, Donna de, in Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, London, 2009, p.195.)

  • Enigmatic title of the project- who is it relating to?
  • We are all the weather- thermometer change, interaction with the environment.
  • We are constantly changing physically and psychologically.
  • Doesn’t follow one specific style ‘doubt block’ – similar questions.
Roni Horn, Doubt Block, 2005.

Thomas Keenan

Thomas Keenan, Eyal Weiman, Mengle’s Skull, 2012.
  • Mengle, the person in the images performed violent experiments during holocaust, this project was about identifying him.
  • How can we be certain the skull is him? Identification not easy.

 Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff, Porträt, [Portrait], 1984.
  • Deadpan photography.

“Every detail of their faces right down to the quality of their skin could be read almost as though under a microscope. And yet the viewer could never get beyond the surface of the image, because so little was revealed of the figures themselves as to their character, individuality or personality. The sitters dis-appeared behind their likenesses and left only a precise record of their external appearance, which in turn served as a reflective surface for the viewer. With this series, which was concluded in 1991, Ruff memorably demonstrated his belief ‘that photography can only depict the surface of things’.”
(Liebermann, Valeria, ‘Photography as Proving Ground’, in Thomas Ruff [exhibition catalogue], London: Essor Gallery, 2001, [unpaginated])

  • Can’t penetrate the surface- nothing to penetrate? Don’t know what substance means.

After break discussion:

What is post-structuralism?
Was a philosophical movement emerged in France late 20th century.

  • Roland Barthes
  • Wanted to theorise beyond structuralism


  • Interpreting structural texts- can mean anything.
  • Despite surface different of myths underline structure repeated.
  • Hollywood- very simple basis structure- keep repeating.


  • Wanted to go beyond this, never got deeper meaning.
  • Different ways of looking at things.
  • Different readers see different things- reader is essential.


Essential Reading: David Hume: Of Personal Identity (in A Treatise of Human Nature)



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