It seems upon first glance that attitudes towards the existence of the self must either be defending the notion that it exists in its own right as a real thing imbued with sensible and rational power (substance theory) or holding that the common notion of the self doesn't really correspond to any one existing thing, but is rather built upon the many things of our experience, the relations between which give rise to the error of believing that something is responsible for the unity therein (bundle theory).

Indeed, this seems to rest on the necessity of the classic principles of logic; the question of whether there exists a 'self', in the genuine sense of the word (meaning 'that which is I' or 'that which experiences and that which thinks'), is just to wonder whether there really is a thing that corresponds to our notion of the 'self'. The only options that seem available to this inquiry seem to be to answer in the positive (substance theory) or the negative (bundle theory).

As such, is it fair to say that all discussion of the self must be some form of the two prior theories about the self? Is it possible to speak of the self in the sense implied above without assenting either to the view that the self refers to an actually existent substance or to the view that the self doesn't refer to an actually existent substance, and is rather a notion born out of a misinterpreted set of impressions/thoughts?

  • Why do you call substance accounts and bundle accounts the "two prior theories"? There have been many conceptions of what "self" means through the history of Western philosophy (and also outside of Western philosophy). It seems like you're using these as synonymous for "realist" and "non-realist" views towards the existence of a self.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 2:22
  • 1
    How is this question different fromhttp://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/31783/can-a-materialist-theory-of-mind-be-anything-other-than-a-bundle-theory-of-self?rq=1 Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 5:08
  • @AlexanderSKing Half of the alternatives in the taxonomy I offer below (including my favorites: The neoPlatonist one and the psychoanalytic one) are not materialist. So I do not see these as the same question.
    – user9166
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:20
  • @AlexanderSKing My question isn't adressing materialism necesarrily nor is it asking if the philosophy of mind in a materialistic worldview dissolves into bundle theory; it is asking a more general question. Do all theories dissolve into asserting the existence of a mind-independent self or the reduction of the mind to some bundle of other individuals or impressions?
    – Bombadil
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 21:35

1 Answer 1


Well, is your body either a single material entity, or a collection of members? No. It is neither, both, more than either. The cellular structure is present, so it is not a single object, but at the same time it is a contiguous collection of cells, so it is a single object. The limbs exist, and may map out the body, but is more than a collection of them. (It is the whole constructed of the parts of a human, to paraphrase Quine.) Beyond that, the matrix of cells, or the collected members would be a corpse, not a body. And, animated, it is a body, a thing with specific functions, and would be so even if you replaced the cells and members with functional equivalents.

By analogy to this (perhaps overly pedantic) observation, to me there are two logical leaps in your approach to the sould that are unwarranted.

1) Emergent theories of self are not 'bundle' theories even though they do admit that there are lower processes that constitute the soul itself. So 'single cause' vs 'bundle' as a dichotomy is not clean and does not cover the range of options.

Like the cells, the soul can have parts that seem to make it up, yet do not totally explain its entirety no matter how you put them together.

2) Good 'bundle' theories do not necessarily involve any misinterpretation.

Like the members, even if the soul is woven together out of perceptions and labels, it serves a purpose they would not serve on their own without the 'weaving'. So there is something to be seen there with more structure than a simple collection.

So these two concepts, emergence of function, and holistic effects, undercut the idea that the soul must be either single, or separable. The soul may be neither single, nor separable, in the same way as the body: it has parts and aspects, but if you remove a few, it is no longer a body, but a corpse.

I would propose there are at least five plausible constructions of the soul, motivated by historical precedents and an elemental breakdown along the lines of Aristotle's four causes:

1) (Quintessential) The soul's naive view of itself is as a 'single substance'. (A la Spinoza, Descartes, et al.)

2) (Formal) The soul is a collection of separate 'substances' that work together, which give it internal boundaries and psychological structure. (A la Plato and neo-Platonists.)

3) (Efficient) The soul is an emergent effect of self-observation, maintained by intersubjective feedback. (The emergentist view. Can be projected onto threads like Desassure, Wittgenstein, et. al, but they avoided speaking in these terms.)

4) (Final) The soul is a functioning entity capturing will and intention, either evolved or designed for this purpose of its own continuation. (A la later psychoanalysts, Nietzsche, et al.)

5) (Material) From a totally third-party point of view, the soul is a confluence of activities and patterns, and nothing more. (The 'bundle' views.)

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