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The Self

The problem of the nature of the self asks what the self is, and the focal point of my research concerns the role that a narrative plays in one's self conception. Much of my research on the self has been done collaboratively with David Lumsden, and our view has it that the self isn't composed of one narrative but many different threads all interwoven together to constitute a self.

Edited Collection 

Virtue, Narrative, and the Self: Explorations of Character in the Philosophy of Mind and Action

(Routledge, 2020)

Editors: Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl Van Zyl

Virtue, Narrative, and Self connects two philosophical areas of study that have long been treated as distinct: virtue theory and narrative accounts of personal identity. Chapters address several important issues and neglected themes at the intersection of these research areas. Specific examples include the role of narrative in the identification, differentiation, and cultivation of virtue, the nature of practical reasoning and moral competence, and the influence of life’s narrative structure on our conceptions of what it means to live and act well. This volume demonstrates how recent work from the philosophy of mind and action concerning narrativity and our understanding of the self can shed new light on questions about the nature of virtue, practical wisdom, and human flourishing.


This book will be of interest to scholars and advanced students working in virtue theory, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and action, and moral education.

Articles / Chapters

Do Political Convictions Infect Every Fibre of Our Being? 

Social Epistemology (forthcoming).

with David Lumsden

Many countries’ constituencies are populated by polarised groups with sharply contrasting political loyalties and convictions, which appear to be becoming more and more extreme. We wish to explore such extreme political convictions with a focus on their place in a supporter’s mind, which underpins their engagement with a political movement. We look at how a political narrative can be internalised within the person as one of their narrative threads alongside other narratives concerning, for example, familial relationships, hobbies, and work. Such a bundle of narrative threads, or at least the more central ones, can be said to constitute their identity. Using that framework, we explore the mechanisms that foster such extreme political engagement and the way a group member is committed to a political narrative. As even a very powerful political narrative is not the totality of a person’s internal narrative we can see how an individual has the potential to release the hold of a political narrative, particularly if those outside the political narrative can recognise and acknowledge those non-political parts of their identity. In this way, people can build bridges across socio-political divides.

Virtues, Self-Narratives and the Causes of Action

Acta Analytica (2023) 3.2: 249-262.

with David Lumsden

Virtues can be considered to play a causal role in the production of behaviour and so too can our self-narratives. We identify a point of connection between the two cases and draw a parallel between them. But, those folk psychological notions, virtues and self-narratives, fail to reduce smoothly to the underlying human physiology. As a first step towards handling that failure to connect with the scientific framework that is the familiar grounding for our understanding of causation, we consider the causal theory of action, a leading theory of action, which shows how reasons, understood as an appropriate pair of beliefs and desires, can be treated as causes of action. Davidson’s picture is based on cause as a relation between events, which can have both a description in scientific terms and in folk psychological terms. The character of both virtues and self-narratives is not that of events, even extended ones, so we need to refer to examples of scientific explanation that incorporate structural properties of objects. While we retain the spirit of the causal theory, we wish to guard against any unwarranted optimism that an explicitly scientific explanation for human action lies in our future, drawing on Chomsky’s view that a causal explanation of human actions is likely to remain beyond human science forming capacities. We take a mild-realist view of virtues and self-narratives, in the style of Dennett. We argue that, in spite of that limited form of realism, underlined by Chomsky’s mysterian position in this domain, we still need to frame our explanations of behaviour based on virtues and self-narratives in causal terms.

Self as One and Many Narratives

Balkan Journal of Philosophy (2021) 13.1: 11-20.

There are different approaches to the narrative self. I limit myself to one approach that argues narratives have an important role to play in our lives without it being true that a narrative constitutes and creates the self. My own position is broadly sympathetic with that view, but my interest lies with the question of whether there is truth in the claim that to create one's self-narrative is to create oneself. I argue that a self-narrative may be multiply realised by the inner self--impressions and emotions--and the outer self--roles in work and life. I take an optimistic attitude to the idea that narrative provides a metaphor that may stimulate insight into the nature of self if we accept a plurality of narrative selves. This paper mines a vein of research on narratives for insights into selves without being bewitched in accepting implausible conclusions.

Future Intentions, Plans, and the Problem of Buridan's Ass

Academia Letters (2021).

I contend with an inconsistent triad that remains a problem for theories of practical reasoning: (1) An agent, S, is able to choose only one option, or y, (2) S prefers neither x nor y in comparison to the other, and (3) prefers having at least one of x or y to having none. 

How Self-Narratives and Virtues Cause Action

In Virtue, Narrative, and the Self: Explorations of Character in the Philosophy of Mind and Action, edited by Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl Van Zyl, pp. 69-90 (Springer, 2020).

with David Lumsden

While the nature of the virtues and their role in human action are controversial, we wish to explore the thesis that virtues play a causal role in the production of action.  One fruitful, though controversial, approach to understanding the nature of the self is through the notion of a narrative and in particular a person’s self narrative or narratives.  Similarly we wish to explore the thesis that self narratives play a causal role in action.  We consider how virtues and self-narratives interrelate as well as playing a comparable role in the production of action. The basic ideas in the literature concerning reasons as causes of action provide us with a useful starting point even though the focus on reasons has tended to sideline potential causal roles for both virtues and self-narratives.  Without attempting to develop a new theory of causation, we draw a picture of how virtues and self-narratives, in relation to each other, can be regarded as causally effective in producing action.

Casting Light Upon The Great Endarkenment

Metaphilosophy (2019) 50.5: 729-742.

with David Lumsden

While the Enlightenment promoted thinking for oneself independent of religious authority, the “Endarkenment” (Millgram 2015) concerns deference to a new authority: the specialist, a hyperspecializer. Nonspecialists need to defer to such authorities, as they are unable to understand their reasoning. Millgram describes how humans are capable of being serial hyperspecializers, able to move from one specialism to another. We support the basic thrust of Millgram’s position and seek to articulate how the core idea is deployed in very different ways in relation to extremely different philosophical areas. We attend to the issue of the degree of isolation of different specialists and urge greater emphasis on parallel hyperspecialization, which describes how different specialisms can be embodied in one person at one time.

One Self Per Customer? From Disunified Agency to Disunified Selves.

Southern Journal of Philosophy (2017) 55.3: 314-335.

with David Lumsden

The notion of an agent and the notion of a self are connected, for agency is one role played by the self. Millgram argues for a disunity thesis of agency on the basis of extreme incommensurability across some major life events. We propose a similar negative thesis about the self, that it is composed of relatively independent threads reflecting the different roles and different mind-sets of the person's life. Our understanding of those threads is based on theories of the narrative construction of the self. Our disunity thesis is that there need be no overarching narrative that unifies those narrative threads. To explain how the threads hang together to produce coherent action, we make these positive claims: (1) control normally switches smoothly and unconsciously between threads as circumstances require, (2) within one thread there is likely to be acknowledgment of other threads, (3) some situations require a temporary blending of threads, and (4) some plans and policies reach across different threads and contribute to some coordination among them. Our account of a self provides an account of agency that has merits in comparison to Millgram's. Our narrative approach allows explanations of actions beyond rational deliberation.

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