Abstract: "Absolute Idealism and the Nature of the Self"

Questions of what selves are, and what attributes they have, have been at the centre of discussion in the philosophy of mind--and, more broadly, in metaphysics--throughout the past century, and there are few philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition of the past 40 years who have not had to wrestle with the accounts of Ryle (The Concept of Mind), Strawson (Individuals), Ayer, and Malcolm.

But the importance of these questions to ethics and social and political philosophy is only being gradually acknowledged. In work published even in the past few years, authors like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have explicitly questioned the necessity or value of any 'metaphysical' account of the self in elaborating a theory of rights or a theory of justice. When they discuss selves at all, they provide a 'thin' functional account of the human person--as a rational, self interested, maximizer of desire. This refusal to go any farther than this in relating an account of the 'self' to value theory is in keeping with the view frequently found among philosophers after Hume, if not after Hobbes, that what people _are_ does not entail anything about how they _ought_--in the moral or social or legal or political sphere--to act. Many philosophers still say, to use an old phrase, that you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is.'

This anti-metaphysical approach has been challenged by a number of authors--by political philosophers as far apart from one another as Tibor Machan, Michael Sandel, and Alasdair MacIntyre--and also by those like Charles Taylor who, in his recent book, _Sources of the Self_, reminds us how different theories of the self have gone--and go--together with different theories of the good.

I do not, however, wish to discuss these competing views nor, directly, challenge them here. Instead, I want to outline an alternative account of what it is (like) to be a self--an account that was elaborated over a century ago, in response to various empiricist and materialist schools, but an account that provides some useful insights today. This is the account provided by 'absolute idealists' of the English speaking world, such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Bernard Bosanquet, and J.C. Smuts, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After a few introductory comments, in the first part of this paper I sketch out what it is to be an individual. In the second part, I outline the claim that a satisfactory account of the individual leads to a broader, more comprehensive, idealist metaphysical view. In the third section, I say something about how the individual and this more comprehensive metaphysical view are compatible. Finally, I state briefly what I take to be some of the advantages of such an account.