In philosophy terminology, what is the difference between the self and the soul? When philosophers argue against the existence of the self, are they really doing something much different than when they argue against the existence of the soul? Can you recommend any books that make this clear?

Thephilosophical problem of personal identity is an attempt to determine what a self, or person, is. Asatisfactory definition will tell us what makes someone the same self (orperson) over time. And this inturn will enable us to know whether it is possible for a self (or person) tosurvive after death.

Onecommon understanding of what a person is is this: a person is a union of ananimal body and an immaterial soul. My soul would seem to be what is essential to who I am, and since it isdistinct from my mortal body, there is a possibility that I (my soul) couldsurvive the death of my body. Thisis one of the main conclusions Descartes tries to establish in his Meditations on First Philosophy.

Oneproblem with Descartes’s notion of the soul is that it is quite thin. For Descartes, the soul is the seat ofthought – it is that which thinks. Locke points out that if a person’s soul is simply that which thinks,and if it retains no contents of the person’s thoughts, no memories of theperson’s experiences, none of the person’s character traits, then the soul isnot what makes a person who she is. He illustrates this by saying that the soul of Socrates (stripped of thememories of Socrates and without the philosophical abilities or other charactertraits of Socrates) could enter an English bureaucrat, and no one could evertell.

Soin Locke’s view, the self is distinct from the soul (as so defined). He argues that the definingcharacteristic of a self is his or her consciousness, especially consciousnessof his or her past actions and experiences. Some definition of ‘self’ in terms of the agent’s memory mustbe correct, but it is easy to come up with imaginary scenarios that presentdifficult paradoxes for such views. (For example, what if a man in the year 2012 ‘remembers’ commandingFrench troops at the Battle of Waterloo? Would that entail that he is identical to Napoleon?)

Agood starting place for thinking about the concepts of self and soul is JohnPerry’s A Dialogue on Personal Identityand Immortality. Perryincludes helpful suggestions for further reading.

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