There’s a nice little video on the web at http://www.microphilosophy.net/?p=210 that shows a number of well-known philosophers–Dan Dennett, Sue Blackmore, and others–giving a one-sentence answer to the question, “What are you?” Each of them, good natured, answers, “I am . . .” Most of them take the view that as individuals they are constructs created by various sub-agents (Dennett and Blackmore both want ‘memes’ to be given most of the credit). The whole video (which plugs someone’s book, by the way), is under three minutes long, and I recommend watching it.
Still, the answers left me dissatisfied. My hunch is that the question is wrongly put. Ask, “What are you?” and you get back an answer that necessarily refers to an equivalence between ‘I’ and this or that existing thing or things. “I can be reduced to a set of memes and genes.” Or, “I am an animal.” Or, in the words of a short story I read once, “Of this time, of that place, of such a parentage . . . no matter?”
The villain here–the source of the dissatisfaction–is the “am.” Ask instead, “What is I?” and a wider field of possibilities open up. Is ‘I’ an existent thing? Is it a concept? Is it a named set of properties, characteristics, and capacities, linked across time? Is it a story (and if so, who tells it?)
If they had turned the video camera on me, what would I have said? Hard to say, but here is one possible answer, after some limited amount of reflection: ‘I’ is an identifier that labels an ongoing set of perceptions, reactions, and labels that refer back and forth to each other in ways that implicate a certain set of temporal structures.
A bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Let me try again. ‘I’ is a word that points to nothing in particular, but that organizes experience in what( for me and no one else) are instantly recognizable ways.