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Is the inner self an illusion?

Like many artists and thinkers before him, Pessoa seems to think of the true self, the essential self, as necessarily incommunicable and hidden from others. Our rich inner life – the life of the soul, if you like - is necessarily private. Pessoa writes:

 The abyss from soul to soul cannot be bridged

By any

skill of thought or trick of seeming.


Whether we write or speak or do but look

We are ever unapparent. What we are

Cannot be transfused into word or book…


However much we give our thoughts the will

To be our soul and gesture it abroad,

Our hearts are incommunicable still.


This view of the self can give rise to emotions, of course, including feelings of isolation and loneliness, which artists like Pessoa have tried to articulate. 

It can also give rise to religious feelings and beliefs – including that the self as somehow other-worldly - detached from the physical.

The view also gives rise to some classic philosophical puzzles. These include: 1. the problem of other minds – of how we can even know that there are any minds other than our own, given we only ever have direct access to our own, and 2. the so-called ‘hard’ problem of consciousness, of explaining how this private inner world of conscious experience relates to our physical bodies.

In this talk I explore a radical response to this view of the mind as an essentially private theatre – that the private inner self actually an illusion. Of course, many will react to that suggestion by saying ‘That’s absurd – of course the inner self isn’t an illusion. In fact there’s nothing I’m more certain of than that this private something exists.’ But is that true? I’ll be exploring, in particular, the work of the later Wittgenstein.



If, after I die, someone should choose to write my biography,

Nothing could be simpler.

There are only two dates—that of my birth and that of my death.

Between one and the other all the days were mine.

Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa)1

ABSTRACT: In this talk, we will sustain the thesis that the Lockean formulation of the concept of “personal identity” constitutes – even today – the best exposition of the issue. In our view, critics forgot what Locke told us, transforming “personal identity” into a mere variant of the temporal identity of any entity. Locke, emphasizing the “subjective” aspect of the concept of personal identity, agrees with the verses of Caeiro (a heteronym for Fernando Pessoa), for whom the issue can never be in the domain of external objectivity.

CV: Carlos João Correia is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lisbon. He obtained his PhD at the same University with a thesis on the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Published several books as an author (7) and as an editor (12). Chairman of the philosophical and cultural Association “What is it?” and director of the philosophical journal, philosophy@lisbon. Member of the Mind-Brain College of the University of Lisbon. Aesthetics is his main research area.


[1] Fernando Pessoa. “Poemas Inconjuntos”. In Poemas de Alberto Caeiro. Fernando Pessoa. (ed. João Gaspar Simões and Luiz de Montalvor.) Lisboa: Ática, 1946 (10ª ed. 1993), 88. English translation by P.Ferrari e Margaret J. Costa (The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro. Apple Books).

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How much I was lies.

How much I will be I am not.

In between what I am and what I am being,

Nature, outside, has Sun.

But if it has Sun, there is Sun.

To the Sun I give myself.

Fernando Pessoa[2]

ABSTRACT: In the Middle Ages, the concept of person was the subject of vivid theological and philosophical debates, that aimed to grasp the plurality within the unity of the trinitarian God. What we will try to show is how the medieval understanding of person can nowadays contribute to the problem of personal identity, and how it reflects upon Fernando’s Pessoa poetry.


CV: Filipa Afonso is a Researcher at the Centre of Philosophy of the University of Lisbon. In the last few years, she has been teaching Medieval Philosophy, Aesthetics, Ethics and Critical Thinking at the University of Lisbon. She received her PhD in Medieval Philosophy from the University of Lisbon with a thesis on Bonaventure’s Metaphysics of Light. She has published studies on Bonaventure, Eriugena, Augustine, etc. Filipa Afonso is a vice-director of the Centre of Philosophy of the University of Lisbon, and the coordinator of its research group in History of Philosophy.


[2] Fernando Pessoa. Novas Poesias Inéditas.  (ed. Maria do Rosário Marques Sabino and Adelaide Maria Monteiro Sereno.) Lisboa: Ática, 1973 (4ª ed. 1993), 68.



Yes it’s me, I myself, what I turned out to be,
A kind of accessory or spare part of my own person, 

The jagged outskirts of my true emotion—
I’m the one here in myself, it’s me. (…)

It’s me, just me, and nothing I can do about it! 

Álvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa)[3]


ABSTRACT: In these verses, Álvaro de Campos, one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, proclaims the anthropological condemnation of the self to be him and only himself. However, the possibility of the existence of another me, the imaginary encounters of me with myself, or the dystopian scenarios of identity usurpation, are perennial objects of philosophical fascination and tremble. In this brief communication, we intend to reflect on the truth value of this supposed anthropological condemnation, and to what extent it is possible for to have the experience of what it is like to be other than myself. 


CV: Manuel João Pires (mjp): Graduated in Philosophy at the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon. Philosophy teacher in high school and philosophy trainer, with several published articles and multiple communications in national and international conferences. Since 2015 he’s President of PROSOFOS: Association for the Promotion of Philosophy, entity responsible for the National Philosophy Olympiad and for Portugal's participation in the International Philosophy Olympiad.


[3] Álvaro de Campos (1931), in A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe selected poems, Edited and Translated by Richard Zenith, Penguin Books, London, 2006, 241.



My gestures are not me.

Fernando Pessoa[4]

ABSTRACT: In this talk I compare briefly the positions on personal identity of two British philosophers, both of whom oppose the idea of Cartesian Egos: Derek Parfit, who is a neo-Lockean and Paul Snowdon, who is an animalist. I build the contrast around two scenarios: Teletransport and The Pianist.


CV: Sofia Miguens is Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto. She is the Founder and Principal Investigator of MLAG (Mind, Language and Action Group. She was a Visiting Scholar at New York University (Fall 2000), a Visiting Research Fellow at Institut Jean Nicod-Paris (2007-2008), a Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney – Australia (2013) and a Visiting Professor at the University of Picardie (Amiens) (2017). She was President of the Portuguese Philosophical Association (2004-2006). She is author of eight books and editor of several others, most recently Uma leitura da filosofia contemporânea - Figuras e movimentos (Edições 70, 2019), Pre-Reflective Consciousness - Sartre and contemporary philosophy of
mind (Routledge, 2016) and The Logical Alien (Harvard University Press, 2020). She has published widely in Portuguese, English and French on several topics in philosophy of mind and language and history of contemporary philosophy. Some recent articles: “Temptation and Therapy – Wittgensteinian responses to other minds skepticism”,
Wittgenstein Studien, 2019;“The Human Face of Realism – Putnam and Diamond on the ethical ‘gulfs between us’” in The Monist, 2020; “What is the difference between Hamlet and me? Fiction, metaphysics and the nature of our moral thinking”. In 2020, Abstract Objects: For and Against; “The Quest for a Voice - The importance of Cavell’s notion ofclaim for ethics and aesthetics”, Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy,  2021


[4] Fernando Pessoa. Novas Poesias Inéditas. Ed. Maria do Rosário Marques Sabino and Adelaide Maria Monteiro Sereno.) Lisboa: Ática, 1973 (4ª ed. 1993), 25.

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