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LARB reviews Self: Philosophy in Transit by Barry Dainton.

One of the notable features of human beings is our ability to sleepily glance at the bathroom mirror in the morning, and not only recognize ourselves, but also reflectively note, “Hmm, I don’t like myself very much these days. I wonder what I can do to change who and/or what I am.” This otherwise minor bit of self-reflection might inspire a variety of actions, from getting a membership at the local gym, to deciding not to snort that line of available cocaine sitting on the little shelf above the bathroom sink, to rethinking one’s bigoted views about ethnic group X, gender Y, or nation Z.

The mundane capacity to engage in such considerations is nonetheless a remarkably rare ability among living things, and the smaller subset of conscious beings that includes us. A very few other animals — mostly other primates, dolphins and whales, maybe elephants, possibly a bird or two — are able to pass what’s known in psychology as the “mirror test” for self-recognition. But even those other animals that recognize themselves in mirrors don’t appear to make judgments about those selves or make resolutions to alter themselves. And as one commenter at quipped about our uniqueness, “Sadly, humans are the only animals that use mirrors for taking deceiving self-portraits to put on social networks.” Ah, yes, those ubiquitous selfies.

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