The Individual as a Multiplicity of Selves

Sam Woolfe
7 min readApr 11, 2024

One common view in the philosophy of self sees the notion of a discrete, concrete self as an illusion. This concept is known as anatta (not-self) in Buddhism, and it was later defended by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (although he didn’t explicitly draw on Buddhism when making his arguments against the reality of self). In a previous post on the illusory nature of self, I shared a quote from Nietzsche: “My hypothesis: the subject as multiplicity.” According to this view (which doesn’t have to commit to the position that the self is an illusion), we are made up of discrete selves, rather than a core identity.

I am sympathetic to this view, especially since it seemed somewhat confirmed by psychedelics: the conviction of being a bundle of personas, instead of an unshakeable single self, remaining constant amidst fluctuating mental states. Seeing the individual as a multiplicity of selves can be an alternative to anatta. This position is partially aligned with the Buddhist view of the self, in that it does not claim that our sense of having a single fixed self is based in reality; but it diverges from Buddhism by positing the existence of multiple selves in a single individual. Both the Buddha and Hume argued, in contrast, that a bundle of experiences (which individually lack selfhood) creates a false impression of selfhood.

Nietzsche also expressed his ‘subject as multiplicity’ view in Beyond Good and Evil (1886): he said that our body is “a social structure composed of many souls”. Nietzsche, then, offered a view of the self that was contrary to Plato’s Idealism and Descartes’ mind-body dualism, which saw the self as a unified subject. Nietzsche thought of this unified subject as a useful but fictitious socio-cultural construction. As I point out in my post on the illusory nature of self, having a constant sense of being a unified subject can benefit us in an evolutionary and psycholoigcal sense. It facilitates the pursuit of individual interests, and it helps us construct a meaningful story of our lives, allowing us to make sense of our past, present, and future.

Nietzsche believed that we are made up of a multitude of drives, or many ‘wills to power’, striving to express themselves. In The Will to Power (1901), before stating “My hypothesis: the subject as multiplicity”, he writes:

The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general? A kind of aristocracy of “cells” in which dominion resides? To be sure, an aristocracy of equals, used to ruling jointly and understanding how to command?

Concerning this view, Leslie Paul Thiel says that “the individual…is proposed as an agonistic political community that experiences changes in regime.” The ‘subject as multiplicity’ outlook would come to influence later philosophers, such as Gilles Deleuze. It also finds a corollary in internal family systems (IFS) therapy, developed by the psychologist Richard Schwartz. This model of psychotherapy seeks to identify and address multiple sub-personalities or ‘families’ within each person. These sub-personalities consist of wounded parts and painful emotions (e.g. anger and shame), and other parts that try to control the wounded parts, so as to protect the individual. These different parts are often in conflict with each other. This fits in with Nietzsche’s conception (even if he didn’t view this conflict in therapeutic terms).

However, it should be underlined that IFS diverges from Nietzsche’s position because it proposes the existence of a core Self (the confident, compassionate, whole person that is at the core of every individual). According to IFS, the sub-personalities often conflict with this Self. Schwartz developed IFS after he observed in his work as a family therapist how clients would repeatedly describe aspects of their inner lives as ‘parts’. Thus, he began to conceive of the mind as a family, with the parts as family members interacting with each other. Even though IFS differs from the Nietzschean view of self — due to its assumption of a core Self — we could still conceive of it as lacking this aspect. In this way, we can think of each individual as composed of sub-personalities while retaining the therapeutic import of working with these parts.

IFS is considered an evidence-based form of psychotherapy, which research has found can be effective at alleviating various forms of distress, such as PTSD. It is also a popular modality that is applied in psychedelic therapy. Since a common aspect of psychedelic experiences is encounters with entities, we can use the IFS model to interpret these entities as projections of one’s sub-personalities or parts. In a paper published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Henry J. Whitfield writes:

Participants in psychedelic studies of various substances (and especially DMT) often report the phenomenon of meeting what appear to be autonomous “beings” offering guidance or other communication. The participant may consider this guidance to come from another part of themselves. Such entities can also be experienced as a malevolent or demonic encounter, and can example many Jungian archetypes, considered universal to many human cultures such as the mother, the mentor, the monster, some of which may function as a personification of the mind’s dissociative defences. An awareness of such archetypes may help inform what content is avoided, valued or unhealthily attached to. The model below treats these common experiences as aspects of self.

Michael J. Winkelman has explored how and why these entities function as projections of self, and in The Inner World of Trauma (1996), Donald Kalsched looks at how entities relate to trauma. Whitfield continues:

A psychedelic-therapist will need to address such encounters and the self-perspectives they represent, whether considered real, imagined, desirable or frightening. Such perspectives will be clinically relevant to the extent they help or hinder the process i.e., they may point to neglected values, new behaviours or inner avoided experiences.

In his Spectrum of Selves (SoS) model, which he describes in his paper, Whitfield notes that new self-perspectives can emerge as entities. He argues we can conceive of these entities as inner parts, which influence our behaviour as well as offer new perspectives. He states:

Entities and archetypes are also more likely to be experienced as the brain’s top down control of reality becomes less rigid, and the habitually supressed parts of a person’s psyche are allowed to emerge in one form or another. Like the inner critic and child these can also be responded to with parts work, as they may also have protective functions. For example a threatening God is an archetype that can embody both malevolent and benevolent protection at once. When such protective functions are recognised and validated other important content such as traumatic memories may become more accessible.

I personally find this framework more convincing than the popular view in the psychedelic community that these entities are mind-independent beings. Given the emotional character or ‘personality’ of these entities, it seems more likely to me that they are expressions of the differing parts that we contain.

With a more critical perspective in mind, IFS — and the idea that psychedelic entities are expressions of selves — could be deemed essentialist. In other words, viewing our minds as consisting of distinct selves might be too simplistic. We might be a patchwork of interwoven desires and sensations that can (and do) mix with each other, rather than a patchwork with distinct parts that we can identify as separate sub-personalities. In my essay on DMT jesters, I described an archetypal interpretation of these entities. However, I also point out that these entities may have additional qualities to those of classic tricksters. Psychedelic entities may, therefore, be an intermingling of archetypes.

But Carl Jung and his followers have been accused of essentialism, due to the in-built assumption that archetypes have an essential nature, or essential traits. Perhaps psychedelic entities, therefore, are not sub-personalities or archetypes but a complex mix of mental states. They may consist of certain distinct elements, but it may be mistaken to see any individual entity as a distinct self (or sub-personality). Nonetheless, many psychonauts may find it useful to think of entities with the IFS model in mind. This could be a helpful way to explain why dark entities manifest. Perhaps these are our mind’s attempt to show us the parts of ourselves that are self-destructive. These entities could be the parts of ourselves that come from childhood wounds: the sub-personality or self that developed out of experiences or people who are the root cause of our trauma or self-denigration.

Encounters with helpful entities could also be thought of with this therapeutic process in mind: the revealing of sub-personalities that want to heal our wounds. There may of course be differing opinions among IFS therapists as to what particular entity encounters mean, but it is nonetheless intriguing to take this mind-dependent view of psychedelic entities. This could be a way of beneficially working with such entities in a way that fits into a naturalistic perspective. People can usefully integrate entity experiences without needing to invoke supernatural assumptions.

Perhaps some people will feel uncomfortable thinking of themselves as a multiplicity of selves, given how undeniable and normal it feels to be a single self. Moreover, the idea that we are teeming with sub-personalities might feel similar to descriptions of dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple identity disorder) or schizophrenia. However, we can distinguish the Nietzschean or IFS outlook from these conditions based on the fact that the former does not have to cause that type of distress and dysfunction in our lives.

The idea that we are made up of multiple selves can actually be psychologically beneficial. It may enable individuals to resist seeing themselves as a core self that is fundamentally damaged. When we see ourselves as a patchwork of parts — some of which are adaptive and others which are maladaptive; some which are healing and others that need healing — we may find it easier to move towards healing and growth. This can be possible even without the IFS assumption of the existence of a core self.

Originally published at on April 11, 2024.



Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: