Theories of the self

Beginning with the Enlightenment and Hegel in particular, the concept of the self has came under radical reconsideration.

Pre-Enlightenment view

From the end of the Roman Empire – the Christian ‘child of God’ with a fixed, ordered, God-ordained place and status in society (e.g. serf, noble, king). This idea of the self was undermined with the individualism and self-efficacy of the Renaissance and then dealt a severe blow with the Enlightment.

Modern, popular view

The self is an atomistic aggregation of my social identities (e.g. female, Mum, wife, secretary, American, etc.) and a fixed ‘personality’ (e.g. I am, have been and always will be a Myer-Briggs INTJ).


The self is a relation which relates itself to itself. What the…?!

Let me try to explain. We are an existing self (being-in-itself). We are also that which we conceive ourselves being, a projected self-concept (being-for-itself). We can change ourselves by changing our self-concept. But rather than our self as being-for-itself or being-in-itself or both, we are actually the relation relating being-in-itself to being-for-itself. We have not become a self, we are always becoming. Hegel argues that our freedom is limited by this becoming and that we must instantiate this becoming within the boundaries of our particular social and historical context, always in relation to the other. Kierkegaard reacted against this anti-individualism.


For Kierkegaard, as for Sartre who followed him, the self is absolute freedom. Like Hegel, Kierkegaard’s concept of self has aspects of necessity/finitude/facticity (being-in-itsef) and possibility/infinitude/transcendence (being-for-itself). Turning Hegel on his head, Kierkegaard argues that our freedom is actually a result or synthesis of our necessity and possibility. The self is relational but is not bound by any relation. It is not the relation found in Hegel’s concept of self, but rather it is the action of the relation relating. The self is spirit.

If you thought Hegel is difficult to understand, try this from Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self (p. 13).


A (mostly) fixed personality is formed by the age of 6. It is made up of three major aspects: Id (It, unsconscious), Ego (I, conscious) and Superego (internalised socialisation, conscience). We are born Id, a bundle of instincts and drives. The Id is motivated by the ‘pleasure principle’ and its behaviour is most clearly seen in babies. The Ego develops during early childhood and is motivated by the ‘reality principle’. The Ego seeks to satisfy the desires of Id, but it recognises that reality puts up obstacles to satisfaction, society’s rules and expectations, and these are internalised in the Superego or conscience. The Ego negotiates reality with the Superego in order to get what the Id wants. We are not governed by a rational mind, but rather seek to satisfy and rationalise the instincts and drives of the Id in relation to the Superego within our social context.

Behaviourism – Watson and Skinnner

While we do have nativistic instincts and drives, social conditioning/learning plays a primary role in shaping the behaviour of the individual. Behaviourists don’t concern themselves with ‘personality’, but if we accept that ‘existence precedes essence’ than we can say that behaviour defines personality/character.

Modern views in psychology

The self is messy, very messy. From Dare to be yourself:

“There isn’t a self to know,” decrees social psychologist Roy Baumeister of the University of Florida. Today’s psychologists no longer regard the self as a singular entity with a solid core. What they see instead is an array of often conflicting impressions, sensations, and behaviors. Our headspace is messier than we pretend, they say, and the search for authenticity is doomed if it’s aimed at tidying up the sense of self, restricting our identities to what we want to be or who we think we should be.

Increasingly, psychologists believe that our notion of selfhood needs to expand, to acknowledge that, as Whitman wrote, we “contain multitudes.” An expansive vision of selfhood includes not just the parts of ourselves that we like and understand but also those that we don’t. There’s room to be a loving mother who sometimes yells at her kids, a diffident cleric who laughs too loud, or a punctilious boss with a flask of gin in his desk. The authentic self isn’t always pretty. It’s just real.

We all have multiple layers of self and ever-shifting perspectives, contends psychiatrist Peter Kramer. Most of us would describe ourselves as either an introvert or an extrovert. Research shows that although we think of ourselves as one or the other (with a few exceptions), we are actually both, in different contexts. Which face we show depends on the situation. As Kramer puts it, “To which facet of experience must we be ‘true’?”

Other interesting views

  • Self as an onion, a popular Buddhist analogy – made famous by Shrek; keep peeling away the layers and you will find nothing there, no core
  • Adrian writes on the Confuscian theory of ‘situated selves’ in On Confucius, true selves, and community
  • The self is a social structure consisting of multiple conditioned characters (self-concepts). Our responsibility is to manage these in relation to the world and others in partiular circumstances while maintaining authenticity. We may need to, indeed should and sometimes do, create new characters as circumstances warrant.

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