Archive for the ‘Self’ Category

Who am I?

January 15, 2009

Thomas asks Who am I?

What do we mean when we refer to the “I”? What is the self fundamentally? Nietzsche instructs us: “become who you are.” But how is this possible? In becoming, I am changing, and thus I am different after I change than I was before. But it was I who changed, and so the I is in some sense a constant.

Ah, the Ship of Theseus paradox, Platonic forms, and all that jazz. The I that is changing is the I that changed, but the I is an abstraction. There is no concrete persistence, only interpretation makes it so. Everything is in a state of flux. Carl Jung talks of one of the ego’s functions being ‘stability of identity’. He sees this function as essential for our making consistent decisions in an otherwise world of chaos. To order (rationalise) is human and wise, but it is also to misunderstand.

I think it is useful to distinguish between self as self-identity (the socially-constructed ‘I’) and biological entity (‘bio-self’) , although we are both and the two aspects are intertwined. The bio-self may be more accurately seen as a force in particular contexts, rather than an entity.

I have taken “become who you are” (Pindar, in full “learn and become who you are”) as a strictly ethical imperative dealing with ‘authenticity’ of behaviour. It means become that projection of yourself (self-identity) that is most virtuous, or that gives you the greatest sense of self esteem/self-expression. Our self-identity is socially constructed, conditioned by upbringing, peers, etc.; we don’t have control over it by default. However, we can create a new narrative or conception of self, and through meditation pursue and fulfill it. “Become who you are” is an indictment to courage, to understand and master yourself, recognising both the reality of your circumstances and your freedom to choose an empowering, life-affirming response to them. Courage is not the popular image we have of it (e.g. Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies), but rather the simple, dispassionate recognition and passionate, thankful embrace of our ability not to impose excessive, restrictive, ever-fictional interpretations (rationalism) on phenomena, your self-concept, your past, limits on your behaviour and self-expression, and the world in its entirety.

But whose (or what’s) authenticity of behaviour do we refer to? Some objectification of our’s, the name matters not. An object is a point-in-time focus of consciousness to which we may attribute behaviour and/or qualitative/quantitative properties. The bio-self will always be an abstraction due to it never being concrete, however it can be well defined as body in the traditional vernacular. The reference of self-identity, however, cannot be defined. To attribute any essence to it would be ‘bad faith’. It would not be who you really are because in restricting yourself (and your behaviour) through a particular self-defintion you deny the freedom that you have not to be defined. Once you label me, you negate me (Kierkegaard).


You of the future

January 11, 2009

You are always becoming the you of the future. We are constantly projecting ourselves into the future, always expecting things, always hoping things. We live in the future, we are pulled ahead of ourselves.

Further reading:

A better tomorrow? – A bright vision of tomorrow makes for a sunnier today. Our relationship to the future affects our current state of mind

Theories of the self

January 10, 2009

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.

Autobiography: the key to know thyself

January 10, 2009

If you follow the below you will better ‘know thyself’.

How it should not be written

  • Not a standard historical biographic account: birth, family, education, work/published thought, relationships, death
  • Identifies social identities (husband, brother, candlestick maker) and relationships, but avoids evaluative judgements (good/bad) about these, seeks only to explain them and their origins
  • Not sentimental or whimsical
  • Not a collection of impersonal facts
  • Does not presume an essential self, only an existence that has come to write the autobiography

How it should be written

  • Written in the third person (only because this style helps to avoid evaluative judgements)
  • Objective tone
  • Must be informed by psychological insights
  • A description of one’s life that does not neglect to mention the external forces that has shaped one’s life (genetics, family, school, peer groups, religious institutions, mass media, societal norms and customs)
  • Must explain how one came to see the world in a particular way at particular times
  • Must explain behaviour in terms of both conditioning/social learning  (Behaviourism) and cognitive development (e.g. Piaget’s theory of moral development)
  • If judgements of experiences (both emotional and cognitive/propositional judgements)  are presented there must be an explanation as to how you came to make those judgements considering how you have been influenced in the past.

Authenticity: one of three basic psychological needs

January 4, 2009

It ought to be reassuring to have psychologists make the same conclusions as the philosophers you follow. Indeed, if the ‘inference to the best explanation’ of observations from empirical science does not align with one’s philosophy than it really ought to be thrown out. I am reassured in this case.

Psychologists have confirmed the emphasis that Existentialists have placed on ‘authenticity’. In Dare To Be Yourself they define authenticity as the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.

Some background on the concept:

Enlightenment philosophers secularized ideas of selfhood, but it took the 20th century’s existentialists to question the idea that some original, actual, ultimate self resides within. To them, the self was not so much born as made. One’s choice of action creates the self—in Sartre’s words, “existence precedes essence.” For Heidegger and confreres, authenticity was an attitude: the project of embracing life, constructing meaning, and building character without fooling yourself that your so-called essence matters in any absolute, a priori sense.

“The philosophical question is, do we invent this authentic self?” says Portmann. “Or do we discover it?” Socrates believed we discover it; the existentialists say we invent it.

There are many benefits to being ‘authentic’:

Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one’s core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs, along with competence and a sense of relatedness.

But it is not an endeavour for the weak. There are obstacles that you must overcome (apologies for the long quote; I do so for the sake of emphasis):

Another reason we’re not always true to ourselves is that authenticity is not for the faint of heart. There is, Kernis and Goldman acknowledge, a “potential downside of authenticity.” Accurate self-knowledge can be painful. When taking a test, it isn’t always fun to find out where you score on the grading curve. “Our self-images can be highly biased,” Leary notes. “But in the long run, accuracy is almost always better than bias.”

Behaving in accord with your true self may also bring on the disfavor of others: Must you admit to being a Democrat when meeting with your conservative clients? Does your wife really want to know whether you like her new dress? “Opening oneself up to an intimate makes one vulnerable to rejection or betrayal,” Kernis and Goldman observe. It can feel better to be embraced as an impostor than dumped for the person you really are.

Authenticity also requires making conscious, informed choices based on accurate self-knowledge. Like the existentialists, today’s psychologists emphasize the role of active choice in creating an authentic life: a willingness to evaluate nearly everything that you do. That’s no mean feat in a culture where even simple acts—you can dye your hair any color you want, your television carries more than 500 channels, and Starbucks advertises more than 87,000 ways to enjoy a cup of coffee—require conscious consideration among alternatives.

Such freedom can be exhausting. Baumeister has found that deliberation, no matter how trivial, exacts a cost in psychic energy, of which we have only a finite amount. His studies show that authentic action demands a certain amount of psychological exertion that depletes the self’s executive function. “It’s harder to be authentic,” he says. “It takes more work.”

Leary sees it as an outright burden, part of the perennial longing and doubt that he calls “the curse of the self.” So here we are, stuck with our self-awareness, which also compels us to continually define and refine our sense of ourselves as unique individuals against a background of conformity, superficiality, exhibitionism, and lots of other unique individuals.

But wait, there’s more. In order to realize an authentic life, says Kernis, one often has to set aside hedonic well-being—the kind of shallow, short-lived pleasure we get from, say, acquiring things—for eudaimonic well-being, a deeper, more meaningful state in which gratification is not usually immediate. Sissies need not apply.

The fact is that we tend to flourish under the most challenging circumstances, and enduring the pain and confusion that often accompany them can bring out the best—and most authentic—in us, fostering such deeply satisfying qualities as wisdom, insight, and creativity. But our cultural climate is filled with an alluring array of distractions, from online gambling to video games, that often turn out to be junk food for the mind.

Too Rigid for Our Own Good

But the really hard work, according to Cope and others, is the amount of ego-wrangling required to contact the core self. One of the biggest barriers to authentic behavior, he says, is the arbitrary and rigid self-image that so many of us nurture but which in fact distorts experience and limits self-knowledge. “Oftentimes, the very first line of defense you get with the folks who say, ‘I’m leading an inauthentic life,’ is that they’re living life according to a fixed set of views and beliefs about how they should be.”

Locus of control and Existentialism

December 27, 2008

The primary ethic of existentialism is concerned with Locus of control, which is perhaps the greatest idea of psychology – though unoriginal.

The point is, regardless of historical circumstances, genetics, family upbringing, etc., you are free and responsible for your own life. You create your own life, meaning and destiny.

The Buddha preached the locus of control also. Rather than looking to judge others, the external world or Satan  – for whatever absurd reason – as the source of pain and misery, the Buddha saw that is was the subjective, human sensitivity to pain that was the problem. A solution to this problem was only to be found in the self.

Developing an unshakable self-concept

December 18, 2008

I agree with Sartre that it is virtually impossible to completely maintain one’s preconceived and habituated self-concept –  no matter how intensely believed – in the face of others’ judgements. However, we can develop a tough shell that can protect us from all but the most vicious attacks, and a bright spark to guide and enliven our path forward.

To develop a self-concept that will lead to our flourishing  we need to, first and foremost, examine who influences us and what effect they have on our self-concept, positive or negative.

Two aspects of the self

December 18, 2008

I’ve touched on this before, but to reiterate because it is so very important…

We only have one self, but it useful to understand two different aspects of it:

The socially-constructed, anonymous, ‘Das man’ (Heiddeger), ‘being for others’ (Sartre) self is the inauthentic self. It is about ‘identity’ and social roles; e.g. mother, Lawyer, wife, sister, socialist, environmentalist, etc.

The authentic self is the more biological self (Nietszsche, Freud). It is rooted in the deepest emotions, such as the fear of death (Heidegger). The authentic self must embrace its deepest emotions, i.e., fully realise them. It must transcend (Sartre) the social self and understand the body – physical and psychological (Nietzsche) –  to truly understand and realise its freedom in creating a life.

The Self Does Not Exist

October 29, 2008

… Or why if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it is not really a duck.

The Self Does Not Exist

One of the targets of the Postmodernist philosophers is subjectivity, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception. They have tried to annihilate the concept, but try as they may, good ol’ commonsense says nay.

These fools (and that tosser Wittgenstein) deny the existence of a self because it is (totally) socially constructed. This is rather odd; it is though they believe there is a perfect other-world where social construction does not exist, that this other-world is the ‘true world’, not this one (Platonism, anyone?). It is precisely because the self is socially constructed* that it does exist. Although I could try to fool myself through ‘reason’ that I have no self-experience, my senses would not oblige. More to the point, the self is not narrowly socially-constructed, but ‘worldly-constructed’. It is through my engagement with the world, my being-in-the-world, that I come to recognise a self. This self is real, not the non-self of Postmodernist fantasy worlds.

*The self is socially constructed at the highest level (self-identity). At lower, more biological levels the self (not self-identity, but the most basic sense of self) exists without social interaction, but not without interaction with the world. The simplest of organisms evidence behaviour which can be attributable to a sense of self, even if they lack cognition of self-identity.


September 21, 2008

Am I? …

  • Australian
  • White (Anglo-Saxon)
  • Middle class
  • Male
  • Christian
  • Buddhist
  • Left-wing
  • University educated
  • IT Professional

These identities are part of my social self, but there is a danger that I will conflate them with my real self (supposing that such as a self exists). I may try to honour these identities because I think they are me. I may take defensive or aggressive pride in these identities. Nationalism, racism, class prejudice, sexism, religious intolerance, political fanaticism, intellectual arrogance and occupational boasting are dangers lurking at the door.

I am, but am not, how I see myself.

I am, but am not, how others see me.

I am, but am not, my history and memories.

I am, above all, being-in-the-world.

I share this identity with you. We are all in this together.