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The Self?...Part #1

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

Me, myself, and I were walking on a beach the other day and whilst wandering through our collective mind, we had a thought:

What is this idea, concept, or thing that we call a "Self"? Baumeister (1999) suggests a self-concept definition: "The individual's belief about himself or herself, including the person's attributes and who and what the self is". Ok, but that's the concept of self, not "the self" itself. I get that the self-concept is an important term for both social and humanistic psychology, but if it's a concept, then what is it a concept of? Plus in any given writings about "the self" the context of the description or discussion may be from philosophy, sociology or psychology. And each may use the term "self" but define it in subtly different ways. For example in the psychological mode we have multiple selves, 3 of which might be: Actual self/real self?

Ideal self

Ought self

In the philosophical mode it's more akin to an epistemological argument of knowledge of self. A sense of consciousness, or "awarenesses of" as distinct from that of "Identity" and the distinguishing facets of "personhood". And of course since attempting to be "conscious of consciousness" is both expression and enactment of the object of study, we are left much like the dog that is forever trying to examine it's own tail. In the sociological mode the self is what, exactly? Ashley Crossman explains it as follows:

"From a classical sociological perspective, the self is a relatively stable set of perceptions of who we are in relation to ourselves, others, and to social systems. The self is socially constructed in the sense that it is shaped through interaction with other people. As with socialization in general, the individual is not a passive participant in this process and have a powerful influence over how this process and its consequences develop" Ok, But, to use an expression that I first heard in a CS Lewis book, "that is not what the self is, merely what it is made of. So we are left with "the self" as being either, "types of us", our "concept of us", or "a composition of our concept of a perception of another's conceptual perceptions of us".

But that still doesn't really answer what "the self" is. Still with me? In attempting to explore further I have a feeling this is gonna be a long article, and kinda technical, so if you wanna grab a brew/beer/biscuit and get comfy now is the time ...

The great conversation. Philosopher Jacques Derrida, who amongst many subjects considered language and difference, coined a phrase here that comes to mind, "There is no outside-text". This does not mean that "text is everything", nor is the phrase in my view actually pertinent only to a comparison of literal "written text" and "spoken language". Rather the meaning here is more subtle, That every interaction is a "communicative process", whether between two people, an object and a person, or a concept and the person that is envisioning it, which may be our own "selves" or via means of external language, our companions. What do I mean by that? well... Consider a person sat talking with another whilst physically in their presence. They might be describing an object to their companion, or perhaps both conceptualising a mathematical problem. How many conversations are occurring at that time? one? two? more? There's the interaction with the two physical people, plus the act of recall (an internal conversation) of the first person to relay the information to the second, then their interpretation (again an internal conversation) of it. So perhaps two internal conversations occurring simultaneously with the externally visible one. These internal conversations are akin to what we might call "perception". So that would give us perhaps three simultaneous conversations. But interestingly that only accounts for the (externally visible) conversation about the subject being discussed, and since we each of us appraise much more in one conversation with a physically present "other" than just the content, there may be multiple "sub textual" conversations occurring, that I'm going call "meta-perceptive". Some examples of this might be: "Do I believe this person?" "What do they mean? Do they believe what they say?" " "I'm hungry" "Am I understanding correctly" "What do they think of me?" "this seat is hard" "how much time do we have to discuss this" "it's cold" "they might be cold" Now consider written words on a page. you're probably reading this on a computer. I myself as author am not there, thus it is true that, as Socrates suggested, you cannot directly interrogate me, merely interpret the words on the screen. Yet some of those original "meta perceptions" are still valid, and even if you were listening to my own (or any) podcast, a recorded verbal conversation, still only some of those meta perceptions would remain valid. Thus it is not "spoken" or "unspoken" here that forms a difference, but presence and/or absence of those whom we listen and speak with in "real time" This is where Derrida's thoughts on language open a door to an idea: Is "The self" what we experience and communicate with internally? After all, It is always present, even when alone. If you'll pardon a Descartes miss quote:

"I think (and talk with myself) therefore I am?"

Is it who we talk with when alone? and is that any different to the three possible definitions above? what did Descartes mean by "thinking"?

Hegel's dialectic.

If we cannot pin down the self from a direct mode of questioning, perhaps it is helpful to examine the opposite end of the question:What is not the self? Hegel's master and slave dialectic is really useful here since it, for me at least, captures the essence of "not self" and "self" and their defining themselves not in terms of what they are, but rather "what they are not"

As ever Oliver Thorn does a neat job of explaining this so rather than me writing down a bunch of words, please do spend a half hour watching the video. Done? great! Onwards then! So, my view the key concepts of self recognition are: Recognition of a "not self", an "other than self" Recognition of interdependence, dependence and will. Realisation of one own impermanence

But hang on, if Hegel suggests "if you're "not me" then there must be a "me", Descartes suggests "I think therefore I am" and, if Jacques Derrida further leads us to an idea that all thought might be communication, can there actually be "a self", or a consciousness of same without an other? and when we're alone who is talking with whom? and who is doing the thinking? This existential rabbit hole is getting pretty deep and pretty vertical, so lets secure a safety rope and make something of a ontological statement, lest we slip into solipsism, which the idea that nothing exists outside our consciousness of it and our consciousness is therefore the ONLY thing that can be said to exist. In my view what we have in Hegel's dialectic is a description of a cause and effect relationship that results in a "self aware consciousness". Both the thinking mind of Descartes and the external "non self" of Hegel are required for this process, since one could not exist without the other. (Descartes arguably had already become conscious via interaction with others when he wrote his medications, so he inadvertently skipped a step) The "not self" can be said to be another person, or something that is "not of the self", for example a chair, that exists in the world as we perceive it, and thus we become adept at interacting with it. (When did you learn about doors for example? or handles? or a knife and fork and how to use them?) If we take this idea little further, it is obvious therefore that "a being" must be able to exist at some point independently of their knowledge of that existence, at least until such time as they become aware of that existence. Why so? well, because ontologically self awareness is a potential property of existence, so they must first exist before becoming aware. Thus "awareness" cannot be said to be the same as "the self" or "existence". The psychologist Philippe Rochat wrote a paper on consciousness and cognition in children back in 2003, in which he suggested 5 levels that we all go through in this process of "building awareness" of self... below are his descriptions of these stages:


This is the first sign that the individual is not oblivious of mirrors as reflection. At this level, there is a sense that what is perceived in the mirror is different from what is perceived in the surrounding environment. More specifically, when perceiving the own specular image, the individual picks up the fact that there is something unique about the experience, namely that there is a perfect con- tingency between seen and felt movements. Beyond the confusion of the preceding level, this level entails some basic perceptual differentiation. Differentiation between the experience of own bodily movements as reflected in the mirror and the direct experience of other moving entities in the world. This is a first level of self-world differentiation: a differentiated self is expressed.


Beyond the differentiation of the uniqueness of self-produced movements seen on the surface of the mirror, the individual now is capable of systematically exploring the intermodal link between seen movements on the mirror surface and what is perceived of the own body proprioceptively. In other words, individuals now go beyond the awareness of matched surface characteristics of seen and felt movements. They also explore how the experience of their own body relates to the specular image, an image that is out there, projecting back at them what they feel from within.

As compared to the preceding level, this can be viewed as first signs of a contemplative stance toward the specular image, a sort of proto-narcissistic stage guided by self-exploration on a projected surface. At this level, there is no confusion. The individual is aware that what is seen on the mirror is unique to the self. In addition, the individual is also aware that what is seen is ‘‘out there,’’ on a surface that is spatially situated in relation to the body: a situated self is expressed.


At this level, the individual manifests recognition, the fact that what is in the mirror is ‘‘Me,’’ not another individual staring and shadowing the self. There is more than differentiation and situation of self in relation to the specular image. This level is expressed when children refer explicitly to the self while exploring their own specular image. As illustrated in Fig. 2, in the case of the ‘‘Post-It’’ sticker surreptitiously placed on the child's forehead prior to mirror exposure, the child discovers it in the mirror and reaches for it for touch or removal. This behavior is typically considered by developmental psychologists as the index of an emerging conceptual self (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Bertenthal & Fisher, 1978; Rochat, 1995), but also as a major cognitive landmark by evolutionary psychologists (Gallup, 1982; Povinelli, 1993). At this level, the indi- vidual is capable of referring the specular image to the own body, the latter being the referent of what is seen in the mirror. There is an identity relation between the self as experienced from within

and what is displayed on the polished surface of the mirror: an identified self is expressed.


The self is identified beyond the here and now of mirror experience. It can be identified in pictures and movies taken in the past, where the self might be significantly younger, at a different location and dressed in different cloths. In other words, the identification of the self is not tied to the temporal simultaneity and spatial coincidence of the body and its reflection whether in live videos or specular images. The individual manifests a sense of self that perdures the immediacy of mirror experience. A permanent self is expressed: an entity that is represented as invariant over time and appearance changes.

Self awareness or "meta self awareness" The self is now recognized not only from a first person perspective, but also from a third persons. Individuals are not only aware of what they are but how they are in the mind of others: How they present themselves to the public eye (Goffman, 1959). The public outlook on the self is simulated for further evaluation of how one is perceived and valued by others. The result of this evaluation, more often than not is either a devaluation or a delusion, linked to so-called ‘‘self- conscious’’ emotions or attitudes such as pride or shame. A self-conscious self is expressed: an entity that is simulated and projected in the mind of others. All of the above takes place between the ages of 0-5 and by age 11 the concept of a self seems pretty well established. Later on in his paper Rochat talks of "the birth of me" being the process of realisation, much like in Hegel's "self and not self". This happens, according to Rochat, at around 2 years of age. Surprisingly young, you might think, but wait a second, consider that cognitive use of language starts around this age, and in order to use language we must appreciate that there is a "not self" with whom we wish to communicate... the two year old holding out a hand and saying "juice" for a drink... or raising arms in anticipation of cuddle from a parent whilst saying "mummy" or "daddy" (Remember the door handle example from earlier? in order to ask for juice in a cup a young child must first have some concept of what a cup IS, thus knowledge of its existent outside of themselves)

Of course few, if any of us can remember our thoughts and feelings back then, due to the passage of time. As we've all gotten older the "extrinsic" methods of communication become replicated in our internal world and we learn to "think" in conversational format with "ourselves" as if there were two people conversing inside our heads. Thus language has shaped our perceptions, and meta perceptions, not just our external worlds, but also the internal.

This thought of "a self" that exists for a time independent of "concept of its own being" leads us to Roy Bhaskar's critical realism (1989) in which this central contradiction of "thinking about thinking" and attempting to be conscious of consciousness" is writ large. In asking the ontological question "what is the self" we can only answer in evidentiary terms about our knowledge of it. An epistemological answer that is derived from the outcomes of the property of consciousness as self aware beings. All the definitions above at the outset of this article fit this model since they are consciously constructed views of the self, that differ only in their respective ideological* placement (psychology, philosophy, or sociology) but essentially say the same thing which is that:

The self is undefinable without reference to a "perception of the self" and, although "the self" must exist, since we are self aware, or believe so, we cannot therefore quantify a human sense of self independently of human interaction and/or interpretation of same. Therefore as cognitive ability increases we first build a picture of ourselves through observation of the "not self" and begin to define ourselves in that way, via "comparison" and "elimination", whether individually or though wider social enquiry and inferences from observation. *I use "ideology" here in its archaic definitional sense, to denote a system of ideas and ideals, and their study. Talking with the "the other" An example of this "looking for ourselves in the other" so as to define, refine and affirm our view of ourselves and the world is anthropological study of other great apes. We humans are often guilty of assuming we stand outside of "natural science". Indeed Andy Blunden's piece on critical reality (see references) specifically and erroneously draws distinction between the study of "human activity" and that of the "natural world" by stating: "Natural science, by definition, is the science of Nature, and Nature means the world existing outside of and independently of human activity .... What is not so, cannot be the subject of natural science. But a project is not completely determined by its substances. In fact, natural science shares its substances with everyday life insofar as people are concerned with events, processes and phenomena beyond the horizon of their immediate sphere of activity (public discourse), but it is self-evident that natural science differs in many other respects from the everyday life" This presupposes an idea that Humans stand apart from nature and are therefore not intrinsically and inextricably part of it. Blunden further goes on to make a distinction of "activity" being excluded from natural science, but included as a substance of "human science": "Now oddly enough, the human sciences share with ‘unrestricted’ quantum physics, the fact that activity is included in their premises. As Marx made explicit in “The German Ideology,” the substances or premises of the human sciences are real individuals, their activity, and material conditions, both those they inherit from the past and those they create themselves. These are the premises of the human sciences, taking it for granted that the human sciences work ‘in alliance with’ natural sciences insofar as natural processes intervene in social life..... ....Someone participating in the human sciences does not cease to believe in the existence of Nature (that is, a material world prior to, outside of and independently of human activity), but reference to it is not internal to the practice of the human sciences. Contrariwise, to import activity into ‘ordinary’ natural science (i.e., natural science other than microphysics and cosmology)

and to disallow the reification of the concepts of ‘ordinary’ natural science, is to violate a characteristic feature of natural science, a kind of category error." Blenden compounds this by his explanation of reification: "By reification (emphasis my own) I mean claiming that some finite thing, captured in a concept, exists outside of and independently of activity." Reification is the making of something material, bringing it into being, or as in the case of Gestalt Psychology the perception of an object as having more spatial information than is present. (for example, seeing a "car" as a discrete object before considering it as a sum of it's parts) So why do I think Blunden is wrong here? Because he is guilty of considering the categories that Roy Bhaskar is highlighting as problematic as the solution to the problem of critical realism. The idea that "Natural sciences" must exclude "human activity" and then "activity" is a categorically descriptive one. Furthermore, by subtly subverting the meaning of reification to suit his own argument, Blunden is unjustly using a concept (reification) as justification of his conceptualisation of other concepts, namely human and natural science. It amounts to a long winded version of "but those ideas belong in THIS conceptual box, NOT that one" `he is also conflating methodological philosophies of a given scientific study with the as he calls it's "substance" suggesting that how one does a specific thing is the essence of it and that is very much a performative argument.

I could go on here but my intent is not to critique the whole of Andy Blunden's piece, so I will park those arguments and perhaps return to them in another blog. Suffice to say from my point of view, human activity is part of natural science or the natural sciences, and cannot be removed from them. From our species effect on the environment, to how we interact with other animals and even our building of machines and how we go about that, or our questions about how we came to exist on this planet. We are, as Dr Robert Sapolsky puts it, "sometimes just a plain old boring off the rack animal" Thus in looking for "the self" we sometimes find a concept of it within "the other" Like in the case of Washoe, a common chimpanzee, who when taught sign language expressed sorrow for the loss of her human handler's baby by signing "cry" (chimpanzee cannot physically cry) since she herself had lost babies of her own. When Washoe adopted an infant chimpanzee, the infant picked up sign language as taught by Washoe rapidly... thus we see a sense of "self" and "other" as demonstrably present in Washoe and her adopted baby. Sure "the self" in Washoe and her baby are examples of an "un human" self, although very "human like" yet they bridged a categorical species gap. Our research in this area and other similar ones is a uniquely human centric search for a placement of ourselves in the context of the natural sciences and evolutionary explanation of our existence. So, in this sense true reification of "a self" observed as being outside human consciousness, but within human activity is possible. Arguably Washoe could not have learned language had she not already had concept of self, and thus we can say that "a self" exists outside of the idea of it being a merely human experiential construct.

Have a kitkat... Whooa this is getting to be quite a long and complex piece. So, how about we take break here? grab a brew cos you've probably finished the first one .. and I'll see you in part two... where we get into cause and effect, complex realism, the ecological self, decision and also touch on identity work,

You can find part 2 Here References: Jacques Derrida - Interpreting Derrida: “There is no outside-text” Critical realism: Tenets and Application to Nursing

Philosophy tube on Hegel Critical realism and reality: Andy Blunden Five levels of self awareness as they unfold in early life - Philippe Rochat Complex Realism, applied social science and Postdisciplinarity: A critical assessment of the work of David Byrne

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