Philosophy Weekend: The Elusive Self

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Why do the models we use to understand the human mind often seem so shallow, so unsatisfying? Could it be because the great discoveries in this field have not been made yet?

Plato wrote of the mind in a cave, groping towards the light. Sigmund Freud broke the mind down into three components, Id and Ego and Superego. Ayn Rand depicted the mind as heroic raw intellect, needing only to throw off its chains. All of these models have their purposes, but they creak and sputter under real-world use.

We can't blame the great philosophers and psychologists of the past for not trying hard enough, but we should look to future thinkers to help us understand our conscious selves better, and I suspect there's some low-hanging fruit on this tree. The question of the self -- what it is, how it evolves over time, how it relates to other selves -- is the great philosophical puzzle of our current age.

The first mistake of the naive psychologist or philosopher is to assume that the self must be a concrete, singular and persistent thing. In our everyday lives, we see that self is a shape-shifter. Every sentence has a subject and an object, yet when we speak about ourselves the subjects of our sentences do not remain constant.

To have a self is to have a will (the disinterested self has never existed), and some great thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer identify the self with the will. To exist is to want. This seems like a powerful equation, a good natural starting point for our inquiry into self.

But if we carry the identification of self with willfulness to its conclusion, we see that every person is therefore not a single self but a battle of selves. Does my "self" want to eat a cupcake tonight, even though my "self" also wants to lose fifteen pounds? Which self is in charge here, I ask as I stare at the dessert tray?

If our self represents our will (and this may or may not be true, but it's a conjecture worth testing) then there are not only battling sub-selves within us (the me that wants to eat a cupcake, the me that wants to lose weight) but also super-selves that encompass us. The groups and tribes and societies that we belong to have their own willful natures, and we as isolated individuals often find ourselves acting and existing not as isolated individuals but as members of hives, as atoms linked to molecules.

Consider, for instance, a lynching, or a riot. Does the individual self get lost here? Where has it gone? Why do large groups of people so often behave in ways that no individual members of the groups can manage to explain? What self is acting when these actions take place?

Rene Descartes laid down a great foundation for the study of the self with his great three words: "cogito ergo sum", "I think, therefore I am". We need some foundation to build upon as we try to construct a model of the human mind, and this is the foundation. We know we exist. That's all we know. It's the only statement ever uttered that can really not be reasonably questioned. Everything we build upon this foundation can conceivably be knocked down.

It's a valuable point, though, that Rene Descartes never proved that we exist as individual isolated human selves (he was mainly interested in using his cogito ergo sum to prove the existence of God). It seems to be a natural assumption that each of our conscious selves corresponds exactly and completely to our individual physical selves, though, and most of us take this for granted. One conscious self, one person. Various philosophers have chipped away at this -- not long after Descartes wrote his great works, Baruch Spinoza began writing of the "composite self" -- but today, four and a half centuries after the age of Spinoza and Descartes, we still seem to have only a blunt, often incoherent vocabulary for discussing the subtle forms and shadings of the human self.

This is an area I plan to write more about during these weekend philosophy posts. This particular direction is inspired by some great comments and challenges posted to some of my recent pieces about the ethics of Ayn Rand, particularly the comments found here. I am excited to continue this inquiry, and I cherish the feedback I've gotten so far to these exploratory posts. The artwork illustrating this page is by Abigail Stein.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Check Your Premises. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Puzzle of David Foster Wallace.
3 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Elusive Self"

by Claudia on

Levi, great post, and I love the picture that accompanies it as well. I agree with you. The "self" is very complex. Only those suffering from personality disorders are simple, since they have as their root complete egocentrism. For any "normal" human being, however, there is a battle of wills, of selves, of desires, as you state. And that battle isn't easily mapped in triads, as it is for Plato (the analogy to the three classes of citizens) and Freud (ego, superego, id). We can't look for an adequate model in a philosopher like Schopenhauer either, despite his eloquence and...pessimism. He's probably the best philosopher of personality disorders. We need a complex philosophy of the more or less "normal," multidimensional selves. So...are you up to sketching it in your philosophy series?

by frsh on

This sounds like the Holy Trinity to me. One God, three different persons, each different from the other, each its own self and yet only one true God. Not different masks or facets of a God, but three different persons, one God that is love in Himself, a community of selves.

I think Christians are onto something.

by Steve Plonk on

I think the self is quite fluid and not set in stone by any means.
People change...

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