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04 December 2007

What is the "self"?

At the end of philosophy class yesterday, "Don" brought up the question of the self, and expressed interest in Hume's theories of the self. The following questions were composed by Don for us to answer/ponder this week.

What is 'self' composed of? Your answer might mentioned whether you think the self is composed of a mind, body, soul, spirit, combination, etc.

You might find yourself (if there is such an entity) asking the second question:
Is there such a thing as 'self-perception?' or the related: Can we really comprehend the individual?

This will obviously raise the point that if the self can observe itself, it must then have at least two parts (the observer and the observed) or be split into halves, or be able to perform the amazing, impossible operation of reflexive observation. I'll add something later on about C. S. Lewis's views of enjoyment and contemplation, a logical outgrowth of discussions of the self. But for now: Who are you; What are you?

You could also post on what the positions of various famous philosophers have been on the physicality or intellectual realities of the Self.

10 comments:

Don said...

To the first question, I have often heard the answer that the individual is defined by his personality, and I think this is not the least likely answer. It is certainly true that two people who go through much the same experiences come through so radically differently, and two people who go through completely different experiences handle situations exactly the same. On the other hand, this is based on the assumption that self would not be effected by experiences in the physical world. Maybe self is an aspect which can be altered just like the body, the mind, etc. I also heard an interesting idea some time ago about self. The idea was that perhaps "self" is something that exists on an entirely different plane. Our bodies, our brains, are like two-way radios. Perhaps people who are insane, or have mental disabilities, are actually just as sane and intelligent as we are, but the radio, the brain, is broken or malfunctioning. To briefly answer both questions, however, I don't believe that self comprehension or self perception is possible.

Rosie Perera said...

One of the most amusingly convoluted quotes I've ever heard and remembered happens to be on this topic. Kierkegaard, in the beginning of Chapter 1 of The Sickness Unto Death, writes "The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation's relating to itself." Uh, could you run that circular definition by me again, Søren?

I think what he's saying, essentially, is that the self is defined by being in relation. Others have pointed to our being relational beings, made in the image of a Trinitarian God who is self-relational in his very triunity, as something fundamental to our humanness. So what makes a self? Its capability of relating to others, to God, to God's creation, and to itself.

I don't think that means the self is necessarily divided into two parts. The Bible seems to speak against this notion of the divided self (or at least it casts such a situation in a negative light). See Matt 12:22-32 and James 1:7-8. The context of those passages isn't exactly about reflexive observation, though.

Think of when we look at our own eye in a mirror. There are not two parts of the eye: the part doing the observing and the part being observed. They are both one and the same. It is the mirror that enables the same eye to look at itself. Isn't there something analogous when the self contemplates itself?

Classic orthodox theology says that God in his essense is Spirit, and as such is undivided and indivisible. This is called the "simplicity of God" in philosophical theology lingo; in other words, God is not a compound of multiple parts. Yes, he is three persons, but each of the persons shares this same undivided essence as the One God. We have physical bodies, so we are of different essence from God. But the Hebrew notion of soul (nephesh) means the whole person, body, mind, and spirit. These things were not viewed as being separate parts the way we tend to understand them in our modern way of thinking. We now have all kinds of ways of talking about fragmented selves (deconstructed, multiple personality disorder, etc.), but I don't think it's who we are in essence, when we're at our healthiest at least.

I keep hearing good things about the great tome of Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, which I want to read some day, but have not yet gotten around to.

I can also share with you a quote I used for an article I wrote recently, from Jacob Burckhardt, the renowned 19th century art historian. In his classic book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, he writes: "In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness--that which was turned within as that which was turned without--lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation--only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such."

AVA said...

"I think what he's saying, essentially, is that the self is defined by being in relation. Others have pointed to our being relational beings, made in the image of a Trinitarian God who is self-relational in his very triunity, as something fundamental to our humanness. So what makes a self? Its capability of relating to others, to God, to God's creation, and to itself."

I would agree that we are creatures made to relate, or evolved to relate, depending on your beliefs…

I think that besides the physical bodies we possess, we have minds that can think and process information, and a soul that can feel things.

I would also say about our 'self' that there are different perceptions. There is how i percieve myself, there is how God (if there is one) views myself, and then there is every other person on this planet that has had some form of contact with me, how they think I am...

"This will obviously raise the point that if the self can observe itself, it must then have at least two parts (the observer and the observed) or be split into halves, or be able to perform the amazing, impossible operation of reflexive observation."

i would say the mind part of our self analyzes itself and the rest of our self...

"Who are you; What are you? "

does it matter? not to be counter productive, but why should we even care who or what we are? Unless who and what we are affects us in a way we'd like to put an end to, i don't see a reason to worry about questions like that...and that brings up a question why do we even care about anything? Is there something so deeply ingrained in our self that won't let us not care about anything?

In addition to that, what is the reason we exist? Why can I think, and feel things? Why does it matter what I am? I can be totally unaware of my having a mind, but that doesn’t mean my mind isn’t thinking anyway. So what does learning I have a mind really do for me?

As for who i am, i think i'm a mind and soul limited by what my physical body allows me to do. I would agree that there is something in our souls that demands we interact with God and others...and if we don't, something snaps inside us and makes us go insane, and become things we thought ourselves above...

No one can really make it through life alone without it doing horrible things to that person. Sure there are some people who claim they don't need others, but that's just them lying loud enough to try and convince themselves that it's true.

Darlin said...

I think perhaps in order to answer these questions...we must first answer other questions...
e.g
What is [the self's] teleology?

and How is that teleology decided?

Over the years my opinion on this subject has changed alot. [from before i was a christian until now.]

I cant help but think back to Paradise Lost and use imagery from that sort of book, when defining "self" in my head.

I personally think We are intellegent beings of mind, soul, and body, made for the purpose of God's glory [and in His image]. To a degree perception is possible but [true] perception only coming from what the Lord has allowed to us to know. We are finite creatures made from an infinite being- and we cannot perceive such of an ininfinate realm without revelation.

Who we are in the end comes down to..why are we here??

hmmm said...

Ok, so it seems pretty obvious to me that I-along with all other humans—have a body, a mind, and a soul. I guess having a soul is a Biblical concept so some people may not agree with that. I don’t know about having a “spirit” I mean, I believe the Holy Spirit lives in us, but I don’t know if that is exactly relevant.
I think self-perception is possible....I don’t know exactly how to explain it except that I think it is possible to have self-knowledge, in a sense that we know our personality and good/bad qualities, at least to an extent.
“Who are you; What are you”
Well, I am a human. And who I am I guess is defined by my Christianity, my name, my family, and whatever little abilities I may have been blessed with  but mostly my worldview, I think, more than anything else what I believe makes me who I am.

Don said...

As I was talking this evening with some friends of mine, I had a very minor revalation about the nature of personality. When I am with different people, I talk and behave completely differently depending on the cercumstances, as so many people do. And it feels natural in so many different situations, but there are definitely some situations in which you can feel, you can tell that this is just not you. The fact that so many different ways of reacting, of handling situations, and that sort of thing can feel natural leads me to two possible conclusions: One is that the nature of personality is malleable, perhaps not ever-changing, but able to be shaped for the situation. The other is that The part of personality that we see in whatever situation is only part of the whole, and that the rest of the parts lie dormant until they're called to rise to the top.

Jo said...

To take the easy way out, I looked at the verse in Deuteronomy where it says, "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all
your soul and with all your strength," and then said that "self" is composed of three things mentioned there - heart (which I think is the emotions
and personality) soul (the spiritual part of life - our relationship to God or whatever we think is god. I guess our worldview would go here too), and strength (our physical bodies). I'm sure I've left plenty of things out, but it makes sense that there are three basic sections of life - the emotional, spiritual, and physical, and heart, soul, and strength fit into those circles.
I'm not really sure how to answer the questions, Is there such a thing as 'self-perception? and Can we really comprehend the individual? At first I said yes, but then it kind of goes back to the lonliness question we discussed earlier. Most of us argreed that it was impossible to ever really know everything about someone else and that you had to
trust that your friends were showing their true selves to you and not hiding behind a mask. And I guess that means that we can
never really "comprehend the individual."
As far as self-perception or understanding yourself, I think that it varies from person to person. Some people are really good at lying to themselves and convincing themselves that they're something or someone that they're not. Some people have really got it together and understand their strengths weaknesses and things like that. hmm, I don't know if any of this made sense, but it was still interesting to try to figure it all out.

Rosie Perera said...

Jo wrote:

"I looked at the verse in Deuteronomy where it says, 'Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all
your soul and with all your strength,' and then said that 'self' is composed of three things mentioned there - heart (which I think is the emotions and personality) soul (the spiritual part of life - our relationship to God or whatever we think is god. I guess our worldview would go here too), and strength (our physical bodies)."


Jesus expands on that to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30). So it appears there is a fourth dimension of the self, which is the intellectual.

I still think that all of these parts are integrated and inseparable and together make up the whole person. Yes, one could be weak or physically disabled or mentally handicapped and still be a self. And the emotions and soul/spirit can be nearly comatose in some people who are able-bodied and live entirely in their heads.

But I don't think this means there is a half of the person which is observing the other half which is observed. I believe in the full reflexivity of all the parts of the person. The mind can think about itself. The body can be kinesthetically aware of where its limbs are. The heart can feel and be moved by the intensity of its own emotions. And the soul can communicate with God and with itself on a spiritual plane.

Rosie Perera said...

I just found out that this year's C.S. Lewis Foundation conference ("Oxbridge") will be on the theme of "The Self and the Search for Meaning." It takes place July 28 - August 8 at Oxford and Cambridge. For more information, see the Oxbridge 2008 website. It looks like an awesome line-up of speakers. I wish I hadn't just gone to look it up, as it now makes me want to go. But it's at the same time as Image's Glen Workshop and I'm drooling even more over that one!

little sarah said...

I would say my "self" is composed of all the things I am. That seems like a round-about answer but it does make sense, at least to me. So self is composed of body, soul, spirit, mind, talents, morals, etc. The truth is I'm not 100% sure why this is important, as long as we all realize we are humans, mortals, living on the planet earth (you know, the basics) I don't see why knowing what "self" is made of will make a difference. A person can choose what they perceive their "self" as.
Well, I accidently just answered the second question-"Is their a such thing as self-perception?" Of course there is a such thing as self-perception! But this does not mean that all perceptions are accurate ones. I would say many people can comprehend an individual to an extent. I know that there are at least two people in my life that can "really comprehend” me.