Thursday, 21 December 2017


I'm confused about self. I've got no reflective sense, really, what theorists mean when they talk about self, and no idea what they mean when they deny that there is such a 'thing' as self (I didn't know 'self' was supposed to be the name of a thing to start with). And whilst I've got some sense of what self-consciousness is, in its everyday usage (i.e. getting paralysed with the freakitude of the thought or experience of others observing me), I can't do more than pretend to get to grips with the more philosophical senses of that conjunction. Philosophers and social scientists talk confidently about 'self' as if I ought to know what they take themselves to know - which is the meaning of the word 'self' as it comes out of their mouth. But I just don't know, and I don't want to be the kind of thinker who just gets with the programme and ends up indoctrinated into verbiage - for wouldn't that itself show a regrettable lack of self-possession? But, yikes, what is 'self-possession'?

So I thought I'd start by looking at some of these 'self'-related concepts and maxims. We have 'selfishness', we have 'to thine own self be true', 'knowing thyself', 'self-becoming', 'self-possession'. Can we get a sense of what these mean by giving paraphrases which don't themselves simply trade on an understanding of the word 'self'?

A selfish person and his acquaintance come across 10 blackberries. The selfish person takes more than 5 of these and does not give any of them to the acquaintance - instead he keeps them all. Here, when we say 'keeps them for himself' what we mean is: he keeps them but not in order to give them away later to the acquaintance or anyone else. Here I think it very important that keeping something for yourself does not behave, semantically, just like keeping something for someone else. It is not like keeping something for person A as opposed to person B, where A is as it happens oneself and B is one's acquaintance. What it means is simply keeping something without thought of giving it to someone. And - to not think about and act to meet the needs and wishes of others is to be selfish.

'Know thyself' was inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi - as a bit of fundamental moral advice. What does it mean? I propose that it's unhelpful to think of it as inviting or instructing us to come to know any old facts about ourselves - e.g. to know more about whatever of our character traits. And I doubt that it refers to some other kind of knowledge such as acquaintance - knowing yourself is neither like knowing Geoffrey nor like knowing facts about Geoffrey. For one thing we don't use the concept when talking about our positive qualities; instead we use it when thinking about our unhelpful subconscious habits. So, it's 3am and I'm awake and about to buy something a bit random on Amazon which suddenly seems like a good idea. But wait - if I know myself then I know I'll regret this in the morning. What seemed like a good idea at the time (to drink that extra pint of beer, to buy that gotta-have-it Inca mask on eBay) will later be something I regret. Knowing myself involves not getting carried away by passing passions. And if we accept a psychodynamic account of passing passions - which we should do! - one which views our susceptibility to them as a result of defending against emotional distress and anxiety - then 'knowing thyself' reduces nicely to not defending against emotional distress - i.e. not ignoring but rather embracing inner conflict. For example: I know perfectly well how much I dislike gluttony or gossip but then, driven by the short-term rewards, I just ignore this and start to binge or tattle.

So, 'knowing myself' does not include knowing that I am usually a smart and thoughtful person. It just includes not losing sight of the fact that sometimes I can be a knob-head. But that itself isn't enough - for what really matters here is that the person who knows herself acts according to this knowledge at those times when she is tempted by passing passions.

This takes us to 'To thine own self be true' (Polonius). Do we succeed in taking this advice if we want to go to the toilet and then, by gosh, go to the toilet? I think not. It surely does not mean 'do whatever you find yourself feeling like doing'. (Not even Crowley's law of Thelema means that.) It might implicitly invite us to not pay heed to what others want or need of us - i.e. it might be an invitation to selfishness. But of course if we really do care about others, then one use of 'to thine own self be true' will not exclude our acting to further their interests, since that will be true to what we really want. What I propose it suggests, really, is that we strive to become more self-possessed. And what does that mean?

Self-possession, like self-knowledge, is I think not a relation of possessing or knowing held between oneself and oneself. Once again the phrase is best understood in terms of its antithesis. Thus someone wants for self-possession if they're doing things which are only really what someone else wants. Someone may lack self-possession if they've come under the influence of someone else's will. Yet a slave may be self-possessed: if she resents doing what she is forced to do, and is doing what she knows she wouldn't choose to do were it not for avoiding punishment, then she does not thereby lack self-possession. By contrast if I habitually find myself trying to meet your needs, cleaning up after you, changing my plans for you, deferring to your judgement, automatically acquiescing in your wishes as to what we should do - in such a way that I don't even think about what I would most want to do were I to choose - then I lack self-possession. Self-possession, one might say, involves not being 'possessed' by someone else - it is the lack of this, and not some kind of positive quality in its own right, which makes for it.

Self-becoming can also be seen in this manner. The idea is apt to look peculiar if we import the sense of the conjoined terms from that which they enjoy in other applications. But once we see it as the flourishing of will such that our action is not one of habitual and unreflective servitude - so that one no longer does the things that one's father would have done were he in one's situation, but instead thinks what one truly wants to do - 'for oneself' as we say - then it makes more sense. I become myself when I lose the loss of self-possession; I become a true agent.

Self-consciousness. If I am completely by myself, thinking about my proclivities or the smallness of my biceps, I am unlikely to feel self-conscious. (And, nb, self-consciousness truly is a feeling.) Yet self-consciousness is not simply an awareness that someone is looking at us, nor even an awareness that someone is judging us. For we can have both of those without yet feeling self-conscious. Self-consciousness amounts to shyness (which itself is a disastrously under-studied phenomenon). Rather than be able to express oneself naturally, the sense that others would judge what they see is paralysing. Again, it's important to note that I may feel that someone is judging me yet not be in the least self-conscious - this happens when I'm not shy, when I'm confidently going about my business - when I do not fear their judgement, when I'm self-confident (i.e. not intimidated).

At the end of this little enquiry I think I've created a little bulwark against the question 'what is the self?' I might reply 'well, 'self' can no doubt mean whatever you want it to mean'. Yet one of the key things that the word 'self' does, in everyday discourse, is, rather than reference any kind of thing (this person here as opposed to that person there), to specify the absence of a phenomenon. Thus I am not (as it were) 'possessed' by someone (I am 'self-possessed'); I am not deluded (I have 'self-knowledge'); I am not generous or fair (I am 'self-ish'); I am not deploying defence mechanisms (I 'know myself'); I am not socially confident (I am 'self-conscious'); I am not doubting what I can do (I have 'self-belief'); I do not cast doubt on my worth (I evince 'self-acceptance' and 'self-esteem'); I am not plagued by thoughts of others judging my behaviour (I am 'self-confident' so can act naturally). Very often it seems to work to specify the absence of: a particular kind of relation to others (self-possession; self-confidence; selfishness; self-employment; self-catering; self-service) or of psychological defences (self-knowledge) or of change (selfsameness). No doubt it works in other ways too, and it would be nice to know how unified a story we can tell of these ways.


Addendum: I have just read this in Rowan Williams' 'Know Thyself': What Kind of an Injunction?:

If we were to ask: 'How might we 'test' for self-knowledge in ourselves or others' it looks as if the answer might lie in trying to deal with questions like 'Is there a pattern of behaviour here suggesting an unwillingness to learn or to be enlarged?' Or 'Is there an obsessive quality to acts of self-presentation (in speech especially) that would indicate a fixed and defended image of needs that must be met for this self to sustain its position or power?' or 'Is there a refusal to deal verbally or imaginatively with the limits of power - ultimately with mortality?' In other words, we do not look first for acquaintance with any particular vocabulary of 'self-analysis' (we don't test for information). This may be a rather banal observation, so philosophically obvious as not to need saying. But in a culture where self-help books about self-knowledge , not least of a religious tinge, abound, we may well need reminding that a person may be possessed of a fluent vocabulary, well able to plot him- or herself on the charts of temperament and attrait and to retell their biography in the idiom of fashionable psychobabble, and yet continue to act in a way that seems to deny the recognition of mortality and the necessary ironies that go with it.


Further addendum: I've just read this from Augustine (On the Trinity) in Richard Sorabji's book on Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life and Death. Augustine, we are told, wrote that when the mind ‘is ordered to know itself, let it not seek itself as though withdrawn from itself, but let it withdraw what it has added to itself.’