In a recent podcast with Gerard van der Molen, we discuss several ideas about the self. We approach the self by first considering the three actors representing the self in our language; Me, Myself, and I. Then we move to the identity of the self, and finally, we speak about the manifestation of the self in social roles. In the podcast, you will find a vast array of topics and references. Gerard generously shares different inroads on how to approach fundamental questions about the self. In this blog post, my aim is to give you a road map to freely explore your own self, with the possibility of benefitting from some simple guidelines I propose.
The known unambiguous self
Let me start by stating the obvious every one of us, from a certain age, knows what her or his self is, just as we know our identity and are conscious of the role we play under specific conditions. This self is at first glance an expression of autonomy, an unambiguous coherent entity. Complications start when trying to define this self. We become aware that the notions of self -and hence the notions of identity and role- are dependent on circumstances. A stern interrogation will soon scatter the nice feeling of knowing yourself and when the Socratic method is applied soon you will wish you never started the discussion in the first place. The only fun way to ponder the self philosophically is by leaving your personal self out of the equation and giving your best effort on the many philosophical enigmas proposed by thinkers from antiquity up to the present day.
A minimal condition self
But that philosophical path is only partially satisfactory because it becomes impersonal. To stay within a reasonable comfort zone but simultaneously being able to rethink your notions about your own self in a profound way I propose to leave the ontological grandiosity of the self out of our consideration and just use a minimal condition self. By a minimal conditional self I mean a self with properties we can all agree upon. Undeniable is the observational quality of the self. A self that cannot observe is not much of a self after all. Secondly, the self cannot function without memory. If the self observes but all the observations are immediately lost, we end up with a rather useless self. And finally, the self has to be a property of a living creature. Thus the self is an organic part of our life it is embodied within.
It is obvious that the observational aspect of the self will be dependent on its vantage point (a place or position affording a good view of something). Scope and precision determine the vantage point. Since our vantage points are not permanent during our life, we will accumulate, by means of memory, different possible perspectives on the self. These different perspectives create discontinuities in the experience of the self which we are not aware of in everyday life. But under pressure or stressful situations, we all have experienced that this uncomplicated image of the self can fall apart. Furthermore, through embodiment, the different perspectives of the self are fused in our consciousness to other embodied qualities like emotions and feelings. This means that several vantage points of our self can create feelings of discomfort.
Some mysteries resolved
By using these three minimal conditions for the self we immediately see several mysteries of the self laid out in a comprehensive way. We understand why we can feel more or less ‘ourselves’ depending on whether the vantage point is well-known or relatively new. We can relate to the moments of feeling the ‘real self’ as moments where the vantage point resembles the vantage point at a moment of great impact on our lives. We can also appreciate the idea of a new self when a new viewpoint suddenly arises with a positive physical reaction (for example a pilgrimage can give us the sensation to have found a new self).
Three steps towards flexibility
Considering those three generative steps of self-observation, memorization, and embodying, we lay out a field open for constant reshaping, recreating, evolving, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Our observations are open for reconsideration, the impact on the physical body is changeable over time, and the memory is in constant revision. This brings a bright perspective for us. In this light, we can utilize the self both for protection, by using the best-known and comforting vantage points, or for exploration by experimenting with unknown views.
The social self
In the building of the self, the encounter with others is the social aspect of the self. It also plays a fundamental and overwhelming part in shaping the self. This is extensively described in developmental psychology. In adult life, encounters with the self of others are like our own, a collection of vantage points embodied and memorized in a specific constellation. In that fact lies a challenge and an opportunity; we can embark on an unbiased and open-minded journey of encounters with a fellow person’s vantage point or we reinforce a self that shields us with feelings of security. Both ways (and everything in between) have their function and significance but the realization that potentially every encounter can contribute to the enriching of the self is a precious prospect.
→ How to use this in everyday life? (A small owner’s manual of the self.) When your self feels challenged, you can think (directly or later) about your vantage point. You might ask yourself from where (from what point of view) you approach the subject at hand. You can try to reflect on when and where did you acquire this vantage point, and whether there are (strong) feelings involved. Also, you can investigate in what way you and others can benefit from the insights gained by your vantage point. Finally, you can experiment if another vantage point does enrich yourself. Feel free to ask questions or leave a comment here.
M.C Escher, life and work