The Real Self Philosophy Essay

March 8, 2022
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The Real Self Philosophy Essay

The Real Self Philosophy Essay

You can just follow the topic: what is the “real self” in your opinion?

The history of philosophy gives us many different accounts of a true self, connecting it to the essence of what a person is, the notion of conscience, and the ideal human being. Some proponents of the true self can also be found within psychology, but its existence is mostly rejected. Many psychological studies, however, have shown that people commonly believe in the existence of a true self. Although folk psychology often includes a belief in a true self, its existence is disputed by psychological science. Here, we consider the critique raised by Strohminger et al., stating that the true self is (1) radically subjective and (2) not observable, hence cannot be studied scientifically (Strohminger et al., 2017). Upon closer investigation, the argument that the self is radically subjective is not convincing. Furthermore, rather than accepting that the true self cannot be studied scientifically, we ask: What would a science have to look like to be able to study the true self? In order to answer this question, we outline the conceptual nature of the true self, which involves phenomenological and narrative aspects in addition to psychological dimensions. These aspects together suggest a method through which this concept can be investigated from the first-person perspective. On a whole, we propose an integrative approach to understanding and investigating the true self.

Introduction
Let us start with a quote: “Many people like to think they have an inner “true” self. Most social scientists are skeptical of such notions. If the inner self is different from the way the person acts all the time, why is the inner one the “true” self?” (Baumeister and Bushman, 2013, p. 75). This is how the notion of a true self is introduced in a recent textbook on social science. It is suggested that there is a conflict between folk psychology and science, where the true self is a notion that does not hold up to closer scrutiny. This view has recently been reinforced by a number of studies conducted by Strohminger and Nichols (2014) and Strohminger et al. (2017), showing that belief in a true self is indeed common while questioning its actual existence. Is the view we have of our “true self” merely a reflection of the socio-cultural environment in which we exist? And can someone have a “true self” that is good, even if they continually act in ways that are harmful?

Positing a chimera of an inherently good “true self,” existing so deeply within the structure of someone’s psyche that it may never make an appearance in reality may seem completely unwarranted. Not only does this put the true self beyond scientific observation, it also makes it seem like a hopelessly optimistic dream. Hence, although it is empirically clear that people make use of the concept of a true self – in the sense of that which cannot change without someone becoming less of what they really are – there are weighty reasons to doubt whether the true self exists beyond the widespread belief in it. Since this belief is so common, could it be that it is in fact grounded in reality?

The Real Self Philosophy EssayThis is the question that we will explore in the following, outlining not only a suggestion for what the structure of the true self might be but also sketching out a method for investigating it. In doing this, we will also provide counter-arguments to the critique of the aforementioned true self. In our view, the true self can be viewed as having a kind of spiritual existence. It can appear in time but also exists beyond time. It may even be absent at different moments in time without ceasing to exist. Complete absence of the true self would, however, make it impossible to investigate. We take it that we are dealing with an essence of the Hegelian kind, i.e. an essence, the essence of which is to appear (and indeed, can there be an essence that never appears?). In other words, the true self cannot be so chimeric as to never enter the stage of actual life. However, such an object of study cannot be investigated adequately using conventional philosophical or psychological methods alone. We propose that the true self may be approached through a first-person method combining both philosophical reflection and introspective observation, as we will outline in section “Outline of a Comprehensive First-Person Method for Studying the True Self.” Before introducing this method, we will look into the history and nature of the self and the true self in philosophy and psychology (section “Introduction”). This will follow with a response to critiques of the true self (section “The Problem of Radical Subjectivity and Observability of the True Self”).

A Short Historical Account of the Self and the True Self
The self, one of the most central as well as critically discussed concepts in philosophy and psychology, has a long history. The idea that one has an underlying self in addition to a surface personality can be traced back to the notion that one has a soul that is potentially immortal. In the Egyptian culture, only the Pharaoh possessed an immortal, divine soul (akh) while alive. Only at the moment of death could other Egyptians gain such a soul (Waage, 2008). In Ancient Greek culture, Socrates was known for having heard an inner voice that indicated to him what he should (Memorabilia 1.1.4, 4.3.12, 4.8.1, Apology 12) and should not do (Apology 31c-d, 40a-b, Euthydemus 272e-273a). This was part of what lead to his demise, as he was accused of following other gods. The inner voice was a daimonion, a divine being (particular) to Socrates and not one of the gods condoned by the Athenian city-state. Such a private divine being is now commonly understood to refer to conscience in the Christian tradition (Schinkel, 2007, p. 97), which is connected to the moral essence – the true self – of an individual. The idea of a person’s moral essence was developed further in Greek thought. For example, it was connected to the performance of specific virtues by Aristotle. Aristotle also suggested that “the true self of each” is the divine intellect or nous (NE, 1178, a2).

However, when answering the question “who are you?”, it was for a long time customary to name one’s ancestors. In ancient Rome, the firstborn son was the property of the pater familias until the death of the father. During the funeral procession, the son wore the father’s death mask (Salemonsen, 2005). It may be noted that the word “mask” (lat. persona) is related to the word “person,” suggesting that we can take on different identities but also that there is an underlying essence. Augustus is known for writing the first autobiography, inaugurating a genre defined by the idea that certain events and thoughts are more important than others when seeking to understand who someone is. Arguably, the Judeo-Christian religions also contributed to the view that all human beings have a divine core, regardless of background: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola emphasized the notion of agency in his “Oration on human dignity”, making God exclaim that it is a matter of will whether the human being shall become animal or divine, mortal or immortal:

I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine (della Mirandola, 1996, p. 7).

The Real Self Philosophy EssayFor Kant, the self is that which provides transcendental unity to our thoughts and perceptions, in short, to all our experiences (Kant, 1904). Although the self cannot be known as it is in itself, in Kantian ethics, the individual is fully autonomous, free, when it acts according to rational principles (Kant, 1968). The individual manifests the kingdom of heaven on earth to the extent that ethical principles are adhered to as if they were natural laws. As a reaction to this, some philosophers, such as Sartre, point out that this view disregards the communal and social aspects of the self as well as its individuality and authenticity (Sartre, 2014). Rejecting Sartre’s notion of authenticity, Foucault denied that there is any self that is given to us; claiming that we should rather view the self as a work of art:

I think that from the theoretical point of view, Sartre avoids the idea of the self as something that is given to us, but through the moral notion of authenticity, he turns back to the idea that we have to be ourselves – to be truly our true self. I think that the only acceptable practical consequence of what Sartre has said is to link his theoretical insight to the practice of creativity – and not that of authenticity. From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art (Focault, 1997, p. 262).

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Foucault points out that Sartre’s notion of authenticity reintroduces a given measure for someone’s true self. Foucault thinks we should be more radical in our rejection of any given content or measure of what constitutes the true self. Any such content or measure we must create ourselves. One may remark that even creative acts contain an element of or at least relate to something given, for example an inspiration or a framework of understanding. The idea of creating a self does not need to be thought of as a pure/arbitrary invention of something incomprehensible. Creative acts may be understood instead as the encounter between something given and subjective energy. In part, the subject identifies with the given, subjects itself to it, and in part, the subject recognizes the given as itself.

If we pause and summarize here, we can see that there is a whole host of ideas connected to the self in the Western canon (for a discussion of self, no-self and true self accounts in Asian traditions, see Siderits et al., 2010):

1. The self is a kind of essence, substance, or a soul that may or may not survive death

2. The self is the voice of conscience, the source of moral or authentic action

3. The self is divine, possibly created by God

4. The self is related to the past, to ancestry, and outward identity such as one’s work

5. The self has a story connected to it that can be represented in a biography

6. The self provides unity to cognition and experience

7. The self is a free, autonomous agent

8. The self is essentially connected to other human beings and culture

9. The self has to be created

As we can see from this short and non-exhaustive list, the self is complex and may be conceived in conflicting ways. For example: Is the self-created by God or the individual? Is the self completely autonomous or is it thoroughly culturally determined? Is the self an essence or is it a story? None of these are necessarily contradictory, but much work is required to flesh out a comprehensive conception of the self. Do all these characteristics have something in common? This question is not easy to answer. If we cannot find a common characteristic in all the different definitions, we may have to concede that the self is simply a name for a host of unrelated ideas or aspects of human existence. On a closer look, each item on the list can potentially be said to be the true self. Even one’s outward identity could arguably be seen to constitute a true self. Imagine a puer aeternus, a Peter Pan-like existence: someone who is reluctant about identifying with anything at all, preferring to stay adolescent indefinitely. For such a person, actually identifying with something could be said to be a realization of their true self (their true self would not necessarily be the specific outward identity but could be manifested by taking on a concrete and not fantastical identity). There is one way of conceiving what the nature of the true self is, which we will elaborate in the following, that does not imply that we have to make a choice about which specific self represents the true one. This is the conception of the true self as a whole that unifies the different selves. Moreover, the true self can not only be viewed as a whole but also as the manifestation of a specific moral self that has grown out of the past. The true self, on this conception, has both distanced itself from the past and integrated it, moving toward an ideal that is in one sense given, internally and from the past, but in another sense must also be created, or is only just coming into existence from the future.

The Real Self Philosophy EssayThe True Self in Philosophy and Psychology
Although the existence of the self is controversial in philosophy (Metzinger, 2003; Siderits et al., 2010; Ganeri, 2012), there are a number of influential philosophers who claim that there at least a minimal or core self exists. Such a view can be found both among traditional thinkers, such as Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, etc., and contemporary ones (MacIntyre, 1981; Taylor, 2012; Zahavi, 2017). Charles Taylor has specifically addressed the notion of a true self in the context of a discussion of negative and positive freedom (Taylor, 1985; Sparby, 2014). Negative freedom is the idea that one can realize one’s true self insofar as there are no external restrictions on the self (and perhaps no internal restrictions such as fear). But where does the understanding of what actually counts as being the true self come from? If it comes, for instance, from a totalitarian state, then the “true self” may indeed be a false self since someone other than the self determines it. Hence it would follow that actualizing a true self is typically seen to include self-determination. It could of course be that content of a state prescribed true self accords by coincidence with the true self recognized by a person. This would not stop the person from actualizing the true self as long as the recognition is internally constituted through reflection and moral deliberation. However, if someone can determine themselves radically, does this not mean that the content of the true self is arbitrary? We believe that such problems can be solved with ideas as such “being-with-oneself in otherness” (Sparby, 2016). For example, acting according to one’s true self does not exclude acting according to principles as long as these principles are recognized as stemming from the true self. Finding one’s true self may involve finding oneself in another person, community, culture, etc. This does not mean that the true self is simply something given. Even creative processes can involve something approaching the self “from the outside”, such as an inspiration. Again, the true self can be viewed as a whole, as something transcending the subject-object dichotomy, allowing for such events where something comes to the self seemingly from an external source (e.g. the voice of conscience), a source which is, however, more adequately conceived of as belonging to the self in a deeper, higher or more inclusive sense. It is of course possible that the voice of conscience might be an expression of an internalized dogmatic morality. However, this does not make it unreliable in principle. It means that what it dictates has to be viewed in light of an investigation of what its source might be, considering cultural factors specifically.

Is a person always acting in accordance with their true self if they act according to their self? The problem here is that the self is not only multifaceted but also contradictory given that different aspects are in conflict with each other. For example, the human being can act out of principle or according to their desires. Both may be viewed or at least experienced as essential parts of one’s identity, although these parts do not always harmonize. If one acts according to one’s desire, another desire may not be fulfilled. If one acts morally, desires may fail to be satisfied at all. If one acts in a case where there is a moral dilemma, the true self seems to be constituted by that act. But what if I act based on wrong information, inherited cultural views, or delusion? Indeed, as we shall see, one of the main critiques of the true self is its radical subjectivity. The beliefs and actions that we ascribe to the true self depend on our worldview that is ultimately a reflection of the culture we belong to.

The field of psychology has contributed to our understanding of the self by gathering empirical support for the view that we are indeed ruled by external forces, such as unconscious desires, bias, and social conditioning. It has been shown that the experience of living a meaningful life is associated with having cognitive access to one’s true self, and yet psychological research remains either skeptical or agnostic about the existence of it (Schlegel et al., 2013) despite the belief in a true self seems to be independent of personality type and culture (De Freitas et al., 2018). However, one can indeed find representatives of notions of a true self also in psychology. The true self is sometimes referred to as the I-self or self-as-process as opposed to the me-self or self-as-object (Ryan and Rigby, 2015). The former “concerns the conceptions, images, roles, statuses, and attributes associated with an identity,” while the latter “concerns the inherent integrative tendencies of people to understand, grow, and create coherence in their experiences” (Ryan and Rigby, 2015, p. 246). The psychoanalyst Winnicott made explicit use of the concept of a true self, contrasting it with the false self (Winnicott, 1965). His view of the true self can be summarized as the self that is spontaneous, alive, and creative – the false self would then be a persona that lacks those characteristics (Rubin, 1998, p. 102). Numerous other terms are used for the true self such as the real self, the ideal self, the authentic self, the intrinsic self, the essential self, and the deep self [see overview of sources in Strohminger et al. (2017)]. Strohminger et al. have shown that people on average understand moral traits to be most fundamental to a person in addition to personality, memories, and desires, while characteristics related to perceptual abilities (e.g. near-sightedness) and psychical traits are perceived as having the least impact on who someone essentially is (Strohminger and Nichols, 2014). The essential differences between the self and the true self according to Strohminger et al. are that the self (1) encompasses the entire range of personal features, (2) is valence independent (it is inherently neither good nor bad) but (3) is perspective (first- or third-person) dependent, and (4) is cross-culturally variable, while the true self has an emphasis on (1) moral features, is (2) valence-dependent or positive by default, (3) perspective independent, and (4) cross-culturally stable (Strohminger et al., 2017, p. 3).

Strohminger et al. have also provided a particularly powerful formulation of the argument against the true self, which is quoted in full since it is the critique used as the background to our suggestion of what the nature of the true self is and how it can be studied:

The Real Self Philosophy EssayIs the true self also a scientific concept, one that can be used to describe how the mind actually works? Is there, in other words, a true self? The evidence reviewed here points to two properties relevant to this question. One: the true self depends on the values of the observer. If someone thinks homosexual urges are wrong, she will say the desire to resist such urges represents the true self (Newman et al., 2014). And if she scores high in psychopathy, she will assign less weight to moral features in her conceptualization of personal identity (Strohminger and Nichols, 2014). What counts as part of the true self is subjective, and strongly tied to what each individual person herself most prizes.

Two: The true self is, shall we say, evidence-insensitive. Resplendent as the true self is, it is also a bashful thing. Yet people have little trouble imbuing it with a host of hidden properties. Indeed, claims made on its behalf may completely contradict all available data, as when the hopelessly miserable and knavish are nonetheless deemed good “deep down”. The true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.

These two features—radical subjectivity and unverifiability—prevent the true self from being a scientific concept. The notion that there are especially authentic parts of the self, and that these parts can remain cloaked from view indefinitely, borders on the superstitious. This is not to say that lay belief in a true self is dysfunctional. Perhaps it is a useful fiction, akin to certain phenomena in religious cognition and decision-making (Gigerenzer and Todd, 1999; Boyer, 2001). But, in our view, it is a fiction nonetheless (Strohminger et al., 2017, p. 7).

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