A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself.

~Kierkegaard: The Sickness unto Death (1980/1849)

Thus Kierkegaard begins his book on despair. Back in college, a friend of mine read Kierkegaard as part of his quest for self-insight. He was a deep soul and I think he could handle it. My experience was different. A relation that relates itself to itself? I thought Kierkegaard had gone off the deep end and trying to get his readers to join him there. I banished Kierkegaard’s despair from my consciousness and tried to follow the conventional Aristotelian way of using neat mental categories that can be related to one another by logic, or by statistics if logic fails. Categorization provides a mental structure—or straightjacket, if you will—that let’s you function by shortcutting the really cool questions. In psychology, I discovered William James’s pragmatic distinction between the “I” and the “Me.” The I does the perceiving and the Me is what is being perceived. This is so handy, so convenient, so necessary for linear science—and so wrong. Kierkegaard (read the epigraph again) would have rejected the distinction between the I and the Me as a delusion invented for the sake of sense-making. But if the premises are false, there can be no sense-making, only nonsense-making. Meanwhile, psychological research—my own included—grinds on under the assumption that human beings perceive themselves. Sometimes, there is a nod to James and his distinction; mostly, however, the perceiver and the perceived are assumed to be the same and separate at the same time. This is where Aristotle might object, actually. His axiom of identity holds that you are one or the other, but not both.

Much as I wanted to repress Kierkegaard, his riddle thrust itself back into view in 2003, when Rachel Karniol published a paper in the Psychological Review, to which I replied. Karniol argued that the self-concept is not a collection of attributes that a person associates with him- or herself, but more specifically a collection of those attributes that distinguish the self from the average person, or protocenter. I could not see how this was possible. Let’s try to reconstruct Karniol’s argument using James’s distinction. The I wants to set up a Me and the I is interested in the Me’s distinctiveness from the baseline or protocenter. To succeed, the I must know what the protocenter is and it must know what the Me is aside from a comparison with the protocenter. If these conditions are met, then the I can perform the relevant comparisons and retain only those attributes in the Me that make it distinctive from the protocenter. My feeling was Karniol’s theory of self-construction presupposes the existence of self-perception. Hence, her process cannot explain self-perception. It begs the question of what the self-concept is. Both Karniol and I failed to see the Kierkegaardian dimension of self-reflexivity and its consequences. If all individuals attempt to perform the self-construction task as described by Karniol, would that not create a new protocenter, which in turn would have to serve as the basis for revised self-definitions, and would this not have to go on ad infinitum? Kierkegaard saw the specter of infinite regress, but we did not.

More recently, I discovered that the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was troubled by the same instability of the perceptual world. His eponymous Borgesian conundrum is that comparisons continually modify that which is being compared. In our reflection on the movie Gravity, my student co-writers and I noted that by playing himself, Clooney is both the comparer (the I) and he who is being compared (the Me). He is both Clooney and ‘Clooney’ (Butler, 2010). Clooney is being modified by the very act of representing himself. He is, in other words, a relation that is relating itself to itself. This is qaphqaesque, as Borges would say (or is it Qluhneesque?). Once you enter the world or relations, there is no Archimedean point from which you can move the universe.

We use the delusion of separability as a crutch to lurch on. The idea of separation is enshrined on our language, and hence in perception and thought. For example, the phrase “I made up my mind” presupposes a Jamesian distinction between someone who is doing the making up and something that is being made up. The maker, it seems, must be a different substance than its product and he shall remain unknown and unknowable. It is the kind of dualism that spawns illusions such as the mirage of free will. Our task is to find a way to appreciate the oneness of the mental process without “losing our minds” (and to stop using such phrases such as “I lost my mind”). Then, everything will be tutto a posto.


Question for Richard Dawkins

: I recently discovered that asexuality is a “thing” and that there is a “community.” Now, is asexuality a biological adaption? Wouldn’t it have to be if everything is? And if so, would it not be a tougher nut to crack than altruism? Research I found (e.g., Peck, Yearsley & Waxman, 1998) talks about competition between sexual and asexual species, not between sexual and asexual individuals with species. How does the asexual gene propagate itself in a largely sexual species?

Dante’s design. These days, most letters of recommendation must be submitted through so-called “portals.” These portals are gateways to another world, a dreadful world. Portals are information-extraction engines. They want to know your prefix, your suffix, and your idée fixe. In the old days, you could write a letter of recommendation and send it to your colleague Bob, or “to whom it may concern.” Now the nameless portal dictates what information you must provide, or else, your student goes unrecommended. As if this weren’t bad enough, some of these portals are examples of horrendous design. Duke University has a particularly gruesome one. Here’s what they ask you to do in order to come up with a password:

Passwords must be between 8-30 characters, contain at least 1 uppercase letter (A-Z), 1 lowercase letter (a-z), 1 number (0-9), and 1 of the following special characters: !@#$%^&*()_+|~-=\`{}[]:";'<>?,./ Spaces are not allowed.

They also give you a “personal access code.” Mine was UEYJKNQGJHU. But that does not do anything because you have to create the abominable password, and you get to the password creation page without using the access code.

This is bad, really bad. There is a trade-off between security and memorability. Here the security is such that the recommender will be unable to revisit his site. In a delicious irony, the Duke portal asks you to take a survey to tell them how they might improve their site design, and I’m like, guys, if you haven’t done it and if you can’t see yourselves what lousy job you’re doing, you’re beyond help. But they do want to recruit the finest graduate students in the land. —I am not supposed to rant on a Psychology Today blog, but I hope the editors will let this one go out of a sense of compassion.

And it gets better. I received another email from Duke inviting me to provide a recommendation, as if I hadn’t done it. I suppose though I had pressed the “submit” button, I had not properly “logged out.” Now does that mean the recommendation was not submitted? Here’s a message I received when tried to fix things.

“An error has occurred. You either have more than one connection to this website or you did not properly log out of your last session. Please close all browser windows, then open a new browser window to access this site. Also, please be sure to logout of all future sessions to prevent this situation. Once logged in, you can logout by clicking on the 'logout' link located in the upper right hand corner of the page.”

This is rather dystopian, don’t you think? Why can’t they provide a timed auto-log-out like, for example, the wifi rig at the hotel where I’m staying? And so the prophecy fulfills itself. To redo the recommendation I need to remember the ultra-bizarre password I was forced to invent.


Here’s the Germanic noun of the day: Zweckentfremdung, alienation of purpose. This synthetic word can describe acts of creativity, as when you use your nylons to replace a broken timing belt. If you are a man, find a woman with nylons.

I bought a book written by Michael Billig. It wasn’t cheap.

I am intrigued by Salvador Dalí’s paranoid-critical method (aka, the paranoiac-critical method). I am working on an extension, which I will call the hypochondriac-skeptical method.

Watching Breaking Bad, I appreciate the foreshadowing, at least in hindsight.

I believe in the Immaculate Deception.

Haarlem, The Netherlands. The automated wake up call came in. I picked up the phone and there was a busy signal.


Butler, R. (2010). Everything and nothing: On Jorge Luis Borges’s “Kafka and his precursors.” Romance Quarterly, 57, 129-141.

Karniol, R. (2003). Egocentrism vs. protocentrism: The status of self in social perception. Psychological Review, 110, 564-580.

Kierkegaard, S. (1980/1849). The sickness unto death. Princeton University Press.

Krueger, J. I. (2003). Return of the ego—self-referent information as a filter for social prediction: Comment on Karniol (2003). Psychological Review, 110, 585-590.

Peck, J. R., Yearsley, J. M. & Waxman, D. (1998). Explaining the geographical distributions of sexual and asexual populations. Nature, 391, 889-892.

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