[This is the second post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.]

In the first post in this series, we disentangled the notion of selfhood from the body, the mind, and the witness. Another common mistake is to identify a current identity as our “real” self. With age, most people realize that they are not the face they present to the world, not even the superposition of the various identities they’ve assumed over the course of their lifetime.

By my late thirties, I had accumulated enough personal history to see that I had presented several quite different Bobs to the world. Principal among my serial identities were student, teacher, and educator. Alongside these occupational personas were the familial ones of son, husband, and father. As Shakespeare famously noted:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts …

Like many an Eastern sage, Shakespeare saw that we assume a series of parts while at the same time watching over ourselves as if we’re a member of the audience. That is, we both live our lives and, at the same time, witness our selves doing so. We don’t stop there: we even witness ourselves witnessing.

We know that our current persona will eventually give way to another. In contrast, the self ages little, perhaps because it partakes of the detached agelessness of the witness.

Distinct identities are strung together on the thread of memory, all of them provisional and perishable. No less fascinating than the birth, life, and death of our bodies are the births, lives, and deaths of these makeshift, transient identities. Reincarnation of the body is arguable; metamorphosis of identity is not.

The witness’s detachment facilitates the letting go of elements of identity in response to changing circumstances. As we age, the feeling that life is a battle is gradually replaced with the sense that it’s a game played with a shifting set of allies and opponents who, upon closer examination, are unmasked as collaborators. Without opposition, we might never notice the partiality and blind spots inherent in our unique vantage point.

The more flexible, forgiving attitude that results when we see our self as a home for transient identities turns out to be the perspective we need to maintain our dignity in adversity and accord it to others in theirs. Former antagonists—which may include colleagues, spouses, and parents—come to be seen as essential participants in our development, and we in theirs.

To keep an identity in working order, we continually emend and burnish it, principally by telling and retelling our story to ourselves and anyone who’ll listen. Occasionally, our narrative is revised in a top to bottom reformulation that in science would be called a paradigm shift. Though most incremental changes are too small and gradual to be noticed over months or even years, they add up, and suddenly, often in conjunction with a change in job, health, or relationship, we may come to see ourselves quite differently, revise our grand narrative, and present a new face to the world. Whole professions—therapy, coaching, counseling—have grown up to help people weather such identity crises.

It is tempting to think of the self as simply a home for the identities we adopt over our lifetime, but on reflection, this, too, falls short. Our self is also the source of the identities that sally forth as our proxies. That is, we experience the self as more than a retirement home for former identities; it’s also the laboratory in which they’re minted, tested, and from which they step onto the stage. One can think of the self as a crucible for identity formation.

Before examining this process, we consider two more candidates for the mantle of selfhood: the soul and pure consciousness.

Am I My Soul?

If selfhood, as currently understood, has a shortcoming, it’s its mortality. We grudgingly accept physical aging, but who has not balked at the idea of the apparent extinction of his or her self upon physical death? Alas, our precious but nebulous self—whatever it may be—appears to expire with the demise of our body.

To mitigate this bleak prospect, many religions postulate the existence of an immortal soul, and go on to identify self with soul. After we’ve clarified the concept of selfhood, we’ll discover that, even without hypothesizing an immortal soul, death loses some of its finality and its sting.

Am I Consciousness?

A last redoubt for the self as we’ve known it is to identify it as pure, empty consciousness. But what exactly is consciousness? Arguments run on about whether animals have it, and if so how much, without ever clarifying what consciousness is. Moreover, identifying one’s self as pure consciousness is just another identification, namely that of systematically dis-identifying with everything else.

Even if you don’t find pure, empty consciousness a bit spare or monotonous, there’s another problem with equating it with selfhood. Whatever it may be, stripped-down consciousness is deficient in agency, and agency—that is, not just being, but doing—is inextricably connected to selfhood because mentation does not occur apart from its potential to actualize behavior. To think is to rehearse action without triggering it. Thought involves the excitation of motor neurons, but below the threshold at which the actions those neurons enervate would be emitted. In computer parlance, thought is virtual behavior.

In the next post, I’ll bring in the postmodern perspective, which will complete the deconstruction of naïve selfhood, and set the stage for a self that’s congruent with the findings of both traditional introspection and contemporary neuroscience.

Part 1 of Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong can be found here.

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