Sunday, July 1, 2012

Do you know you are? (by anon)

I’m testing out a thought.  Bear with me as I fumble through it.

The question, “Who are you?” seems simple enough to answer.  I ask it, you give me your name, and we are all happy.  But if I ask myself, “Who am I?” just stating my name doesn’t say much.  So I say my name.  Big deal.  I am “Jim.”  But saying “Jim” doesn’t give me any insight into who I am, my self.  In this case, there really isn’t much in a name.  And now to go back to the first question, “Who are you?” it doesn’t seem that saying your name makes me happy anymore.  So what if your name is “Helen.”  That is only a designation by which I can refer to you.  That does not tell me who you are, your self.  There is no insight given as to who you are.

Am I my body?  In a trivial sense, of course I am.  We are material beings.  But that kind of answer doesn’t answer the “Who am I?” question, it answers the “What am I?” question.  “What” and “who” have very different meanings.  If I answer “my body” or even “my spirit or soul” as a dualist might say, those answers only deal with the composition of personal identity and not the selfhood of personal identity.  I want to avoid making a category mistake and stay focused on the “Who am I?” question.

Maybe I am my past, my history.  I’ve done plenty of things.  I’ve gone to the Grand Canyon, got an education, dated a bit, wrote some papers, did some experiments, had some pets, etc.  Are all those things what make me who I am?  I’m not satisfied with that kind of answer.  Talking about my history might in some way give a glimpse into who I was, but why must that have bearing on who I am now?  It need not.  Thus, I’m moving on.

Couldn’t I say that I am what I do?  If I am a professor, I could say, “I am a professor.”  Someone else could say, “I am a student.”  But that alone isn’t enough.  I do all sorts of things throughout the day and throughout my life, but just because I do those things, it doesn’t mean that I self-identify with them.  I brush my teeth every day – “I am a teeth brusher.”  Do I consider that something insightful about my self?  No.  Many people have jobs of which they cannot stand and would hate to be self-identified in those roles.  So we need to go deeper.  While what we do matters, it is not what I consider to be essential (it is more a matter of why we do what we do – keep reading).

Part of the problem in why it seems so hard to answer the question, “Who am I?” is that we start looking inside as if the answer is “in there” somewhere just waiting to be uncovered.  But what if that’s just the wrong way to think about it?  I’ll let you know what I’m getting at.

My self is grounded in that which I am passionate about.  In those things I am passionate about, I have a profound interest in them, I have an investment in them, to be more precise, I have a commitment to them.  As such, my self is grounded in my commitments.  I am my commitments.  If a person lacks any passion for anything and has no commitments, that person would lack a self.  The person would be “empty” if you allow the metaphor.  That empty person could do many things like work and go to school, but without any investment, that person (or we) wouldn’t have the slightest clue as to who that person is, because there is nothing to knowWe know ourselves through our commitments.  I know who I am through those things I am committed to.

This makes sense to me because how else could we know ourselves?  We need to relate ourselves to something in order for us to know ourselves.  In our commitments, we externalize ourselves in a process I have started calling “selfing.”  We are relating ourselves to ourselves in another (for those of you who took PHI 364, you’ll catch some Kierkegaard here).  When I see what I am committed to, I see that that is what I am passionate about and can then relate myself to myself through that understanding – in other words, I know myself through that commitment.  But because those commitments will always involve something outside my self, I (as a self) am always related to another.  Thus, I relate myself to my self through another.

For instance, I am passionate about student learning (yes, I am a professor).  I am genuinely committed to {students and their learning}.  Every commitment has the same kind of structure of being committed to something outside oneself, and whatever is in-between {} would be the object of that commitment.  My objects of commitment in this case are students and their learning.  Therefore, my self includes students and their learning; they are involved in my “selfing.”  They are a part of who I am.  That is but one of my present commitments, but it follows then that I would know more about myself the more commitments of my own I understand.  Thus, when we understand our commitments, we understanding ourselves – we are knowing ourselves.

Of course, our commitments change.  And so we change too.  The self is not a static thing, but it itself is a relation.

One thing I like about this view is that the self is not some mysterious thing many people want to make it out to be.  It is very understandable. Your self is not a function of your name, your body, your history, or simply what you do.  Your self is a function of your commitments, that which you have bound yourself to.

So if this all made sense, the question is “do you know who you are?”  Figure out those things you are passionate about, and you are beginning to get a good glimpse of your self.  I guess the next question would be whether you are happy with what you find.


  1. Why do you think there is even such a thing as a self in the first place?
    Nietzche said that language just gives us the illusion of there being a self that really exists.
    However... I suppose I like your practical approach here.
    You want to define the self... but in all honesty, I feel like the self is whatever you want it to whatever you want it to function as. Whatever you want it to mean.
    I guess what I'm saying is that you're talking about what the self means, rather than what it actually is... then again... maybe everything just IS what it MEANS.
    I don't know.

    1. You say, "I feel like the self is whatever you want it to be." If the self is not stable at all or is just a function of fancy, then how can you use such words as "I" or "you" as they assume something relatively stable?

      "Maybe everything just IS what it MEANS"? What do YOU MEAN?

    2. Well, language allows individuals to use words like "I" and "you" in order to refer to where certain statements, thoughts, actions, etc. are coming from. A lot of times, we need to discern which individual is speaking, which individual is expressing a particular idea, and so on and so forth. Just becuase we use "I" and "you" in language as though "I" and "you" are things that truly exist does not necessarily imply that "I" and "you" even really DO exist as relatively stable things. No one has to assume so, and that is the point because "I" and "you" are just parts of language that function to attribute actions, thoughts, etc. to a particular individual at a particular place in space and time. But just because particular individuals exist at particular points in space and time at any given moment, does not mean that there is anything such as a "self" that actually exists in reality and can be defined.
      So when one says, "I", one is not talking about one's "self" as though "I" literally refers to a "self", because what "I" really does is specifies the source of an idea, action, word, etc. "I eat" and "I like cats" does not mean that "I" is actually a real "self" that eats and likes cats. It just specifies the individual source from which the action of eating and liking cats is coming from.

      Next... by saying "maybe everything just IS what it MEANS", I'm saying maybe nothing truly IS one thing or the other, maybe something that we say "IS" x, y, or z, is only x, y, or z in so far as it MEANS x, y, or z. For example, "the 'self' is the personal commitments an individual has" would be less accurate than "the 'self' STANDS FOR or MEANS or REFERENCES the personal commitments an individual has". The latter way shows that "self", although it's the subject of the sentence performing the action, is NOT truly a thing at all, and it's just a stand-in to represent something else (which is also abstractly defined). So from your perspective, the self means x, y, and z. From another perspective, the self could mean the continuum of one's consciousness, or it could mean a bunch of other things. Thus, the self is not really stable at all, and does not exist in reality, because it is a linguistic device that may refer to a number of things, and to attempt to define it as anything stable, concrete, or REAL is just futile.

    3. I think you're either playing with semantics or you're just bonkers. Of course we need to think of the self as a "thing" (or better to say, a "who") that has *some* measure of stability or else this conversation between *us* is stupid. Stupid and futile. But I believe that I am writing to the *same* person whom I've been responding to before in this thread. And you must assume the likewise. I'm with you on getting rid of the notion of the self as some kind of essence, but you're going too far in deconstruction land, a land that Nietzsche would have been wary of too. Nietzsche still had a sense of self, though he hated all talk of essences.

      So, in terms of semantics, I think you misinterpret when I say that "I am a function of my commitments." I am not pointing to an essence, but the practical construction of what constitutes our selves.

      But I certainly do not want to say what you say. You say it is more accurate to say, "the 'self' is the personal commitments an individual has" would be less accurate than "the 'self' STANDS FOR or MEANS or REFERENCES the personal commitments an individual has." When you put in words such as "means" you are putting in a verb that connotes intentionality. Someone has to mean something. Thus, you're being very confusing because the self cannot be what a person means, because you are already presupposing a person by which can mean something. You presuppose the self in your definition of the self.

    4. I don't think I'm just playing with semantics here. And it's always a possibility that I'm just bonkers..
      But really, I understand that if we are to talk about ourselves or others, that we have to think of those selves as "things" (or "who"s like you said). However, that's just it. We must *THINK* of the self as a "thing" or a "who", in which case, we're only thinking of it. I'm not out to destroy ideas of the self; I'm saying it only exists as far as our language will let it exist, as far as we can make it exist idealogically, because it exists as we think it exists (unless you are willing to say it is all material). The non-material self is an absract thing, and so it is abstracted from reality, and exists only in our minds.
      Basically, as I was saying, to talk about "us" and "you" and "me", is just to refer to the object (our bodies) from which observable phenomena come from.
      It is not senseless or stupid to talk about "I" or "us" without believing that the "self" is a thing, because the "I" and "you" just refers to physical individual bodies.
      For instance, when I'm talking to my cat, I might say, "you are a bad kitty", but then do I have to assume my cat also has a self, the way it is defined in the post, just because I say, "you" in the sentence?
      I don't want to destroy the "self"... I just don't think there ever was a true one to begin with... Nietzsche said, "we can destroy only as creators", and even if he wasn't talking necessarily about the "self", I still think it applies.
      Anyway, the "self" can be what a person means, because like I said before, the "self" is an abstract concept, which entails that it is created in our minds, or just "thought of", in the first place, and like the original post says, it is more than just the material aspect of a person. But what gave us the "self" in language via the use of "I", "you" and so on, is just the fact that we are material beings! Just because I have a brain and a body, and can utter noises that seem to express thoughts coherently, doesn't mean that I have a "self".
      The way the original post talks about the "self" and who a person is, is not really the same as what you are trying to say here on this thread.

    5. And, a practical construction is fine with me... like I said, I liked your practical approach. But it's just not absolute.. it doesn't really exist... you talk about it and say, "that's what the self is" but regardless of that being said, things would still be the same.

    6. From what you are saying, I think you could agree to this: to say that something is something is not to say that it must BE in some metaphysically absolute sense. Thus, to apply that, one can say the self is something without being committed to a metaphysical self or metaphysical essences. That is what I mean in my OP as in my comments.

      I don't actually think that you and I are saying drastically different things, except that I use more conservative language (not in the political sense) and you use more radical language.