What Is The “Self” Anyway?

The Questions

“To thine own self be true,” says Shakespeare’s Polonius. Given that Polonius was a windbag full of empty platitudes, the statement has a negative association that the average reader who sees the quote floating past on an inspirational Tweet might perceive.

But what is the true self to which we should be true? Does it exist? And how do you know if and when you’re being “true” to your “self” as opposed to being untrue, fake, or inauthentic?

Walt Whitman wrote that he “contains multitudes,” and the same could be said for the self — for any self. The self is a body and mind. We are full of desires, wants and needs, as well as the thoughts that are considered conscious and those that are considered unconscious, or automatic, or reflexive.

That’s our starting point. We’re here to gather some of the latest research, define our terms about what the “self” even is, all in order to understand what we mean by the “true” self (and get on with our “selves”). And all in under 1,000 words.

Toward A Workable Definition

Neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers continue to study the concept of the self (and they probably always will). While it is virtuous to know our terms and inquire into the nature of reality, a deep-dive into the topic of the “self” can also become more about sophistry and what we can do with language, than about getting closer to a workable definition. It is equivalent to inquiring into the precise length of a nondescript piece of string, or asking for the best way to get into “the pursuit of happiness” or defining abstractions like “freedom” or “sweetness.”

Should we quibble with the fact that from a very early age we recognize ourselves in the mirror? Chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants have all passed the mirror test too, but is that the kind of self-awareness we’re talking about?

Not really.

The levels of self-awareness in a nutshell: that’s a mirror (Level 1), there’s a person in it (Level 2), that person is me (Level 3), that person is going to be me forever (Level 4), and everyone else sees me (Level 5). Level 5 takes a little while to develop, usually around the age of four or five. Level 3 self-awareness is usually arrived at by 18 months.

This may also be why 18-months-old is when most children begin to develop language skills. Language requires “a theory of the self as distinct from other people, and a theory of the self from the point of view of one’s conversational partners,” wrote cognitive scientist Elizabeth Bates in 1990.

Complex language sets us apart at a level that distinguishes us to the extent that we can say: I am a self.

What, Then, Is The “True” Self?

Now that we’ve established our aim for a practical definition of the self, and separated the idea of self from the true self, we’re ready to take the big step: Establishing what we mean by the true or authentic self.

Most people believe they have an essential core, a true self. Who they are fundamentally is demonstrated primarily in their moral values, and that seems to remain relatively stable over time and experience. Preferences, tastes, opinions may change, but the true self remains the same. Of course, the fact that most people believe in the true self doesn’t make it any more or less “true.”

Books like The Self Illusion (Bruce Hood) and The Ego Trick (Julian Baggini) set out to make a case that there is no centralized self-operating either in the brain or as that special “inner voice.” And in recent years, it has become popular among researchers and writers to dismiss the idea that we have a “self.” Although, somewhat patronizingly, it is suggested that belief in a true self may nevertheless be helpful.

Nina Strohminger, George Newman, and Joshua Knobe published an influential 2017 study, “The True Self: A Psychological Concept Distinct from the Self.” They found that people typically think humans harbor a true self that is morally good. The core of the work shows our tendency to think that, in the privacy of their innermost selves, people pull for what is virtuous.

People tend to consider that the true self has been altered if a person’s moral sense is changed. Strohminger and her colleagues, however, conclude that we can never “prove” the existence of this self due to the “radical subjectivity and unverifiability” of the self as a scientific subject. Fair enough.

The Takeaway For The Voices In Your Head

Recent literature is rife with examples of how we equate virtuous actions and beliefs with the “true” self. It crosses cultures. There is no precise way to understand how the concept of the moral self develops. It would seem to be a way we guide ourselves toward joy, calm and resiliency, and feelings of well-being. It doesn’t always translate as an inner voice, although it does function this way for many.

There are, however, other forms of inner voices that are destructive. Broadly speaking, we call these voices the inner critic. We pick them up from authority figures and people who make an impression on us in our early life for one reason or another. It could be through repetition or through standout emotional experiences. Through whatever consciousness we acquired them, they are in us now. There are ways to challenge the inner critic.

The search for the true self may never end in some respects, but that’s more about sophistry than searching for applicable, practicable wisdom. The contributions and intersections between philosophy and psychology give us depth and breadth when looking for answers and clarifying our terms.

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