Tuesday, July 19, 2016


272 How do you find your selves?

In the present series on foundations and language games, this item is an intermezzo on the self.

Richard Rorty defined the person, the self, as an ‘internally coherent cluster of beliefs and desires’[i]. The question remains of course, what ‘coherent’ means.

This definition allows for multiple selves, each with a form of coherence. I proposed earlier (in item 134 of this blog), that there is not only one single, fixed self, but multiple selves, constructed by internalizing experience by adapting neural structures, possibly in a variety of ways.

Against David Hume’s denial of any coherent, stable identity I claimed that there is more or less stable coherence due to the condition that mental and endocrinal processes occur and arise together in a single body that survives or not as a whole, and functioning for survival requires some coherence. Images that produce fear trigger hormones that serve action, which feeds back in forming mental images.

According the Freudian psycho-analysis there are different ways to assimilate one’s past, yielding several, often conflicting, selves, some of which may be suppressed and hidden in the subconscious.

Psycho-analysis may help to tease the spooks of hidden personality out of the dark. Does one need this? Or can one do it by oneself? But one put them in there, in the dark, to begin with.

Might the ability to do this teasing out of hidden selves be nursed with reading literature? Earlier (in items 92, 120) I proposed that literature can help to develop the ability of ‘moral simulation’, imagining what consequences one’s actions might have, which sustains the feeble free will (92), and in that sense may make people better (120). In good literature, one also witnesses how the hide and seek of selves happens to other people, or how the author teases hem out. Or would one have to write a novel oneself, where one can project one’s hidden selves as the novel’s characters? Is writing used for therapy?

What self or selves does one want? Usually, morality is associated with obligations to others, but there is also a morality concerning the self, a duty to preserve oneself, perhaps to realize one’s potential, not to let the precious gift of it go to waste. Or that, at least, is what I think, my credo of life.

Rorty offered a choice. Does one want to go for a pure, single, self, freed from the encumbrances of life in the world, seeking one’s ‘true self’, illusory as it may be? Or does one opt for what Rorty called ‘enlargement of the self’, in developing novel selves from the richness of experience, harvesting it rather than retreating from it?

Note the Nietzschean, Dionysian streak of this. 

The first choice is akin to the Platonic urge to purify ideas from the rich hubbub of experienced reality, to contemplate ‘underlying fundamental reality’.

The second choice is akin to latter day philosophy that does not seek pure, distinct, fixed ideas behind appearance, or any pure, essential self. As I put it in this blog, it is ‘imperfection on the move’, including development of the self.   


[i] Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and others, Cambridge U. Press, 1991, p. 147.