Tracing our Selves

hand sketch

Self is as fascinating as any external curiosity–and harder to analyze. On an everyday level, Self is a combination of who and what we are.

I must have been eleven when my mother brought me to her job because she had something to pick up or drop off. There, a coworker of hers told me how cute I was. I was indifferent. My response was the same. She took this to be a sign of humility and further remarked about the quality of my character. But I had only found it strange that I should accept a compliment about something over which I had no control and which concerned a mere sliver of who I was. Yet this woman was on to something, and that was the what of who we are.

What we are appears to be defined by a series of happenstance factors such as physical makeup, behavior, career, country of origin–essentially whatever can be determined objectively. If we didn’t possess the capacity for self-reflection, what we are could only be determined by someone else.

Who we are–now this is the hard part. Rather than offering up a synopsis of major historic attempts at describing the Self (a feat of which I am hardly qualified), I will present my own. Plus, I am eager to publicize my own thoughts before they are so mingled with the minds of others that they can hardly be described as constituting any type of original thought.

What we are can serve as the outer shell of Self (given its objective essence). Who we are can occupy the inner core. I am going to leave aside the factors–genetic, psychological, physiological, etc.–that influence and to an extent determine who we are. This might seem a cop out to some, but shortly I shall sever the necessity to address the extent to which our selves are influenced by these, as I will describe, external factors.

So below the shell of what we are lies the core of who we are. This core is to what most people refer when they say “me” or “I”: an unseen entity molded by memory, our collective passions and fears, idiosyncrasies, and those culminating facets of our selves that warrant definition as a being a particular type of person. Beyond this, to declare “I am __” takes on a different meaning. To say I am a philosopher is to say I am one whose head is perpetually in the clouds. The self-declared poet is she whose constitution is arranged such that she smells a simile in every breeze. The mathematician is he who is comprised in such a fashion as to view the world in green numbers as Neo did when he realized he was The One.

In the common meaning, who we are is a unity of all of these. The parts combine to define an individual as, say a poet or philosopher. Yet even this is not we who truly are…

(The element of will, or volition, agency, etc., should be addressed too. It is tempting to say the Self at its core is merely the will. But I think the will is merely the outcry of some deeper Self. The will is what we want, what we desire. The will is but expressed through force of action upon the external world. Yet this will itself emanates from a deeper core creature.)

So the outer shell and inner core have been touched, but we now approach the heart of my analysis:

The true Self is a static and willful perceptual entity.

We shall label this the deep inner core, to be interchangeable with true Self.

What’s all this, then? Regardless of the Self to which most refer when using the term, it is my contention that the true Self is basically an unseen entity that never itself moves, yet expresses itself through thought and emotion, and moves its body through an external world. We can travel to Mars, but our true Self remains seated the whole time. This deep inner core is also perceptual: it feels the sting of sensory stimuli, is pressured by psychological, biological, and physical constraints; and has the capacity to analyze, synthesize, and categorize much of these.

This is why it is unnecessary to consider the genetic and biological factors that influence who we are–precisely because of just that: they merely influence some deeper Self. They are external not in that they exist in the visible world, but are so insofar as they exist beyond the threshold of a deep inner core.

Furthermore, something like intelligence is merely a tool we possess.

Sex is merely the payout from a gamble with the genetic lottery.

Memory is merely the stored series of life events and knowledge to which we have access. Emotions, though they often run deep to the core, are merely indicia of a preexisting creature capable of feeling. We’ve all felt emotions yet had the will to overcome them. How then can we overcome ourselves — how can we avoid our own emotions if we are our emotions? All these elements commonly associated with Self are secondary and are either merely tools we may use or simply color the character of our primary being, that unmoved-yet-moving perceptual and intentional true Self.

For practical purposes, as a localized unity bound in space and time, the shell, inner core, and deep inner core sufficiently constitute Self. That is to say, Self may be defined by and referred to as the whole of these three elements. Most of us understand this to some degree, but hopefully this analysis provides interesting or useful elaboration. This preliminary sketch will serve as a rough foundation for further refinement, exploration, and application.

Ultimately, however, the deep inner core is the only true Self. All else is superfluous. I think.