Subjecting the Self to Improvement

This week’s New York Magazine takes “Self-Help” as its theme, and I found an article by Kathryn Schulz entitled “The Self in Self-Help” particularly thought-provoking. Curiously, it might be the self-help movement, of which I now tend to be quite critical, that got me into philosophy. As a teenager, I read every self-help book I could get my hands on, and most of them truly did help me improve my life, encouraging me to reflect on patterns of behavior I enacted without realizing it, offering useful ways to change those patterns, and helping me to assess areas of my life that I wanted to prioritize over others. And yet, the actual process of self-help always seemed like a bit of a mystery. Even though I was the one going through the process of helping my self, often with positive results, I was never quite sure exactly how it happened. I finally realized that this confusion arose from my confusion regarding what a ‘self’ is. What does it mean to improve oneself? And what self is being improved? Schulz asks in her article, “Can self-help work if we have no idea what a self is?” It did for me, but only with the help of a little luck, or something like that which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. And I kept having the sense that if I knew what a self is, self-help would work a lot better for me. And that’s what led me to the kind of philosophical questions regarding the nature of selfhood that I now work on professionally.

The self is not self-evident.

It’s not as though I can look somewhere– to some localizable point in space, whether on my person or ‘inside’ of me– and say, “there’s my self.” And yet a lot of us implicitly do so, living life as though there is a homunculus or little person inside our head who’s working the control panel of the rest of the body/mind schema that comprises us. In philosophy, there are theories regarding what a self is, most of them wildly insufficient.

Take Descartes, for example. His most famous statement, Cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am,” puts forth the notion that when I am engaged in an act of thinking, I cannot doubt that I exist, because otherwise, who is doing the doubting that comprises the act of thinking? (See René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part One, article 7.) However, when he formulates a version of this theory in the Meditations, Descartes unjustifiably leaps from this proposition of the cogito to proposing a res cogitans, or “thinking thing”: that is to say, Descartes unaccountably infers from the fact that there is the act of thinking, that there is a thing doing the thinking. I think this thing that does the thinking is what we typically think of as the ‘self.’ In leaping from cogito to res cogitans, Descartes leaps from the self as subject to the self as object, without having any reason to believe that there even is an objective self.

Kant, writing about 140 years after Descartes, warned against the error of presupposing that we can know anything about the self taken as object. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant makes a distinction between the “determining Self” and the “determinable Self” (see Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A402). Kant claims that while the determining Self is merely the self taken in its act of thinking, the determinable Self is the self taken as a thing, and argues that they are as different from each other “as cognition is different from its object.” Where Descartes assumes that because there is a cogito there is a res cogitans, Kant claims that we cannot make this assumption, though he uses the terms ‘determining Self’ and ‘determinable Self’ instead. Kant criticizes the rational psychologists of his era for making all kinds of claims about the determinable Self, because for him, any claims about what the Self ‘is’ are illusory.

What goes unnoticed in much self-help literature is that any notion of self-improvement entails presupposing, as Descartes did, that the self is at once a subject and an object. But what is there to justify the idea that the self is an object? To be sure, I am a singular body that moves all at once– when I walk forward, I don’t usually leave an arm or an eyeball behind– and other people perceive me as a unitary thing in space.  But when we really consider who we are, we may find that we are not as unified as we think. Various levels of consciousness and unconsciousness may exist all at once, leading to mixed feelings, and often to feelings we don’t even know we have! All kinds of bodily processes go on without our awareness, and so the ‘self’ is probably not a simple matter of ‘thinking’ the way Descartes believed (unless you don’t think your digestive process or heartbeat is part of yourself).

Furthermore, where can we draw the line between what ‘is’ us and what ‘isn’t’ us? Self-help literature often takes for granted the idea that there is an authentic ‘self’ that wants certain things– including certain behavioral patterns to change– and that all the other things, the undesirable parts of ourselves, are merely superfluous elements we can cut out, like the fat we want to shed by running every morning so that our ‘true,’ svelte self can be revealed. What this often leads to is the splitting of self into what we identify with (the good stuff) and what we don’t identify with (the bad stuff). But on a more or less conscious level, we still identify with the ‘bad stuff,’ and so people often find that their attempts at self-improvement fail. This tendency to failure is thus the result of lack of unification in the self. Through failed attempts at self-improvement, people are often faced with the fact that they are not one, coherent self, the way they thought they were. And in fact, the literature of self-help is itself based on a lack of unified, coherent self. Because the very act of self-help requires the illusion that there is a cogito, or self as thinking subject, that can work on a res cogitans, or self as object to be worked on. Twentieth-century psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argues, “I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking…I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking.” (See Jacques Lacan, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Écrits, p. 430.)

What this division of the self reveals is not, I think, the necessity to try and ‘unify’ the self. For what would unification even mean? I think it rather requires a greater awareness that the self is never a cohesive thing’ or ‘object,’ but rather a set of processes, the majority of which are not conscious, and which does not have an ‘internal’ space or location. But how do we help ourselves if we are such a set of mostly unconscious processes? That is the vital question that self-help literature by and large does not even question, let alone answer. And though I question it, I am the first to admit that the mystery of self-improvement I perceived years ago still somewhat baffles me. Perhaps what I find most paradoxical is that even though I do not believe in a unified self, and even think that the self-help movement is the product of a capitalist ideology, my attempts at ‘self-improvement’ continue to be an important part of my life. And such is the nature, perhaps, of living in the contemporary world.

Some related shit:

A ridiculously entertaining yet accurate video about Descartes from the guys at 3-minute Philosophy

A great lecture by Bruno Latour about res extensa, or “extended substance,” which also plays a big role in Descartes’ philosophy

An introduction to Kant via song

Also, I’ve written at greater length about the idea of ‘self’ in both Kant and Lacan, so if you’re interested, shoot me an email!

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