Tag Archives: self

Reflecting on Reflection: Me, Myself, and I

You know what’s weird?

I will never see my own face.

Sure, I see my face every day, looking in the mirror. But seeing my own face always requires mediation, through a mirror or camera. When I was in college, a philosophy professor teaching phenomenology–the careful description of experience– asked our class, “Right now, how do you know you have a head?” Through inference only. I cannot see my own head. I might be able to touch my head and feel that it is a round shape at the top of my body, but I would never know what it looked like if I never saw it in a mirror. Right now, I can see the edges of my glasses around my face, and feel the tip of my ponytail grazing my back: those are my only indications that I have a head. I can alter my field of vision by looking to the left or to the right, up or down, but I can never look directly at my own head doing this looking. 

And my head is not the only place on my body that I can never see (even on the surface of my body!). What about my back? What about my neck? They simply do not exist in my field of immediate vision.

A mirror is needed to reveal these things to me. I think this is a metaphor for reflection in general, for our relation to ourselves not only for perception of our bodies but also when it comes to knowledge of our thoughts, feelings, and the like. When I reflect on my thoughts and feelings, what is being reflected? What is doing the reflecting? There is never an unmediated relation to myself. Nietzsche speaks of the person as being made up of a “multiplicity of souls.” Aren’t we all such a multiplicity? And don’t I need to objectify one “part” of myself in order to be able to “see,” let alone, “work on,” another part of myself? In relating to oneself, there is always mediation that occurs: I am not an individual in the sense of being indivisible. And reflection on any dimension of my life, including on my life as such, always requires this doubling of self: the one looking at the face in the mirror, and the face being looked at.


A mirror selfie seemed the appropriate visual accompaniment.

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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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Simone de Beauvoir says, “It is our lack of imagination that depopulates the future.”

I think the inverse is the case. It is our excess of imagination that populates the future with all kinds of fantastical characters that often cannot be realized. The act of imagining allows one to see vistas and horizons, as well as the smallest details of such views. Once circumstances change, these visions remain, but are often no longer tied to possibility. The imagination has envisioned what life cannot fulfill. From this gap springs discontent.

Imagining is one of the most fruitful activities that we as humans find ourselves doing. Imagination is what allows us to think up stories, ideas, and artistic projects, but it is also present in just about every thought that we have. Every single time I think about my future, whether it be the coffee I am going to make five minutes from now or the house I hope to have twenty years from now, I am imagining. Every time I think about the past, I am imagining, too: for the act of remembering entails imagining what once was. The vast majority of the thoughts that populate our daily lives make use of imagining. The imagination is the ability to represent sense-images, usually (or always, for empiricists) syntheses of images one has perceived in the past. Such images do not merely indicate “mental pictures,” but can be an entire scene, including imagined conversation, gesture, touching, noises, tastes, and smells. They could last an instant or be of novel-length. Our lives are populated by such imaginings. These images are often used to represent possible future occurrences or states of affairs; and indeed, one might wonder if the capacity to imagine made some of our human ancestors along the way better able to survive than those who were not able to imagine. Whether it be in considering the future or the past, fancifully daydreaming, wondering how so-and-so felt when something happened to her, imagining what it might be like to live in Bangkok, or even imagining the taste the flavor of our favorite ice cream in the moments before the spoon reaches our lips, imagining is a constant activity that undergirds human life and thought in often unnoticeable ways.

And yet there are times when the imagination must be coaxed into a greater state of rest. I’ll never forget the time when a friend advised me after a relationship ended, “Stop imagining.” How did he know I was having trouble getting over it because I kept imagining what had been and what might have been? Of course, the injunction to “Stop imagining” would be impossible to fulfill, but that piece of advice proved extremely valuable. Because, rather than letting my imagination spin huge webs of “shoulda, woulda, coulda”s regarding the relationship, I was able to catch myself in the act, take a breath, and remind myself that there were plenty of other things to think about– and far more useful subjects to ponder.

In De Anima, Aristotle argues that imagination is prone to error in a way that sense perception is not. We are able to think up all sorts of things that could not possibly exist in reality. For instance, I have the capacity to imagine a dog with spaghetti for fur, because I have had sense perceptions of both dogs and spaghetti in the past, although it would clearly be false to take this imagining for a real perception (not that the lines between imagination and perception are ever black and white, as in the case of delusion to which all of us fall prey, perhaps even are constantly doing so).

The act of imagining is happening in our mental processes all the time, often occurring without a sense of conscious effort. In fact, imagining can often be contrary to one’s efforts. Certain images force themselves upon us when we do not want them– either they are contents that are unpleasant, threatening, traumatic to imagine, or it is simply the wrong time to be caught up in imagining (such as daydreaming during class right before your professor calls on you). But why do these images force themselves on us so? I think there are two primary sources for compulsive imagining: either the image has some imminent immediacy, demanding a plan of action in the near future, or the image pertains to deeply rooted desires, usually concerning self-identity. In the latter case, the images need not express desires, but must arise from them. The latter impulse to imagine could take any number of forms, from trying to put myself in another’s shoes in order to imagine how that person perceives me, to imagining the illustrious future that may await me. Often in our imaginings, our very sense of self, self-worth, and personal identity is caught up in the matter. Sometimes in the case of compulsive imagining, it is helpful to ask oneself, ‘What is at stake for me here? What sense of self is this image either promoting or threatening, and why am I so invested in it?’

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