The Self


Thilly, Frank. “The Self.” The Philosophical Review 19, no. 1 (1910): 22. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177637


AN introspective examination of consciousness reveals the fact that mental processes are owned by someone; they are mine, or yours, or his. Whether or not it is possible for thoughts, feelings, or impulses to exist apart from a subject, as waifs or derelicts, separately or in swarms; one thing is certain: we never experience them as such. So far as our experience goes, there is no such thing as an unowned or unclaimed psychical process, a sensation, image, or feeling apart from a sensing, imaging, feeling proprietor who calls them his own. Moreover, the subject, owner, or knower, and the object, the thing owned, the known, are not two separate entities, but one concrete experience. “Every experience contains two inseparable factors: objects of experience and the experiencing subject." The pure ego is as much of an abstraction as the pure object. We can separate the two factors in thought, just as we can separate the color of the rose from its other qualities, but we never become directly aware of the one or the other alone. "Wherever thoughts and sensations are experienced," Ebbinghaus declares, "this subjective bearer to which they adhere, also becomes directly conscious in them and through them, in the same way as they themselves."


We also note in our inner life that the states experienced by this subject do not remain the same, but change, so that consciousness has been called a succession of states. But this succession of changing processes is not an unrelated or disconnected series of events. Yesterday's states, yesterday's sensations, images, feelings, desires, are gone, but their occurrence has not been without its influence upon the experiences of today. The fact that I perceived, imagined, thought, felt, desired, willed what did yesterday, has had its effect upon the modes in which I am conscious to-day. Somehow or other the past experiences have left their impress upon the present experiences; the perception of the blue object following immediately upon the perception of the red, is not what it would have been if it had come alone or been preceded by something else. We are in the habit of speaking, in our abstract way, as though one little piece of psychical reality, a sensation or an idea, affected another little piece of reality and produced a change in it, as though the sensation of red formed some kind of union with the sensation of blue. All that we can mean, however, is that the subject or self or knower that perceived or knew the one thing, perceived or knew it in the way it did, because this same subject had perceived or known something in a certain manner before.


But the present subject is not only influenced by its past experiences: it harks back to them, hooks on to them, connects with them, or whatever other terms we use. The psychical processes are not a disconnected series of events, like the tickings-off a clock; we have not merely a succession of consciousness, but a consciousness of succession. I say I recognize a state or remember a state I once had. Here too we are apt to use abstract terms and to say that yesterday's sensation or idea comes back, and when it comes back surrounded by the proper associates, it gets recognized or remembered because it is the same state it was before. Even this naive way of speaking implies something to come back to and something that does the recognizing. As a matter of fact, however, the same state does not come back; no state ever comes back; states of consciousness are not little bits of reality persisting somewhere or other and waiting to be called back. What we must say is that the subject which owns states also recognizes and remembers its property. The subject has a state to-day similar to the one it had yesterday; under certain circumstances it not only knows the state but knows it again, identifies it, calls it the same; it may not refer it to a definite pastime; it may simply have the feeling which James expresses in the words: 'Hello, thingumbob again’. The significant thing here is that it is the self, the owner, the knower, that does the recognizing recognize the experience, it is not brand new to me; I have a more or less clear consciousness of againness in my experience of it. Or I may remember it: I recognize it, refer it to my past; I experience with it the consciousness that I experienced it before; I experience it as having been and I place it in a setting of which too I am conscious that I experienced it before.


There is something present in consciousness that compares its experiences, notes likeness and difference, recognizes and discriminates. It is that within us which is conscious of succession, of pastness and futurity. A mere coexistence or succession of states is not comparison; a mere recurrence of sensation is not recognition; a mere sequence is not a consciousness of time. The same remarks apply to the process of judgment, as introspection reveals it to us. It is this subject or knower or I that holds subject and predicate together in the judgment, that connects or synthesizes: the meaning of a sentence is present “whilst each separate word is uttered," as James puts it. It is the I which holds the judgments together, which when it pronounces the conclusion, harks back, as it were, to the premises. "It is obvious that if things are to be thought in relation, they must be thought together, and in one something, be that something ego, psychosis, state of consciousness, or whatever you please. “If this 'something' did not hold in its grasp what has gone before, there would be no judgment, no inference, no train of connected thought; wherever it loses its grip, thinking goes to pieces. The principle that states and understands the conclusion of an argument or discourse or syllogism, is the same with that which stated and understood the premises. If each one of three men thought of a proposition in a syllogism, that would not give us a process of inference; in order that there may be inference, the three propositions must be thought in one head, by one person, by one ego.


It is also this self or subject that has feelings and impulses and desires, that wills or decides in favor and against acts; it has preferences, it selects. The pleasure and pain it feels are its pleasure and pain; it assumes attitudes towards its content; it holds fast to a state or attends to it; it selects, rejects, wants it, strives after it, or withdraws from it. /have the feeling, /assume the attitude; all these things are 'mine; indeed, I and my feelings, impulses, desires, attitudes are one; I am my impulses, I am in every one of them and they are in me; I am their owner and I am the self that holds them together, the central, organizing self, without which no order can be brought into them. “There is a spiritual something in him [man] which seems Togo out to meet these qualities and contents, whilst they seem to come in to be received by it. It is what welcomes or rejects. It presides over the perception of sensations, and by giving or withholding its assent it influences the movements they tend to arouse. It is the home of interest. . .. It is the source of effort and attention, and the place from which appear to emanate the fiats of the will." l Without this unifying self that assimilates and profits by past experiences, that sets up ideals, holds fast to them, and seeks for the means of carrying them out, there can be no development of the personality, no intellectual or moral education. Indeed, the kind of conscious life we lead would be impossible if this principle failed to function in its usual way if the tie that binds were absent. It would resemble a series of electric flashes, a succession of light and darkness.

There is, then, something in consciousness, an ego, a self, a subject, whatever we choose to call it, that appropriates, recognizes, identifies, differentiates, compares, looks before and after, remembers, anticipates, apprehends meaning, conceives, judges, affirms and denies, infers, attends, assumes attitudes, prefers, selects, rejects, decides, learns, grows, develops, is capable of being educated. Of this self or ego and its functioning we can become aware: we can attend to ourselves as the subject of consciousness; in this sense we may be said to experience the self. But it must not be forgotten, we do not become aware of pure ego as a state-less ego; we never experience it alone as a separate entity. Nor do we experience it in the sense of finding it among the elements of our ordinary perception, among what Kant would call the phenomena, among the objects which the self has and relates. The failure to discover it among his percepts led Hume and many other writers to deny its existence altogether. "For my part," he says, "when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, of light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception." Hume cannot find the self because he is looking for it in the wrong place; he "cannot see the forest for the trees," as Hoff ding puts it. Other writers, following what they regard to be the lead of Kant, assert that the ego cannot be made the object either for others or for itself: the subject of consciousness cannot become the object of psychological study. According to Schopenhauer, the subject is that which knows everything and is known by no one; because it is knowing, it is absolutely unknowable. But thinkers of this class do not deny the existence of such a subject; they simply deny that we can know it in a certain way: the ego is a spiritual principle that thinks, feels, and wills; but we do not know it in the technical sense of that term. Kant's meaning seems to be that we are conscious of the ego; we know that it is, but we do not know what it is.


Consciousness of self is not knowledge of self, because knowledge means to look at things spatially, temporally, causally; and to know the ego that way would be to know it as a substance. The position we assume is that we can become aware of it and describe its functions. This does not mean that we get it separate and alone, devoid of any content; we get a single pulse of thought, a unity in which content and container are one: and we can never catch ourselves without a perception or a thought or a feeling. Nor is anything we have said to be understood as settling the question of the ultimate essence of this self: that is a problem for itself. Whether it is in its ultimate reality material or spiritual, whether it is a substance or an actus Purus, whether it is an independent monad or the manifestation of a universal intelligence, does not concern us here. Whether it's a motion in the brain or a substance or a function, it is one that can become aware of itself, one that can do all the things we have tried to describe. Though always in the present, it can hark back to the past; it is conscious of past time and conscious of having itself been in that past time; it is conscious of having had certain experiences and of having been present in those experiences. It does not merely say that its body was there, but that it, which had a body then and has one now, was there. Perhaps it is mistaken in thinking that it existed before, perhaps the self that is conscious of having been is a brand-new self; if it is, it has certainly inherited the old one's past.


As we have seen, there are those who fail to find a self in their experience, and therefore deny its existence: “setting aside some metaphysicians," as Hume expresses himself, the rest of mankind are nothing "but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance, pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations."


The difficulty of accounting for the unity of our conscious life, a difficulty which Hume confessed to be too hard for his understanding, by a mere juxtaposition of a lot of rapidly moving ideas, has led others to infer a combining agency, a unifying principle. “We must admit," Hoff ding thinks, "that the idea of self cannot be derived from immediate perception but must be obtained by inference from the general nature and conditions of conscious life.” This is a necessary consequence of the fact that it is based on an activity, always (i.e., so long as consciousness lasts) continued and repeated; on the synthetic activity which all consciousness presupposes. In each individual state we have the product of this activity, but not the activity itself. It is a fact connected with this, that we can never be fully conscious of ourselves. Forth with every state in which we think of ourselves is conditioned by synthesis; self-consciousness, just as every other kind of consciousness, is possible only by its means. The synthesis, thinner unity in us, always hides itself, however deeply we try to penetrate into consciousness; it is the constant presupposition. “But it may be asked, how could we ever infer that the self is the synthesizing agency if we never experienced this self in the first place? How could we ever form an idea of a self or an ego if we did not have a consciousness of it, and where else can we get knowledge of it than in ourselves? From an organized product we might infer the action of an organizing principle, but we should never conceive this principle as a self if we had not met this self in our experience. How it is possible for a self to become aware of itself, we cannot tell; but in becoming aware of itself or self-conscious, it does not elude our grasp. To say that I never become aware of the I (as subject) because the I always shifts its position when I try to catch it and leaves me with a me (as object) is a verbal quibble. It is not true that the I cannot see itself because it does the seeing. The uniqueness of the I consists in this very fact that it can see and see itself; that is simply a way it has.1 We cannot do justice to this function if we attempt to describe it in terms of sense, and that is what Kant tried to avoid. But Kant shows an excess of caution when he warns us against looking at it under the time-form: as though looking at a thing past, present, or future could change the thing!

There are also thinkers who, while admitting such facts as the sense of personal identity and the unity of consciousness, offer a physiological explanation of them, which, in their opinion, makes the assumption of a spiritual principle unnecessary. According to Ribot, states of consciousness are no ignes fatidy now flaring, anon extinguished, but there is something which unites them, and which is the subjective expression of their objective coordination. In every normal individual exists a spontaneous, natural sense of his own being. Every state of consciousness has a mark whereby it is known to me as mine only, and without which it seems foreign to me. This personal character however is not superadded, but inherent: it is an integral part of the fact, and results from its physiological conditions." The unity of the me is the coordination of a number of states that are continually arising, and its one basis is the vague sense of our own bodies, coenaesthesis. Hence the unity of the me is, in the last resort, a biological problem: the unity and complexity of the organism. Just as the body is but the organized and coordinated sum of the elements that make it up, so the psychic personality is but the organized and coordinated sum of the same elements regarded as psychic values. The psychological explanation can come only after biology has explained the genesis of organisms and the solidarity of their parts.


Disregarding the difficulties involved in conceiving consciousness an epiphenomenon, as "only a light that makes visible unconscious work," we may perhaps say that Ribot's theory points out some of the conditions essential to the proper functioning of the ego. Organic sensations, which are more or less dull and obscure, accompany all my other mental processes, forming a kind of background or canvas, as it were, upon which all of these mental experiences are painted. Now so long as this background remains the same, so long as there are no sudden changes in it, that is, so long as the body functions in its usual way, the mental states painted on this background will appear the same, and the ego will identify them as its own, as the same it has been having. When the mental processes are cast upon a different background, the ego does not recognize them as the same; in order to be recognized they must appear in the same setting. So, too, only those states will be connected or unified which have the same organic background. There will be as many sets of connected states as there are different canvases, a fact which explains abnormal states like alternating personality, lapse of memory, mediumship. One thing, however, must be remembered here. The organic sensations may be the conditions of recognition, memory, synthesis, etc., but under no circumstances can they be conceived as constituting the identifying, recognizing, synthetizing self: sameness of sensations is not sensation of sameness. In order that the organic sensations may be felt as the same, something more is necessary than the mere recurrence of the same or similar experiences; whatever may be the occasion of the appearance of the sense of identity, it is a new element in consciousness, an element which a physiological theory of association is just as unable to explain as was the old psychological associationism. We have here the difficulty which John Stuart Mill, himself a member of the associationist school, was frank enough to confess: “If, therefore, we speak of the mind as a series of feelings, were obliged to complete the statement by calling it a series of feelings which is aware of itself as past and future; and we are reduced to the alternative of believing that the mind, or Ego, is something different from any series of feelings, or possibilities of them, or of accepting the paradox that something which hypothesis is but a series of feelings, can be aware of itself as a series. ... I think by far the wisest thing we can do is to accept the inexplicable fact, without any theory of how it takes place; and when we are obliged to speak of it in terms which assume a theory, to use them with a reservation as to their meaning."


James, too, in his fine chapter on the Consciousness of Self, seems to me to confuse the sense of personal identity with the possible conditions of its appearance. In his opinion, when consciousness says the present self is identical with the past self, it means that the present self is felt with the same warmth and intimacy as the past selves. We feel the whole cubic mass of our body, "we feel the inner 'nucleus of the spiritual self’ either in the shape of you faint physiological adjustments, or ... in that of the pure activity of our thought taking place as such." Any distant self which brings these feelings with it (the bodily feeling, the thought-feeling, or both) will be felt as warm; and only those distant selves which had them when they were alive will bring them. The animal warmth runs through them all like a thread through a chaplet and makes them into a whole, which we treat as a unit, no matter how much in other ways the parts may differ inter se. Moreover, the distant selves appear to our thought as having for hours been continuous with one another. Hence, because the same warmth runs through all these selves, and because we find them continuous, we conclude that they are the same. That is, "resemblance among the parts of a continuum of feelings (especially bodily feelings) experienced along with things widely different in all other regards, thus constitutes the real and verifiable 'personal identity' which we feel." All this is very well, provided we do not forget that feelings can be warm only to a self that feels them as warm, that feelings can be said to resemble each other only when they are the feelings of recognizing self. Warm feelings do not constitute personal identity; it is the identifying personality that makes the feeling swarm. The factors which James employs to account for the consciousness of self already have the self-imbedded in them.


For my part, then, whenever I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble upon a self that is aware of states, that owns them, recognizes them, remembers them, connects them, assumes attitudes towards them. The question now arises: Is this personal consciousness, functioning as we have described it, a constant factor in our experience in the sense of being the same ego to-day as that which had yesterday's states? Well, the ego of to-day is conscious of having been; it projects itself into the past; thinks of itself as having had a state it has now, before, and having been there to have it. Is this a delusion? Something seems to come back that was here before, something seems to persist in this sense. We may say this is a delusion; the old states have disappeared and with them the old ego: a new ego with its new states comes to take their place. Mental processes come from nothing and go into nothing. A new selfish man made the heir of all the possessions of the dead selves of the past and will in turn bequeath to its successor its mysterious property. But such a view is a severe tax upon our credulity. A brand-new self that inherits the total equipment of countless other dead selves is a stupendous miracle. It is no harder to believe that the old self comes back and increases its stock of knowledge with every new experience, than it is to assume this creation out of nothing. Human thought, however, is satisfied with neither view; it conceives this ego as something more or less persistent or as rooted in something more or less persistent. This is the common notion behind all substance theories of the mind, and nearly all the explanations are in a certain sense substance theories, in the sense, namely, of relating mental processes to something, more or less persistent, in which they occur. The substance is variously conceived by different thinkers: as brain, as a spiritual principle, conscious or unconscious, as God, or as a system of relations. It is said that we do not need such a substance to account for the facts, that "it does not make the connection between the particular processes a bit more intelligible."


That is true if we mean by the term a static entity, separate and immutable, a dead block of reality to which the processes are affixed, "the wooden soul-atom " which Wundt and Paulsen have found such pleasure in bowling over. We do not mean that; we mean something which expresses itself in its states, which is the life of its states, something which changes and grows and learns but is not a mere sum of changes, something which reveals itself in the ways we have described, which is the ground of its revelations and which makes itself known in its revelations. If this something is the organic body, then toady can think and become self-conscious, and is no mere material mechanism; we cannot sink mind in the brain without spiritualizing the brain, and we cannot do that without at the same time spiritualizing the universe. But, however that maybe, however we may seek to explain the self metaphysically, no psychology and no philosophy can afford to ignore it as a factor experience or dissolve it into a mere sum of states, be they static or dynamic, mental or physical.

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