views updated May 29 2018


Although it has been a subject of fascination for thousands of years, self is an ill-defined concept in philosophy and psychology, generally taken to refer vaguely to the "inner" being of the individual that is, at times, both the subject and object of experience. It should be seen as distinct from both person (the totality of an individual being) and identity (an individual's sense of who they are in relation to a social and physical world). When people refer to the "problem" of the self, they are, in fact, referring to a great many problems. Is there really a self at all? What sort of methodology should be used to investigate it? Does a person have one self or many selves? Where is the self located? How does the self develop? How does one self interact with another? What is broadly agreed is that the experience of self is somewhat paradoxical since the self can appear to be simultaneously unified yet fragmented, continuous yet disparate, immanent yet transcendent, apparent yet elusive, private and personal yet social. These problems, as they arise in the behavioral sciences, share a history with the world's religions. Theologians and philosophers alike have attempted to address them.

The self in psychology

In the 1890's psychologist and philosopher William James (18421910) proposed that the self-as-subject, the I-self, be differentiated from the self-as-object, the me-self. His model contended that the me-self, which is created from an individual's subjective interpretation of experience, could be subdivided into three components: the bodily, material self at the bottom; the social self in the middle; and the spiritual self, the extremely precious enduring dispositions and moral constitution of a person, at the top. The elusive I-self, he proposed, is an active agent that is able to shape its own destiny and is responsible for perceived continuity and the construction of the me-self.

James's differentiation of "me" and "I" remains intrinsically attractive to many theorists, but although an abundance of complex structural and systemic models of the self have been proposed, the very existence of the I-self is still frequently questioned. Empirical and theoretical psychology, however, has generally taken each individual's development of a sense of an inner self for granted.

One way of categorising models of the self is through their division into global unidimensional models, which emphasize a single factor such as the importance of self-esteem for the maintenance of the self, and multidimensional models, which implicate a network of hierarchically organized cognitive structures that collectively constitute the self. Though these two types are not strictly antithetical, there has been a dramatic shift towards hierarchical models in recent years and the self is more often discussed as a complex system rather than a unitary entity.

On these lines, the psychologist George Kelly argued that the self-system should be likened to a theory constructed by the individual, which serves to organize their relationship to the world. Some information processing models suppose that the individual's cognitive experiential organization results in the formation of self-schemata, which are constructs that serve both to give a sense of self and to guide and govern future behavior. Others argue that the components of what is generally known as the self are interconnected so as to form a loosely integrated whole giving the illusion of continuity but continuing to exist as a multiplicity, each retaining the capacity for a degree of autonomous functioningin the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky's terms, a "society of mind." A common way of accounting for the apparent sense of an inner self, whilst remaining ambivalent about its literal existence, is to appeal to the idea of narratisationthe notion that what is called a self is actually just a dynamic process of integrating a personal experiential history into a coherent unified life story. The autobiographical narrative so constructed effectively amounts to a person's unique identity, but this does not equate to some mysterious transcendent inner entity. Many have argued, however, that the demands of living in postmodern society raise certain difficulties for an individual's construction of a singular coherent identity; the essential fragmentation of the self is a common theme in postmodern thought.

Social psychology is concerned not so much with the individual representation and functioning of the self but with its genesis and development in a social context. In William James's opinion, there was not one single "social self" but, rather, a multiplicity, each of which could find expression at any one time. This idea of multiple selves that are essentially relational, situation-specific constructs arising from social encounters, is a central feature of social psychological models. In 1902 sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (18641929) and, subsequently in the 1920s, philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (18631931), developed perspectives in which an individual's social interactions in the form of linguistic exchanges (symbolic interactions) were deemed to be central to the construction of self. Indeed the theory of the social construction of the self finds its most straightforward expression in Cooley's famous concept of the "looking-glass self," the idea that an individual comes to know themselves only by assimilating the reactions of others towards oneself into a self-image. Here, the "me" and "I" components of the self are deemed to be interdependent, each continuously redefining the other. Modern empirical social psychology has identified a variety of different socially determined factors that come to bear on the development of the self, even to the extent that an individual's perceptions of especially close others may come to be integrated into their concept of themselves.

Other, psychoanalytic theories, most notably object relations theory, also emphasize the importance of the role played by an individual's relationships in the healthy development as well as the psychopathology of the self. According to object relations theorists, who rejected the Freudian psychosexual developmental model of the individual as narcissistic and pleasure seeking, the self develops as a complex matrix of representations acquired through emotionally laden experiences of oneself in relation to others.

So, different theories have collectively enhanced the knowledge of the self, but none could individually lay claim to offer a complete account. Psychoanalytic psychology, for example, has the benefit of a holistic approach to the self and the personality, but not the (alleged) fine grained, empirically verifiable explanatory power of information processing approaches. Information processing accounts, by contrast, often fail to pay adequate heed to the roles of affective psychological processes when modelling the self. Despite considerable differences of opinion over its contributory structures and processes, competing theories of the self do generally converge on a number of basic principles, such as its essential dynamism and the notion that much of the self remains unconscious, invisible to introspection. Some recent work has been directed towards further uniting apparently disparate theories of the self that have arisen in distinct psychological schools.

Non-western concepts of the self are often difficult to translate into western psychological terminology. Although the sense of self has frequently been supposed to be an innate, pan-cultural feature of the human psyche, ethnographers are agreed that what amounts to the sense of self arises from a vast array of interconnected individual-cognitive and sociocultural influences. The innateness controversy rages on, but it appears unlikely that anything as complex as the self could be determined by the genes of an individual. All this is not to say, however, that evolutionary theories of the phylogeny of the self should be discounted; the "modern" self, in as much as it is partly determined by evolved mental and physiological processes, must surely have been influenced by the pressures of natural selection.

The self in religion

Several theorists have observed that Christian theological notions of the soul are the immediate ancestors of Western philosophical and psychological notions of the self, and there is a very strong tradition of positioning knowledge of self in conversation with Christian doctrine and the knowledge of God. Contemporary analyses of this tradition such as Charles Taylor's The Sources of the Self (1989), which charts the genesis and phylogeny of the modern identity in Western philosophy and social thought, traces the origin of introspection back to Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.), although the writings of mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (15961650) effectively inaugurated the form of critical self-reflection that characterises the "modern" period. Often, the theological influence on the development of thinking about self in non-Christian cultures is also readily apparent. Personal senses of self, as well as concepts of the nature and function of the self in a religious context, differ markedly between cultures. These range from those of the modern western Christian world, with their overt emphasis on individualism and personal autonomy, to those of certain cultures and other religious traditions where concepts of person and self are less explicit or even absent.

In the western world, then, the origin of the "inner self" as an inwardly focused and centered entity that is distinct from the physical body lies in the works of Augustine, who emphasized the importance of adopting a first person standpoint in the understanding of oneself, and in doing so, fundamentally changed the way that people conceived of the soul and subsequently the self. For Augustine, appreciation of the meaningful order of the world, grounded in the goodness of God, was possible only through introspection of the soul. God, as an inner lightthe light of the soulwas conceived by Augustine to be the underlying principle of knowing itself.

A major strand of Christian theological thought concerning the origin and nature of the inner self can be identified in discussions that are centred upon the imago dei, the triune God in whose image, Christianity teaches, human beings are created. Augustine's discernment of the triadic structures of human thought, which he grounds in the being of God is a celebrated example of this type of theory, but this theme has been revived and elaborated upon many times.

Conceiving the nature of God as Trinity, some (such as Alisdair McFadyen) argue that a theory of human nature might be analogously informed. They argue that the model of the Trinity as a unique community of persons does not entail the autonomous individuality of each person nor an understanding of each person as a specific mode of relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Echoing of the dialogical personalism developed by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber, this understanding of the Trinity is reflected in the understanding of human persons as acquiring identity only through their relations with others, including their relationships with God. At all times an individual self is engaged in a threefold living relation with human others, with his or her environment and, through faith, with God.

In Islam, where the word Nafs may be equally well translated as soul or self, it is generally discussed in the context of Hudan (the right guidance), and the appropriate path to virtue as taught in the Qur'han. Although the Islamic concept of the soul is affected by both inner and cultural factors the notion of an essential self is less explicit than in the West, being more of a social construct made manifest through the taking of roles. In submission to Allah the self is both controlled and cultivated as part of a hierarchical cultural and religious order.

The various collections of teachings subsumed under the generic name Buddhism, by contrast, teach that the sense of an inner self (which is really not-self), as expressed in words such as "I" and "me," is a source of suffering and that only through surrendering this sense can a state of bliss really be found. All sentient beings are deemed by Buddhists to be part of a continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Nirvana, effectively the escape from this cycle, can only be achieved by a successive rooting out of all greed, hatred, confusion, and delusion from what passes as one's self. In Buddhist thought, it is by ceasing to grasp after the perceived continuity of self, and thereby accepting the present as an opportunity to develop the cardinal virtues of wisdom and mindfulness that one might finally and completely transcend the process of becoming.

The self at the interface of psychology and religion

Some psychologists and philosophers of religion have succeeded in coordinating certain aspects of their respective theories and models of the self and in many cases these theories are mutually informative. Francisco Varela, in The Embodied Mind (1991), for example, draws his primary inspiration for his theory of the self from Mahayana Buddhist teachings. However, although empirical social and cognitive psychology has attempted to quantify the impact of various religious influences on self-development, the emphasis on explanation in these models seems very different to the more interpretative, discursive theories that have arisen in theological discourse. Although not all psychological theories of the self are as antitheological as those of Sigmund Freud or some evolutionary psychologists, even those psychological models of mental health and development that accentuate the importance of an individual's perceived relationship to God portray the self in a fundamentally different light to that of explicitly religious theories. It tends to be seen as a product of innate and acquired individual and social influences rather than, as in Christian thought for example, an entity created and sustained by God, which stands in perpetual relation to God. It seems, then, that although the relationship between religious and psychological theories of the self has great historical significance, and there may be dialogue between them, their objectives, their identities and, ultimately, their raisons d'être remain distinct.

See also Buddhism; Descartes, RenÉ; Evolutionary Psychology; Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects; Freud, Sigmund; God; Imago Dei; Islam; Psychology; Self-transcendence; Soul


ashmore, richard d., and jussim, lee, eds. self and identity: fundamental issues. new york: oxford university press, 1997.

bracken, bruce a., ed. handbook of the self-concept. new york: wiley 1996.

harré, rom. the singular self: an introduction to the psychology of personhood. london: sage, 1998.

kippenberg, hans g.; kuiper, yme b.; and sanders, andy f., eds. concepts of person in religion and thought. berlin and new york: mouton de gruyter, 1990.

levin, jerome d. theories of the self. london: taylor and francis, 1992.

mcfadyen, alistair i. the call to personhood: a christian theory of the individual in social relationships. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1990.

miller, david l., ed. the individual and the social self: unpublished work of george herbert mead. chicago and london: university of chicago press, 1982.

pannenberg, wolfhart. anthropology in theological perspective, trans. matthew j. o'connell. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1985.

proudfoot, wayne. god and the self: three types of philosophy of religion. london: associated university presses, 1976.

schwöbel, christoph, and gunton, colin e., eds. persons, divine and human: king's college essays in theological anthropology. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1991.

suls, jerry m., ed. psychological perspectives on the self, vol. 4. hillsdale, n.j.: erlbaum, 1993.

taylor, charles. sources of the self: the making of the modern identity. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1989.

varela, francisco j.; thompson evan; and rosch, eleanor. the embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. cambridge, mass.: mit press, 1991.

white, vernon. paying attention to people: an essay on individualism and christian belief. london: spck, 1997.

yu, carver t. being and relation: a theological critique of western dualism and individualism. edinburgh, uk: scottish academic press, 1987.

lÉon turner fraser watts


views updated May 29 2018


In its normal use the English expression "self" is not even quite a word, but something that makes an ordinary object pronoun into a reflexive one (e.g., her into herself ). The reflexive pronoun is used when the object of an action or attitude is the same as the subject of that action or attitude. If I say Mark Twain shot himself in the foot, I describe Mark Twain not only as the shooter but as the person shot. In this sense "the self" is just the person doing the action or holding the attitude that is somehow in question. "Self" is also used as a prefix for names of activities and attitudes, identifying the special case where the object is the same as the agent: self-love, self-hatred, self-abuse, self-promotion, self-knowledge.

"The self" often means more than this, however. In psychology it is often used for that set of attributes that a person attaches to himself or herself most firmly, the attributes that the person finds it difficult or impossible to imagine himself or herself without. The term identity is also used in this sense. Typically, one's sex is a part of one's self or one's identity; one's profession or nationality may or may not be.

In philosophy the self is the agent, the knower and the ultimate locus of personal identity. If the thought of future reward or punishment is to encourage or deter me from some course of action, I must be thinking of the person rewarded as me, as myself, as the same person who is now going to endure the hardship of righteousness or pass up the enjoyments of sin in favor of this ultimate reward. But this same self comes up in much more mundane transactions. If I pick up the cake and shove it in this mouth rather than that one, is it not because I think it will be me, the very same person who picks up the cake, that will have the pleasure of tasting it?

A straightforward view of the self would be that the self is just the person and that a person is a physical system. This view has been challenged on two fronts. First, the nature of freedom and consciousness has convinced many philosophers that there is a fundamentally nonphysical aspect of persons. The second challenge stems from puzzling aspects of self-knowledge. The knowledge we have of ourselves seems very unlike the knowledge we have of other objects in several ways, and this has led some philosophers to rather startling conclusions about the self. In his Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein tells us that "I am my world" and that "'the world is my world'" (1961, 5.63, 5.641). This should lead us to the rather surprising conclusion that I am the world, or that at least Wittgenstein was. He draws at least one conclusion that would follow from this: "at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end."

The contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has been led to a possibly less radical but still quite dramatic view. According to Nagel, when he says "I am Tom Nagel," at least in certain philosophical moods, the "I" refers to the "objective self," which is not identical with but merely contingently related to the person Tom Nagel. This self could just as well view the world from the perspective of someone other than him (Nagel, 1983). We need to discuss the puzzling features of self-knowledge that give rise to such views.


"Self-knowledge" seems to have a straightforward meaning: cases of knowledge in which the knower and the known are identical. But this does not seem sufficient. The philosopher Ernst Mach once got on the end of a bus and saw a scruffy, unkempt, bookish-looking sort of person at the other end. He thought to himself,

  1. That man is a shabby pedagogue.

In fact, Mach was seeing himself in a large mirror at the far end of the bus. He eventually realized this and thought to himself:

  • (2) I am that man.
  • (3) I am a shabby pedagogue.

Now consider Mach at the earlier time. Did Mach have self-knowledge? In our straightforward sense it seems that he did. He knew that a certain person was a shabby pedagogue and, furthermore, that person was him. The knower and the known were the same. But this is not what we mean by self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is something Mach really had only when he got to step (3), when he would have used the word I to express what he knew.

Self-knowledge seems peculiar. First, it seems "essentially indexical." Statement (3) expresses self-knowledge because of the word I ; it is hard to see how Mach could have expressed self-knowledge without using the first person. If he said "Mach is a shabby pedagogue," he would be claiming to know only what everyone else may have known. It does not seem that there is any objective characterization D of Mach, such that knowing that he is a shabby pedagogue amounts to knowing that D is a shabby pedagogue (Castañeda, 1966, 1968; Perry, 1990, 1993).

Secondly, we seem immune to certain sorts of misidentification with respect to self-knowledge. If we learn, in certain ways, that someone is in pain, then we cannot miss the fact that it is we who are in pain. That is, if Mach discovers that he has a headache in the ordinary way that a person discovers she has a headache, he can scarcely be wrong about who has the headache, if the range of choices is "I/you/that man," and so forth. Of course he can be wrong if the range of choices is "Mach/Freud/Wittgenstein," and so on, for he might not realize which of those people he is (Shoemaker, 1984).

Third, self-knowledge seems to play a unique cognitive role. If Mach desires that he do so and so, and believes that he can do so and so by executing such and such a movement, then he will execute that movement without further ado (Perry, 1990).

Agent-Relative Knowledge

At least some of these peculiarities of self-knowledge can be explained by taking self-knowledge to be a species of agent-relative knowledge. There are two quite different ways of cognizing objects (people, things, places, and times). We can think of them via their relationship to us, the role they are playing in our lives at the moment of thought: the object I see; the present moment; the place I'm at; the person I'm talking to. We need to think about things in the first way, when we are picking up information about them perceptually or interacting with them, since ways of knowing and acting are tied to these agent-relative roles. I can learn about the here and now by looking; I can learn about the person I am talking to by asking questions, and so forth.

But these agent-relative roles cannot be our only ways of thinking about objects of more than passing interest to us. Different objects play the same agent-relative roles at different times, and at any given time many of the objects we wish to retain information about will not be playing any agent-relative role for us. And we cannot accumulate information along such roles. Suppose I am in Tokyo on Tuesday but return to Palo Alto on Friday. From the facts that on Tuesday I truly thought "Japanese is the official language here " and on Friday I truly thought "Senator Stanford used to live near here " it does not follow that there is some place where Japanese is the official language and near which Senator Stanford used to live.

In order to retain and accumulate information about objects, to construct and maintain a coherent picture of the world, we need to have a way of conceiving of objects as existing independently of us, as occupying and then ceasing to occupy various agent-relative roles. That is, we need objective ways of thinking about objects. We keep track of them by names or descriptions that do not depend on their relationship to us: Cordura Hall, 4 p.m., June 23, 1995, the southernmost town in Santa Clara County, Aurora Fischer. These serve as our fundamental ways of thinking about those objects. Recognition consists in connecting our objective ways of thinking of objects with the roles those objects play at a given moment. Consider the knowledge I might express with "Today is July 4." This is knowledge that a certain day, objectively conceived ("July 4"), is playing a certain role in my life; it is the present day, the day on which the thinking and speaking take place. This kind of knowledge, "knowing what day it is," is quite crucial to successful application of other, more objective knowledge. If I know that the party is on July 4 and know that today is July 4, then I will form the right expectations about what the day will be like.

Similarly, I may be in Kansas City and know that Kansas City is a good place for a steak dinner. But if I do not know that I am in Kansas City, if I do not realize that Kansas City is playing the "here" or "this city" role in my life at this moment, I will not be able to apply the knowledge that Kansas City is a good place for a steak dinner.

And again, I may know that Aurora Fischer has important information about my schedule, but unless I realize that the person I am talking to is Aurora Fischer, I will not apply this information and say, "Can you tell me where this afternoon's meeting is?"

These kinds of knowledge are, like self-knowledge, "essentially indexical." We use now and today to express our knowledge of what time it is and here to express our knowledge of where we are. These locutions are not reducible to names or objective descriptions, just as I was not. I cannot express what I say when I say, "The meeting starts right now" by saying "the meeting starts at D " for any description D of the present moment.

We are also immune to certain sorts of misidentification when we use certain methods of knowing. There is a way of finding out what is going on around one, namely opening one's eyes and looking (Evans, 1985). Now when one learns what is going on in this way, one can hardly fail to identify the time at which this is happening as now and the place as here. And finally, the forms of thought we express with now and here seem to have a unique motivational role. If I want to do something here and now, I will simply do it.

Self-Knowledge as Agent-Relative Knowledge

"Self" is really the name of such an agent-relative role, that of identity. As with other agent-relative roles, there are special ways of knowing and acting that are associated with identity. If Mach had wished to know, during the interval while he was confused, if the shabby pedagogue he was seeing had lint on his vest, he would have had to walk over to him and look. If Mach had wanted to know if he himself had lint on his vest, he could have simply lowered his head and looked. Had he done this, he would have had no doubt about whom the lint was on. If Mach found lint and wanted to brush it off, he would engage in self-brushing, a quick movement of the hand across one's front that each of us can use to remove lint from our own vest and no one else's.

Unlike the other agent-relative roles, identity is permanent. I will talk to many people, be in many places, live through many times in the course of my life. But there is only one person I will ever be identical with, myself. Hence, accumulation along "I" is valid, unlike accumulation along "here" or "now" or "that man."

Earlier we rejected the straightforward account of self-knowledge, as knowledge about a person by that very person. Now we can put forward an alternative. Self-knowledge is knowledge about a person by that very person, with the additional requirement that the person be cognized via the agent-relative role of identity. This agent-relative role is tied to normally self-informative methods of knowing and normally self-effecting ways of acting. When these methods are employed, there will be immunity of misidentification as to who is known about, or who is acted upon.

This role can serve as a person's fundamental concept of himself or herself. In this way our self-conceptions have structures that are different from our conceptions of other individuals of importance to us. If we understand the special way in which a person's self-knowledge is structured, we do not need to postulate anything but the person himself or herself for the knowledge to be about.

See also Consciousness; Freedom; Identity; Indexicals; Mach, Ernst; Nagel, Thomas; Personal Identity; Philosophy of Mind; Reduction; Self-Knowledge; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


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John Perry (1996)

Bibliography updated by Alyssa Ney (2005)


views updated May 29 2018

362. Self

See also 334. PSYCHOLOGY .

the process of teaching oneself. autodidact, n.
the worship of oneself.
the study of oneself.
an excessive liking for solitude.
a kind of self-love; narcissism. autophile, n. autophilic, adj.
autophobia, autophoby
an abnormal fear of being by oneself. Also called eremiophobia, eremophobia, monophobia .
the act or process of plagiarizing ones own work.
a mode of life based on intuition and self-education in order to improve ones character. biosophist, n.
the state of being self-centered; greater concern about the self than others to an excessive degree. egocentric, n., adj.
1. the philosophy or attitude of considering oneself the center of the universe.
2. the state or quality of being self-centered. egocentric, n., adj.
an extreme individualism; thought and behavior based upon the premise that ones individual self is the highest product, if not the totality, of existence. Cf. individualism. egoist, n. egoistic, adj.
a psychologically abnormal egotism. egomaniac, n.
a deification of self.
the practice of thought, speech, and conduct expressing high self-regard or self-exaltation, usually without skepticism or humility. egotist, n. egotistical, adj.
eremiophobia, eremophobia
1. the state of being a hermit.
2. an attitude favoring solitude and seclusion. eremite, n. eremitic, adj.
extraversion, extroversion
1. the act of directing ones interest outward or to things outside the self.
2. the state of having thoughts and activities satisfied by things outside the self. Cf. introversion. extravert, n. extraversive, extravertive, adj.
factionalism, factionism
the state or quality of being partisan or self-interested. factional, adj. factionalist, n.
the practice of independence in thought and action on the premise that the development and expression of an individual character and personality are of the utmost importance. Cf. egoism. individualist, n. individualistic, adj.
the act or process of becoming an individual or distinct entity.
introversion Psychology.
1. the act of directing ones interest inward or toward the self.
2. the state of being interested chiefly in ones own inner thoughts, feelings, and processes. Cf. extraversion. introvert, n. introvertive, introversive, adj.
a dictatorial atmosphere brought about by a persons demands based solely on his having uttered them.
an individual identity; selfhood. Also ipseity.
a theatrical performance or scene with a single actor who speaks alone.
1. the habit of talking to oneself; soliloquizing.
2. Obsolete a monologue. monologist, n. monologic, monological, adj.
an excessive admiration of oneself. Also narcism. narcissist, narcist n. narcissistic, narcistic, adj.
Archaic. the use of we in speaking of oneself.
the individual or personal characteristics of a person or object. personalist, n. personalistic, adj.
Obsolete, self love; an excessive regard for oneself.
the state of living apart from society, like a hermit. recluse, n. reclusive, adj.
a person who seeks solitude or removes himself from the society of others; a recluse.
the obsessive concentration on ones self-interests. selfist, n.
1. the act or custom of talking to oneself or talking when alone.
2. Drama, a speech in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other characters in the play. soliloquist, n.
1. the killing of oneself.
2. a person who has killed himself. suicidal, adj.
Phrenology. the organ serving as the seat of instincts of self-preservation.

Self (True/False)

views updated May 11 2018


Donald Winnicott used the term "self" to describe both "ego" and self-as-object. He describes the self in terms of a psychosomatic organization, emerging from a primary state of "unintegration" by gradual stages. The true self, which in health expresses the authenticity and vitality of the person, will always be in part or in whole hidden; the false self is a compliant adaptation to environmental impingement.

This characteristically fluid use of the term can be traced throughout his work, evolving in terms of true and false selves. The first paper to clarify the existence of true and false selves as entities is "Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development" (1950-55). Winnicott, from within his own object-relations theory, postulates the necessity for the innate maturational tendency to operate within the facilitating environment (1960). This is expressed in terms of the individual baby's need for an environment allowing uninterrupted continuity of being, which lays the foundations for psychosomatic integration, aliveness, and the beginnings of awareness of self, true self being "the summation of sensorimotor aliveness." In several papers, notably "Primary Maternal Preoccupation" (1956) and "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," (1960) he describes the exquisite adaptation, or primary maternal preoccupation in the new mother, whose handling (and in particular, holding) of her infant, protects the baby from "impingement," or environmental failure. Within such holding, which must involve both physical contact and empathic attunement, "going on being" is supported, and this allows the beginning of individuation. Environmental failure at this stage, when primitive agonies threaten, can result in psychosis, which Winnicott thought of as an environmental deficiency disease (1949).

Later, careful maternal adaptation must of necessity fail, gradually, and in stages (good-enough mothering), at such a pace that the developing infant can manage each stage, and replace each environmental lack with mental activity. Early on, the "good-enough mother" succeeds repeatedly in meeting and realizing the infant's sensory hallucination, or "gesture," thus allowing in infantile sense of omnipotence and the development of the later capacity for symbolization. With gradual failures of response from mother, the infant's experience of omnipotence can then be gradually relinquished, and recognition of reality, together with spontaneity and authenticity, becomes possiblethe "true self."

The "not-good-enough mother" cannot respond sensitively and empathically, and fails to "meet the infant's gesture." While the infant can adapt to this up to a point, filling the gap with hallucination, eventually this mechanism fails and the infant loses touch with their own needs, responds excessively to the environment, and becomes "impinged upon," traumatized, and incapable of symbol-usage. At this point the infant, seduced into compliance, develops a "false self," reacting to environmental demands and relinquishing or hiding the remnants of spontaneity, the "true self." The existence of the "false self" is a defense against the feared annihilation of the true self, and becomes a "caretaker self," taking over those functions unfulfilled by mother.

In some infants, particularly those well endowed with intellectual potential, the mind becomes the "caretaker self," over-valued and in conflict with the psychesoma (1949). Winnicott described five degrees of false self formation, from severe limitation of spontaneity and liveliness with convincing imitation of normality, to those ordinary social adaptations necessary for life in human society. False self personalities may be superficially successful, but empty; they may become caretakers of others while being unable to allow dependency in themselves.

Winnicott believed that in psychoanalysis regression was a necessary phase for "false self personalities," in order to work through the earliest environmental failures. He advised against inexperienced analysts taking on this kind of work.

Winnicott's work has been usefully adapted in several ways. For Ronald Fairbairn, the "schizoid personality" derives from his understanding that the infant's primary need is for intimacy. In his reading environmental failure leads to splitting and to defenses against it. Michael Balint's "harmonious mix-up" can be seen as an early undifferentiated phase; his ideas about the "basic fault" relate to primary position of the infant's desire to be loved by its mother. Heinz Kohut develops a "psychology of the self" and describes "maternal self-object functioning." Margaret Mahler locates in early childhood a "symbiotic fusion" with the mother, and describes separation/individuation phases. Daniel Stern compares the "core self" and the "self with other."

Winnicott, while not abandoning drive theory, stresses the importance of relationships from the beginning. His writing is elusive, idiosyncratic, and often cryptic. Unlike Melanie Klein, whose concern was with the infant's internal, often instinctual struggles, his focus was on the emergence of the individual from the earliest relationship, an emergence which could be adversely affected by either impingement or deficiency of provision.

Jennifer Johns

See also: Addiction; Anality; As if personality; Autistic capsule/nucleus; Breakdown; Child analysis; Creativity; False self; Good-enough mother; Holding; Integration; Internal object; Lie; Narcissism; Object; Protective shield, breaking through the; Self; Splitting; Transitional phenomena.


Winnicott, Donald. (1949). Mind and its relation to the psych-soma. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 27, 1954; and in Collected papers, through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 243-254.

. (1955). Aggression in relation to emotional development. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 204-218.

. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 300-305.

. (1962). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In Maturational processes and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1965, pp. 140-152.


views updated May 29 2018


The term self is used in several different senses. It can refer to the ensemble of the psychic agencies, the narcissistic organization of the psyche, or the conscious part of the psyche that enables the individual to recognize himself or herself as an agent and a subject endowed with reflexive consciousness.

The German Selbst is sometimes encountered in Freud's writings to refer to the person. Beginning in the 1940s, Melanie Klein used the word self in the general sense of representation of the inner world. We can attribute the first psychoanalytic usage of the term to Heinz Hartmann, who in 1950 used it to refer to the ensemble of the psychic agencies, all of them being the object of the narcissistic drive.

The concept of self was partly included in the term Ich ("I"), in the sense that Freud used it until 1920. Ich was both the person in his or her totality and subjectivity, and the organizing portion of the psyche. From the time of the second topography, the ego became a specific structure. To avoid ambiguity, some English-speaking psychoanalysts began to use the word self, already in use in philosophy and social psychology (William James, George Herbert Mead, Gordon William Allport), to refer to the whole person.

The term self evolved in three different directions. During the 1950s it was used with similar meanings by the two British schools. In "Our Adult World and Its Roots in Infancy" (1959), Melanie Klein proposed this definition of it: "The self is used to cover the whole of the personality, which includes not only the ego but the instinctual life which Freud called the id" (p. 249). Anna Freud also used it to refer to the totality of the psyche, but preferred to use it in reference to the self understood as the object of narcissistic investment.

In the theories of Heinz Kohut, the self is no longer the object of narcissistic libido but instead an organizing structure of the mind. In his "generalized" conception (1978), the self is a "superordered" center, constructed outside of the action of the drives through the relationship with the self objects. The self objects (ideal, mirroring, or alter ego), which are manifested by the corresponding narcissistic transferences, create the major components of the self: the pole of ideals, the pole of ambitions, and the pole of knowledge (1984). The cohesion of the self, which depends on the empathy of the self-objects, determines the capacity to overcome the conflicts linked to the drives. The self is a structure, but Kohut also often alluded to self-representation and self-consciousness.

The mind's reflexive function was not particularly explored by psychoanalysis, although in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) Freud defined consciousness as "a sense organ for the perception of psychical qualities" (p. 615). Edith Jacobson described the self as the source of internal subjective reality and referred to the representations of self that are manifested in analysis (1964). Donald Winnicott (1961) considered this subjective perspective obvious. He attributed to the self the feeling of the reality, continuity, and rhythm of mental life, at the same time emphasizing that it is rooted in bodily sensations. In "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self" (1960), he contrasted the true self, whose positive aim is "the preservation of the individual in spite of abnormal environmental conditions" (p. 143), to the false self, which is constructed in conformity to parental expectations and throughout life takes on the role of protecting the true self.

Formation of the self is an aspect of psychic development, whether in terms of an epigenetic conception of development (Erik Erikson, Heinz Lichtenstein), a psychic skin (Esther Bick, Didier Anzieu), or precursors to the self (Daniel N. Stern). Kohut's followers proposed an intersubjective theory of the analytic process that attributes a structuring role to the self's reflexivity (Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood, Bernard Brandschaft). A similar orientation is found in the work of Thomas Ogden, a post-Kleinian who developed the notion of the "analytic object" (André Green) in a theory of a third, subjective space, the locus of the relationship between patient and analyst.

The use of self in a specific sense is often criticized for potentially depriving the word ego of the richness of its multiple meanings. Yet clearly, this concept has been instrumental in the formation of several important developments in psychoanalysis. However, owing to the very breadth of the term self, it only has a heuristic value if the sense in which it is being used is specified.

Maurice Despinoy and Monique PiÑol-Douriez

See also: Autism; Ego; Ego psychology; Fragmentation; Heroic self, the; Identity; Narcissism; Principle of identity preservation; Self (analytical psychology); Self psychology; Self (true/false); Symbolic equation.


Hartmann, Heinz. (1950). Comments on the psychoanalytic theory of the ego. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 7,9-30.

Klein, Melanie. (1959). Our adult world and its roots in infancy. In Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. London: Hogarth, 1975.

Kohut, Heinz. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Ogden, Thomas. (1994).Subjects of analysis. London: Karnac Books.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth and Institute for Psycho-Analysis, 1965.


views updated Jun 08 2018

self, the self In sociology, the concept of self is most frequently held to derive from the philosophies of Charles Horton Cooley, William James, and George Herbert Mead, and is the foundation of symbolic interactionism. It highlights the reflective and reflexive ability of human beings to take themselves as objects of their own thought. For Mead, ‘it is the self that makes the distinctively human society possible’ (see Mind, Self and Society, 1934
). In this work, a distinction is usually drawn between two phases of the self process: the ‘I’, which is spontaneous, inner, creative, and subjective; and the ‘Me’, which is the organized attitudes of others, connects to the wider society, is more social and determined. The ‘Me’ is often called the self-concept—how people see themselves through the eyes of others—and is much more amenable to study. The self evolves through communication and symbols, the child becoming increasingly capable of taking the role of others. Mead's discussion highlights this growth through the ‘play’, ‘game’, ‘and generalized other’ stages. The generalized other refers to the organized attitudes of the whole community, enabling people thereby to incorporate a sense of the overarching community values into their conception of self.

Among more recent writings on the self, those of Morris Rosenberg are particularly interesting, especially in relation to the study of youth cultures (see, for example, the co-authored Black and White Self-Esteem, 1972
). In Conceiving the Self (1979), Rosenberg differentiates the content, structure, dimensions, and boundaries of the ‘self-concept’, which is defined as ‘the totality of the individual's thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object’. The content embraces ‘social identities’ (groups or statuses to which the individual is socially recognized as belonging, such as Black, female, or whatever) and ‘dispositions’ (tendencies to respond as a Black, female, and so forth, which the individual sees himself or herself as possessing). The relationship among the various social identities and dispositions gives the structure of the self. The attitudes and feeling one has about one's self are given on a series of dimensions (including salience, consistency, and stability). Rosenberg also distinguishes the extant self (our picture of what we are like); the desired self (what we would like to be like); and the presenting self (the way we present ourselves in a given situation). Finally, the boundaries of the self-concept refer to the so-called ‘ego-extensions’ to which it is applied, such as shame in one's humble origins, or pride in one's fashionable clothes.

The concept is also used in therapy, counselling, and psychology in somewhat different ways, highlighting the self as an inner need or potential. Social psychologists routinely deploy an armoury of associated and derived concepts, including self-awareness (focusing attention inward on one's self), self-conception (the view one has of one's ‘real’ self), self-disclosure (revealing one's ‘true’ self to another), self-images (transient concepts of self that change across situations), and self-perception (the processes by which individuals come to think about and know themselves). See also GOFFMAN, ERVING; IDENTITY; MASLOW, ABRAHAM; SELF-ACTUALIZATION.


views updated May 23 2018

self / self/ • n. (pl. selves / selvz/ ) a person's essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action: our alienation from our true selves | [in sing.] guilt can be turned against the self | language is an aspect of a person's sense of self. ∎  a person's particular nature or personality; the qualities that make a person individual or unique: by the end of the round he was back to his old self | Paula seemed to be her usual cheerful self. ∎  one's own interests or pleasure: to love in an unpossessive way implies the total surrender of self.• pron. (pl. selves) oneself, in particular: ∎  (one's self) used ironically to refer in specified glowing terms to oneself or someone else: the only side worth supporting is your own sweet self.• adj. (of a trimming or cover) of the same material and color as the rest of the item: a dress with self belt.• v. [tr.] chiefly Bot. self-pollinate; self-fertilize: [as n.] (selfing) the flowers never open and pollination is normally by selfing. ∎  [usu. as adj.] (selfed) Genetics cause (an animal or plant) to breed with or fertilize one of the same hybrid origin or strain: progeny were derived from selfed crosses.


views updated May 29 2018

A. (arch.) in apposition with a sb. or pron., e.g. he self, superseded by emphatic prons., as himself, ourselves OE.;

B. adj. †the same, the very OE.; (of a colour) the same throughout XVII

C. sb. (pl. selves) individual or particular person XIII; (chiefly philos.) the ego XVII. OE. self str., selfa wk. = OS. self, selbo, OHG. selb, selbo (Du. zelv, -zelve, -zelfde, G. selb-, selbe), ON. (only str.) sjálfr, Goth. (only wk.) silba :- Gmc. *selba-, *selban-, of unkn. orig.

Hence selfhood, selfish XVII; selfsame the very same XV.