Skip to main content

Self, The


The notion of self as employed in both philosophy and psychology has different referents, but the common element in all uses of the term is that it applies only to human beings. It is closely connected with consciousness and arises from a dialectical consideration of the nonself. Before Descartes, the term was rarely used. As the concept of self developed in philosophy, a two-fold aspect became evidentthat of the self as knower or subject and that of the self as thing known or object. This article traces the history of the concept of self from implicit references to it in Greek philosophy to its explicit use in modern psychology, and then explores the relationship of the term self to other concepts of philosophy and psychology.

Pre-Cartesian Notions. The development of the concept of the self among the Greeks parallels the gradual awareness of the self by the child. The child becomes itself by seeing itself as distinct from them world and other objects. Each denial, "This is not me," strengthens the idea of "me." In Homer there is no dialogue of the soul with itself. heraclitus is aware of a self that can develop itself by itself. The lyric poets had a more precise appreciation of the self and its distinctive qualities; thus Archilocheus reckoned his life (his self) more than his shield. When Sappho showed that the greatest value is that embraced by her own soul, the notion of self as subject and greater than the world was ready for socrates and plato. In his imagery of the charioteer, Plato emphasized the self as subject, choosing his own character.

With Aristotle and medieval thinkers, the problem of the knowledge of the self was raised more explicitly. Through an analysis of self-consciousness, St. augustine testified to the reality, autonomy, and persistence of the self or ego. Memory, in his view, is nothing more than the mind's knowledge of itself; thus mind is inseparable from self-knowledge. His "Si enim fallor, sum" anticipated Descartes's Cogito by a millennium and revealed the ego as separate from its actions and independent of change. If the soul looks for itself, it sees itself dimly through the veil of sensations; this hides its true nature, for by nature it is knowledge and life even though it forgets this. St. thomas aquinas, too, refers to the self primarily when discussing how man can know himself. He recognized the inferential character of this knowledge, for one does not apprehend his essence directly but only the existence of his soul or self. Thus the self is inferred as the principle of knowledge both of itself and of the sense world.

Cartesian Philosophy. It is with R. descartes that the word self as it is currently used was introduced into philosophy. Descartes saw the self as a spiritual substance; thus, in the Cogito, though aware only of his thinking, he assumes that thinking requires a thinker. Subsequent philosophers felt that this, too, should be submitted to doubt. But for Descartes the absolute first principle of philosophy is the indubitable knowledge of the thinking self. It was not long before the self, as confined only to thinking, was replaced by the mind and, in reaction, philosophers such as F. maine de biran and B. pas cal tried to identify self with all deliberate striving including motor and conative activity, willing and feeling, and knowing. occasionalism, too, expanded Descartes's theory of substance to the limits of monism. The self is only the mind; the ego is the pure occasion for God's all-embracing causality.

Empiricism and Rationalism. The English empiricists continued to question the reality of man's experience of substance and applied this doubt to the substantial nature of the self. J. locke disagreed with Descartes, doubting whether the self is substantial or that it always thinks. Self, to Locke, is the person as he sees himself and person is the self as seen from outside. "I am a self only for myself and a person for others." Locke could have chosen either or both of the traditional senses of the concept of substance: that of a thing subsisting in itself or that of a support for accidents. He chose the second aspect and thereby changed substance (and self as substance) into a meaningless and unknowable point of reference for qualities. G. berkeley showed the uselessness of this concept in the realm of matter, and D. hume demonstrated its nonexistence and uselessness in the realm of spirit. For Locke himself, the existence of the self depends on the consciousness of oneself continuing the same as in the past. Here the continued self is the seat of personal identity and is distinct from the soul or spiritual substance, which is regarded as something over and above psychical continuity.

Hume continued to challenge the substantial nature of the soul or self by an analysis of consciousness. He found it impossible to intuit a permanent self. His intuition was always of himself with a perception, and thus he could neither deny nor prove a thread of permanent self. There is only subjective validity in the inference of the self. Yet Hume was dissatisfied with this atomistic view of the self as a "congeries of perceptions": his own experience implied a knowledge of the substantial unity and causal power of the self, which his principles, denying the existence of both substance and causality, would not allow. He had to admit that the experience of self is far less than the self at any given time.

Rationalist philosophers chose the other view of substance as something subsisting in itself. Since only God has complete subsistence, B. spinoza, instead of denying the substantial nature of the self, proceeded to identify the self with the world and God as aspects of one substance. G. W. leibniz tried to extend the view of self as a mere thinking substance by pointing out the underground area of little perceptions, later to be clarified by J. F. Herbart, and perhaps akin to the unconscious posited by Freud.

Kantianism. I. Kant pointed out the complexities of regarding the self both as known and knower. The phenomenal self is known by man; the noumenal self may be there, but man cannot know it. There are three aspects of self in Kant: the self insofar as it has power of intuition, i.e., of receiving impressions; the self insofar as it has the power of pure thought; and the self insofar as it is known. The last has the status of mere appearance; it is an object of knowledge like all other phenomena. The intelligent self at the root of perceptual experience does not stand for any reality at all, whether sensible or nonsensible. The only status applicable to it is that of a basic condition involved in knowledge or thought in general. The self revealed to man in knowledge is a phenomenal self from which one can draw no metaphysical conclusions.

Yet, antimetaphysical as Kant appears to be, his ethical self seems to have metaphysical existence. This is not a static reality to be cognized by the intellect, but it is observable through man's conduct. When the intelligent self and moral self are treated as equivalents, the super-sensible self should not be regarded as an actual entity to be found in a realm inaccessible to empirical observation. Selfhood does not mean a self-subsistent reality existing in its own right, but something that man is called upon to realize and bring into existence. Unlike the transcendental ego, the functions of the moral self can be known. In the consciousness of duty and freedom, the true self comes to know itself.

Idealism. J. G. fichte developed the idea of a self growing in opposition to the nonself and laid the foundation for the dialectic of Hegel and Marx. In final form Fichte held that the subject or self or ego of the world is fashioned after God, the Absolute Ego, who becomes conscious of Himself by emptying Himself into finite egos. The reality of the self consists in its action of self-positing. The nonego is opposited to the intuited self, a process ungrounded in anything else. The nonego is an instrument for the realization of self-consciousness. The intelligence then synthesizes self and nonself in a new function of mutual limitation. Fichte then reified these logical functions into the absolute subject, the finite ego, and the finite nonego. Thus the ego is the unconditioned absolute principle that, by its unity, guarantees the unity of the antithetical principles of existence.

G. W. F. hegel further developed Fichte's implicit dialectic. No nature can be conceived without generating its opposite. The self must become external to itself, it must become alienated in order to reach self-consciousness. Through the agency of man, spirit completes its growth from being-in-itself (thesis), to being-external-to-itself (antithesis), to being-in-and-for-itself (synthesis). Mature selfhood thus reveals itself as a self-alienating process in which it divides itself into the self and the other-than-self in order to discover its own presence in the object thus posited.

Subsequent idealists begin with the self or content of the mind and become aware of outside objects as the non-self, the reverse of the process used by Greek and medieval philosophers. F. H. bradley denied that the self has any metaphysical reality. It is mere appearance because it cannot maintain itself against external relations. It is a bundle of discrepancies, a construct based on and transcending immediate experience. He distinguished between self and soul, maintaining that some selves are too fleeting to be called souls while some souls cannot properly be called selves.

Dialectical Materialism. Alienation and encounter with the other, the I-Thou relationship, are two ideas developed by L. feuerbach and K. marx. Religion to the former was the means by which man was alienated from himself because he externalized his real self in an image of God. To him, the most real being is not the ego of Kant and Fichte or the absolute mind of Hegel. It is man, or man's essence as found in the unity of man with man, of the I and Thou, which unity is God. Alienation to Marx meant the externalizing of aspects of one's self through the sale of one's labor. It is the exploitative social relationship created by the economic system.

American Philosophy. J. royce distinguished between the phenomenal self, a group of ideas, and the metaphysical self, a group of aims and ideals to be contrasted with the rest of the world. Each human self is the Absolute or God, but men retain their individuality and distinction from one another insofar as their life plans are mutually contrasting and include recognition of other life plans as different.

W. james described self in the broadest terms as the sum total of all that man can call his. Consciousness of self reveals an "I," a stream of thought, and the "me," consisting of many selves. The nucleus of "me" is the bodily existence or the material self; the other constituents are the social self or selves (the recognition man gets from others), the spiritual self, and the pure ego. There can be as many social selves in one man as there are individuals or groups who know him. All progress in the social self is in the substitution of higher groups for lower groups. The spiritual self is a man's inner subjective being taken concretely; it is not the bare principle of personal unity or pure ego. The "I" cannot be an aggregate, nor need it befor psychological purposes unchanging, such as soul or pure ego viewed out of time. The "I" is a pure thought appropriative of the previous minute and including all the past, a stream of consciousness. The thought is the thinker. James conceded that there may be another nonphenomenal thinker but that this postulate is not needed to express the facts. To explain the facts, to ask who that knower or thinker is, would become a metaphysical problem. The natural science of psychology must stop with the mere functional formula. Only if one were to deny that he has any direct knowledge of thought would he have to postulate a thinker.

G. H. Mead (1863 to 1931) employed a strictly genetic method of deriving mind and self from the biosocial process. The self arises in the process of conversation when the individual takes the roles of the others and acts toward himself, now the generalized other, as others do. The generalized other was, for Mead, a regulative and functional conceptthe generalization of the process of roletaken within a common social activity. Like the self of James, this self has two aspectsthe "I," initiating the responses, and the "me," the set of attitudes of others that the individual assumes. The "me" is a man's reply to his own talk. Though all selves are constituted by or in social process, especially language, there is implied a fictitious "I" always out of sight of himself.

Phenomenology. The view of self of E. husserl is bound up with his phenomenological methodhis plea to return to things as they are, to make philosophy a rigorous science. The epoche, or suspension of belief, includes not only the empirical self and other natural existents but the entire view of the world. Reflection must be centered on a transcendentally purified ego, or consciousness, upon that which alone remains immediately valued after the entire belief in a world has been bracketed. This ego constitutes the meaning of the world. Perhaps, in the end, Husserl, like the idealists, made the self constitute itself and the world. Aware of the danger of solipsism and of complete subjectivity, however, he tried to show how the transcendental ego constitutes other egos as equal partners in an intersubjective community that in turn forms the foundation for the objective or intersubjective world. M. merleau-ponty rejected the Cogito of both Descartes and Husserl because of its extreme dualism. A true Cogito is being-present-in-the-world. The body as subject is a self-transcending movement. The body is a self (soi ) that belongs to the world and is distant from it.

Existentialism. S. A. Kierkegaard developed the idea of alienation, but he was the first to place man's relation to God at the heart of his selfhood. True selfhood lies in being rightly related to God. Despair lies in estranging oneself from God, either by not willing to be oneself or by despair at willing to be oneself. Despair also results in not being conscious of having a self. Man is a self-constituting being, not a self-creating one. The self is a dynamic relation to itself, derived from its relation to God. The self must constitute itself by freely choosing and accepting its dependence on the transcendent. Instead of Descartes's "Cogito, ergo sum" as a description of the origin of the self, a better formula, according to Kierkegaard, is "Pugno, ergo sum." This indicates the primacy of the will whereby one breaks out of the aesthetic and ethical levels into the religious or authentic level of self-hood.

J. P. Sartre denies the notion of person, the existence of a permanent and underlying entity that allows one to say "I am," for he feels that only an empty for-itself can understand that which is. His prereflexive Cogito reveals no ego, for in his ontology, the ego must be excluded. Only the in-itself has ontological value; the for-itself is the void of the in-itself, existing only for the object, a subjectivity without a subject. Sartre explains the feeling of identity by the notion of transversal transmissions of the past to the present.

For G. Marcel the self is incarnate consciousness. To be a man is to be a bodily incarnate being, not so much a container as a subject who carriers a container with him. Selfhood can be compromised by greater concern with the order of having than with that of being. The self, thus, is also transformed into an object. The regaining of the sense of one's self is by recollection, wherein one recognizes the source of the personal self.

Both Marcel and K. Jaspers stress the necessity of treating others as selves and the increase and growth of selfhood as dependent upon involvement with other selves. Jaspers, however, admits the ambiguity of the word self. He proposes the notion of self as an original power, or a will, or a decision that has its echo in the individual historical decisions of one's own existence. The absolute will to communication is the very act of achieving selfhood. The positive and deficient modes of communicative life are on the four levels of existence: (1) Dasein; (2) consciousness as such; (3) spirit in the medium and order of ideas; and (4) existence in the realization of the self. While Kierkegaard had said that the measure of the self is God, Jaspers says that the depth of the self has its measure in the transcendence before which man stands. All selves are separate except for the unity of transcendence by which they are encompassed. Love, in communication among men who have become selves, is the highest possibility there is within this life. Existential truth is alive in the triadic relationexistence, coexistence, and transcendence; truth is the realization and manifestation of the individual self. The self is openness to itself; the evil man is enclosed. Intersubjectivity, for Jaspers, seems impossible because two staring subjects, in interaction, make each other objects.

M. Heidegger discusses conscience in its role as the means of distinguishing between authentic and unauthentic self. Self is neither a thing nor an "I" but a way to exist. The Dasein declines because it clings to the self of the common man in its "throwness" and not to its own self. Conscience calls man from the common self to authentic selfhood. Genuine selfhood and freedom are constituted only when man stands open to being. Only then is there "ex-sistence," the free response of man to the call of being, Dasein's independence from and presence to things that are.

M. Buber regards the self as a self-other system rather than as a mind. Speech or dialogue is the chief mechanism constituting selfhood. It is an achievement rather than a birthright. While Mead's dialogue is merely horizontal, between man and man, Buber's self stands in a triadic pattern of relations to nature, to other men, and to God, the Eternal Thou.

Relationships to Other Concepts. The term self does not supplant the older concept of soul, nor is it the same as ego, mind, or person. It is a concept used to designate functions that philosophers felt were not included in soulwhich, for them, was no longer the substantial form of Aristotle; i.e., the source of life, of dynamic specific activity, and of growth in man. Soul had become for them a term designating the static thinking substance revealed by the Cogito of Descartes. As this term was rejected with the rejection of substance, mind was substituted for it and the mind-body problem replaced the problem of the relationship of the soul to the body (see soul-body relationship). With the advent of the philosophers of the will, mind became inadequate to represent the human person in his dynamic growth and development. person referred to the individual substance of a rational naturea definition that emphasized the common givenness of all men and seemed to ignore the concrete individual developing in the world; it regarded man more as an object of classification than as a subject of free decisions. Self then began to be used to suggest all those aspects of man thought to be left out by the terms soul, mind, person, and natureand to designate the unifying, purposeful, growing, and interacting aspect of man's activities. It included also the notions of alienation and of encounter.

In many respects the term self refers to functions included in the Thomistic concept of soul, except for the view of the soul as the principle of life and as source of a common nature. In contemporary thought, the term also includes the view of self by the self, which view confirms the aspect of historicity implicit in the notion. Thus the concept self can be divided into the self one can know as reflected from others, and the self that knows, a division Kant was the first to propose.

See Also: personality; soul, human, 4

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Maryland 1946). j. d. collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954). h. j. tallon, The Concept of Self in British and American Idealism (Washington 1939). r. c. wylie, The Self Concept (Lincoln, Nebraska 1961). h. spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 2 v. (The Hague 1960). c. moustakas, ed., The Self (New York 1956). p. e. pfuetze, The Social Self (New York 1954), reprinted as Self, Society, Existence (Torchbks 1961). r. frondizi, The Nature of the Self (New Haven 1953). b. snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, tr. t. g. rosenmeyer (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1953).

[m. gorman]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Self, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Self, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 18, 2018).

"Self, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.