Thursday, October 1, 2009

Self & Identity: Introduction

Over the last few decades, the intertwined concepts of self and identity have been systematically researched from many perspectives and some of the findings are nothing less than paradigmatic. In much of the 20th century, behaviorism and psychoanalysis dominated academic psychology but now with the emergence of cognitive science and cross-cultural research, the understandings of self and identity have made immense progress and have significant implications for matters as salient as perception and personality, ethics and education, aesthetics and politics, culture and metaphysics. Indeed, our whole experience of being in the world, as unique individuals as well as members of specific groups, is influenced by such understandings.

From one perspective, identity is the group within the self; from another perspective, it is the self within the group. Much of what we desire to do or what happens to us in the world is significantly influenced by the way world perceives us, and the way we define ourselves--consciously or unconsciously. The process of making the unconscious (biological, cultural, personal), relatively more conscious over time, is indeed what distinguishes human beings from all other animals. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the human capacity for objective self-awareness is that it allows human beings to control their own behavior, to make thoughtful choices and take full responsibility for them.

The purpose of this month-long discussion will be to disseminate and integrate some major interdisciplinary thoughts about self and identity and discern their implications for self-awareness and self-education.

Please share your thoughts and observations as we develop this discussion. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Our self and our identity are like a lock and key, inter-locked in a specific relationship which makes us see the world in a certain way. Some of the greatest thinkers have observed this relationship and articulated in memorable ways:

The question is not what you look at, but what you see.
- Henry David Thoreau

It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.
- Carl Jung

We don't see things as they are,
we see things as we are.
- Anaïs Nin

People only see what they are prepared to see.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The beauty does not live out there; the beauty's in my eyes.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie

Nomi said...

In the above quotes about the "ways of seeing," one can note that different thinkers use the notion of "seeing" in different senses. Surveying the literatures on the concept of “self” as a whole, one can similarly observe that self does not mean the same thing in all of its usages.

Various writers have used the notion of self to refer to the person, to the person’s personality, to the seat of person’s self awareness, to the person’s knowledge about him or herself, and/or to the source of agency and volition. For instance, when some researchers suggest that infants do not possess a self, do they mean that infants fail to meet the criteria for being a person, have no personality, lack subjectivity, do not have a concept of who they are, or do not exercise deliberate self-control.

In this context, William James introduced a useful distinction between two aspects of the self--the "self-as-knower" and the "self-as-known."

It cannot be denied that human beings have this sense that there is an experiencing thing inside their heads that registers their experiences, thinks their thoughts, and feels their feelings. Most researchers agree that this self-as-knower or “I” is the psychological process that is responsible for self-reflection.

Starting with the idea that the self is the mental apparatus that underlies self-reflection, we can begin to bring order to the vast array of phenomena that self researchers have studied--which basically involve attention, cognition, and regulation. These three processes are inextricably related, and it is rare for one to occur without one or both of the others. Even so, these seem to be distinct psychological processes that have different consequences and that are probably controlled by different regions of the brain.

Anonymous said...

It is attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. Brain is designed to house different processes in different regions, so it seems that the "schizophrenic battle" is between contradictory beliefs or processes in the brain. To align attention, cognition and regulation is to reduce dissonance within. No wonder, enlightenment is an inside job.