Conceptions of Self

I’ve been writing a lot recently about two potentially conflicting views.

On the one hand are scholars like John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who see the self as something largely or entirely created by others. As Merleau-Ponty writes, “I am a psychological and historical structure.

On the other hand is the modern yearning for “authentic” selves – for me incapsulated by scholars such Kenji Yoshino, who sees the suppression of the authentic self as a civil rights issue; such suppression disproportionately affecting minority populations.

These views perhaps seem like they’re in conflict: how can one express their authentic self if their authentic self isn’t their own creation? Furthermore, there are a host of other questions: what if your authentic self is a terrible person, is it still good to be authentic? Surely, your “self” – if such a thing can be said to exist – doesn’t exist in some static state, waiting for you to discover it, so no matter how much agency you put behind the notion of “self” the idea of finding it is seems foolish.

I have more thinking to do on this, to be sure, but I’m not sure these ideas are in as much conflict as they seem from the surface. I can be changing and co-created and still be. Furthermore – and perhaps this comes from Yoshino’s framing of authenticity as a civil rights issue – I can’t shake the feeling that there is something important there. Saying an authentic self doesn’t matter does injustice to the people who have fought so hard to express themselves.

I see ‘self’ as intrinsically linked to agency.

The question of self is deeply important to civil society – after all, what is a society if not some collection of self-like beings seeking to coexist. An ideal society built with the notion that we are each discrete pockets of uniform consciousness would look quite different from one in which ‘self’ is conceived entirely as social construct. There is no self, only interactions. The separation between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is much smaller than we’re currently inclined to think.

So the question matters, yet I haven’t yet stumbled upon my answer.

I love the imagery of interconnected selves, of a ‘self’ that looses substance if separated from the world; but I cannot fully abandon the headstrong, ego-centric notion of self which says: I am a person. I exist.

This thought has perhaps become bastardized by generations of egotistical posturing, but for the oppressed, it is something profoundly radical. And this, perhaps, why I can’t let my notion of the ‘self’ go: when society says you don’t matter, when society says you’re nothing, you’re no one. It is this concept of the self which quietly stares back: I exist.

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