[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]
Table of Contents
- Nature and nurture on the matter of selfhood
- The true self
- Selfhood and consistency
- Self-denial and the self as a role-play
- Openness and sincerity
- Selfhood and the comfort zone
- The self is not a dogma
- Annex with the lyrics of “The life of others”
Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. Today I will do another presentation on philosophy. This one is about selfhood, this notion of “who am I”.
On the face of it, the issue seems obvious. You may be thinking right now “Well, of course I know who I am! Is this some kind of trick?”. There are no tricks here, no gimmicks—just ordinary talk. I will explain how things are nuanced and complex.
Unlike my previous four entries in this series, I will share some personal details about me when I bring up examples that help with the analysis. The idea is to tell stories that are relatable and couch them in terms of their wider context. While I will not elaborate on this here, these sort of experiences provided the impetus for my transition into philosophy: it was not a formal setting, but everyday life that made me think about how I should live.
Bear in mind that the first section covers a general theme and might be a bit difficult as a result. I promise that the rest of the text has a greater focus on the matter at hand.
Nature and nurture on the matter of selfhood
The perennial problem of nature versus nurture is also identified in the formation of the self. There is a side to selfhood that appears to come from nature, such as whether one is neurodivergent or neurotypical: this has to do with how one’s organism works, how it processes stimuli, and the manner in which it connects the so-called “internal” to the “external” world. Whereas nurture pertains to the aspect of the self as realised in its milieu: the experiences and beliefs, the learnt behavioural patterns and modes of interaction, and the impressions that are shared between members of the social group that are all considered typical of the given person.
The dichotomy between nature and nurture is hard—if not outright impossible—to identify and substantiate when considering the specifics. We cannot draw an indelible line between the two magnitudes and study them in isolation. Unlike analytical constructs, which exist in ideal circumstances in our mind and which we can reason about in vitro, selfhood is made manifest in vivo, in states of affairs that necessarily blend the analytical extremes of nature and nurture.
Nurture has a continuous effect on nature and vice versa. When someone learns or does something, they affect their organism by stimulating specific subsystems and by engendering the relevant feedback loops. These, in turn, create cascading effects which bring about an eventuality and, perhaps, prepare the relevant mechanisms for more of the same. Every stimulus has an effect on the organism, meaning that whatever is deemed natural for matters of selfhood will either have to be framed as a temporal construct that describes the distant past, an origin story as it were, or be formulated as dynamic.
Maybe, then, the distinction between the two is a matter of origination, not actuality? If nature belongs to the past, then its impact on selfhood is a one-off event and what remains is part of nurture. If, however, the nature magnitude is dynamic then one must wonder what is left for nurture: if evolving circumstances are still reducible to underlying natural responses that are personalised and are thus part of nature, then the concept of nurture does not help us much.
Does this make things simpler? Can we neatly separate the two? No.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that the distinction between internal and external worlds is also complex. Every presence exists in relation to other forms of life and is continuously exposed to stimuli which engender feedback loops. There is no such thing as a standalone presence: a being as such.
Note that “feedback loops” describe the interplay of the notional internal and external factors. The same stimulus can elicit profoundly different responses from individuals at the given scope of application or from the same individual in a different context (i.e. “the same” is a figure of speech).
If, then, nature is treated as a temporal construct which pertains to the origin of the self, we must wonder whether at that imaginary time zero the organism had a standalone presence or not: was it immersed in an environment and was it influenced, framed, conditioned, or otherwise determined by the relevant factors? If it had a standalone existence, how did it grow in nothing and with nothing, and how did it transcend the boundary between that supposed decontextualised domain and the one we occupy which is one of co-existence and inter-dependence?
The answer is that there is no time zero where some true nature can be discovered independent of whatever we would describe as learnt, as externally induced, and the like. Thus the nature magnitude cannot be a temporal one and cannot belong to the origin of selfhood.
If nature is dynamic as an ever-present condition that underpins the self, then nurture is reduced to nothing. Whatever we deem as external or as a matter of upbringing also springs from its own dynamic nature. They are all part of a universal continuum. Moreover, if nature is dynamic we cannot identify with “a nature”, as that would be a snapshot in an evolving process and thus an abstraction from the actuality of the self.
As such, we shall not rely on the dichotomy between nature and nurture to inquire upon matters of selfhood. At least for our purposes, the two are unhelpful: they blend together and it ultimately does not matter if we can discover the origin of a given trigger or state of affairs in vitro.
The true self
Since we cannot neatly tell apart nature from nurture, we have a problem of determining what the real self is. We often utter expressions such as “be true to yourself”. Can we really say anything precise with those words? Perhaps we labour under the assumption that the true self is that aspect of selfhood which comes from nature: the original one, we might think; the one which is not influenced by the circumstances. Yet we already discussed how such a tidy arrangement is untenable: we cannot differentiate between the circumstantial and the originary, for the latter is also a matter of the circumstances. We can reason about those magnitudes in analytical terms, but not in relation to evolving states of affairs: to selfhood in vivo.
Maybe we think that the self is circumstantial but still has a frame of reference which is constant. It might be a point in the evolution of the person that defines them for the rest of their life, such as who they are in adulthood. However, this view can only deliver a snapshot of selfhood which then conditions everything in relation to it. Why should, say, the adult self be the true one? And which adult exactly? The one at 18 or 30? There are so many questions, which indicate that we might be searching for the wrong answer and an identity of the sort may not exist after all.
What is the self then? I consider it a subjective narrative. We essentially create a story that describes who we are in relation to the world. It distils the experiences we have had, the noteworthy stimuli we have been exposed to, the patterns we discern in those, and the predictions we make based on these patterns, to arrive at an abstraction: the common in the multitude. The true self, then, can only ever be conceived as an approximation.
Still, we have a problem of finding the truth. Every phenomenon will have to be assessed in relation to past phenomena to determine whether it is consistent with the established patterns or deviates from them. This favours the past over the present: any deviation is seen as untrue to the self. Is it though? Are we certain that the past forms our true self and that the future must always be a continuation of it? What if the future holds the truth and the past was untrue? How do we even tell the difference between truth and non-truth in this case?
We can already sense how tricky these issues are. Let me then share some personal information to make this problématique more relatable.
As a little child up until the age of 6, I had two definitive features: (i) I was very shy and (ii) was hyperactive. By “shy” I mean that I did not disclose what I really wanted and did not open up to people. As for my hyperactivity, I was wild, always on the move and innately curious about the world around me. For example, I would turn the furniture upside-down and re-arrange it in such ways as to resemble, in my imagination, hideouts and caves. I would climb up on road signs and trees, play with mud, jump on my bed, break practically everything you can imagine, et cetera.
Somewhere between the ages of 6-12, I was still very shy and had only one friend. Though I was no longer hyperactive. I was fairly easy to manage, played with my toys at home, and was good at school.
In my adolescence, I stopped being shy and became hyperactive again: I could play sports all day, I did not pay attention in class, would not listen to my teachers, challenged authority, and generally was unruly and contrarian. What I mean by no longer being shy is that I could make more friends, be much more sociable and ‘loud’, state what I wanted, and started playing association football as part of a team. This meant that my social circle expanded considerably and I was always engaged in outdoor activities: virtually everybody knew me!
In my early adulthood, I continued to not be shy though I no longer was hyperactive. Instead of expending my energy on outdoor activities and being impossible to manage, I became more balanced. I could focus on my university studies, get first honours, be agreeable, think things through, and generally remain focused on intellectual matters without, however, forgoing my propensity to be physically active.
We can already tell from these descriptions that any notion of self will be imperfect. If my early childhood self was the shy type, can I claim that my adolescent self was not true? Or is it the other way round, with the adult being true and the kid non-true? Perhaps then, we must not rush to draw such arbitrary distinctions. We are missing something.
Selfhood and consistency
Selfhood is an evolving narrative. It changes over time or in relation to dynamic phenomena. There is no “true self”, in the sense that any one snapshot does not necessarily equal another, so whichever we pick gives us distinct findings. None of them are false either. Whatever we understand as the self is a thread that runs through varied states of affairs: the common in the multitude.
Rather than expect the self to have a pattern that is always present, let us allow for the possibility that there are incompatibilities between different phases of the self. Consider the representation of my case:
|Kid (up to 6)||Yes||Yes|
Obviously, the table is simplistic: it only considers shyness and hyperactivity, though I was much more than those two. The point is that we get an indication of how things change. Maybe not all of them, maybe not to the same degree, and maybe not at once. Instead of trying to formulate a narrative of selfhood that encompasses all these phases, it is appropriate to postulate that each phase has its own particularities which may or may not be present in other phases.
This, in turn, frames how we think about consistency: it has to remain limited to each phase. The notion of a “true self” is misleading if we insist on achieving consistency between all phases of the self. It is a falsehood predicated on the misunderstanding that the self must be a constant despite the prevailing conditions. Rather, the self is a variable with phases during which it is more-or-less fixed. Or, perhaps, its variability occurs within the boundaries of an overarching constraint.
Consistency then, need not be inter-phasal, meaning between phases. But what about intra-phasal, within a given phase? Can we discern a “true self” in that case?
An intra-phasal true self sounds plausible. When we are at a given phase in our life, chances are that past behaviours or feelings will be repeated in the immediate future. We know how we will respond to a situation-yet-to-unfold and can thus develop a sense of self that captures those patterns.
The problem is that we do not know in advance when one phase ends and the next begins. This is likely to be a gradual process with no clear markers or turning points. Though there can be exceptions, like major events and crises. “Crisis” is an interesting term, as it literally means “judgement”: a moment in time when we have to take a step back to rethink our condition very carefully.
How can we be sure about the future when our past tells us that things are subject to change? What if, in our attempt to remain true to ourselves, we are being biased in favour of our current phase and are working against a possible future phase? What if we discriminate against the new by treating the old as the only one which can ever be the true self? If we never put ourselves to the test, we cannot know who we may become. Being open to the possibility of change does not mean we will necessarily change. It just is a matter of not precluding something relevant.
Let me then share another personal story. One day a colleague at work asked if I would be interested to accompany them to the cinema. I explained that I normally do not watch movies, but I would be fine to join them. My thinking was that I would try something different and see how it goes. We sat there for more than an hour. As soon as the film was over, I could not recall its plot: I had mentally checked out. All I remember is that it was a James Bond movie. This is consistent with who I am: I need action and have trouble staring at moving pictures for a prolonged period of time without doing anything or without already being invested in the show.
I remained open to the possibility, I tested myself, and realised that I had stayed consistent with myself in this intra-phasal sense. Whereas this consistency was not inter-phasal: for example, I did watch the Dragon Ball series as a child and still remember everything about it. There was a time when I could sit in front of the TV and enjoy the show.
Continuing with this theme of selfhood and consistency… The “true self” is an elusive concept if we insist on an identity. We have a good sense of who we have been and can anticipate who we might be, but we are not absolutely certain. We go through phases during which we discern constants; constants which are not necessarily present between those phases. Consider, once again, the simplistic representation of myself:
|Kid (up to 6)||Yes||Yes|
Was I always shy, or can we interpret the fact with the benefit of hindsight? What if I simply had trouble communicating my feelings and what if that was perceived as shyness? This would explain why I stopped being shy as I grew up, presumably because I learnt how to express myself with greater precision and/or others figured ways to understand me better.
How about hyperactivity? Can there be an explanation for this back-and-forth we observe in the table? I think so, provided we do not limit it to outwardness. If we include inwardness, like being busy with thinking things through, then I always have been highly active. That would explain why I cannot sit at the movie theatre and enjoy the show if I am not already invested in it.
Contrary to what I have stated thus far, the table will reveal inter-phasal consistency once we critically assess its data. I have always been largely the same, though not exactly the same. Whatever differences and changes are found in details which concentrate around a predictable set of patterns. There is variation, but no interruptions. This goes to show that the “true self” is an approximation even when differences between phases are small.
Don’t search for a single point which describes everything. Find the threads running through the narrative.
Self-denial and the self as a role-play
At some point in our life, we are confident that we know who we have been and are likely to operate in a manner that is consistent with that impression. Remember though how I discussed the difficulty of differentiating between nature and nurture. If we obstinately insist that we know who we are and who we will be, we effectively refuse to consider the dynamic element in our life: the possibility of change.
Dogmatism of this sort can devolve into a role-play, where we seek to prove that which we have already assumed as present. For example, if you are the kind of person who likes to speak out and lead others, you may consider yourself an “alpha” in your group. If you ignore the situational specifics of this status, you might always act in accordance with the perceived features of an alpha even in cases where it is not relevant: you might conceal your weaknesses and suppress your emotions.
In other words, role-playing is when we create a caricature either out of ourselves or another persona and use it as a substitute of what could have been. What do I mean by “another persona”? Simply when we pretend to be someone else, such as by modelling our behaviour after an archetype or someone we know. We might do it to fit in to a social group, or to cater to the interests of another person, or conform with the demands of a job, and so on. We behave in a manner that contradicts who we are or, at least, deviates from our established patterns.
Role-playing is something I covered at greater length in my previous presentation on “expectations, rules, and role-playing”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-05-03-expectations-rules-roles/. It has to do with the social setting, which enforces all those rules about how people should behave. Rules establish roles. I gave several examples in my presentation, such as what constitutes “lady-like behaviour”, who is the “manly man”, and so on.
Sometimes conditions are such where we cannot avoid assuming a role. But when we always conform with the social expectations that are fastened upon the applicable rules, we effectively give up at least a portion of our self. By trying to fit in, we neglect our needs and suffer the longer-term consequences.
Recall that story where I went to the cinema with my colleague. I only wanted to be friendly, to be a part of the group, which is why I accepted the invitation in the first place. Instead of admitting that I had mentally disconnected from the event, I pretended that everything was fine. I thought that enduring such experiences was a necessary cost: I would not be treated as a weirdo and people would like me.
The case with the cinema was not an isolated event. I was accommodating everyone’s demands, such as by doing part of their work or attending their parties, despite my preference to the contrary. I was not making an exception for this one colleague and had no particular interest in them. I was just being open-minded and receptive to new experiences. At least that was my rationale. This, however, ended up being a twisted conception of open-mindedness. I was effectively acting as the carpet that others paraded on. It is as if I had no personality of my own and was just assuming the role of the generic good boy and friendly coworker. All for the sake of fitting on.
My self-denial was driven by fear; fear of losing something that was never mine: the beliefs of others. My mistake was that I did not appreciate what I had and was instead valorising what others seemed to consider important, such as popularity among the group. Eventually, I realised that attainment of such a status was worthless for me and indeed detrimental to my sanity, as I had to go out of my way to achieve it.
Sometimes we try to be someone else without realising that we risk losing what is ours. There is no point in living the life of another, as we can only ever do what our condition renders possible and optimal. Here is an example. A friend of mine fancied a woman. This friend had a pronounced emotional side—he was a sweetheart, as we say—and was generally interesting to talk to. Instead of recognising what he had, he was telling me how he should work towards becoming an “alpha male”, as that is what women ostensibly want. I explained how this is all misleading and pernicious once generalised, how human relations are complex, and how different people are attracted to different things. I encouraged him to stop pretending to be someone else and simply show what he had to offer. As the saying goes, the grass is not always greener on the other side and one should be careful what they wish for.
When we find ourselves in a situation where there exists a disconnect between our role and selfhood, we start feeling pressure. There is tension, friction, conflict, which manifest as stress, lack of confidence, and ultimately develop into more severe conditions such as depression.
The gist is that faking it is not sustainable. Others do notice. When we fake it, we know what we are doing and dread getting exposed. We are conscious about our every move, which typically leads to anxiety as otherwise trivial issues get magnified in our mind as major problems.
Another example from my past is in order. I used to think that my writing was not good enough and people would belittle my apparent idiocy or ignorance. When I was answering an email or a text message, I would read through it maybe ten times, no matter how lengthy my reply was. Just to be sure I used the correct word, explained everything about the topic, did not miss a comma, and so on. The feeling you get from that sort of experience—from that baseless sense of inadequacy—is like trying to navigate through a minefield, where you know that a single mistake will lead to disaster. Except it is an illusion.
At some point I realised what was going on: I was being in denial of myself and was letting my fears cloud my judgement. I took a step back and reconsidered things very carefully and dispassionately. For instance, I would read texts written by others and notice that they were not much different from my own: there was nothing to worry about. I met people whom I once considered popular—and thus successful in my simplistic world at the time—and realised how they were facing challenges of their own. They were not better off. We were just different. I also figured how others were faking it, each in their own way, so I reasoned there are systemic factors at play.
This is how I became a philosopher, after all: through trials and errors. I discerned the patterns in my experiences, generalised them, developed theories, and drew insights therefrom which informed my actions. I eventually contemplated whether conformity with a role was worth my self-sacrifice. The answer was negative. I started changing my outlook by being honest and all my woes disappeared.
Openness and sincerity
Even bad events have something vital to teach us. I understood the importance of communicating my feelings in plain terms. It is okay to live new experiences and remain open to the possibility of change, though not at the cost of our health. Openness should not be misconstrued as plasticity. Trying new things does not mean that we forget who we were the moment prior. We might gain something, but we might also lose a little bit. The key is to remain honest and anticipate when to proceed or recede from a given position.
What does honesty entail, in practice? That we muster the courage to explain to our peers what our needs are. This is particularly difficult for people like me, who are introverted. Or for people in demanding roles. It is necessary though. Otherwise no-one will speak on our behalf. There is no hero who will save the day, no knight in shining armour who will rescue us from the predicament we find ourselves in. If we do not speak and if everyone like us does not utter a word, then the social structures we all operate in will remain the same, the rules will stay intact, the roles will not be revised, and systemic suffering will continue wherever it occurs.
To explain our needs we have to talk about our emotions. Doing so is not a weakness and does not imply we are defective: it takes mental fortitude to appear vulnerable and others will ultimately respect it. There are some people who, like a previous version of me, operate under the delusion that they are purely rational agents. I have explained before, such as in my presentation on “ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism”, that we are fully fledged human beings and must embrace our humanity for what it is while trying to lead a virtuous life: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-16-ataraxia-moderation-mysticism/. The gist is that we should not pretend to be unidimensional, not lie to ourselves, and not live with the falsehood that we can ever be a non-human human.
Roles still matter. If, say, you are a cisgender male or in some other role that demands ‘toughness’, you may find it difficult to be honest about the fact you have emotions. It is not your fault: such are the prevailing views. Remember though that rules are instituted as such and can be re-instituted. Do not be afraid to speak up and enact reform.
Selfhood and the comfort zone
Which brings me to the point of the comfort zone. This is a metaphor which describes those patterns or phenomena we are familiar with and know how to handle. The comfort zone is related to selfhood in that we develop the narrative of who we are as a series of comparisons that delineate a space of familiarity. Whatever falls within that space is considered part of our self. For example, if I say that I am the silent type, you can infer that I am outside my comfort zone when I have to talk all the time.
The comfort zone is neither static nor predetermined. We can infer as much from my previous comments. What one finds comfortable changes based on their experiences and outlook in relation to the given context.
About experiences, consider an example. You delivered a presentation but did not get a warm round applause. You obsess ever since about the worst-case scenario and are afraid to do another presentation. Your comfort zone has been influenced by this event, as you now try to hide from any audience.
As for the outlook, it is how we approach a given situation. Suppose you are an introvert who dislikes small talk. Instead of thinking that you are weird, or a misfit, or even defective for this preference of yours, rely on your honesty to assume the initiative. When people try to engage in small talk with you, tell them you are naturally inclined against that type of interaction and would prefer something more meaningful instead, else to be left alone.
Experiences and outlook affect the comfort zone. The other magnitude that matters is the constitution of the case: the specifics of the situation. To re-use the example of me being the silent type: right now I am talking non-stop and I do this whenever I need to expound on a theory, record a video, and so on. This context differs from, say, a social gathering among strangers where no-one has any notion of who the others are. I would rather not attend such a gathering, let alone be at the centre of the discussion.
We may thus have a plurality of comfort zones.
The comfort zone is not necessarily good though. As has been the theme in this presentation, things are nuanced.
If we are sincere with ourselves and others, we are able to operate within the space that genuinely accommodates our needs. We can then claim to be true to ourselves, notwithstanding what I discussed earlier about the concept of a “true self”.
If, however, we develop a fear of the unknown such as by hesitating to try new things and by remaining closed to the possibility of change, then this space actually confines us and condemns us to our past. We refuse to acknowledge the potential of another phase in our selfhood.
If we only ever live inside our little bubble, we will not know if what we have is indeed what we need and what is genuinely ours. Just imagine for a moment that your comfort zone is nothing of the sort. Perhaps you grew up in conformity with social roles, never questioned anything, and internalised those norms as your own. You identify with your role as the “manly man”, the “lady”, et cetera. Is that truly who you are? Or behind that facade hides another person that just needs the right trigger to be exposed? Can you fathom a world where you try to suspend the role, drop the appearances, only to realise you are not who you always believed to be?
This is the other side of doing philosophy. You do not employ it just during the “bad times”, but also for the “good” ones. As humans, we are inclined to avoid suffering and are generally capable of enduring hardship. What about pleasures though? Our defences are much weaker, as we tend to give in to them wholeheartedly. Those too can lead us to ruin, yet we fail to think about the bigger picture when a pleasure reveals itself to us.
To connect the dots here, my point is that the comfort zone you are occupying might be a lie about your selfhood; a lie which consists of a series of rationalisations. It might not emanate from an inner impulse and a position of knowledge. Are you sure it is yours then and is it consistent with what you need?
The self is not a dogma
The central message I have tried to convey in this presentation is that even though we can have a pretty good idea of who we are, we should resist the urge to pretend that we know more than we do. There might be instances where we will surprise ourselves.
Here too we ought to recall the teachings of the ancients, as inscribed in the maxims found at temple of Apollo in Delphi, specifically: (1) know yourself, (2) nothing in excess, (3) certainty brings calamity.
We cannot know who we are without experiencing the world. There is no standalone presence. We exist in relation to other forms of life in the totality of the Cosmos: humans, animals, plants, microbes, forests, oceans, planets, and so on. Our actuality is influenced, informed, framed, conditioned, or otherwise determined by a myriad of factors. Just as the body changes over time while still exhibiting features that are recognisable, so does the narrative of the self.
Whether you decide to stay in your comfort zone or remain open to the possibility of change, exercise prudence and avoid the extremes. Wisdom is not the same as reason: the singularly reasonable person knows how to discern and follow a given set of rules; the wise person also knows when to suspend those rules and how. Sometimes you will have to trust your feelings and instincts. At other times you will need to rely on reasonableness to overcome unfounded fears or obsessions. There is no one answer to life. Whatever the specifics, remember that you are a fully fledged human being: nothing more, nothing less.
These require the right disposition. You cannot afford to be dogmatic and pretentious. Cockiness, here manifesting as overconfidence in your abilities or knowledge, will be your downfall. Approach your selfhood in a spirit of dubitativeness and inquisitiveness. When something new comes along or when you have to cope with the consequences of your inquiry into the world, rise up to the occasion and meet the challenges head on.
That’s all for today, folks. Finally, a small bonus. In the annex I include the translated lyrics of a Greek song which I think is relevant, as it talks about those who want to live the life of others.
Annex with the lyrics of “The life of others”
Listen to it here: https://yewtu.be/watch?v=r3lHmCxs35A.
First the Greek version, followed by my translation.
Η ζωή των άλλων Οι τοίχοι γέμισαν αλμύρα τα κλάματα σου είναι παντού Κάτι σου είπα για τη μοίρα και μου 'πες η ζωή είναι αλλού Σε παίρνει πάλι η θάλασσα των δυνατών σινιάλων κι εγώ σου λέω πως αλλού είναι η ζωή των άλλων Πάλι μιλάς για ξένους τόπους λες κι έχεις κι άλλη μια ζωή Πάλι χαμένη μες στους τρόπους να γίνονται όλα απ' την αρχή Τα φώτα μη σε κλέβουνε των πλοίων των μεγάλων αυτή για μας είναι η ζωή, η άλλη είναι των άλλων
I added some annotations in square brackets.
The life of others (Βασίλης Παπακωνσταντίνου - Η ζωή των άλλων) The walls are filled with saltiness your tears are everywhere I told you something about fate and you told me life lies elsewhere You are taken again by the sea of strong signals [i.e. the delusions] and I tell you that elsewhere is the life of others Again you talk about foreign lands as if you have another life Again she is lost in the fashions/modes [referring to life] all happening from the beginning. [they happen again because we never learn] May the lights of the large ships not steal you away for us this is life, the other is the others'