The Concept of Self

The concept of the self in modern philosophy can be traced back as far as Descartes (1596-1650), who introduced the concept of the self as a spiritual substance. Locke (1632-1704) disputed this concept of Descartes's and suggested that the existence of the self depends on consciousness of oneself continuing in the present the same as in the past. This self is the seat of personal identity as distinct from the soul or spiritual substance. Hume (1711-76) found it impossible to intuit a permanent self by an analysis of consciousness. The self only had subjective validity as an inference drawn from experience, though he admitted that the self was always more than the experience of the self at any one time. Kant (1724-1804) restricted the status of the self to the phenomenal realm of experience. where the self is something which persons are called upon to realize and bring into existence through response to duty and freedom. In this conscious ethical action, the true self comes to know itself. Fichte (1762-1814), followed by Hegel (1770-1831), developed an ideal concept of the self through a dialectical process by which an absolute subject emerges which guarantees the unity of the self in the face of the antithetical principles of existence. William James (1842-1910) suggested a psychological approach to the self as the functional center of the person who is known by others as this person, and thus who knows himself or herself through these many "social selves." Psychology, concluded James, has little use for a concept of the self as an entity.

Modern psychology at first tended to reject a concept of the self as inaccessible to empirical study and thus not formalizable in psychological theories. The banishment of the self was most pronounced in the work of Skinner (1953) and the development of behaviorism. At the same time, in the more recent work in the neo-Freudian analytic school of ego psychology represented by the British object-relations psychology, there is renewed interest in the self (Guntrip 1971). This is also true in the so-called third-force psychologies: humanistic psychology, existential psychology, and phenomenology. In these movements the self is considered not only as driven by urges or outside stimuli, but moved by meanings and values.

Social psychologists gave attention to self-conception variables in their theories about interpersonal attraction and conformity behaviors, but with little concern for the concept of a self lying behind the socially formed identity of the person. Theorists and researchers have thus far considered the self almost entirely as a phenomenon of self-consciousness. Rogers (1961) was one of the first clinicians to attempt extensive research on self-conceptions and described the self as an organized configuration of perceptions which are admissible to awareness. While there is continued interest in the phenomenon of the self in both philosophical and psychological literature, there is little agreement as to the existence of a self beyond the variables of self-perception.

Moral philosophers and ethicists are generally committed to the concept of a self that has continuity over time as a basis for attributing moral responsibility. Many assert that it is illogical to hold a person morally responsible for an act unless that act is freely performed by the person. In this respect, Kant at least provided a basis for considering the self as a moral agent accountable to the categorical imperative of willing the good as an ethical duty for all persons in all situations. Macmurray (1957) argued that selfhood is derivative of personal agency in positive interaction with other persons.

The being of the self thus precedes its "self-identity" as a psychologically conditioned aspect. Theologically, one might say that the image of God as constitutive of the self is more than the "religious" aspect of the self. It is the entire self, both in its being and in its becoming.

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