Notes on 'Self' by William James


The last post discussed how James describes the stream of consciousness and its qualities relating to the Self. But we examine, his analysis of Self further, we need to distinguish the I and Me. We already discussed how what we call Self is a composition of both the awareness of a feeling/ thought and the objective quality of the feeling/ thought itself. This means we are the body and the body's controller. We feel pain when the body gets hurt, so for a brief moment, we identify the Self with the external body. But as soon as the pain is relieved, that identity disappears and suddenly I identify with something more abstract, perhaps a lingering thought about something negative in the past. James refers to this idea as having embodied emotions. Our emotions lie within the body, but they nullify as soon as all things go back to normal and our homeostatic levels are normal. In other words, our awareness is only associated with the body when something goes wrong; when the body is normal with no injuries, the mind can wander off and think about other things, and associate with more abstract phenomena.

There is a thin line between what a man calls 'me' and what he calls 'mine.' When I refer to any body part, I use the word mine, but is this not a possessive quality rather than an identifying one? The body belongs to me, the heart belongs to me, the name belongs to me, but each of those themselves cannot be 'Me.' James defines 'me' as "a total of all that he can call 'his,' not only his body and his psychic powers, but also his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account." In other words, man expands his sense of 'Me' by increasing his possessions trying to accumulate as many things that procreate his positive image.

We can summarize the object of experience into 5 aggregates (from Buddhism): form, feeling, perception, thought, and consciousness. Form refers to the objects outside in the world and the physical body itself. Feeling refers to the sensation in any body part that activates a particular emotion. Thus, the feeling can be attributed to either the brain or the body, since any sensation throughout the body is enough to produce a vague feeling in the brain. Perception refers to how our mind converts sensory information into mental schemas. This is often the content of the thought/ the quality of some experience. Finally, consciousness is the unifier of all experience; it takes all aggregates together and represents the world in a linear manner where experience is divided into the 'I' and 'not I.' The 5 aggregates all give us a sense of 'Me' The feelings I feel, the forms I see, and the thoughts I think, all accumulate to provide a landscape of my internal world, and this landscape shapes the way I look at myself and the world around me. This unique landscape is vaguely referred to as 'Me' or 'my mind.' It is important to remember the difference between the I and Me. The aggregates all accumulate to represent a Me figure, but this has nothing to do with the I. The I is pure ego, which refers to the awareness of various aggregates, with the most subtle aggregate being consciousness. The difference between consciousness and awareness is that consciousness is on a continuum with the other aggregates, while the awareness is independent and works on its own. In other words, even in a vegetative state when there is no consciousness, the awareness is present. Consciousness is a product of the environment, while awareness is a product of the metaphysical notion of existence. To further distinguish the different Me's, James divides them into three categories: Material me, social me, and spiritual me. All these categories expand the man's sense of self and give him meaning in life. Let us start by examining the most basic type of self: The Material Self.

The material Self is mainly the body, which we can use to gain more items. The body is so essential to us because it allows the mind to replicate its imaginations in real life- it allows volitional control and interaction with the environment. And most importantly, the nerves that innervate various muscles at different organs, give us the ability to take information in and out of the body. Sensation and perception are possible only through the body, hence we value it and try to associate the self with it. The saying goes: what I control, that I am. Everyone likes to be in control, simply because it gives us power and a feeling of satisfaction. The body allows the pure ego to feel satisfied in its volitional acts and therefore, at birth we build a strong instinct of preserving this Material Self. Yet, it isn't just the body that we preserve, our homes, families, items of interest/ aspirations, and various clothing/ jewelry possessions, all of these embody the Material self. They are all extensions of the physical Me and serve to provide us a sense of comfort and warmth. We are fond of like-minded people, but we are even more fond of things that reassure our value through their possession. The items may not be used anymore, yet their presence is needed for feelings of security and value. A man can't get enough wealth or material objects simply because he is constantly on the lookout for expanding his sense of Self to more and more things in the world. He years not for power, but for the security of his ego.

The Social self is more subtle and can provide more satisfaction and comfort than the material one. Evolutionarily, we know that social status and hierarchy go long way in surviving and reproducing. But it isn't just survival we are after, there are mental factors that are involved in the social self. As James puts it " We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind." The natural selection theory is useful in this context as it gives a reason why we care so much about social approval. We want to be noticed in positive ways to 1. Be included in the group so that when danger does arrive, we are more prepared and less likely to die alone in the battle, and 2. Be able to find a mate and reproduce as many genes as we can to the next gene pool. Beyond the technical reasons, social scrutiny is one of the most unbearable feelings a female or male can face. Why do we care so much about how others think of us? It is because of how obsessed we are with what image we want to have in other people's minds. It isn't enough to value yourself, we require approval from others in a way that reinforces our ego. Thus, we create different social selves with different people to make sure they carry the right image of us when they see us. Regardless of this, we still crave social status, a loyal friendship, an intimate relationship, and a caring relative. The more positive relationships we have, the greater the sense of social self. Often people say they prefer to have good friends over other materialistic things, and they pride themselves on their long-term relationships. Certainly, friendship is one of the most crucial double-edged swords in the world. People may be enchanted by how well their friends enjoy their company, but the next moment they see their friends complementing another mutual friend, the bitterness and jealousy kicks in. It isn't all pessimism though, as good friendships are always built on sacrifice and brotherhood, but when things do go the wrong way, there is a good chance our ego will work twice as hard to defend ourselves as it would in case of a material object is lost.

The spiritual self is the closest ally of the pure ego. The spiritual self doesn't refer to a soul or deity according to William James. Rather it refers to the entire collection of various states of consciousness. It refers to the set of beliefs, thoughts, and rationale patterns we hold for the world around us. In this stream of consciousness, the more active feeling states we possess at any given moment, the better our experience of Self. What I mean by this is that the more we interact with various internal systems within us, the more alive we feel, and the closer we feel to ourselves. This is why we love thinking! Thinking about yourselves, thinking about what may go right or wrong, how people may judge us, where we may be going next, or what we may be doing with a significant other. The list goes on and on. The essential principle here is that engaging in mental activity is often pleasurable if it doesn't incite anxiety. We love to preplan and fantasize about the various things we want to do because it expands our consciousness, and adds more active states. The general pattern in all the categories of self is that they aim to expand the Me. Expansion of outer things relates to the Material and Social Mes, while expansion of inner states relates to the Spiritual Me. For James, the idea of the Soul is incomprehensible due to its notion of having control over states of consciousness. If we did have a Soul, it would control our thinking patterns and change our internal landscape, but in reality, our mind's contents arrive and leave spontaneously without any effort or will. No homunculus or entity controls the patterns of our thought, rather it is simply how the Mes associate with the environment and give rise to similar thoughts that further reinforce the ego. For instance, if I am walking around a park and grasp upon a wonderful car (material), a lady (social), or a novel idea (spiritual), with all my mental might, I will start creating more thoughts about how the object of attention links to my past Mes. I will daydream about having the car in the future, talking to the lady, or going back and forth with the new idea. In this way, my old Mes will try to control my present spiritual Me, and reinforce my very own pattern. The spiritual Me is resistant to emotions or sensations because it is more abstract than the physical realm. So regardless of how I am feeling or what pain I may be in, I can always rely on my spiritual Me to provide comfort. This is why most people say that you mustn't have regrets on your deathbed. Dying by reassuring the Spiritual Me of its accomplishments and its various positive qualities gives the greatest amount of satisfaction. We yearn to please our spiritual Mes as they are the ones who reduce the pain in difficult situations and shape the way we view the world. If it isn't obvious yet, viewing ourselves as thinkers and associating the pure ego with the abstract idea of having qualities of thinking and cognizing things gives us the greatest amount of pleasure. We are more proud of being a thinker, perhaps a wise thinker than we are of having wealth or social status. These thoughts are pretensions of our actual self, but our self-esteem originates from how aligned our pretensions are to the success of our objective material selves.

Self as the Knower

All the Mes try to work for the pure ego, but at last, they fail to give it what it seeks the most. In reality, the obsession with expanding our Mes in their dimensions leads to the very demise of our freedom and reduces our sense of self. The more we try to hold on to things outside ourselves, the less we feel in control and the more miserable we become. As James puts it, "Everything added to the Self is a burden as well as a pride. A certain man who lost every penny during our civil war went and actually rolled in the dust, saying he had not felt so free and happy since he was born. " So what is the pure ego after? Why does it feel so relieved when it detaches, yet so joyful in expanding itself? Why do monks renunciate and enjoy the solitary life in pursuit of real happiness? To James, spirituality wasn't much of an interest, but he still thought the Buddhist and Stoic culture of minimalism and moderation was a key to satisfaction. Though the Mes like to expand, if the I starts to get better control of them, pursuit of external things is abandoned. Hence, if the pure ego is able to regulate its workers, the Mes, then it can actually experience its own freedom. Now, we shift our attention from the Mes to the I, the Self as the Knower. Up until now, we discussed the Self in objective terms, but now we turn to the Self as the subjective knower of experience. It is one thing for nerves of the body to produce sensation, but another for the brain to interpret them as specific things. Similarly, it is one thing for us to associate the I with various external/ internal attachments but when these associations are broken, what remains is pure ego, the abstract form of awareness.

The self as the knower or the pure ego is not a soul or some divine entity that controls everything in the world. According to James, the pure ego is nothing but a passing state of consciousness. James denies the concept of there being an agent behind actions because the thoughts themselves are self-sufficient. A river doesn't need wind for its water to flow, but when the wind and the river appear together, it seems as if the water is flowing with the wind. By nature, water is constantly moving, the molecules are constantly making and breaking hydrogen bonds, and therefore there is no agent in moving the water. In the same way, James writes, our passing thoughts are constantly in touch with our past Mes and are making subtle decisions as the thinking occurs. There is no agent to do the thinking- the thinking leads to further refined thinking. The thinking is the cause of further thinking and the process is a continuous loop. The pure ego is a transient concept that changes at each moment. According to James, the associationist theory proposes that A+B and (A+B) are separate things therefore we cannot call them one. Hence, when we see the passing thoughts as distinct entities, all of those are different from when they are combined and represented by one thing. The distinct entities are the products of the Mes while the singular combined entity is pure ego, I. They both are comprised of the same things, but they appear different due to the combination patterns. The present Me reaches to the past Mes to create the future Me, and the I is not the aggregate of these Mes, but rather the entity that combines them all into one single thing. The thoughts themselves are thinkers, and there is no agent that regulates the thinking.

If there is a concluding sentence that summarizes this entire discourse, it is that the self is an illusion. This comes not only from James' personal pragmatic analysis but also from his studies of various religions and philosophies. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, has similar notions of the concept of Self. Many philosophers have turned to metaphysics to understand the agent of thinking. We know Descartes' famous quote, 'I think therefore I am,' but it has its own loopholes. Descartes fails to explain why thinking is a precursor to having an agent. Eastern cultures such as Hinduism and Buddhism prescribe the same view of Self, as something that is non-egotistical yet fully encompassing everything in the world. The Taoists describe this concept as the Dao, which cannot be described by any means. The stream of consciousness is similar to Wu Wei, which is a non-effort flow, and the pure ego is the embodiment of the Dao, which has both the yin and the yang. The yin is the emptiness of the pure ego, while the yang is the combination of the various Mes and possessions.