Chapter 23: The Self
James Rowland Angell
Before we can satisfactorily complete our sketch of the structure and function of consciousness, we must turn our attention to the feeling of personality and selfhood. The normal human mind is never a mere string of states of consciousness. It is always a unitary affair in which the past, the present, and even the future are felt to hang together in an intimate personal way. In our previous study we have been obliged to examine now one aspect of the mind and now another, but we have always emphasised this partial, piece. meal character of our method, and we must now attempt to trace in bolder outlines the contours of the whole, the salient features of the concrete, actual self.
The Consciousness of Personal Identity.-- Philosophers and psychologists have criticised with relentless vigour the tenability of our common-sense notions of personal identity. Undoubtedly the basis of this conviction which we all have that our self continues in some way the same from moment to moment is extremely precarious from a logical and metaphysical point of view. But from the strictly psychological standpoint, so far as concerns the structure and function of consciousness, personal identity is as real as memory or attention. However much our thoughts may vary from time to time, however much our opinions may alter, however much our characters may seem to be transformed as the years go by, we still feel that as a personality we are somehow unchanged. We even feel this to be true, in some degree, of our bodies, which change conspicuously as the days of childhood
(383) pass and the period of maturity and old age comes on. It is still my body, whether I am a child or an old man, and it has always been mine, and never for a moment capable of confusion with the body of any one else.
When we try to discern the most important psychological contributors to this feeling of identity, we discover two which are evidently of radical significance. The first of these is memory. Were we not able to identify among our various thoughts those which represent former experiences of our own, it is certain that any feeling of personal identity which we might have would differ fundamentally from that which we now possess. Undoubtedly that peculiar use of the memory process which we call anticipation plays an important part in this connection. The second factor is a persistent background consciousness of our own organism. When the bodily sensations and feelings are seriously deranged we always experience a strange sense of uneasiness and distress which is often wholly out of proportion to any actual pain that we may be suffering. Our general sense of bodily existence, then, gives a fairly constant tone to our consciousness, and thus furnishes a certain impression of sameness or continuity. Beyond question there are other phases of consciousness which contribute their quota toward the same end. But these two are certainly preeminent.
It is a remarkable fact that our sense of the identity and continuity of our own personality is essentially unaffected by the interruptions which occur in the onflowing of conscious. ness. In coma, as in sleep, consciousness may, so far as we can discover, be wholly suspended. Yet upon its return it once more claims its own from out of the past, and under such circumstances it ordinarily manifests no disturbance whatever of the feeling of personal identity.
Subject-Object Nature of Consciousness. -- If we examine from a more critical and reflective point of view the implications of consciousness for the concept of the self, we come
(384) upon certain suggestive facts. To be conscious of an object involves not only some mental presentation of the object, but also some subject to whom it is presented. Con-sciousness (knowledge over against something, for some one) has no other possible meaning than just this. Indeed, so irrefutable does this idea of consciousness appear to be, that it has but rarely been called in question, although many of the inferences which have been founded upon it have been severely, and often justly, attacked.
This fact of the bipolar nature of consciousness has been the basis of many doctrines and has been designated by many different terms. Thus, James speaks of the self as " knower " and " known," of the " I " and the " me." Kant recognises the empirical self and the pure Ego. There are advantages and disadvantages attaching to each of these terms, and there can hardly be said to be any accepted usage. The reader is, therefore, free to accept that which best pleases him.
Meantime, it must be clear that all of our descriptions and analyses of the foregoing chapters have had primarily to do with the object half of consciousness, the content side of the mind. Perceptions, images, emotions -- the things we are aware of -- all belong to this objective phase of consciousness. To be sure, we could not apparently be aware of such experiences were it not for the subject phase of the mind. But once we have admitted the reality of this subject factor, we seem to have done all we can with it. It persistently avoids direct observation, because, forsooth, it is itself the observer.
If we regard the self as characterised by these two indissoluble aspects, and inquire what then becomes of personal identity, we have to admit at once that there can be no unchanging nature in the object side of consciousness. The contents of consciousness are constantly undergoing alteration, and we noticed in an earlier chapter that we probably
(385) never have exactly the same thought twice. Identity of any thorough-going kind is thus out of the question here. Of the subject side of consciousness it seems impossible to predicate anything save its existence. Its function, to be sure, must apparently remain fixed. It must always be the knower annealing the various elements of our experience into some sort of unity. But beyond this functional identity, which we can infer with some confidence, we have little evidence as to any of its possible attributes. Clearly, then, the personal identity in which common-sense believes rests on the evidence of some of the more unreflective and immediate influences such as we mentioned a few lines above.
We may remark in passing that this necessity for a subject of our states of consciousness has constituted one of the strongest rational considerations adducible in support of the belief in the soul. But it is to be said, on the other hand, that there are logically possible alternatives to this identification of the knower with the soul, so that we cannot defensibly be dogmatic even here.
Consciousness as Internal and External. -- Before leaving this general topic one more distinction must be mentioned. Consciousness, when considered merely in its objective aspect, may be thought of in either of two ways. Thus, a perception of a cart may be thought of as external, in so far as it reports to me something outside my mind. But in so far as the perception is my experience, it may be thought of as internal. it is sometimes said, accordingly, that all consciousness viewed as external is essentially cognitive, knowledge-bringing; whereas, viewed as internal, it is feeling, self-reflecting. Certain of the classifications of feeling to which we referred in earlier chapters are based upon this conception of the internal reference discernible in all consciousness. But it should be evident at once that this distinction is by no means synonymous with that between the subject and object aspects of mental life.
Development of the Consciousness of Self.-- Despite the extensive study given of late to the subject of this section by Baldwin (to whom the author is indebted for certain views) and others, we cannot as yet be said to have any generally accepted theory, and the description which follows is offered tentatively as the author's present conception.
It seems reasonably certain that the distinction which the child at an early age makes between his own personality and that of others is as completely submerged in the vague con. scious continuum of infancy as is the distinction between different sensations. When it begins definitely to differen. tiate, it seems not unlikely that the first step consists in remarking the differences which characterise the behaviour of persons and the behaviour of things. Things and persons thus get set over against one another. Things are relatively stable and fixed in their actions. Persons, on the other hand, are highly irregular and unpredictable. Of course, the child's consciousness of both things and persons is from the beginning his own private personal experience. But it may safely be asserted that there is no awareness of the self in a "self-conscious " way until the vague apprehension is attained of other persons as distinct from things.
As the child gradually attains control over his movements, things tend in certain particulars to obey his impulses in a more immediate way than do persons. They can be seen, reached, touched, and moved more confidently and more regularly than persons. On the other hand, they show themselves altogether more imperturbable than persons to indirect modes of control. If the child cries' parent or nurse promptly responds. Things remain just where they were. Furthermore, persons show themselves able to furnish many comforting and agreeable experiences in the way of caresses, food, and clothing, which things of their own initiative rarely or never afford. The moment imitation becomes possible, persons offer the most satisfactory stimuli. What
(387) they do, can, by virtue of the similarity of structure in various organisms, often be approximated by the child. We might mention other distinctions which the child must feel, but these will suffice to suggest the lines along which the de-, velopment takes place.
When this resolution of the objective world into persons and things is once achieved, there is every reason to think that the precipitation of self-consciousness follows close at hand, if it be not, indeed, synchronous with it. The whole process must in the nature of the case be extremely inchoate and protoplasmic in character. Nevertheless, it must contain within it the essential elements for the more elaborate differentiations of adult life. Moreover, if this be in any way a true account of the genesis of self-consciousness, it is evident that such consciousness will, from the outset, be social in its constitution. The child remarks certain objects which be have in a manner altogether distinct from other objects. These he comes to recognise as individuals, which he later calls persons. Something like their independence of action he comes to feel in himself. He naturally identifies himself with them, and thus gives to his first dimly recognised consciousness of self the social hall-mark. Needless to add, after what has gone before in this book, the actual content of his consciousness is always in larger or smaller measure social. The relations in which he finds himself are social. The criteria for the reality of many of the things which he is called upon to accept are social. Language is social. By imitation he is plunged at once into social usages, and did space permit, and were it necessary, we might trace out the whole gamut of social influences which bound his self-hood on every side. But our primary point here is that the first definite self-consciousness of the child is a consciousness in which he identifies himself in some sort with others, defines himself in terms of agreement or disagreement with others.
The fact should be emphasised, however, that the element
(388) of disagreement is quite as important, both for the child and for society, as the element of agreement or imitation. Every individual is in some sense a variant from the human norm, and in so far he is a contributor to the richness of human life and achievement. This variation may take the form of trivial peculiarities of manner and speech, of inventions of a scientific and practical character, of reforms in morals or art; or it may be embodied in the harmless enthusiasms of a crank, or in the dangerous prepossessions of a lunatic. In each and every case the individual is making his addition to the store of social possessions. In finding that his consciousness of self necessitates his projecting himself against society, we must not, then, for a moment suppose that this means that he merely imitates others, and so arrives at the knowledge of his own Ego. It is in the character of variant from the norra that the genius gets his paramount significance for the social organism. Society sometimes progresses by the slow acceretion of incremental changes originating from the conduct of large numbers of commonplace individuals. But the great changes which lend themselves to confident detection and identification are commonly traceable to the towering personality of some genius.
Doubtless in the earlier periods of childhood (after the consciousness of self as such has once become established) the actual content of such consciousness is largely personal and bodily -- an awareness of impulses, of pleasures, pains, and the like. But as the mind develops and a broader appreciation is reached of the general integration of human life and the physical cosmos, this self-feeling spreads out to embrace larger and larger interests. The social factor unfolds into a vivid apprehension of the picture of ourselves which we may imagine to be entertained by various persons and groups of persons. Furthermore, we come increasingly to read into the motives and characters of others the peculiarities which introspection reveals within ourselves. In a
(389) certain sense the vagueness which marks the beginning of self-feeling is never entirely lost. We come to include in our practical conception of ourselves so many things which lie outside of us, that the lines which separate the self from the not-self inevitably become hazy. Thus, our bodies, our clothing, our family, our friends, our fortune, our club, our church, our country -- these, and a thousand similar things, get identified in a more or less intimate way with our self, which unfolds more and more to take in these widening interests. Meantime, there is always a residuum whose status is neither clearly within nor without the self.
The question may be raised whether a child growing up alone on a desert island would fail to develop self-consciousness because of his inability to follow the course of events which we have described, with its emphasis on the distinguishing between persons and things, and its further emphasis on the social nature of self-feeling. The reply -- resting on speculative probability-is that undoubtedly something corresponding to self-consciousness might develop under such conditions through the operations of imagination. But the content of such a self -consciousness, and the order and nature of the steps in its unfolding, would certainly differ radically from anything with which we have personal acquaintance.
Ethical and Religious Aspects of the Self. -- Although in a general way the consciousness of self is from the first social in its nature, it speedily takes on two explicitly social aspects, the moral and the religious, which warrant a, few moments' consideration. Among the very earliest of our social experiences are those of praise and criticism, reward and punishment for our deeds. Parents, guardians, and associates of all kinds unite in thus furthering or hindering our enterprises. The vivid feeling for the distinction between right and wrong is thus aroused in us at a very tender age.
As we come to have a definite consciousness of our own per-
(390)-sonality, we inevitably tend to array ourselves for or against the usages which have been thus imposed upon us. We come to appreciate something of the ground upon which they rest, something of the advantages and drawbacks which attend their observance. We take as regards these matters a definite conscious attitude toward society at large and our immediate associates in particular. We evolve a distinctly ethical self, recognising certain obligations on our own part toward our fellows, and postulating a similar obligation for them in their treatment of us.
As we grow older this conception of ourselves as moral persons with duties and obligations takes on a broader and more enlightened character. We extend our sense of responsible interest from our immediate family and acquaintances to our town, state, and country, and often (among the more humanitarianly minded of us) we manage in a fairly definite way to include the interests of all mankind. Coincident with this expansion in the range of our moral selfhood is often to be remarked a growth in the intelligence of our appreciation of the real ethical situation. We come to detect more justly and more sympathetically both the grounds of our neighhour's moral ideals and the reasons for his occasional moral lapses, and we may become in consequence more helpful to him, as well as more valuable in furthering the general cause of moral progress in the world. Our moral self thus expands both by intension and extension.
The religious consciousness cannot ordinarily be severed altogether from the moral consciousness, yet the two mark quite distinct differences of stress which deserve separate treatment. The religious sentiments, in distinction from those of a merely moral sort, seem to involve a definite sense of personal relationship to a supreme, or at least superior, being. In the higher forms of religious faith this being is conceived as the incarnation of all holiness, righteousness, and truth. He is thus the one perfect companion for the
(391) highest ideal self, the one object worthy of complete reverence. Belief in such a being constitutes the essence of the most developed forms of religious faith, and around such a belief cluster all the distinctly religious emotions, such as reverence, awe, love, gratitude, and the feeling of personal confidence which we call faith.
The full mental vision of such a being, with an accompanying sense of our own unworthiness, is often the immediate forerunner of the cataclysmic experiences characterising certain forms of conversion. The whole moral and religious perspective of life is suddenly altered. We see ourselves and others in a different light, and the world takes on a new form. The frequency with which this special phenomenon is encountered during adolescence has led certain psychologists to connect the experience with the deep-seated physiological changes which mark that period. But, however much of truth there may be in this contention,-- and undoubtedly there is much,-- we must still recognise the fact that sudden conversion, profound and genuine reformation, is a thing met with at all ages and under the most various conditions.
Disturbances of the Self.-The consciousness of self is subject to certain striking disturbances which merit a few words. The phenomena of alternating personality are among the most interesting of these. In the " successive " form of this disorder a person may suddenly lose his memory of his past life, forget his name, his home, and his friends, and start afresh with a new name, a new occupation, etc. Often his temperament and character change simultaneously with this loss of memory. Whereas originally he may have been honest, cheerful, and vigorous, he now shows himself unreliable, pessimistic, and lazy. A few weeks or months later on he suddenly reverts to his former personality and recovers all his memories of his earlier life, although he has no vestige of recollection as to the events which occurred during the period of his altered selfhood. Cases are on
(392) record where several characters have been assumed in this way, one after the other.
In the case of "simultaneous" personalities we have a more complex and much more ambiguous condition. Here there seems to be in addition to the normal consciousness which superintends the ordinary business of life, a sort of " split-off " consciousness, which is independent of the first and can be gotten at only in indirect ways. Moreover, as in the case of successive personalities, the temperament and character of these two selves are often very different. The one may be gentle and pious, the other riotous and profane. Sometimes this secondary self can be tapped by whispering to the patient while he is engaged in conversation with some one else, and then the responses may be written, apparently without any cognisance on the part of the normal consciousness of what has taken place. The memories of the two selves seem to be often distinct. Sometimes, as in alternating personality of the successive type, the secondary self may know all about the primary self, without the converse appearing to be true.
These quaint modifications of self-consciousness are difficult to reconcile with many of our prepossessions as to personality and the connection of mind and body. But they at least serve one purpose of positive value. They contain an impressive warning against our natural disposition to assume that our own personal type of self-consciousness is necessarily the only type. Evidently the consciousness of self is susceptible of mutations like other forms of consciousness, and no generalisation about it should be accepted without a survey of all the facts. For instance, the disintegrations. of personality which are met with in the various forms of insanity must be taken into account.
Minor Variations of Self-Consciousness. -- Less profound and less prolonged than the disturbances already mentioned are the changes in personality which characterise certain
forms of trance. In the genuine cases of so-called mediumistic trance the medium becomes more or less oblivious to ordinary sense impressions, and often appears to be half unconscious. Under these circumstances he assumes the personality of some other individual, usually some one who is dead, and his utterances purport to be expressions of the knowledge and the sentiments of the " control," as the person is called who ostensibly speaks through the medium. Many of these cases of mediumship have been carefully examined, Most of them have proved fraudulent. A few appear to be perfectly genuine, so far as concerns the psychophysiological. conditions manifested. But the interpretation of the phenomena is a matter upon which there exists the widest divergence of expert opinion. Most scientifically trained psychologists refuse to give these cases any serious consideration, beyond admitting the possibility of their representing a genuine abnormality like insanity. A few insist that we have here fairly convincing evidence of relations among minds which transcend all our usual modes of communication with one another.
In hypnotism, also, we may meet with cases of altered personality produced under the influence of suggestion. Changes in sensitivity, in motor control, and memory are not especially difficult to produce. The phlegmatic person may become choleric, the reserved person become flippant and rude, the irreligious become pious, etc. Commonly, if the hypnotic sleep has been deep, there is, upon awakening, little or no memory of what has occurred during the trance. But all the facts can usually be recalled during a subsequent hypnotisation. A curious phenomenon is that of post-hypnotic suggestion. A person told to perform some action after awakening may have no recollection of the injunction upon arousing from the hypnotic slumber, but with few exceptions he will at the time designated faithfully execute the act. Facts of this kind have led to a good deal of need-
(394)-less alarm as to the dangers of hypnotism. In point of fact it is practically impossible to force a person to do anything seriously offensive to his moral or aesthetic sense of the right and the decent. Moreover, persons of normal make-up cannot be hypnotised against their wills-at all events not until the process has been performed so often as to become more or less habitual. A thing much more to be feared in our day is the auto-suggestion of a hypnotic character by virtue of which mobs and great crowds give way to the wildest and most beastly excesses. Although hypnotism undoubtedly has therapeutic value, it should not be indiscriminately cultivated by untrained persons.
Dreams afford a familiar instance of disturbed personality. Sometimes this is manifested simply in the ridiculous judgments which we pass upon dream situations, and the absurd sentiments which they call forth. Occasionally however, we actually seem to have become some other person. Despite the frequent occurrence of dreams, no wholly satisfactory theory of their causes and conditions is yet at hand. Undoubtedly sensory stimulations, partly from the external senses, partly from the viscera and other intra-organic sources, are largely responsible for the beginning of dreams. Undoubtedly, also, the higher forms of systematised control, the " apperceptive activities " of many authors, are temporarily in abeyance. Although most of us would maintain that we often have dreamless sleep, it has been vigorously urged that we dream all the time during sleep, and that consciousness is consequently never altogether interrupted. Certainly it is true that we frequently forget our dreams with marvellous rapidity, and we ordinarily find that we are dreaming when awakened. But while these considerations afford a measure of presumptive evidence in favour of the hypothesis, they are not conclusive, and the weight of opinion unquestionably regards dreamless sleep as a frequent occurrence.
The Subconscious and the Unconscious.-- Many striking and characteristic experiences are connected with regions of our personality which lie distinctly below the level of clear consciousness. Consciousness does not terminate with sharp edges which mark it off definitely and finally from the nonconscious. On the contrary, as was maintained early in our work, there is a gradual fading out from a focal centre of clearest consciousness toward a dimmer region of partial consciousness, which we may designate the zone of the subconscious. This subconscious area again gives way to a region of entire non-consciousness.
To the activity of the subconscious we are probably indebted for many of our unreasoned impressions and sentiments, for many of our unexpected ideas, for certain of our unreflective movements, especially those of the habitual variety. Not a few of our personal preferences and prejudices are probably referable to influences originating here. Such phenomena as those of automatic writing with the planchette , where persons may write considerable numbers of words without any clear idea of what is being written, belong to the border-line of influences lying between the subconscious and the unconscious. Taken all in all, subconscious factors must go to make up a very respectable portion of our total personality' and no doubt are accountable for many of the characteristics which sometimes cause us to wonder at ourselves and question whether or no we really have the kind of character we supposed.
The unconscious has been made in recent years the great panacea for all psychological and philosophical difficulties. Whatever one cannot explain otherwise may be explained by the action of the unconscious. The asserted facts of telepathy, clairvoyance, crystal-gazing, shell-hearing, hypnotism, and all the phenomena of spiritualism, not less than the metaphysical perplexities of personality, mind, matter, and their interrelations, have been treated by the universal elixir
(396) of the unconscious. Needless to say, our modest business at this point is with no such majestic influence as all this suggests. The term unconscious has two proper uses in psychology. It is, first, a limiting concept set over against consciousness of every kind; whatever is not conscious is unconscious. Evidently this use of the term is largely negative in its implication. As a positive concept the unconscious is, in the second place, practically synonymous with the physiological. Thus, to say that an unconscious factor entered in to determine certain of the movements of our voluntary muscles is simply to affirm that certain neural activities, whose obvious counterparts we cannot detect in consciousness, have contributed to the total mass of motor excitations. In this sense the unconscious ceases to be a sheer enigma, and becomes a more or less convenient term wherewith to designate those marginal neural actions which evidently modify the reactions we make, without, however, producing noticeable mental changes.
Summary.-- If we take stock of the various points which we have canvassed in this chapter, we see that although the self undoubtedly manifests tendencies toward the systematic unification of its own experiences, it is far from being a simple unity. It is highly complex in constitution, and in many particulars highly unstable. It is distinctly and characteristically a life phenomenon, with periods of growth and expansion, periods of maturity, and periods of decay and disintegration. But after all, the feeling of selfhood is the very core of our psychical being. About it are gathered all the joys and all the miseries of life. However much a critical philosophy may shake our confidence in the implication of the feeling, the fact of its existence is for each of us the one absolutely indubitable fact.