Self-consciousness

The consciousness of Self involves a stream of thought, each part of which as ‘I’ can 1) remember those which went before, and know the things they knew; and 2) emphasize and care paramountly for certain ones among them as ‘me‘ and appropriate to these the rest. The nucleus of the ‘me‘ is always the bodily existence felt to be present at the time.
-William James, Principles of Psychology

Before, I have discussed the self, but in this post I want to ruminate on the consciousness of the self. What does it mean to be conscious of your own self? Doesn’t this concept first need to define the self in order for it to be coherent? Since we started with William James, we might as well use his phenomenal analysis of what the Self is and run with it:

In its widest possible sense, however, a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but 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.

I really like this broad definition of the self, because it reflects the increasingly influential work of Andy Clark and his concept of the extended mind. Under this conception, the mind is can be said to not just be the internal processes going on in the brain, but also, the external processes useful for cognition. Thus, the writing pad that you furiously scribble your thoughts on would rightfully be considered as part of your mind. This concept isn’t supposed to reflect any fancy metaphysical notions, but rather, it just views the mind as being coupled to the environment. When you are driving your car, your self diffuses into the various driving apparatuses and your mind becomes coupled with the environment in a very real way. You feel in tune with the car as you subtlety perceive the vibrations of the road through the steering wheel. Your mind is extended into the environment.

Going back to the James, the self can be divided into three parts:
1. Its constituents, which include the material, social, and spiritual aspects of the self. The material and social aspects of the self are mostly self-explanatory and explained by the above quote. By spiritual, James merely means the “inner or subjective being”.
2. The feelings and emotions the constituents arouse (Self-feelings)
3. The actions to which the constituients prompt(Self-seeking and self-preserving behaviors)

Furthermore, these constituents aggregate into an “empirical self”, which consists of all things objectively known to be “yours”(Your house, your loved ones, your body, etc). The “I” which knowns these objective aggregations can be considered as a Thought, which is different from moment to moment, with the present moment including or appropriating the previous moments. James concludes that if this stream-of-thought can be said to exist, which most psychologists wouldn’t deny, then the Thought itself is the thinker. By this, he means that it is not necessary to formulate some transcendental or spiritual soul to be the possessor of the various thoughts, because the momentary Thought by itself, by virtue of it appropriating the previous moments, can be said to be the “I”, or thinker.

This is but a brief summary of James ideas on the self and consciousness, hopefully giving you an abbreviated picture of the depth of his thinking. Because of such piercing insights into the structure of the mind, William James was a pioneer philosopher and psychologist in his time and to this day remains relevant and influential to many modern schools of thought, including the extended mind philosophy of Clark that was mentioned. James’ insights into how the self bleeds into the external environment is a philosophical precursor to the most current movements going on in philosophy today,  a testament of to the clarity of his insights.

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1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

One response to “Self-consciousness

  1. Charnissia Smith

    Your post was very helpful. The “Consciousness of Self” chapter was so long it almost made me forget what the point of it was. Thanks for reminding me!

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