The human self, being the basis of personal identity, has been variously understood.
Some theorists say the self is the agency that says “I.” According to this view, the self is the conceptual, reflective part of ourselves that apparently remains unchanged from the first instance when, to as long as a person can think about, the idea of “I.”
In most developmental psychological systems, this is the ego, not to be confused with egotism or egoism. Theorists subscribing to this view may or may also believe in a transcendental, unchanging core to selfhood.
Alternately, some suggest that individuals possess multiple selves. Here the self is viewed as “the personality or organization of traits.”¹ In the wider arena of psychological and New Age theory, the idea of multiple selves may or may not involve the belief in an eternal, unchanging aspect (or aspects) of the self.
The Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing spoke of a true and false self in his book The Divided Self. As reported by some of his so-called “schizoid” patients, the true self is “deeper” than the false self.²
From the standpoint of Western Philosophy, the question of self belongs to ontology (the study of being) and phenomenology (the study of experience). However, ontology and phenomenology are arguably influenced by cosmology (theories about the character of the universe) and ethics (questions about right and wrong). Sadly, some thinkers fail to integrate these different branches, offering at best partial theories about the self (which in the wrong hands can probably do more harm than good).
Sigmund Freud‘s theory about the self is limited to two main factors—nature (instinctual drives of sex, aggression, love and death) and society (parents, significant others and social institutions). Freud viewed God and notions of an afterlife as illusions created to satisfy unconscious psychological desires and wishes. And this limiting worldview had a significant impact on his outlook.
Freud’s brightest student, Carl Jung, advanced psychoanalytic theory by suggesting the possibility of archetypal aspects of the self. Archetypes in Jungian theory are often misunderstood. While they do have a transcendental component, according to Jung they are also grounded in the body. So archetypes represent aspects of the self believed to exist beyond and yet inherent to the body. Through their representation in activities like dreaming, art and architecture, they manifest in the mundane world as archetypal images.³ For Jung, even the self is an archetype—an archetype of wholeness.
If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Matthew 16:24-25).
For Hindus, those in agreement with the philosopher/sage Sankara tend understand the true self (atman) as identical with an invisible, underlying aspect of creation (brahman). Once liberated, the self loses all sense of individuality.
But Hinduism isn’t quite that simple. Ramanuja‘s school of Visistadvaita presents another Hindu perspective where the true self is said to ultimately retain some sense of individuality, even as it finally comes to rest for all eternity in the godhead.
Most schools of Buddhism claim that there is no self. For Buddhists, the whole concept of individuality is just an illusion that we apparently must overcome en route to enlightenment. This includes the notion of the conceptual “I” and, perhaps, more radically, the idea of an eternal or everlasting self. For Buddhists, both are illusory.
A branch of New Age believers say we have numerous slightly different selves coexisting in parallel or multiple universes, all unified by an “oversoul” existing above, beyond and yet within those multiple realities. A good example of this point of view can be found in the Seth Books by Jane Roberts.
In a witty and regal vein, King William III (William of Orange) was among those who have pondered the nature of the self.
As I walk’d by my self
And talk’d to my self,
My self said unto me,
Look to thy self,
Take care of thy self,
For nobody cares for Thee.
I answered my self,
And said to my self,
In the self-same Repartee,
Look to thy self
Or not look to thy self,
The self-same thing will be.
¹ J. P. Chaplin, Dictionary of Psychology, Bantam 1985, p. 414.
³ Some may not see dreams as part of the mundane world. But when we remember them, they become part of our daytime reality.