Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Illusion of Personal Identity

This week in Great Books, we are reading a brief excerpt from William James’ longer work entitled “Psychology: Briefer Course.”  The excerpt is called “The Social Me.”

Americans love the idea of individualism which they regard as a positive inclination to make something of one's self, to compete in the great race for survival in the world and to triumph in victory. Teddy Roosevelt, among others, embodied this principle in American life. It is embedded in our idea of free market capitalism where competition is considered a healthy striving for the betterment of all. Over time, a cultural mythology has grown up around the idea of individuals striving against nature, of explorers going off to map the contours of a new republic, or settlers heading out west in Conestoga wagons to start a new life for themselves. Here, we can't help noticing that the virtues of individualism are generally associated with another idea which Americans love: the idea of freedom. So, in the minds of most Americans, individualism and freedom go hand in hand.

But William James, in "the Social Me," is going to talk about something else. He is interested in exploring the idea of the collective me, or to put it another way, the concept of "we" as compared with the concept of "me." Perhaps we should ask if it is even possible to combine the idea of “me” along with an idea of “we” and still retain a sense of individuality?

Most of us are familiar with a poem by John Donne called “No Man is an Island.” It goes like this:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne’s poem celebrates the idea of community. So when people speak of “the human family” they are using a metaphor derived from Donne’s vision of society. But there is a tension, almost a resistance, between these two ideas. It is like the polarity of two positively charged particles. Unless they are held together by an even stronger force, they will fly apart.

This is where James idea of the social me takes off. He believes that our concept of self worth is rooted in the admiration and approval of those around us. James is careful to separate the physical dimension of "self" from the metaphysical and the empirical. Obviously, the physical dimension is what comes from nature, from our DNA. This aspect has no social component. Likewise, the metaphysical or spiritual dimension extends beyond the limits of the social sphere. But James believes that the core meaning of one's self-- the social me-- is what really defines us, both in our sense of self-worth, and in the eyes (or reputation) of those around us. This idea of reputation being linked to self worth goes back to the Homeric Greek's ideal of honor and virtue. Historically, in the Christian narrative, pride cometh before a fall. But for the Greeks, pride was linked with virtue which implied a standard of behavior that was consistent with one's honor and sense of duty, especially to one's city. Shame is the fate of those without honor. To be shunned by one's community was always the worst of outcomes.

But there is a tension between one's idea of self-respect and one's idea of community that sometimes leads to what we might call alienation. What happens when your own beliefs collide with those of your neighbor? As often happens, the individual believes his own opinion is valid, and the opinions of other people are mistaken. In psychological terms, this disagreement can lead to a feeling of alienation, of being disconnected with one's neighbors or even with other members of your own family. But if your opinions or your behavior destabilizes the community around you, then you might find yourself ostracized or placed in an institution, such as a prison or a mental hospital. In extreme situations, when the normative rules of society are challenged, the result can be civil war. That is when the boundaries of what separates civil from uncivil society completely break down. When these boundaries belong to an individual (such as one's ability to distinguish right from wrong), this is what we call mental illness.

James says,

"A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind."

For James, the social self is a kind of identity; it is how other people recognize us, not just in a physical sense, but what they think about us. So our social identity changes from group to group, both in our reputation and our sense of self worth. But our sense of honor does not change from group to group, or moment to moment. So it is not clear to me how James balances the concept of honor with a social identity based on reputation. A reputation can fluctuate with the times or circumstance of the moment. But honor is not capricious. It does not change from moment to moment. This is why a person's honor is believed to define his character. James believes that a social self constitutes a mere glimpse of a person's behavior. You act one way in front of some people, and another way in front of others. Your social status fluctuates from one encounter to another, or from one group of people to another group. So, of the many social identities we carry, which one is the authentic us? Who are we, really? Are we just a bundle of sensations (Hume), or are we something more?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love what you have written here, happy to run into it :)

8/20/2015 1:29 PM  
Anonymous Heather W said...

This waas lovely to read

7/18/2022 6:47 AM  

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