The question, and subsequently the desire to understand what constitutes one’s self as a perception unto the world—that is to say the central pole by which it means to be conscious of anything at all, even one’s own body—has long plagued the discussion of philosophy and religion, and now the domain of its serious analysis lies at the hands of the natural sciences. Where in the brain can we find consciousness, or, hence, the self? The consequence of this deeply historic and ongoing question, as Nietzsche notes in Twilight of the Idols, is profoundly embedded within our language, in our orientation toward the world. The meaningful relation we have to the world and our body is intertwined with the metaphysical answers that have addressed this concern. We cannot escape the assemblage of our sentences, which guide the way by which we discuss this problem of the self.
Reflect for a moment on your daily conversations, the way in which your language leads your train of thought when having a dialogue with a friend. Such a reflection tells us a great deal about our current concept of the self. How we talk about something is also how we constantly find ourselves, and with our language we find ourselves in situations. The monotony of our daily jobs has us daydreaming out in space, imagining another context we might potentially be in. Our body is the restless prison we must present to the world, but feel a rather nagging sense of detachment toward. It is no shock whatsoever that some existentialists have looked so ardently to Franz Kafka as the embodiment of the self in a world where one is utterly embroiled in a dismal situation. Stories such as The Trial, The Castle, and The Metamorphosis all present us with a feeling of alienation; there is no escape to be found for the protagonists in these tales, or should we simply say, for our friend Kafka, who’s own personal strife resonates so clearly with his main characters?
Why and where do these stories of the pure self—as imprisoned in a body and world—arise? The sense of detachment, the sense of self as alienated from the external: the world as over there, and self as over here, our body an ambiguous object to move, somewhere in the middle of self and world. What does it mean to be a self at all?
Perhaps our primary question should in fact be this: Is the self something contained, something that travels with us throughout our life, unbeknownst to change? Is the self an entity unto itself? Much of our modern thought, which is to say the words and meanings by which we discuss the issue of self finds itself in the figure of René Descartes, who canonically stated in his philosophy: “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” These words, and the sense retained by them in Western language and abroad, have arguably bore greater influence on the course of our modern conception of self than any other. The world, the individual, the body, and even our notions of freedom in America all rest to some degree within this concept. But what is the concept? Where does it place the self?
In a nutshell, this realization worked to defuse the rampant dogmatism of Descartes’ present-day religion, and to form a rational, scientific ground upon which to understand the world, even while Descartes himself was technically conducting his investigation for the church, and trying to prove the existence of God. The problem, however, as many would come to see it, is that the philosopher fell into his own metaphysical presuppositions, or his own dogmatism. Descartes’ postulate “I think, therefore I am” placed a dissonance between self as something present and eternal, and one’s body and world as the distance between self—something “out there” to be rationally understood at best.
Are the self, body, and world of things truly distinct? We find the differentiation deeply entrenched in our language, even within our present-day science, but a great deal of philosophy since the 19th century has attempted to refute this widely engrained belief. Is the self an unchanging pole of consciousness that moves within a body and world, relatively indifferent toward them?
Nietzsche writes, in discussing the idiosyncrasies of philosophers before him, and the acquisition of an understanding that they all arguably lack (and many still do): “Death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth, are for them objections—refutations even. What is, does not become; what becomes, is not…Now they all believe, even to the point of despair, in that which is. But since they cannot get hold of it, they look for reasons why it is withheld from them.” The self, as the eternal center of our being, is the constant withdrawal of every single one of our historic investigations to find its center, for no such thing exists. Let us attempt to strip out the body, or, for that matter, how about stripping out the world? What is left? Surely one will find no such “thing” as an unchanging self.
Paul Cézanne notices that “one must hurry if you want to see something.” All is disappearing, Cézanne states. But is this so? Perhaps our reply should be both yes and no. Living as we do, as human beings, is always to be in a state where disappearance is essential, as the disappearance of our current moment is also what hands us over to new contexts, new situations, a new temporal place for us to have, and then let go of. To live as human is always to give up in order to get to. To find oneself in a moment, to be a self at all is subsequently never to have everything at once. We are not a God’s eye view. We are always becoming ourselves, and how else could that be if we weren’t temporally embodied in a world with otherness? We constantly find ourselves through these bodies, through engaging with a world, and through connecting with others—a temporal process of becoming ourselves, by giving up in order to gain who we are. To claim that anyone is a pure self is to presuppose what else is needed to be a self. This is the grandest illusion of any modern individual, that there exists sovereignty of the self.