Co-operation & Community








SELF: different ways ofthinking

about self and questions about

the idea of self


Kevin Loughran





To talk of self is to imply boundaries.'This is me; that is beyond me'.'I exist from within this boundary; beyond this boundary are others'.But a sense of self can arise and can be expressed in very different ways: for example, as a biological sense of self or as a moral sense of self:



- a biological sense of self:


Daniel M. Davis drew on a biological sense of self in his book The Compatibility Gene.1Each of us as human beings have similar sets of genes (around 25,000 genes per person), but there are variations from person to person that provide us with individual characteristics.The genes in Daniel Davis' story are those that vary most from person to person: the genes of our immune systems, especially the genes of the major histo-compatibility complex (MHC) - more commonly known as 'compatibility genes'.


Daniel Davis describes the roles of compatibility genes in all their diversity and how they help the body to identify its own tissue as 'self' and react against tissues from someone else as 'non-self', so providing a biological marker which "distinguishes each of us as individuals".2


In 1937 the Australian biologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet proposed the idea that discriminating between 'what is you' and 'what is not you' is the raison d'Ítre of the immune system.By 1940 he started to use the terminology of 'self' and 'non-self'.3



- and a moral sense of self:


Robert Bolt described a moral sense of self when he sought to explain why, although agnostic, he focussed on Thomas More, declared a saint by the Catholic Church, as the central character of his play A Man for all Seasons. (Of course Hilary Mantel's recent novels featuring Thomas Cromwell present a rather different picture of Thomas More).Robert Bolt described Thomas More as a man with "an adamantine sense of his own self".4


Thomas More was Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII from 1529 until his resignation in 1532.He was presented with a possible compromise with the King's policy and he used all his cleverness to retreat in good order without committing himself.But finally he was asked to retreat from that place "where he located his self"5 and he stood firm even at the cost of his life.


At an earlier state in the story, Robert Bolt's More summarised this moral sense of self by comparing a man's swearing an oath to him holding water cupped in his hands: if he opened his fingers he lost the water; if he disregarded his oath he lost his self.6






These are two ways of thinking about self - the biological self and the moral self - that provoke the question: is there one consistent idea of self?Or is 'self' simply a convenient way of describing the different elements of a person's existence by grouping them together?†† New Scientist claimed in a special issue of 23rd February 20137that our sense of self is nothing more than an illusion.Its writers posed various questions about the idea of self:



- Are we the persons we thought we were?


New Scientist and its writers - while acknowledging that we have an intuitive sense of self which is a fundamental human experience - claimed that many common sense beliefs about self had begun to unravel under scrutiny: we are not the persons we thought we were.Jan Westerhof8 argued that many things which are supposed to express self are changeable.He described instances when persons came to believe that they had intended actions which in fact they did not bring about; and tests which suggest that people's perceptions of what happened at certain times could be influenced by what happens later.


But these are question marks about how we interpret information from our sense experiences rather than question marks about the person or 'self' doing the interpreting.Although I may imagine myself to be certain things and some of what I imagine may be inaccurate, it is I who does the imagining; it is I who can perceive inaccuracies or contradictions; it is I who can reflect on and accept observation from other people which qualify what I had first imagined myself to be.


- Does our sense of self depend on our relations with other people?


Michael Bond suggested that our sense of self might be a consequence of our relations with other people.12Your own 'self' was not so much about you; it was as much about the people around you and how you relate to each other.13 ††This echoed the thoughts of Erving Goffman in Asylums (1961)14 ††in which he rejected the idea of self as a property of the person to whom it is attributed: rather the idea of self reflects a pattern of social control of which the person himself / herself is part.This pattern of social control did not support the self; rather it constituted it.



The problem with this argument is that there is no explanation of how far it goes or is supposed to go.Is your own sense of self entirely a consequence of relations with other people?If it is not entirely a consequence, what other possible factors are there which help to develop a sense of self and how do they connect with your relations with other people?If your own sense of self is about people around you then how much is it about people around you?Did Erving Goffman mean that there is no sense of self without social interaction and social institutions?If so,am I a blob of non-existence called into existence by encounterwith other people; and if other people also are only called into existence by encounters with other people - then how do any of us get started as human beings?






Jan Westerhof questioned the idea that we are "unchanging, coherent and autonomous individuals".15 ††Richard Fisher questioned the concept of ourselves as "individuals in control of our own destinies."16


But who actually makes such claims? And is it necessary to make the claims and prove them to the full in order to affirm an idea of self; so that if you can't prove them the idea of self is called into question?Disproving an idea (that I am an unchanging, coherent and autonomous individual) does not prove the opposite.



Kevin Loughran






1The Compatibility Gene.Allen Lane, 2013.


2ibid., p. xiii


3See: Daniel M. Davis.The Compatibility Gene.Allen Lane, 2013.p. 23


4A Man for all Seasons.London: Heinemann Educational, 1986.p. xii




6ibid.p. 83


7'Who are you?'.†† New Scientist, No. 2905, 23rd February 2013.†† pp32-43


8'When are you?'.†† New Scientist, No. 2905, 23rd February 2013.p.37


9'Trick yourself into an outer-body experience'.New Scientist, No. 2905, 23rd February 2013.p.38


10 ibid.p.38


11 ibid.p.40


12 'Why are you?'.New Scientist, No. 2905, 23rd February 2013.pp. 41-42


13 ibid. p. 42


14 Inpatients please.Asylums.Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.p. 154


15 'When are you?'.†† New Scientist, No. 2905, 23rd February 2013.p.37


16 'The end'.New Scientist, No. 2905, 23rd February 2013.p.43


















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