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Self & identity
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Self-awareness is the explicit understanding that one exists. Furthermore, it includes the concept that one exists as an individual, separate from other people, with private thoughts. It may also include the understanding that other people are similarly self-aware. Self-awareness remains a critical mystery in philosophy, psychology, biology, and artificial intelligence. Self-awareness is a unique type of consciousness, in that it is not always present.

Self-consciousness is credited with the development of identity (see the self). In an epistemological sense, self-consciousness is a personal understanding of the very core of one's own identity. It is during periods of self-consciousness that people come the closest to knowing themselves objectively.Jean Paul Sartre describes self-consciousness as being "non-positional", in that it is not from any location in particular.

Self-consciousness plays a large role in behaviour as it is common to act differently when people "lose one's self in a crowd". It is the basis for human traits, such as accountability and conscientiousness. It also plays a large role in religion, and existentialism. Self-consciousness affects people in varying degrees, as some people self-monitor (or scrutinize) themselves more than others. Different cultures vary in the importance they place on self-consciousness.

Self awareness contrasted with self-consciousness


Consciousness and self-awareness are poorly understood.

Self-awareness is a unique type of consciousness in that it is not always present, and is not sought after. Meditation or repetitive tasks, as well as some schools of thought in art theory and existentialism seek to reduce self-consciousness, and even self-awareness, at least temporarily.

The ability to self-analyze (or scrutinize) is widely believed among psychologists not to develop until mid-childhood, and arguably is present in only a few species of animals. Tests that are usually considered as representative of self-consciousness include applying a bright dot to a subjects forehead, and then placing them in front of a mirror – if they reach for their own forehead, it appears they may realize their own existence in a self-aware sense. Species such as dolphins, elephants, and some primates can pass this test. However, others criticize this test as testing only the understanding of the duplicability of image, and not especially meaningful as a way of gauging self-consciousness.

Suffering in the Zen Buddhist identifies negative results from attaching firmly to the narrow conception of a self that is an unchanging entity. For example: yesterday's self was healthy and happy but today's self is ill and lamenting the loss of health in addition to suffering with the pain of ill health.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's theory of religion was based upon projection deriving from a Hegelian sense of self consciousness.

Self consciousness

The term self conscious has a different meaning in colloquial use, namely a person who is worried or apprehensive how they may appear to others. It is widely believed that this trait is most present during the teenage years.

When one is feeling self-conscious, one can feel too aware of even the smallest of one's own actions. Such awareness can impair one's ability to perform complex actions. For example, a piano player may "choke", lose confidence, and even lose the ability to perform when they notice the audience. As self-consciousness fades one may regain the ability to focus. (see The Look)

A person who is especially prone to self-awareness may be labeled shy or introverted. Work has been done in the area of flow psychology – attempts to escape self-consciousness. Buddhism, as well as some schools of thought in art theory and existentialism also aim to reduce self-consciousness, at least temporarily.

Unlike self-awareness, self-consciousness has connotations of being unpleasant, and is often linked to self-esteem. Self-consciousness is credited with the development of identity, because it is during periods of self-consciousness that people come the closest to knowing themselves objectively. Self-consciousness plays a large role in behavior, as it is common to act differently when people "lose themselves in a crowd". Self-consciousness affects people in varying degrees, as some people are in constant self-monitoring, while others are completely oblivious about themselves.

The basis of personal identity

John Locke's chapter XXVII "On Identity and Diversity" in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) has been said to be one of the first modern conceptualization of consciousness as the repeated self-identification of oneself, through which moral responsibility could be attributed to the subject - and therefore punishment and guiltyness justified, as would critics such as Nietzsche point out. John Locke does not use the terms self-awareness or self-consciousness though.

According to Locke, personal identity (the self) "depends on consciousness, not on substance" nor on the soul. We are the same person to the extent that we are conscious of our past and future thoughts and actions in the same way as we are conscious of our present thoughts and actions. If consciousness is this "thought" which doubles all thoughts, then personal identity is only founded on the repeated act of consciousness: "This may show us wherein personal identity consists: not in the identity of substance, but... in the identity of consciousness". For example, one may claim to be a reincarnation of Plato, therefore having the same soul. However, one would be the same person as Plato only if one had the same consciousness of Plato's thoughts and actions that he himself did. Therefore, self-identity is not based on the soul. One soul may have various personalities. Self-identity is not founded either on the body or the substance, argues Locke, as the substance may change while the person remains the same: "animal identity is preserved in identity of life, and not of substance", as the body of the animal grows and changes during its life. Take for example a prince's soul which enters the body of a cobbler: to all exterior eyes, the cobbler would remain a cobbler. But to the prince himself, the cobbler would be himself, as he would be conscious of the prince's thoughts and acts, and not of the cobbler's life. A prince's consciousness in a cobbler body: thus the cobbler is, in fact, a prince. But this interesting border-case leads to this problematic thought that since personal identity is based on consciousness, and that only oneself can be aware of his consciousness, exterior human judges may never know if they really are judging - and punishing - the same person, or simply the same body. In other words, Locke argues that you may be judged only for the acts of your body, as this is what is apparent to all but God; however, you are in truth only responsible for the acts for which you are conscious. This forms the basis of the insanity defense: one can't be held accountable for acts from which one was unconscious - and therefore leads to interesting philosophical questions:

"personal identity consists [not in the identity of substance] but in the identity of consciousness, wherein if Socrates and the present mayor of Queenborough agree, they are the same person: if the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping is not the same person. And to punish Socrates waking for what sleeping Socrates thought, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more right, than to punish one twin for what his brother-twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished; for such twins have been seen."[1]

Or again:

"PERSON, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit; and so belong only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness, --whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. All which is founded in a concern for happiness, the unavoidable concomitant of consciousness; that which is conscious of pleasure and pain, desiring that that self that is conscious should be happy. And therefore whatever past actions it cannot reconcile or APPROPRIATE to that present self by consciousness, it can be no more concerned in it than if they had never been done: and to receive pleasure or pain, i.e. reward or punishment, on the account of any such action, is all one as to be made happy or miserable in its first being, without any demerit at all. For, supposing a MAN punished now for what he had done in another life, whereof he could be made to have no consciousness at all, what difference is there between that punishment and being CREATED miserable? And therefore, conformable to this, the apostle tells us, that, at the great day, when every one shall 'receive according to his doings, the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open.' The sentence shall be justified by the consciousness all person shall have, that THEY THEMSELVES, in what bodies soever they appear, or what substances soever that consciousness adheres to, are the SAME that committed those actions, and deserve that punishment for them." [4]

Henceforth, Locke's conception of personal identity founds it not on the substance or the body, but in the "same continued consciousness", which is also distinct from the soul since the soul may have no consciousness of itself (as in reincarnation). He creates a third term between the soul and the body - and Locke's thought may certainly be meditated by those who, following a scientist ideology, would identify too quickly the brain to consciousness. For the brain, as the body and as any substance, may change, while consciousness remains the same. Therefore personal identity is not in the brain, but in consciousness. However, Locke's theory also reveals his debt to theology and to Apocalyptic "great day", which by advance excuse any failings of human justice and therefore humanity's miserable state.

Physiological location for self-awareness

A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment by Ilan Goldberg et. al. (April 19, 2006) in Neuron (vol 50, p 329) has demonstrated the functional separation of sensory processing and self-awareness. Self-awareness appears to be processed in the superfrontal gyrus.

Main article: neurobiology of self-awareness

An Eastern perspective on self-awareness

The ignorance of one's own self is viewed in existentialism and Zen Buddhism as the source of much human suffering, as noted by the famous saying from Zen Buddhism "we are each the source of our own suffering." However, the reader should take care before presuming that the usual Western conception of self is interchangeable with that of Zen Buddhists. More precisely, it is ignorance of the true nature of one's self that is the source of suffering. Zen Buddhists do not consider the self to have separateness or constancy as do most Westerners. Suffering in the Zen Buddhist sense results from attaching firmly to the narrow conception of a self that is an unchanging entity. For example: yesterday's self was healthy and happy but today's self is ill and lamenting the loss of health in addition to suffering with the pain of ill health.

Developmental aspects of self awareness

Awareness of ourselves as a seperate person is an important developmental stage

Main article: Developmental aspects of self-awareness

Self awareness in animals

There is growing evidence that some animals develop self awareness

Main article: Animal self-awareness

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts



Additional material



  • Platek, S.M., Keenan, J.P., Gallup, G.G., Jr., & Mohamed, F.B. (2004). Where am I? The neural correlates of self and other. Cognitive Brain Research, 19, 114-122. Full text

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