Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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The human personality and the ego vs. the self

Posted by robertpriddy on June 7, 2012

The personality is often interpreted as the sum of one’s subjective ways of identifying oneself in distinction to the environment, and may sometimes be confused with the idea or term ‘ego’. In psychology, the ego is usually as a conception about traits of thought, emotion and behaviour which serve to protect, develop and grow the personality. The Freudian distinctions between ego, id and superego were a seminal advance in helping distinguish the effects of certain human actions and reactions. The term ‘ego’ is defined in numerous ways, how exactly according to the varied purposes in using the term. Originally, ‘ego’ simply meant ‘I’ (in Latin). It came to be used to refers to those desires of a possessive or ‘selfish’ origin, as most easily seen in attitudes, behaviour and reactions which aim to defend and strengthen oneself in relation to any perceived threats. The ego – or structure of functioning personality living in the world – is an unavoidable part the human make-up. It is not a static entity, but develops and changes in various ways through life. In common language the word ‘ego’ is frequently used as a substitute for egotism (or egoism), by which is meant the undue and even forceful assertion of oneself.

The development of ego in general occurs firstly at a bodily and sensory level, gradually expanding into the inter-personal sphere. The ego can be said to comprise those emotional and mental attitudes which involve drawing boundaries between the person and the environment and thus underlies any defensive or aggressive kinds of expression. Though the idea of selfhood differs from person to person, there is a common experience in that none of us can really regard ourselves as other than whole ‘identities’ or integral persons, however incomplete or unfulfilled we may know or think ourselves yet to be. Each our ‘inner model’ of the self gets straightened out, develops and is refined as we make progress towards greater self-understanding.

Our most basic identity is not dependent on the body, which alters greatly from childhood to old age. It may not even depend much on others or the social roles and qualities with which our social identity is tied up. But our basic inner ‘I’ identity is not itself observable to others. Therefore people are identified by externals like bodily features, social characteristics and outward personality. This is not how a person experiences selfhood, of course. Underlying the idea of ‘personal integrity’ is a human urge to organise one’s experience and relate it emotionally and mentally to an idea of oneself. The word ‘oneself’ expresses the intuition of one self, which is thought to be a unitary and thus consistent whole. Where this is found not to be reasonable (in cases of schizophrenia, multiple personality, chronic amnesia etc.) it has mostly been assumed that harmonious development has been disturbed or arrested, causing cognitive derangement and partial or even full ‘loss of identity’.

In contradiction to that view, the philosopher Julian Baggini (The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean To Be You? – Granta Books, 2011) has challenged traditional ‘common sense’ concept of personal identity. Against the belief in a ‘hard core’ of self it is held that we do not have – or experience – any stable, single, united self. We have no permanent identity because our entire psycho-physical personal existence is a dynamic and changing flow of bodily growth and decay, mental perceptions and memories. According to this, the belief in an ‘unchanging’ self – one always having the same identity – is a conception that has been developed and embodied in culture and languages and taken over during the socialization process. The interactive physical and social environments influence both body and mind, while the perception of oneself is also variable. People behave in different ways according to situations, not always showing the same character traits or responses. One who is truthful to most people may be deceptive or untruthful in other circumstances, so there is no unvarying self involved.

The way in which the mind construes a fixed identity (or ego) was described phenomenologically and convincingly by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1940s essay ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’. Wittgenstein is also illumining on the subject, also pointing out that – because we have substantive words (nouns) for self, ego etc., we are bewitched into the false notion that these (an many other such) words also represent something substantial. The self is a construction of the mind, and when one looks at the concept and our experience most carefully, one finds that the idea of an eternal self is just as false as that of an earth-centered universe and all that mental baggage handed down without due critical examination from such as Aristotle, Plato and others before them.

The body is the common-sensical origin of identity on which the rest is built. Recent neuroscientific research shows that the self – expressed as feelings – is grounded in the way the brain stem to body coupling ‘maps’ the body, which is more stable (i.e. less often changing) than perception, thought, and other brain functions. Antonio Damasio (Professor of psychology, neuroscience and neurology. University of Southern California) has demonstrated this and wrote: “The management of the chemistries in out bodies operate within clear and quite narrow parameters, creating a sameness from day-to-day. There is a physiological, permanently maintained bond between the body-regulating parts of the brain and my own body. The brain stem – between the cerebral cortex and the spinal cord is where this occurs.

Pseudo-scientific ideas of ‘self’: In some cultures and in most religions, the ego is considered as the cause of human misery and suffering, distinguished from the ‘Self’ ( which is a supposed higher expression of the human psyche, and is presumed to be an unchanging ‘true’ or transcendental identity. Ego as commonly confused with egotism is most simply characterised by the words ‘me’ and ‘mine’ which is a supposed higher expression of the human psyche, which (paradoxically) is supposed to be the essence of ‘selflessness’ and universality. Paradoxically, this ‘eternal Self’ is supposed in religions to be the essence of ‘selflessness’ and universality and is not individualized, but is identified with God). The word ‘self’ is also used in some psychology (eg. Jung) to represent the intelligent ‘whole’ of the human being, which is realised only as more far-reaching personality development than ego-growth takes place. This self is regarded by some as being inherent to us – rooted in our impersonal collective human identity but transcendental in essence – somewhat as the unchanging cinema as the screen underlies the images that play across it. The manifestations of the self in our lives are – on this speculative kind of theory – not easily distinguished because they are largely covered over by those of the ego. In this sense, the self is thought not to be a material phenomenon, but an ideal entity towards which we strive through spirituality, religiosity, or practices like yoga, self-denial, service to mankind etc. In these doctrines, the ego’s drives are regarded as ‘worldly’ and suited to survival and growth in the physical and social world. Thus, they are seen as being self-seeking, outgoing and ultimately fruitless to personal ‘spiritual enlightenment’. The ego is not seen by such moralising doctrines as a vehicle for gaining recognition of one’s higher good in the shape of true vision or secure peace of mind. For this, a preliminary prescribed by priests, gurus, moralists and zealots is recognition of the ego’s limitations and what is not in accordance with one’s true self. The ego’s drives and most of what has followed from them are considered merely to obscure the proper ‘I’, and must therefore be controlled and directed into useful channels in the interests of the whole self. As soon as the ego is defined, however, in wider terms and studied systematically from various angles and within various contexts and cultures, it becomes evident that the dualism ‘ego vs. self’ is a non-empirical construct and hence is invalid as a tool for understanding the psyche.

A common view in Western scientific psychology denies the existence of any self as a non-physical (id)entity of some sort existing independently of the ego. If one hypothetically considers the situation of a human being born without senses at all and asks whether such a being could develop any sense of self-awareness (which is a necessary function of the mature ego or self) one realizes that it is highly unlikely. The brain would not have any external impressions and would therefore not be able to distinguish between what is ‘self’ and what is ‘not self’. The brain’s neuron activity would slow down in the absence of signals and without stimuli could never reach the level of activity necessary for self-recognition. This opinion is concurrent with the view that our brains receive both external and internal impressions (i.e. perceptions in a time sequence) and are constantly comparing present and past impressions – both in the short-term memory and later also long-term. The brains build up an awareness of time, of otherness and consequently also selfhood (this being learned by children in their first two years or so). It has been widely hypothesised that, without such a process, there would be no possibility of self-awareness in any meaningful sense.

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One Response to “The human personality and the ego vs. the self”

  1. ABN said

    Very good discussion of personality and self. Much appreciated.

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