Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Question of the Month
Who Or What Am I?
The following answers to the question of the self each win a random book.
I am a living, breathing organism signified by the words ‘human being’. I am a material or physical being fairly recognisable over time to me and to others: I am a body. Through my body, I can move, touch, see, hear, taste and smell. The array of physical sensations available to me also includes pain, hunger, thirst, tiredness, injury, sickness, fear, apprehension and pleasure. In this way I experience myself, others and the world around me. However, there is another aspect of me not directly visible or definable. This is the aspect of me which thinks and feels, reflects and judges, remembers and anticipates. Words used to describe this aspect include ‘mind’, ‘spirit’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’, ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’. This part of me is aware that I can never be fully known or understood by myself or by others; it notices that although there may be some unchanging essence which is ‘me’, this same ‘me’ is also constantly changing and evolving.
So I am a physical body and an emotional and psychological (or spiritual) being. The two together make me a person. Being a person means that I have virtues and flaws, gifts and needs, possibilities and defeats. I am basically good, but I am capable of evil. I am neither an angel nor a monster. Being a person means that I am a social animal, needing connection, recognition and acceptance from others, while simultaneously knowing myself as isolated and solitary, with many experiences which are never fully shareable with others. However, I also realise that this paradoxical condition is a universal experience, and this enables the emergence of empathy and compassion for others as it affords glimpses of understanding and solicitude, mutuality and intimacy. Being a person means that I am like all other persons, but also unique. It also means that I can never provide a genuinely definitive answer to the question.
Kathleen O’Dwyer, Limerick, Ireland
Human beings are defined by a sense of personality, experiences and reason. We are often inclined to believe that the face we see in the mirror is us, a thing which has developed a personality through experiences. Here the body is merely a tool for the true self, the mind. It is however an error to conclude that the body is not significant for selfhood. Without a body a mind would not be able to make certain types of judgments.
The mind/brain utilizes the body to survive, calculate and function within various social contexts. It also favors order rather than chaos. The mind governing our body assigns mental places to various objects in the world. Through the use of language humanity has come to construct an image of the world that transcends one’s own immediate environment. This has enabled humans to develop complex means of social interaction. Thus we are physical beings capable of having non-physical thoughts that in turn construct and sometimes deconstruct the physical world.
David Tamez, Austin, TX
I would argue that the answer to this question is dependent on the idea of identity. The idea of identity is itself rather problematic in that it’s determined from subjective viewpoints, which can be divided into two types. The first is an internal creation of identity, formed by myself for myself. This is the picture I have of myself. The second is an external creation of identity, formed by someone else. These are the pictures that other people have of me. “I am a fool!” cries the self, while the other labels that person a genius (or vice versa). Inevitably there will be clashes based on differing viewpoints. While not always so extreme as this example, it must surely be very rare that people will agree entirely on a person’s identity. In the same way that Einstein showed that time is dependant on viewpoint, so I think we can show that identity is relative, and by extension, the answer to the question ‘Who or what am I?’ becomes a matter of who is answering it. The question must then be asked, on what do we base these identities we assign other people or ourselves? It seems that assigning a particular identity to someone else occurs through a process of observation, watching and remembering a person’s actions, then placing a value on the information we have of that person from our past and present encounters. Our view of our own identity places the highest priority on the intentions and thoughts that precede our actions, in contrast to other people’s reliance on our actions. This can mean that the person we consider ourselves to be may not be the person we portray to others.
Anoosh Falak Rafat, Erith, Kent
Philosophy is about generalities, but this question demands particularity: who am I – a particular person in a particular time and place, related in particular ways to others? The usual answers are not of much philosophical interest: Bill, Patricia’s husband, Katy’s father. In each of these identities, however, I find two things: a state of interiority – feelings, thoughts, beliefs and desires with which only I am directly acquainted, and a social role – a relatedness to other human beings. So the question is two-fold: How does it feel to be me? and How do I function in a social context? Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves, but we can share our answers with others. The first-person point of view is an important starting point. We each have a life-story, of what has been and continues to be important to us, what the pivotal events were that brought us to the present moment. By comparing stories, we find such timeless human themes as love and hate, honor and degradation, loyalty and betrayal, inspiration and despair; and we learn how others have handled themselves in situations without ourselves having to undergo them. In this way human culture advances far more rapidly than biological evolution. By taking an ‘objective’ point of view toward our own subjectivity, we can transcend ourselves. We are not bound by chains of habit or instinct; we can see who we are and choose to change it. The ability to examine one’s own experience is something that distinguishes us from other animals. We have, in some measure, the ability to create ourselves. There are limits to what we can make of ourselves imposed by evolution, biology and culture, ut the ability to know those limits and find ways to work within them gives us the unique ability not only to discover, but to decide and create the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’
Bill Meacham, Austin, TX
If you look in the mirror, what is staring back at you? Flesh. Eyes. And underneath that? Bones. Blood. Brain. But then, what makes us different from animals? Is it, with Plato and Aristotle, the ability to reason and live virtuously? Possibly – so a soul, a consciousness. It is perfectly likely that our one defining feature is metaphysical. But higher mammals’ intelligence is too near ours to assume this is our single differentiation: the ability to communicate and love is reflected in dolphins and primates. So it is equally likely that being human comes down to our biological structure – our DNA and physiology – developing certain features that other animals lack, including hormones. Perhaps what we really are comes down to the rather annoying answer, “we are human.” But ‘human’ describes something that we cannot certainly define or grasp. The most we can do is ascertain that we are indeed different, a compilation of our multiplicity: we are evolved animals; the inhabitants of earth; the most widespread of colonists, and the most diverse of species. And when we look in the mirror, to question ourselves and stare at our flesh, our eyes, our bones, our blood, to philosophise and obey our brains – in short, when we define ourselves as human, that is what it is to be a person.
Amy Andrews, Nantwich, Cheshire
Half of our lives we behave like animals. Sleeping, feeding, drinking, pursuing sex and other bodily necessities, we do exactly what baboons, monkeys, and other animals do. Most of the rest of our available time is spend doing what the societies we live in want us to do, namely work to earn enough to pay for those necessities. The little time left over which we could call ‘time out’ is scarcely enough to keep up with what happens in the world around us, if we even are interested.
When I look at the mirror in the morning, the face which stares back at me is not me. It cannot be me, it is too old to be me. I am retired a long time already, and we all change considerably through the years. I call it an evolutionary process; but still, this face I see does not correspond with what I feel I am.
I am still looking for what Martin Heidegger called ‘Being’. I follow his idea about Dasein. Even living 50% of the time as an ape, I nevertheless feel the facticity of living in space and time, and have always tried to be authentic in my acts and the thoughts which motivate them, seeking an independence of mind and avoiding the general entrapment of following the crowd in the search for the Being of beings. I still consider it a lucky fact to have been ‘thrown into’ a world which is no doubt hostile, repetitive and extremely materialistic, and have accepted nothingness as the ultimate destination of my journey, yet I’m still asking the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ I thought about all of this when I was a young man, and the answer to this question and so many other ones are still out of my reach, and the doubts about meaning of life permeate my mind today as strongly as when I was a student opening my eyes to the basic questions of Being. If this is so, why don’t I know the face in the mirror?
Henry Back, Flagler Beach, Florida
The question ‘Who am I?’ can be answered only specifically. Anything else would be an abstraction that would liken me to others who share such characteristics. But that’s not who I am, that’s what I am. So here is a description of who I am in particular contexts. When I walk in the park, I am Friendly Human. I adopt a stance toward others of smiling, looking at them rather than averting my eyes, nodding and saying “Hello” and so forth. Doing so helps me feel safe and connected with them. Friendly Human is a strategy for being in the world which avoids hostility and harm. It includes deference and yielding. I step aside when encountering someone on a narrow path. By letting them pass, I avoid confrontation and disharmony. I get more enjoyment from the path by letting others have it. They pass, and I get to continue to meander as I wish. When I am Friendly Human I am not Worker, focused on accomplishing a task. I am not Competitor, focused on getting somewhere ahead of someone else. I am not Acquisitor, focused on getting what I want. Nor am I Intimate, focused on loving, understanding and enjoying my mate. I am just Friendly Human – a bit like a dog, but with more autonomy. Worker has a sense of self-importance, pleasure at doing something worthwhile, sometimes angry at obstacles, sometimes pleased at accomplishment. Competitor feels tense, anxious and angry. Acquisitor feels much like Worker, but when combined with Competitor, feels hostile. Intimate feels best of all. When I am Intimate, my guard is down; I delight in things my mate does; I let my thoughts and words flow freely; I bask in the warmth of love. By contrast, Friendly Human is peaceful and relaxed but a bit reserved: I am not anxious, angry or hostile, but neither am I completely unguarded. I keep to myself, engaging others briefly if they wish, or not at all. There is philosophical interest in this only to the extent that it illustrates the human capacity to adopt strategies for being in the world, and thereby define our own answers to the question ‘Who am I?’
Robert Tables, Blanco, TX
I’m a crowd, so I’m a ‘what’. There isn’t an ‘I’. As psychosynthesis says, I’m a collection of sub-personalities. More accurately, this thing is a collection of personalities, some shy, some noisy, pushy, sexy, boring, clever. This is the Many Selves model. The Gestalt view is similar: I/This is the continuous interaction and interrelatedness between myself and the environment of others and objects. Except on this theory there isn’t a ‘myself’ at the core, this I-ness is the constant flux. Even when alone, eyes closed in silence, there’s the flux of sensations and thoughts (coming from where?) In the Many Selves model all these Selves are interrelated, actors with a script they write as the play proceeds, with more parts than actors, so multiple roles are played. The problem is that, mostly we want to believe there is a core self or single I inside the sensations, so we can reinforce our Self Concept: “I am the sort of person who…” A fragmented self-concept is emotionally distressing.
I see the Self as a kaleidoscope. As with the Gestalt and the Many Selves models, the pattern is ever changing. Life and its activities is rotating the kaleidoscope, rather than me. My very limited control is to speed it up or slow it down. The constant ‘me’ I wake up as is the kaleidoscope briefly at rest before the environment begins to turn it. The kaleidoscope’s glitter are the few fixed aspects of me, such as gender, body, culture, etc. What’s new every time is the mood I wake up in or experience. Differences between people are simply different combinations of different bits. His bits are mainly red and angular – a spiky person; hers are mostly greenish and rounded, a softer personality. To a degree I can add or remove bits of glitter, choosing colour and shape, such as changing my behaviours and attitudes. But, as with a real kaleidoscope, this means opening up and getting inside, which we mostly resist. So I cannot say “I am.” I can only say “This thing I call Myself is like the image in rotating kaleidoscope” and “I am a Crowd.”
Tony Morris, Putney, London
To answer this question requires gaining some perspective on oneself. Not capable of devouring huge quantities of texts on Descartes’ cogito, Freud’s ego, Proust’s ‘true me’, Sartre’s ‘non-essence’ or Locke’s personal identity, I choose a different approach, related to a condition I have had since my teenage years: depersonalisation. For those of you unfamiliar with the disorder, it involves losing a sense of self – failing to recognise any physical connection with your own body. Sufferers regularly experience autoscopy, more commonly known as an out-of-body experience. A common technique for getting back in is to list the five senses and write what you are experiencing for each one, hopefully reconnecting yourself with yourself in the process. In more extreme cases sufferers have been known to self-harm, acute pain creating a faster and stronger reconnection.
When I am in a depersonalised state I know two things. First, I know that my physical body can function without my mind being in control, as I can observe this occurring. The body runs on the mind’s residuum. Second, as mentioned, I know that to reconnect I must experience a physical sensation, painful or pleasurable, the more intense the more effective. From this I can deduce that there are two entities present, the conscious and the physical, and the link that connects the two is sensation. So for me, the ‘Who’ is the consciousness and the ‘What’ is the body. But are we still the same person if we suffer from some degenerate disease, mental or physical? I’d like to end with a Joyce quote, which could shed more light on the problem than I have: “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”
S. E. Smith, Lancaster
I’m a book. Not literally, of course, but this is the metaphor that I’m going to use, so please bear with me.
I am a particular self. So, what makes a self particular? Its story. That is, the events and objects surrounding it, and its actions on, reactions to, and perceptions of them. You are you because you have lived your life, and I am me because I have lived mine. Even if I had a Siamese Clone we would still have different selves because he would perceive the world from a different viewpoint than me. An important aspect of this story about stories is that the story exists independently of me.
This means that I am a self plus a story. The situation is comparable to that of a book. Books have similar physical elements, like paper, binding, and ink. What makes them unique is the story that they contain. Even if The Iliad has the same font, paper, and glue as El Otoño del Patriarca, they are different books because one is about a Greek struggle and the other a Latin dictator. Likewise, I am different from you because my story is about a guy from Edmond and yours is not. And there you have it. You, me, the creepy guy down the hall – we all have similar selves, but I’m a one-of-a-kind story.
Matthew Hewes, Edmond, OK
I share a large genetic similarity with mice. And like mice I am also made of water and soil. Yet I have opposable thumbs and use language, narratives and imagination for almost everything in life. Because of all that, I think myself superior to a mouse. If I were like most humans I would carry that thought even further, and think that I was either the pinnacle of evolutionary development or the crowning achievement of a divine being’s creation, only slightly less divine than the supernatural being who created me. However, personally, I think none of those grand thoughts. I am a water molecule in an ocean. I am a grain of sand on a beach. I am a linguistic phrase in the novel of time. I am a “ha!” in the middle of a long belly laugh. And these thoughts are more comfortable, less stressful views of me than grand visions of me as the center and purpose of everything. I am a part of everything, but I am not in charge of everything, and that’s a relief. I’m here to do as best I can: my watery, grainy, languagey part of the story society is constantly creating about what it means to be alive. Towards that end I am a thought collector, and I hoard ideas and experiences like a mouse hoards cheese. From my collection I create a story, and with my opposable thumbs and language skills I share it.
Sue Clancy, Norman, Oklahoma
I want to answer your question by paraphrasing the originator of Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli:
I have a body, but I am not my body.
I have emotions, but I am not my emotions.
I have a mind, but I am not my mind.
I have roles to play in life, but I am not any of them.
I am a centre of pure consciousness.
Ray Sherman, Duarte, CA
Next Question of the Month
To celebrate the launch of Mark Vernon’s book How To Be An Agnostic (Palgrave Macmillan) the next question of the month is: What is Truth? The prize is a signed copy of the book. Let us know what truth is and what it’s good for in less than 400 words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’, and must be received by 25th July. If you want a chance of getting a signed book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.