Inventing the Self

“The Shaking Woman” and assumptions of self hood

September 10th, 2013 by Adam Wagner · 6 Comments

As I was studying philosophy for my BA, I began to take an interest in philosophy of mind and the cognitive studies.  I had always been fascinated with the mind (I began my higher education as a psychology major) and the interactions between biology and cognition and consciousness.  However, I felt unsatisfied with each definitive assertion that tried to connect the biology with vague, linguistic terms such as “self” and “identity.”  I sincerely applaud the research and attempts at empirically defining such a thing, however, I feel it is an impossible feat.  My own personal thoughts on the topic of selfhood and identity was that it was not a static entity with a single, definable quality.  The vagueness and limits of language have attempted to construct symbols and definitions for something that is not definable, or at least singularly categorized.  The issue I have had with several books and theories I have read is the attempt to take a newly discovered mental trait or disorder and extrapolate it to encompass a full theory, or vice versa, construct a theory to explain a trait or disorder.

In my opinion, the disconnect is often linguistic.  The reason we have a hard time defining a self, is because we have no definition for it.  Humans construct language and the term self, and other vague terms like love, identity, etc…, isn’t something that can be identified on a micro level like in biology.  The science interested in defining the self wasn’t around when the word was introduced into vernacular and therefore its attempts are futile.  Things like the self and consciousness cannot be neatly packaged into a strict definition.

I believe Siri Hustvedt’s curiosity of the mind and her attempts to find the cause of her peculiar shaking led her on a journey without an answer and I think that is personified in the fact that ultimately she finds no answer.  Despite the amount of research and sources used from a variety of different disciplines, no one answer seemed to fit the mold.  Some worked better than others, but no one theory or discipline could get it right (her affliction or a clear definition of self).  Once again, I chalk it up to linguistic struggles.  If one tries to define self biologically through anatomy and neuroscience, one misses the “feeling” of self and what it is to be “someone.”  However, if one attempts to define the self through things like psychoanalysis or literature, one misses the scientific “proof” or empirical evidence necessary to be a concrete theory.

Therefore, I think my experience with Hustvedt’s book served to help solidify my thoughts and musings of what the self is.  If anything, the book read more like the journey we all encounter when attempting to solve this question on our own.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Gabriel R. Seijo // Sep 10th 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Adam, I agree with you completely on the complications that defining the self imply, and in the recognition of the fact that a balance between the biological and the psychological or psychoanalytical needs to exist in order to produce a definition that engulfs all the characteristics that surround the self. With this said, I believe that even with the result of having reached no concise answer, this is precisely what Hustvedt is attempting. Using a simple, everyday language style, she orients readers perfectly through the academic debates that surround such an ambiguous subject, and demonstrates that a better understanding of her condition helped her handle it with better ease. Her objective analysis of the multiple evidence and data exemplified in the text, serves as proof that if studied individually, schools of thought will at some point or another reach a linguistic barrier; but if studied collectively, as she did, different schools can help each start to other overcome those barriers. The stable structure of her argument through out a journey of multiple stances for the same topic reiterate the possibility that attempting to understand the incomprehensive is a step forward to honing down an answer for it. In other words, she might not have found a definitive scientific solution to her particular health variances, but at least she reached methods with which to cope it, something that personally always seems positive and of progress.

  • Sabrina Smith // Sep 10th 2013 at 11:41 pm

    I also agree that defining the self is one of those things that individuals will continue to search, for but will never able to find a definitive or concrete answer. However one thing I did appreciate from Hustvedt’s piece was the attempt to at least come to terms with the idea of “self” even if those attempts were not successful. For example, the fact she took medication (lorazepam and propranolol) was, I think, merely an effort to try to understand the self, even though it clearly was a bit if a lost cause. Also, the fact that she continued to do research and consult other professionals in the field about her condition is admirable to her pursuit to truly understanding, and I like that point that you made about her progression in utilizing these coping methods.

  • John Giunta // Sep 10th 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Truly fascinating, I think the failure of language is something worth talking about (no pun intended) – I would agree with you and Hustvedt’s findings that no explanation or theory or definition is completely, 100% suitable, but I would say that this is due to language being not too vague but too specific. We use language to cut up and categorize everything we encounter; it modulates our experiences and I think park of Hustvedt’s argument is that “selfness” is inextricable connected with language, of any kind, and thus her life writing becomes a tool to understanding the self. Language constructs our reality and then constantly updates it, confirming or altering but always shifting towards something understandable, as Hustvedt touches on in certain sections. Her method of relating even her failure to achieve an answer is only delivered through the very language that “fails” her, and I think that’s an interesting problem.
    Words always signify a divide, a space of difference between the utterance – as spoken AND understood – and the intended meaning. Maybe this absence, this eternally deferred truth, is akin to our lacking a satisfactory relationship between the “self” and human experience.

  • Yitian Liao // Sep 11th 2013 at 10:58 am

    I have to say you are so right about the linguistic problem faced in defining the self.
    Somehow we have this intention to use a precise word to describe ourselves, but we just cannot find any under that moment when people ask us to attempt to do so. And this word is not some word that you look up from a dictionary and say, “oh here it is”. I think the self is inherently linked to consciousness, and since the scientific terminology proves inadequate, people have to turn to more obscure, vague language, at the same time becoming cautious with their choices of words, and struggling to to find the right word, or fit us into the ‘right’ ones. In Buddhist thinking, there is a concept called “not-self”. It doesn’t mean to deny “self”, but to live beyond the boundary of the definition made for “self”. It encourages people to reduce the obsession of self-concern. There are not specific words to demonstrate your name, your heart, and your body since they are processes instead of real things.

  • Adam Wagner // Sep 11th 2013 at 11:23 am

    Gabriel and Sabrina’s response seem to touch on a negative connotation that I did not intend. I don’t think that because the linguistic error and struggles exist that we should give up. I think we should maybe attempt to shift the dialogue (without getting too Heidegger).

  • Kristina Bodetti // Sep 11th 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Thank you for mentioning the study of philosophy. I too studied philosophy for my BA and look at most things I read with those goggles on. I fully agree with you that in all works (philosophical, psychiatric or scientific) all seem to miss something in the defining of the self – which it seems was Hustvedt’s discovery as well. I partially agree that this is a linguistic problem; without clear definitions and understanding of the foundational concepts we discuss we can not form a complete and consistent theory of anything. Looking at Hustvedt’s essay in light of your response I am reminded of Hume’s thoughts in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding as he attempts to define the limits of the human mind’s ability to comprehend and understand the world. His explanation of why our attempts to understand things in combination with the linguistic limits makes discovering the true nature of self an insurmountable task. On the other hand, while reading the essay, Descartes also comes to mind. “I think, therefore I am.” Perhaps it is the never ending search for answers while being unable to obtain one that is what actually defines the self, and perhaps it is the point of Hustvedt sharing her journey with us.

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