Three Conceptions of Self

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The question of “who I am”, or “self”, has been one of the central concerns in the history of thought. A wide array of answers provided by various thinkers can be grouped into three conceptions representing the three traditions of thought on this question: (1) self as an autonomous being, (2) self as a relational being, and (3) self as an illusionary being.

(1) Self as an autonomous being: The idea that “self” is an autonomous being, not only with a separate body and mind from others but also with a distinct and unique personality, can be found in the traditions of Judaism, Protestantism, Greek philosophy, and humanism. Judaism, starting out as it did with a communal religion of a specific people, is known for the idea of a chosen people. However, it was Ezekiel who emphasized that each individual, rather than the people as a collective, would be judged for his or her acts and rewarded, or punished, accordingly.1 The individual conception of the chosen in the Judeo-Christian tradition was revived by Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Jean Calvin (1509-1564), who asserted that questions of faith and salvation are matters to be decided by each individual in his or her personal relationship to God.

To the Greek philosophers, man was a special animal endowed with the power of reason. Aristotle, for example, viewed man as possessing three souls—the nutritive soul which he shares with plants, the sensitive soul which he shares with animals, and the rational soul which is peculiar and unique to man and man only. The Greek conception of “self as an autonomous being”, revived by Renaissance humanists, would find its clearest formulation as an organizing principle of political life by such revolutionary humanists as John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in their conception of a liberal democratic society.

(2) Self as a relational being: Unlike Protestants, Catholics give importance to the idea that the Church of Rome has the sole authority in interpreting matters of faith and salvation, and thus plays the function of the sole agent in performing such sacraments as baptism, communion, and holy matrimony. To the extent that the Church serves this function, the conception of “self” appropriate for Catholics is defined in the context of interaction among themselves as they participate in sacramental and other communal activities.

Hinduism considers man as going through the four stages of life: brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householder), vanaprastha (forest dweller), and sannyasa (hermit). The first two stages conceive “self” in its communal aspect. However, these stages are, in a way, preparations for the final goal of accomplishing moksa, or “liberation”, which is to be attained by every individual Hindi.

Establishing social order was the primary concern of Confucius, who saw two possible paths towards social order: the path that relies on jen, or the “ethics of aspiration”, i.e., man’s willingness to become the “superior person” or the “gentleman”, and the path that relies on li, or the “ethics of restraint”, i.e., various forms of social constraints. While the “superior person” served as an ideal, Confucius was well aware that most people would belong to the category of the “inferior person” or the “small man”, who, in contrast to the “superior person”, is concerned with small things in life and, therefore, needs to be supervised with the ethics of restraint. The purpose of li is to guide people into the right frame of mind, with a detailed set of instructions as to how they ought to conduct themselves towards one another, as represented by the five relations—the ruler-subjects relation, the husband-wife relation, the parent-child relation, the older sibling-younger sibling relation, and the older friend-younger friend relation. In his conception of the five relations, Confucius’ thought represents the conception of “self as a relational being” in its strictest form.3

(3) Self as an illusionary being: Those who advocate the conception of “self as an illusionary being” may be said to be a minority in the history of thought, as this concept is asserted by only a handful of thinkers, such as Lao Tsu and the Buddha. Moreover, the realization that “self” is an illusion comes only as a result of enlightenment. As Lao Tsu put it, “To understand others is to be wise, but to understand one’s self is to be illuminated. One who overcomes others is strong, but he who overcomes himself is mighty.”4

The Buddha is known to have gone furthest in the conception of “self as an illusionary being”. For the Buddha, a human being, like everything else, is a composite entity, or an aggregate, composed of many interacting elements. That man is an aggregate of interacting elements implies that there is no such thing as a constant and unchanging “self”. “Self” is, thus, an illusion: “For this atman, this self, this ego in the ‘I say’ and in the ‘I will’ is an illusion.”5 Represented by the concept of anatta, the Buddha’s conception of “self” is actually “no-self”, which naturally follows from his idea of paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”, as the fundamental principle that regulates all the manifest phenomena in the world around us.

Self in the world of global interdependence: What is the appropriate conception of “self” in the world of global interdependence that is evolving around us? With the pervading sense of confusion among individuals who appear to be lost in the vast space of global transactions of goods, services, and information, it is obvious that the world of global interdependence needs a new conception of “self” if individuals are to regain the sense of stability and security that their ancestors used to enjoy in their communal life in neighborhoods, villages, and small towns.

The conception of “self as an autonomous being” is no longer appropriate, especially when it is applied to the economic arena where “economic man/woman”, with his/her rational calculation in pursuit of his/her self-interest, has converted the world economy into a global casino, with growing inequalities among individuals and nations, and has caused the destruction of the Earth, upon which our existence depends. The conception of “self as a relational being”, while appealing if we are to establish any semblance of order in the world as a social system, fails as an organizing principle of social life in the world of global interdependence characterized by an expanding network of diverse, convoluted interactions and transactions among individuals and social groups. The conception of “self as an illusionary being”, while no doubt true in the world of ultimate reality, also fails as an organizing principle of social life in the world of conventional reality unless it helps us to succeed in transcending the desire to have a secure sense of “who I am” in that expanding network of diverse, convoluted interactions and transactions among individuals and social groups.

If no single conception of “self” is appropriate, what is needed may perhaps be the conception of “self as a composite being” that combines the three conceptions of “self”, each of which has prevailed in a specific society in a specific age. The conception of “self as an autonomous being” has its place in the world of global interdependence, for it is important to have a sense of autonomy in the face of all kinds of diverse and conflicting pieces of information that bombard us every second, every minute, every hour, and every day through the media and the internet. On the other hand, the same information and communications technologies that confound us make it possible to develop the conception of “self as a relational being”, by making us aware of the interconnectedness of all individuals and societies in the world and the need for responsible behavior in that interconnected world. And we would have to transcend both “self as an autonomous being” and “self as a relational being” when we realize that we—and indeed all entities in the universe—are, after all, composite entities that are constantly formed and dissolved. The conception of “self as an illusionary being” will help us develop the sense of humility and modesty in our relationships not only to our fellow human beings but also to all the other sentient and non-sentient beings in the universe.

  1. For the origin and development of Judaism, see, for example, Rosenberg, Roy A., The Concise Guide to Judaism, New York: Meridian, 1994.
  2. For a concise discussion of Hinduism, see, for example, Sen, K.M., Hinduism, London: Penguin Books, 1991.
  3. See Confucius, The Analects, London: Penguin Books, 1979.
  4. Lao Tsu, Tao-Te Ching, New York: Modern Library, 1993, Chapter 33.
  5. Carus, Paul, The Gospel of Buddha, Oxford: Oneworld, 1994, p. 33.