A question I get a lot is “what is the self?” This especially comes up when I’m presenting on something called “self psychology,” a movement within psychoanalysis that focuses on people’s sense of cohesion, vitality, efficacy, and self-regard.
Now a psychology of the “self” doesn’t make much sense if we can’t say what a self is. And unlike others, I don’t demand a permanent definition for now and all time; I just like something I can hang my hat on and at least get me get through the talk.
For years I’ve been looking for something satisfying. The first definition I got in college comes from the work of William James’, which is both psychological and philosophical. This posits the self as the center of consciousness, the “I” of experience most familiar to readers of Descartes.
That’s when things start either start getting unbelievably messy or falling apart entirely. Upon closer inspection, the “self” becomes some combination of a (more or less useful) fiction, complete illusion, and/or principle of alienation.
The self is so problematic, in fact, that no less a thinker than Søren Kierkegaard poked some serious fun at Hegel (his nemesis), one of the many philosophers who’ve made extensive use of the concept of a self.
Read Part A of Chapter 1 of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death and you’ll see what I mean.
As you can imagine, things like this can make it very hard to deliver a presentation on self psychology.
Some years ago, while geeking out on an old laptop, I found the answer. Well, all right, not the answer, but the one that works well enough for me to at least finish my talk. Here it is.
When you write a computer program, you’ve got to give it a name. And in the world of software, one of the things your name has to do is distinguish your piece of work from someone else’s.
Put another way, the question becomes: how is your program unlike another which may perform a similar function, enjoy wider currency, or simply be better known? One very clever answer comes in the form of the recursive acronym.
We all know what an acronym is: a collection of capital letters used to refer to something. USA is an acronym. FIFA is another.
But while conventional acronyms take their form from (and are thus rooted in) the first letters of the words the represent, the recursive acronym is special. It’s first letter (occasionally the last as well) doesn’t stand for anything other than itself! Why is this cool? Let me tell you.
For a number of reasons I won’t bore you with, my favorite recursive acronym is WINE, which “stands for” (note the quotes!) WINE Is Not an Emulator.
We know what the INE stand for, that’s pretty straightforward. It’s the W that’s interesting. What does it stand for? Well, the whole acronym — WINE — of which it is not just a part but the leading part.
With me so far? What if the self is the same way? That is, what if every time we say “self” we’re referring not to something “out there” but somehow interior to the flow of experience with some very special attachments and properties?
That is, what if the self is nothing more than a very complex bookkeeping device which refers, stands for, and stands upon nothing other than itself as a bookkeeping device?
For me, seeing the the self as a recursive acronym (I like Self-Effacing LeitmotiF) is a nice way of saying, yes, the self is real, illusory, fictional, and completely indispensable for many of the activities of daily Western living.
You can take this to the next level. What if the self is like the mathematician’s “i” — the square root of -1? Highly useful fiction, that one!
Best of all, this definition gives me just the time I need to finish my talk and make a hasty exit.
As always, let me know what you think.