Connecting the Dots – An Exploration of the Self

Mallory Becker, M.A.C.P., R.Psych.

Mallory Becker

Registered Psychologist

Connecting the Dots – An Exploration of the Self

By Mallory Becker

            Determining what self is like a connecting-the-dots puzzle.  Every dot is significant in constructing a meaningful illustration.  It is impossible to progress in a new direction to the next dot without going through the previous dot.  The ultimate goal is to obtain a complete, accurate, and meaningful picture.  Similarly to the final picture of the self, the product of a connecting-the-dots puzzle is never complete – it is not comparable to a painting in completeness and detail.  Smooth contours, colors, shading, texture and proper use of space are missing.  Fortunately, determining what self is has evolved and has become more complex as new aspects of the self are continuously investigated an introduced.

How one conceives the self will always be a connecting-the-dot picture – it will never be a painting because of various limits.  Limits in explicitness make it difficult to fully and clearly express the components of the self.  In order for the notion of the self to become explicit, one must articulate thoughts based on consciousness and awareness.  Although defining the self is a collaboration of many theories from many contributors, limits in factors such as awareness, implicitness and consciousness hinder completion of the entire image of the self.  Ultimately, the self is a phenomenon and is independent of the means we use for interpretation.

This essay will focus on components that I find particularly relevant to conceptualizing the human self.  These dots are most prominent to me, even though other dots that are not included are very important in completing the depiction of the self.  Although some dimensions in articulating what the self is contradict one another and have lead to dueling theories, each dimension is essential in providing a direction to the next dimension.  My goal is to illustrate how the components of self are interrelated and each component provides a critical foundation discovering additional components the self.  Elements discussed in this essay include consciousness, unconsciousness, awareness, rationality, internalization, implicitness, explicitness, and expression of the self.

The early Greeks thought that the self a body that Gods controlled.  The person was considered a mere fragmented object with no locus of control.  Plato had a dualistic approach to the self consisting of the body (animal-like) and soul (eternal).  Unification was possible if one looked outward to the “kosmos.”  Plato theories were revolutionary as he introduced the idea of unification of the self.  Functioning as one was required to achieve harmonious state.  Rationality is also required to achieve this harmonious state.  Additionally, Plato recognized the presence of passions that were endlessly desired and thought one could control these passions if one was self mastered.  In order to be self mastered, one must be rational. 

Ultimately, a significant contribution from Plato was the introduction of rationality and irrationality.  Both features are aspects of the self and were significant in directing other theories such as Freudian theory.  Without the elements of rationality or irrationality in the self, other aspects such as unconsciousness, consciousness, awareness and control would also be eliminated or incomplete as dimensions of the self.  Rationality is an element that separates humans from other animals.  It is the part of self allows us to control our “animal-like” instincts.  Additionally, reason is the capacity to see and understand.  Without the concept of reason introduced by Plato, one would not be able to articulate how to speculate what the self is and therefore, rationality is a critical component of the self and is required to investigate the dimensions of self.

Descartes eventually develops a new theory of the passions.  Plato constructed the notion that passions were lower elements of the self that make one distraught, uncollected, immoral and uncontrolled.  However, passions could be controlled with rationality and self-control.  Descartes views passions as functional devices designed by the Creator to sustain the body-soul union.  Passions are emotions of the soul produced by movements of animal spirits, which function to strengthen the response that an organism requires for survival or well-being in a given situation.   Descartes further explains rational mastery as an issue of instrumental control.  In order for one to be freed from passions and obey reason is to instrumentally direct the passions.  Descartes refines the definition reason as a directing agency that subordinates. 

Plato’s unification of the self was expanded by Judaic/Hebraic theory called the parallel stream.  The parallel stream countered dualism by stating that the self was unified as one part where the soul (Nephesh) is the center of the human being continuously shaped by spirit (Ruah) and is exists as flesh (Bashar).  The person was formed in the image of God.  As a result of religious consciousness, the idea of internalization began to evolve.  St. Augustine expanded the Plato and Judaic/Hebraic views to complete the theory of innerness.  According to St. Augustine, the path to cosmic order to God lies within oneself.  Originally, Plato has said that the path to cosmic order lied away from oneself (spirits) however, St. Augustine focused on interiority that allowed one to access God.  The dimension of internalization was very important to the conceiving the self because it emphasizes individualization and subjectivity.  Although with St. Augustine’s theory, spiritual forces still exist however, they do not control the individual.  Similarly to rationality, the element of interiority is required to investigate the self.  Prior individuals were using interiority to examine the notion of the self however, language had not been developed to describe this process.

Augustine theory of inwardness is pushed in a new direction by Descartes.  By placing moral sources within oneself, Descartes has internalized power of oneself.  Descartes returned to Plato’s dualism theory separating the body and soul.  However, Descartes thought the soul consisted of ones’ mental activity which is objectively detached from the body.  In order to live a life that is controlled and harmonious, one must detach from material (body) and possess accurate representations within.  According to Plato, the nature of the sensible soul was when one turned towards rational, eternal spirits.  However, Descartes did not think there were spirits to turn to and understanding physical reality by means of spiritual forces is a confusion between the soul and material that one must be freed from.  The self is immaterial and only involves the material world as an extension.  In order to make a distinction between material and immaterial, one must disengage from the usual bodied perspective and objectify the world.  According to Descartes, the world must be objectified so the world and ones’ body can be seen mechanistically and functionally just like an uninvolved external observer would see another person.  In order to investigate the notion of self, one must become a third person narrator or else the components of the self would remain internally. 

Descartes theory of objectification has also lead to “spelling out” what the self is.  According to Fingarette, “spelling out” is to make something explicit in an elaborate clear way so it is perfectly apparent.  “Spelling out” is an engagement in the world.  “Spelling out” is relevant to the conception of self because “spelling out” is how one can explicitly express dimensions of the self.  In order to spell out, one must be conscious.  If “spelling out” was not possible, the concepts of the self would remain within individuals, and different elements would not be collaborated nor further examined.  Therefore, “spelling out” is a critical process, like rationality and internalization to exploring the dimensions of self.  However, I do not believe that “spelling out” is the only way to explain the dimensions of self.  There are many parts of the self that cannot be “spelled out” due to linguistic constraints.  For example, when I listen to music that connects somehow with my inner state, my inner state fortifies and then seems to “release” as the song progresses.  The words I used to express this situation do not do justice to how I experience the situation nor do I believe it ever should.  This experience is one the strongest experiences of self to me.  I am aware of my experience but I cannot be verbalized.  Simply being, or living in the moment is an important dimension of self.  The self cannot be comprehended if one spends all their time thinking of what self it.  One must simply be, and then latter reflect on the self.  The self is more than what one can explicitly express. Self is more than a linguistic reflection.  Some things are conceptions of the self because they “just are.”

Consciousness was introduced by Locke in the seventeenth century as an attempt to explain all mental activity.  Locke thought that “[c]onsciousness is the perception of what passes in a Man's own mind.”  According to Locke, identity is consciousness.  Locke also concurred with Descartes objectivity theory.  Locke thought that passions, education and customs mislead people and cause wrong doings.  In order to correct these forces, one must objectify consciousness and take a stand outside oneself.  Locke’s view of identity as consciousness is lacking because he does not elaborate what portion of the mind is conscious.  Additionally, consciousness does not explain other aspects that pass through the “mind” such as emotional responses to a situation.  The body perceives that one is emotional however, one must guess why these emotions are occurring.  The cause of emotions can be incorrectly identified or never identified at all.  Locke fails to expand on other processes of the mind that are not easily interpreted.  However, the aspect of conscious that is appealing to the notion of self is that one can make the self more acceptable by being conscious, adding a sense of adaptability and control to the self.

Locke’s lack of accounting for many processes of the self through his introduction of conscious has lead to Freud’s focus on the unconscious.  Personally, I believe this is one of the most important dimensions of self as it explains components that are unexplainable by other dimensions.  According to Freud, unconscious refers to that part of mental functioning that one is unaware of.  The unconscious is a force that is only recognizable by it’s’ effects.  Socially unacceptable ideas, desires, wishes, traumatic memories, and painful emotions placed out of mind are considered to be unconscious elements.  The contents of the unconscious can be negative or positive.  I believe that unconscious elements are equally important as conscious elements as they have significant impacts in determining what the self is.  Specifically, I believe that passions are best explained the unconscious theory.  Sexuality has historically been considered a negative passion because of negative social connotations.  However, if one looks at sexuality for the purpose of reproducing, sexuality is the most important aspect of a species’ survival.  It is evolutionary advantageous to have a high sexual drive so one increases the chances of producing offspring and contributing to the next generations’ gene pool.  Although sexuality can be conscious, it in large is unconscious.  Unconscious and conscious elements are responsible for selecting desirable characteristics in a mate.  For example, a specific trait males often look for in females unconsciously is wide hips for child increasing the chance of successful childbirth.  It is arguable that many sexual traits are selected consciously due to individual or social preferences however, many of the biological aspects of selecting a mate to increase the chance of survival for the next generation are unconscious.  Sexuality is a significant part of the self because without sexuality, the self would not exist.  Therefore, the unconscious is very important in creating a conception of the self.

After investigating several components of self, one must question how the self is developed.  According to Murphy, the self is a synthesis or achievement that emerges in time.  Self is an achievement constructed by the individual out of materials.  The individual can accept, incorporate and synthesize materials while denying other material therefore, the self is constructed.  Fingarette uses a different metaphor as he describes the self as a community rather than a collection.  Members are variously independent forms of engagements of reasons, motives, feelings, aims, means, and moralistic reaction.  These engagements are unified as they acquire citizenship in the self community.  Some engagements can be realized then forgotten, learned then abandoned however, some engagements are permanently integrated and modified into the synthesis of the self.  Montaigne also says “Constancy it self is nothing but a languishing and wavering dance.”  I consider the self to be dynamic because I believe the self expands as it is presented more experiences and information.  Although it can be argued that self does not change and newly realized aspects are simply brought to consciousness from unconsciousness, I maintain the belief that the self is constantly changing.  During my university experience, I have learned how incorporating new experiences and information has made me a different person.  Prior to this class, I have not given too much thought about what the self is however, I believe my self has been significantly changed by being introduced to the self.  Another example would be one who completely looses motor capabilities.  This individual would be unable to explicitly express anything however, this person still has self.  Elements such as thoughts, passions, feelings, aims and moralistic reaction can still exist which are dimensions of the concept of self.

Another important conception of self is how one perceives the own self and the selves of others.  Kierkegaard says, “The self is a relation that relates itself to its own self … The self is not the relation but consists in the fact that the relation relates itself to its own self.”  I interpret this quotation as stating that one can only articulate its own self.  The only way to perceive the selves of others is to acknowledge that it is not ones’ own self.  One can attempt to perceive the self of others by comparing it to oneself however, each self is different and cannot be generalized to a general definition.

Ultimately, I have presented many dots in this essay and illustrated many connections between each dot.  The connecting lines and dots are specific for my own connect-the-dot self illustration.  As time passes and I acquire more experiences and information, there will be more dots and more connections making my illustration more detailed and complete.  If another person attempts a connect-the-dot illustration of the self, their pictures may be very different – but both are acceptable.  It is very important to realize that the concept of the self very subjective however, in the end, each pictures is a valuable piece of art – but not quite like a Da Vinci painting.


“From now on, I’ll connect the dots my own way.” - Bill Watterson

NOTE: *“This article has been submitted as coursework for fulfillment of the BSc. at the University of Alberta.”



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