Perspectives on the self

No-self, self as an illusion


Self as puppet government, PR agent

Mike Travers, The Government Within:

A person, like a society, is composed of parts with their own private agendas, all taking part in a continuously renegotiated dance of conflict, cooperation, and compromise. Our disparate motivations are like politicians trying to advance a faction, and the self, such as it is, is something like a prime minister — not powerful in its own right, but because it has managed to become the public face for the most powerful faction.

"The self reigns but does not govern." — Paul Valery

Self as "narrative center of gravity"

Dennett's view in Consciousness Explained.

Self as (parasitic?) growth induced by society


Self as a harness, taming our otherwise wild consciousness

(The same way marriage tames love?)

Self as implementation of the personhood contract

On the personhood contract (from UX and the Civilizing Process):

A person (as such) is a social fiction: an abstraction specifying the contract for an idealized interaction partner. Most of our institutions, even whole civilizations, are built to this interface — but fundamentally we are human beings, i.e., mere creatures. Some of us implement the person interface, but many of us (such as infants or the profoundly psychotic) don’t. Even the most ironclad person among us will find herself the occasional subject of an outburst or breakdown that reveals what a leaky abstraction her personhood really is. The reality, as Mike Travers recently argued, is that each of us is an inconsistent mess — a “disorderly riot” of competing factions, just barely holding it all together.

Etiquette is critical to the person interface. Wearing clothes in public, excreting only in designated areas, saying please and thank you, apologizing for misbehavior, and generally curbing violent impulses — all of these are essential to the contract. As Erving Goffman puts it in Interaction Ritual: if you want to be treated like a person (given the proper deference), you must carry yourself as a person (with the proper demeanor). And the contrapositive: if you don’t behave properly, society won’t treat you like a person. Only those who expose proper behaviors — and, just as importantly, hide improper ones — are valid implementations of the person interface.

‘Person,’ by the way, has a neat etymology. It comes from the Latin persona, referring to a mask worn on stage. Per (through) + sona (sound) — the thing through which the sound (voice) traveled.

Last updated June 9, 2014.