We craft personal brands or images to accompany or represent ourselves in various situations.
This week, we’re asking about Self and Self-Presentation. On the surface, these may seem like two different topics. Questions about the nature of the self are questions of metaphysics. When we ask such questions we want to know what exactly a self is and what distinguishes one self from another. On the other hand, when we talk self-presentation, we seem to be talking psychology or politics or marketing. Self-presentation has to do with how people present themselves to others. It’s not about who or what a person really is in and of herself, independently of how she is perceived by others.
Now talking about how a person is in and of herself, independently of how she perceived has a vaguely Cartesian feel. But Descartes believed lots of weird things about the self. He believed, for example, that there are thinking self-knowing immaterial souls. He probably would have wanted to identify the self with the soul. I want no part of that kind of view. Still it’s worth wondering about what we might call the radical interiority of the self -- something that you don’t have to be a Cartesian immaterialist to believe in. This is the view not just that the self is a thing unto itself, with a nature independent of how it is perceived, but also that, in good Cartesian fashion, the self knows its own nature directly and incorrigibly. Now I’m not sure I believe in the radical interiority of the self. Indeed, I suspect that others may sometimes be in a better position to see us more clearly than we perceive ourselves. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that for the self to be is to be perceived -- though I wouldn’t want to deny it completely either. There is some truth to the claim that to being a self is inextricably bound up with presentation to others.
George Herbert Mead makes a distinction that is useful in this context. He distinguishes what he calls the “me” from what he calls the “I.” The “me” is what others treat me as, what I am to others, that is, how the represent me. The “I,” on the other hand, is the inner self that responds to others and their representations of me. Now Mead doesn’t claim that there is sharp or unbridgeable boundary between me and the I. A whole self is some sort of fusion of the me and the I, on his view.
Now the idea that a single person is somehow made up of both a me and an I, to use Mead’s terms, seems to me arguably correct, as far as it goes. Think of all the different contexts in which we have to present ourselves -- the workplace the political arena, the family, social media. We reveal and conceal different things depending on context. In each of these contexts we present different aspects of ourselves. But none of these self-presentations would seem to exhaust what we are. There is always a gap, it seems, between how person is presented or perceived and what a person is “in and of herself.”
The problem is that is not exactly clear what to make of the idea that there is something that a person is “in and of herself” independently of how she is perceived or presented. Ask yourself where can you even get a glimpse of the tue self? Where can you observe it raw, unfiltered, and unadulterated? Do you retreat to a desert island? Do you peer incessantly at your own navel?
To begin to appreciate why this question is a hard and interesting one, it will help to distinguish social identity from personal identity. Suppose we ask what makes Ken Taylor count as the very same person again, in different times and different places. That’s a question about personal identity. Personal identity doesn’t depend on anything social. Ken Taylor, alone on a desert island, with no one around to perceive him, is still Ken Taylor. Social identity, by contrast, has to do with the socially salient markers by which you and/or others identify you. Such markers assign meaning and social significance to your acts and choices. It’s part of your social identity that you are an African American heterosexual philosopher and a life long democrat.
But now think about how the fats about personal identity constrain facts about social identities. At first blush, the facts about personal identity would seem to constrain the facts about social identity hardly at all. I could surely be the very same me – in the sense of personal identity – even if my social identity were very different. That is, even if I were not a not a straight, American, democrat, I would still be the one and only Ken Taylor. Admittedly some elements of my social identity seem more tightly constrained by the facts that make me the person that I am. It’s a little more ambiguous, at least, whether I could be the very same person if I weren’t a male or a person of color.
Now consider the following question. When we talk about the so-called real self are we talking about something at the level of social identity or something at the level of personal identity? Suppose that the real self is social. Isn’t it then bound to be variable and multiple? But how could any one of these variable and multiple social identities have a greater claim to being the real me than any other? On the other hand, if we conclude that the real self is not social, but is prior to all merely social identities, you could worry that it reduces to an empty shell, devoid of all content, and so unable to provide any concrete guidance as to what one is to do or be in the social world.
I think you can see where this is leading. The tempting next step is to conclude that the so-called real self is just philosopher’s fiction or that the self is little more than an arbitrary bundle of poses and personas that you put on and take off at will. That’s a very post-modern idea and I’m not at all sure that I feel comfortable going that far. But I do have to admit that the self is at least a tiny bit elusive. Do you agree?