Self and Self-Presentation

07 December 2015


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? 

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Comments (10)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Descartes was a man of his

Descartes was a man of his time. The great chain of being was still very much the order of ideas, and the phenomenal world was barely coming into view. This question is stated in terms just as stuck in its own time. It sounds like 'person' is a matter for corporate review, like a business proposal or 'prospectus'! How we present ourselves is not who we are, unless you mean some subtlety I'm missing. We make the same damn mistake over and over again, reading the ontological as the quantifier. There is no enumerator that 'is' anything. The metaphysical is the enumerator, the phenomenal the enumerated. But neither is complete in itself, nor in the other. The logic of quantification is vexed until, as its most rigorous term, it is lost the enumerator. That loss is not this one or that one, not a determination which one is which or an aggregation of unifying attributes (the monad). It is the act of that extremity of reason where the enumerator is lost to it. That act is what person is. The most extensive term of time is that rigor entailing that loss, but the act of that loss itself is the characterology (the dynamic of an unstable conviction) of that entailment. That is, the conceit of the logical comprehension of the quantifier, of inference by extension of antecedence, and therefore that time is completed only by extension, is most extensive entailing that most rigorous term the lost enumerator is. But the act itself, and what person is, is the moment of that loss. Moment that differs all extension, and is there the most comprehensive term. Person is not a corporate property, nor a private 'presentation'. Actually, as act, it is more like absence, absence that remains only as responsibility of the worth of its loss being recognized. A conviction of person as presence or presentation commits us to irresponsibility.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, December 8, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

How to find One self? that is

How to find One self? that is the question. If I may suggest: take a trip to Ulm and climb into a stove, reduce yourself to I and stay there until you grasp everything fully. And if Ulm is out of the question, then go down the river, to nature, to yourself, for the truth of everything including I or Oneself, yourself can be found there too. And if there is no river near by then try giving up everything you have and know and sit under a tree until I comes to you. And if there are no trees to sit under then follow the light, outside the gray areas of questions or doubts is the absolute, the promised land of One's true self. And if you can't see the light than feel and follow your heart, the heart rings true. Be true. I would suggest science but the speed of light might stand in your way. Then there is God, hmmm, One can find I there too unless you get lost in it.  Try mathematics, I can be found in an equation. As for Justice, I am at the center of her scale. And if all else fails then ask yourself what is the measure of you? The answer is truly immeasurable. I can be found in all of the above, in everything, in you. =    

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Johann Gambolputty de von

Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern Schplenden Schlitter Crass Cren Bon Fried Digger Dingle Dangle Dongle Dungle Burstein von Knacker Trasher Apple Banger Horowitz Ticolensic Grander Knotty Spelltinkle Grandlich Grumblemeyer Spelter Wasser Kürstlich Himble Eisenbahnwagen Gutenabend Bitte einen Nürnburger Bratwürstel Gespurten mit Zweimache Luber Hundsfut Gumberaber Schönendanker Kalbsfleisch Mittelraucher von Hauptkopft of Ulm?

MJA's picture


Wednesday, December 9, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

The people of Ulm are

The people of Ulm are mathematicians. =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, December 10, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

All of them? Always? If so,

All of them? Always? If so, they competently use the sign '=' with the full implication of the unequal.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, December 10, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I'll opine that variability

I'll opine that variability and multiplicity are just the ticket. Our interpersonal relationships are in frequent fluctuation because of the various and multiplicious scenarios we participate in almost daily. We present facades for each situation, responsibility and audience we encounter. It is this adaptability that best ensures our successes (or failures) as human beings because we can be, yea, must be different things to different people. But, well, Ken Taylor is Ken Taylor. He is interested in what makes us tick. And he has already suggested in this post the essence of what is being opined in these brief comments. We all have social identities we amend as our situational roles change. And each of us has a personal identity, known mostly to ourselves and to the occasional individual whom we trust. And to whom we are not beholden for a paycheck or some other creature comfort that we do not wish to live without. We are chameleons--and good at it. Well, during moments of success anyway.

Zeneth Culture's picture

Zeneth Culture

Friday, December 11, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

?Some people do what they

?Some people do what they love. Some do it by default. Some do it by
knowing. Some people do what they don?t love. Some do it by default.
Some do it by knowing. What if you had the ability to know and do
what you love?? 
As Socrates said "Know Thyself".
Stanley Tsiamoulis' words of wisdom.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

It was Delphi, not Socrates.

It was Delphi, not Socrates. The oracle was warning us that interpretation can go disastrously wrong if the inquirer doesn't know who he is and what and why he is really seeking the word of the oracle. Socrates was told there that no one was wiser, but he spent his life proving that this only meant he knew nothing and knew that he knew nothing. Plato spent his career proving that this is more meaningful than all the pretenses to knowing ourselves and the world that we get up to, with more or less conviction.

elmapeter099's picture


Wednesday, December 30, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

A great part of the

A great part of the examination on the self,has concentrated on the significance of self-regard. In spite of the fact that this property of the self is of awesome centrality in comprehension the self, it might be addressed in the event that it is the most critical. This article will talk about the significance of self-presentation as one of the numerous properties of

anastasiahall's picture


Tuesday, April 26, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

From being in your post, the

From being in your post, the most spirited act is still to think for you. Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them. We must never confound classiness with condescension.  Chris Jericho y2j light Leather Jacket