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.
What is it
We craft personal brands or images to accompany or represent ourselves in various situations. These personas are malleable – how we portray ourselves online differs from how we act at an event, which differs from the workplace or in the privacy of the home. Social media and the possibility of creating an online 'self' exacerbate this situation. We may wonder: who is the true self if we have the power change selves given various circumstances? Is there such a thing as 'one true self', or is the self merely a conglomerate of 'mini-selves' shaped by cultural and societal forces? Could it be detrimental to think of a self as socially constructed? John and Ken put their best face on for Susan Hekman from the University of Texas at Arlington, author of Private Selves, Public Identities: Reconsidering Identity Politics.
The self and self-representation are two different things, opens John. When he thinks about the self, metaphysics comes to mind – that is, what makes a person, what makes self-identity? Self-presentation, John finds, refers more to psychology, politics, or marketing: it has to do with how we present ourselves to other people, not about who we really are. Ken claims John sounds a little Cartesian. They talk about how Descartes took the self to be. Ken tells John that he seems to think the self is a thing in and of itself, independent of how it is perceived or presented. But what happens if for the self, to be is to be perceived? In other words, I am because I am perceived, not because I am a thing independent of outside forces. John tells Ken he is confusing the ‘me’ with the ‘I.’ The ‘me’ is how others see me, whereas the I is my inner self. But Ken doesn’t think things are quite that simple. There are different contexts in which we have to present ourselves, and in each context we reveal and conceal things about ourselves. John wonders if that doesn’t refute the idea that there is a gap between what a person really is and what that person is perceived as being. Then, Ken wonders: where do you have to go to see your inner self? John brings up the difference between social identity and personal identity. So, asks Ken, which identity corresponds to the ‘real’ self? John finds that the real self is pre-social, and Ken wonders whether that might make it, in a sense, empty. In any case, the concept of the real self, both agree, is an elusive one.
John and Ken welcome guest Susan Hekman, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington and author of Private Selves, Public Identities: Reconsidering Identity Politics. John first asks Susan how she got interested in studying identity politics. Susan explains that she started reading post-modernist works, namely Judith Butler, where the idea is that there is no true self, that it’s all performative, fictive. Then, a friend asked Susan to work on a book on identity, and she became fascinated by the complexity of the question of whether there is such a thing as a true self. Susan explains her view that everybody has two identities: personal identity – you – or ungrounded ground comes from all the social influences that have made you…you. Each person knows who they are. John asks whether there is a true self given this interpretation, and Susan explains that while there is no true self, there is a coherent self. That is,
without a coherent self a person would be in a mental institution! To navigate life, one has to to have a sense of self. Ken still wonders: if the true or, per Susan’s terminology, core self is socially constructed, then aren’t you bound to get into a fictive, multiple kind of existence? If it is not socially constructed, then it is empty. Susan explains how she tries to find a middle ground, first and foremost by putting metaphysics off the table. Then she explains that if we were all solely socially constructed, we’d all be the same, so there’s more to the matter than first meets the eye.
John asks Susan whether some people lack a true, inner self, someone more central and true than their outside persona. It varies case-by-case, says Susan, but generally we all have a core self, or, as Ken points out, a raw self as per his own writing. But, Ken says, how does one access the core self? How does one know it? Identity is always about sameness, says Susan, and the notion of sameness is along the lines of “I am the same person I was when I was 20,” suggesting a sort of continuity, which is what gives individuals their core self.
Susan, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling topics such as the idea of transcending the self in eastern thought, autonomy as a form of self-ownership and self-configuration and the problematic rejection of this notion by the postmodernists, and social conditioning.
- Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 7:08): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Shuka Kalantari explores when people are at their most veiled and at their most raw by getting the word on the street. Among the examples she talks about is the dichotomy of politicians, who often say one thing but do another.
- 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:52): Ian Shoales speedily presents his thoughts on identity crises and politics.