Self, selfhood and understanding

This is me thinking by Alberto Cerriteño. Reporduced from Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

Self, selfhood and understanding. This page explores the nature of the self. We look at four different models of selfhood – which is a far from easy task. It is difficult to take a step outside what we take for granted.

Contentsintroduction · starting with the parts · looking to the whole · the dialogical self · the post-modern self · in conclusion · further reading · how to cite this piece

Our appreciation of selfhood is so very immediate – it is part of all that we do. Thus, to say that the way we as humans come to know ourselves, to experience our bodies, and to place ourselves in relation to others changes – over time, and between cultures – can be to challenge something essential.

I want to set out four ways of approaching the self – individuals as containers; as part of a whole, as dialogical; and as multiple voices.

Starting with the parts – individuals as bounded containers

One of the most significant problems we face is the way that the individual is set against society. Many of the images we draw upon in the North place the individual on one side and society on the other – they are seen as quite separate. If we turn to the popular press, films and soaps, or the nature of political rhetoric this can be seen quite clearly. As Burkitt (1991: 1) put it, ‘the view of human beings as self-contained unitary individuals who carry their uniqueness deep inside themselves, like pearls hidden in their shells’ is deeply engrained. It is easy to see how this view of the individual takes root. Consciousness, as Damasio (2000) has argued is ‘an entirely private, first-person phenomenon’.

In this way of coming to understand ourselves the body plays a crucial role. The skin becomes a boundary – everything that happens outside the wall it forms becomes the other – the world outside; what is inside is me – the world inside. In this three relatively simple and apparently ‘natural’ ideas rule (Sampson (1993: 34):

  • the boundary of the individual is coincident with the boundary of the body;
  • the body is a container that houses the individual;
  • the individual is best understood as a self-contained entity.

Here I just want to highlight three important aspects of these assumptions.

First, the building block for all sorts of analysis then becomes the self as container. A central point of reference in political or moral debates is the rights and experiences of the individual. We look to the parts to approach the whole. Each self as container is added to a pile to form the whole – like tins of baked beans stacked in a supermarket.

Second, if we approach the body as container then it is clear that what is vital about an individual – physiologically and psychologically is held within. ‘We believe that an individual has an inside that contains all the important features that comprise the person – everything that the person owns – and that this is distinct, separate and cut-off from all that is not part of the person, located outside the container’ (Sampson 1993: 36). A dominant notion is that we need to look inside ourselves if we are to gain enlightenment. The surgeon looks to our organs, the psychoanalyst to our inner feelings.

Third, what then emerges is a picture of the individual and society as separate realms. There is a division between individual and society, between individual and social worlds. Such a view then allows politicians such as Margaret Thatcher to talk of there being no such thing as society – only individuals and families.

All this is not to say that individuals do not feel divided themselves. As Burkitt eloquently put it –

not only do people in the Western world feel separated from others with whom they live and who make up their society, they also feel divided within themselves, riven between the selves they present in relations with others and the individuals they feel themselves to be deep down inside. The armour that protects and separates us from others appears also to drive a deep wedge between our feelings and our ability to express them in public.

In this way people may well talk of presenting a ‘face’ to others and to hide their true feelings inside. This is very much the world that Erving Goffman explores using the metaphor of the stage – and of our anxious attempts not to present our selves in such ways that allow us to negotiate the dangerous world o f social encounters.

This understanding of individuals flows into the idea of alienation. This we can approach via Marx. In capitalist society the separation between the individual and society becomes fully manifest. We have the separation of ownership of the means of production, the development of private property relationships, the movement of significant power into the hands of an impersonal state apparatus and a growing division of labour. In this web of relationships exchanges are less personal and more dependent on the use of objects. The classic example here would a shift from barter arrangements to the use of money for exchange. Also within the division of labour the worker plays a smaller and smaller role in the production of the final item.

A direct consequence of this alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men. When man confronts himself he also confronts other men. What is true of man’s relationship to his work , to the product of his work and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, to their labour and to the objects of their labour. (Marx, Political and Economic Manuscripts :125).

Talk of individualism in the social sciences usually broadly refers to any set of ideas that emphasize the importance of the individual and the individual’s interests. Commonly these are contrasted with collective interests or holistic constructs. As Williams (1976: 133) comments, there is something of a paradox here, for ‘individual’ originally meant indivisible. Three ideas are central to this form of individualism. A belief in:

  • the supreme value and dignity of the individual;
  • the individual as independent and autonomous – with thoughts and actions not determined by outside agencies; and
  • self-development – with the onus on individuals to develop their talents to the fullest. (Lukes 1973)

Such an idea of individuality can be related to the break-up of the medieval social, economic and religious order.

In the general movement against feudalism there was a new stress on a man’s personal existence over and above his place or function in a rigid hierarchical society. There was a related stress in Protestantism, on a man’s direct and individual relation to God, as opposed to this relation mediated by the church. (Williams 1976: 135)

In this way the individual became seen as an entity and as the cornerstone for political, legal and economic rights. It is here that the notion of possessive individualism is of great importance. ‘Every man is naturally the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities (the absolute proprietor in that he owes nothing to society for them)’ (Macpherson 1962: 270). The idea we are each owners of our own capacities and self fits in well with the changes in production and political power that were taking place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Looking to the whole – people in community

If the self as container begins with the parts another route is to begin with the whole. This is the line that pragmatists take such as John Dewey. They start with the inclusive and the connected. Wholes are not built out of isolated elements. Rather, we look to a progressive differentiation within organic wholes (Tiles 1988: 22). In such a view society and the individual are not two separate entities.

Humans are always in social relationships from the moment they are born and they remain part of a network of other people throughout their lives (Burkitt 1991: 2).

This does not necessarily involve throwing out the idea that people are individuals. Rather we can approach individuality as socially based.

To think about these two ways of approaching the self I want to look at how teaching about family relationships and obligations in different cultures. For example, many North Americans might argue that children should learn to be both obedient, ‘to submit to rules which protect the rights of others, and to develop a progressive independence’ (Johnson 1985: 123). Independence, in this sense, involves us being able gradually to take responsibility for, and to control (internally), our actions. ‘Becoming independent’ is seen as desirable.

This can be contrasted with Japanese thought where there may be strong support for some for ms of life-long dependency upon selected others. The acknowledgement of interdependence in work, friendship and family relations is explicit, conscious and central to social life. In a similar fashion, the Hindu concept of self leads to a rather different understanding of the significance of being ‘individual’. It begins with the concept of the ‘real-self’ or âtman which may be contrasted with the lower empirical or material self. The ‘material self’ is the experiential form of self involving thought, desires and sensations.

What would be seen as self-inconsistency in a westerner is perfectly understandable given the idea that Hindus do not see their situational behaviour as a reflection of their true self, but as a reflection of a lesser entity… When the Hindu traditions speak about an individual, it is not to analyse but to denigrate (Marsella et al 1985: 14).

Thus, when a Hindu man is asked for his identity, ‘he will give you hi s name, the name of his village, and his caste’ (Bharati 1985: 211). There is a Sanskrit formula which begins with lineage, family, house and ends with personal name. In this presentation, the empirical self comes last.

The western striving is toward the development of a solid well-functioning ego. The inner experience of self should be clearly delineated from the outside. The Hindu striving goes in the opposite direction – to achieve union with the immutable self, which is ultimately indistinguishable from deity and the totality of the universe (Marsella et al 1985: 18)

This underlines the fundamental importance of addressing how patterns of socialization and family interaction, and the operation of symbols within different cultures affect people’s self conception and their way of placing themselves in the world. It is simply not possible to approach say, Hindu experience, through the application of western models of thought. What results doe s not make sense, worse still the culture may then be stigmatized as irrational or silly. Understanding can only be attained by attempting to enter different cultural systems of thought – and paying particular attention to the way things are symbolized. This requires special attention to language.

Interaction – the dialogical self

This perspective flows from the idea that people’s lives:

…are characterized by the ongoing conversations and dialogues they carry out in the course of their everyday activities, and therefore that the most important thing about people is not what is contained within them, but what transpires between them. (Sampson 1993: 20)

‘The most important thing about people is not what is contained within them, but what transpires between them’ – this is a difficult idea to grasp if we have brought up in an individualist culture. This was a problem that faced George Herbert Mead in the early part of the century when he began to argue that our selves are formed in interaction with others.

Mead suggested that the ‘mind’ and the ‘self’ are formed within the social and communicative activities of the group. He argued that humans have constantly to adapt to the activities of others. There is a continual process of adjustment. We ‘read’ others’ gestures (behaviour), and so become conscious of ourselves. In communicating we learn to assume the roles of others and monitor our actions accordingly. Self consciousness and individuality are, thus, understood as developing in tandem with social organization and co-operation.

There is something more here. Mead conceives of the mind as a form of conversation – it is a conversation held internally with a person’s own self.

Me, I and ‘the generalized other’. Mead can be seen as drawing a distinction between two phases of the process known as the self – the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. Neither of these can exist without the other. He argues that we develop in response to the attitudes of others – we take in or incorporate certain aspects of others attitudes towards us. In this sense:

The ‘Me’ is the identity that the self develops through seeing its form in the attitudes others take towards it. It consists of those attitudes of others that have been incorporated into the self (Miller 1973: 56).

The ‘I’ is a phase that is never directly knowable. It is the agent, the active component of the self as it organizes the attitudes of others, selects objects on which the individual will act, and chooses or commits itself to respond in a certain way (Miller 1973: 60).

This is not an easy idea to grasp at first – but Sampson puts it quite well: ‘When we are doing something, we are unaware of what is going on until we see our doings reflected back to us; that reflection back gives us ourselves as an object, a ‘me’’. (1993: 105). This is how Mead (1934: 243) put it:

If you ask, then, where directly in your own experience the ‘I’ comes in, the answer is that it comes in as a historical figure. It is what you were a second ago that is the ‘I’ of the historical figure.

In other words, the ‘I’ is the process of thinking. ‘In the inner conversation, the ‘I’ articulates thoughts and the ‘me’ hears them expressed, recognizing the voice as its own’ (Burkitt 1991: 39). One could describe this as consciousness.

Damasio (2000) approaches this via the notion of ‘the feeling of what happens’. The ‘I’ is close in some ways to what he talks about as the ‘proto-self’ – this is a constantly updated representation in the brain of the state of the body (that we are not conscious of as such). The ‘me’ is, in part, the ‘core self’ – a non-verbal, implicit awareness that is ceaselessly re-created for every object the brain encounters. Such a sense of self is present all the time. He argues that when we are looking at an object or event, reading a book, or whatever, besides the sensory images ‘there is also this other presence that signifies you in a particular relationship with some object’. He continues:

The presence is quiet and subtle, and sometimes it is little more than a ‘hint half guessed’, to borrow a phrase from T. S. Eliot. In its simplest form , the presence of you is the feeling of what happens when your being is modified by apprehending something.

This awareness when extended over time, (looking backwards and forwards) then becomes known as the ‘autobiographical self’ that we tend to experience as central. AT any one time, then, we are aware of the here and now (core content) and of its place in relation to our history (extended content).

We need to add one further element here – the generalized other. This notion was introduced by Mead to represent the organized set of attitudes, and their corresponding responses which are common to the group. This allows people to incorporate a sense of the overarching group or community values into their appreciation of self.

The significance of language. As researchers such as Vygotsky have made clear, personality develops through encounters with the physical world and through relations with other human beings which are mediated by language. It is activity structured by social relations that is fundamental to the formation of the self (Burkitt 1991: 138). Combining the mind and the hand in consciously productive activity gives human action its special quality. ‘And while the tools with which people produce are the medium, through which they gain mastery over nature, so language is the tool and the medium through which people gain influence over the behaviour of others and over their own actions’ (Burkitt 1991: 139).

The sign is a psychological tool. Speech is thus seen as a key to the development of thought – rather than being an expression of thought. Children begin by touching, pushing, and playing with things. In activity they become curious about the names of things and develop their vocabulary. They may well talk as they act – revealing their thinking. Gradually speaking the word is no longer necessary to guide our actions – the vocalization of inner speech ebbs away and we operate not with the word itself but with its image – we work with the sense of the word.

In this way, psychologically, the symbolic tools we use to reflect upon and steer our actions, form an inner conversation which is an internalization of the communicative processes taking place in society. This inner conversation can be labelled as thinking – its dialogical structure creating something we can call ‘mind’.

Power and social relations. Language is also a deeply political. The labels we give to things, the ideas evoked by a particular word or phrase, are a double-edged sword. They allow the possibility of knowing more, and of being controlled or misled. As Habermas (e.g. 1984: 332) has consistently pointed out, our communication can be systematically distorted. Such words as we have may not fully describe or capture an experience, situation or idea. The context in which they are heard or read may be flavoured by a wish for submissive silence (Coutinho 1972: 16-7)

The language we use is inevitably flawed. People have widely different opportunities to develop their vocabulary. They learn to talk and write in contrasting ways. The meanings, metaphors, images and stories to which they have access is different for different groups. The material and social conditions in which they live foster contrasting ideas of what is important and what is not; and what is possible.

The post-modern self

Our final port of call is what might be described as the post-modern self. A currently fashionable way of approaching these matters is through the idea of discourse – the way a set of meanings, representations, stories and images come together to produce a particular version of events (Burr 1995: 48). In this way our identity is formed out of the discourses available to us, ‘and which we draw upon in our communications with other people’ (ibid: 51). We might consider that our subjectivity lies in the internal logic or grammar of language. Rom Harré is a key exponent of this view. ‘To be a self’, he writes, ‘is not to be a certain kind of being, but to be in possession of a certain kind of theory’ (1985: 262 quoted in Burr). In other words, a human being consists of physiology and linguistic practices; our sense of identity (and personal history) arises out of culturally available narrative forms. In this sense the story-telling capacity of human beings is central to their selfhood. For example, Sarbin argues that human beings develop structures to make sense of their experiences – and that these are present in ‘both our accounts of ourselves and our experience that we give to others, and in how we represent those things to ourselves’ (Burr 1995: 134). This structure takes the form of narrative – we organize experiences in terms of stories.

In the post-modern world, it is argued, the modernist search for a true and authentic self and the fulfilment of a pre-given individual autonomy gives wa y to a playfulness where identity is formed and re-formed by constantly unfolding desire realised, although never fully and finally, through lifestyle practices in a multiplicity of forms’ (Edwards 1997: 17).

This inevitable leads us to Foucault. The particular common sense view of the world that is around in a culture is intimately bound up with power (ibid: 64). Power is an effect of discourse rather than a possession. ‘To define the world or a person in a way that allows you to do the things you want is to exercise power’ (op cit.). Once a discourse becomes available it is then possible for it to be appropriated in the interests of the relatively powerful (ibid: 69).

In conclusion

Our understanding of self is of profound significance for practice. It affects our aims and our appreciation of process (do we seek to look inside individuals or to the realm of the ‘between’, for example, see Martin Buber on education). In the table below I set out some key elements of the different ways of approaching selfhood – and some of the ways in which they affect educators.


The self as a bounded container Looking to the whole – people in community The dialogical self The post-modern self
What is it to be human? Human beings as self- contained unitary individuals who carry their uniqueness deep inside themselves. Humans can only be understood as members of a wider community. Individuality is socially based. Human’s lives are characterized by the ongoing conversations and dialogues they carry out in the course of their everyday activities. Identity is formed and re-formed by constantly unfolding desire realised, although never fully, through multiple forms of lifestyle practice.
Self and others Individual and society are separate realms. Humans are always in social relationships from the moment they are born and they remain part of a network of other people throughout their lives Selves are formed in interaction with others. Individual and society are two sides of the same coin. Human beings consists of physiology and linguistic practices; our sense of identity (and personal history) arises out of culturally available narrative forms
Practice orientation Practitioners look to what is inside the individual. Practitioners focus on the whole and look to the individual as an aspect of that. The most important thing about people is not what is contained within them, but what transpires between them Practitioners look to discourse and the stories that people can and do tell.
The educational focus Educators seek to develop the individual as independent and autonomous. They have a concern for self-development Educators look to develop the capacity of the community as a whole. Individual development is significant only in so far as it contributes to communal advancement Educators look to people in relation. They seek to open up and deepen conversation and the conditions that underpin it. Educators seek to encourage playfulness and engagement with different ways of telling stories about lives.


As we can see from the above how we come to understand selfhood has an impact on the way we are able to work with others. Fundamentally it has a profound effect on how we appreciate and understand ourselves.

Further reading

Burkitt, I. (1990) Social Selves. Theories of the social formation of personality, London: Sage. 225 pages. Interdisciplinary overview of theories of the social formation of personality.

Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism, London: Routledge. 194 + ix pages. Clear introduction to debates around socially constructed notions of the person.

Damasio, A. (2000) The Feeling of What Happens. Body and emotion in the making of consciousness, London: Vintage. This books looks first at the how processes in the brain engender, or constitute, or be, conscious experiences (or images – what Damasio calls the ‘movie in the brain’). The second half turns to the nature of selfhood – ‘how the appearance of an owner and observer for the movie is generated within the movie’.

Harré, R. (1998) The Singular Self. An introduction to the psychology of personhood, London: Sage. 192 + x pages. Good introduction to Harré’s thinking. Argues that despite the centrality of our social and cultural identities ‘the self must ultimately be seen as autonomous, distinct and continuous – as a shifting but unified pattern of multiplicities and singularities’.

Sampson, E. E. (1993) Celebrating the Other. A dialogic account of human nature, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf. 207 + x pages. Very clear introduction to some of the debates around notions of the self.

Sorabji, R. (2006) Self. Ancient and modern insights about individuality, life and death, Oxford: Clarendon Press. 380 pages. An accomplished exploration of understandings of self over time.

Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self. The making of the modern identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 601 + xii pages. Important inquiry into the source s of modern selfhood. Sections deal with identity and the good; inwardness; the affirmation of ordinary life; the voice of nature; and subtler languages.

Also referenced

Bharati, A. (1985) ‘The Self in Hindu Thought and Action’ in A. J. Marsella, G. Devos and F. L. K. Hsu, (eds.) Culture and Self. Asian and western perspectives, London: Tavistock.

Coutinho, J. da Veiga (1972) ‘Preface’ to P. Freire Cultural Action for Freedom, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Edwards, R. (1997) Changing Places? Flexibility, lifelong learning and a learning society, London: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (trans. T. McCarthy), Cambridge: Polity.

Johnson, F. (1985) ‘The Western Concept of Self’ in A. J. Marsella, G. Devos and F. L. K. Hsu (eds.) Culture and Self. Asian and western perspectives, London: Tavistock.

Lukes, S. (1973) Individualism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Mapherson, C. B. (1962) The Political Theory of Possesive Individualism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marsella et al (1985) Culture and Self. Asian and western perspectives, London: Tavistock.

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society. From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. (ed. C. W. Morris), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, D. (1973) George Herbert Mead. Self, language and the world, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Usher, R ., Bryant, I. and Johnston, R. (1997) Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge, London: Routledge.

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society, London: Fontana.

Acknowledgement: This is me thinking by Alberto Cerriteño. Reporduced from Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence.

How to reference this piece: Smith, M. K. (1996, 2001). ‘Self, selfhood and understanding’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 2001