Are we a Self or a Self-Concept?

Pragmatism was a philosophy that emerged directly out of The Enlightenment that initiated the “modern revolution” and it helps when thinking about Pragmatism to think about it in relationship to The Enlightenment and the new ways of thinking that emerged from it.

Prior to The Enlightenment human beings lived in a largely inexplicable world. Things happened and there was not yet any understanding of why. Explanations were developed to explain why things happened, but to our modern ears these explanations seem magical, mystical and unscientific.

Hosts of gods were imagined to control all of nature – lightening, rain, sunshine, plant growth, etc. And everything – including human beings – were thought to be possessed of an inner essence, spirit or soul that was the initiator and controller of action.

With the scientific revolution came the beginings of an objective, experimental and scientific understanding of how things work. The world became a machine of mechanical workings that could be understood and controlled. Weather was no longer controlled by a god – it was the result of the mixture of air pressure, humidity, wind velocity, etc. There was no longer the need to imagine some supernatural intelligence at work behind and above it all.

In the human being the same thing began to occur. The functioning of the body and the brain was increasingly recognized as the real cause of human action. And the newly discovered tool of human reason was proving itself capable of understanding – given sufficient time – everything. Human beings began to lose their need of gods – or even a single God – to explain the way things are.

The Enlightenment brought with it the advent of ways of thinking that turned many against religious notions because they seemed superstitious and unsupported by empirical evidence. The Traditional world of religious belief was becoming the Modern secular world.

The pragmatists- although to differing degrees – believed that philosophy – especially that of the French and German idealists (Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, etc.) – had retained too much of the superstitions habits of earlier thinking. These thinkers were certainly challenging the traditional ideas of The Church, at the same time they still retained ideas of a priori understanding, and absolute realities that somehow existed beyond and outside of the mind – this was too reminiscent of God for some.

The Pragmatists were following in the path of the English Empiricists by insisting that knowledge had to be directly connectable to that which was within experience. No supernatural essences were allowed (again the degree to which the different pragmatists held to this view varied considerably – James strongly, Peirce and Dewey much less.)

This is why the conception of “the self” came under scrutiny. It still smacked of a superstitious belief in “spiritual” essence or soul. Instead people like William James wanted to explain the existence of a “sense of self” by appealing to our actual experience and not to a supernatural “beingness.”

Pragmatism along with other modern philosophies were criticized with the advent of post-modern thinking for throwing out the baby with the bath water and for adopting a purely (or nearly so) materialistic relationship to reality. (In truth the early Pragmatists Peirce, James and Dewey were all trying to guard against this, but perhaps it was unavoidable for the pendulum to swing beyond center once it had started its arc.)

I believe there is a wisdom to the view – that while “self-concept” is real a “self” is not – that offers a rich vein of exploration still. In evolutionary terms we as human beings have tens of thousands of years of habitual experience of assuming supernatural essences to exist within physical things – so it may take some time before we stop unconsciously attributing an essence to things – especially ourselves.