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The Self In Modern Psychology

Who Am I?

If there was ever a question that collectively plagued human minds and resulted in the obsession of thinkers and scholars over millennia, it was the question of who we are as individuals. Humans have been blessed with an acute awareness of their own existence and the ability to reflect on their own thoughts and experiences, and a result of that is this fundamental question that has picked at our minds since the dawn of civilization.

Schools Of Thought

Ask any philosopher or psychologist, and not one single answer will seem satisfactory. Over the ages, thinkers and scientists have formulated several theories on what the self actually is.

  • Socrates, often considered the father of ancient Greek philosophy, said that the Soul and the Self are the selfsame entity and that the immortal soul resides within the physical body.
  • Plato divided the Self into three separate parts: Reason, Physical Appetite and Passion/Spirit. Reason is the rational part of the mind engaged in wise decision-making. Physical Appetite is concerned with fulfilling the basic necessities of life for existence and survival. Spirit/Passion is concerned with the basic emotional processes necessary to lead a fulfilling life.
  • Aristotle’s ideation of the Self involved an orientation towards striving to live a flourishing life, rich in experiences.
  • Rene Descartes, a French philosopher, conceptualized a dual theory of the Self. He separated the mental (rational) self from the physical body and declared that “I think, therefore I am.”
  • According to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, there is no self but the one humans create for themselves to, in turn, construct a reality that the individual can predict and thus, survive in.
  • The psychoanalytical perspective propounded by Sigmund Freud stressed upon a multi-layered approach to the Self. The contents of the self were divided as The Conscious, the Pre-conscious and the Unconscious.
  • For Paul Churchland, the Self is nothing but the material neural activity in the brain, and can be reduced to neural processes without any additional factors.
  • Humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers stressed on the Self being our inner personality, built up through past experiences and interactions, and striving to reach its greatest potential, which is also known as self-actualization.

All these different schools of thought make it difficult to ascertain the characteristics of the so-called Self, and bring up another fundamental question.*Jpz-u7x_ILfcXEi0GrtZmQ.jpeg

Is There An Enduring Self?

To understand this question, let’s take a brief look at a well-known thought experiment, The Ship of Theseus.

If a ship sets sail from a port, and throughout its journey, each and every part of the ships, starting from its planks to its hulls and masts, is replaced by new parts, such that none of the original material remains over time, is it the same ship?

While the thought experiment simmers in our collective brains, let us try to apply the same logic to a person. If we argue that a person possesses a certain self at a certain point in time, can we argue that the self over time remains unchanged and intact despite the influence of all the intervening experiences that the individual undergoes?

Philosopher David Hume was of the opinion that the Self is not a permanent entity but a product of the mind and of the thoughts and feelings that cross it every second. Thus, there cannot be an enduring Self that is unchanging and permanent. This idea ties in with the concept proposed in eastern philosophical thought, which we will see in the next section.

Social influence is another big factor in the idea of self-concept. People often state that they aren’t the same person who they were a few months or years ago, and that is an observation based on their social experiences. According to the Social Identity Theory, the groups that we belong to at certain points in our life, can radically change our self-concept and behavior. This is a major discredit to the concept of an enduring self unaffected by social conditions and experiences.

Tied closely to this concept is another even more radical concept that is much different from how we normally think of the Self. That radical idea is none other than the idea of non-Self.

Is There A Self At All?

If you think you’re an individual, you may well be wrong. This is a fact that is fast becoming the topic of heated debate in the psychological community.

It all started with the second sermon delivered by the Buddha after he had achieved enlightenment. This sermon, delivered at a deer park in Isipatana near Varanasi, is known as the Anattalakkhanasutta in Pali, or The Discourse on the Not-Self, in English. The Buddha, in this sermon, outlined five elements of the so-called Self, namely, form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. He asked whether any of these elements possessed the attributes of permanence and controllability. The answer being no, the Buddha said it was unfair to call them elements of a permanent Self. He stressed on the impermanence of these elements, which is a hallmark of the eastern conceptualization of the Self, and agrees closely with that of David Hume from the West. This point is elucidated by the Buddhist scholar and monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, who says, “The Buddha teaches not that there is no self, but that all of the objects of clinging are not self. The Buddha teaches that one should contemplate all the constituents of being as not mine, not I, not myself. But in the context of ethical action…the Buddha teaches again not that there is a self, but he will use the language of self-hood, saying that, for example, one is responsible for one’s self.”

How does this idea on non-self tie in with modern psychology? Research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, have pointed to the fact that we may not be as much in control of our actions as we thought. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban has this to say on the matter: “I…think of the me that you think of…as a little bit more like a press secretary or the public relations department which are sort of broadcasting things out into the world that are useful for (you)…maintaining your reputation and so on, but really, there’s a lot of decision making going on that you have no conscious access to…what this means is that we don’t always understand the motives behind our own actions.”

Psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are proponents of the modular theory of mind, which stresses on adaptations developed over millions of years, specialized to solve problems encountered in the ancestral environment. The modularity of the mind seems to essentially eliminate the need for a self in the classical sense of the term. The idea of a collection of modules which are, in essence, not the true self, ties back to the Buddha’s conception of the elements.


The Self is one of the most intriguing and controversial topics in the fields of philosophy and psychology. Starting from the ancient Greeks’ conception of the Self as the soul right up to the modern evolutionary psychological view of no-self, it is hard to deny that the theories on the Self have undergone major revisions and complete overhauls. Still there is little agreement amongst the schools of thought as to what the Self actually is. We humans like to believe there is a definitive answer to that question, “one answer to rule them all” if you will. For the present, however, we must contend with these questions and find a way to reconcile all the varying perspectives into a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals, and as a species that calls this planet our home.

What do you think?

525 Points

Written by Sayak Mondal

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Disha Dhage

good content

Disha Dhage


Disha Dhage

well written

Disha Dhage

keep up the good work

Disha Dhage


Disha Dhage

will share

Disha Dhage

keep writing

Disha Dhage


Disha Dhage


Disha Dhage

🙂 *

Riya Rajkotiya

Interesting topic


Aside from being informative, the article were convincing, in terms of actualizing the self and connecting it to the mentioned concepts and theories from David Hume and others.

Jigyasa vashistha

Wow just wow.. I just love how you quoted both scientific & spiritual facts.. & hence there goes the question still out there.. Life is a question itself..

Khushi Sati

that was some brilliant content .

Yashaswini Bhat

this is one of the article I personally got answers for my questions. It is well structured, well written. Looking forward to read more of your content.

Kritika Bhair

It was very informative and interesting reading it throughout
Good luck

Swagata Saikia

I have never really explored this topic before. It is great to see someone is actually writing about it. Keep it up.


Proper explanation. I like how you started the essay. Well written.

Andrea Shannon

Keep writing.
The points explained well.. good one

Jigyasa vashistha

Just lovely..

Sneh Antil

It was worth reading. I really liked how you explained some of the therapies here. I felt it would have been really great if you could have mentioned some more real life situations. Indeed, very well informed !

Sushmitha Subramani

You have explained the varied schools of thought really well. I believe that understanding oneself is difficult but eventually insight must develop about the real self.

Sushmitha Subramani
Last edited 2 years ago by Sushmitha Subramani
Faiza Patel

Really good, keep writing.

Gunreet kaur

Very nicely explained

Sree rekha k zenith

Modern psychology! I always wandered what it was. That’s for the detailed report and it’s history.


wow, Its like studying psychology from philosophical aspects…

Navleen Kaur

I absolutely loved this article, the topic chosen is fascinating and explained in such a fantastic way.


Evolution peaks it’s level, well done!

Kirti manaktala

Firstly, loved the images. It was so eye catchy. Informative and engaging.

Iarisa Nongbet

this was so good to read

Manasi Bhosale

Amazing! So well written!

Shramana Singha Roy

very enriched content . A good combination of Psychology & Philosophy

Neha Upasani

The self is really confusing for me till now..But I think it really helped me to figure it out…


Worth reading✨✨Thank you so.much for sharing this…keep your good work


A very insightful article and also very well written.


The article is doing justice to self contemplation. Very nice work .

Sneha Agrawal

Thank u for putting together so much information in such an organized manner.The effort made to compile so much of information is just outstanding.Great work!!✨

Manvi Verma

Interesting article. What do you think of self? why do we need to answer it?

Namitha M

Very informative… Thank you for sharing

Laiqua Mustafa

This article was really thought provoking. It really helped me think about the actual meaning of self and I realized there is so much more to it than what we actually know. Thanks a lot for the above information, it was of great help.

Parishree Pandya

Well written. Keep it up

Ragini Prasad

To the writer of article I must say all the details and information is so well arranged and the depth of your studies is reflecting in your collection of words.
I know its biggest question to human being if they know what exactly their self’s are? but what I think is humans should focus more on creating themselves more than discovering what they are already. life is not that big to stay stuck in complexity of finding answers. sometimes the easier option if creating answers is skipped by us.
I completely agree no perfect answer to your question exist still.


A descriptive insightful article

Meenakshi A Nair

Beautifully written and well explained

Namitha M

Well written

anshika singh

Great article. Self is a controversial topic. Self is I think of a dynamic as well as a stable nature.

Ranjima Raveendran

Excellent work. Loved it.

Elysia Fernandes

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Jaspreet kaur

I liked the article!