Tuesday, 27 October 2009


My 'self'... Your 'self'... Anybody's 'self'... We shall see...

In his brilliant, but apparently neglected, monograph Becoming (Yale 1955), Gordon Allport wonders about the concept of ‘self’—whether it has any substantial meaning.

Language is normally so much an unexamined part of us that we tend to take its tool-like reality for granted; the well-oiled words just spill out of our mouths in the same way as sweat comes out of pores: over time the words we use come to have a day to day functional meaning that obscures the fact that they may not have much in the way of an actual referent; so we have the word ‘self’—what exactly does it refer to? Say the word ‘self’ to your ‘self’ several times—my ‘self’, ‘self’-interest, ‘self’-image and so on—and notice how it comes to seem to be something separate from your sense of being, from the name you are known by; like all abstractions it seems to have a life of its own, it becomes a little independent part of your being that somehow acts as a focus for all that you concern your self with in life.

Allport comments that it’s ‘all too easy to assign functions that are not fully understood [nor can be] to a mysterious central agency and then to declare that ‘it’ [‘self’] performs in such a way as to unify the personality and maintain its integrity...’

Something more general, more neutral might be more existentially accurate: something like Adler’s ‘life-style’, a ‘style or pattern of being’; the advantage of the latter is that if there is a pattern then one can unpick it and investigate its intricacy, discard the parts of the pattern that are not intrinsic to one’s sense of who one is—ho-hum things like driving on the right or left hand side of the road, not eating peas with your knife, politely holding a door open for somebody following you—but then you could start looking for those things that are ‘propriate’—things ‘central to our sense of existence’. It makes perfect sense to say, “There is a pattern to my being on this earth; I can find it...”

Allport suggests using the concept of the Proprium which ‘includes all aspects of personality that make for inward unity’. He enumerates eight not necessarily discrete ways in which the Proprium functions; we appropriate these paradigms to ourselves and find that they help to define what has become peculiarly ours.

● We have Bodily Sense; we are bathed in a sensory stream of events from the outside world; internally there are rumblings and oozings: these together provide a lifelong anchor for us. We locate the ground of our being somewhere in all this: when I was a child I used to think that my root-being was located in a large mole on the side of my foot.
● We have what we like to call Self-identity, that which we associate with our name; all our thoughts and feelings all down the years belong to it; there’s an organic continuity between the ‘I’ that entertained the belief about the mole and me now—I take my sock off and, though the mole has faded a little, I can still easily locate the root of my being there!
Ego-enhancement—we have survival needs which often result in self-assertion; we derive self-satisfaction from what we do; take a pride in it, develop vanity and forthrightness...
● To assist this process, we identify with all kinds of things outside of us—Ego-extension; here we run the considerable risk of losing our selves in possessions, loved objects, people, causes, loyalties, groups, clothes, nation and abstractions of all kinds that some of us even choose to go to war over.
● We have a Rational Agent that, by appropriate adjustments and planning, helps to keep us reasonably in touch with ‘reality’; it constantly discriminates between this and that.
● Our Self-image—the phenomenal self—derives from the way we regard our abilities, status, roles, and aspirations; it may include a vision of self-perfection driving us forward. The self-image guides propriate striving.
Propriate Striving is that which involves the ego, making for unification of the whole of our being, maintaining the tension of endeavour, expectation, intention; it is outcome-focussed and future-referenced. It’s what is usually called ‘motivation’ but is more about keeping the tension going than any kind of ‘drive reduction’.
● Somewhere in all this there is a Knower, a Knowing-I; it ‘knows’ bodily sensations, it can discriminate identity, it knows how it extends itself into other things, identifies with them, it knows what it is to strive, to get pleasure from being in a state of tension, it can bundle all this together and call it Proprium, such broad intentional dispositions are relatively few and it’s possible to distinguish and understand their basic patterning.

So, in order to move towards a definition of myself, I ask myself what are the broad intentional dispositions that have determined, and no doubt will continue to determine, the way I do my life?

My provisional answers would go something like this:-

● I persist in figuring out the patterns of things. The very concept of Proprium appeals to me because it offers the opportunity to replace the soggy lump of ‘self’ with a complex pattern that I can set myself to unravel.
● I constantly look for connections. PDOuspensky said that everything is connected in spite of the fact that things appear to be separate. I teach the Enneagram which is a huge system of systems to do with understanding the way all human personality is connected up together.
● I aim to depict my Proprium—specifically the way in which it can be looked at from different perspectives—the way one can feel it working within, the way one can submit it to intellectual analysis and the way one can move between the different parts to make it work.
● I am above all a teacher of all this. Give me a new idea and, without thinking about it, I find myself setting about answering the question, “How will I teach that—how will I present it in a way that will appeal to different learning styles?”