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06/15/2011

What's the "true self?" 21st century experts disagree

Polonius “To thine own self be true.”

Great advice, Shakespeare, but could you help us a bit with that first part?  What’s a “True self?”

“Experimental philosopher” Joshua Knobe recently wrote a New York Times blog in which he suggested that the true self is whatever one is ideologically disposed to believe it is:  conservatives think it’s the rational self which tames the impulses, liberals think it’s the romantic impulses that chafe at rationality.

A blog in The Economist, meanwhile, responded that the “true self” is in fact an illusory product of evolution:  it’s adaptive if we have “selves” that others can trust, therefore we create the image of selves:

"The primary human means of survival is social cooperation. But cooperation is fragile. We need to trust one another to follow through, to not take advantage. Coordinating on a common moral ideology facilitates cooperation, but only if we all stick to it. We cannot make others trust that we will stick to it if we cannot trust ourselves not to opportunistically change our stripes. So we build a sense of self upon the shared moral ideology of our local culture. We come to feel that to betray these values would be to betray the essential self.  … But what matters most is not so much the content of our moral ideology, but simply that we all stay pretty much the same over time, so that we can continue to trust ourselves and one another. This is not to say that the values upon which we build stable, cooperation-enabling senses of self can be anything at all.”

 

So … “self” is an artifact of cooperation.  Right?  Well, maybe.  There are lots of other opinions. 

What’s yours?  What is the true self, and how do we be true to it?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

-- Benjamin Wachs

Posted at 02:43 PM

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