I've never met the other person who seemingly inhabits my head along with me. Have you?
Yet everyday language, the way we talk to ourselves (there he is again!) and others, appears to point to the existence of someone other than "I" within our psyches.
I dragged myself out of bed.
I held myself back from hitting him.
I was beside myself.
You should take a good look at yourself.
He's at war with himself over who to marry.
Stop being so mean to yourself.
I like myself.
I need to be a better friend to myself.
I was debating with myself whether to leave.
I'm disappointed in myself.
He's still searching for his true self.
It's thick, and sometimes densely written, so I've been skipping around some in the book in order to focus on what I find most interesting. Naturally "The Self" chapter grabbed my attention, because the older I get, the more I question whether I have one.
Lakoff is a linguist who is known for his theory of embodied cognition. Basically, this is the entirely reasonable thesis that the body and mind aren't distinct. Reasoning, perceptions, emotions, and other psychological goings-on are intimately connected with bodily experience.
Reason is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment.
Metaphors thus come to dominate our discourse, both inner and outer. I just grasped a coffee cup to ingest another jolt of caffeine; likewise I can say, "It took me a while to grasp what he was saying, but I finally did."
Yet what the heck am I talking about? What was grasped? What did the grasping? I've used a bodily metaphor to speak about a psychological state of understanding. Our talk about the "self" is similarly metaphorical.
Consider the common experience of struggling to gain control over ourselves. We not only feel this struggle within us, but conceptualize the "struggle" as being between two distinct parts of our self, each with different values. Sometimes we think of our "higher" (moral and rational) self struggling to get control over our "lower" (irrational and immoral) self.
Our conception of the self, in such cases, is fundamentally metaphoric. We conceptualize ourselves as being split into two distinct entities that can be at war, locked in a struggle for control over our bodily behavior. This metaphoric conception is rooted deep in our unconscious conceptual systems, so much so that it takes considerable effort and insight to see how it functions as the basis for reasoning about ourselves.
Similarly, when you try to find your "true self," you are using another, usually unconscious metaphorical conceptualization... When we consciously reason over how to gain mastery over ourselves, or how to protect our vulnerable "inner self," or how to find our "true self," it is the hidden hand of the unconscious conceptual system that makes such reasoning "common sense."
In another post I'll describe how Lakoff and Johnson see all this relating to spirituality and religiosity. There's a close connection, since most religious teachings consider that we have a true self or soul which is at odds with the false embodied nature with which we usually identify.
Religions wouldn't be so successful if this dualistic way of looking at the world didn't strike most people as being how things really are. Indeed...
These metaphors do seem to ring true. They appear to be about real inner experiences, and we use them to make statements that to us are true of our inner lives, statements like, "I'm struggling with myself over whom to marry," "I lost myself in dancing," or "I wasn't really myself yesterday."
...We are, of course, acutely aware that these modes of conceptualizing our phenomenological experience of the Self do not entail that the structures imposed by these metaphors are ontologically real. They do not entail that we really are divided up into a Subject, an Essence, and one or more Selves.
Yes, we're living a neurological fiction. Us Homo sapiens have become so sapient, our brains are adept at fashioning metaphors and concepts into what appears as really real reality.
Except, it isn't. Not in any objective sense. Where's this "self" that we keep referring to?
I love my wife. I've been married to her for over twenty years. Not once have I thought that I love Laurel, and also her Self. She's simply one person to me. However, for her, she feels (as we all do, or almost all) that there's her "I" and also her "self."
At the end of their "The Self" chapter, Lakoff and Johnson ask an excellent question. Is our divided sense of who we are a result of direct experience, or does that sense arise from the concepts and metaphors we habitually use to make sense of the world?
When we do something we shouldn't have done and bawl ourselves out, many of us experience a sense of shame. And when we betray ourselves, we can experience a sense of guilt. Such phenomena raise a chicken-egg question: Does the metaphor fit a preexisting qualitative experience, or does the qualitative experience come from conceptualizing what we have done via that metaphor?
In a follow-up post I'll talk about how this question has spiritual/religious implications.
Namely, does the common belief in a "soul" similarly depend upon metaphorical concepts that are essentially hardwired into the human brain, and not upon the reality of an other-worldly form of consciousness?