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Fallacies and realities of self

Fallacies and realities of self

How much progress has been made in our knowledge of 'self' over the last three centuries? Janet Tolan explored some of the limitations of the Rogerian 'organismic' experience in the last issue of CPJ. ('The Fallacy of the Real Self, March 2001).

Janet observed that 'the person-centred counsellor tends to associate an individual's organismic experiencing with the true self, the real self.' (Page 18). She suggested that 'Ultimately, the self-structure helps us to balance our own organismic needs with the needs of others.' (Page 21). She concluded that the self-structure deserves our attention, our respect... (Page 22).

Janet thereby reminded us of two concepts in the counsellor's armoury of knowledge about self: 'Organismic experiencing' and a 'self structure'. What is meant by these words? They are not used in daily life. Why is that?.

...I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, ('cogito ergo sum'), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.

Rene Descartes Discourse on Method 1637 (Everyman edition 1965 p 27)

Descartes started with 'self' as the indubitable starting place of all knowledge. It was, if you like, (though I do not like) an 'organismic' experience for him. Likewise, John Locke observed:

For man knows that he himself exists. I think it is beyond question, that man has a clear idea of his own being; he knows certainly he exists, and that he is something.

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690 Bk IV Ch X Of our Knowledge of the Existence of God

Locke's referral to 'man' includes women of course, if only as an afterthought. Women were not such a central part of male organismic experience and/or self-structure. That was part of the world-view three centuries ago, and more recently. Locke took what is (now) the 'common sense' belief that we each have privileged access to, and knowledge of, 'myself'. We, unlike anybody else around us, could 'look in on ourselves'. We could 'introspect'. We could survey our thoughts, feelings and intentions directly.;

Others; strangers, friends, counsellors, had to infer our state of 'consciousness' inside us by observing our behaviour 'on the outside.' Unlike these outsiders, we each had privileged inside knowledge. We could each know directly, 'my real self'. We thereby knew which mask we might currently be wearing for the benefit, or at the expense, of others around us. We knew the nature of our 'real face'. Others had to surmise this by staring intently into our eyes, or, more realistically, by attending carefully to our words and actions.

David Hume was another who sought to 'find himself'. He failed to find either an 'organismic' experience, or a 'self structure', or, indeed, 'himself':

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call 'myself', I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch 'myself' at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.!

David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 1739,

Book 1, Part 4, sec VI 'Of Personal Identity'

This was in response both to Locke and to Descartes. Hume doubted that we could extract knowledge of self by attempting some inner journey to the centre of the self. What was this centre? Hume tried to find it and found only ideas and perceptions.

The extent of Hume's scepticism was new. But his doubt that we could journey alone, to the centre of 'myself' had been the common sense of centuries. St. Augustine believed that it was a wicked arrogance to imagine that we could obtain knowledge of ourselves by embarking on lone psychic excavations and inner journeys. In his Confessions (c 397 AD) he engaged in what he saw as a dialogue between himself and God. What, he asked, had been the greatest weakness of mankind?coae aer seaeaew orae aek inae foae ae.

The weakness of his soul was in relying upon itself instead of trusting in you.

Confessions (Penguin, 1977, P 122)

And the solution to the problem?

You taught him to trust in you, not in himself. (Ibid p 123)

Evil, for Augustine, was the result of directing our love away from God and towards ourselves. Introspection, for Augustine, was impossible. There was no light within. I could only gain insight, or any other sight, via God, via prayer. By focusing on me instead of on God, I lost you and I lost us. Only in God could I find the ground of all life, of us, of you, of me. To go inside myself, without God, was to go nowhere at all:

The soul of man, although it bears witness of the light, is not the Light.

(Ibid. P 144)

..we are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone and for this reason need the authority of sacred books.. Ibid. P 117

This 'common sense' view is no longer common, nor is it so often seen as 'sensible'. Yet for Augustine, God was not an 'idea' to be proved. He was a blinding, overwhelming, reality. God was the centre, foundation and horizon of what some might now call Augustine's 'organismic experience.'

St Thomas Aquinas, (1225-1274), that other pillar of the Catholic faith, attended to the sacred books and reasoned within them. But, for Augustine, the books were less important than the experience. The light of God was a blinding experience brighter than a thousand suns. God was far more real to Augustine than this Saint was real to himself. This 'felt sense' of the presence of God in Augustine's life is overwhelming in his Confessions. That does not, of course, require the reader to feel or share the experience, or to interpret it as Augustine did.

Augustine had a felt sense of certainty, an allegedly 'organismic experience'. What he wrote became a central component of the 'self structure' of the faithful for centuries. So was Augustine correct in his beliefs? His certainty, his felt sense of the reality of his experience; did these show that he was right?

If history demonstrates anything, it reveals that human beings can 'experience' and feel 'certain' about many things and yet authentically disagree with each other about what is certain, what is real, what is authentic. They may imagine that they have 'got in touch with' their 'real self', and yet hindsight, or more sceptical insight, might show that they were merely toying with fashionable conceptualisations. These were generally taken, 'off-the peg' from whatever authority figure they had actively chosen to follow. Or, even more often, people would passively adopt all and sundry within the climate of opinion that embraced them.

So where does this leave my organismic experience and my self structure? Is there an organismic experience available for me to 'get in touch with'? Or is this just an idea about the nature of experience? If so, is it a very good, or true or useful idea? Janet Tolan observed that: Organismic experience is simply that: the capacity of the organism to experience. (Ibid Page 19). What I think she means by this, as with Rogers, is that 'organismic' experience is 'raw' experience, unmediated by ideas, constructions, meanings, or interpretations:

We see, we hear, we touch, we smell, we taste, we sense our own inner sadness or happiness, anger or calm. This experiencing is essentially neutral - neither healthy nor unhealthy, neither good nor bad. It simply is. Without the self-structure, we would not be able to construe any of the experience or give it meaning. (Tolan, CPJ, March 2001, page 19).

Organismic experience, we are to believe, provides the raw 'sense data'. These are then construed, interpreted, given meaning, according to our 'self structure' or, 'world view', as it is sometimes called. And as for the 'self structure':

It is as much a real, core and true aspect of the self as organismic experiencing and if we place a lesser value upon it we shall indeed find ourselves 'getting stuck'. (Ibid page 22).

In other words, perhaps, too much attention to the 'inner child' leads to selfishness, social disintegration, and childish indulgence.

Fair enough. Economists provided us with 'rational economic man', a self centred robot who failed to engage with the raw fact that we are social creatures, nurtured, defined and constrained by the society of which we are a part. Rogerian counsellors, on the other hand, offered us 'organismic', authentic inner children who failed to engage with the raw fact that we are social creatures, nurtured, defined and constrained by the society of which we are a part. Neither model comes near to the sophistication even of the ancient Greek philosophers who first mused upon the nature of self two and a half thousand years ago. Neither model says anything about the central role of society, culture or the 'polis' which, for the Greeks, was so crucial for the development of human character and civilisation. Such naivety is lamentable, pernicious and makes it possible for people to imagine that there is 'no such thing as society'. And this is supposed to be progress?

In fact there has been progress, but, unfortunately, few schools of counselling pay much attention to developments concerning conceptualisations of self within philosophy, sociology, anthropology, art and literature. Nor do they take much notice of what is known about the physiology of perception.

Locke believed it is beyond question, that man has a clear idea of his own being. But this naïve introspectionism has been accepted by no major philosopher since Locke. The twentieth century also saw the final demise of the idea that there are raw 'sense data' of experience. In other words, there is no such thing as an organismic experience:

What we 'first' hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motorcycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling. It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to 'hear' a 'pure noise'. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927 Blackwell, 1995, p. 207

It is simply not the case that we have a raw 'organismic' experience which we then interpret and construe by our cognitive 'structure', be it of self, society, world view or anything else. Janet Tolan observes that the first purpose of the self-structure is to organise our experience - to categorise it. (Ibid page 19). This is not so. Whenever we experience anything at all, it has already been highly organised and categorised. There is no possibility of experiencing without prior organisation. Babies may get closest to the booming, buzzing confusion of unmediated, unorganised, not yet categorised, experience. But research has shown that even they are wired up to organise faces, food and other stimuli pretty much from birth.

I do not have an organismic experience of shapes, colours etc. I do, on a foggy day, 'experience a car'. On a clear day, I have an immediate experience of a blue Ford Mondeo. I apprehend this as such without any cogitation whatever on the subject. My wife sees only a blue car but she can see, 'directly' and immediately, many species of trees whereas I can only see trees that are tall, short etc. Our concepts structure what we experience. Our conceptualisation does not merely 'react to', or process, our experience, it forms what we experience.

Physiologists have confirmed that conceptualisation structures experience in their investigations of the processes of perception. Our eyes don't see raw sense data, or shapes or objects. Eyes don't 'see' anything. Cells in the retina are sensitive to light, and transmit electro-chemical stimuli. The eye focuses, sequentially, on a data set the size of your thumbnail held at arms-length. The brain does a very great deal of processing of this data, and only after such processing do we 'experience' anything whatsoever. Because we can only take in a thumbnail at a time we mainly 'see' what we already think is there. It is no accident that when we say 'I see' we mean both that I perceive and I understand. The two are inseparable.

This is why two witnesses can 'experience' quite different events when they were present at one and the same event. They may, really, genuinely, and authentically, see it differently. It may not be at all easy, therefore, to establish what 'really' took place. They may later 'remember' quite differently from what they first 'saw'. Memory is a construction more than a retrieval of stored and coherent data. Thus we can genuinely, and 'organismically', 'remember' what was never there to have been seen in the first place.

People claim to experience their inner child, or id, or God, or 'bourgeois false consciousness', or whatever because these are the conceptions that are shaping the very nature of their experience.

So, Carl Rogers experiences his authentic self. Saint Augustine experiences God. Both claim that the experience is authentic, organismic. Orgasmic, perhaps. They feel it 'in their guts'.

Who is right? Plato apprehended 'Forms' as being the most real part of life. Heraclitus, and many Eastern mystics, experienced Flux as the raw reality. Machiavelli, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche apprehended, among other basic organismic realities, a raw hunger for power. Apollo was most 'really, deeply, authentically and organismically' in touch with classical form; Dionysus with hedonistic release. (O.K., so these are mythical beings). Spinoza went with the felt unity of the cosmos. Rousseau with the authentic life of the peasantry. Kant with synthetic a priori categories of experience. Bentham was organised around the urge to maximise human happiness. Leibnitz considered that 'monads' comprised the deep and delightful reality of existence. Hegel sought the synthesis of thesis and antithesis - embracing both to ever-deeper levels of reality in a fusion of thought, feeling and experience. Marx did likewise within a more materialist conception of the Dialectic. Millions followed him and constructed their experiences and their very identities around the Marxist project.

These were not just 'head-trips'. When concepts are basic to the way we make sense of our world, they shape the very nature of our identity and our experience. As Ronald Barnett observed: Through his intellectual work, Stephen Hawking lives in a different world from most others; he does not just think in a different way. Oliver Wendell-Holmes, likewise, did not see deep thought as an avoidance of life: More complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life.

Kierkegaard (1813-1855) 'observed'/proposed/felt that: The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self?

The Sickness unto Death (Penguin, 1989) p 43

How, for Kierkegaard, were we to 'get real' and become truly authentic in ourselves and in our experience?

So much is spoken about wasting one's life. But the only life wasted is the life of one who so lived it, deceived by life's pleasures or its sorrows, that he never became decisively, eternally, conscious of himself as spirit, as self, or, what is the same, he never became aware - and gained in the deepest sense the impression - that there is a God there and that 'he', himself, his self, exists before this God, which infinite gain is never come by except through despair. Ibid. p 57

Like Mill, Kierkegaard believed that it was better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Also, that we were truly human insofar as we moved away from the herd with its animal pleasures and towards the consciousness of a philosopher.

Most people, in Kiergeaard's experience, did not achieve this level of being. Instead:

They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out worldly enterprises, make prudent calculations, etc, and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves.

Ibid. p 65

Insight and authenticity were hard to find and silvery-hair counsellors had no reason to believe that they had a special vantage point:

What affects the adult is not so much the illusion of hope as, no doubt among other things, the grotesque illusion of looking down from some supposedly higher vantage point, free from illusion, upon the illusions of the young.

This 'we have been', which we so often hear from older people, is just as great an illusion as the younger person's illusions of the future; they lie or invent, both of them.

Ibid. p 89

After this rapid 'Cook's Tour' of a small sample of the available philosophies of self and world, what conclusions shall be drawn about the nature of our 'real' selves, our 'accurate' perceptions and our 'authentic' inner experiences? Here are a few suggestions:

1. There is no experience that exists prior to cognitive/affective processing. Experience is the result of such processing.

2. There are many narratives about the nature of self and the world of which self is a part.

3. Therefore there is no possibility, even in principle, of a 'raw', or 'organisimic', apprehension of self or world.

4. We all feel more or less certain, authentic and real at times and we generally act on the basis of our 'gut' feelings. This does not guarantee that our experiences, ideas and feelings are as real and as authentic as they may seem to be. Hindsight may change our views about the reality, certainty and authenticity of anything and anyone, including ourselves. And there always more hindsight awaiting us - for as long as we remain alive. Today's 'gut certainty' may be shown, by tomorrow, to be yesterday's prejudice.

5. That this is so may engender a suitable humility about who we are and what we know. It does not need to engender a paralysis of despair about the possibility of knowing anything. It is possible to look systematically, with discipline and direction, at the range of narratives available. We can thereby compare their strengths and weaknesses. We do not need to settle on just one as the only 'real', true and 'authentic' account.

6. This does not mean that any one 'worldview' is as good as any other and that 'anything goes' in a post-modern crisis of confidence concerning our ability to know anything.

7. The larger the range of narratives we have available for clients, the richer the heritage of ideas, inspiration, actions and options we can make available to them.

8. It is a mistake to lock trainee counsellors prematurely into particular, and narrow, schools of theory. They need to compare and contrast the major strands of thinking that have developed over the past centuries concerning who we are, what we really know, where we are going and where we should go.

9. It is impossible to empathise with a client unless you can understand the world-view that they have adopted.

10. A mechanic looks under the bonnet of a car and 'sees' all its various components. I tend to see a tangled mass of metal. I may imagine that I can 'see' the carburettor, until the mechanic tells me that my car does not have one. We trust that the mechanic really can see more than we do because, as well as providing an impressive sounding account, they may successfully repair the car. Counsellors have more of a problem in showing that they can assist in 'putting things right' for the client, or even in defining what might be considered to be 'wrong'.


St. Augustine, Confessions (Penguin, 1977)

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method 1637 (Everyman 1965)

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927 (Blackwell, 1995)

Alex Howard, Philosophy for Counselling and Psychotherapy: Pythagoras to Postmodernism (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2000)

David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, (Prometheus, 1992)

Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (Penguin, 1989)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690 (Penguin, 1998)

Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal

May 2001

Vol 12 No 4 pp. 19-23

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