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  • Writer's pictureChetan Walia

A Light-Hearted Look at That Little Word "Self"

Oscar Wilde's numerous witty quips included this one: "Be yourself, everyone else is taken." Nevertheless, Woody Allen isn't happy being himself. "My only regret in life," he said, "is that I'm not someone else."

Those examples of Irish and Jewish humor, respectively prompt a serious and timeless question: What is the self? If Woody Allen could magically become the other person he says he craves to be, would he still not, in fact, be himself?

For millennia, philosophers have grappled with the question of the self? Is it physical, and if so, where is it located? If it's not physical, how can we prove it exists? The truth is nobody is much wiser today than people were thousands of years ago. Yet we constantly refer to the self as if we fully understood it.

Self-assured, selfless, self-satisfied, selfish, self-obsessed, self-determined, or self-aware, are some of the self-related adjectives we use to describe people.

It's not just people; we describe envelopes as self-addressed, events that include food as self-catered, and books that claim to improve our lives as self-help.

For secret agent Jim Phelps, recorded messages are supposed to self-destruct in five seconds, and, sure enough, they do (a result that any self-respecting spy would regard as self-evident). At the slightest opportunity, some people whip out their smartphone and take a selfie. The image (probably destined for social media) might be of a cute cat, a panoramic view, a special friend, but by definition, it must also include oneself, often sporting a silly self-satisfied grin.

What with selfies, social media, and ubiquitous cameras, are people just becoming more self-centred, even solipsistic? In philosophy, solipsism is the theory that the self is all that we know exists, but in everyday usage, the word has acquired a more derogatory connotation. The dictionary defines a solipsist as "a person who adheres to self-absorption and an ignorance of the views or needs of others." The word comes from two Latin words "solus" meaning alone, and "ipse" meaning self. Some might argue that people today are the very opposite to solipsists; that they are very concerned with the views of others. Yet is that concern not really about how those other people view them? In other words, are many people today suffering from a combination of self-obsession and self-doubt?

Self isn't primarily about just adjectives; it's about proper names too. The successful British author, Will Self, is probably pretty self-assured since, as well as writing twelve successful novels, he is a stand-up comedian, journalist, and collector of vintage typewriters (not even one of them self-correcting, apparently). That's not all. In 2006 he flew to the US first having walked the 26 miles from his home to London's Heathrow airport. When he arrived at Kennedy airport, he walked the 20 miles into Manhattan. The reason he did all that walking, he kept to himself, though it's safe to assume that self-drive cars are not for him.

Whatever about self-drive cars, there's a lot of talk these days about self-driving cars, otherwise known as autonomous vehicles. Soon we may be able to send a text to our car and, driverless, it will come and collect us. Such convenience though is probably not of great interest to the American professional stock car racing driver, Michael Self. He currently competes in the ARCA Menards Series in a Toyota Camry - a true Self-driven car.

People with the surname "Self" are not so named because their ancestors were self-centered or selfish. The surname has a Teutonic background and produced the Old English name Saewulf, which is made up of the two words "Sae or soe" meaning the sea, and "wulf" meaning wolf. Today, Seawolf is a class of fast attack submarines in the US navy. Apart from submarines, sea wolves are a breed of wolves native to the Pacific coast of Canada. These animals live mainly on fish and spend much of their time swimming between islands. They keep to themselves and don't associate with land-based wolves.

On a more serious note, directly related to ideas of self is the concept of consciousness, i.e., self-awareness. In this context, the dictionary defines self as "an individual person as the object of his or her own reflective consciousness." Consciousness and self are both hot topics right now in the context of artificial intelligence (AI). Most non-techie people are probably not aware of the debate raging among those working on AI about whether machines will ever really think for themselves in the human sense, and if they do, whether or not they will be self-aware. These arguments tend to be circular since, though everyone has self-awareness, nobody knows what it is, much less whether a machine has or could have it. Could a machine ever make Descartes' famous declaration "I think therefore I am?" Allied to that discussion is the question: Could a person, or a machine for that matter, have a self without self-awareness? Most people seem to believe that it's possible, citing the example that a dog still has a heart though it is unaware of it. Are we any better though?

Apart from consciousness, the self is often associated with one's conscience - that niggling little voice in our head that knows right from wrong. We may choose to ignore it, especially when its advice is inconvenient, but it doesn't go away. Shakespeare summed it up in Hamlet when he stated: the to be true to the self, the self use not be untrue to the non-self.

There are many different meanings to the word "self," and perhaps we should accept that we can't fully explain all of them. We are obsessed with the forms of ‘self’ - and yet a majority of the world population when asked. ‘Who are you’ - can’t think of a reasonable way to explain the self.

Is it then an illusion created to create meaning to the ‘self’ when there may not really be any worth in doing so. Come the think of it - all problems go away in whichever manner the self ends…


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