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Part II – Chapter 12

Distinguishing the ego.

The self was above defined – from a philosophical perspective – as the apparent Subject of cognition and Agent of volition and valuation. But – in common parlance – most people identify themselves with much more than this minimal definition. To clarify things, it is therefore useful to distinguish two meanings of the term.

In its purest sense, the term self refers to what is usually called the soul or person. In a colloquial sense, the term is broader, including what intellectuals refer to as “the ego”. The latter term – again from a philosopher’s point of view – refers to the material and mental phenomena, which indeed seem rightly associated with our self, but which we wrongly tend to identify with it. Thus, by the term ego we shall mean all aspects of one’s larger self other than one’s soul; i.e. all extraneous aspects of experience, commonly misclassified as part of oneself.

This is just a way to recognize and emphasize that we commonly make errors of identification as to what constitutes the self[1]. If we try to develop a coherent philosophical system, looking at the issues with a phenomenological eye, we must admit the self in the sense of soul (i.e. Subject/Agent) as the core sense of the term. The latter is a non-phenomenal entity, quite distinct from any of the material and mental phenomena people commonly regard as themselves.

We tend to regard our body, including its sensory and motor faculties, as our self, or at least as part of it. But many parts of our body can be incapacitated or detached, and we still remain present. And, conversely, our nervous system may be alive and well, but we are absent from it. So, it is inaccurate to identify our self with our body.

Nevertheless, we are justified in associating our self with our body, because we evidently have a special relationship to it: we have more input from it and more power over it than we do in relation to any other body. Our life takes shape within the context of this body. For this reason, we call it ‘our’ body, implying possession or delimitation.

With regard to the mind, a similar analysis leads to the same conclusion. By ‘mind’, note well, I mean only the apparent mental phenomena of memory and imagination (reshufflings of memories), which seem to resemble and emerge from the material phenomena apparently experienced through the body (including the body itself, of course). Mind is not a Subject, but a mere (non-physical) Object; a mind has no consciousness of its own, only a Subject has consciousness.

This limited sense of mind is not to be confused with a larger sense commonly intended by the term, which would include what we have here called soul. I consider this clarification of the word mind very important, because philosophies “of mind” in which this term is loosely and ambiguously used are bound to be incoherent[2].

The term I use for the conjunction of soul and mind is ‘psyche’. Of course, below the psyche, at an unconscious level, lies the brain or central nervous system, which plays a strong role in the production of mental events, although it is not classed as part of the psyche but as part of the body. Some of the items we refer to as ‘mind’ should properly be called brain.

The term “unconscious mind”, note well, refers to potential (but not currently actual) items of consciousness stored in the brain (and possibly the wider nervous system); for example, potential memories. Such items are called mind, only insofar as they might eventually appear as mental objects of consciousness; but strictly speaking, they ought not be called mind. The term “unconscious mind” is moreover an imprecision of language in that the mind is never conscious of anything – it is we, the Subjects, who are conscious of mental items (mental equivalents of sensory phenomena, as well as ideas and emotions).

Thus, mind refers to a collection of evanescent phenomena, without direct connection between them, which succeed each other in our ‘mind’s eye’ (and/or ‘mind’s ear’) but which lack mental continuity, their only continuity being presumably their emergence from the same underlying material brain. The mind cannot be identified with the self, simply because mental events are experienced as mere objects of consciousness and will, and not as the Subject and Agent of such psychical events. Moreover, the mind may momentarily stop displaying sights or sounds without our sense of self disappearing.

Nevertheless, our mind is ours alone. Only we directly experience what goes on in it and only we have direct power over its fantasies. Even if someday scientists manage to look into other people’s private minds and find ways to affect their contents, one person remains in a privileged relationship to each mind. It is therefore proper to call our minds ‘ours’, just as we call our bodies ‘ours’.

Thus, the self, in the colloquial sense, is a collection of three things: soul, mind and body – i.e. spiritual, mental and material experiences. But upon reflection, only the soul counts as self proper – the ego, comprising mind and body, is indeed during our whole lifetime “associated with” our strict self (that is, soul), but it should not be “identified with” that self. The ego is merely an appendage to the self or soul, something ‘accidental’ (or at best ‘incidental’) to it.

However, this should not be taken to mean that the soul has no share in the ego. Many of the physical and mental traits that comprise the ego are at least in part due to past choices and actions of the soul. The soul is thus somewhat responsible for much of the ego; the latter is in effect a cumulative expression of the former. Some people have big, mean egos, to their discredit; others have smaller, nicer egos, to their credit. Moreover, the soul tends to function in the context of the ego or what it perceives as the ego.

In more narrow psychological terms, the ego is a particular self-image one finds motives for constructing and clinging onto. It is a mental construct composed of images selectively drawn from one’s body and mind – some based on fact, some imaginary. Compared to the real state of affairs, this self-image might be inflationary (flattering, pretentious) or it might be depreciative (undemanding, self-pitying). Ideally, of course, one’s self-image ought to be realistic; i.e. one must at all times strive to be lucid.

[1] The word ‘ego’ originally, in Latin, meant ‘I’. Nowadays, in English, it is commonly understood in the pejorative sense used by me in the present essay. I do not subscribe to the sense used in psychoanalytic theory, which presents the ego as a segment of the psyche “mediating between the person and reality”. Such a notion is to me conceptually incoherent, since it ascribes a separate personality (i.e. selfhood) to this alleged segment, since to “mediate” anything implies having cognitive, volitional and evaluative powers. The ego of psychoanalysts involves a circularity, since it raises the question: who or what is mediating between the person and reality, and on what basis? The common sense of ‘ego’ is, I would say, closer semantically to the ‘id’ of psychoanalysis.

[2] Equivocal use of the term mind leads some philosophers into syllogistic reasoning involving the Fallacy of Four Terms, in which the middle term has different senses in the major and minor premises, so that the conclusion is invalid.

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