When a person’s true self comes out

Joshua Knobe notes a complicated question:

How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?

The philosophical tradition says

that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is.  If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.

Which sounds right, in a way. But…

But when I mention this view to people outside the world of philosophy, they often seem stunned that anyone could ever believe it.  They are immediately drawn to the very opposite view.  The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.  To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out, they think, one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.

That’s interesting. The last bit seems slightly odd to me. Those times are extreme, and rare, so it seems odd to think they reveal the true self. Surely the duller homeostatic self that eats breakfast and picks fights on the internet is just as real as the one who is drunk.

Then again, there is another kind of being “overcome” or caught up, which is Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s flow. I used to be unsure whether I sometimes got that when concentrating on a piece of writing or not, until one day I worked on a piece for Comment is Free on a flight to San Jose and was literally incredulous to look out the window and see we were almost over San Francisco. I had thought we were maybe crossing the Oregon border. Maybe that’s the real self. But that’s the opposite of being drunk, in fact – it’s thinking in such a focused way that time gets swallowed.

Anyway; Knobe thinks neither is right.

But it seems that the matter is more complex. People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.

Well yes. I choose writing over being drunk.

27 Responses to “When a person’s true self comes out”