“True self” Journal Club General Discussion
Join the discussion of Nina Strohminger, George Newman, and Joshua Knobe's article and of the commentaries by Simon Cullen, Ophelia Deroy, Victoria Fomina, Larry Hirschfeld, Gloria Origgi, Brent Strickland, and Radu Umbres. To post a comment,
Nina Strohminger’s response: A friendly desultory philippic
Hello, everyone, and thank you for tuning in. I would like to start by saying the opinions expressed below are purely my own. Josh Knobe and George Newman may or may not be on board with anything I’m about to say, though I do try to give a fair representation of what we, as a team, argue for in our paper.
Anthropological doubts about the moral “true self”
Do people everywhere believe there is a true self – a moral true self, what is more? This is a question of obvious anthropological relevance. Most anthropologists, however, would question the basic assumptions of the hypothesis , not to mention its validity for many of the societies they have studied. After Marcel Mauss’s famous 1938 essay “A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self” that made this a standard anthropological issue, the universality of the category of self or personhood has been contested.
Is there really no such thing as the true self?
In “The True Self: A psychological concept distinct from the self,” Strohminger, Knobe, and Newman (henceforth “SKN”) outline a fascinating and compelling body of research on people’s naïve intuitions regarding the “true self.” The evidence suggests that there is a cross-culturally robust notion of the true self, which people conceive of as an intrinsically moral part of the self which causes positive personal changes and importantly contributes to establishing personal identity.
The “true self,” more complex, more social
“I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.” Thus wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the incipit of his Confessions, a narrative elaboration of his authentic, “true self” as opposed to a hypocritical social identity. Rousseau confessed many weaknesses and failings but the message was clear: his true self, while rich and complex, was better than some of his objectionable actions.
Truth and consequences
I was delighted to discover that deep down the authentic me is a happy go lucky sort of guy, and others recognize this too. I am also a little skeptical, to be honest. The authors of acknowledge that there may be some individual variation in this tableau—although the choice between psychopath and seriously mentally ill is not what I had hoped for. The authors also place great emphasis on moral qualities; indeed, the inner, authentic, true self is bounded by a sort of moral paradise; falling out of the true self represents a morally “bad case” whereas falling into authentic self is a good moral case.
The True Self, Supernatural Agents, and the Problem of Evil
Nina Strohminger, Joshua Knobe, and George Newman’s compelling and thought-provoking piece on the “True Self” presents an original theoretical intervention into the vast body of literature on the self, which spans across several different disciplinary and epistemological traditions. Aside from making an important contribution to the existing theories of the self, the true self concept also opens up an avenue for raising a number of interesting questions in the domain of moral cognition.
To be or not to be two?
I could have been more courageous I will be more forgiving. Such thoughts are frequent, especially at the beginning of the year, like now. We believe that we stand for certain values, or deeper virtues, which might not be expressed or realized in our day-to-day actions. We fall short of a certain idea of ourselves. What Nina et al.’s paper argues is that we tend to transform this shortfall into the idea of a deep true self, distinct from the superficial or more contextual self we express in everyday life.
The true self and the situation
You are probably already familiar with Darley and Batson's (1973) study. Participants were students at the Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of the study, they were asked to give a short sermon in a nearby building. Half of the seminarians were told they were running late, so they’d better hurry to the building. The other half were told they had plenty of time, but they might as well mosey over. On their way, both the hurried and relaxed seminarians encountered a man slumped in a doorway, groaning.
Précis of “The True Self: A psychological concept distinct from the self”
Some recent work in experimental philosophy and in social psychology addresses central issues in cognition and culture. Case in point: an article by Nina Strohminger, George Newman, and Joshua Knobe entitled "The True Self: A psychological concept distinct from the self" (forthcoming in Perspectives on Psychological Science and available here.)