The Re-Discovery of the Self

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The criticism of idealism and its transcendental ego transformed previous philosophy of subjectivity into philosophy of experience. This new philosophy is not a substancialistic view of ontology, but a communicational one, which sees actual structures as wholes emerging from relational systems. This view superseded old dualisms and their problems, especially the subjectivism of consciousness; however, it brought about its own difficulties, like the disappearance of the self in early Heideggerian thought (Levinas). The elimination of the self is also seen in structuralism, but I think a psychopathology always requires that one’s self be the owner of his body, his world and his life.

Idealism being left behind, the a priori subject is eradicated, but this is compatible with the subject’s emergence from the consistent and persistent ownness of the relational process of life. The latter is an a posteriori subject, like that in Piaget’s genetic psychology and epistemology. In philosoph

y and philosophical anthropology, this process has been described by Zubiri in four steps. First, the “me-level” (this affects me), which transform the merely lived (leben) into aware life experience (erleben). Then, the “mine level” (this is mine) and the “I-level” (I do it), which are both the condition of possibility of alienation. Last, the “myself-level” (I myself really do it), which involves the personal subject who becomes the actual owner of personal life by means of an appropriation (Gehlen, Habermas, Ricoeur). When this appropriative process is not fulfilled, psychopathological structures are produced by de-personalised disappropriation.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the criticism of idealism and its transcendental ego transformed previous philosophy of subjectivity into philosophy of experience. The post-idealistic philosophy and anthropology developed, during the 20th century, in accordance with the superseding of ontological substantialism in every field of knowledge, being replaced by a relational vision of reality.

From the early 20s onwards, in the new paradigm “there are not things but processes” in Whitehead´s1 words, and nowadays there are actually “processes that self-organize matter” like in Prigogine´s2 theory. In this new dialectical-communicational vision, on the way of the General System Theory (Bertalanffy3), structures of reality emerge from any general system as differentiated regional subsystems. The latter make up emergent wholes, each one with its own super lying structural unity (hyperkeimenon). This one is a unity arising from the structuring process, not a previous underlying unity, as the traditional substance (hypokeimenon) was. Overcoming substantialism was the hardest task of epistemology during the last century (See Bachelard4 for example.)

This kind of view also implied the superseding of the substantialism of consciousness and its underlying transcendental ego (Gurvitsch5; Pelegrina6). The main concept of consciousness, as a subjective entity, being previous to the cognitive relation, tended to disappear, and then the subject disappeared too, as can be seen in Heidegger´s7 “Being and Time” (Sein und Zeit).

This conceptualization brings about many advantages for the comprehension of human existence, going beyond old dualisms within the theory of knowledge with its insuperable aporias. In this context the being-there (Dasein) is not considered a pre-existent subject; on the contrary, the essence of himself would be his own relation with the world, his being-in-the-world.  But this eradication of the idealistic a priori subject has eliminated the existent, consistent and persistent owner from existence. This problem was early pointed out by Levinas8 in his book “De l´existence a l´existent”. The elimination of the self could be also seen in structuralisms, at least in not genetic ones.

Self and Psychopathology

 Despite the elimination of self in a significant part of 20th century Anthropology it is impossible to understand, from clinical praxis and anthropological reflexion, a psychopathology without selfhood and self-property, without a self being the owner of his body, his world and his life. The same seems to have been thought by von Gebsattel9, at least partly, when he wondered, “Does the independence process of the biological and psychic functional systems from the personal wholeness not imply, in its becoming personal, a disorder? Perhaps the principal disorder of neurosis?” In accordance with that, Gebsattel indicates, as a “duty of therapy (...) to set appropriation in motion (...) the interrupted process of fulfilment of oneself” (pp         ).

            This author gives consistency and persistence behind existence to this oneself. In this way, von Gebsattel (idem pp.66-7), talking about the derealisation-depersonalization syndrome, indicates that “emptiness develops above the background of a being (Dasein), who becomes unfulfilled, even though he remains”.[italics are mine].

            It is not possible to understand the alienation of the hand in “graphospasm” or the alienation of physiognomy in “dismorphophobia”, or the alienation of space in “agoraphobia”, without a subject being the owner of those dimensions of his own body, his self-expression and of his own world, in relation to which these dimensions have become estranged, alienated.

If the self, the subject being the owner of life, is indispensable in psychopathology, we must reintroduce the self into the anthropological basis of psychopathology. This new subject must be neither the a priori subject of previous idealism, nor the ingenuous pragmatic self of today’s objective psychopathology but an a posteriori subject, emerging from the very communicational organism/surroundings differentiation, as in Piaget´s genetic psychology and epistemology.


The arising of selfhood

            In the field of philosophy and anthropology the progressive emergence of the subject was rigorously described by Zubiri10 in four steps as being the process of the personalization of life.

Previous to describing these levels of the self-arising in human life, it is necessary to point out the foundations of the possibility of the sameness to manifest itself. For Zubiri11, human intelligence is an act that actualizes everything as being real, as being a reality “in its own right”, which remains present as being a structure of its own behind the actualization’s act. Actually, human intelligence is a communicational differentiation between organism and medium where the transcendent character of reality itself comes out as being an explicit transcendental formality of the intelligent apprehension. Then in a sentient intelligence act, the medium appears as being not a mere stimulus –as is the case in animals- but a stimulating reality, being something, and the organism appears not as a purely stimulated body but being a real somebody, who is stimulated by the reality.

            When mere animal sensitivity turns into sentient intelligence the owners of each thing, implicit in its structural unity, shows up, becomes explicit as a real entity having a consistency of its own, which sustains its own persistence as a distinct entity,  detachable from its surroundings, turning a stimulus shape into a real thing, which allows it to be named.

            Only because there are actually explicit unities for human apprehension with their own persistence, is it possible for oneself in turn to emerge as a self-persistence and be aware of it.

            Let us now see the progressive steps of this self-appearance.


            First, the “me-level” of sameness becomes manifest when “this affects me”. When something is not only present as an operative meaning in automatic usual behaviour but it is present affecting me expressly with some sense (positive or negative) for the accomplishment of my life, I appear expressly having a sense sensation, that is, a sentiment or feeling. I am affected by a feeling, by the sense of the thing being actualized in my life. Then, myself appears primarily as an affected-me. The mere lived life (leben in German) turns into emotional aware life or lived experience (erleben in German). This phenomenon of the emotionally aware life is built up by a differentiated correlative presence of the sense-thing affecting the human individual, who becomes present as an affected being in his selfhood. This phenomenon was accurately differentiated by Dilthey12 from the mere biological life (Lebnis), with the term Erlebnis which implies that life becomes aware, explicit (Er=ex) turning it into psychological life. (See Pelegrina13 for an updated description of this phenomenon [vivencia=Erlebnis] and a detailed differentiation from “experience”, Erfahrung in German.)

            The unity of my life, as the owner of my affected being, appears expressly as affecting me in my owns, in my felt self-property. I am the proprietor of every sense-thing that affects me. This ownership of one’s own lived experiences is always present in my psychic life.

            This primordial, passive self, the me, is never lost in psychopathology -it only occurs in neuropathology. Even in psychotics this me-level remains: “they rob me of my thoughts”, says the schizophrenic. Without me, the symptoms do not affect me, so my psychopathology cannot take place.


            Second, the “mine-level” of the subject arises when I experience that “this is mine”. The experience of something pertaining to me, belonging to me as an inherent part of my own subjective unity, comes up as my lived experience of my own structural wholeness of sense. This is the lived experience of my own intimacy, which supports my own temporal continuity, my persistence as a biographical unity as an inherent sense structure. This phenomenon implies actual property, as a feeling of real resources being available to fulfil one’s own life -it does not imply legal property or possession of things. There are many degrees in the mine-level depending on the profundity of my own intimacy. This gradation depends on the transcendence of the resource for each life, up to what extent it gives biographic sense for the fulfilment of life. To me, as a psychotherapist, my voice is more intimate, more mine than my hand, and it is more mine than the pen I have used to write this paper with.

            This is the level where most of psychopathological alienations appear. That is the case of the previously mentioned and others, like the hostile estrangement of one’s own body in hypochondria, the loss of property of the third dimension, the profundity, in every phobia (Pelegrina14), the loss of one’s own time in anxious mood and the alienation of the whole world in depression, in which the world becomes inaccessible as a totality of resources to make one’s own life.


            The third arising level of the subject is the “I-level” explicit in the sentence “I do it”. It is the explicit appearance of the active subject behind the passive affective subject (the me), and behind the possessive subject (the mine). This active self appears as being the proposed origin of intentional behaviour: I speak, I walk, I drive, I think. (Here, intentional has the meaning of an actual behavioural proposition, not just the phenomenological meaning of a correlative position (nous/noema) of every kind of psychic phenomenon, implicit in the two previous levels.)

            It is here, in this I-level, that the rest of psychopathological alienations appear. This is the case of some delusional psychotic phenomena, like when a patient experiences that someone else is saying his words or somebody else thinks his thoughts; or in catatonia, in which the subject is lost as an origin of movements directed to aims. (See Straus15 and Pelegrina16)

            Likewise, there are some other non-psychotic I-alienations, like in obsessive experiences:  the case of sudden obsessive ideas of one having committed a crime, the patient being unable to discriminate between his thinking subject and his operative subject. These indiscriminate subjectivist activities implies the indifferentiation between their correlative objects: a mere possibility thought inside the mind and the possibility made real as an event or incident in the pragmatic real world throughout an operative action that transforms the actual form, the very structure of reality outside the subject.

The last I-alienation I will mention here is that usually present in anguish humour as the threat of the self, where the threatening lived experience takes place as a sensation of oneself being disappearing as a grasping identity (loss of consciousness), or the loss of one’s own sense identity of behaviour (to be going mad), or even the threat of total disappearance as a self (to be dying).

All these alienated structures are objectified symptoms, but it is the actual personal self who alienates dimensions of his own life by means of a dis-appropriative act, rather than an appropriative personalized act. In this way the patient makes his own de-personalization and de-realization of his own body, world and life.

            In any case, it is in the last mentioned two levels of the subject (mine level and I level) where the alienated structures, the symptoms, appear.

            I-myself-level (personal self)

            The fourth level of the emergent subject is the “I-myself-level”: when I myself really make my own life. This last subject, the most developed one, the best differentiated from his real environment with the best command over it, is the personal subject, the genuine myself, who makes himself through his behaviour with freedom from heteronomy, as an autonomous self, with his own criteria. This personal subject appropriates himself, his own life and his own world. The alienated structures, which appear as symptoms in the previous two levels, come up precisely from this very personal level, where the psychopathological structures are produced by myself as a self-alienation or alienation of something of my own.

            Alienation and appropriation are antonyms. Psychopathological alienation is an objectified product, appearing as a symptom, of the personal subjective disappropriation, which is the actual dynamic psychopathological structure. On the contrary, psychological health consists in the genuine personal appropriation, but this appropriative process is not fulfilled or even conceivable without a himself, sufficiently independent from circumstances.

            “We experience (...) health (...) as what is temperately appropriate”, (…) “disease is self-objectifying, health is not”, states Gadamer17. Perhaps the best example of self-alienation in psychopathology arises in severe obsessive-compulsive patients who lack their own estimating selves, being not autonomous but heteronomous selves. In reality they have not lost their autonomous selves, they have not developed their own autonomic personal selves. This is a difference between the active personal self (ipse), who gives values to things for his life, and the passive impersonal-social self (idem), who receives the values for life from outside himself (others, tradition, meta-narratives, the name or the appearance of things). [See Pelegrina18 for this topic in obsessive, and Castoriadis19 for the general theme autonomy/heteronomy.]

            This personal self-constitution process, fulfilled by the appropriation of one’s own life, is increasingly present in recent philosophical and anthropological bibliography, as can be seen in the following authors: Jonas20, to whom appropriation becomes the universal foundation of identity; Gehlen21, who has pointed out, as a fundamental task of human being, “appropriate the world [...and] appropriate oneself”; Michel Henry22, who tells us that the basic human condition is “the original body-earth co-appropriation [...that] makes us into the owners of the world [...] due to the corporal condition of being [...] an  appropriated body”; Habermas23, who differentiates “myself” from “I who act spontaneously”, one’s self, which “has to be rescued from facts […] and turned into himself”, “which is only possible if the individual critically appropriates his own biography”; Tugendhat24, to whom is necessary to differentiate the mere social identity in a normative play of roles from the personal character as auto-determination of one’s self identity, “which I myself choose, what means I get an identity in the autonomic way”; last, Ricoeur25 has profoundly drawn up the personal self-differentiation, the “one’s owners” or “selfhood” (ipse), versus the mere “identity” (idem) of the individual.

            This concept of re-appropriation of one's self in order to transform the impersonal social individuality ("the they") into a personal oneself, who then does not belong to society any more but is a person belonging to his own self, was described accurately in the 60s by Zubiri26. Nowadays it is being confirmed even by some distinguished sociologists like Niklas Luhmann27 and Alain Touraine28, to whom the personal subject is no more a social actor but a relatively free origin of autonomous sense out of society.


            I will finish this paper by saying that the subject is an emergent unity of the existential historicity, who turns himself, by self-appropriation, into  the origin of his own personal history, the own origin of personal space and time, that is, a personal world and life. When this process of becoming a personal being by means of self-appropriation fails, psychopathology with its alienations springs up.

            Therefore it is really important for oncoming psychopathology to continue the investigation of the structures of the self, like Dan Zahavi29 has done recently, differentiating between the “experiential self” and the “narrative self” as a person.

Dr. Héctor Pelegrina Cetran


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