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A Journey to the Self in a Philosophical Paradigm

Although we have been studying history of ideas throughout the semester, the course could as easily be considered to be a history of the self or the rise of individualism as the ideas presented continued to advance new concepts of the self. These concepts changed in relation to the dominant field in which they were studied. Those who considered the question from an ethical perspective such as John Locke saw things differently from those who looked at them with an economic viewpoint like Karl Marx. By comparing the ideas of thinkers such as Locke, Marx, Darwin and Freud, it is possible to see how the ideas of the self are dependent upon their historical/cultural context.

In The Limits of Human Understanding, John Locke presents his ideas regarding the nature of knowledge, how one might conduct an honest search for truth, a consideration of the nature of God, and the proper course of true religion. Regarding the self, in particular, Locke says, “every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (Locke, 1980). Regarding knowledge, Locke says it is formed through a synthesis of internal and external experience. “These two, I say, viz. external material things, as the objects of SENSATION, and the operations of our own minds within, as the objects of REFLECTION, are to be the only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings …” (Locke 1959). In describing this process, he describes the self as a mostly ethical being with an end goal of discovering the truth. To do so, humans use intuitive knowledge based on clear mental insight (the most trustworthy form of knowledge), demonstrative knowledge (reliable but derived from strict reasoning based on intuitive insight), and sensitive knowledge (knowledge gained from the perception of material things outside the self) (Garrett 2004). However, we can never fully understand the true essence of humanity and thus cannot achieve complete knowledge. Instead, the “scope of human knowledge, of certainty, is ‘very short and scanty,’ says Locke. With regard to most things we care about, God ‘has afforded us only the twilight … of Probability.’ This limitation, he says, was given to us ‘to check our over-confidence and presumption,’ to make us ‘by every day’s experience … sensible of our short-sightedness and liableness to error” (Garrett 2004). Thus we rely on other tools such as probability and assurance to help us learn more. Locke believed that if we were cautious in our reasoning, we would eventually come to the right judgments. From an ethical standpoint, then, Locke felt every man who was given the right of self in his own person would naturally follow a path in search of the greater truth and this would bring people to right judgments regarding others.

Marx differed fundamentally from Locke in his view regarding how to bring about greater selfhood. He felt the self could only be fully explored in a society that provided for the welfare of all within its economic structures. Marx believed that a constant conflict existed between those who have and those who do not. Looking at the world from a largely economic point of view, Marx felt the freedoms of the working class were largely dependent on what was allowed to them by the ruling class. Social justice under his system would be a by-product of each individual having been given a chance to fully develop their internal ego in a standardized society rather than through Locke’s recognition of each individual as an entity in himself. Individuals would ‘de-alienate’ in a communist society and would thus integrate more fully into a closer-knit society. They would begin to recognize humanity as more than a concept and individuality as something more than just the self. “Voluntary solidarity, not compulsion or the legal regulation of interests will ensure the smooth harmony of human relations […] the powers of the individual can only flourish when he regards them as social forces, valuable and effective within a human community and not in isolation” (Marx & Engels, 1975: 179). According to Marx, communism allows people to make suitable use of their human capabilities, a goal only attained when they are free from oppressive agents such as government, religion and property. Marx’s view of freedom originated from his ‘conflict theory.’ The Marxist conflict theory views capitalist production as an essential element of class struggle, while Locke’s seems to suggest the capitalist system was necessary to encourage the constant search for truth.

Charles Darwin took a more physiological approach to the ideas of the self. He further opened up the field of selfhood with his scientific proof that all creatures are not equal. Darwin proposed that animals adapt to a new environment over long periods of time, millions of years, which he named natural selection. He proved these ideas with data he gathered during his famous trip to the Galapagos Islands in the mid-1800s. The 13 islands that make up the Galapagos chain are relatively close in proximity but are vastly different geographically; some had desert-like conditions, others more tropical, some sandy, some rocky. Darwin noticed the variations of the same species which had adapted to the different conditions on different islands over time and eventually evolved into a new species. His conclusions were based on evidence and reason and were expanded to apply to the human race on a physical and mental level. Darwinian anthropology holds that the individual self-adapts their behavior based upon new learning and new skills to cope with the environment in which they find themselves. Moving the individual out of this environment creates difficulty as in the case of immigration. It has been revealed that first-generation immigrants often have difficulty incorporating into their new society, being taken advantage of and generally proving unfit to survive in their new society based upon the degree to which their childhood differs from their new country. However, successive generations gradually develop the adaptive tools necessary for better survival within this new world. Darwin’s theory provides support for neither Locke nor Marx as he suggests that the type of environment has an impact on the development of the self but not which kind of environment brought out the greatest element of the self. While Locke suggested that the goal of the self was to discover truth and Marx suggested it was to find a state of equality, Darwin points out that this goal depends entirely upon what is considered important for survival within a given environment.

This physical connection between the inner self and the outer environment is significantly different from the theories brought forward by Sigmund Freud, who is generally credited with the first breakthrough in treating the mind as an entity separate from the body. His identification of different levels of thought and how these levels interact and intertwine led to his development of psychotherapy. Freud suggests there are three major components of an individual’s psyche – the id, the ego and the superego. Based on his understanding of the effects of hypnosis on the mind, Freud determined that the human mind consisted of three main elements, which he called the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego. The id is essentially the biological element of the human mind. This would be the Darwinian connection that is chiefly concerned with basic impulses and instinctual desires. This element of the brain is considered to be essentially an unconscious reaction. The conscious mind is associated more closely with the ego. This is the socializing element of the human mind that corresponds more fully with the ideas of Marx. This area of the brain is constantly focused on bringing the impulses and the desires of the id into socially acceptable bounds through the process of comparison. This element of the mind was ruled over by the super-ego. It is this area of the mind in which judgments are made regarding whether decisions made and actions taken or not taken were good or bad.

This corresponds more closely to Locke’s ideas of the self’s goal to find the greater truth. This area of the mind will be the one to determine required punishments for personal rules broken expressed in the form of guilt. “Put more idiomatically: The Id says, ‘I want it now!!’; The Ego says, ‘No wait, please. Accept this substitute’ (sublimation); the Superego judges either ‘Well done!’ or ‘You shouldn’t have done that. Now you will have to suffer guilt.’” (Landow, 1988). Within this theory, Freud introduced the possibility that the conscious and unconscious mind were indeed linked in sophisticated ways, each affecting the other in a process ultimately geared toward protection and defense against traumatic events.

Freud’s theory, taken from a strictly psychological perspective, offers a number of ideas that manage to incorporate the theories of Locke, Marx and Darwin, lending support to each while illustrating how none are completely whole. The concept of the Id or the preconscious mind shaping and being shaped by the other areas of the mind reinforces the ideas brought forward by Darwin through evolution and the importance of the environment. Elements of the Ego match up with the social comparison and economic outlook of Karl Marx while elements of the Superego link more closely to the ideas of Locke and his search for the higher truth. While each of these theories is shaped and defined by their historic period and cultural context, they all manage to provide greater and deeper insight into the development of our concept of self.

Works Cited

Garrett, Jan. “John Locke on Reason and Faith: The 17th Century Background of American Unitarianism.” Western Kentucky University. (2004). Web.

Landow, George P. “Freud and Freudianism.” Victorian Web. (1988).

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Vol.1, New York: Dover, 1959.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Hackett Publishing Company, 1980.

Marx, Karl; Engels, Frederick, & Lenin, Vladimir. The Humanism of Communist Society. Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Pub. House, 1975.


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