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Concept of “Self”: Philosophical Description Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 11th, 2020


Throughout the history, the concept of “self” has received a myriad of descriptions and analysis from a host of philosophers, researchers and even scholars. In gaining this understanding, these people are important in explaining how the knowledge of this concept affects the world and how people perceive themselves and their ultimate relationships with others.

An understanding of “self”, therefore, affirms a person’s identity in a social environment, allowing him/her to recognize others besides oneself (Sorabji 13). In other words, the way human beings socialize solely depends on the way they perceive themselves and others through daily social interactions.

Even though there are innumerable philosophers who have immensely contributed towards gaining clarity in defining “I”, it is believed that some have been quite outstanding with regard to their input. In this category lies Rene Descartes, whose findings remain essential in defining the concept of “self” and how this definition affects people’s thinking and interactions.

This piece of work goes miles ahead in synthesizing Descartes’ findings in order to achieve a concise definition of the word “I” that seems reasonable and critical from a philosophical point of view. Besides Descartes’ meditations, this essay further digs into several research findings unearthed by renowned scholars and experts who have devoted their time and sacrificed their resources in studying and exploring the definition of “self” and how it influences interpersonal relationships in one’s life.

By compiling ideas from an array of thinkers, the essay intends to explore the implications of defining “I” in a given manner and how such a stance would affect our perceptions towards ourselves or how we treat ourselves. The survey also focuses on how these definitions would affect our knowledge of ourselves and of the world outside our “selves.”

Rene Descartes

Born in 1596, in France, Rene Descartes was a great philosopher, thinker, writer and mathematician who spent his adulthood in the Republic of Dutch. He has arguably been dubbed as the father of modern philosophy with special emphasis on the Western school of thought (Smith 1).

As a result, his pieces of writing remain key reference materials for scholars across the global plane. For example, meditations continue serving as principal text books in philosophy departments of most universities in the world today. His contribution in mathematics set unbeaten record with his efforts being widely applied in calculus and geometry. In development of natural sciences, his input cannot go unnoticed.

He believed that philosophy was a mega entity that encompassed all aspects of knowledge expressed through it. Although most of the works and thoughts have been widely considered, there has been a strong emphasis on Meditations on First Philosophy. As mentioned before, this essay will put emphasis on the second meditation in defining the concept of “I”, also known as “self”.

Meditations on First Philosophy

These meditations are considered as the origin of modern western philosophy. In this coverage, Descartes criticizes most of Aristotle’s arguments and designs questions that have remained debatable in the world of philosophy today. He breaks from the norm created by Aristotle that knowledge is achieved through human senses, and that mental statuses usually resemble what they are. As such, Descartes is able to develop brand new concepts about the mind, ideas and matter (Frankfurt 185).

Second Meditation summary and analysis

In this portion of his findings, Descartes explains the nature of human mind and that it is better than the body. His research revolves around the search for certainty and ignores every idea that carries any slightest doubt. Throughout his memory, Descartes believes that whatever he is happened to see is actually meaningless and may not ever exist in the real life (Descartes 17).

As a result, we can view place and movement as mistaken notions in human life since lack of certainty is the only certain thing that exists in his life. This is essential in defining ourselves our existence.

Is it possible for Descartes to believe that he does not have a body and senses yet he exists? What about the nonexistence of the physical world as proposed by the author? Ironically, he can only posses these doubts of nonexistence if he truly exists.

In other words, one can only be misled by the devil from within if he does exist. As such “I” has to exist in order to doubt and be deceived by the evil one. Nevertheless, it can generally be viewed that “I” is a necessary and true preposition when suggested by somebody or conceived in one’s own mind (Descartes 72).

After conceiving the existence of “I”, the mediator does not stop at this particular point but aims at defining and explaining the meaning of the “I am”. This approach makes it possible to be certain that we possessed a soul, which augments our thinking, nourishment, movement and sensibility. Furthermore, human beings have a body (Frankfurt 185).

Regardless of these initial doubts, many people sink into a ditch of doubts and hang on the fact that one has the ability to think. In other words, our existence does not solely depend on the above-mentioned attributes of human beings, but we have no doubt about our breathing power.

This implies that thinking is essential for a person to exist regardless of whether he has other qualities like body and soul among others. By the fact that thinking defines “self”, it is possible to relate it with human existence and consider it inseparable from being. From a general perspective, we can view one’s self as simply a “thinking something.”

Analysis and definition of “I”

The definition of “I” is enshrined in Descartes’ cogito argument based on its formulation in Latin, “cogito ergo sum” translated as “I think, therefore, I am”. This line is quite famous in the history of philosophy and most probably regarded as the origin of Western philosophy and other schools of thought that developed after Descartes. In this line, the mediator gets in touch with a grip of certainty after his continuous disbelief is manifested in the First Mediation (Frankfurt 186).

In essence, the cogito exposes a different view of the world and states the fact that mind is the only thing in the world that is able to know itself. Notably, an understanding of our mind first before any other thing has remained rooted in the Western philosophy even though the main point of contention has been the connection between the mind and the real world. From this perspective, the mind is no longer an aid to understanding the world but an internally locked thing (Frankfurt 186).

In analyzing Descartes’ Second Meditation, it is of immense significance to note the existing differences, between “I think, therefore I am” as described in the Discourse Method from the general formulation derived from meditations.

At this point of the synthesis, it is imperative to mention that the preposition, “I am, I exist” holds only when it is put forward by a specific individual and conceived by the person’s mind. The mediation is further divided into an argument of three steps, which are: whatever thinks exists, I think therefore and I exist (Frankfurt 188).

However, in understanding “self” through syllogistic reading and analysis denied by Descartes in other pieces of writing is the fact that there is no reason why “whatever thinks exists” should not be doubtful as portrayed by the mediator. This reading approach further analyzes the cogito to be a conclusion that has been reasoned out at a specific point in the doubtful mind of the mediator even when inferences that have been well reasoned out are called to doubt (Frankfurt 189).

The question that we need to ask ourselves in this definition of self is the path taken by somebody to know the cogito when everything else is doubted. As a result, several proposals have been put forth as reading formats and methodologies aimed at simplifying this reading process and step (Frankfurt 202). It would be impossible for a person to say he/she exits or even thinks of existence without being in a real state.

Consequently, the truth is achieved by the utterance concerning the concept of existence. In this line of thought, it can be argued that the existence of a person can only be confirmed by oneself in the present tense, “I am”. It is also important to double emphasize the fact that cogito can only work when one is talking about thought. One cannot say: “I sleep, therefore I am,” since the act of sleeping can be doubted. In explaining this, one cannot doubt the act of thinking because doubt on its own is a form of thought.

Besides cogito, the mediator also affirms that he “thinks” leading to an argument commonly referred to as sun res cogitans (Rorty 215). This comprises of three controversial views regarding the fact that one is a “thinking thing.” In this approach, it is essential to comprehend the meaning of “thing” and “think” to establish their definitive relationship with “I am”.

There are two approaches in defining “self” at this point. This can be done both epistemologically and metaphysically. In other words, body and mind cannot be one since one has got to either know both of them or none of them. As a matter of fact the existence of the body ceases since one is a “thinking thing with delinked body and mind. This gives way for the conclusion that one is a “thing that thinks.”

With preciseness, “I” can be defined as the “thing that thinks.” In addition, “I” posses other attributes apart from being able to think, understand and have the willingness to do certain things. These qualities include but not limited to imagination and the use of senses. In the understanding of “I”, it is worth noting that senses and imagination cannot be trusted (Rorty 214). This is because imagination can trigger all forms of things that may not necessarily be real.

How can one identify a wax? This is made possible through a sense of taste, color, smell, size, shape and hardness among others. When heated, the wax changes some properties but can be identified despite the deviation from the initial form. Due to the fact that wax can be identified even when its shape is infinitely changed, it suffices to mention that this cannot be possible via imagination but through the intellect alone and proper mental scrutiny.

Based on this argument, it can be conclude that the mind knows better than the body. In this approach, human view is that one has to know the mind more than any other thing in his or her life as a way of understanding self better (Rorty 214). There is no doubt in perceiving the identity of something and these actions of thought clearly imply that the item exists in reality. Confirming one’s existence is, therefore, core in order to ascertain the nature of the mind through the intellect alone.

Other definitions of self

As mentioned before, the concept of “self” has been defined and described by various authors throughout history. According to Sorabji, the idea of “self” is real in the human history. He argues that “self” comes to play when the owner of a body is intertwined with existing psychological states (Sorabji 13).

He further notes that in explaining “self,” there is a stream of consciousness, which lacks the owner. In his description of this analogy, Sorabji asserts that his definition of “self” fits other members like animals as an embodied owner of the body. Based on this approach, Sorabji further double emphasizes the fact that there is a need to protect human way of life and not only base on its relationship with the “self” or the interaction between members of a given stream (Sorabji 13).

The broadness of “self” also encompasses the picture of human beings developing into male or female, baker or teacher, son or daughter, Indian or American among other development attributes. Importantly, these cannot be visualized through metaphysical conceptualization of the “self” because of its narrowness in determining the nature of pictures to be adopted. Additionally, the pictures are not considered to be essential and are likely to be altered under extreme pressure (Sorabji 14).

However, visualized pictures are important in describing a complete image of selfhood even though they can be philosophically studied differently. “I am” is also described by the use of unique features, which make human beings different from other creations (Sorabji 14). In essence, thoughts and actions executed by people are usually as a result of the self. It can be described as a substance which persists through time. This is to say that actions and thoughts experienced at different times of the day or in life may as well concern the “self.”

In most cases, philosophical definitions of “self” are discussed based on the first-person attributes. This is because third-person definitions do not identify unique identification properties. Viewed from a different point, “self” can be principally described through discourse and conduct of a person.

As a result, intentions can only be deduced from something being observed through actions undertaken by an individual. Of great significance is the fact that the characteristics of a given “self” have the full potential of determining its real identity (Rorty 215).

Based on this analogy, it can be argued that “I” can be divided into various concepts as defined by specific qualities and attributes. For instance, “self” can be viewed as an illusion (Sorabji 17). This is common in ancient spiritual traditions in which the human identity is conceived as a mere illusion for the existence of individual human beings. This identification further ensures that there is a boundary between humanity and other forms of creation, especially in terms of characteristics and abilities.

In general, individual existence is considered as the representation of a human being and advocates fighting for its rightful position in the world (Rorty 216). Moreover, “self” is linked with time and mind, which determine obsessive thinking based on the future than emphasizing on the present. Most religions advocate for the dissolution of human for human nature to prevail in the world. This is commonly known as nirvana, presence or enlightenment.

Besides viewing self as an illusion, other philosophers approach the concept by considering “self” as an activity. Among these philosophers were Aristotle and Plato, who defined the human soul as the principal essence of humanity but posited against differences in existence.

Unlike Plato and other religious traditions who supported separate existence, Aristotle viewed human “self” as an activity of the body which lacks the properties of becoming immortal (Sorabji 17). To be specific, the soul is viewed as the activity of any living body. In defining the soul, Aristotle divided his argument into four major parts including the desiderative, calculative, rational and scientific part.

Another renowned philosopher and psychologist today who defines “self” is Dr. Phil. He believes that a person dwells on a state of fictional self or authentic self as created by the Supreme Being. According to Dr. Phil, most people define who they are by explaining what they are doing, where they are or their role in the society.

However, Dr. Phil argues that one’s authentic self encompasses genuine existence of a person’s identity (McGraw 1). This is to say that an authentic self demonstrates core human qualities. Additionally, self is made up of the part of an individual that is not defined by profession or a given role in the society. It consists of an individual’s talents skills and wisdom.

The psychologist further argues that an authentic self revolves around the uniqueness of a person, including abilities rather than what he/she is expected to do or become. This, therefore, implies that when an individual does not live to the standards of his authentic self, he adopts a fictional self that has emptiness and incompleteness (McGraw 1).


It is doubtless that the definition of “self” has a wide range of implications. For instance, this knowledge affects the way human beings view themselves different from animals. It makes them have understanding of their uniqueness and potential in using senses to recognize their surrounding and the imagination ability.

Additionally, definition of self impacts the way we interact and perceive others. In other words, human beings are able to appreciate others regardless of their shortcomings and differences since each one of them possesses unique qualities and attributes.

Although there are numerous philosophers who have devoted their lives in defining “I am” concept, Rene Descartes is regarded as the father of Western philosophy and a great contributor of several schools of thought. In particular, Meditations on First Philosophy have widely been used as learning at teaching materials across the globe.

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Sioux Falls: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2007. Print.

Frankfurt, Harry. Descartes’ Discussion of His Existence in the Second Mediation. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2004. Print.

McGraw, Phillip. “Self Matters.” Dr. Phil, 2012. Web.

Rorty, Amélie. Essays on Descartes’ Meditations. California: University of California Press, 1986. Print.

Smith, Kurt, “Descartes’ Life and Works.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012. Web. <>.

Sorabji, Richard. Graeco-Roman Varieties of Self. New York, NY: Springer, 2008. Print.

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