Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Sarah Luczaj

Am I a Self, or Just a Place?

Am I the intersection of points at which my thoughts and feelings interact with my culture, history, relationships, health, the weather today? This is a unique map, which has never been created before. The map is experienced within the body — the first and most obvious differentiating marker between “I” and “everyone else”.

Photo by Robert Naczas
Photo by Robert Naczas

Questions such as “Who am I?” or “What am I?” point toward a “thing” which we are, or a substance. This “thing” is notoriously difficult to grasp or define, and during therapy these questions — “Who am I? What am I?” — while they seem to arise naturally in the mind, can also get in the way of the work the client wants to do.

Maybe it makes more sense to see myself as a location? As a specific intersection of points at which my thoughts and feelings interact with my culture, history, relationships, health, the weather today? As these individual trajectories intersect, each one is changed on meeting the others, creating a unique map of specific points which has never been made before. This map is experienced within the body — the first and most obvious differentiating marker between “I” and “everyone else”.

William James, in 1912, wrote, “The body is the storm centre, the origin of coordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train… The word ‘I’, then, is primarily a noun of position, just like ‘this’ and ‘here’.”

We are the place where our experiences meet and merge and are sorted. This place is not in the slightest abstract: it is our bodies, brains, nervous systems. “Self” is this place, and this orienting system.

Lakoff and Johnson have done extensive research on how the language we use, with special regard to metaphors, is grounded in our bodily experiences of orienting ourselves in space. “Spatial-relations concepts are at the heart of our conceptual systems.” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, p. 25) So language, the hallmark of culture, what separates us from animals, can be seen to be grounded in our physical experiences of seeing the world around us and orienting ourselves within it.

We are in one particular spot, and some things are “beyond us”, “just out of reach”, while others have been “put behind us”, or “set aside” for now while we concentrate on “moving forward” with the task in hand. Maybe we are feeling a little “down”, or maybe we are “over that now”. You get the picture.

The discipline of cultural psychology takes this perception of ourselves as a location as primary. We are “here”, and this presence is an underlying sense that we can all agree on. As long as we are alive, we are “here”, in this body. The rest is a question of where we are in space and time, in our bodies, our families, our cultures and histories.

Maybe that underlying yearning which appears for some “deeper” sense, which is often expressed as “Who am I?” could also form into the question “Where do I come from?”

What do you think?

References

James, W. (1912) Essays in Radical Empiricism. London: Longmans Green & Co. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]

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