The Self: A Consideration
by Richard Moore


We falsify ourselves to save ourselves. Thus, years ago I feigned madness, and the Air Force obliged me with a psychiatric discharge. But how could I convince them--the Government's doctors--without convincing myself a little too? So I became my disguise, tricked myself along with them. He who would save his life shall lose it. Which is to say, he who would save himself may end up wondering what, if anything, he has saved.

Self-saving habits like that, once admitted, make themselves at home in us. Extrication, escape becomes a pattern; Houdini, a hero. Then, after a while, as our final triumph, we extricate ourselves completely--from everything--for good.

What is this self I keep trying to save? Know thyself, said Socrates; and more recently the psychoanalysts have endorsed his sage advice. But it's a trick. Before we can even begin to seek such knowledge, we must be convinced--or take for granted--that there is a self there to know. And our encounters with our analysts are rich with incidents that illustrate how suddenly and thoroughly people can disintegrate when they examine themselves too persistently. So one must ask finally: Is there a self to save? Yes? But how fixed is it? How necessary? Can I somehow become "I," and get along without it? What remains then? Anything? Everything? Maybe more than everything. Blessed, maybe, are the poor in spirit. Our kingdom may be nearer than we realize.

So in the pages that follow, let us run a little test. Let us try to construct a selfless cosmos. A paradox that will bedevil and confuse our experiment must be mentioned at the start: it has to be conducted in language, and language--at least the human language which the generations of us all seem to have been speaking for quite a few millennia now--with its proper nouns and pronouns, like Socrates presupposes the very self that we are proposing to doubt. In effect, we are saying, in language, that language itself may in some deep sense be untrue or incomplete. That is coming pretty close to saying, "All statements in language are false, including this one."

But we mustn't let such amusing conundrums discourage us from pushing on, for we have all had inklings, at least, of worlds beyond words. Images, sounds, relationships. Let us start, then, with these two pillars of a selfless cosmos:

A. There is experience.
B.  Experience is sensations and resemblances.

Assumption A simply states that there is something to talk about, something called "experience" which we needn't define, since we all know what it is and since, as the logicians say, any system must begin with undefined terms. We shan't call it "my experience"--for as yet there is no "I." Nor shall we say "the external world"--for that also implies an "I" for the world to be external to. Experience is simply there--or, if you will, everywhere. The whole idealist-realist question, played and replayed through the centuries by the sons of Plato and Aristotle, in which we have to decide whether reality is within the perceiver or independent of the perceiver, does not come up, because there is no perceiver. Perceived and perceiver are undifferentiated.

Assumption B states how the persisting structures of experience--not just objects and thoughts, but dreams and hallucinations as well--arise from sensations. For many this has seemed a large problem requiring for its proper solution a self replete with a priori notions and other wondrous devices. If there are only sensations with no input from self, soul, or spirit to order them (so runs the argument), how can we recognize even the simplest physical things--like chairs, apple trees, houses--which look different from different angles at different times? How, in short, can the raw chaos of sensation in constant flux become a set of orderly shapes, structures and enduring relationships? Or, still more succinctly, where do categories come from, if not from ourselves?--for the chair we are looking at may be thought of as a subdivision or category of sensation.

Metaphor is the soul of poetry, and the essence of metaphor is resemblance; so the poet, throwing away his Immanuel Kant, cries out that resemblance is the source of all categories. (And a theorem or two in higher algebra will bear him out.) When I take the chair I am sitting on, place it in the center of the room, and walk around it, looking at it, it does indeed change shape in an almost bewildering fashion. To increase the confusion, try shutting and opening your eyes while you walk. How the chair jumps and transforms! Yet all the transformations resemble each other. Colors and textures remain. Shapes are related. Surely these resemblances are the source of the concept, "chair,"--as Aristotle maintained a long time ago. One can't prove it; but one can't disprove it either.

We tend to think that a resemblance implies a perceiver of the resemblance, hence an "I.." But this is quite unnecessary. When all men have perished in the fiery end of the world, will a golf ball and a ping-pong ball still unconsumed in the holocaust cease to resemble each other? There is no logical difficulty, therefore, in assuming, as in B, that the resemblances in experience are an aspect of experience itself and require no notion of a perceiver.

But what about the way the chair jumps from one shape into another in the experience called "walking around it"? What creates an orderly system of smooth motion and continuous transition out of the unconnected pictures that actually appear? Reality is like a yellow school bus moving through the foliage on the other side of the pond. There it is, suddenly, a blur between two trees--and a moment later, there it is again, somewhere else; and there arises the assumption that it is the same bus and that it has passed through all the places in between. Who, if not the self, is making such assumptions?

There is still no problem. We are still talking about patterns, resemblances, in experience--in this case the orderly pattern of the bus's similar appearances. The pattern is as much a part of the experience as the bus itself. Who can prove otherwise?

But the critic will say at this point that the self is also such a pattern--of our thoughts, feelings, bodies--persisting. If we say that such patterns are part of experience, then so is the self a part of experience.

Exactly! The self is there--no doubt about it--but then in the next moment it is not there. Or it has been radically altered. Suddenly the bus turns into a bulldozer, and we say, "Well, really it was a bulldozer all along--wasn't it? We mistook it"--and for that kind of inference, a self is necessary. But is the inference necessary? Without it, there is no self: just selfless experience whose only order is that of fleeting and changing resemblances--buses that turn into bulldozers. Any resemblance, as Robert Frost said of the metaphors that poets and philosophers discover, is bound to break down sometime. The self may be there for a bit, but as many an analyst in quest of his- or herself has discovered, it has a nasty tendency to evaporate.

So, omitting the self leads to what I would like to call (echoing my mathematical betters) The Fundamental Theorem of Experience: Experience is Whimsical. Let me give a concrete illustration or two from actual human experience, so that we may be sure that we are talking about actualities--lively matters, deadly matters--and not merely playing with words.

Some years ago, while I was reading in my room late at night, a mouse ran into my closet, and a hunting urge rose unchecked through the dullness of the reading. Why not catch the mouse and kill it? There was no cat to put into the closet, so in I went myself. I shut the door behind me and turned the closet light on. After I had examined most of the shoes, boxes of old letters, dirty shirts, fallen neckties, etc., on the floor and put them outside, only two shoes remained in different corners. I saw the mouse dart from the first shoe to the second. It happened so quick, I couldn't be sure whether he was under the second shoe or in it. I covered the shoe with the palm of my hand and picked it up. No mouse. Then the mouse was inside the shoe . . .

But he wasn't. All the while he (or she) was under the first shoe, as later appeared. How could this be--since I had seen him dart from the first shoe to the second and not back again and had kept my eyes intensely focused on the objects the whole time?

In these events we have a clear and actual instance of the pattern--the metaphor (the continuity of the mouse)--suddenly collapsing on us without warning. It would appear that the universal and automatic human impulse in such a situation (they occur more frequently than most of us suppose) is to reach out for an explanation. We all wish to be defined, wish experience to be orderly; and when the order breaks down, we immediately rush in with a new statement which restores order, restores ourselves.

At the time, for example, I pleased myself with the following explanation: the mouse's first dash, from the first to the second shoe, was pure exhibitionism, was merely to get me to see him do it, that is, to get my eyes opened and sharply focused, so that in the next instant they would blink. Then during that blink the mouse ran back to the first shoe. (Mice must be endowed with an instinct for doing this: those mice that dashed in a certain rhythm escaped and reproduced themselves, etc.) I didn't see him make his second dash because my eyes were closed. It will be noticed that this explanation is in terms of an observing self. But other explanations--an infinite number of other explanations--are possible. To take just two: I might say that the mouse had magical attributes; or I might resist the temptation to explain at all and simply say that experience is whimsical.

What is there to choose between accepting my first explanation and postulating a magical mouse? Which choice would be the correct one? The logical answer has to be that either choice is possible. The experience itself is absolutely noncommittal on the subject. Yet I choose my initial explanation without much hesitation because it fits better with the rest of my experience, including the other explanations which are also habitual parts of it. In another time, place, and culture--if I had been a Borneo headhunter before 1800, say--I would doubtless have decided in favor of the magical mouse.

More might be observed here, but let us go on to a more resonant example. The time is a year or two before my disenchantment with the U. S. Air Force, and the final touches are being put on my training as a pilot. It is night and I am in a T-6, a single-engined two-seater, with an instructor in the back seat, on the final approach to land, less than 100 feet above the ground. There are many other planes like mine in the area; they follow prescribed patterns, but one must be constantly alert in the dark to the possibility of a collision. Usually the brightest lights on a T-6 were a blinking green light, (g) , on the right wing tip and a blinking red light, (r) , on the left wing tip. I looked up and saw a dark shape like this:

The green and red lights were moving slowly apart and the dark shape was getting larger. It was obviously another T-6, rapidly approaching, about to crash into me. I threw my T-6 into a steep turn, lost altitude rapidly and leveled out just in time to clear the roofs of a group of dimly lighted barracks. The stick leapt out of my hand. The instructor had taken control and was shouting in angry terror. I stuttered something about a plane about to hit us. "What plane?" he yelled. I looked and saw the same green and red lights moving slowly apart, but now there was no shadowy shape connecting them and they were on two different aircraft on the other side of the traffic pattern. There had been no plane about to hit us.

I had made a false conclusion about the two lights, constructed an inappropriate metaphor, and in my terror had an hallucination. Or had I? How are we to make sense of these events without resorting to the concept of me, the perceiver, the hallucinator? (And what would be the use of doing so?) We say that the shadowy shape of the approaching plane that I saw was a hallucination because that image is in conflict with the rest of experience. In other words, the hallucination hypothesis is based on the assumption that experience is not whimsical. But to me this seems an explanation with a certain unavoidable artificiality. I actually saw the lights on the dark shape of a single approaching aircraft with the same immediacy that I saw the lights afterwards as belonging to separate aircraft. Perhaps even more vividly. I can close my eyes and see them now, many years later. The explanation, involving the supposition of an hallucinating self, demands that I dismiss this image as unreal and of no consequence. As a "sensible man" I ought to forget it --or try to.

But in reply I say simply: all experience is real. I will not assert myself and dismiss any part of it simply because it is, or seems, illogical. That way lies loss of life and vividness, lies death. So resigning that self role, I simply let experience be--and accept the necessary consequence that it is whimsical. And with that choice--that last choice--the chooser is free to vanish, and the ordering self becomes unnecessary.

It should be pointed out that although this choice may be "unscientific," it is every bit as logical as the conclusion that the apparition was "unreal." Logic is a set of rules about consistency. These rules may be interesting because they were suggested by experience and are indeed a part of experience. They may be very pretty things in themselves and in their apparent applications to the rest of experience; but the existence of such rules in no way implies their relevance to experience as a whole. In fact, there is a school of mathematicians for whom such relevance is a matter of total indifference. For the pure logician there is no need whatever for experience to be logical; there is only the need for logic to be logical.

But the objection will be made that my choice is impossible because part of experience is the need for it to be orderly. We absolutely must dismiss some parts of our experience in order to maintain the consistency of what remains. Otherwise we shall go mad. Precisely! If we let experience be whimsical and concede that every idea, shape, object in it has only the provisional validity of metaphor, then we will go mad: we will lose our sense of self! We may summarize this argument in two statements: 1) we must have the self because experience must be orderly and 2) experience must be orderly because we must have the self.

The self in this is like God. Saint Anselm and his followers down through the centuries said, in effect, that our need to believe in God proves His existence. But some people seem to get along quite well without God, and it may be that some people can get along quite well--perhaps swimmingly well--without a concept of self.

Today at nightfall I was walking down a street under an overcast sky, and I thought I saw the moon out of the corner of my eye, looked up, and saw that it was the globe of a street light. Thus we phrase things in our lying way, ever eager to "make sense" out of them. In this one case at least, I shall say what really happened. I was walking along a street, thinking about a mathematical problem, and saw the moon out of the corner of my eye, and when I looked at it directly, it turned into a street light. Why not eliminate the "I" as well and say, the moon in an overcast sky interrupted a mathematical problem and then naughtily turned into a street light? Clearly we are entering the realm of poetry, which I would like to define as the realm where selflessness has a chance: where we stop telling things what they are and let them tell us what they are. When Adam named the things in the Garden, did he tell them what their names were, or did they tell him? It happened before the Fall, so obviously they told him.

Fundamentally experience is whimsical because categories do not arise in consistent ways. One set of resemblances, as we have seen, may be replaced by another suddenly and without warning. Most schoolchildren nowadays are familiar with those so-called "intelligence tests," in which we are presented with three or four figures or items and invited to say which one does not belong with the others. How about these four?

There are--are there not?--four possible answers: figure 1 is the misfit because it is smaller than the others; figure 2 is because it is the only one with four sides; figure 3 because it is the only one with a curved line; figure 4 because it is the only one that is not closed. So it is with experience. There are usually not one, but several, possible interpretations--metaphors--ways that the raw stuff of sensation organizes itself into categories. As we have said, such interpretations can be taken as belonging to experience; but they can also change without warning, as the interpretation of the lights changed when I was flying the T-6. Consider another very familiar example:

This figure most obviously resembles a three-dimensional cube, but it does so in two ways: the lower square forward or behind. As we look at it, we see it flip back and forth, for some more rapidly than for others. The people in the world--those wonderfully vivid and complex metaphors called people--fall into classes according to how they respond to this diagram. There are the solemn dogmatic types who grow uncomfortable when they are confronted by this willfulness in things; and there are the playful frivolous souls who are delighted.


"But," the scientist will object, "the concept of the self may be variable and dispensable theoretically. As a practical matter it is fixed and necessary, like the category 'chair,' about which no one would disagree."

Sir, you mean no one in his right mind would disagree. You have to say that to exclude hallucinations and dreams. And most of us, you will have to agree, are in our wrong minds a good deal of the time. Are you going to throw out all that wonderful oddity and variety to preserve your petty little sense of order?

Let us consider the self's wonderful variability as a prelude to dispensing with it completely. What, for example, does the personal pronoun mean in Homer? Consider the opening lines of the Iliad:

"Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, (which was) destructive, which brought misery on many Greeks, flung the brave souls of many heroes to Hades and made themselves booty for dogs and a banquet for the birds." That word "themselves" is awkward, and the translation goes better as an English sentence if you say their "bodies" or, as Pope has it, their "limbs." Achilles' wrath sent their souls to Hades and left their bodies rotting on the battlefield. That makes sense to us. But it isn't what Homer says. He says Achilles' wrath sent their souls ("spirits" would probably be better--or "ghosts") underground and they themselves (the reflexive pronoun) were left rotting. Clearly Homer's idea of the self was rather different from ours. We are our bodies.

My self? My foot!

Descartes would never have accepted anything like this. Cogito ergo sum. He thought he existed because he had thoughts. Or as Milton's interesting devil, Belial, puts it a few years later, speaking of death:

                                        who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather . . .

But for us "intellectual beings" of a more artificial civilization, Homer's view in this matter epitomizes the undying charm of the ancient Greeks: the answers they gave to the questions that haunt us all were always the simplest, the most sensuous, the most direct and childlike . . . If some thought or event can bring us to doubt our personal self, what do we do? We pinch ourselves. And that pain reassures us. We are our bodies. We still go back to that in panic, although we no longer consciously believe it.

"But Homer," we have come to say, "isn't all this about my foot just a trifle crude and unpleasant? Doesn't it confine us?" Christians, humanists, existentialists--whatever we are--we gaze toward higher, or at least more interesting things. And yet I knew a cranky old man in the hills of Vermont once, who told me that there hasn't been a good hot dinner in poetry since Homer. Keats comes pretty close, but when he serves up something, as in "The Eve of St. Agnes," it's all dessert. Shakespeare has banquets, but they aren't really food; they are grand symbols of concord, communions, jovial variations of the Last Supper. When I read Homer, I sometimes have the feeling that we have been starving to death for 3000 years.

Another ancient Greek idea, Aristotle's notion of imitation, will help us understand why the self concept varies so from culture to culture--and even in different stages of the same culture. The social animal--at least, in the human case--is necessarily an imitative animal; for it would seem to be our capacity to imitate others and to let their thoughts and personalities invade ours that makes coherent society possible. There is an unthinking, childlike quality in this tendency to imitate which does not fit well with the idea of a self centered in our thoughts, consciousness, and intellect--the "dualistic" self of Descartes separate from "objective reality," on which scientific theory depends; and in fact, if we take the phenomenon of imitation seriously, instead of relegating it to the safety of the children's playhouse or to the fiction shelf in the library, we shall find that it implies a fluidity of human identity in which Descartes' dualistic self can only dissolve. As Keats remarked, " . . . the poetical Character . . . has no self--it is every thing and nothing . . . has no Identity . . . continually . . . filling some other Body . . . " and as social beings, all of us are poets in this Keatsian--and Aristotelian--sense: sympathizing, feeling into, imitating one another.

What, then, will Descartes' plaything, science, say of such infamous doings, such surprising applications of Aristotelian principles? What will it do when it sees the mind, its beautiful recording instrument, melting like a snowball in a pot of warm water?

Science has itself stoked the fire under the pot.

Jacob Brownowski said that atomic physics has been the great poem of the twentieth century. Good to know that there has been one! It's curious how, as poets and their work fall into near total disrepute, that word "poem" still retains its mystical aura, so that even scientists rush to label themselves with it in public. The label may be more apt than Brownowski realized; for in this poem there is an enchanting example of something found either in grave poems of the poorer sort or in the finest comic poems: the metaphor which breaks down.

It's called the uncertainty principle, and it seems to me to be "nature's" final answer to the quest of science--clear, succinct, elegant. As in much of the greatest science, we don't perform an experiment, we imagine one. Suppose that a very small particle, say an electron, is moving and that we wish to observe it and predict where it is going. We see it at point A at a certain time, and then a little later at point B.

The positions of A and B give us the direction in which the electron is moving, and the times at which we have seen it at these points tell us how fast it is moving. So as long as it does not interact with any other particles, we ought to be able to predict its position, C, at any future time. Right?

Wrong! The only way we can "see" the electron at point B is to bounce some kind of radiation off it and back to a receiving instrument, and this will affect its future behavior unpredictably. Furthermore, we can never see exactly where the electron is because radiation always produces a more-or-less fuzzy image. So there are two kinds of uncertainty involved: the uncertainty about where it is and the uncertainty about how we have affected it. Lower energy radiation (which has a longer wavelength) creates less uncertainty about how we may have changed its course but produces a fuzzier picture. On the other hand, if we make the picture clearer, we must lower the wavelength, which increases the energy of the radiation and therefore also the uncertainty about how we have affected the particle. The beauty of the situation is that for all possible choices of wavelength the combined uncertainty, say the physicists, is exactly the same. This constant of uncertainty--"Planck's constant"--is a very important number in physics and makes its appearance in many experiments and theories. It has been grandly called "the quantum of the cosmos;" but its full title should be "the quantum of whimsicality of the cosmos."

Thus, in its ultimate detail the cosmos is unpredictable, and this is so because we affect the cosmos by looking at it, that is, because the observer and what he observes cannot be separated. The metaphor, the myth, of separation between the subjective observer and objective reality has broken down. There is no observer, no observed. There is only experience.


"All right," I seem to hear the scientist saying, "you have shown that the self, like all concepts, is more-or-less arbitrary and whimsical: sometimes body, sometimes thoughts; sometimes losing itself in others, sometimes standing proudly aloof atop that little hill of peculiar odds and ends, its personal history; and often, no doubt, indulging itself in other forms and possibilities that you haven't mentioned. But you still haven't shown that the concept of self--some concept of self--isn't a practical necessity. And in fact--forgive me if I sound a little tautologous--human life without a concept of self is inconceivable. When am I ever selfless?"

Why, sir, several times a day, on the average. For each of us, experience becomes selfless regularly and often. Every time we either like or dislike something intensely, that thing fills our consciousness, and our awareness of self vanishes. When we listen to a piece of music and become intensely involved with it, then the music, as the poet says, is heard so completely that it is not heard at all, but we are the music while the music lasts.

The self only comes into existence after the music is over and we bring the conventions of language to bear on it and say, "This evening I listened to the Schubert Quartet in A Minor." If we say this to someone else, then the meaning of the "I" is clear enough, if we don't enquire about it too much. But what if we say it to ourselves? Then there are two selves involved: the "I" in the sentence and the self to whom the sentence is addressed; and the implication is that they are different because the sentence has the air of communicating information. Talking to oneself is a sign of madness . . . but that's not true. You are mad only if you answer yourself back.

Thus, in any intense experience the self vanishes. It only enters later as a social and linguistic convenience when there is talk about the experience. It arises, not from experience as a whole, but from language--our human language of the last few dozen millennia --in particular.

Could we imagine another kind of language, then--not music, nor mathematics, nor the dance, but a proper language with words--that might incorporate selflessness? It would start, I think, with the two sentences taboo in scientific investigation: "I like it" and "I don't like it," and would replace these with the more earthy, elegant, and far less artificial statements, "Yum!" and "Yuk!" They are more childish, but they are also considerably more accurate; for as we have said, there is no "I" and "it" in such experiences, but only the experience and our reaction inextricably involved, that is, only "yum" and "yuk," in which the "I" and "it" fuse. You can say with Bishop Berkeley that it is all "I" or with the materialists that it is all "it," but both these interpretations are artificial and violate the totality of the experience.

At once we have bypassed the famous "Know thyself!" of Socrates--that infallible recipe for anguish which has tormented the centuries--and Freud and his followers, who founded a whole profession to minister to that anguish.

Insofar as we are alive, there is no self. There is only that pattern of yums and yuks--a pattern in time associated with a body and with many other bodies, things, and patterns of things. The "self," so called, is a changeable, fickle, and essentially absurd idea that we get from these yums and yuks, a pattern that appears in them, a structure of resemblances. I am what I was yesterday because I like the same things--which is to say merely that there is a persisting pattern in the positives and negatives in my selfless experiences. I call this pattern "I," since all things must have a name, and there is no harm in doing this as long as I am not too serious and insistent about it. For this pattern is in constant change, never today precisely what it was yesterday, and to insist on consistency is to deaden the present experience. So I relax--or try to, trying to forget the useless conceptions I have been taught--and let myself change minute by minute. Glitter of sunlight and great shadows pass over the landscape. If I exist at all, I am like music, forever modulating into new keys.

As we have seen, science is excluded from this unified world, science's pure intellect having floated away in an unpredictable sea of resemblances. Then what becomes of logic, incarnate in that "queen of the sciences," mathematics? Logic, like Rilke's angel, is beautiful but dangerous. Like language, it is a glorious invention, a triumph of our delight in things. But when we apply it to ourselves--having gotten up some sufficiently static concept of ourselves--and allow it to destroy our yums and yuks, monsters are born. Think of Himmler, soft-spoken gentle Himmler, lecturing his S. S. troops who were carrying out the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and Russians. You must overcome your natural aversion to this kind of thing, he said, because such responses are contrary to the logic of the cause and the principles in which we all believe. You must remember that you are good Nazis. Remember your selves.

But we don't need Himmler to illustrate the principle. It operates in our experience daily. As we have seen, we are forever demanding consistency of our notions and our responses in order to preserve an idea of ourselves. Logic can lead us to new things in experience and even change the quality of an experience--and if so, let it, since logic is experience too--but it can also deaden and distort. There is no rule, there is only a deftness to be learned, a tact. There can hardly even be vividness of sensuous impression--only blur and confusion--without the metaphors, the resemblances, that is, the frills of logic that come variously with it. Yet metaphor limits whenever it illuminates, the one effect inextricable from the other.

So it is not only possible to discard all concepts of self; experience cries out to and rewards us for doing so. When there is no self, then we are nothing. Sometimes when I can leave off for a while the actions and thoughts which keep defining a self for me unawares, I sit still and feel that nothing--feel it as something positive, something mysteriously, actually there. The zero, the real person, the central being. That which will slip and slide outside of any definition, any set of actions, any work of art even. This central person, this true self, will never be found. We deal with it every day.