30 Apr 2012

Essay Topic: Self-Concept Seen Through the Eyes of Philosophers

Throughout the history, human beings have struggled to find a satisfactory answer to the question of identity. Some of the prehistoric philosophers made a clear distinction between body and the soul and they were known as dualists, while others considered a human body to be the active as well as passive construct in itself. The modern philosophy has been concerned more about the role of consciousness as it makes the identity of self. It is believed that a self without consciousness is nothing but a floating existence that does not have an ability to sense anything and build perception. Self that can build perception is the one that can be taken into consideration. Self-concept refers to the capability of a self to perceive its own existence through different domains like gender, sex, society, environment and race. Self-concept is not an easily comprehensible phenomenon because it differs from self-awareness in a sense that it discovers the characteristics of self through a multidimensional analysis.

Self-concept refers to phenomenon that has a broader scope for the analysis of an individual. It is more like self-assessment but is not confined to the physical characteristics of the self. According to Jopling (2000), “When applied to the question “Who am I?” the intellectualist approach would hold that it is both rational and self-evidently desirable for persons to maximize their self-awareness and their self-knowledge, with a view to rendering the self, and the conditions under which the self develops and flourishes, as transparent as possible”, (p. 59). Self-concept deals not with the temporary state of existence but it is more concerned with universal judgment of one’s capabilities.

The statement “I am bored” exemplifies the temporary state of a self because this state lasts only for a few moments of time, while the statement “I am punctual” refers to a permanent state of self. Self-concept refers to the self-assessment, self-discovery and the esteem of the concerned existence and it may change with time because of a number of factors. A negative trend in self-assessment may lead to an identity crisis as the self finds its capacities to be diminishing with time.

Erik Erikson, a famous Freudian psychoanalyst, suggests that there are eight stages of development that may shape the identity of an individual (Sharkey, 1997). It is important to be noted here that he believes that it is the childhood years that are vital to an individual’s development as the stimulus, during those years, will eventually help him in the process of self-actualization. According to him, it is the very first year of birth that helps a child to build trust in the world and that is the first phase, where the self struggles to recognize its own existence. Erikson is of the belief that an individual seeks independence at the age of 3 years and that is where the teachers can determine the level to which an individual is independent to act. If a child does not experience independence in that particular time then it develops mixed feelings of shame and doubt. An individual that has experienced this kind of treatment in childhood is going to be dependent on others as he grows up (Sharkey, 1997).

The age between 3 to 6 years is an important one to deal with because in that stage the child develops an internal stimulus to take initiatives. The one, who is ignored by his guardians in this stage, is going to suffer from a mixed feeling of anger and sadness. If the child, at this stage, is not encouraged by parents then he is going to develop an aggressive behavior. An individual, who develops this kind of feelings, can later on become a sadist and may start discouraging others (Boeree, 2006). Just because he was not given a chance to rise up, he seizes to believe that others are to be given a chance in their lifetime. The feelings like “I can’t do it” may disturb the individual psychologically.

The fourth stage of development at the age of 5 to 12, according to Erikson, determines the level of self-confidence that is to be achieved by the child. In this age, a child is ready to take up challenges and has developed sense of time and space that he lives in. It is the time, when a child is eager to develop his capabilities by getting involved in productive activities. The interaction with other individuals helps him in developing moral values that are in harmony with the society. If a child is teased or discouraged at this time then he is likely to develop a sense of inferiority, which may prove detrimental in the later stages of development because he loses confidence. The next stage of development occurs from the age of 13 to 19 years. This is where the real crisis of identity starts to emerge as the individual seeks a purpose of his existence (Boeree, 2006).

Some individuals may find themselves in the trap because of getting confused about their role in life. This confusion eventually leads to an isolated behavior as the individual experiences a continuous struggle to recognize his real role. The sixth stage of development is an emotional one because it brings confusing questions for an individual. An individual might feel afraid of getting rejected by his friends and parents and might end up in isolation. In this stage, an individual may struggle to find love for him and end up in believing that he is not loved by anyone. The sixth stage of development is the one that happens to mature individuals. An individual, in this stage of development, is more concerned about health, married life, leisure, aged parents and his own children. A person in this stage of life follows a status quo to earn a specious life for his family (Sharkey, 1997).

The eighth stage is the one that happens to an individual, who is about to die. It is where an individual seeks accountability from himself. This is where the recognition of life is made possible. Some may look into their past and feel comfortable about the way they lived, while others might feel miserable about their lives and become sad. By explaining the 8 stages of development, Erikson believes that the perception about self is formed through a set of influential stimuli that are received by an individual through societal interaction. He takes an account of two kinds of feelings that an individual may experience throughout his lifetime; one might develop a sense of success, while the other one may highlight the failures. These feelings would easily make a person or break him because they help in forming negative and positive perception about self. They really help a person in the pathway to self-discovery.

Abraham Maslow, a famous psychologist, proposed theories about motivation. His work is concerned with the factors that may help a person to solve identity crisis. Maslow believes that self-actualization is the real discovery of one’s self. He links self-actualization with the fulfillment of psychological, self-esteem and safety needs. He is of the belief that self-actualization can only be attained if a person’s needs are fulfilled. Maslow is concerned with the individuality of a person because he believes that the external environment has a negligible impact over the self as the integrity, unity and consciousness are internal capacities (Sivers, 2008). It is the external environment that brings distress and restlessness to an individual because it won’t let an individual do what he is best at.

Maslow is of the belief that a person should not let the external stimulus overpower him because it is the inner-self that provides the clues about how exactly one should act. The external stimulus brings discontent with it because it is quite different than the choices that are made by an individual. Maslow deems it important for an individual to realize his self-worth before taking guidance from an influential external stimulus. Self can only emerge if an individual provides it the way to do so (Sivers, 2008). Self-actualization is all about discovering the principles of nature that are inculcated in your moral system.

Self-actualization starts when an individual recognizes the difference between what he wants to do and what he ought to do. If he chooses to be honest then he is taking up the responsibility, which, according to Maslow, is self-actualization. People that listen to others would end up doing nothing because no one is there to help you out in difficult situations because of their selfish capacity. An individual that listens to his inner voice is the one that discovers his self (Sivers, 2008).

According to Maslow, you do not need to be concerned about what others think of what you do. The way you act can become unpopular and you may be criticized for doing it your way but it is all about how you carry yourself in that situation. You do not have to worry about how insignificant your act may look but the real worth of your act can only be realized, when you do it yourself. It is important to recognize the good and the bad so that you can act accordingly (Sivers, 2008). Finding what you are and what you are not may help you disocver your true self. This way, you can also discover the things that may be essential to consider before grooming yourself.

Maslow argues that acceptance is the key to a successful self-discovery. You need to be the one, who accepts his surroundings the way they are because it helps in cherishing relationship with nature and people. Maslow believes that human beings can discover themselves by relying heavily on their inner impulses that may help them in choosing the realistic way. The inner-self must be autonomous to make decision. For Maslow, transcending is better than coping (Sivers, 2008).

Karen Horney, a renewable thinker, would support Maslow’s theory because she believed that the drive, to identify self, originates from one’s inner self. Self-identity, for Horney, is the struggle to identify the potential of one’s own self. She believes that self-discovery helps an individual to recognize the purpose of life. Horney divides self into two parts; real and ideal self. Real self pertains to the person who you actually are, whereas the ideal self is an imaginary existence that a person wants to imitate. She presents ideal self to be the role model for an individual because it is an imaginary reflection of what a person wants to become (Solomon, 2006). Horney, like Maslow, thinks that being honest is the first step in the process of self-actualization because it helps in realizing the true potential of self. Horney believes that change is inevitable and a person needs not to be resistant to change because it makes you the person that you want to be (Dewey, 2007).

Harry Stack Sullivan, a notable psychiatrist, would develop six stages of development that, according to him, would systematically shape the behavior of an individual. Sullivan believes that people discover themselves as a component of external environment because they form their perception through the feedback that they receive from people in their surroundings. Sullivan believes that people have a “good me” and “bad me” philosophy of self, which is formed through a positive and negative feedback respectively. An individual distinguishes himself from others by affiliating the notion of “I and you” with the society. Self-system is built in a way that an individual draws security measures to handle any situation that may pop up (Nursing theories, 2011).

The negative feedback from the society develops an egoistic self. Individuals tend to show aggressiveness because of being ridiculed by the society. According to Sullivan, an individual may create self-defense techniques to avoid conflict with other individuals. The security measures may be taken by his self-system in order to avoid anxiety and frustration. The “I and you” concept dominates the thought process of these individuals and may create situations, where the individual finds himself to be the only fighter in the battle against the “bad world” (Nursing theories, 2011). Sullivan’s concept of self is similar to that of Maslow because he thinks that individual forms a perception about himself by interacting with the members of the society.

Karl Jung, an imminent psychologist, believes that self is much more than what we think of it. According to Ewen (2003), “Carl Jung At first a supporter of psychoanalysis, then broke with Freud to establish his own theory. Believed that the unconscious is extremely important but disagreed with Freud in many respects: Human nature is both good and bad. There are important instincts in addition to sexuality and aggressiveness (including individuation, the forerunner of the humanistic concept of self-actualization)”, (p. 1). He believes that culture has something to do with who we are because it makes up the identity of individuals.

Jung was of the belief that self is something more than ego and it should be analyzed through a broader perspective. It is not what we think it is. Self is what it really should be. There is some power that makes the self what it is. According to Huskinson (2004), “It is generally thought that Jung primarily developed his concept of the Self primarily from his own concept of the ‘transcendent function’, and from Eastern Mysticism, which frequently refers to notions of totality”, (p. 56).

Religion, according to Jung, is the binding factor because it gives meaning to all that you experience. Jung believes that the ones that suffer from neurosis are those that do not believe in religion. Jung put an emphasis over the fact that it is the true self of an individual that is important to be explored. The self, according to Jung, has infinite opportunities to explore in this world and it should not be confined with the domains that physique is acquainted with (Creative personal growth, 2006).

In the concluding lines it can be said that most of the philosophers consider self to be a product of societal stimulus. Many think that we are what we think we should be. The notion, that self is a product of experience, would suppress the stance of Maslow and Horney, who believe that self-actualization is what constructs the dimensions of self, while Carl Jung puts an emphasis over the fact that it is the religion that makes the true self. Whatever could be said, the ambiguity about the question of identity continues to prevail.


Ewen, R B. (2003), An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ

Jopling, D A. (2000), Self-Knowledge and the Self, Routledge, New York

Huskinson, L. (2004), Nietzsche and Jung: The Whole Self in the Union of Opposites, Brunner-Routledge, New York

Solomon, I. (2006), Karen Horney and Character Disorder, Springer, New York

Boeree, G. (2006), Erik Erikson, retrieved on Apr 12, 2012, from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/erikson.html

Sharkey, W. (1997), Erik Erikson, retrieved on Apr 12, 2012, from http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/erikson.htm

Dewey, R. (2007), Karen Horney and Self Analysis, retrieved on Apr 12, 2012, from http://www.intropsych.com/ch13_therapies/karen_horney_and_self-analysis.html

Sivers, D. (2008), Maslow’s 8 ways to self-actualize, retrieved on Apr 12, 2012, from http://sivers.org/maslow

Creative personal growth, 2006, Carl Jung and his ideas on self, retrieved on Apr 12, 2012, from http://www.creative-personal-growth.com/carl-jung.html

Nursing theories, (2011), Sullivan’s interpersonal theory, retrieved on Apr 12, 2012, from http://nursingplanet.com/theory/Sullivan’s_interpersonal_theory_of_personality.html

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