Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Self Identity Of An Unfolding Personality

( Originally Published 1916 )

CHANGE is implied in the unfolding of personality from stage to stage. If, therefore, we are to speak of the same self throughout, it must be a self that maintains its identity in spite of this continuous change. Moreover, our very consciousness depends on change. It has long been admitted that to have always the same consciousness (were that possible) would amount to the same thing as not to be conscious at all. If, for the sake of experiment, we try to fix our attention upon some external object in order to maintain an unchanged field before the mind, we almost immediately find some re-arrangement taking place. The object is either displaced from the centre of attention by some other object, or it suggests some train of associated ideas. We may with an effort recall the mind to what was a moment or two ago before it, but it is already to a partially changed field—at best the old field with a new atmosphere about it and a certain fresh interest pervading it. And no sooner have we effected the recall than the mind moves on again, and fresh ideas or objects gain possession. From this continuous movement of consciousness the mental life has been described as a "stream " of consciousness.

Here, then, is change both as implied in the unfolding of personality and as implied in mental activity. How can we harmonise with these conditions of change our consciousness of an abiding personality ? From moment to moment there has been change, yet we believe that we are the same persons that we were ten years ago, in childhood, even at birth. How are the two things to be reconciled ? It is clearly one of the first problems to be faced in connection with our consciousness of our own individuality to see what really is involved in this a reference of a manifold which is continually changing to a common centre which is relatively permanent."

The suggested solutions vary considerably. The previous chapter has led up to the view that this common centre need not be, as some have described it, absolutely and unchangingly permanent—" a pure unit," or " a simple and indivisible point." Such a common centre would be in danger of finding itself in the forlorn condition of Euclid's point : that is to say, having "no parts and no magnitude," it would find it difficult to come into effectual relationship with anything actual, and difficult to prove itself, or even to realise itself, to be anything actual. What is abstract cannot be fundamental. This view of an " absolute " self, a common or unifying centre of all experience which itself undergoes no change, is yielded by the endeavour to interpret everything in terms of intellect. Persistent analysis will, of course, yield us certain ultimate abstractions. But pure abstraction is a cul de sac. It leads to nowhere beyond itself. The self of experience has in it more than the pure unity of a simple and indivisible point. Indeed, viewing the self as a pure unit, or as having as its element of unity a simple and indivisible point, we easily run on to rocks of difficulty. So we read in the work from which these descriptions are taken : " The permanent element which persists all through change does not explain that change away, or render it less perplexing. But the permanent element does exist, and it is in respect of that element that, in spite of the change, we ascribe personal identity to the changed person. The question presents itself—unfortunately with-out an answer—how a permanent and changeless character comes to develop itself in time and space. But this is only part of the large problem—equally insoluble—how change of any sort is possible, when the ultimate reality is a timeless absolute." If, once more to refer to Euclid, we were to argue by analogy from Euclid's method of reductio ad absurdum, the moral of which was to change the hypo-thesis, might we not say that a first postulate in philosophy, which leaves us with unanswerable and insoluble problems just where it is of most vital importance to have some sort of answer, also needs reconsideration ? It is impossible to see how any self-consciousness at all could arise in connection with such a centre. The original nucleus of personality must be of such a nature as not to be above the admission of relativity and change, if it is to be a true basis of experience which consists in change.

In this and the following chapters the problem will be taken up from various points of view, the discussion of each tending to the same answer, namely, that change and unfolding are not incompatible ; but rather that they are but two aspects of the same fact. If there be, as it seems necessary to think, a primary nucleus in any way resembling what we have been describing, and if from this primary nucleus as starting-point experience develops and personality unfolds, then it should not be impossible to see that primary tendencies may persist though the actual details of our life-history are always in progress. Some of the stand-points from which this problem of the permanence yet progressiveness of ourselves will be considered are the following :

(1) The fact of man's being a compound organism of mind and body, and the suggestion thence arising of a permanence of his mental being.

(2) Man's organic unity in his more distinctive character as a psychical or spiritual being.

(3) The mental process (a) as a blending of instinct with experience ; (b) as continuous ; (c) as implying self-determination on the part of the self.

(4) Some of the phenomena commonly referred to as belonging to the "sub-conscious " self.

The first two of these form the subject of the present chapter.

(1) As to man's being a compound organism of mind and body, the fact is somewhat feelingly put to the proof in the illustration of the schoolmaster caning one boy as distinguished from his caning a row of boys. If six strokes are given to six boys they have "similar feelings, but no continuous feeling." If the six strokes are given to one boy, he has continuous feeling, through which the intimate association of his mind (or state of feeling) and his body is clearly evidenced. Montaigne, in one of his piquant references to education, says : "'Tis not a mind, 'tis not a body, we are building up, but a man ; and we ought not to divide him." And such popular expressions as "a healthy mind in a healthy body" (with which Locke opens his "Thoughts on Education," and which he retains as his text for a considerable part of his treatise) show how fully the fact of man's being for all practical purposes a psycho-physical unity is appreciated.

The physical part of man's being counts for much. All mental processes have a physical accompaniment. The nervous organism takes shape in accordance with these mental processes, the effect being practically permanent. Further, in spite of change in the atoms of which our bodies are composed, there is a real sense in which we retain the same body. We find illustrations of this in mere details. A child gashes his cheek by falling on the point of a pair of scissors, or a schoolboy receives a hack on the shin at football, and the scars remain through life. This permanence of bodily configuration, along with the fact that the changes are infinitesimally gradual and vary in rate (the bones changing with least rapidity), gives to the body we have in middle life a tangible identity with that which we had in childhood. Now, if we add to these two facts of nerve-modification and permanence of bodily configuration the further fact that physiological dispositions have a decided effect upon the thoughts, we may expect that there will be a projection from the physical on to the mental plane, which projection, being consciously or sub-consciously ever present, contributes its quota alike to the fact and to the assurance of permanency. The very persistence of memory depends very largely on the persistence of the same organic conditions. If we had shifty bodies we could hardly expect to have permanent souls, or at any rate to know that we had them.

Side by side with this is the fact that the main modes of mental activity remain fundamentally the same throughout our conscious experience. Desiring, deliberating, willing; feeling, emotion, sentiment ; perceiving, imagining, reasoning, are features of mental activity, the forms of which undergo little change, though, of course, their contents change indefinitely. The products of these processes also tend to be stable. This general identity of processes and stability of products is also bound up with the intimate association of mind and body. Man, in a word, is corn-pounded of mind and body : and in the known stability of form and capacity of the one we have a foundation for and a clue to the continuity and permanence of the other. "Body, as such, is not soul, nor, again, does body 'act on' soul, nor soul on body, as two separate ' things' on nother, but their changes are interwoven as connected phases in the complex constitution of the greater whole of which both are elements. And this whole is the real self." :

(2) Man is, however, distinctly a psychical being ; according to definition, a "rational animal." And, in accordance with a well-established biological principle, he attains in virtue of his higher nature to a higher form of unity.

It is not quite adequate to say (even in distinguishing mental unity from organic unity) that "an oyster is just as much an organic unity as a philosopher." 2 Whilst willing to start by saying that a philosopher is at least as much an organic unity as an oyster—and what permanence we ascribe to the oyster as a biological unit, we perforce and for the same reason ascribe to the philosopher—we must go on to say that man is very much more of an organic unity than an oyster. The difference between them, of course, turns upon the higher complexity of man as an organism. To take a mechanical illustration : compare an orchestra of to-day with an orchestra of, say, a hundred years ago, and in the greater variety and delicacy of the instruments, on the one hand, and the vastly richer harmony derivable from them, on the other, we see the possibility of combining greater complexity with higher unity. So, in living organisms, the higher the differentiation the higher and more complete the unity. And the higher the unity, the more real and effectual is the continuity.

Regarding man as a possessor of mind, the unity is still more marked. As Augustine says "I exist, I am conscious, I will. I exist as conscious and willing, I am conscious of existing and willing, I will to exist and to be conscious ; and these three functions, though distinct, are inseparable, and form one life, one mind, one essence."

The mental process that is involved in the unfolding of personality is to be treated of in later chapters. Just one point may be referred to here. The very fact that I can " will to exist," still more that I can " want to be myself only higher," becomes significant in connection with the permanence of the self. It would seem that a self-conscious self, at the centre of whose being is-will, which has an intuitive consciousness of personal identity, has, in this very consciousness of a self-identity which' it wills to maintain, a factor which tends to conserve its identity. The self seems to be charged with a sort of tutelary responsibility in respect of its own being.

As to the problem with which the chapter started, the argument so far goes to show that the harmonising conception, which binds together the superficially opposite ideas of permanence and change, is that of growth. Growth, as has been well said, is a reconcilement of permanence and change. Organic identity is preserved in the midst of; even by means of, vital processes. The higher the vitality the more real the unity and the richer and broader the continuity.

This reconciling conception of growth so closely fits the case that it might be worked out in considerable detail. To take up one of its applications. Room is left for a traceable self-identity over distinct periods by the fact that growth is always gradual. In the process of the unfolding of personality, an average may be struck over an appreciable period which may be regarded as the self of that period. It is true that Mr. Bradley, in "Appearance and Reality," argues that an average self extending over appreciable periods is inadequate ground for an affirmation of continuity or permanence. This would have to be admitted, if the average self of one period stood in no real relation to the average self of another. But if my average self, say of the period between the ages of thirty-three and thirty-five, looks back towards and can establish relations with my average self of from twenty-three to twenty-five, and that self with the average self of from thirteen to fifteen—surely, one of the postulates of education ; then the discovery of average selves over appreciable periods, in the light of this connectedness between those selves, becomes significant of continuity, a continuity which is a realisable form of permanence. Mr. Bradley is too strict in his definition of the true self. Starting with a felicitously phrased definition of a man's normal or average self as "the -usual manner in which he behaves, and the usual matter to which he behaves, that is, so far as he behaves to it," he finds, of course, instability or change alike in manner and in matter. As for the matter to which he behaves : "A man's true self, we should be told, cannot depend upon his relations to that which fluctuates." As to the behaving self : "If you take an essence which can change, it is not an essence at all." Unless, one may add, it be of its essence to change. For is it not of the very essence of a living organism that it can change ? If it could not it would not be a living organism. And if this be so, that to which it behaves also, its environment, must be subject to change. For a changing essence in an absolutely unchanging environment is unthinkable. So, whilst one might be content to follow Mr. Bradley in regarding the conception of an average self as merely tending in the direction of the essential self, but as falling short of its discovery, it does not seem necessary to reject so much as he does. Mr. Bradley seems to throw overboard all that can finally yield us an essential self in arguing that an average self fails to yield it. This is the more remarkable, as he goes on to show how little inclination he has for a self that is a pure abstraction. "Assert, what you are unable to show, that there is still- a point untouched, a spot which has never been invaded. . . This narrow persisting element of feeling or idea, this fixed essence not 'servile to all the skyey influences,' this wretched fraction and poor atom, too mean to be in danger —do you mean to tell me that this bare remnant is really the self? The supposition is preposterous, and the question wants no answer. If the self has been narrowed to a point which does not change, that point is. less than the real self."

For a more concrete and richer conception of the self we must seek, therefore, some interpreting idea which leaves room for change. Growth gives this more concrete conception. For growth is not only compatible with change, but definitely implies it, connecting and unifying successive phases. " Man partly is, and wholly hopes to be," is one of the most vital and convincing ways of saying that man is.

So far, then, we have passed from the fact of the permanence of nerve modifications which accompany and underlie our mental history, through the conception of man's organic unity, both as a compound organism of mind and body and as a psychical or spiritual organism, to the idea of progressive development or of change as growth. We may briefly touch upon one further argument, namely, that self-identity is expressly implied in any form of self-determination. If the self consciously determines its own changes, then to whatever length the changes may proceed, it may be regarded as still being the same self. For the conception of the changed self was adopted and endorsed, was actually conditioned stage by stage by the self, before the changes occurred. A classical illustration which may serve us is that of Sir John Cutler's silk stockings, which were darned with worsted until none of the silk was left, and the question arose as to whether they were the same stockings, or were they new ones. On one of the counts just enumerated the transmuted stockings could put in a claim of being identical with the original pair. The change had been gradual, and there had been appreciable periods of wear during which a definite proportion of worsted to silk passed muster; even though from period to period, i.e., on the occasions of the successive darnings, the proportion of silk to worsted grew less and less, and at last reached vanishing point. But this by itself might be said to be quite as much a gradual loss of identity as a maintenance of it stage by stage. It would seem necessary to be able to add a further condition, that the stockings either under some organic necessity (imagining them to be organisms, for the sake of argument) had darned themselves, or had themselves willed to be darned, with worsted, before we could validly endorse the claim to identity. Because, even when the last thread of silk was gone, they had themselves—for good reasons in such a case, no doubt—determined upon a worsted as opposed to a silken career. " The Becoming or Change of qualities consists in one quality disappearing in order to give place to another which comes after it ; the thing, the individual, does not in changing simply cease to be,—it ceases to be in one respect or mode in order to be in another. There is no contradiction in that a thing may both be and become."

So, if a present self foresees and predetermines a future self, the present self is by that very fact carried forward into the future self ; and, on the same condition, every future self is in part a past self, or is part of a past self, brought forward. The willing of the present forestalls the self of the future ; the self of the future fulfils the willing, that is, fulfils part of the self, of the present. One may sum up, drawing together both difficulties and conclusions, in the words of Professor Hobhouse : " The self, then, to me is real, though we do not know the whole of its reality. I do not question the reality of the self because I am unable to assign a point of persistent identity within it, reconciling its differences. I believe some such identity to be postulated by the facts ; but even if it did not exist, if all the soul's being were change, whether cyclical or progessive, I should not on that account take it to be unreal. It would be a real process instead of a real persistent fact, but it would be none the less real."


1. "Everything mental is referred to a self."

2. For further reading on the lines of this chapter Dr. James Ward's article on " Psychology" in the "Encyclopædia Britannica " (9th edition) might be referred to. The words just quoted are taken from it. Other books that are easy of access are : Baldwin's "Story of the Mind," and his larger works," Mental Development in the Child and the Race " and " Social Interpretations of the Principles of Mental Development" ; Lloyd Morgan's "Comparative Psychology " ; McDougall's "Physiological Psychology " ; Stout's "Manual of Psychology"; Hoffding's "Psycho-logy " ; Judd's " Psychology."

3. As to the co-operation of the educator with the progressive development of an unfolding personality, a good deal of emphasis should be thrown upon nascent periods and nascent tendencies within the life of his scholars. Nascent tendency is really a name for the growing phases of organic life ; and whilst growth in any specific direction is in progress, accelerating and directive aids are particularly effectual. If we wait till the normal nascent period has passed and then seek to educate along these lines, we are dealing with an organism which cannot well keep time with our efforts. Educative influence is brought to bear most economically when it times itself to some onward swing or tendency of the organism.

4. Dr. J. W. Slaughter speaks of the system of education inaugurated in 187o as following the industrial revolution whereby " men and women found that they were being mechanicalised and contemplated the same destiny for their children. The demand went forth that the worker's child should be provided with the instruments of knowledge through which it was thought the storehouses of human culture would be made accessible. Since that time the children of the nation have been trained in reading, writing, arithmetic, but we are now discovering that they are no better off than their fathers. Ability to read does not make a scholar nor ability to write an author. Eight of the most plastic years of childhood are sacrificed to training in these processes which, increasing evidence shows, can really be mastered in a few months. This waste of human material has gone on because of the persistence of the conception of mind as an independent entity existing within the body, with which it has no essential relation, and as constituted by a bundle of faculties which only require exercise to be brought to their full use."

5. Mind and body co-operate in the unfolding of our powers. The body is constantly receiving enrichment, intensifying and refining its discharge of function, through its co-operation with mind. A well exercised and vitalised brain is a source of health, and even tends to longevity. The progress of mind involves a heightening and enrichment of the service which the body renders.

6. The educational process is, by common consent, finding its analogies, not in the mechanical, but in the biological sphere. Merely to have become sure of this is a great step forward. It means that we regard the mind as having an organisation and a way of its own, and so are appealing to - and utilising its powers of assimilation. To a similar effect Spencer contrasts unorganisable facts with the kind of know-ledge which alone can be really acquired, i.e., organisable knowledge. The child is swayed by inner imperatives even as a learner.

7. Biological metaphors are now, therefore, common. "Nutriment" was a word often on the _lips of the late Professor Withers, when speaking of teaching-stuff. " Mangers without hay do not feed," said Thring.

Home | More Articles | Email: