Seminar on Self Constructs (EDS 771G)
Week 2 - William James on the Self
Division of Educational Studies - Emory University


1. It is not difficult to become captivated by James' conception of "self as knower and self as known." After all, the distinction of self in terms of I and me is in some fashion common-sensical ("I was talking to myself yesterday and . . . "). On other levels it is also charming and amusing. However, Bandura (in press) has pointed out that "reflecting on one's own functioning entails shifting the perspective of the same agent rather than reifying different internal agents or selves regulating each other." Bandura argues that people think, act, and reflect on their actions,

but it is the one and the same person who is doing the thinking and later evaluating the adequacy of one's knowledge, thinking skills, and action strategies. The shift in perspective does not transform one from an agent to an object as the dualist view of the self would lead one to believe. One is just as much an agent reflecting on one's experiences as in executing courses of action. Rather than splitting the self into object and agent, in self-reflection individuals are simultaneously agent and object.

James suggests that "the total self of me, being as it were duplex," is composed of "partly object and partly subject." He is careful to hedge his bet and point out that they are discriminated aspects of self rather than"separate things," but the truth is that they come off rather separate in his description of them (see bottom of page 62, for example). Who's missing what here?

2. Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. What are some powerful implications of this dictum?

3. James writes that

the barometer of our self-esteem and confidence rises and falls from one day to another through causes that seem to be visceral and organic rather than rational, and which certainly answer to no corresponding variations in the esteem in which we are held by our friends.

If this is so, the implications for psychological theory, assessment, and practice are rather enormous. Is it so? Is it less so than it is so? Is it more so than it is not so?

4. Note how James' description of the instinctive impulses that drive the empirical me bear very close resemblance to Maslow's hierarchy.

5. James is especially adept at delivering dictums and aphorisms that make one smile and nod with agreement. For example, "persons for whose opinion we care nothing are nevertheless persons whose notice we woo" or "how pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young--or slender." And, of course, "Who will not be mine I will exclude from existence altogether; that is, as far as I can make it so, such people shall be as if they were not."(Ouch!). He is also very much the master of the metaphor. What dictums, aphorisms, and metaphors do you find particularly enlightening? Revealing? Discomforting?

6. James writes that individuals simply cannot be all possible selves in all possible ways because the actions that arise from differing selves differ and are basically incompatible (hence the conflict of the different Me's). Consequently, he urges that "the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list [of selves that he wishes to be] carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation." So there is a self inside each of us that is truest and strongest and deepest?

7.

                           Success
    Self-esteem = -----------------
                           Pretensions

Powerful implications here. Thoughts?

8. Note James' first use of the word agent on page 63.

9. James' belief in God permeates his psychology and plays an important role in his understanding of self (particularly of the I). For example, his discussion of the soul as a combining medium of thought or consciousness (pp. 67-68) is permeated with references to a spiritual being and the role that such a being may play in understanding an individual's self. In fact, he argues that psychology must "admit" the Soul. Has it? Should it? Can it?

10. Note on page 73 James' reference to false memories--a topic of some relevance to today's headlines. And note how these memories can play a hand in the "identity found by the I in the me.

11. James is reasonably thorough in providing a conception of "the consciousness of Self." It comes with two discriminated aspects and various subparts of each aspect. It even has a chart. Do you find the conception ultimately satisfying and explanatory? How many purloiners of his basic ideas were you able to identify as you read?


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