The Self

*A reading from Minsky’s “Society of Mind”


4.1  The Self


Self  n.  1.  The identity, character, or essential qualities of any person or thing. 2.  The identity, personality, individuality, etc.  Of a given person; one’s own person as distinct from all others.

-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

We all believe that human minds contain those special into entities we call cells.  But no one agrees about what they are.  To keep things straight, I shall write “self” when speaking in a general sense about an entire person and reserve “Self” for talking about that more mysterious sense of personal identity.  Here are some of the things people say about the Self:

Self is the part of mind that’s really me, or rather, it’s the part of me—that is, part of my mind—that actually does the thinking and wanting and deciding and enjoying that and suffering.  It’s the part that’s most important to me because it’s that which stays the same through all experience—the identity which ties everything together.  And whether you can treat it scientifically or not, I know it’s there, because it’s me.  Perhaps it’s the sort of thing that Science can’t explain.

This isn’t much of a definition, but I don’t think it is a good idea to try to find a better one.  It often does more harm than good to force definitions on things we don’t understand.  Besides, only in logic and mathematics do definitions ever capture concepts perfectly.  The things we deal with in practical life are usually too complicated to be represented by neat, compact expressions.  Especially when it comes to understanding minds, we still know so little that we can’t be sure are ideas about psychology are even aimed in the right directions.  In any case, one must not mistake defining things for knowing what they are.  You can know what a tiger is without defining it.  You may define a tiger, yet know scarcely anything about it.

Even if are old ideas about the mind are wrong, we can learn a lot by trying to understand why we believe them.  Instead of asking, “What are Selves?” we can ask, instead, “What are our ideas about Selves?” –and then we can ask, “What psychological functions to those ideas that serve?” when we do this, it shows is that we do not have one such idea, but many.

Our ideas about our Selves include believes about what we are.  These include believes both about what we’re capable of doing and about what we may be disposed to do.  We exploit these beliefs whenever we solve problems or make plans.  I’ll refer to them, rather vaguely, as a person’s self-images.  In addition to our self- images, our ideas about ourselves also include ideas about what we’d like to be and ideas about what we ought to be.  These, which I’ll call a person’s self- ideals, influence each person’s growth from infancy, but we usually find them hard to express because they’re inaccessible to consciousness.



Minsky, M. (1988). The society of mind. (1 ed., p. 39). New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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