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Identifying with others


How can (self-)consciousness be its own other? What are the phenomenological “mechanisms” of that self-separation? There has to be something that “gets between” consciousness and itself, something that injects otherness into it. Since consciousness is what one, in Hegelian language, might call a “concrete particular,” the thing that injects otherness into it has to be “abstract” and “universal.” And that’s what the “abstract other” is (as I’ve called it elsewhere), a general diffuse otherness that implicitly permeates self-consciousness. What makes it possible for people to talk to themselves or to have inner dialogues in their heads is that they are always half-conscious, or implicitly aware, of the general Other,[1] the Other “out there”—people, the world—that is also “abstractly” in their own consciousness, and to which they are, in a sense, talking when they have private conversations with themselves. This abstract, internal and external Other comes into existence for each person as he matures from infancy to childhood and adulthood, internalizing other people’s actions, reactions, and perspectives, all of which help form and get merged into a diffuse Other that accompanies each person in solitude and in society.


At the risk of belaboring the point I’ll quote some ideas I jotted down once, which go beyond what I just wrote:


“You see yourself as a particular being, your self-consciousness is particular (individual) and private, only because it exists against the phenomenologically abstract coloring of a ‘general’ other (or Other); its particularity is contrasted with the generality of the Other, and this is precisely how your self-consciousness is able to exist. Determinatio est negatio. Determination is negation, differentiation. You would not be the private self you are if there were not in your consciousness a general or ‘universal’ other with which you at all times implicitly contrasted yourself. We’re never really aware of the general Other as we are of ourselves, but it is there all the same. It has to be. Otherwise self-consciousness wouldn’t make sense, since a contrast is necessary for it to exist. It presupposes negation; it is a negation, namely the particular’s negation of (or opposition to) the general. The meaning of existential restlessness, the undying quest for happiness, the desire for recognition—the meaning of this (or at least one of the meanings) is the particular trying to abolish the general in itself, the Other, which prevents consciousness from being identical to itself. We’re always trying to fully incorporate the Other into ourselves, to make it coincide with us by securing its absolute approval. That is the human psyche’s method for reducing the otherness of other people: it seeks recognition of its sense of self, its self-conception.”[2]




How is it possible for a person to identify with others, be they friends or merely members of an abstract community (say, a religious one) in which the person includes himself? How can one internalize other people like this? The only way is if the individual is his own other. His self-conscious particularity has to be fused with a universality, an internalized generalization of the sort of opposition-to-himself that other people are. As past thinkers have shown, this internal “abstract” other arises in the context of the child’s separation from the mother, and of his increasing use of “verbal gestures” (to quote George Herbert Mead), and of his participation in, first, spontaneous play, and then in organized games in which he internalizes and can anticipate the participants’ reactions to his behavior. Etc. I have nothing new to add to the account of what is empirically involved in the ontogenesis of the internal other, i.e., of self-consciousness. Originally the infant’s world, in particular his mother, is experienced as a part of the infant. There is no other. Then mother and child become less dependent on each other and move towards relative independence. The child becomes aware of himself as a separate being to the extent to which he becomes aware that other people are separate beings. But this evolution proceeds on the basis of—or rather is inextricably connected with—the distancing of the child from himself, which means the internalization of the opposition-to-itself that other people represent. This internalization is not merely “opposed to” but is included in the child’s (self-)consciousness. So now when he develops an affective attachment to another person, his experience of this person literally becomes a part of his sense of self, because the person is experienced as a concrete instantiation of the abstract other, which, to repeat, is itself a part of the child’s consciousness.[3] So “identification with an other” means that one’s experience of the other person is literally a component in one’s sense of self. And this phenomenon is made possible through the “mediation” of the internal(ized) general other, because this structure is the essential foundation of one’s self-consciousness. (That is, by half-consciously associating a person with it, one is associating that person with one’s very self.)




Today I received a very nasty email from an acquaintance, and it bothered me a bit. But I quickly saw that insofar as her email affected me, it was because I unconsciously thought of its attacks as judgments from the general other (in me) rather than simply a single pitiful individual. That is, if we’re talking about the restless desire for self-esteem and self-contentment, the opinions of one person qua one person—one external being among all external beings—cannot hurt much. Rather, the judgments of one person can hurt your self-esteem only to the extent that that person is unconsciously seen as an instantiation of the general or abstract other, i.e., of you yourself (given that you are your own other). This is, indeed—to say it one more time—how a person makes his way into your psyche, how your psyche “appropriates” him; this is the link between him and you (as well as the source of the separation between you, the otherness that comes between you). He becomes a part of you—i.e., is important to you—insofar as you unconsciously (or half-consciously) identify him with the Other that is directly a part of your consciousness. Again, this Other isn’t so much a mere concept as a fundamental feature of the phenomenology of self-consciousness. It isn’t really “out there”; it’s in you.


Thus, when you feel the need to defend yourself against someone who has criticized you you’re not, on the most basic level, arguing directly against him; you’re arguing against yourself. His criticisms have seeped into you, “gotten under your skin” by being associated with the Other in you, as if the Other itself has made these criticisms or might possibly agree with them; and since the Other is a part of you, you’re basically trying to convince yourself by defending yourself. After all, it’s likely that you’ll be satisfied simply if you have a good comeback to his insult, whether or not your comeback actually elicits an apology or retraction from him. And this could be the case only if the one you’re trying to convince is you, not him.


Incidentally, I think that one of the reasons why phenomenological discussions like this are so difficult is that concepts are simply not adequate vis-à-vis consciousness. They are clumsy, ill-defined, vague. This inadequacy isn’t something that can be rectified; it is inherent in the nature of concepts. For concepts are hammered out in interactions between people, and so they are appropriate only to the public, shared world. But I’m trying to apply them to the “private” world, the inner essence of consciousness, so they’re bound to be inadequate and confusing.




It should be clear from all I’ve said that the self and the internal(ized) abstract other are totally inseparable. Even analytically they cannot really be separated, because self-consciousness is self-otherness, which entails that there is an abstract sort of otherness in consciousness. All this is fine, but it is disconcerting to think about deeply. When you react to something, for example, it isn’t simply “you” reacting. It is also the Other in you. You have spent your whole life internalizing people’s behavior, such that when you act or react it is partly the internalization of all these people that is acting. You have learned what is appropriate in various situations, so you act in appropriate ways, in ways you think others will appreciate or as they might act themselves. Even in solitude your behavior is conditioned by others’, and it is largely the Other in you that is acting, or that is determining how you act.


And yet in all your acts there is also a “spontaneous” element, a primitively “authentic” or “purely you” element. There has to be, because you are a concrete being different from others. Maybe this element is what George Herbert Mead meant by the “I,” as opposed to the “me.” It is only implicit; you cannot be purely aware of it, because your awareness incorporates the Other in you.


On another level, though, your whole self-expression in every moment—every act, feeling, etc.—is genuinely, authentically you. It is, after all, your self-expression. If you feel alienated or you feel as though you’re always only acting and not being yourself, that is authentically you, it is an expression of who you are at that time. It is impossible not to be yourself. –But in another sense—or other senses—it is definitely possible not to be yourself. I described one such sense above. In a way, we’re never just ourselves; we’re also others, having internalized people’s behavior. Sometimes in social situations you can be so self-conscious, so aware of others and eager to please them, that you actually feel like you’re not being yourself. You’re not being “natural.” This happens when the Other in you, as instantiated in and an internalization of the people you’re with, takes over your consciousness to such an extent that the “you” in you, the natural, spontaneous element, cannot express itself as it normally does but takes distorted, mutated, “nervous,” “self-conscious” forms that probably end up embarrassing you. The Other blocks you, so to speak. I think that’s a useful way to conceptualize it, maybe a psychologically or even biologically profound way. (These psychological divisions I’m talking about must after all have biological manifestations, which science will probably never explicate fully.)


But of course all this is confusing, because your experiences with and internalizations of others have formed you. And you are an other to yourself, as shown by the fact that you can reflect on yourself and are at all times at least implicitly aware of yourself. So you are a self-other....but that formulation itself suggests that there is a “self” aspect in you and an “other” aspect and that they are somehow different—even though in another sense they can’t be, because you encompass both of them! Without the (internal) Other there would be no you, only an animal consciousness. –Ugh, I’m tired of paradoxes.


After a certain point one loses interest in this sort of phenomenology because it is so difficult. Before giving up I’ll just say that it’s important to distinguish between senses of “other,” even of the internal other. There is, first of all, the general abstract other that is always separating you from yourself, so making possible self-consciousness. Then there are the internalizations of specific people, which are really just your experiences of these people in addition to whatever unconscious significances they have for you. These people are for you instantiations of the general abstract other, which is how it is possible for you to be aware of them as others at all. Then there is also your half-conscious or unconscious conception of what a “valuable” or “respect-worthy” other is like, what traits he or she has that make him or her (or, more exactly, his or her self-love) more real or confirmed (and so “significant” to you, hence worth getting recognition from) than other people. But this “conception” is not some definite idea but more like tendencies in you to react to certain kinds of people in certain ways. All your reactions are conditioned by this “tendential conception” of a valuable other; for instance, you might not take certain people seriously because they don’t fulfill it, maybe because they seem like fools or buffoons or whatever. The relation between this “tendential conception” and the general abstract other in your consciousness is not entirely clear.... Another kind of internal other is the psychological and biological “legacy” of all your experiences with people, especially in your formative years, experiences that helped shape you into who you are, that helped form your psychological constitution. All these kinds of “others” probably merge into one another in your mind. They are part of you but not all of you.



[1] I capitalize the word to emphasize its abstract character.


[2] When I reread this and other things I’ve written on the self, they sound very Hegelian. They’re products of my absorption of Hegel’s way of thinking—though I don’t know to what extent Hegel would have assented to any of my ideas.


[3] There is an ambiguity in the idea of the “abstract other,” or at least in how I use it: sometimes I imply that it is a pure interiorization, a “structure” in consciousness, while other times I imply that it is an objectively oriented projection of this interiorization. The distinction between the two uses is incredibly subtle, virtually imaginary, but it’s analytically necessary. For example, in the sentence in the text I have in mind the “projection” when I say that a person is experienced as an instantiation of the Other, while I have the “interiorized” meaning in mind when I say that the Other is a part of self-consciousness. (The importance of the distinction is evident when you consider that a person cannot be experienced as an instantiation of one’s own self-consciousness—because I myself am the only instantiation of myself—while he can be an instantiation of a “projection” of one’s self-consciousness.) The reason I said the distinction is virtually imaginary is that, in the individual’s immediate experience, there is no clear distinction. The only time there is is when a person “focuses” the projection (without knowing he is doing so) into a single abstract entity, like “God” or “mankind.”

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