Two Concepts of the True Self

Discussions of the true self are onto something, but not always the same thing.

Posted Sep 19, 2019

If you think about it, it’s a strange thing to say that you don’t feel like you can be yourself around certain people. Who else could you be? And yet, I’d be willing to bet you’ve either said something like this before or heard someone else say it. In any case, it surely doesn’t strike you as a nonsensical thing to say.

Or consider moments where you find yourself doing something you don’t totally want to do, like eating another donut at the morning meeting even though you’re on a diet. With no one forcing you to eat it, there must be a desire for it somewhere in that murky mind of yours. And yet the impulse does feel foreign. Again, it may strike us as strange to say that there are alien attitudes in our heads that sometimes motivate our behavior. But it isn’t nonsense.

Jeff Siepman/Unsplash
Source: Jeff Siepman/Unsplash

Cases like these give us reason to take the notion of a true self seriously. It’s tempting to say that what’s going on at the office party when you don’t feel like you can be yourself or you ruin your diet by stuffing your face is that you’re not exhibiting your true self. And yet these two cases don’t seem to be getting at exactly the same thing. In one case, it’s as if your true self is hiding behind a mask. The issue is about self-presentation. In the other case, it’s as if your behavior is motivated by an alien desire. The issue is about self-direction. While there may be some overlap between the two, it seems as if these cases illustrate two different concepts of the true self.

A brief look at discussions of the true self bears out this point. The two concepts appear to be rooted in different distinctions between the true self and its contrast, and they don't appear to be bound up with identical sets of concerns.

Let’s begin with self-presentation. To posit a true self is to draw a contrast. Sometimes the contrast is between a “true self” and a “false self”; sometimes it’s between a “true self” and an “actual self” or “public self.” In either case, the core idea seems to be that we express our true selves around those we are appropriately close to and comfortable with, but around others we express a false or public self, perhaps as a defense mechanism. Return to the metaphor of a mask: we remove our false face when in close company, revealing who we really are beneath it all; conversely, we don a mask in public to hide who we really are.

This first concept of the true self is bound up with issues of authenticity. One way of understanding how we can be more or less authentic is in terms of how much of our true selves we exhibit. Oftentimes, the context is our interactions with others. But we can be inauthentic in relation to ourselves, too. We need not assume that the subject has access to her true self. Indeed, some people spend a great deal of time and money trying to (re-)discover their true selves.

The second concept of the true self may also be bound up with issues of authenticity. But they take a different form. Rather than understanding inauthenticity in terms of a façade, we might understand it in terms of the wellsprings of one’s behavior. Sometimes what you do discloses who you really are; sometimes your actions have the authority to speak for you. Other times, your behavior stems from motives you don’t endorse; it doesn’t express your true commitments.

The contrast here is between the true self and a peripheral self. The core idea is that we are, each of us, multitudes, but not all parts of one’s self have equal claim. Your true self is a subset of your psychology. Some of your beliefs, desires, and affects have a special status—they have the authority to express where you really stand. The rest are yours in the sense that they’re in your head, but whether they're just along for the ride or unwelcome intruders, they don’t constitute who you really are, deep down.

This second concept of the true self fits situations like the one with the donut. Your desire for it is alien in the sense that it’s peripheral to your true self. You don’t really like that you're eating the treat. But you’re doing so nonetheless. Situations such as this one seem to be less about authenticity than about autonomy, responsibility, and paternalism. Would it be appropriate for a co-worker to slap the donut from your hand as you reach it to your mouth, while reminding you of your commitment to your diet? Would it be reasonable for your trainer to hold your responsible for behavior that issues from a desire you don’t endorse? What gives your judgment that it would be good to lose weight the authority to constrain your desire for yummy treats?

This second concept of the true self also seems relevant to issues of identity. If someone’s peripheral attitudes change, we seem more comfortable judging them to be the same person they were before. But the same is not true of changes to their moral self, which has a good claim to being their true self. Perhaps something similar can be said in relation to the first concept of the true self as well. If what’s behind the mask changes, we’re faced with a different person. But our judgments of personal identity over time don’t seem to track changes in the masks people wear. Otherwise, we’d take ourselves to be interacting not with social chameleons, but rather with a coterie of short-lived people. To accept this would be to pull the rug out from under many, if not most, of our interpersonal relationships. There doesn’t seem to be good reason to do that.

Supposing there are two distinct concepts of the true self, it would be interesting to find out more about how they overlap and interact. Both concepts, for example, appear to be bound up with issues of authenticity and identity. What should we make of this? Alternatively, perhaps there really is just one concept here, though we can conceive of it in different ways, in terms of different metaphors. How might we show that this is the case, or else rule it out? The bottom line seems to be that the true self is fertile ground for further inquiry. It’ll be fascinating to see where future research takes us.