Why has the concept of self-ownership persisted?

I have extensively covered how self-ownership is irrational and contradictory (see here, here and here). In this entry, I am concerned with why. Why has the error of self-ownership taken such an importance in Western thought?

If any study can tell us this, it must be the study of our mental frames, which reveal the hidden structure of our thoughts. We mostly think in metaphors because abstracts can only be understood by referring to direct experience (e.g. we understand TIME as MONEY, as a VALUABLE COMMODITY, as a LIMITED RESOURCE). I think the way we Westerners metaphorically grasp the concept of the self is the source of the error.

Let’s start with the concept of ownership, since it’s less abstract and simpler than the concept of self. Relations of ownership are taught to us as a part of life from childhood and they are very easily understood. They are an integral part of metaphors we use about objects and resources (such as TIME IS A RESOURCE, where we say things like “you are wasting MY time” or “I don’t HAVE any time for you”), such a mundane part of them that they are usually not even worth mentioning.

Ownership, I think, is a basic physical experience shared by most humans, which has as part of its prototype:

1. Ownership takes place between two entities, an owner and an owned.
2. The owner is a single person.
3. The owned is a single material object.
4. The owner has direct physical control over the owned.
5. The owner can exclude others from controlling the owned.
6. The owner came to acquire the owned through legitimate (legal) means.

Now when we talk about the prototype of a concept, we’re talking about the mental image we have of it, not a definition. For example, a robin is closer to the prototype of birds than a penguin or an ostrich.

A prototypical ownership relation would be one between a hunter and a spear, or between a farmer and a house. These examples follow all five points I’ve listed. Other relations only follow some of these points. For example, ownership of common land by a town or community fulfills 4, 5 and 6, but not 1, 2 or 3 (except if you take into account the metaphor LAND IS A CONTAINER, which turns a piece of land into a singular object, which fulfills 3).

I think 4 and 5 are probably the most important prototypical elements, because it is in terms of exclusive control that most people formally define property.

Now, we do have the experience of ownership (toys, pets, etc.) at an early age…

My property is something I control. Because it is mine, I don’t have to beg permission of anyone to use it. There is no hindrance to my use of it. But what is not my property typically belongs to someone else. If I want to use it, I must beg another for permission.

According to the linked article about the Stoic conception of self, the self is a property owner, and the objective of the individual self is to not desire anything that is not its property (e.g. things that are not choices, desires or aversions), so as not to be in a position of weakness (lack of self-control).

This brings us to the concept of the self. According to Johnson and Lakoff in Philosophy in the Flesh, the primary fact we need to understand about the self is that we understand it in terms of a metaphor of a relationship between two people. There is a fundamental dichotomy between the subject and the self: they are the metaphorical equivalent of two wholly different people. The relation between the two can be adversarial, parental, friendly, or authoritarian, but in all cases “I” does not equate with “my self.”

This has profound implications for our understanding of the self. For one thing, it is the only way in which “self-ownership” can make any sense at all. Equating the subject with the self nullifies any possibility of framing the self as a relation of ownership, since that implies two different entities.

Going further into the nature of the self, Johnson and Lakoff identify three main metaphors used to understand the self specifically: SELF IS A CONTAINER (e.g. “out of your mind,” “take a good look at yourself”), SELF IS A SERVANT (e.g. “I don’t know what to do with myself”) and SELF IS A STANDARD (e.g. “be true to yourself”).

Let’s start with the more basic metaphor, the SELF IS A CONTAINER. As a CONTAINER IS AN OBJECT, this leads us to the conclusion that the SELF IS AN OBJECT. I think this leads us pretty directly to the notion of the soul, if we add to the mix the Christian notion of life after death (which the body, being corruptible, obviously can’t join).

More importantly, it leads us to a relation which almost perfectly fits our prototype of ownership: there is an owner (the self, which is both an object and “me” at the deepest level) and an owned object (the body/subject), total control (of the self over the body), compete exclusion (only one self can exist in any given body, barring things like DID). I’ve pointed out before how this is wrong, so I am not going to repeat it here.

The other two metaphors may seem to contradict, at first glance. But Johnson and Lakoff point out that they pertain to different things. When we say “I don’t know what to do with myself,” the “myself” refers to the physical body. But when we say “be true to yourself,” the “yourself” refers to some inner voice or thought, not to the physical body.

Of course the former is perfectly in line with the bizarre relation of self-ownership (body as servant-being, thing that is owned). And I think that in the latter there are definite connections to the soul (as an incorruptible part of us that is connected to the supernatural realm) and to the conscience, the secular equivalent of the soul (as a moral standard that one should follow).

It’s blindingly obvious that we urgently need updated metaphors to understand the concept of self, because our current ones do us a great disservice. The concept of self-ownership has been a great and destructive error in Western thought, and has provided theoretical impetus for capitalism and neo-liberalism.

I think that to counter this, we need to present two complementary accounts of the self: one of the self as social agent (in order to dispel the myth of vulgar individualism), and another of the self as not being controlled (in order to dispel the myth of self-control).

I am no linguist, but here are two ideas in this vein. One is the metaphor of MIND IS A RIVER. Like the waters of a river, thoughts flow outside of our control, and we are only riding on them. We can talk about the speed of this flow (slow or fast thinking), the depth of the river (depth of ideas), the clarity of the river (clarity of a person’s reasoning). We can also use the metaphor to illustrate the relation between the stream of thoughts and the conscious mind through the relation between a person and the river.

Another metaphor could be that of SELF AS A PLANT. This is not perfect by any stretch, but I think we can get a lot of mileage out of it. Like selves, plants depend on their environment to come into existence and flourish: like humans, they are not self-made. Furthermore, researchers have been discovering that plants communicate with each other in a wide variety of ways (chemically in the air, underground, and by sound), which could emphasize the need for cooperation between human beings.

These are just some suggestions I came up with. Post in the comments if you can think of better metaphors.

3 thoughts on “Why has the concept of self-ownership persisted?

  1. lonesomeyogurt January 17, 2015 at 21:03

    You may be interested in reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, two Buddhist monks who engaged in very complex discussions of how to best represent the self. They came to the correct conclusion, of course, that the self does not exist.

    • Francois Tremblay January 18, 2015 at 00:47

      Of course they did. I wouldn’t think Buddhists would have much trouble arriving at that conclusion.

    • Adam January 18, 2015 at 06:49

      I wouldn’t say that the self does not exist, but I also wouldn’t say it does. I have the same opinion of the self as I do about God.

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