Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Self-Reflective "I am" Statements

"If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so on, also, of self-description is thus false."
-Thomas Bernhard, from Walking

I cringe when I hear someone utter the phrase, "Generally I am a kind person" or "Usually I am a kind person". Chances are this statement is uttered when said person is either not practicing kindness or else relating a story in which he or she failed to practice kindness. The problem lies not with the person — who may in fact have a history of kindness, a verifiable pattern of kind gestures, a genuinely kind character — but with the nature of self-reflective statements themselves. Self-reflective statements — "I am" statements — cast back in on themselves in such a way as to render them meaningless. Someone could proclaim his essential kindness to me until he were blue in the proverbial face, yet these professions would never change the fact that only an accumulation of kind gestures over time make a kind person.

Take me for example...

a. I am philosophical.
b. The proclivity for philosophy is my dominant characteristic.
c. At every opportunity, my mind tends to appropriate the real for the purpose of practicing philosophy.
d. Observing my personal history, one notices a persistent predilection for the practice of philosophy, the dogged pursuit of wisdom, the rather dull task of the naming of this and that, etc.
e. I philosophize, therefore I am.

There are many ways in which I may express my philosophical nature. The worst of all of these ways is the self-reflective "I am" statement. Why? Whereas forms b through e above demonstrate the actual practice of philosophy, statement a is empty and meaningless, the sound of an echo in a cave. Statement b is closest to statement a, but in a weaker, and thereby truer, form. Statement c posits "my mind" as the subject, thereby avoiding the empty absurdity of statement a. Statement d actual offers possible definitions of philosophy, as well as positing the neutral third person "one" as the observing subject. Statement e achieves its meaning via allusion. Only statement a is flat and listless.

Why are self-reflective statements inherently flawed? The answer is complex and profound. I offer two brief explanations.

a. Ultimately, the self dissolves into the universal. The deeper one goes into one's self, the more one discovers the ocean of consciousness, the unified field, the totality of all things. Ultimately, then, the self is non-existent. There is no kind self, only kind gestures. There is no self, only character.

b. The problem with self-reflective statements is linked to the Liar's Paradox. The statement "This statement is false" refers to itself. Notice the paradox: If the statement is true, it's false; if it's false, it's true. Similarly, when language is appropriated by the individual solely for the purpose of verifying the existence of the individual (in one way or another, either one is kind or philosophical or beautiful, etc, either way, one is), language loses its meaning. "I am" statements, then, appropriate language in such a way as to falsify it. In other words, language in the service of ego is a false and lying language. Language speaks of itself, always and only in the service of truth. Through us, language sings.

This thought has bounced around the old noggin for years now. Philosophy, practiced correctly, ought to change behavior. Increased awareness causes the change. The next time I think of saying "I am such and such", I will think twice. That said, if the purpose of my claim is simply to uplift my spirits — "I am happy today!" — then, by all means, I'll cry out my self-reflective statement with gusto. But perhaps we could learn, ever so slowly, to wean ourselves off such statements. The next time I consider saying "I am kind", perhaps I'll simply be kind. The next time I think to say "I am philosophical", I'll instead actually practice philosophy. And the next time I want to say "I am happy", I'll just smile.

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