The Self in Emotional Space

Introduction: What is the Self?

In this paper I will try to show that that there are by necessity emotional moments in our Selves, without them no Self. S is only a Self if it can be placed in emotional space. I will explain by and by what I mean by “emotional space”, for the time being I will just point out that I am alluding to Charles Taylor’s idea of the moral space as the metaphoric space where Selves move.

As for the notoriously slippery notion of the Self, I basically rely on what I call “intuitive, critical commonsensical” notions of it and do not pretend to solve any of the deep mysteries surrounding the concept. Why is the view critical and not only commonsensical? By this I mean that I do not exclude the possibility of this alleged commonsensical view being my idiosyncratic view or the (un)common view of modern, Westerners. Perhaps possessing a Self is something only us modern Westerners do or perhaps non-modern, non-western Selves have aspects not understandable by us modern Western persons.1 Anyway, do not we (modern Westerns?) usually say that a Self is the backbone of a given human being’s identity, that which makes her an individual, something that can even be called “her soul”? Do we need to elaborate upon this? One of the problems of analyzing the concept of a Self is the fact that it is contested concept and that there are a lot of different definitions of it. British philosopher Galen Strawson says that there are at least 21 different definitions of it, some of which contradict each other. Further, there are unclear boundaries, if any, between the concepts of Self, person, personal identity, I, ego, and personality.2 Actually, I think that there are also unclear boundaries between the Self on the one hand, on the other hand its mental acts and states (including emotional states) or its actions (there is a grain of truth in the existentialist idea that we are what we do) The same holds for the boundaries between Self and others. As for the deconstruction of the last-named boundaries, a lot can be learned from the American pragmatists, not least George Herbert Mead. According to him, Self-consciousness exists through a division between “the I” and “the me”. “The me” is in a sense the social side of us, a sort of crystallisation of the way others view us. “The I” on the other hand is our individual response to “the me”. So the social side of humans is primordial, “the I” something secondary. So the upshot of Mead’s argument is that the boundaries between Self and others are blurred.3

So I tend to regard the Self as something decentred, and as being more of a process than a substance. Further, it is more like amoebas than bacteria, having elastic boundaries and possibly being able to divide itself. The reason for me endorsing the idea of an encumbered, decentred Self is among others the notorious difficulties of determining what an unencumbered substantial Self is, something that is clearly separated from a person’s thoughts, acts, interactions etc. As a firm believer in Wittgenstein’s private language argument, I cannot see how we can ascertain the existence (or non-existence) of a substantial, unencumbered Self just by looking into our own mind. We would not have any criteria of identification of such a Self unless others could correct our use of such concepts as Self, but they cannot read our minds and therefore not correct our use of these concepts. 4So how can we ascertain the existence of an unencumbered Self? There certainly is no public way of ascertaining its existence, unless we are somehow forced to assume its existence on some transcendental grounds. But transcendental arguments have problems of their own and as far as I can see, a moderately decentred idea of the Self is fruitful enough. Further, we can observe and interact with embodied persons, understand their acts, interactions and thoughts but we cannot observe, much less interact with, pure, unencumbered substantial Selves. But even if the Self were substantial and unencumbered, we cannot exclude the possibility that it were of emotional nature. Hard to imagine, yes, but then again a substantial, unencumbered Self is hard to envision, at least for my unimaginative and dull mind. And even if the Self was an illusion, that does not exclude the possibility of the concept of Self being definable in terms of concepts such as that of emotions. Even concepts that do not denote anything are somehow definable.

Due to time and space limitations I cannot elaborate upon the notions of substantial and non-substantial Self. But most of what I say about the emotional nature of the Self would be hard to defend unless one assumes that the Self is encumbered and decentred. Being decentred, it does not exist in a fixed place, but moves in spaces, one of which is the emotional space.

What are Emotions?

Now, let us turn to the concept of feeling. I am actually in favour of the so-called cognitivist view of emotions i.e. the view that emotions have a cognitive content. The cognitivists tend to differentiate between emotions and sensations and use “feeling” as a common denominator. As examples of sensations, two will do: Pain and the feeling of intense well-being. We feel these sensations in certain parts of our bodies. We feel pain in our finger and intense well-being everywhere in our body. In contrast to a sensation, an emotion cannot be localised in space. The same holds for other emotions; some have stomach pains when they are frightened, others tend to feel pain in the chest, others do not have any particular sensation in any given part of the body even when they are feeling very scared. Most cognitivists explain this by saying that that emotions either are not sensations at all or that they cannot be reduced to sensations. They add that emotions are in the first place intentional and therefore have intentional objects; secondly they have a propositional content; thirdly they are about something in the world that can be conceptualised.

Let us look at an example: If I am angry, my anger is directed against someone/something, which therefore is the intentional object of my anger. If I am angry with John for having allegedly stolen my car, then the object of my anger is, as arch-cognitivist Robert C. Solomon points out, irreducibly that-John-stole-my-car. The object is not the alleged fact that he stole the car since he may not have done so.5This means that my anger has a propositional content; it is about something in the world, if not the real one then at least the world of my fancy. My anger is a propositional attitude (in this case an angry attitude) towards a fact expressed in the proposition ‘John stole my car’. This proposition obviously contains the propositional content of my anger. Notice that we cannot have propositional attitudes unless we master certain concepts. In my case, being angry with John for having stolen my car is not possible unless I master such concepts as ‘car’ or ‘theft’.

In contrast to this, we can have a sensation like pain without being able to conceptualise it. Further, a pain does not have an intentional object, it simply is. A pain is a pain is a pain. The same holds for other sensations, so knowledge does not play any essential role in our sensations. As someone says in the Brigitte Bardot film La parisienne "on ne preuve pas une migraine" ("one does not prove a migraine”). Une migraine est une migraine est une migraine. Thus, while our emotions can be irrational or rational, our sensations cannot.

One of my favorite cognitivists is the American philosopher Robert C. Roberts. He quite correctly claims that emotions are what he calls “concern-based construals”. A construal is created by seeing-as, i.e. aspect seeing, compare the way we can see a duck-rabbit figure as a duck or a rabbit. If I am scared of spiders, I construe them in a certain way; I might know that this construction does not fit the facts, that spiders actually are harmless, but nevertheless I see them as dangerous creatures. Analogously, I know that the duck-rabbit-figure is not necessarily just a duck, but of some reason I simply cannot see it as a rabbit. There is a decisive difference between this “ur-aspect” seeing and the emotional one. I construe spiders in a particular way because I am concerned for my own safety. I can be worried about a friend because I am concerned about her or I am happy because Manchester United won the game because I care for the club.

One important part of the construction is that we configure elements in given situations due to the emotions. If we are scared of the spider coming towards us, we might see the door as an escape route and a person present as a potential helper. We see these things through the painted glasses of our fear.

Into Emotional Space

Let us now look at my own analysis, my idea of the Self in emotional space. I am not going to define that concept, I hope the following shows what I mean by it. The same holds for my concept of emotivity. I am not going to define it, only say that a lot of diverse things can have the quality of emotivity and that this quality is had in varying degrees. If something is soaked with emotions, it has a high degree of emotivity. An emotions has a maximum degree of emotivity, by contrast a mathematical proof has zero degree of emotivity even though the process of understanding it might contain some moments of emotivity. If you are in state of intense fright then your state of mind has a high degree of emotivity. But a work of serial music has a low degree of this quality.

  1. Martin Heidegger said that a Self is something that cares for itself. This does not mean that the Self necessarily likes itself, one way of caring for oneself (being concerned about oneself) is hating oneself. The basic point of this Heideggerian approach is that being a Self means not being neutral towards oneself.6 I actually endorse this analysis. To it I want to add my theory that the Self is a concern-based construal; we see different emotional episodes, thoughts, actions and what not as being a part of a whole, a Gestalt called the Self. And our concern (or care) for ourselves is the prism through which we see these parts as forming a whole, i.e. the Self. More precisely, we partly construe the Self with the aid of this prism in an analogous fashion as the Self is partly constituted by the reflexive attitude we call “Self-consciousness”. I will return to the question of Self-consciousness in a moment, suffices it to say now that due to being a concern-based construal, the Self has the same structural properties as emotions. To be concerned about something is having an emotional attitude to that something; by implication a Self is partly constituted by an emotional attitude. If you hate yourself, that hatred makes you a person of the Self-hating kind; the Self-hate becomes a constitutive part of your Self. Thus, being a concern-based construal gives the Self a moment of emotivity. So the first dimension of the emotional space of the Self is the dimension of concerns. The Self can move towards or away from given concerns but never escape the dimension, in fact it is partly this dimension and nothing can ever escape from itself.
  2. Harry Frankfurt quite correctly says that a person’s identity is partly constituted by the set of passions he or she endorses. He or she passively discovers passions in the course of his or her life but must actively select from them in order to form an identity. This means that he or she identifies with some element in his psychic life, while rejecting others.7 Having a strong homosexual inclination but not wanting to identify with it can be a part of a given person’s identity. To use my own terminology, the person in question places herself at a distance from this sexual/emotional inclination and this position in emotional space (more precisely in its second dimension, that of endorsable/rejectable passions). Where she places herself is a part of her identity. Now if she decides to accept this inclination and define herself as a gay person then that must mean that she has changed her identity in an important way. She has placed herself in a new position in emotional space, more precisely in the dimension of endorsable/rejectable passions. This new position means a partial change of identity. So due to the role of this dimension of emotional space in the constitution of identities, the moment of emotivity in the Self increases.
  3. Antonio Damasio has put forth some convincing arguments in favour of our Self-awareness being emotional; we feel that we exist but we do not know it in an intellectual fashion. 8 The trouble is that Damasio does not discriminate between kinds of emotions in the cognitive theorist fashion; he uses “emotion” for unconscious brain-processes that supposedly give raise to “feelings”, i.e. that which we experience consciously.9 No differentiation between emotions and sensations, whatsoever. I however think that Self-awareness is an emotion, it cannot be localised in any given place in the body and it has an intentional object, that of I-am. Now the question arises whether there can be a Self without an actual or potential Self-awareness, however vague. Actually, I find it intuitively satisfying that the Self is something partly constituted by Self-awareness and/or that a potential for Self-awareness is a necessary part of the Self. After all, knowing is an essential part of being human, having an identity means in most cases knowing that you possess it. How could I have an identity as an Icelandic philosopher unless I know for a fact that I possess this kind of identity? I think in actual fact that being aware of oneself and being concerned about oneself are interwoven. If one were not at all concerned about oneself, Self-awareness would probably not matter at all and one would largely ignore it like one ignores most of the facts one is aware of. At the same time, one cannot be concerned about oneself unless one is somehow aware of oneself. Further, the concepts of a Self and of identity are interwoven, having a Self means obviously having a certain identity. So the emotive nature of Self-awareness increases the moment of emotivity in the Self. Now, where does the metaphor of emotional space come into the picture of Self-awareness? The answer is that we are dealing with the dimension of the Cogito, a sort of micro-space where closeness is all there is, closeness to the I-am. The emotion of Self-awareness disappears if we move just a short distance away from the I-am.
  4. The moment of emotivity is not getting any smaller if the following is true: The constitutive stories of the Self are stories with emotive structures. More precisely, they elaborate upon the micro-narratives that constitute the mood of happiness. In order to understand this we have to take a quick glance at the theories of American literary theorist Patrick Colm Hogan. He says that narratives are emotionally structured.10 More precisely, narratives are prototypically elaborated versions of the micro-narratives, which constitute emotions. He is quite taken by the idea of prototypicality and maintains that the concept of emotions and narratives can only be defined in terms of prototypicality. Thus, he borrows Anna Wierzibicka’s contention that emotions can be identified only by standard situation and thus the meaning of emotion terms has the general form: ”X feels emotional = X feels as one does when…” More substantially: ”X feels sad = X feels as one does when one thinks that what one has desired to happen has not happened and will not happen”. So Wierzibicka is one of many theorists who maintain that emotions are narratively structured.11 This is where I come into the picture. I maintain that a prototypical person is someone who either aims for happiness or at least for diminishing pain. No story of a life makes sense unless it includes an evaluation of whether or not the person in question has reached the aims of happiness or the avoidance of unhappiness, with other words how he has moved in emotional space. If the person in question did not seek these goals, the story must explain why she did not. The same holds for the story of ice-cold persons having no emotions at all. Even their stories must be seen in the perspective of happiness versus lack of happiness. Thus, the story of a life does not make sense unless seen from an emotive point of view, unless one scrutinizes a person’s movement in emotional space (it is important to bear in mind that the story of life is partly constitutive for our Selves, the Man without Narrative is not a real person).12 Taking the emotive point of view means in this case that we focus on the role of certain emotions in a given life, those that form the backbone of the mood of happiness, and the antithetical emotions (sorrow, anxiety etc.). Such a story has an emotive structure. The dimension of emotional space in question, the narrative one, is a dimension where biographical time becomes spatial: In the course of its biographical time, one moves to or fro the point of happiness and this movement is a part of what it means to have a Self. A mindless being can be content or be in pain but it cannot be happy or unhappy. Only a being with a Self can be happy, in the first place because only such a being can take stock of its own life, reflect on how well or badly it has fared. Secondly, Robert Solomon quite correctly maintains that happiness is a mood and mood is a generalised emotion.13 Being happy is so to speak is so to speak the spin off of having felt good about a lot of things in the course of time, including the things one feels good about when taking stock of one’s own life. Emotions, including the emotion of feeling good about something, have intentional objects and only minded beings can have intentional objects.
  5. The moment of emotivity increases due to the fact that some or even all strong evaluations are emotional. 14 I am alluding to Charles Taylor’s analysis, which I find very inspiring. He says that we would not be full-fledged Selves if we did not possess strong evaluations. Such evaluations are sort of meta-evaluations that provide criteria for our judgements about our desires and choices.15 A weak evaluation can be a negative evaluation of popcorn because one fears that eating popcorn would cause a stomachache. Evaluating weakly is weighing something in a utilitarian fashion; if you decide in favour of having sex with your neighbour’s wife rather than with your own spouse because you expect the first alternative to be more sexually thrilling then you have performed a weak evaluation. A strong evaluation of popcorn is an evaluation of whether it is right to like popcorn. If you think it is wrong to like popcorn because you think eating popcorn is an integral part of the American way of life, which you regard as morally reprehensible, then you have performed a strong evaluation. Another example of strong evaluation could be evaluating whether it is desirable to desire another person’s spouse or even more importantly to evaluate whether it is right to be the kind of a person who desires other people’s spouses. A full-fledged individual is what he/she is in virtue of having such strong evaluation as wanting to be a courageous person, wanting to have the identity of such a person. He/she must also be able to let his/her desire to be courageous check his/her desire to run away in a dangerous situation. A strong evaluation is performed in a language of contrastive evaluative distinctions where different wishes and motives are being determined as noble or base, honourable or shameful, courageous or cowardly and so on. Every concept in these pair of contrast is only understandable in contrast to the other. Being a courageous man must imply that I detest cowardice, not least whatever tendencies to cowardice that I might have. There are obviously ways in which they do that. Joan could be a proud person, possibly referred to as "Joan the proud"; justifiably so if she is disposed to pride. In a similar fashion a person disposed to angry reactions can be called "an angry person".16 But she is not a full-fledged person unless she moves in the dimension of evaluation by trying to pull herself from emotions she detests and push herself towards the ones she regards as the right ones to have.
  6. Now there are possible counter-arguments against the idea that emotions are essential to selfhood.17 In the first place, there are people who seem to be without any emotional life. Secondly, we can imagine a world of human beings that do not have any emotions. In such a world would not make any sense to call Joan "a proud person" or Albert "an angry person". Nobody would ever be angry, never feel pride, hatred or love. What is worse, they would not even care for themselves. Everybody would be a cold fish (also in relationship to themselves) and therefore the dead metaphor "cold fish" would not have any informative value. But does such a thought experiment really throw light upon the concept of a Self? That concept must have been created in order to understand ordinary, living human beings. It is not by chance that we regard a person without emotions as being an aberration. We assume that an ordinary person has at least some kind of emotions and that they play an important role in his/her life and relations with others. And the fact that characteristics like "is a cold fish", "is without emotions", "is proud" or "is resentful" play an important role in our assertions about people shows that we situate the self/person in emotive space. Concepts like "Self" or "a person" were created in order to enable us to understand minded beings that typically have emotions (remember that I believe that the self is social so the concept of the self is something that paradigmatically is applicable to real humans, living in real societies, not to unencumbered products of thought experiments). Actually, the people in my thought experiment are so different from ordinary human beings that we can wonder whether they really are humans and not robot-like creatures. What kind of human being is it who in the first place does not care about herself, secondly cannot be said to be more, less or just as emotional as others, really proud (or the opposite), prone to fits of anger or extremely calm? That which passes as a Self in this world could not be situated in emotive space. Could it be that this concept of a Self would be so different from our version of it that it really would be another concept? (As you might guess, section 6 is where my commonsensical approach comes into the picture).


We can safely conclude that emotivity is a conditio sine non-qua for Selfhood. The mode of existence of that emotivity is the positions and the movements of the Self in a multidimensional emotional space; a space of which the Self is also a part in analogous manner as time is also a part of spatial dimensions according to the Canons of physics. This multidimensional space has at least five dimensions: a) the dimension of concerns; b) the dimension of endorsable/rejectable passions; c) the dimension of the cogito; d) the dimension of narration; e) the dimension of strong evaluation.



1 The Danish phenomenologist Dan Zahavi mentions a couple of (poststructuralist?) theorists who maintain that the idea of the Self is Eurocentric. Zahavi (2006): Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, p. 1.

Bruno Snell famously denied that the Homeric heroes possessed a mind and Julian Jaynes maintained that humans were essentially mindless until about 1000 B.C. Obviously, mindless beings cannot possess Selves. But whether these two theorists were right is altogether another matter.

Snell (1982). The Discovery of The Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Jaynes (1979): The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. London: Allen Lane.

2 Strawson (1999): “The Self and the SESMET”, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 No 4, p. 99.

3 Mead (1962): Mind, Self and Society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, pp. 173-178 and elsewhere.

4 Wittgenstein introduces the theme of the private language argument in the § 258 of his (1958) Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell: London, p. 92. See further, § 265, pp. 93-94 and p. 207

5 The example stems from Robert Solomon (1976): The Passions. Garden City: Doubleday. p. 184.

6 Heidegger (1977): Sein und Zeit. T¸bingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag,, esp. §39-§44 (pp. 180-230) and §61-§66 (pp. 301-333).

Heidegger in his turn was under heavy influence from Kierkegaard who thought that the Self is a relationship that relates to itself. Notice that Kierkegaard does not give Self-consciousness any status as the basic relationship of the Self to itself. Neither Heidegger nor Taylor does either.

Kierkegaard (1962): Sygdommen til d¯den (The Sickness unto Death) (originally published in 1849). Copenhagen: Gyldendal, pp. 15-16.

7 Frankfurt (1988): Importance of what we care about. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, especially “Identity and Externality”, pp. 58-68, and “Identification and Wholeheartedness”, pp. 159-176.

8 Damasio (1994): Descartes’ Error. Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. London: Papermac.

9 Damasio (2003): Looking for Spinoza. London: Vintage, p. 6.

10 He is inspired Keith Oatley and Philip Johnson-laird who have argued that emotion is the product of an agents evaluation of his/he success and failure in achieving particular goals within a narrative structure (Colm Hogan (2003): The Mind and its Stories. Narrative Universals and Human Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, p. 76

11 The father of this argument is the German phenomenologist Wilhelm Schapp. Schapp (1976): In Geschichten Verstrickt. Zum Sein von Mensch und Ding. B. Heymann: Wiesbaden (originally published in 1953), pp. 156-157.

12 Again Wilhelm Schapp is a pioneer, the first philosopher I know of who maintained that the Self has a narrative nature. Schapp (1976).

13 Solomon (1976), p. 132.

14 Taylor (1985): “What is Human Agency?”, Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, p. 34.

15 Taylor is inspired by Frankfurt’s contention that there are first and second order desires, desiring ice cream is a first order desire, wanting to desire to read Proust is a second order desire. Only a person can have second order desires, having them is one the essential moments of personhood. Frankfurt (1988): “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”, The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 11-25.

16 This is partly inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Petter Nafstad (2001) Some Aspects of the Human Emotions. Troms¯: Universitetet, p. 143 and elsewhere).

17 Heidegger seems to have thought that emotions were indispensable for Selfhood. The Dasein (Man?) is always in some mood or another, Befindlichkeit is a central existential and such existentials constitute the being of Dasein. Even not being in a particular mood is being in a mood. But Heidegger seems to be begging the question; even an anti-mood is somehow a mood. Then again, Heidegger is such a complex thinker that it is difficult to judge his ideas in isolation; that certainly is true of his theory of emotions, it can probably only be judged as a part of his whole endeavour. Heidegger (1977), § 29 ( pp. 134-139 ).

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