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Philosophical Thought

The idea of desubstantial "Self" and the principle of temporality

Gonotskaya Nadezhda

PhD in Philosophy

Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy for Humanities, Faculty of Philosophy, M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University

119192, Russia, Moscow, Lomonosovsky Ave., 27, building 4

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Abstract: This article touches upon issues related to the possibility of maintaining the unity of self-consciousness in the temporal continuity, the difference between self-identification and self-consciousness, as well as the role of the subject in the process of self-constructing. Modernity provides a large number of technologies for self-identification. They create a simplified image of self-consciousness: self-awareness is understood as a thing endowed with certain qualities. Their disadvantage is not only that they offer a simplified, schematic view of an individual, a pattern into which much, if not all, can fit. These self-identification technologies are often misunderstood, identified with the process of self-consciousness. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish the procedures of self-identification and the process of self-consciousness, ― it does not lend itself to patterns. Self-identification is a technological process. Self-consciousness is an intuitive-interpretive activity, not a discursive one. The article presents the desubstantivist concept of “Self”, demonstrates the need for introduction of temporality into the concept of “Self”, how self-conscious activity unfolds in time, what is its specificity, and how it differs from the procedure for self-identification.


subject, self-identification, self-consciousness, time, temporality, psychology, personality typology, substantivism, desubstantivism, subjectivity


The study of consciousness centers on the question of the “I” which has become intricately bound up with the notion of objectivity as understood in the context of the modern research university. Attempts by the early Greek thinkers to comprehend and explain the “I” eventually lead to schemes involving qualitative and quantitative procedures. At the level of physiology, Hippocrates four kinds of humor or doctrine of humor to diagnose sickness, created standards of measurement or model of explanation (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic).

Ancient Greeks: Creating Patterns

Classical metaphysics with its essentialism and substantialism provided a pattern of explanation for consciousness and its relation to the world around it. Such an approach, in order to realize its goal, required the isolation of the “I” from temporality.

We see this in Plato and Aristotle. Recall that for Plato the three parts of the soul are correlated to three classes of people [1]. Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics [2] throws all his intellectual efforts to determine the measure or degree in difference. That is, how courage differs from recklessness and cowardice, and how generosity may be distinguished from wastefulness, prodigality, and greed [3].

Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, serves as a paradigmatic example of how dimensionality is created. His book on ethical Characters [4] differentiated 30 characters or moral types of persons according to deformity, tendencies, inclinations, dispositions, habits, and what is considered as endowed by nature. He noticed constant features or distinguishing qualities that he considered as a character or a sum of mental properties manifest themselves in actions. His typology on moral characters would later serve as a model for writers such as George Elliot.

Concerns such as what constitute mental integrity and human nature were within the preview of ethics in ancient times. Today such concerns are in the field of psychology and have provided that psychology with a gauge as one of its investigative tools. The ancient Greeks created and launched the process of creating identities ¾ it was not always along blood lines, but more important along lines of cultural characteristics or how they identified themselves. Hellenes, those of the region of Hellas, identified themselves as that so as to distinguish themselves form Athenians and Spartans.

Standards of measurement allow collecting the “I” in one point, to separate the “I” from what does not belong to the “I” and is not the “I”. And though Theophrastus’s identification by characters is quite different from self-identification process of modern psychology [5], nevertheless they are the same in essence ― to identify the “I”.

We understand the “I” by relating it to the scheme given in advance. These qualities combine to distinguish my Self from another Self, but there is also something that unites them in essence. In order to make possible the definition of the soul given by Plato (“to divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indecomposable, permanent and to unchanging in itself our soul is most similar, and human, mortal, comprehended not by mind, diverse, decomposable and perishable, impermanent and dissimilar <...> our body alike” [6]), it was necessary to initiate a process of self-probing ― something that is commonly called an “anthropological turn” in historical and philosophical literature.

The beginning of the procedure for splitting a monolithic crystal of the soul was laid by the sophists, especially the greatest of them, Socrates [7]. The Greeks were the first to raise a question addressed to oneself; the first who dared to argue on their own, to question the grounds. (The way Socrates turned the conversation was like: “You are the greatest sophist, you appear in court, and you act with justice, and now tell me what justice is in itself, and I will prove to you that you do not know it”). I can act justly, but I do not know on what basis I am acting like that. Questioning yourself is the first step. The second step will be an attempt to create standards of measurement. If there are no these standards, the only what Nietzsche called “direct sensuality” remains. Transcendental nonchalance opposes self-awareness.

Creating Self: Self-Identification/Self-Consciousness

The paradox of self-consciousness is that, on the one hand, assembling self requires the “I” to enter into a register or frame that is structured and pre-filled with value (not empty) identification cards, but on the other hand, self-consciousness never completely fits into the framework of given classifiers. Why?

Self-identification is a procedure but self-consciousness is a process. Modernity provides with various technologies for self-identification increasing self-awareness. They create a simplified image of self-consciousness (self-consciousness is understood as a certain thing endowed with certain qualities). Their disadvantage is not only that they offer a simplified, schematic view of the individual, not much can fit in their schema and then sometimes almost anything can. The spectrum of modern standards of dimensionality is so wide that it creates the illusion that the “I” can be reduced to various situational functions, social roles, character traits, temperament, etc. As a result, a personality falls into periods of life, roles, functions. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between the procedures for self-identification and the process of self-consciousness ¾ it does not lend itself to patterns. (A rather comprehensive overview of psychological concepts of the “I” is presented by E. Belinskaya in her study on the development of the problematic of dynamic aspects of self-concept and identity within the framework of general, age and social psychology [8]).

Consciousness is always “consciousness of”. Consciousness is intentional by its nature. The genesis of the subject requires objectivity. Objectivity implies the ability to separate oneself from another. If there is no objectivity, if there is no division, there is no consciousness at all. The pole of “direct sensuality” (Nietzsche) is in front of the pole of self-consciousness. “Direct sensuality” is a merge of need with objectness: I have a desire and nothing can be done with it ― I cannot delay my desire. A need does not form an object yet. I just want to eat or want to sleep, lie on the grass, if the weather is good, or swim in the river if it is not too cold, ― and I do it, ― as an animal ― this is a kind of simplification but the main meaning is captured. Consciousness is there, where there is also what is opposed to it, what needs to be cognized and what must be cognized. When “direct sensuality” gives way to consciousness with all the aggravating effects of its presence in the world, then psychology is born. Fate, or destination of self-awareness, is to become cognized to oneself.

Western European culture has come a long way to develop procedures for self-knowledge, and hence the complication of subjectivity. First, the creation of measurement standards by the ancient Greeks, then, in the era of Greco-Roman Hellenism, the formation of the boundaries of private and public space through “care of the self” (special spiritual practices of the Stoics and Epicureans); The Christian era, which created the second universe along with the one we have already been given and of which we are part ― the universe of the inner world with its reflection, guilt, awareness of sinfulness, repentance, the expectation of salvation, the desire to go beyond the limits of present existence; latter ― the birth of the clinic [9], the invention of mental illness, the formation of clinical psychology, ― a special kind of sphere of caring for the mentally sick.

The by-product of the creation of the “self-conscious soul” is what Nietzsche called “resentment”. Resentment is complex of poisoning the soul experiences and emotions. They are negative, self-destructive, and require interpretation: envy, revenge, a desire not directly satisfied, repressed into the unconscious and claiming about itself indirectly, somatically ― as in cases of hysteria, described in detail by Freud, etc. ― all the baggage of negativity with which psychoanalysts work.

Thus, the process of self-discovery unfolded and became a fascinating adventure in the production of psychological garbage, an adventure of our whole life; a faithful and patient companion in which now not only a priest, a teacher or a parent, but also a psychoanalyst. His mission is modest: not to clear the “I” and return it to its original simplicity (to return to “direct sensuality” ― which is hardly possible), but with the preservation of the complexity of subjectivity to help create a holistic self.

If classical philosophy was characterized by a monolithic idea of the soul, the procedure of self-identification was identified with self-consciousness, and everything was simple, now simple characteristics of the “I” are no longer enough — self-consciousness does not fit into any of the existing standards of measurement. It is necessary to question the grounds again and ask how this production and maintenance process works. What is behind these ready-made schematizations of the “I”, in which we, independently or with the help of a specialist, try to squeeze ourselves. The “I” is not a thing with a certain set of qualities. At the same time, the process of self-consciousness is not a pure creative act in which you can invent any kind of self, to invent yourself from scratch [10].

Self-Consciousness as Time-Thinking

What is this act of self-consciousness? The work on self-determination is capable of creating new things-fictions: the “I”, the Persona, the Personality, ― which were not there before. In this case, the “I” is materialized, but the “I” is not a thing along with other things ¾ things are determined through qualities. Attempting to think the “I” as a definite quality or a set of qualities, figuratively speaking, transforms the “I” into a dung ball from the novel “The life of Insects” of V. Pelevin. The dung beetle gives the first lesson of self-determination to his little son. (He is very reminiscent of such an overly-visual psychologist). In his understanding, the “I” is a huge ball made of dung scattered literally everywhere. We push this ball in front of us for a lifetime, adding to it all new and new material, drawn from the surrounding reality. If the fruit of our labors is already large enough, then under the watchful gaze it turns into a mirror in which its creator sees her or his own reflection.

David Hume occupies a special place in changing the model of the “I”. He showed that the “I” is a fiction: there are only a series of ideas related to the principles of association, but there is no separate impression from which the idea of the “I” originates. If we put aside all attempts to substantivize the “I”, there will be only self-consciousness immersed in the experience. However, the generic feature of experience is its mutability in time.

I am aware of myself at every moment of time, but not only. I build relationships with images of myself in time. I look at my pictures and say: “Here I am 5 years old and here I am 14, I just graduated from music school and here I got my McGill degree at 25”. In what respect is the current state of consciousness to the past, recorded in the frame? What can be common between me at 38 and a 5-year-old girl who looks at me from a picture? And, nevertheless, we stretch the thread between the past and the present and say “it’s me” to somebody we, in general, have nothing common to for a long time.

“Self is constantly changing in various situations of daily life. Self accumulates all new thoughts, feelings, values in stock of unnecessary things, discovering them in the chaos of various everyday situations” [11]. The “I” cannot be withdrawn from time, which means that temporality must be brought up into the theory of the “I”. Self-consciousness carries out work on the appropriation or alienation of an experience unfolding in time which it considers as its own experience. But the elements of experience, around which the establishment of property relations is unfolding, are endowed with a different fullness of presence. Moreover, the content of the past and possible future experience does not remain unchanged. And this, in turn, means that it is impossible once and for all to become one-to-one with them.

Answering the question “Who am I?” comes through establishing one’s attitude not towards to what is now, but what was and what can be. It is needed to search for oneself every time anew. Presence of the “I” is not always guaranteed, as well as the presence of what the “I” seeks itself in. The possibility of forgetting is inherent in the past, and the possibility of changing expectations belongs to the future.

The unity of self-consciousness is maintained every time by a renewed effort of memory, loyalty, patient expectation and the persistent fulfillment of a dream. To maintain oneself is possible only at the cost of considerable effort, but no less effort is needed in order to change: break the affection, get rid of nostalgia, soberly look into the face of unreal dreams. What these efforts will be directed to is not predetermined. A predetermined effort would be an absurd concept. To find one’s self is to choose oneself by investing in this choice all the power of the desire. A changeable, demanding choice, an arbitrary idea of the “I” bearing the imprint of time can only be understood as an act, but not as a thing.

Subjectivity and Temporality

How to distinguish a “live person” from a moving and talking doll? Does such a doll or human like robot have the subjectivity of a life person? Traditionally, the basis of subjectivity is the exercise of a free will ― the ability to choose a basis for one’s own actions and persist in committing acts based on this choice. The causes of the actions of a being endowed with will cannot be alienated from him or her. Losing the will is the same as transferring the function of the cause to the “Other”. Such is the doll, or the robot, which has its creator-owner, who is responsible for causing his creation to itself and to others. A “live person” is one who is self-owned, self-controlled.

It turns out that subjectivity is not a quality along with others: strength, beauty, the ability to consistent behavior and coherent speech, etc. The subject does not manifest at all in any qualities, therefore the subject is not a thing.

The subject manifests itself solely in the fact that he/she declares the experience as his/her own or the other’s. Through this distribution of property relations, mobility, flickering is imparted to experience. Thanks to the intervention of subjects, the impersonal undifferentiated whole of experience is divided into streams, rushing in the direction of a multitude of centers, differing from each other in the force of attraction and repulsion. Through alternate appropriation/alienation of experience, it is given a rhythm; temporary differences are made in the experience. This is the key function of the subject in the relation to experience. The subject performs the thinking of time in which the “I” is born. The “I” itself is only a sign, a name that does not correspond to any real thing. The truth of this word is not in accordance with something that opens to the eyes of an impartial observer, a psychoanalyst expert, but only in persuasiveness, the ability to awaken passion and faith in the “Other”.


Classical metaphysics combined self-identification and self-consciousness — formerly they were the same thing. But since we are under the weight of tradition, psychologists often feel that this is still the case. Now they diverge. This creates additional difficulties for the process of self-consciousness because it is needed to separate self-consciousness from the very close, but in terms of content, the opposite procedure of self-identification. A person must distance him- or herself from him- or herself as an object of identification, from the scale of identification scores. One has to wonder: “Where am I? Am I an object of identification or a subject of self-consciousness?”

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2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Book II.
3. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Book II (VII–IX).
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