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The Self: Merely a Social Construct

Jessica Gronniger

Jessica Gronniger (class of 2016) is from Guatemala City, Guatemala. An undeclared biology major, she hopes to pursue a career in scientific research. This past summer she worked in a synthetic biology lab on campus. Her spare time is spent volunteering at the Cornelius animal shelter and seeking random adventures around town on her dilapidated mountain bike. Her essay was written for Dr. Robb’s Writing 101 class: Eastern and Western Conceptions of the Self.

We often fail to realize how much of our identity is shaped by our culture. How we perceive the world, understand ourselves, and interpret our relationships with others are all severely influenced by the environment in which we are raised and the methods of thought with which we are inculcated. Truly, so much of our identity is so thoroughly ensconced with our social constructs that it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the two. I argue that the self is merely a social construct and that those components most integral to our identity are shaped by the social paradigms that surround us. I also explore the psychosocial effects of the absence of social stimulus by examining records about feral children and attempts made to integrate them into society.

 

Defining the Self: A Modified Bundle Theory

Let us begin by defining the self. David Hume declared the self to be “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions that follow each other enormously quickly and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”1 By his definition, the self is merely a bundle of conscious mental states, or perceptions, used to interpret our sensations, ideas, and surroundings. This may not seem like the most self-evident conclusion regarding the nature of the self; therefore, I would like to explain Hume’s reasoning for such a conclusion. He asks his readers to partake in a thought experiment in which they must, through introspection, attempt to identify some form of an essence apart from any mental perception that could be defined as the self. Upon such introspection, Hume found that there was no such essence and that all he could identify was a series of interconnected desires, thoughts, sensations, and memories; in essence, all he found was his bundle of perceptions. Through such a thought experiment, Hume concluded that the self is indeed by nothing more than a bundle of perceptions, all interwoven to give the illusion of central identity. Hume’s bundle theory is accurate in that it applies to both animals and humans; both have perceptions that allow them to interpret sensations, thoughts, and their surroundings. However, Hume fails to realize that there is a fundamental difference between the animalistic perceptions that allow only basic cognitions and human perceptions, which allow for a much wider scope of thoughts, sensations, and insights.

I argue that the self is merely a social construct and that those components most integral to our identity are shaped by the social paradigms that surround us.

Since human perceptions seems to be so fundamentally different from animal perceptions, we must outline exactly what defines the human self. The basis for the human self is still found in Hume’s bundle theory, but the fundamental difference comes from the fact that we have developed the ability to create from our perceptions an identity. However, this is not an identity in the sense that most people define it. It is not a central essence that underlies all of our perceptions, rather it is the ability to attribute to our perceptions a series of preferences, dispositions, proclivities, and biases. This combination of perceptions and preferences can be collectively referred to as an identity, and it is what allows us specifically as humans to develop both language and personality when in a social setting. In essence, every cognitive animal has perceptions, but humans are able to add character and temperament to such perceptions to create personality. For the purpose of this paper, the human self will be referred to as an identity and will be comprised of a bundle of perceptions molded by social settings into a personality.

 

Defining Perceptions: Nisbett and Cultural Variation

Considering that the self is defined by its perceptions, it follows that we must discern that which in turn shapes our perceptions. In an attempt to define the cultural aspects that shape different mentalities, Richard Nisbett thoroughly analyzes the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. According to Nisbett, there are two basic social ideals. The first is the Gesellschaft, or individualist ideal inherent in Western cultures (principally the United States and Northern European countries). In an individualist setting, persons believe they have specific, distinctive attributes that set them apart from the general population. They greatly value their autonomy and generally aspire for individual self-300x199 The Self: Merely a Social Constructacclaim and personal achievement. Relationships are regarded as a means to an end and social aspirations revolve around independent rather than collective advancement.2 The second is the Gemeinschaft, or collectivist ideal, found most prominently in Eastern cultures. A collectivist believes that a community is based on a shared sense of identity, where relationships depend on a sense of unity and mutality. To a collectivist, an individual is not defined by unique and distinctive traits, but rather through the set of relationships maintained within the society (such as friend, brother, or wife). A greater focus on group goals, coordinated action, and harmonious social relations makes individual distinctiveness undesirable. A collectivist archives personal satisfaction only through the accomplishment of group goals.3

Nisbett’s comparison demonstrates that two individuals can have extremely different ways of perceiving the world and themselves simply due to cultural differences. Westerners might believe themselves to be unique individuals striving to distinguish themselves from the masses, while Easterners will see themselves as cogs within an intricate machine, seeking collective approval and social success. Both styles of thought allow for very different views of the self, differences that are built around the social constructs inherent in each culture. Nisbett’s overwhelming evidence shows that our identities are almost entirely molded by our upbringing and the cultural paradigms with which we are indoctrinated. Now, assuming that the self is defined by its identity, and that our social environment heavily influences that identity, it is plausible to conclude that our social setting predominately shapes the self and thus that the self is construct.

 

Defining Social Constructs: Sally Haslanger

At this point, we must define a social construct. According to Sally Haslanger, “something is a social construction if it is an intended or unintended product of a social practice.”4 While this is the basic definition of a social construct, Haslanger delves deeper into the subject and delineates two varieties of social constructs. The first is the construction of ideas. Haslanger believes that all ideas are constructs in the sense that they refer to concepts that only exist within our cultural framework, and that said ideas are “only possible within and due to a social context.”5 However, this is not the classification that applies to human identity. Our identity is a socially-constructed object; specifically, we are discursively-constructed objects. To clarify: “something is discursively constructed just in case it is (to a significant extent) the way it is because of what is attributed to it or how it is classified.”6 Much like our constructed gender classifications, we also have constructed identities, which come into being by attaching the cultural ideals explored by Nisbett with our developing identities. As Haslanger points out: “each of us is socially constructed in this sense because we are (to a significant extent) the individuals we are today as a result of what has been attributed (and self-attributed) to us.”7

 

The Argument

For the sake of clarity, I will now set forth my argument in a numbered sequence of premises and conclusions.

(1) The self is nothing but a bundle of perceptions, thoughts, and interactions, which our environments molds into an identity. (2) Our identities are defined by our culture and the society in which we are raised, as is shown by Nisbett’s comparison of Eastern and Western mentalities. (3) A social construct is that which is the intended or unintended product of social practices and cultural paradigms. (4) Therefore, the self must be nothing but a social construct.

 

Objection 1: Being Removed from Society

Having mapped out the argument, I am now faced with an obvious objection. If I were removed from a social setting, would I cease to have a self? Of the two objections I consider, this is the easier one to address. If I have been removed from a social setting, this implies that at some point, for an undetermined amount of time, I was exposed to a social world. Regardless of the span of time, we can conclude that any exposure to society, especially during earlier developmental stages, will allow social paradigms to shape my identity. Any exposure to society allows from the development of an identity based on my environment and experiences in a social setting. That being said, even if I were to be removed from society, my previous exposure to a social condition would have allowed me to establish my identity though my social context. Thus, my self has already been formed around the set of cultural ideals I was exposed to.

 

Objection 2: The Feral Child

A more intricate objection to consider would be: if I were isolated prior to any contact with a social setting, would I never develop an identity at all? This may seem at first to be a serious objection simply because humans have an inherent desire to believe they are superior in their ability to develop complex identities. This objection falls short in its failure to acknowledge that while we are capable of creating very complex identities, we are only able to do so in social settings. Removing the social aspect from human development entirely removes our ability to develop a distinct and complex identity. Examining stories about feral children can best support this conclusion. Two cases in particular stand out, both taken from Candland’s book, Feral Children and Clever Animals.

I will begin with Peter, a feral child found in the German town of Hameln in 1724. Peter was taken into captivity and kept in a local hospital where he was examined and observed by a series of psychologists and physicians. The general conclusion was that Peter was a “true feral man, a human being raised not by other human beings but by the natural state provided by the wild. He was surely capable of learning, for he had learned from his experiences how to deal with the natural environment of the forest. Yet he was untouched by human contact, human demands, and human forms of socialization.”8 Many attempted to integrate Peter into a constructive social setting, but he was unable to master the simplest of tasks. He was incapable of self-300x199 The Self: Merely a Social Constructacquiring language, he displayed complete indifference towards money and the opposite gender, and his nature seemed to lack humanness in even the most basic ways. Truly, Peter appeared to be more animal than human and displayed a complete lack of traditional identity, curiosity, and nearly every other aspect thought to be intrinsic to humans.

An even more obvious example is found in yet another feral child, Victor,a young boy of about twelve found in France in 1799. Victor appeared to be even more feral than Peter in unexpected ways. Upon discovery, Victor was subjected to the scrutiny and amusement of the public. While this was not the best use of the fascinating psychological subject, a description of the boy’s behavior given by a witness of the event provides great insight into the boy’s psychology and behavior; truly it can be said that it was not a boy turned savage by the wildness they saw:

What they did see was a degraded human being, human only in shape; a dirty, scarred, inarticulate creature who trotted and grunted like the beasts of the fields, ate with apparent pleasure the most filthy refuse, was apparently incapable of attention or even elementary perceptions such as heat or cold, and spent his time apathetically rocking himself backwards and forwards like the animals at the zoo. A “man-animal,” whose only concern was to eat, sleep, and escape the unwelcome attention of sightseers.9

Victor was more savage animal than human and was incapable of the simplest human tasks, sensitivities, and skills that often define our identities. This “degraded human being” was the product of complete isolation from the social havens of our societies. This isolation resulted in an individual who had no discernible sense of identity or self. Victor was incapable of even those aspects thought to be most crucial to a functioning society; he “showed no sense of justice, of righteousness, or of wrongness of social habits, such as theft.”10 Evidently, Victor lacked all traits that define a functioning human being in a social setting, and more importantly, lacked a sense of identity. From such an example, it can be concluded that our sense of identity does truly rely entirely on our social settings. Our society allows us to develop emotionally, intellectually, and morally, and more importantly, allows us to establish a sense of identity, which discerns us from animals with less advanced cognitive abilities.

 

Conclusion

In summary, the self is a social construct because it is defined by the social paradigms that nurture and develop our perceptions of the world. Through records about feral children and observations regarding their nature, behavior, and general psychology, it can be established that identity is so thoroughly ingrained within our social paradigms that one cannot exist without the other. Individuals such as Peter and Victor, who had no previous exposure to society, had no sense of identity and were reduced to animals with no sense of self or distinguishing intellect. On the other hand, individuals brought up in varying cultural settings displayed varying interpretations of their identity. The human mind appears to be a blank slate full of potential, a slate that can be inscribed with ideals of humanity through intellectual and emotional stimulation, or it is a potential than can be neglected so much so that it is reduced to an animalistic state completely devoid of identity and humanity. It is clear that in one form or another we are all created and constantly defined by the social ideals in which we are immersed.

 

Bibliography

Carland, Douglas. Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Haslanger, Sandy. “Gender and Social Construction: Who? What? When? Where? How?” In Theorizing Feminisms, edited by Sally Haslanger and Elizabeth Hackett. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Hume, David.”6: Personal Identity.” Treatise on Human Nature. Edited by Jonathan Bennett.  (2007) In Early Modern Texts, www.earlymoderntexts.com.

Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought. (New York: The Free Press, 2003).

 

 

  1. David Hume, “6: Personal Identity.” Treatise on Human Nature, ed. Jonathan Bennett. (2007) , in Early Modern Texts, www.earlymoderntexts.com. []
  2. Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought  (New York: The Free Press, 2003): 48. []
  3. Ibid., 61. []
  4. Sally Haslanger, “Gender and Social Construction: Who? What? When? Where? How?” Theorizing Feminisms, ed. Sally Haslanger and Elizabeth Hackett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006): 17. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid., 19. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Douglas K. Candland, Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 9. []
  9. Ibid., 18. []
  10. Ibid., 34. []
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