Sense of self

April 4, 2007

Someone named Parr wrote:

An animal without appendages cannot touch himself and thus cannot through feeling become acquainted with his own body. Though long, sinuous creatures such as snakes or eels–or long-necked ostriches and giraffes–can turn around and see a large proportion of their bodies, a more rigid animal, like the mackeral [sic], cannot see itself at all. There are, of course, mirrors in nature and an animal may occasionally chance upon his reflection; yet he lacks the powers of deduction to realize that the reflection is a counterpart of himself. This relative ignorance of self has its social implications. Having no adequate concept of his own body, an animal can have no clear conviction that his associates are of his kind. He does not consciously recognize his companions or even his offspring as being “birds of a feather”; his mate may be only a foreign object that has a special allure.

Of course, to move this kind of thinking to humankind would assume that we humans know the world only through our senses–a pretty defensible assumption.

This raises a few questions:

  1. If a man were born blind with no arms and no legs, could he ever truly know what it means to be human?
  2. If I don’t know myself very well (because, for example, I’m not very inquisitive or self-reflective), does this mean that I am more likely to find you to be “a foreign object”?
  3. Since I know my exterior best through feeling myself and seeing a reversed image of myself in a mirror, does this mean that I can best know you by either feeling you or seeing a mirror-image of you?
  4. What about the internal eye? How do I know what is in my heart, my mind? How can I be sure what I find inside me correlates to you in any way? Maybe you are a foreign object, though I do find you strangely alluring.
  5. If we lock a man in solitary confinement for long enough, do we stop being related to him? If I put him in a dark room in a strait jacket, how long will it take for him to forget who he is?
  6. Who are you, anyway?

(The image is “Kissing Mackerel” by Lou Partridge, 2006.)


4 Responses to “Sense of self”

  1. Dave Bonta Says:

    This is (among other things) an excellent deconstruction of a silly quote. These hoaried assumptions about the self-awareness and intelligence of other animals are based on very little other than anthropocentrism, and careful research is slowly disproving them.

  2. sheepdays Says:

    It is a silly quote! Mentioning a mackerel kind of pounds that home, though I don’t think the author intended it to be so. On a more charitable note, it is kind of interesting to think about how we know each other, but definitely ludicrous to think a mate–animal or otherwise–would be just a foreign object of special allure.

  3. Alex Says:

    I like the picture of the mackerel. Very alluring.

  4. Agnieszka Says:

    Hey Birthday Boy– Hope you have a splendid day with your super cute family. I sent you a little B-day suprise to your address but I am not sure you still check it…
    Keep up the blog, I love it. My sense of self definetely changed when I got addicted to the baked oatmeal. Next week I am trying the banana bread, so it better be good:)
    Big hugs to all

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