Cognition, Creativity, and Behavior: Selected Essays

By Robert Epstein | Go to book overview

30
THE SELF-CONCEPT AND OTHER DAEMONS

Summary. Organisms acquire a variety of behavior that is said to be indicative of the "self," but attributing such behavior to a "self-concept" is uninformative. An organism's behavior is sometimes controlled by stimuli generated by its own body or by its own behavior. How such "self"-controlled behavior is acquired can usually be established through careful inquiry. Species differ somewhat in their ability to acquire such behavior, and the differences can and should be understood in terms of differences in genetic and environmental histories, differences in sensitivity to environmental contingencies, and species-specific behaviors elicited by specific stimuli. The discontinuity said to exist between the higher primates and other animals has not been shown conslusively.

But wouldst thou bid the daemons fly,
Like mist before the dawning sky.

--Sir Walter Scott

The concept of a self-concept is part of a legacy. People have always classified, labeled, and explained their behavior. For lack of facts they have often resorted to verbal devices: They have invented inner agents, mental processes, traits, and cognitive structures which--grammatically, anyway--seem to explain things. The "self-concept" and its close relatives, "self-recognition," "self-awareness," and "self-knowledge," are a subset of the many inventions of this sort which have been handed down to modern psychology.

Phrenologists explained behavior by measuring bumps on the head. In some respects modern psychologists have moved backwards, for the explanatory fictions they promote do not even have physical status. The Devil has given way to short term memory, associations, the ego, mental images, personality traits, expectations, attitudes, intelligence, semantic networks, schemes and schemas, rule structures, processing units, and mental software. It is no surprise that the promoters claim that the new explanatory fictions are better than the old--but they are fictions nonetheless.

There are alternatives. We are organisms, and the behavior of organisms, both covert and overt, can be studied using not only the methods but the most

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