Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Split Lives in the Modern World

William James ( 1842-1910) was a psychologist in the days before the boundaries between psychology and philosophy were well formed. His writings, even including Principles of Psychology ( 1890), were, therefore, equally important to the early history of modern psychology in the United States and to the most indigenous American school of philosophy, pragmatism. James was born into America's literary elite. His father had been an intimate of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his brother was Henry James, the novelist. Throughout most of his adult life, William James was associated with Harvard, where the building housing the social sciences now bears his name. The selection that follows describes his attempt to classify the dimensions of self. This is the classic formulation of the idea of a social self, described against three other parts of self. Though this is a formal scientific exposition, its manifest confusion over the parts of self reflect the ordinary life experience of individuals who feel themselves pulled in a number of directions.


The Self and Its Selves

William James ( 1890)

Let us begin with the Self in its widest acceptation, and follow it up to its most delicate and subtle form, advancing from the study of the empirical, as the Germans call it, to that of the pure, Ego.


The Empirical Self or Me

The Empirical Self of each of us is all that he is tempted to call by the name of me. But it is clear that between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves. Our fame, our children, the work of our hands, may be as dear to us as our bodies are, and arouse the same feelings and the same acts of reprisal if attacked. And our bodies themselves, are they simply ours, or are they us? Certainly men have been ready to disown their very bodies and to regard them as mere vestures, or even as prisons of clay from which they should some day be glad to escape.

We see then that we are dealing with a fluctuating material; the same object being sometimes treated as a part of me, at other times as simply mine, and then again as if I had nothing to do with it at all. In its widest possible sense, however, a man's Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers,

____________________
Excerpt from Frederick Burkhardt, general ed., and Fredson Bowers, textual ed., The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981 [ 1890]), pp. 279-283, 287-288, 314-316. Reprinted by permission of the publishers. Copyright 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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