From Self to Neuroself, Part 1: The Thing that Owns


The implications of the self radiate outward from the narrow concerns of psychology like a shock wave, and touch all of human life.

The self is the atom of democracy, the engine of capitalism, the focus of law, the agent of free will, and the flaw of all religion.  It is the secular derivative of soul.  It is perhaps not too much to say that the self is the building block of the modern secular world.

And yet when pressed, it is difficult for those who possess one to describe its basic nature.  We know we are selves, but not why.

The self is not the body, not the name, not our reputation, history, relationships or dreams.  At one time or another it seems attached to each of these – and a thousand other features.  And yet injury, misfortune, growth may change these in a moment, while still the self lives on.  I am me when I go bald, and I am me if I am fired, and I am me when I get married.  So what – so who – is me?  Each of these features is related to the self – when asked to describe it, we and all our friends recite our appearance, history, character – but not quite it.   We are left puzzled – always in the ballpark, but never on the mark.  I suppose that we are tempted to shrug and tell ourselves we understand it well enough, we’re close enough, we can move on to other things. But in our hearts we know the clear description such an entity deserves eludes us.

I share it now.  Though through a long induction I might work slowly towards the claim, it is best to simply state it from the start.

The self is the thing that owns.

It is ownership that makes the self.  It is through this power, by which it obtained the rights of an owner, and the responsibility of an owner, and the agency of an owner, that the self broke free of the collective and rose with the Enlightenment to become the elementary particle of the western world.

Forget all of the features you recite to define your self.  All that matters is that they are owned.  The self is not a thing, it is a power. It is the centrifugal force by which our property is gathered.

And yet this is not quite enough.  Societies come and go; they rise and fall. Always they are premised on some metaphysical foundation or other, and in this regard the self is just another metaphysical thing – a smaller family, a smaller tribe. It may sound strange to say it – in a world run rampant with its property – but ownership would not have been enough – not quite enough – to win the self its pride of place.  For always would have begged the question: why could some other thing not own? And what is this centrifugal force anyway?  Of what, exactly, are selves made?

The self has had an answer up its sleeve, and from the start.  It is a mathematical trick.  And by this trick it laid claim to a possession that rendered it the greatest metaphysical force in all of human history, save one.

The self owns itself.  

If you allow it, does your mind not reel within this notion?  It catches in the logic’s sudden whirl and spins around in the regress.  The owner owns the owner owns the owner owns the own.   By this idea, rich in its simplicity, the self becomes an infinite loop, a vicious circle.  It becomes a black hole: any thought or perception that enters the self’s consciousness becomes forever owned by it.  Your opinions become yours.  Your tastes become yours.  What you see, think, feel, want – it all is owned by you. If you observe something, you know with certainty that no one else does.  By this maneuver the self captured and then held the throne from which God for so long had ruled.

We now pass the self on to each generation as a birthright.  We whisper it to our children, not with our mouths, but every facet of our culture.  We see how quickly it takes hold. Culture hands it to them and swallow it down, and then their eyes grow wide and fix.   It is the secret phrase of immortality, and they know it, for once believed, it self-sustains. The self also owns itself.

Our culture is not so crass as to teach self-ownership as a dogma. It oozes it as implication.

From every side we are bombarded with its slight and soft suggestion.  Eventually, across development, in aggregate and time, we come to presume nothing else.  By adulthood – and long before, in fact – we are all pleasant narcissists.  We love and loathe our selves, critique and change our selves.  The self becomes our endless, only project.

Today on Amazon I found listed 179,142 so-called self-help books.  A self could not read them in a life!  And yet this ceaseless focus did not exist before Enlightenment.  God had to die, the collective wither, socialism fail.  Only then, the last metaphysic standing, did it become what we all falsely assume it is: an ancient, natural fact.

Today it is old hat.  In my office patients sit and say their self is boring – that it bores others, bores itself.  They say they would forget themselves, or worse, would kill themselves.  And when from time to time they leave their self behind and take some entitled, impulsive action, the world and I shove it right back down their throats.  And they complain – they cannot escape themselves – their actions, history, and reputation. One would scarcely know from all their choking that it was the chief achievement of a rebellious, distant age.

Once, before Enlightenment, we were like animals.  We did not even think of it, self-ownership.  We wanted and we acted, we fought and loved and died in vain.  But we did not think to own what we were doing. It was simply what had happened and what we did.  It was one thing after another; life was a story, and rambled on.  Self-ownership – and with it, the placement of all events into some grand and overarching narrative – that was a power reserved for God.  We had no novels – and certainly no first-person ones – because the narrative arc was not the property of man.  It was the property of God, and it rendered him inscrutable.  Only God could be inscrutable – we ourselves, we were just men.

But today, as though the high stone wall around some ancient pyre had been breached, the flame stolen to light a billion private torches, we carry, all of us, the old regress inside our chests, and spread it wide.  In their aggregate the unseen light creates the structure of society.  We are each now our own God.  We tell our personalized creation stories, suffer our own original sins.  Powered by what had been God’s infinite regress, his self-ownership, we are become metaphysically immortal.  We are become secular divines.

The self is now our brine, and we are pickled in it.  It carries us, we carry it, and all together carry on.

Continue to Part 2

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.