The propertyless self

We often criticize people who are insecure/unconfident/have low self-esteem (I’m not sure if those are three different things or if there’s some/complete overlap — I’ll just use “insecure” to stand in for all of them) for focusing on their properties. This is particularly so when it comes to people who are romantically insecure. We tell such people “you shouldn’t worry about being loved for your wealth/looks/smarts/niceness — you should love yourself just how you are and other people will love you just how you are too.”

Yet this seems to be based on some kind of really weird notion of personal identity. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I think of who it is that I “am,” I think of a bunch of properties. I am a PhD student, I am a politically active person, I am someone who is loyal to his friends and ferocious to his enemies, I am someone who takes a lot of photographs, occasionally acts and plays the harmonica, and has been caught writing a poem or two, etc. (I am, god help me, a blogger.) What is this part of one’s self that exists apart from what one does, what qualities, one has? Where can this propertyless self that everyone is supposed to love actually be found?

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13 Responses to “The propertyless self”

  1. x. trapnel Says:

    1. PID as ‘properties’ misses the most important dimension, which is *narrative*.

    2. Seeing merely ‘properties’ is often the result of an implicit narrative of fatalistic powerlessness, of being merely along for the ride. This is a bad narrative!

    3. I found the first chapters of Velleman’s How We Get Along very good on this, but that was ages ago, and it was in draft form then. YMMV.

  2. Tomer Says:

    I agree, we are a bundle of the things we do. However, this is exactly what you ought to love not _because_ you do these things but _in spite_ of the fact you do these things.
    So, you say “I write poems and I like it about myself” but you don’t want to say “I write poems and _that is why_ I love myself”. That sounds perverse. In particular, the idea is that at least the love you have for yourself will not be dependent on other things. It should be like the classical love we once though we can have towards others and have since disillusioned. This new-age approach is trying to save the last resort, ‘love thy-self, god damn-it – you’re all you have left’.

  3. Michael Drake Says:

    A few years back, the New Yorker had a cartoon depicting two young women engaged in deep conversation. The one said to the other, “I don’t want to be defined by who I am.”

  4. Aaron Says:

    as far as i’ve observed, people are admired and respected for being confident even where the confidence is completely unwarranted. we simply respond to confident people because they trick us in to thinking they’re high-status. when someone acts a certain way, we seem to assume (very tacitly) they act that way ’cause they’ve gotten away with acting that way in the past, and they’ve gotten away with acting that way in the past because it’s warranted. i’m pretty sure that’s all it is.

  5. Jeff Albert Says:

    I used to have a real problem of defining myself by the gigs I had and people I was playing with. If all I had were crappy gigs, I felt like I was a loser. I’ve gotten over that, now that I have better gigs.

  6. Phoenixism Says:

    Hmm.
    Here’s a little mental exercise. You must use your imagination:

    Imagine you are the last man on Earth.
    And you are locked in a pitch black room.
    No light, no window, no door, no one else in the room.

    How do you define yourself? (Other than hysterical)

  7. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    Good lord, Paul, have you turned to nonessentialism?

    Welcome aboard, if so.

  8. HipHopPoppa Says:

    People tend to think there is a holisitic self, a “who” rather than a “what” and that properties are somehow derived from this. The propertyless self insists on a personal essence that is in some strange sense ontologically prior to a person’s properties. I guess it’s another variant of the soul.

  9. ben Says:

    Paul embraces mauvaise foi! Pace Goldberg, this post seems to evince Nehamasian hyperessentialism.

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    Phoenixism: I suspect hysterical might cover it. I mean, how on earth can I find something to say about myself without finding something to do with myself. Does that make me an antiessentialist? Then so be it.

    (Perhaps I am a person who is not sure what the difference is between Nehemas’s version of essentialism and a healthy anti-essentialism.)

  11. ben Says:

    The nehamasian term is actually superessentialism. My mistake!

  12. jane Says:

    I have never heard of anyone being worried about being loved for only their smarts.

    I think the usual things people don’t want to be solely loved for are wealth and appearance, and perhaps social status. Whether there exists an essential self or not, and my intuition still feels that there’s a reasonable sense in which an essential self does exist, those three properties don’t seem to be really “essential.” Smart, yes, funny, probably–can’t change those things without inflicting brain damage, really. Wealth–takes only a stock market crash to vaporize it, appearance–time and genetics aren’t things within human control (yet), status–the prize of a game where the rules are written completely by other people.

  13. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    Paul, your very plausible view in this post seems incompatible with the (utterly implausible) view in your “right to be loved” post from way back, in which love got ties to the abstract moral personhood we all share, instead of our distinctive individual features…

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