Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

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4 thoughts on “Negative Theology and the “True Self”

  1. Very interesting post. I think you’ve actually hit on the meaning behind the phrase “true self” (regardless of whether there is such a thing.) I used to wonder: how can we not already be our “true selves”? This problem is similar to the one behind the phrase, “Find yourself” (I used to roll my eyes at these expressions.) What you’ve pointed out is that a “true” self is a better self, someone we aspire to become.

    And perhaps we’re always aspiring. If that’s the case, I can see how the “true self” can be somewhat negatively defined and elusive.

    I also agree that we mean more than just a set of character traits. There’s something indescribable, or at least something MORE, than just a set of characteristics intended in the phrase.

    • Thanks for your compliments, and for commenting.

      I think what you say about people not being just a set of characteristics is aptly captured in our intuitions about love and friendship. We may admire, and be drawn to, certain qualities that our friends or lovers have, but ultimately our “drawnness”, or attachment to them cannot be rendered intelligible as an attachment to just those characteristics. If our attachment could be made sense of in terms of attachment to characteristics we would be equally attached to any person who had those characteristics. But, instead we are attached to specific concrete others not any person that meets certain criteria.

      • Yes, a very interesting example. I could list all the aspects of my husband, submit them to a dating website, and find myself with someone I don’t even like. So we end up with trivialities when we describe what we like in people: “I like a good sense of humor.” Well, okay. “I like a dark sense of humor.” Closer. “I like a dark sense of humor, but not on topics x, y and z.” Etc. This could go on for a long time, and that’s just one aspect!

        Even supposing I could get very specific, it’s not clear I’d really know what it is I’m attracted to. If, in this thought experiment, I could accurately describe all the things I love about my husband, would I end up with exactly the same person? Probably not.

        This kind of reminds me of the novel, Solaris, in which the protagonist’s idea of his girlfriend (now dead) comes back to life, but she’s slightly altered. He ends up loving her more than the actual person (since she’s everything he wanted in his girlfriend, minus the things he didn’t like or chose not to see). She looks exactly the same, but he senses something is off in her personality, and can’t quite pinpoint it. (And of course, he knows that the actual person is dead and that this is the conscious planet’s way messing with his head.)

  2. …which is why the expression “become who you are” is such a good one. It offers the same encouragement you see in “be true to yourself,” while also making apparent the contradictory nature that you’ve pointed out.

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