We might take this shift from what we want to understand to how we understand a step further—to the question of who we are in doing the understanding. A particularly fascinating systemic debate from my field of psychology and psychiatry highlights how fundamentally a mature picture of complexity challenges assumptions—of all persuasions. It also supports this use of creative language. The debate had its origins mid-century. But it remains lively today. (And the resolution I will propose is controversial).
Here I refer to the battle over the nature of the “self”—behaviorists (along with the more extreme of cognitive theorists) on one side and humanists and those of more analytical bent on the other. Behaviorists—at least of the more extreme right-hand sort—tend to dismiss the whole notion (make it all behavior). Those who put greater emphasis on inner reflection — particularly of the more extreme inclination—tend to wax poetically about the “authentic,” “true,” or “original” self (which therapeutic process is supposed to be about recovering).
Neither view holds up well to scrutiny. Making us only behavior leaves out not just inner experience but any appreciation for meaning and coherence. And making identity an opposite to conditioning, belief, and the stuff of the material world in the end dismisses who we are as manifesting and manifest beings.
The concept of self makes useful sense, but only as something that includes all of our systemic complexity. This conclusion is not just conceptual. It becomes obvious with at all deep clinical work. The approaches applied by advocates of either apposing school of thought can be useful. But they are also each vulnerable to major traps from which they have no means of escape.
Viewed from a maturely systemic perspective, self includes all of our cognitive complexity and being authentic means, simply, using that complexity in the most powerful, and with Cultural Maturity, consciously congruent ways. In this picture the notion of self very much makes sense—indeed a specifically living/meaning-making sort of sense. Behaviorism is fundamentally challenged. But self does become explicitly different from some essence—it includes all of our often-contradictory ways of seeing the world (more left-hand and more right-hand equally—or, more precisely, in the particular balance our temperament reflects). And it is certainly very different from some original essence—self in any sense pertinent to meaning exists in time (it is not about original purity) and space (it ties in with every part of our life experience).