Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Of Self

Fascinating and useful summary of the evolution of the word "self" in TLS January 22 2010. From Peter Hacker's review of Galen Strawson's SELVES: An essay in revisionary metaphysics:

The word "self" has a venerable pedigree reaching back to the tenth century. It was employed as a pronoun and pronominal adjective (akin to ipse) that evolved into "itself" or "the thing itself". Together with a personal pronoun (as in "Ic sylf") and "he sylfa") it evolved into the reflective pronouns myself, himself, herself. With the possessive genitive, as in "her self visage", it became equivalent in such contexts to "own" ("her own visage"). Used as an adjective, as in "this self knyght that" it became "same", and from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries "one self" had a use to mean "one and the same", which still survives in the phrase "the self same thing". The use of self as a noun originated in early Middle English, when "self", preceded by a possessive pronoun, began to be taken as a neuter noun governing the preceding genitive, rather than as a pronominal adjective in concord with it. So there was a natural drift from uses emphasizing identity or indicating pronominal reflexivity towards an independent nominal signifying "person". By the eighteenth century, "self" was also used to signify what a person is at a particular time, hence one's nature, character, physical constitution or appearance considered as different at different times. So we talk of our former self, one's later self, and of being or looking one's old self after illness. Concurrently with this diachronic use, the term was extended to signify a set of synchronic dispositions in potential conflict with each other within a human being--hence one's sinful self, one's natural self, one's lowest self and one's best self. And from this it was further extended to one's selfish and self-interested drives, and also to what are the most fundamental characteristics of a person, as in "one's true self".

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