Confusion about the meaning of ‘I’
- We have written about identity before. See Post 3. There we discussed the confusion that can arise around the question ‘Who am I?’ when our identity is not regarded as a common one but a unique one. The word ‘I’ can then take on many meanings. Hlatky discusses in Dialogue 2 of Understanding Reality how this process of confusion begins, opening the door to identification with the will:
Stefan Hlatky: And then comes the […] word that makes children confused: the word ‘I’. They get confused when they understand that grown-ups interpret this grammatical word ‘I’ as human identity. What is ‘I’? Grammatically, we have to have this ‘I’ – or other personal pronouns such as ‘we’, ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘you’. We need them in language for practical purposes. But then we take the word out of its grammatical context in language and use it to make an identity out of it.
Philip Booth: …so that ‘I’ becomes more than a practical way of referring to oneself?
SH: Yes. When children first use the word ‘I’, it’s quite straightforward and practical. It’s simply an alternative to the proper name for themselves, which they’ve already learnt. So sometimes, for example, when a child knocks on the door, and the people inside ask, ‘Who’s there?’, the child will reply ‘It’s me!’ – because the child doesn’t distinguish between its proper name and this new identity, ‘I’ or ‘me’. It’s just practical. Children see that everybody calls themselves ‘I’ or ‘me’, so they use that too. At first they connect it to their surface appearance, in the same way that they connect the name of another person to the surface appearance of that other person. But then after a while, the child comes to understand something quite different by this ‘I’. What do you think that is? – it arises from communication with grown-ups. […]
PB: Do they see it somehow as the essence of the person?
SH: But what is that essence?
PB: They don’t know.
SH: That’s right, because it’s interpreted differently for everybody.
PB: …whereas you define ‘I’ as the same for everybody: as a part of God’s Being with the ability to experience?
SH: Yes. But as it is traditionally used, ‘I’ is never defined in a common way, but only personally, as something unique and individual, which is interpreted as different. It’s something mystical. It’s like time: nobody knows exactly what it is, but everybody talks about it. But how do children interpret the grown-ups’ talk about the ‘I’? […] They interpret it as ‘free will’. They think: ‘Nobody knows me, so I have to tell everybody and show everybody what I am capable of and what I want, in order to be known.
The problem of children’s will
- The question of how to ‘handle’ children’s will is a burning one for many parents. Nowadays we are used to hearing the numerous recommendations offered by psychologists and psychotherapists. In this climate, Hlatky’s suggestion that the problem is fundamentally philosophical, rather than purely psychological, may be surprising.
- His argument is that parents, consciously or unconsciously, encourage their child’s identification with this mystical ‘I’, initially focussed on the will, as the child grows up. The process begins with questions to the child very early on about its wishes, usually about food, but then about other things, such as clothing and inessential details of its activities. The child has little interest in these questions at first and is only confused by them, if not outright irritated when they are persistent. It considers what it eats or what it wears, for example, to be unimportant and a matter that its parents can take care of in a self-evident way, just as they provide for all the other aspects of its life. So it is a disappointment to the child to not be understood by its parents: it feels unknown by them, because they don’t know what it needs.
- But gradually the child gets the idea that it is important to the parents that it has ‘its own will’ and that it should express it. And so it enters into the spirit of this interaction, seeking to impose its will more and more, often in quite detailed but inessential matters, testing out what the parents will and will not allow or react to. Then it becomes frustrated when its will is not respected and the parents are unable to give good reasons for not respecting it. ‘Why shouldn’t I wear what I like?’ ‘Why shouldn’t I eat what I like?’ And ultimately, ‘Why shouldn’t I do what I like?’
- In one way the parents are happy with this development. They don’t want to be authoritarian, arbitrarily imposing their own will on the child; they might have had enough of that when they were children themselves. And – their thinking may go – it’s a tough, competitive world out there, so they want to see their child able to hold its own and not let itself be pushed around or intimidated. At the same time, the parents can come to feel they are the victims of their child’s assertions of its will, and they wonder how this has come to pass.
Need and will
- The philosophical roots of the problem go deep, ultimately to the question of the relationship between the human will and Nature’s will. This question is addressed by Hlatky frequently in Understanding Reality – see for example the section headed Human will and Nature’s will [UR pp.46-7]. In the context of this post, it means that it is important to be clear about the proper link between the will and natural needs. The will should derive from a natural need and not be an arbitrary thing in itself. This is not to exclude preferences in how we choose to satisfy any particular natural need, where the will also quite reasonably comes in. But it is self-evident that a preference divorced from a natural need has a different and less compelling status than a preference related to a natural need.
- And ‘natural’ means determined by Nature; we are bound by Nature in respect of our natural needs. It is only as regards how or whether to satisfy a particular natural need that humans can determine anything.
The generally negative view of natural needs
- But it is this binding quality of natural needs which has come to be seen as problematic. Natural needs are viewed as getting in the way of the dream of complete freedom that humanity now widely entertains and seeks to promote. This dream acknowledges that we are forced to deal with our natural needs, but argues that we should simply get them out of the way, so that we can get on with the more important task of pursuing our free activities. And – so the view goes – to attach any centrality to the natural human needs is to say we are no better than mere animals; as human beings we should rise above this animal state.
- Then there is our most important need: the need for relationship, the need for love – or for the experience of mutuality, as Hlatky puts it. This is not a need of the body, but of our consciousness (hence it is possible to conceive, as Hlatky suggests, of God having this need). And, unlike the bodily needs, which are periodic, it never goes away. We can never have enough of love.
- But though the need for relationship or love is a property of consciousness and not binding in the same way that bodily needs are, it is binding all the same: witness the mental suffering if the need is not met, and the unsatisfying imagined relationships entertained by those who seek to deny it.
- But needing love is also commonly looked down upon. To ‘need love’ is viewed as inferior to ‘giving love’. (And to think of God as needing love is regarded as bringing him down too.) So the need for love so openly and ‘disarmingly’ demonstrated by young children eventually becomes hidden as something to be ashamed of, or as something to be shown only tentatively and indirectly.
- And yet this overall bondage to our natural needs does not have to be viewed as problematic. We must only consider that Nature – that is, God behind Nature – provides us, in the case of our bodily needs, with everything we need to meet those needs (we must leave aside what humanity through its own actions has done to undermine this process). And, in the case of our need for relationship or love, he provides other human bodies that the parts of his existence can connect to, with any one and each of whom it is possible for us to meet that need. And, of course, attached to the satisfaction of all needs is a feeling of pleasure.
- We have talked on many occasions in this blog, and most recently in Post 11, about the need to understand reality as a basis ultimately for meeting our need for love. And Hlatky makes the case strongly in Post 12 for the adult’s responsibility to keep alive the child’s sense of connection to a living reality. To encourage the child to identify with its will, in the process downplaying the significance of natural needs and the way the child’s will should link to these, is to undermine this connection to reality and, ultimately, to emphasise human creativity independent of God’s creativity. In other words, it encourages the child to relate not to God’s creativity – God-given Nature – but to focus on what the child, with its ‘free’ will, can create by itself.
- So to deny the bondage of needs is at root to lay reality aside as a consideration and to regard it as an irksome hindrance to one’s own wishes and desires. The idea of a common reality to which we are all bound, in the same way in principle, is more and more absent nowadays. Or where it exists – as, for example, in the scientific community – that common reality is, with some exceptions, regarded as basically dead, mechanical, purposeless and unsatisfying and in constant need of our efforts to improve it, hence the emphasis on developing power to control it. Contrast this with Hlatky’s view: that reality is ultimately driven by need – God’s need. And that it is God’s need that compels him to will the creation of the universe.
- Without the idea of a purposeful reality, driven by God’s need, to which we have to relate in the way that we are forced to relate to other more obviously present conscious beings, it is entirely down to us what we do with that reality. And our will and the power to carry that will out become the important issues.
- As Hlatky has said, the idea of freedom from oppression by other human beings is a demand that is self-evidently irresistible, but the idea of freedom from reality is a madness that can only have negative consequences. Our will only causes problems when it acts independently of reality properly understood. That means, specifically, actions that are independent of a logical common agreement as to the cause and meaning of reality.
- So we should support children’s innate capacity for reality-anchored thinking and, as part of that, keep the distinction between will and natural need clear for them. We say ‘keep clear’, because it already is clear for them. So when a parent asks a child to do something or not do something, the child will acquiesce very readily as long as the request is traceable to a natural need and is not simply an arbitrary wish of the parent. Such a reasonable, reality-based approach on the part of the parent will not give rise to constant clashes of wills. In other words, the age of resistance (the ‘terrible twos’) and, later on, adolescent ‘rebellion’ are not at all necessary parts of child-rearing that have to be borne, martyr-like, by the parents.
- Of course, there may come a time when a child – an older child or an adolescent – gets the idea from somewhere, even if not from home, that it should be able to do whatever it wants, and the parents find themselves unable to do anything to physically prevent that. But then the parent can at least express a clear view: ‘You can do that if you like, but it doesn’t make any sense’, in the confident conviction that there is a clear and rationally defensible distinction to be made, on a philosophical basis, between need and want, and that there is a value in reminding the child of something it too was once clear about, even if not consciously.
- To put it in Hlatky’s own words: the consequence of not making this distinction is that “humans’ original, living experience of identity, of being a conscious, need-guided participant in the whole creation, is transformed already in the early years of childhood into that of a being who knows things starting from itself, who is only guided by its own will, set free from all existence-preserving needs. It then sees itself as equally unknown to everyone, […] and as unknowable until it expresses what it wants. This transformed experience of identity brings with it alienation, loneliness and isolation, as well as a belief anchored in creation’s changeable existence, to control which becomes the basis for the drive to develop unlimited power.”
For further discussion of the subjects covered in this post, see the following passages in Understanding Reality, each beginning with where the link takes you to: UR p.58; UR p.111; UR p.156; UR p.168.
1. Hlatky enumerates eight of these. Seven are connected with the body: light, warmth, air, water, solid food, the need for reproduction (a need of the species as a whole, but experienced individually by the members of the species), and the need for movement (to meet the other needs). One is connected with consciousness: the need for the experience of mutuality, love.↩
2. Of course, we can describe a want as a need, but the distinction between a want and a need is self-evident all the same. We often make the distinction when we correct those who say they ‘need’ something when they merely want it. In other words, we challenge the rebranding of the want as a need, usually when we regard it as a bogus attempt to give the want a more compelling status. (See also the discussion about the distinction between ‘natural needs’ and ‘artificial needs’ in UR, p.134 – though, of course, the distinction can be a difficult one to make at times; and also it is possibly confusing to use the word ‘needs’ when they are completely artificial.↩
3. …even though ‘giving love’ is an impossibility (see UR p.74)↩
4. See our posts on climate change.↩
5. From an unpublished manuscript, 2004.↩