The Relational Self Essay

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In this paper, I will argue that the relational self is the best view of the authentic self. I will do so by proving that relationality has a permanent effect on the self, and secondly by proving that trauma sustained to the mind or body affects the self and self-realization. Many philosophers have pondered the question of the self and yet there remains much to be explored. By arguing that the relational self is the best view of the authentic self, I intend to emphasize the importance of understanding the self and self-realization and the potential effects on a person when self-realization is thwarted. Furthermore, this argument could potentially provide new ground and areas of study regarding the self in philosophy and adult psychology as well as provide innovation in therapy-based treatment.

There are various theories in Philosophy regarding the self, but there are two which I would like to focus on: the atomistic-self and the relational-self. In the book, Philosophy: A Text with Readings, author Manuel Velasquez describes the atomistic-self view as the self being self-contained and independent; a self that remains the same no matter what the person has experienced. Velasquez further expands on this idea of independence of the self by saying that the atomistic view of the self touches on the idea that “the self is and should be independent of others and self-sufficient” (Velasquez 99). That is to say that no matter what upbringing someone may have had or the culture they were raised in, the self maintains itself isolated from experience and remains uncompromised. Velasquez cites American philosopher Mason Cooley as saying that “True self is the part of us that does not change when circumstances do” (qtd. In Velasquez 101), however psychology of child and life development has taught us the very antithesis of those statements and seems to support the theory of the relational self. In contrast, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes this theory as “who I am depends on my relationship to others” and considers the significance of the effects of culture, time, and places on the self and self-realization and equates to the idea of relationality and its permanent effect on the self (qtd. in Velasquez 101).

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Noted German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel argued that the very essence of the atomistic theory -the ability to choose for oneself- completely depends on others and this very idea gives place to the notion of relationality. Relationality refers to the relationship between people, and to people’s relationship to a time, place or culture; the affect of which is perceptible in the self and self-realization. The dependability that self and self-realization have to people, time, places, and culture is especially evident when working with children. In the book, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, author Sarah Erdman observes that children of the Nambonkaha village are raised in the “petit system,” which basically means that kids at the age of four are no longer coddled and instead are taught that they are the lowest rung of their society. Although many Americans would reject the idea of raising a child with this notion being consciously and systematically instilled in them, the people of the Nambonkaha village have a different perspective on the matter. Erdman says the people of Nambonkaha believe that a child raised with corporal punishment and humiliation in schools is a service to the children in their adulthood. They feel that these “motivational tools” will make them adults that recognize that they are “only a cog in the machine of community” and “conformity is best in everyone’s option” (Erdman 85). The people of Nambonkaha are raising their children in a way that they consider the best path for adulthood. These adults are following morals and traditions set by their culture and which have made them, for better or worse, the people they are. Erdman points out that even the outlier of this village, who perhaps wants to be more than just a “cog in a machine”, still maintains reverence to his community and studies the French alphabet in a sort of secrecy, so as not disturb the status quo of his village, as well as to protect himself against the ousting from the group. For better or worse, to the success or detriment of the self, the relationship between a person and their culture does shape and affect who our authentic self is and limits self-realization.

Relationality is not the only variable that affects the self and self-realization; trauma sustained to the body or mind affects the self. The psychological theory of Nature vs. Nurture debates whether personality is more influenced by genetic disposition or by epigenetics, also known as the environmental factors. In this psychological theory, personality can easily be equated to the self in philosophy, genetic disposition can be equated to the true self, and epigenetics can be equated to relationality. The theory of the relational self does not negate the autonomy of the self; instead it applies the idea that the autonomous self is influenced by the experiences held in life. An example of how life experience can affect the self and self-realization is the case of Genie, The Feral Child (1970). Author Rory Carroll, who perhaps reintroduced the world to Genie, in his 2016 article describes how a 13-year-old girl was subjected to neglect, mental abuse, as well as physical abuse from shortly after she was born to the age of 13. Her parents denied nurture and when the state took custody of the child, she was only able to speak a few words. Eventually “Genie learned to play, chew, and dress herself” however when funding ran out for her case, she completely reverted (Carroll). All progress that was made had completely been undone and scientists felt that any improvement lost would never be recovered (Carroll). The abuse and neglect that Genie sustained in her early childhood years had impacted her authentic self and thwarted her path to an ideal self-realization, a term described by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as the “fulfillment of one’s potential.” Genie was in fact self-realized, yet unfortunately for Genie, her potential was greatly diminished by the abuse she suffered. The relationships that she had with her immediate family or lack thereof permanently affected her. Another piece of evidence that relationships affect our true self is that Genie’s older brother also suffered abuse and thwarted his path to an ideal self-realization. The abuse he suffered was less than Genie had endured, but it was impactful on his self, nonetheless. Her brother communicated that because of the abuse he suffered later in life he ended up failing his daughter, and his daughter eventually failed her daughters (Carroll). Any suffering endured to the body and mental state have permanent consequences on the self. Genie’s unfortunate circumstances serve to underscore this very idea. Under the care of scientists, there were small glimpses of who Genie could have been if only she had been nurtured differently and had she had a different life experience, but these small glimpses were not indicative of who her true self.

Carroll states that scientists and linguists involved in Genie’s case were optimistic of her progress, but when the funding ran out and all the care that been given to Genie after her abuse was removed, she reverted back to her authentic self, which was damaged in an incredible way.

People tend to accept the atomistic view of the self because human beings have an intuitive need to believe that they have free will, which tends to mean that they discount any potential effect of environmental factors. However, the relational view of the self does not negate this autonomous self. Instead, it accounts for life experience and the significance it bears on the self in combination with any natural inclination that the self may have. “The self is an autonomous individual with its own unique inner qualities” (Velasquez 99), and these unique qualities are acquired via culture, time, places and by people’s relationships with each other. Some relationships are more beneficial in achieving ideal self-realization and other are less so, but all make an everlasting imprint on the self and affect the ultimate version of our self realized. For example, people in volatile relationships can say no and not engage, however they have been molded to accept this type of relationship. Any power they feel that the other person has over them is a non-rational norm, and it is a power that they both have mutually accepted as true with no logical backing. The authentic self will dictate if they stay in these types of situations or not. That self is affected by previous relationships with guardians, partners, as well as their culture.

Most people like to believe that the self is not just individual from the body but also from influence. I believe otherwise. I disagree with Cooley when he says, “True self is the part of us that does not change when circumstances do,” because if that were true psychological conditions and disorders would not be. The relational self is the best view of the authentic self because experiences and relationships affect the path to self-realization. No human being is without experience or relationship. Even someone like Genie, who was isolated and devoid of any positive human interactions had a relationship, albeit an extremely damaging and negative one. The self is like clay and relationships and experiences mold it. It is this malleable self that makes the understanding of child and life development so essential and provides a greater insight in philosophy and psychology. We now realize just how impactful relationships formed very early on have on the self, relationships such as between mother and child, and experiences, such as not being held as a baby can be hugely detrimental in adulthood. It is difficult to logically discount the effects of relationality and trauma sustained on the self and the limitations it imposes on self-realization.

Works Cited

  1. Carroll, Roy (2020). “Starved, Tortured, Forgotten: Genie, the Feral Child Who Left a Mark on Researchers.” The Guardian. 14 July 2016, Accessed 29 Feb. 2020.
  2. Erdman, Sarah. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village, pp. 85-88, Picador 2003.
  3. “Self-Realization: Meaning of Self-Realization by Lexico” Lexico Dictionaries,
  4. Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 11th edition. Wadsworth, 2011, 2018.

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