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  • Writer's picturebalrāj

Self-Awareness & Other People: Phenomenological Reflections

The following phenomenological reflections on self-awareness and relationships are being updated.


Other people are not an optional dimension of our experience.

We find ourselves as already a participant in the customs of a people. We become members of a society by attuning ourselves to the norms and customs of people who precede us. Our perspective/subjectivity becomes a determinate identity by way of these norms and customs. In other words, we obtain identities in communities—we become persons—by way of these social, cultural, familial, linguistic, etc. customs and norms.

I did not invent these customs/norms; I come to learn about and interpret the world (and myself) in terms that I did not establish. Becoming attuned to these norms occurs in our engagement with others. It is, in other words, through others that I become a person. Others establish and confirm the legitimacy of these most basic social/familial/cultural norms; they teach me what is normal and natural. These others are already participants in the system; they already reflect and express certain social/cultural/familial norms—including laws, traditions, etc.. Others define and mold a child’s inclinations into acceptable expressions/behaviours. They make sense of phenomena for the child and, in so doing, teach the child how to make sense of phenomena (including itself). And they recognize the child for complying with these various demands, establishing and confirming the child’s sense of self. The norms they espouse are expressions of the ways in which they have interpreted and engaged with their own inherited customs as they became individual persons (and continue to live as such).

These inherited social/cultural/linguistic customs set the terms or limits on/with which I experience the world and myself. Simultaneously, these inherited customs give me a world. In fact, it is because of these limitations that a world is available to me; it is because there are limitations that there is meaning. And it is within these limitations—within my world, my capacities, within the way things strike me: my thinking, feeling, preferences, understanding, interpretation, values, etc.—that I can enact my freedom. And so whatever decisions I make, whatever I decide to have/do/be, these decisions are grounded on a most basic participation in a community.

It is through others that I learn how to make sense of things, including myself. The way I most immediately make sense of something is already an interpretation. In other words, the way I most immediately make sense of something is already an expression of certain commitments, norms, values, standards, principles, habits, etc., (the meaningfulness of which is established communally). My most immediate making sense of things—i.e., the way things simply appear to me—already contains an implicit expression prior to any explicit expression I may or may not offer. Norms—familial, cultural, linguistic, etc.—are inscribed in my expression. And so others inhabit my expression. How I understand a situation and however I choose to respond will both be in/on terms that weren’t fully defined by my will. My interpretations/actions do not begin as ‘pure’ or ‘objective’ interpretations/actions that then enter into a world of meaning from some other place. My interpretations/actions are themselves irrevocably situated. These interpretations/actions are already participants in an intersubjective world of meaningfulness. Therefore, others dwell in how things appear to me, and this most immediate appearing already gives me to certain possibilities for responding; my understanding already contains possibilities for response. The very meaningfulness of my gestures, too, is established intersubjectively.

These basic customs—language, appropriate ways of behaving, etc.—serve as the ground for more complex forms of individual life, in which my concern about my independent self and my individual life become an issue. These basic customs serve as the ground upon which we explicitly compose our individual identity, make ‘life choices’ and pursue our individual projects, seek respect/status, and so on. There can be no me—no Balrāj—without a social, historical context. The process of understanding myself occurs by way of attunement to (and assimilation of) public institutions (socio-cultural/linguistic customs), a process that always already contains others. It is, in short, by way of the other that I am able to see myself. It is by way of the “they”, the “they” of which I am a part, the ‘we’, that I can see myself, that I can be a “person”.

And you could never go to a place where this isn’t true. You could never go to a place outside of context in order to access a self—a “true” self?—untouched by context. Self-awareness doesn’t happen outside of experience/awareness, and so self-awareness is subject to the same “rules” of awareness. You could not understand yourself outside of experience; you couldn’t reach outside of experience for terms to understand who/what you are. Any understanding you have would occur on the backdrop of already-established intersubjective meaningfulness—on implicit relationships with others. The content of experience is what it is—i.e., it strikes you in the way that it does, it is meaningful to you—because of the customs established in/by (and inherited from) others (family, community, society, etc.). And you could never go to a place where you could experience the world/self independent of others and their history (and their freedom).

To be sure, these social customs/norms are not the result of our absolute free interpretation. Instead, they emerge as responses to (and engagement with) the ways in which things demand that they be interpreted. In other words, these customs are responses to the capacities that things have for meaningfulness. And the basis for things to strike us as meaningful—i.e., the basis of our interpretative capacities—is our embodiment (i.e., the capacities—limits and powers, drives/desires, etc.—of our body, which is the specific thing as which we each exist). And as we become habituated to our family and society we open ourselves up to more complex ways of understanding and experiencing the world and ourselves.

Others dwell in these meaningful customs, norms, and things, and others dwell in me, too; it through my participation in a community that I learn what I am. It is with their terms that I come to understand myself and it is on their terms that I seek a (permanently) secure sense of self. After all, it is their recognition I find myself wanting. They must confirm my identity. I cannot do it myself. And it has never been otherwise.


Related Posts:

Prakṛti & Puruṣa: Phenomenological Reflections further discusses our (inextricably “entangled”) existential situation. Given our existential situation, Yoga & The Meaning of (Your) Life introduces what it a “meaningful” life might look like from a yogic perspective. The Yoga of Yoga defines the general problem of suffering/anxiety in yoga and Desire, Self-Consciousness, and Ahaṃkāra: Phenomenological Reflections focuses on the problem of desire and ego in spirituality. An article in two parts, What is Phenomenology? provides a heuristic introduction to phenomenology. Part I defines phenomenology, and Part II discusses the experience of doing phenomenology.

Further Reading:

See John Russon’s 2006 article, On Human Identity: The Intersubjective Path from Body to Mind. This was originally a precis of his 2003 book, Human Experience Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (2003, State University of New York Press). His YouTube Channel contains a number of lectures on this and other topics.

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