Towards an Integrated and Integrating Model of the Self: Psychological and Phenomenological Perspectives

Towards an Integrated and Integrating Model of the Self: Psychological and Phenomenological Perspectives

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Who is the I that knows the bodily me, who has an image of myself and a sense of identity over time, who knows that I have propriate strivings?” I know all these things, and what is more, I know that I know them. But who is it who has this perspectival grasp? …It is much easier to feel the Self than to define the Self (Allport, 1961, p. 128).

In this paper we (a psychologist and a phenomenologist/theologian) attempt to develop an integrated and integrating model of the Self, using Allport’s questions as agent provocateurs. We observe that Allport’s questions allude to Augustine’s observation that “I have become a question to myself” (Confessions, X). Augustine was no stranger to the ‘inward-turn’, confiding to his readers that: “The field of my labours is my own Self. I am not now investigating the tracts of the heavens or measuring the distance of the stars or trying to discover how the earth hangs in space. I am investigating myself, my memory, my mind … What then am I, my God? What is my nature?” (Confessions IX).

The question of “who” or “what” is the Self is the great unanswered question of psychology (Craik, Moroz, Moscovitch, Stuss, Winocur, Tulving, & Kapur, 1999; Gallagher, 2000; Kihlstrom, 1997; Klein, 2001). Moreover, despite the centrality of the Self to psychology, much of psychology conveniently ignores the Self, focussing instead on mental representations of the Self (e.g., Klein & Loftus, 1993), affective feelings about the Self (e.g., Higgins, 1987), processes deemed to be regulated by the Self (e.g., McGuire & McGuire, 1988), or psychological conditions attributed to health or otherwise of the Self (Reisner, 2005). This strategy is ‘convenient’ both because it allows the Self to be implicated (as it must be) in psychological phenomena of all kinds, whilst at the same time it avoids the hard work of actually defining and describing the Self, often leaving this work to other disciplines (see Bernett, Kern & Marbach, 1995; Fauteux, 1994, Zohar, 1990).

As a result of the planned ignorance described above, there exists in psychology no agreed definition of the Self and no agreed organising model(s) of the Self (Gallagher & Shear, 1999; Nystedt, Smari, & Boman, 1991). One key consequence of this lack of agreement is that psychology has become a fragmented discipline, spawning various schools of psychology each with its own sub-fields of research nested within separate, non-articulated philosophical, theoretical, conceptual and empirical frameworks. Moreover, with each successive generation of scholars, these frameworks become more complex, sometimes more convoluted, and typically more inaccessible to scholars working with and within other frameworks.

In contrast to previous approaches, in this paper we propose a specific definition and model of the Self – and one that transcends classical psychological conceptions of the Self. This transcendence occurs by adopting a transdisciplinary psychological-phenomenological approach which incorporates first-person perspectives from philosophical inquiry (Nenon, 2007; Valle, 1998), and combines these perspectives with a model-based approach that is common in psychology and which forms the basis of psychometric modelling and empirical investigation. Specifically, the model combines key psychological constructs such as self-consciousness and self-concept, with key phenomenological entities such as the Knowing I and the Reflective Self, showing how these constructs and entities interact and interrelate within the self-system to form the substance of experience, perception and cognition.

Transdisciplinarity and the Self

It is not our intention here to argue extensively for transdisciplinarity as a mode of approaching studies of the Self. However, we do note that transdisciplinarity may be critical in studies where complex phenomena such as the Self are explored because:

  1. Unidisciplinary approaches can and often do lead to reductionism. Transdisciplinarity in contrast helps avoid reductionism because reductive theories and constructs are not easily transferred across disciplinary boundaries. Instead, theories and constructs that are transferable across disciplines are less prone to a “disciplinary blindness” that can lead to reductionism.
  2. Multiple disciplines provide access to interacting conceptual, methodological and theoretical structures that enhance the study of complex phenomena. These interacting structures facilitate a fuller and more complete comprehension of observation, experience and meaning than is available within mono-disciplinary frameworks.

The particular form of transdisciplinarity used in this study involves the integration of psychology and phenomenology i.e., the integration of first and third person accounts of the human Self. In broad terms this form of transdisciplinarity is not new (see the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology and Giorgi, 1985 for two examples). However, there are several elements of our particular psychophenomenological approach that are distinct from previous examples.

    1. We seek to achieve an authentic disciplinary balance by neither attempting to integrate psychology into phenomenology (e.g., Giorgi, 1985; Valle, 1998), nor attempting to integrate phenomenology into to psychology (e.g., Freud, 1901/2008). Instead we seek to frame a fully integrated psychophenomenological approach whereby the substance and the methodology of both disciplines are preserved and valued.


    1. Whilst the urgency for transdisciplinary investigations of the Self is increasingly recognised (not least in the theme of the conference of which this paper forms one part) explicit and focussed transdisciplinary models of the self are curiously absent from the broader psychological literature. More typically, the Self as Self is taken for granted in investigations of the Self, without actually studying the Self per se, but rather studying how the self operates in the world (e.g., Csordas, 1994). In contrast, our study focuses on the Self itself, including the Self’s fundamental structures and processes. Thus, our study is a first-order transdisciplinary study of the Self, rather than a second-order study of the Self where the nature and structure of the Self are implied from its action in the world.


    1. Our transdisciplinary approach is deliberately designed to be transcontextual i.e., the psychophenomenological constructs in our modelling and discussion are not derived from, or said to apply specifically to, any particular context. In other words, we suggest that our construction of the Self is universal. This claim needs to be tested. However, the point here is that we have not, unlike psychophenomenological approaches typical in recent scholarship (e.g. von Eckartsberg, 1986), attempted to design a study with specific contextual generation and application.


    1. Our approach is centred on a model of the phenomena we describe and analyse. Modelling is not typically used in phenomenology, but is widely used in psychology. However, the particular type of model we propose is a descriptive-theoretical model – thus also distinguishing our model from the analytical-statistical models commonly used in empirical psychology.


    1. We explicitly use our descriptive-theoretical model not only to integrate the discussion throughout our paper, but also to explicitly integrate the different but complementary understandings and insights from psychology and phenomenology we access. In this way, our model is both integrated and integrating (as is our claim in the title of the paper). Thus our paper represents a model-based approach not only to the subject under investigation (the Self) but also to our transdisciplinary methodology.


    1. Our descriptive-theoretical model, common to other models of its type, has the additional functionality that it is, at once, a more abstract and a more concrete representation of the phenomena under investigation than is possible to construct using language alone. Visual representations of reality “get at” reality in a different way to language. Notably, however, this feature of our model is particularly important in the study of the Self. “Judge Willhelm (one of Kierkegaard’s characters in Either-Or) writes: “But what then, is this self of mine? If I were required to define this, my first answer would be: It is the most abstract of all things, and yet at the same time it is the most concrete…..” (cited in Taylor, 2000, p. 243-4).Thus, the abstractness and concreteness of our model is not just an interesting artefact of the model itself, but directly reflects the abstract-concrete nature of the phenomena the model is said to represent.


  1. We recognise that Freud first used a model of the Self (implicating the id, ego and superego) that was built, at least in part, on phenomenological (or quasi-phenomenological) investigations of dreams, memories, mental representations of relationships, etc. However, Freud’s model was essentially antagonistic, focussing on the ever present possibility of the disintegration of the self as a result of the id being in more-or-less continuous conflict with the superego mediated by a sometimes overwhelmed ego (Evans, 1984). In contrast, our model focuses on the positive integration of various elements of the Self and the way these elements work together to enhance the functioning of the I as a stable, effective and unified entity.

Structure of the Paper

In this paper we discuss five key aspects of the psychophenomenological approach we have taken to the Self. The first three of these points emerge as psychophenomenological “constructs” from Allport’s questions i.e., (1) the knowing I; (2) the reflective Self; and (3) the relational Self. The remaining two aspects utilise the foundations (or bases) provided by the first three aspects in: (4) developing and describing a proposed model of the Self; and (5) delineating potential ‘tests’ of the model from psychological and phenomenological perspectives.

Section 1: The Model

Combining Psychology and Phenomenology

Although psychology has forged a well-earned place within the academy, its core-business has been to objectively explain and account for phenomena which are not separable from subjective human experience. Thus, there is a central tension (some would say a fatal flaw e.g., Husserl, 1970) in psychology whereby psychology attempts to objectively isolate certain elements of subjective experience for the purposes of gaining greater understanding of both the objectified elements and the subjective experience itself. In this paper we disagree with criticisms suggesting that: (a) there are no objective elements implied in subjective experience, and thus (b) that attempts to objectively isolate elements from subjective experience are untenable. However, we agree that objective elements posited to be part of subjective experience that are not consistent with, or not tested against, subjective experience are questionable. For these reasons, we propose a combined psychological-phenomenological perspective that allows for analytical investigation of subjective experience, but tests the analysis against first-person phenomenological references to human experience.

The Knowing I

Phenomenology implicitly recognises the subjectivity and subjective ownership of human experience, and seeks to describe this experience in and on its own terms. Thus, phenomenology recognises that the human Self ‘owns’ its own experiences, and so the Self is ‘expert’ in its own affairs. This epistemological foundation provides a logically consistent basis for phenomenology. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the ‘expert’ nature of the Self also provides a firm evidentiary basis for the “Self-reports” (in both clinical and research settings) commonly used is psychology. Thus, psychology that focuses on the ordinary person’s knowing I is a psychology drawing on a consistent epistemological foundation – namely the epistemically privileged knowledge of the I about the Self.

Despite the epistemic authority of the I in regards to the Self, a purely phenomenological account of the Self remains at the level of description and, thus, leaves the Self largely outside the reach of analysis and analytical conceptualisations that might drive a clearer understanding of the actual nature, structure and operation of the Self within the human person. Put another way, phenomenology (and related philosophical approaches) fail to transcend descriptions of entities and processes implicated in subjective experience. Psychology, on the other hand, takes the Self-reports of the I as evidence that can be analysed to generate an understanding of the Self beyond the level of description. The test of these analyses, however, is the extent to which they concord with description. Thus, description is not superseded by analyses, but neither is analysis limited to description (Giorgi, 1985).

In the preceding sections we have identified limitations of both psychology and phenomenology in analysing and describing the Self. However, we suggest that the limitations of both psychology and phenomenology are complementary i.e., the descriptive limitations of psychology and the analytical limitations of phenomenology are each addressed by the strengths of other discipline. Moreover, the common epistemological basis of phenomenology and psychology (self-reports generated by the Knowing I) allows for the integration of both disciplines in addressing the limitations of the other. Moreover, Self-reports, in this framework, represent the common data of phenomenology and psychology, with which each discipline does something different.

Importantly, the Knowing I also knows something of external experience. This knowledge is partial, because the I cannot perceive and attend to the totality of its experience (Evans, 1984). However, the Knowing I is able to know something of external experience because of the operation of identifiable psychological processes such as perception, memory (especially episodic memory), and differentiation (awareness of not-I). Thus, the Knowing I knows both the Self (through the I’s subjective experience of the Self in the I’s internal world), and external experiences i.e., experiences of objects, actions and entities external to the I (what Schutz (1973) refers to as the province of “everyday reality”). Moreover, Schutz (1973) makes that point that these different types of knowing require different modes of perception and, hence, the activation of qualitatively different systems of cognition. We return to this point later in the paper.

The Reflective (Knowable) Self

The Self exhibits the reflective ability to (at least partially) be seen by the I, thus allowing the I to generate Self-analytical intuitions concerning its Self. Moreover, this reflective ability, combined with the I’s ability to report data provided by the Self, provides the empirical basis of psychology and phenomenology. In particular, the Self provides the I with emotional and motivational data that allows the I to construct its personality and identity (or identities, see Pembroke, 2002) i.e., the Self’s reflective ability enables the I to understand what type of I it is.

Moreover, within this reflective framework, Self-exploration becomes a natural and fundamental aspect of being i.e., the Knowing I operates continuously under the condition of its knowable Self, and so exploration of the Self is not just a scientific and philosophical activity but is a “natural” activity arising out of the reflective nature of the Self and the desire of the I to know its Self. Put another way, describing and analysing the Self is simply an expression of the I’s underlying desire to know its Self, and thus the scientific/psychological quest to describe and analyse the Self is not divorced from the experiential/ phenomenological expression of Self-exploration. Here again, the “worlds” of psychology and phenomenology are seen to be compatible, complementary and mutually supportive.

The Relational Self

The I and the Self are distinguishable entities with differing characteristics. The I’s primary characteristic is that it knows, the Self’s primary characteristic is that it is knowable by the I. Despite this distinction of characteristics, we do not define the Self separately from the I, but rather identify the knowing but unknown I in relation to the knowable but unknowing Self, thus locating both the I and the Self in reciprocal relation to each other. Fundamentally, then, we define the both the Self and the I in relational terms. In fact, our model of the Self shows how the Self is not only in relation to the I – but (extracting Kierkegaard’s (1846/1992) idea) the I is also a relation of the I to its Self.

Allport asked the question “who is it that has this perspective grasp”? Our answer to this question is that the “who” is the “I” who, by being partially and subjectively conscious of its Self, is able to infer things about who it is as the object of its own attentions. These inferences are often incomplete and erroneous (Evans, 1984). However, the important point for now, is that I am able to make these inferences because my knowable Self is in direct, unitary relationship to I (subjectively “me”). Critically, if the Self was not in direct relation to the I, no valid inferences about the I could be drawn from Self-examination. Thus, the relational nature of the Self to the I provides the ontological (state-of-being) basis for answering the question: “Who am I?” Thus, when the I asks the question “who am I” it draws on subjective data provided by the Self which is valid because the Self is in unitary relationship to the I. In other words, the identity (who-ness) of the unknown I is disclosed to the I, because the knowable Self is in an identity (or ‘unitary’) relationship to the I.

Descartes asked the complementary question: “But what then am I?” with the answer “A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (Descartes, 1996). Our response to Descartes is that the only way that a ‘thing that thinks’ can know that it is a ‘thinking thing’ is if: (a) the thing that thinks is able to construct an objective representation of itself (and thus refer to itself as “what” rather than “who”), and (b) this objective representation corresponds to the ‘reality’ of the thinking thing. In fact, our model shows how the I constructs an objective cognitive representation of its Self and, in doing so, is able refer to itself objectively as “what”. Moreover, this objective representation of the Self has validity for making inferences about the I because this representation is built on data supplied to the I by the Self which is in an identity relationship with the I. Thus, the inseparable relationship of the Self to the I (and vice versa), provides the ontological basis for constructing an objectified (although not necessarily complete) self-knowledge, and thus provides the pathway for the I to come to an indirect knowledge of itself.

Descartes, therefore, missed (or perhaps just obscured) the critical insight in his famous formulation: “I think, therefore I am”. More accurately he might have said: “I relate, therefore I am” or (more fully) “I am in an inseparable relationship to my Self, therefore my subjective experience of, and my objective thoughts about, my Self have ontological validity in determining ‘that’, ‘whom’ and ‘what’ I am”.

Bases for Investigating the Self

The above sections have indicated how the nature of the I-Self actively supports a transdisciplinary psychological-phenomenological approach to the modelling Self. Specifically, the conscious, reflexive, and unitary I-Self provides different bases for the study of the Self – as indicated in Table 1.


Table 1
Bases for a Transdisciplinary Approach to Modelling the Self


Aspect of Psychophenomenological Approach

Basis Provided


Knowing I



Reflective Self (Knowable Self)



Relational Self (Identified Self)



Table 1 indicates that I “knows” thus providing the knowledge (epistemological) basis for Self-knowledge. The Self is knowable, and provides data to the knowing I, thus forming the empirical basis for Self knowledge. The Self is in direct relationship to the I, and thus knowledge of the Self provides the ontological basis for the I to know itself.

Proposing a Model of the Self

Utilising the insights above, the model of the Self we propose is represented in Figure 1.

The proposed model is comprised of some basic structures and implies a range of Self-related processes. These structures and processes are described in both psychological-analytical and phenomenological-descriptive terms below.

Basic Structures of the Model

The I is synonymous with the whole-person (Gallois, 1996). The I has the capacity for Self-perception and Self-reflection. These perceptive and reflective capacities are embedded in, and constitute a (perhaps ‘the’) key element of, consciousness. However, the I is aware of (perceives and reflects on) more than just its Self (Bandura, 2000; Kihlstrom, 1997). Hence, why the ‘consciousness’ circle is larger than the ‘self-consciousness’ circle in the Model.

The Self of which the person is consciously aware is the internal boundary or internal surface of the I. In other words, the Self is the I perceived from inside the I (Klein & Loftus, 1993; Sherman & Klein, 1994). The I calls this internal perception of its Self “me”. Moreover, because I cannot go outside of my-Self to observe the outer boundary or surface of myself I can only infer what I must look like to other Is. This inference is made on the basis of cognitive, affective, and behavioural information supplied to the I, about the I, by other Is. This information is stored in memory, and processed in conjunction with information about the Self gained from Self-reflection (Jackendoff, 1994; Wyer & Carlston, 1994). Any knowledge of what I look like to other Is (persons) is, then, always gained indirectly from other Is who observe (what I call) me and provide “person-al” feedback to me about me. Similarly, other Is cannot see “me” directly – they can only infer what I am “really like” on the inside from information I provide to them (verbally/non-verbally, intentionally/unintentionally) about “me” (Smith, Coats & Walling, 1999).

The I perceives the Self through the I’s capacity for Self-perception. However, the I’s perception of its Self is imperfect and incomplete (Gur & Sackeim, 1979; Kihlstrom & Hastie,1997; Rapp, 2001). This limited Self-perception is represented in the model by self-consciousness “circle” in Figure 1 being of smaller diameter than the “Self” circle. Importantly, these conscious Self-perceptions include cognitive (thought) and affective (feeling) elements (Higgins, 1987; Blechman, 1990). Moreover, ‘conscious’ means that certain Self-perceptions are available to consciousness – not that these perceptions are always the focus of conscious attention. Nevertheless, under certain unhealthy psychological conditions, perceptions of Self may become ‘all-consuming’ i.e., excluding all, most or many other perceptions on an acute or chronic basis.

Based on its imperfect and incomplete self-consciousness, the I through consciousness constructs a more-or-less organised and relatively stable set of mental representations of its Self. This mental representation is the I’s (‘my’) self-concept. The self-concept represents the I’s most accessible information about itself, and may be interpreted as the I’s “working” mental representation of its Self. When a person describes themselves they most easily utilise information about the Self stored schematically in the self-concept (Schell, Klein, & Babey, 1996; Symons, & Johnson, 1997).

The self-concept (like the rest of self-consciousness) includes both cognitive and affective elements. self-concept also includes mental representations of the Self in relationship to others i.e., relational representations. These latter representations are developed by combining (relating) information about Self in the self-consciousness with information about others contained in the wider consciousness. These others may include God, thus showing how the model can incorporate psychological representations of metaphysical relationships (Hall, 2004, 2007; Kirkpatrick 1997, 1999). In this way, self-concept represents information from within the whole of consciousness as this information relates to Self. In all cases, the self-concept is a limited, although ideally functional, representation of the actual Self that allows the I to direct the Self in ways that are Self-consistent.

Some Processes Implied in the Model: Relations to Phenomenological Descriptions of Self in Plain Language

The I is an active agent and so the Self (which is just the I-perceived-from-the-inside) is also active. Part of the I’s activity is the exercise of control over the Self (i.e., over its Self) through consciousness. This is what is meant by Self-control. However, the Self can also control the I by over-riding conscious Self-control. This is what is meant by being “out of control” or demonstrating a “lack of Self-control”. A central tension within the person is the extent to which the I through consciousness will control the Self – or vice versa (e.g., Hyten, Madden, & Field, 1994).

The I receives information from its physical and social environments (Adolphs, 1999; Frith & Frith, 1999). Some of this information directly relates to the nature, characteristics and capabilities of the I (and, hence, indirectly of the Self). When this information is consciously recognised as “new” information, the person is said to be “discovering more of themselves” (equivalently, “discovering more of their Self”). This Self-discovery expands or extends self-consciousness and, hence, consciousness as a whole. The person may also discover more of themselves (their Self) through Self-reflection (Conway & Dewhurst, 1995; Dretske, 1999). Self-reflection describes the process by which the person intentionally seeks to:

  1. expand their self-consciousness from within (through some form of thought and/or action – perhaps such as prayer or meditation) that makes additional information about the Self available to self-consciousness; and/or
  2. seeks to better integrate, organise or reorganise information about the Self so that Self-schemas become more complex and “information-rich” – and presumably more representative of the ‘actual’ Self.

Not all stored Self-related information is retained or integrated into the self-concept. Moreover, integration of Self-knowledge into the self-concept does not guarantee that Self-knowledge will be retained over the life-span of the person (Kihlstrom & Klein, 1994). To complicate matters, the Self-as-active-agent is not static but itself changes over time. Thus, a person’s knowledge of themselves can be made redundant due to changes in the Self. For these reasons, knowledge-of-Self needs to be renewed and updated over time. If this renewal does not happen a person may “lose” their sense of Self and/or report “not knowing who they are anymore”.

The act of retaining Self-knowledge, and of subsequently adjusting the self-concept to match retained information about the Self is, at least partly, under the volitional control of the person (Babey, Queller, & Klein, 1998). So, a person may choose to ignore new information about the Self – especially under certain affective conditions e.g., where retaining information about the Self results, or is perceived to be likely to result, in emotional pain or discomfort. Moreover, the individual may choose (or not) to organise any retained information (new or old) about the Self into the self-concept for precisely the same reasons. In this case, the self-concept may be under-developed and, if so, will be less useful and functional in integrating and directing the Self. Whatever the potential reluctance of the person to retain and assimilate information about the Self, the extent to which self-consciousness and self-concept matches the actual Self is one measure of mental health. Persons with robust mental health “know themselves” and have strong “sense of Self”. In contrast, persons with poor mental health typically report having a poor self-concept and/or a weak or fragmented sense of Self. Phrases such as “I don’t know who I am anymore” reflect an incomplete and/or poorly organised self-concept. Moreover, the self-concept – whether an accurate representation of the ‘current’ Self or not acts as organising force for personal behaviour and action. Thus, a person is more likely to act in ways that are congruent rather than incongruent with their self-concept – with negative or positive psychological and other consequences depending on the congruence between self-concept and the actual Self. Conversely, uncontrolled by consciousness, the Self will act according to its own volition i.e., as its own agent (Bandura, 2001). In such cases the Self may act in congruence with the person’s Self-knowledge and self-concept – in which case the psychological harmony of the person is maintained. Alternatively, the Self may act in ways that are incongruous with the self-concept. In such cases psychological disharmony results until the self-concept is rearranged to better reflect the actual Self – or vice versa.

The extent to which a person’s consciousness of Self represents their actual Self is also a measure of the person’s ability to exercise Self-control, Self-direction and Self-regulation (Mele, 1997). Persons with limited and/or inadequately organised self-concepts typically find it difficult to define values, goals and purposes that direct the Self in productive and organised ways. Such individuals may describe themselves as being “all over the place” “feeling lost”, “not knowing which way to turn”, “living from day to day”, etc. Persons with poor Self-knowledge and hence poor Self-control, direction and regulation may be described by others as being “impulsive”, “erratic”, or “directionless”. Because Self-knowledge (the sum total of information about the Self contained in self-consciousness) is intuitively understood by the person to be critical to a sense of person-al wellbeing, the individual with poor Self-knowledge will often be preoccupied with developing their Self-knowledge. When this is the case, the person may be described by others as being “Self-centred” – although the person’s real problem is that the Self is not centred enough i.e., the person’s self-concept is so inadequate that it is failing to provide the individual with a sense-of-Self that is sufficiently defined and internalised (‘centred’) to sustain healthy psychological functioning.

Shifts of Consciousness

The function of consciousness in the model of Self is critical, and implies some important additional processes to those described above.

The “default” mode of consciousness is for the I to be focussed on the external world:

  1. acting more-or-less automatically – yet at the same time purposefully – in accordance with stored procedural and episodic memories, and
  2. reacting according to incoming ‘data’ from the external world (experienced through sensation), and according to internal data generated from somatic sensations, emotions, and ongoing cognition.

This mode of consciousness will continue until data from the external world enters consciousness in such a way as to trigger a shift from externally oriented perception to internally oriented perception – such that the I is now focussed internally on the Self rather than externally on the world. This data reaches the I through normal attentiveness to the external environment, but the quality or quantity of the data triggers a shift to the internal mode of perception because the external element or event is recognised by the I as either:

  1. unrecognised (‘new’) data that needs to be consciously processed in some way, and/or
  2. recognised (‘old’) data that triggers a stored memory that needs to be consciously processed in some way.

[NB: A shift to internal perception may also be triggered by internal somatic sensations such as hunger, or very familiar external settings and situations that require so little conscious external attention that the I drifts (as much as shifts) to internal perception. Subjectively, this latter shift may be described as “daydreaming”. In the following section, however, we are concerned with more radical shifts of perception as these shifts hold greater implications for the Self – as will be examined below.]

In either case, the incoming data is instantly, and often automatically, processed in conjunction with information available from procedural and episodic memory. On the basis of this cognitive processing the following general pattern occurs.

First, processing provokes an initial (sometimes very strong) emotional response from the Self. [NB: Implicit here is that the Self is the source of emotion within the I, and that emotions are generated in response to (often automatic) cognitive processes within consciousness.] The I responds to this emotional response by shifting perception to the Self. The I will also attend to physiological reactions that arise in association with emotions generated by the Self. These physiological reactions may, in turn, directly give rise to further emotions, or indirectly give rise to further emotions by stimulating cognitive processes that, in turn, stimulate ‘downstream’ emotional reactions. In this way a cycle of physiological, emotional, and cognitive responses may form which can act to maintain, escalate or eventually decrease the emotionally aroused state of the I.

Whilst the primary attention of the I is on the Self, the I may rapidly shift its attention back to the external world depending on the nature of further incoming data. Alternatively, the I may become so focussed in its Self that the I’s attention to the external world is largely terminated. Internally focused attention (of varying degrees) may last from seconds to months and perhaps even years. In some extreme cases, emotional destabilisation within the Self may be so great that it becomes a more or less permanent feature of the I (e.g., in post traumatic stress disorder through to full-blown mental-breakdown or insanity).

In less extreme circumstances to those described immediately above, the I’s assessment of the Self’s emotions can, broadly, be dealt with by the I in one of two ways: assimilation or accommodation. Under conditions of assimilation, the I is able to reconcile the incoming data with the Self’s emotional reactions to the conscious processing of that data in a way that does not fundamentally alter the I’s self-consciousness or self-concept. Under these conditions, the I’s self-consciousness and self-concept are sufficiently congruent with the Self’s emotional reactions that no substantial change in self-consciousness or self-concept is required in order to maintain a sense of psychological equilibrium within the Self.

Under conditions requiring accommodation the incoming information, and the emotional reactions of the Self resultant from cognitive processing of this information, provokes the I to fundamentally alter its perception of itself. Under these conditions, the incongruity of the self-consciousness and self-concept with the Self’s emotional reactions is so great as to cause ongoing psychological disequilibrium until the I’s perceptions of its Self are changed to better match emotions emanating from the Self. In other words, the I reorganises its self-consciousness and self-concept in order to reach equilibrium with its Self.

The pattern above implies that the I seeks equilibrium between its concept of its Self and data provided to the I by the Self. When there is a large perceived discrepancy between the perceived Self and self-concept, internal psychological tension arises which the I seeks to resolve. This resolution may occur by the I:

  1. Deciding that the emotional data received from the Self was disproportionate to the original external data. Phenomenologically this situation can be described as an “over-reaction” by the Self.
  2. Deciding that the Self’s emotional reaction was not disproportionate but represents important (non-ignorable) data from the Self that implies some aspect of the Self not previously part of self-consciousness not integrated into self-concept. Phenomenologically, this situation may be described by the I as the I “learning something about its Self” – equivalently “learning something about my Self”.

Once new data from the Self is located in self-consciousness it is available to be integrated into self-concept. Importantly, the association of this new Self-data with the recent memory in consciousness of the Self’s emotional response may mean that the new Self-data is more likely to be integrated into the self-concept (if for no other reason than the I’s desire to avoid future emotional trauma if possible). Alternatively, the psychological pain involved in integrating new data about the Self into the self-concept (which may involve the explicit recognition by the I of some unpleasant realities about its Self – and hence the I itself) may cause the I to postpone integration of new Self data into the self-concept, including attempts to forget or indefinitely ignore the data itself. In such cases, psychological disequilibrium may persist with a variety of negative (and sometimes serious) psychological consequences possible.

Revisiting the Self-Concept

Based on the analysis above, we can revisit the self-concept and somewhat redefine this concept as the I’s cognitive representation of itself – not strictly speaking the I’s representation of its Self.

Specifically, the I cannot know itself in the external world because the I cannot venture outside its Self to view itself. Thus, the I cannot make itself directly the object of its own attentions. However, the I can indirectly make itself the object of its own attentions by:

  1. constructing an objective cognitive representation (a mental prototype) of itself called the self-concept,
  2. deriving from this concept what it (the I) might look like to the external world, and
  3. continuing to assess the validity of its self-concept through intersubjective enquiry.

Thus, the self-concept is really the I-concept – but is perhaps not totally misnamed because the I-concept is inevitably built upon data provided to the I by the Self in response to the I’s cognitive processing of external data. Thus, the Self provides the raw material from which the I constructs its I-concept and, in this sense, the I-concept is at least co-authored by the Self. Emphasising the critical nature of this co-authorship, if the I for whatever reason ‘loses touch’ with the Self (under conditions of self-alienation), then the ongoing development of the self-concept is threatened. Under these conditions, phenomenologically, the person may say: “I don’t know who I am anymore”. Analytically, the I’s I/self-concept has become indistinct because the ability of the I to sense the Self through consciousness has been interrupted or impaired in some way.

A Second Shift in Consciousness

Importantly, the I’s attention to itself as object represents another important shift in consciousness (the first being the shift from an external to an internal orientation in consciousness). When the I is sensing its reflective Self it is relating subjectively to its Self because the Self is providing the I (through consciousness) with direct subjective (emotional, motivational, “feeling”) information in response to external information processed cognitively by the I. However, as indicated previously, implicit in the emotional and motivational reactions of the Self is data about the Self itself – what was called above “Self-data” as distinct from the raw (explicit) emotional data from which Self-data is extracted. The I extracts this data about the Self and uses it in constructing its self-concept. Critically, in doing so, the I shifts from subjectively experiencing the Self’s incoming reactions, to objectively decoding and manipulating embedded information about the Self in order to construct its objective representation of itself. This objective representation of the I then becomes the I’s Internal Working Model (IWM) of who and what it is.

On the basis of this objective representation of itself, the I is able to answer the question: “Who and what am I?”. Moreover, revisiting the “Knowing I”, the I’s objective mental representation of itself represents the I’s objective self-knowledge and is the basis for self-analysis by the I – and hence provides the epistemological basis for the discipline of psychology as whole. Conversely, the I’s subjective experience of it-Self forms the epistemological basis of phenomenology. The first cells of Table 1 can thus be expanded and rearranged as represented in Table 2.

Table 2
The Knowing I (Epistemic Bases) Revisited





Key Entity




Mode of Consciousness




Data Received by the I

Explicit/Emotional (i.e., data about the Self’s reactions)

Implicit/Ontological (i.e., data about the Self itself)


Appropriate methodology for investigations of the I-Self




Table 2 indicates that both phenomenology and psychology are firmly rooted in different aspects of the I’s experience and analysis of the Self. Thus, “turf wars” between phenomenology and psychology are unnecessary because both disciplines are legitimate expressions of the nature of the knowing I’s relationship to its Self.

States of Consciousness

The discussion above has highlighted two important shifts in consciousness (external to internal and subjective to objective). These shifts in consciousness represent four distinct states of consciousness as outlined in Table 3.

Table 3
States of Consciousness






Conscious I attending to the external world

Conscious I attending to the self-concept



Conscious I surmising the nature of the I based on its objective representation of the I.

Conscious I attending to the Self


Table 3 indicates that four distinct states of consciousness can be derived from the shifts in consciousness identified.

The Full Model

On the basis of the preceding discussion, our Model of the Self can be amplified to include some critical additional processes.

Section 2: Testing the Model

Testing a model of the self is, by its nature a difficult proposition. We suggest, however, that three tests of the model may be appropriate:

    1. The model should be consistent with plain language (phenomenological) accounts of the Self communicated through Self-referential language. This test is not just an anecdotal test, but an authentic first-person phenomenological test because of the I’s epistemic privilege in describing and referring to the Self.


    1. The model should also be consistent with psychological/scientific language about the Self. This test is critical because the Model utilises Self-related psychological constructs and variables and should do so in a way that is congruent with the way these constructs and variables have been developed in the psychology literature. One way of demonstrating this congruence is to show that Model-derived definitions of key psychological constructs and variables are consistent with corresponding definitions extant in the literature.


  1. The Model should broadly comply with the qualities and characteristics of a “good” social scientific model. Any particular selection of these qualities and characteristics will be necessarily subjective. However, various qualities and characteristics can provide some key criteria by which to evaluate the relative worth of models.

The Plain Language Test

With respect to the first Point above, we have already indicated how our Model is consistent with various self-referential statements drawn from plain language. Further testing of this sort could be usefully carried out in further examinations of the congruence between the Model and various examples of self-referential language. However, at this stage, we do not foresee any particular self-referential statements that would be particularly problematic to deal with in terms of the model. Nevertheless, as an additional plain language test of the Model and its ability to accommodate and clarify language used in referring to the I-Self, we revisit Allport’s quote that began this paper – deconstructing this quote in light of our Model in a way that clarifies Allport’s meaning and demonstrates how the Model may be applied in psychological and phenomenological discourse.

Allport: Who is the I that knows the bodily me,
Comment: The I knows “me” only partially and “me” implies “all of me” not just my body.

…who has an image of myself and a sense of identity over time,
Who has constructed an objective I/self-concept from which my subjective understanding of myself in the world may be derived.

…who knows that I have propriate strivings?”
Who knows the Self as supplying emotional, motivational and volitional “data”.

I know all these things, and what is more, I know that I know them.
I know “these things” because the fundamental capacity of the I is its knowingness. I know that I know “these things” through the dual functioning of consciousness and the reflective ability of the Self to respond emotionally to self-knowledge held in consciousness.

But who is it who has this perspectival grasp? …
It is the I – but only indirectly known through reflection on the objectified I/self-concept.

It is much easier to feel the Self than to define the Self
It is much easier to feel the Self than to define either the Self or the I. Nevertheless, explicit emotional data emanating from the Self contains implicit data about the Self from which the I can construct indirect “definitions” of both the I and the Self.

The Scientific Language Test

With respect to scientific/psychological language, Table 4 indicates how important several important Self-related constructs derived from psychology are consistent with, and may be defined in terms of, the proposed Model.

Table 4
Model-Based Definitions of the Self-Related Constructs



Extant Definitions*

Model Based Definition



The full realization of one’s potential.

Realising the potential of the Self by maximising self-consciousness and constructing a self-concept that is congruent with the actual Self.


Conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives and desires

Knowledge of Self that has entered consciousness.

Self Disclosure

Revealing otherwise undisclosed self-related information to others

Verbal and non-verbal communication to others of the content of self-consciousness.


Feeling of trust in ones abilities, qualities and judgment.

Positive affective reactions by the Self to the I’s evaluation of the ability of the Self to act effectively in particular situations.


The exertion of one’s own will on personal self – including the wilful direction of behaviours and thought processes.

The exercised ability of the I in directing the actions of the Self -especially when the Self wills differently to the I.


Actions of the self to the extent that these are actions directed by the self.

The ability of the I to cause and direct actions of the Self.


A person’s belief concerning their ability and capacity to accomplish tasks and respond to challenging situations.

An aspect of the self-concept that containing internalised beliefs about the ability of the Self to act effectively in particular situations and with respect to particular tasks.


The extent to which a person likes, accepts, and respects themselves as a person.

Positive evaluations of the Self by the I based on the I’s conscious knowledge of the Self.


Self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement – especially as these are deployed in the pursuit of particular personal goals.

The I’s ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the Self which may result in self-control or other self-directive processes by the I.


Self Talk

The person’s automatic internal dialogue deployed when influencing the person’s actions, thoughts and feelings.

The I’s use of internally directed language and thought to elicit certain actions and/or reactions from the Self.

* derived from and related sources

Table 4 indicates that important Self-related constructs can be defined in terms of the model. Moreover, these definitions are consistent with extant definitions from the literature. Again, more detailed testing of the model is required in this area – particularly with respect to a more thoroughgoing analysis of key constructs and their congruence with the proposed Model. However, we think that the congruence of the sample of definitions above provides evidence that the Model is congruent with some existing psychological constructs and, as such, may be congruent with others.

The “Good” Model Test

The representational status of models in philosophy and science is hotly debated (e.g., Bailer-Jones, 2003; Da Costa & French, 2003; Frigg, 2006; Morgan & Morrison, 1999). However, there is some consensus that “good” models fulfil several key criteria. Amongst the most important of these criteria, and the extent to which the current Model addresses these criteria, are those outlined below.

    1. Salience: No model can represent everything. Hence, any model should selectively represent only those elements that are most relevant.
      The present model is limited to five key elements (I, Self, consciousness, self-consciousness and self-concept).


    1. Parsimony: The model should be as simple as possible, without being simplistic.
      The present model is simple in the sense that it involves relatively few variables, but is arranged in such a way that several key relationships between variables are identified – thus not over-simplifying the representation of the Self and its related processes.


    1. Insightfulness: The model should concisely capture the relevant dimensions of the problem in a way that facilitates creative and original insight.
      The present model originally and creatively addresses key dimensions of the Self “problem” – particularly including the relationship between the I and the Self and how this relationship, mediated by various states of consciousness, defines the Self-system as a unified whole with distinct but clearly interrelated parts.


    1. Coherence: Models do not exist in isolation but within interlocking systems. Thus, any particular model should be coherent with other related models.
      The present model draws on constructs from existing theoretical frameworks, but demonstrates in a more integrated fashion than previously how these is constructs are operationally and ontologically related to each other – thus enhancing the coherence of our current knowledge of the Self.


    1. Intelligibility: The model must be intelligible and, in doing so, should build on previous knowledge.
      The present model uses language, structures and processes familiar not only to researchers and theoreticians in many fields, but also to the “common man”. Thus, the model should be easily understood in a variety of scholarly and everyday contexts, enhancing the potential of the model to contribute to previous knowledge.


    1. Predictive Capacity: The model should predict future events; or at least provide insight into future possibilities.
      The present model can be used to predict future events given certain initial states. For example, if the self-concept is represented as a small circle (thus indicating an underdeveloped and potentially unstable self-concept) then predications about the overall functioning and psychological stability of the I may be made.


  1. Falsifiability: From a scientific perspective a key test of any model is the extentto which it can be falsified. In one sense all models are falsified by definition i.e., all models represent incomplete abstractions of reality (Da Costa & French, 2003). The test, then, of any model is not whether the model is right or wrong but how wrong the model is. In the present case, the model could be falsified by demonstrating that:
    1. the model’s theoretical categories are vaguely defined or arbitrarily chosen;
    2. the model fails to account for one or more plain language statements used phenomenologically to describe Self-understandings;
    3. the model fails to accurately account for, in terms of the model itself, one or more psychological concepts related to the Self;
    4. one or more existent theories (drawn from any discipline) relating to Self are incompatible with the model and/or inexplicable in terms of the model;
    5. the model fails to provide any additional insight or integration to definitions of Self and Self-related structures and processes.

    The present model, in contrast to the statements above, represents a theory-driven account of Self that is congruent with, corresponds to, complements, and extends existent plain language and scientific accounts of the Self in an insightful, integrated and thoughtfully structured manner.

For the reason above, we suggest that the Model may be accepted a “good” model of the Self and, as such, may be used in a variety of contexts and across (at least two) disciplines to systematically, parsimoniously and insightfully describe and analyse the Self.


Developing an understanding of the I-Self that “holds water” is an exceedingly difficult task. However, in this paper we have utilised a transdisciplinary, model based approach to the Self as a way of addressing Allport’s most provocative questions about the Self. In doing so, we have clearly explicated the model, shown how the model is consistent with existing phenomenological and psychological accounts of the I-Self, and also shown how the model arranges and explains key self-related constructs and processes in order to develop an integrated and integrating understanding of the I-Self that may be utilised in the fragmented field of psychology and, hopefully, in other disciplines as well.

We gratefully acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Dr. Maureen Miner and Dr. Marie-Therese Proctor in the preparation of this paper. This paper was jointly sponsored by the Australasian Centre for Studies in Spirituality and the Australian College of Ministries.


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