Self-Realization — A Criticism

By A. E. Taylor

When we ask ourselves, impelled by the curiosity to know what is to be known which is the beginning of philosophy, whether we can find one common expression which shall tell us the inmost nature and meaning of all we can desire and all we pronounce “good,” we find ourselves in the position indicated by Aristotle in the first book of the “Ethics.” Answers are readily given to our question, but most of them unfortunately stamped with the character of intellectual cheapness. Such coarse and vulgar cheats as pleasure, popular approbation, the rewards of a world to come, and many another shameless aspirant to the position of ethical end of ends cannot impose on us for any length of time. Another solution of the problem has, however, been put forward which demands more serious consideration. It is not these low and imperfect ends, say the “cultured,” in which we could possibly find final satisfaction: what we desire, and that in which our true happiness is to be found, is something which includes them all and is yet beyond and more than them all. To realize yourself, say these “Sicilian and Ionian Muses,” is the secret of all content and aim of all endeavor. It is your only and all-embracing duty to realize yourself in action, and that because, when you come to think of it, in no action can you seek anything else even if you would. And if we raise the |357| old difficulty about self-sacrifice, we are met by the severer Muses with the suggestion that sacrifice is only disguised attainment. That the doctrine has no difficulty in disposing of the shallow and unspeculative rivals that contested it on its first appearance among us is certainly true: that it has done excellent service in leading us towards a more intelligent insight into the mechanism of action no one, I think, will deny: that the theory is connected with some of the greatest names in the philosophy and literature of our century is equally incontestable. But all views of ultimate truth are bound in the end to be imperfect and one-sided, and this particular view has by now been so much overdone that I think we may without irreverence towards “our fathers that begat us” ask whether it is not at last time to examine its pretensions without prejudice: the more so that the most illustrious of its champions among living English moralists has in his last and greatest work made something very much like a formal recantation of at least part of the doctrine.

Confining ourselves, then, within the limits of morality, properly so called, let us ask whether it is in any way an adequate account of the end to call it realization of self. I pass by the question whether a complete conception of the good as the sum total of the desirable may not include elements which come to us unasked for and unaimed at, and which are, strictly speaking, not the realization of anything. Such goods, if indeed they exist, at least fall outside the sphere of ethics, where we have to do throughout with goods which are attained by intelligent and purposive movement. Keeping entirely within this narrow sphere, I would ask, Is it a satisfactory definition of the moral end to say that it is self-realization? If I would know what it is to be moral, does it help me much to be told, — It is to realize yourself. And we may say at once that in one sense no action need be self-realization, while in another all acts good and bad alike are or are not self-realization, just as we please.

(1) If it were meant that what is consciously before the mind of the moral agent as the final cause of his action is the conception of the desired end as a realization of himself, then |358| I should say the idealistic morality was guilty of the very confusion it is never weary of charging on the Hedonist: it takes what the philosophic spectator finds in the completed action, and reads it quite unwarrantably into the mind of the agent. (That the relation thus surreptitiously introduced differs in the two cases does not affect the identity of the psychological blunder.) No act is ever done with the deliberate intention of realizing one’s self on the whole, just as no act is ever done with the conscious purpose of getting pleasure in general: and though it is true that a particular act may be done with the intention of realizing your own personality in a particular way, the acts may be, and, I should say, where it is a morally good act, usually is done without any such conscious determination by a relation to the self of the agent. In most ordinary cases of the discharge of duty what is before the agent’s mind as his motive is rather “this act is good” than “this act is good for me,” and in what is popularly called “self-sacrifice” the conception of my self as the subject of satisfaction to accrue from the act in question can be absolutely excluded, though that is no doubt a limiting case.

(2) But I do not suppose — in spite of certain suspicious utterances of Professor Green — that this is what is really meant. The meaning is rather that the philosopher, on analyzing the agent’s conduct, finds that the moral act is, as a matter of fact, a realization of the agent himself, whether he knew this when he resolved on his course of action or not. If we distinguish what is “in” the mind from what is “before” it at any given moment, we may say the relation of the act willed to the willing self as its own realization was “in” the mind as determining the desire, but not necessarily “before” it as the desired end. In that case, however, we have only escaped one contradiction by falling into a worse; every act, good and bad alike, will now be equally an assertion, and therefore a realization, of the acting self. You cannot, we must be careful to remember, ever have self-realization except at the cost of self-negation: no act can be mere or pure realization, just as no act can be bare negation. Alike in sacrifice and in selfishness, in |359| patriotism and in treason, in virtue and in vice, you assert and make real some one element in the self at the cost of all the rest. So that in one sense all acts, in another ho acts, are realizations of self. If the commandment says, “Do not steal,” and my inclination says “Steal,” whatever the resultant act may be, it cannot, in either case, be entire self-realization or unqualified self-negation. The only choice ever open to me is between realizing this or that element in myself, or, if you like to speak more philosophically, between identifying this or that element with the whole self for the time-being. Even the self-suppression of inactivity is, in a round-about way, assertion of self. Thus, it is not enough to answer the question, When am I truly moral? by saying, When you are yourself. Self may be anything or nothing, and the fundamental distinction between the good and the bad act or life will be a distinction, within the sphere of self-realization, between the objects in which self-satisfaction is found, or, to put it in another way, between the aspects in the self which are marked out from whatever else is found there as the self to be realized. And this is a consideration which is admitted by the patrons of self-realization themselves, though they do not always seem aware of its results. Green will tell us that self-realization is as much the end of the enlightened pleasure-seeker as of the patriot or the saint. Bradley rightly admits that the recognition of self as the end to be realized in morality is no more than the discovery of a mere universal form: the content which is to give it definite meaning is still wanting, though it can, he holds, be developed from the form itself, and has not to be empirically assumed from a foreign source, like the moral code of Kant or the Aristotelian table of virtues. What, then, is the content as distinct from the mere form of moral action? Or, as I prefer to put the question for convenience’ sake, which among the many conflicting aspects which from time to time assert themselves as my self am I to seek to make real in morality? Several answers can be and have been given which it is worth while to look into one by one.

The most obvious distinction — the one that is most commonly made by excellent persons who have practical progress |360| more at heart than speculative exactness — is one between a higher self which is to be realized and a lower self which is to be negated. But when we ask after the standard by which the relative position of the ends for which I act may be estimated, either we are met by a circular reference to the very good of which we are in search, or some new and more definite conception of the good self has to be introduced. Thus I may be told, to take three answers which philosophy has given to our question, that the self to be realized is, (a) my permanent self as distinguished from the momentary self that is identical with the felt desire, or (b) my self as a harmonious and widely-extended whole, or (c) the social self. I think it will not be hard to show that not one of these three answers will bear serious investigation.

Let us begin with (a), which seems to be Green’s meaning in his Introduction to Hume, and in certain of the earlier chapters, at least, of his Prolegomena. What I AM to realize, if I would be moral, will now be my permanent, lasting self, my self taken as something that is not exhausted in the gratification of any one desire, nor of a series of desires, but demands some abiding and solid satisfaction. What secures this permanent satisfaction is morality, though moral and immoral men alike aim in all their intelligent actions at it, not at the mere relief of passing passion.

Now, considered as a negative or purely formal aspect of the ultimate good, permanency has no doubt its value. The good must at least be capable of yielding lasting happiness and abiding content: what fails to do this is at best an imperfect good. And the good man again will be the man who is permanently satisfied by the good: to whom it is the love of a life, not the mere darling of an impassioned minute. But it still remains that the bad man and the partially good man are capable of finding a permanent satisfaction in what is far from good. Whether or not what satisfies you is what morality pronounces good will depend entirely on who you are. It is by no means always the case that those elements of self which are as a fact the most settled are the best: the impulse that comes as a rare visitant from a far country may be a prompting to better things, and the preference of it the first |361| step towards improvement. And many a man has found his permanent happiness in what we cannot but call bad, while there have been others whom morality would probably call better men in whom the division of the self against itself has been so strong that even when most moral they have doubted in themselves whether this too be not vanity. Altogether in permanency of satisfaction you have one mark among others of the moral good, not the good itself; and you cannot plausibly maintain that your mark, such as it is, is restricted to the good and distinctive of it unless you are prepared to go the whole length of saying that the first law of morality is “Know what you want,” and the second, like unto it, “And see that you get it.” And how is this better than Hedonism? The belief that all selves are so much alike that no man will permanently find his good in the ethically bad would seem to be no more than a deduction from a psychological monstrosity — the timeless or eternal self identical in all the individuals. But just because this illusory phantom is identical in all the individuals it can have no specific desires to satisfy, and just because it is timeless could get no satisfaction for them if it felt them.

In no man is the real self, with its empirical likes and dislikes, identical with the mere formal condition of self-sameness in different mental states, which an unpsychological metaphysic confuses first with man, and then, by a further stroke of humorous audacity, with God. And it is the curse of morality that our real empirical self is by no means too ready to acquiesce in any one content as its lasting good. Perhaps ultimately no source of satisfaction can be quite perennial. Our attitude towards the objects in which we seek content is too much like that of the Flying Dutchman with his wives. The thing awakens desire, and with it the hope that this time fruition will be unchanging. We embrace the new interest with enthusiasm, and for a while we dream that there at last is something that will prove permanently true, but it is generally not very long before we find it is only the same old tale of deception and mistake and trust betrayed, and the restless search for a really final spring of happiness has to begin over again. Or, if we do lastingly acquiesce in |362| certain aims and ends, it is only because we have ceased to look upon them as pre-eminently sources of satisfaction and realization for ourselves. We have come to think more of the thing to be done as good in itself than of its formal relation to our own personality as a good for us. And from this point of view it is no longer appropriate to find the one satisfactory account of the good in self-realization.

(b) Can we say then, by a slight modification of our doctrine, that it is not so much in its permanency as in its inclusiveness and harmony that we shall find the special character of the self-realization which is morality? Is it enough to be told to realize myself as a whole, i.e., as a developed and concordant system of fixed habits and relations which may, for convenience‘…’ sake, be taken as roughly equivalent to the relations imposed on me in virtue of my particular position in the social order? The practical value of the advice no one of course will dispute. It is true that, to a large extent, what I AM is determined for me by these relations, and that by fulfilling the obligations they bring along with them I AM in a true sense making myself real. It is true that neglect of these duties is, as we can all see, hardly compatible with morality, nor, in the long run, with happiness. But the theory, as a theory, seems open to objections from more sides than one.

To begin with — though this is to forestall our verdict on the third of the formulas we undertook to examine — the social institutions contemplated would seem to be those of a past age rather than of the present. As we listen to Mr. Bradley’s stirring panegyric on the duties of “my station,” we think irresistibly of the Athens of Pericles rather than of the England of Gladstone. Whatever may have been the case in a city-state, the increasing complexity of modern life has made it practically impossible for moral duty to coincide with the duties of one’s station throughout its whole extent. Take a concrete example: I AM a clerk, let us say, in a City office, with a widowed mother to support. Can it be said that in keeping a home for my mother, serving my employers honestly and diligently, and paying my rates and taxes I have fulfilled the whole law? Perhaps, however, the duties of my |363| station extend rather further: I should become a volunteer and, possibly, a County Councillor. But, even so, it would seem that the most exhaustive catalogue of the obligations arising from my social station will hardly complete the sum of the demands of morality, and that the former can never amount to the whole of the latter, unless, indeed, you give some very new and widely extended meaning to the conception of my “station,” the apparent simplicity of which was, however, its chief recommendation.

We will turn to a more important consideration. Dropping the particular identification of myself as a whole with myself as occupying a particular place in society, let us look for a moment at the general injunction, “Realize yourself as a complete and harmonious whole.” Is the thing enjoined really possible? To begin with, it is very doubtful whether my self ever is or ever can be, strictly speaking, a whole. What I at least find when I “look into my breast” is a conflicting set of likes and dislikes which neither are nor can be made a single whole except by the forcible suppression of some of them. And it might be urged that the formation of a settled character may as justly be called a process of definition and elimination as one of extending the boundaries of the self.

Character, if it is to be of any permanent kind, can never include more than a part of what was originally given in disposition, and it would seem, at least for the majority of men, that the most we can expect is to enter halt or with one eye into life. Two illustrations of this view may be added. Whatever moral education may be in after life, it certainly begins with the very reverse of self-realization. An infant might be said, in one sense, to be the very type of self-realization. With him, almost from the first, there is a standing impulse to make real in the outer world any and every suggested content which may present itself. To desire an object means at once to grab at it, to feel an uneasiness is to set about relieving it. Thus, of course, disposition is at first everything, character is nothing. Now, the process of education by which order and habit are brought into this primitive chaos is by no means one of advance in capacity for self-realization.

The first lesson a |364| child has to learn is, to his cost, the lesson of self-suppression. It is not by teaching the child to know what he wants and, above all things, to see that he gets it, that a wise parent lays the first foundations of moral character: but by impressing severely the sense that there are many, very many, elements in the self which are to be made unreal, desires to be left ungratified, tensions and unpleasantnesses to be borne without attempt at escape. It is by eliminating and negating original elements of disposition that decency and morality alike are first called into being. And it cannot be maintained that the process of self-suppression comes to an end with the transition from childhood or youth to self-reliant manhood. No doubt the realization is more prominent in adult years as the negation was in the period of preliminary training. But the two processes go on forever side by side. We never reach a point at which there is no longer anything left to suppress, but only elements to realize. The influence of the ἐρωτιϰαὶ ἐπιϑυμίαι is in itself enough to prevent most men’s lives from being quite an undisturbed whole of harmony.

It may be said, however, that the maxim is not “Realize your whole self as such,” but only “Realize yourself as a whole of some sort or other,” and that it is not intended to exclude the constitution of the whole by the removal of outlying and excrescent elements. Our criticism on this has been in great part anticipated by the remarks we have just made on moral education. First, I would once more ask, Is the complete excision or suppression ever actual, or even possible? Is there, in heaven or in earth, such a thing as a self in which there is no longer a conflict of one habit with another or of settled habit with wandering and unformed elements of disposition? And on this point I must be content to appeal from the disciples of the Bradley of Ethical Studies to the Bradley of Appearance and Reality.

The mere unattainableness of the moral ideal would, however, be no final argument against it. All moral ideals owe their value to the impossibility of reaching them, and all that the self-realizer asks of us is the admission that it is by their comparative nearness to the ideal of complete harmony and wholeness that the |365| moral worth of acts and of lives is judged. A graver objection remains to be raised. The admission is one which we cannot make unless we are prepared to break with the ordinary unphilosophic moral consciousness instead of explaining it. It is not in any and every systematizing of disposition into character that moral advance is to be found. The discordant elements which the self has rejected may be of greater value than those it has retained. The system of habits may be comparatively consistent and of the nature of a concordant whole, and yet be bad.

The first result of moral progress in the individual may be, and not infrequently is, the introduction of new elements and new habits which obstinately refuse to shape themselves into a harmonious system with the old, as may be seen in almost any case of what is popularly known as “conversion.” And this disorganization is not necessarily for the individual what it is logically for outside reflection, a mere transition to a wider and completer (not to use the question-begging adjective “higher”) wholeness. The converted individual may perfectly well remain in a divided state, and thus fall short of the harmoniousness which characterized his unregenerate self. More, the new elements will often not merely refuse to unite with the old, but even demand, and in part secure, their abolition, thus disposing of the extensiveness as well as of the wholeness of the old life. Morality may thus find itself in the position of having to prefer a relatively discordant and narrowed existence to a wider and more concordant one, and we are forced to admit that, while harmony and wide extent are undoubtedly included in the moral ideal, it is not the fact that one life can be called more moral than another merely as being wider in its interests and more in harmony with itself in its desires. It is not enough to say that the moral life is a whole: we are still forced to ask, What kind of whole?

(c) Of the third theory, which identifies the self to be realized straight away with the “social” self, I do not intend to say much. It is quite inconsistent ultimately with even the relative truth, which we have admitted, of the two theories we have just discussed, and it has difficulties of its own which |366| must by this time be familiar to us all. Perhaps I need not do more than just recall the futility of the attempt to reduce all so-called “self-regarding” duties to duties to others, and ask a few questions which it is easier, on this theory, to ask than to answer. Of the extreme form of the doctrine which is practically altruism it should be enough to ask: Assuming that all our duty is duty to humanity at large, what is the good which we should seek to promote for mankind? This must apparently come to consist in something more than a general tendency to be altruistic if we wish to avoid the absurd picture of a world in which everybody’s sole duty and good is to promote in somebody else a disposition to promote the same disposition in somebody else still.1 And if the ultimately valuable thing be a state of, or stand in a direct relation to, any self, we have refuted altruism. Of any less radical doctrine of the “social self,” we may say, —

(1) That it utterly fails to explain the morality, not only of personal culture and refinement sought for its own sake, but — which is more important — of a life spent in devotion to art or science as such, regarded not as an instrument of self-culture, but as an end in itself. And this is probably, after all, the attitude of the scientist and the artist. Their desire is neither that they personally nor yet that society at large should know or enjoy, but that phenomena should be reduced to system, that things of beauty should exist.

(2) That it is unintelligible apart from a theory of what is desirable as the good for the single self, and that is just what self-realization seems unable to tell us. Meanwhile we shall recognize that social activity is at least an element in the moral ideal, and as such is directly desired. Leaving it to metaphysic to decide, if it can, the question whether this element can ever be ultimately reconciled with the others, we shall insist on the importance of the social side of the moral ideal as making it clear that there are some ends which we actually desire which are not in any intelligible sense states of, or elements in, our own personality. We desire them, to |367| repeat what I have said more than once already, because they are good, not because of any near or remote good they will bring to us.

We are thus reduced to a slightly paradoxical position. The good — because to be achieved by our action — must be, at least formally, a self-realization: yet there are goods which are not, for us as agents, realizations of ourselves, and every moral act is a self-negation. The good is a realization of your permanent self, — now and then, and if you are already a good man: of yourself as a whole, — and can never be got except by suppressing some part of yourself. It cannot exist apart from society, and there are elements in it which cannot be conceived as social. Happiness, knowledge, beneficence, are all essential factors in it, and it is not exhausted by any combination of them that we can conceive. Thus, whether you call it self-realization or self-sacrifice, you say something which is necessarily true of it, and at the same time only half true, and therefore necessarily false. With self-sacrifice I AM not now concerned: in self-realization the truth seems to me to be as much as this: (1) There is nothing ultimately capable of being the end in ethics except some state or states of a self. (2) When you desire a thing, it is you that desire it, and the obtaining your end is thus, at any rate formally, a realization of yourself. The false implications are more various: in different authors they appear in different forms, but they may perhaps be reduced to the following:

(1) The self the states of which are the ethical end is always my self.

(2) The states to be promoted are always states of felt satisfaction.

(3) The self to be realized is the formal identity of subject and object in self-consciousness.

It has of late years been more fashionable to talk of self-realization than of self-sacrifice, but, if there is anything in what I have advanced, the name is misleading, and it is time the fashion changed. It is true that any other name would be equally defective, but it is at least better to pass from one partial view of the reality to another than, remaining in the |368| same one-sided aspect, to mistake it for the whole. This particular one-sidedness would seem to owe its popularity to a metaphysic which is innocent of psychology and careless about it. It cannot for a moment stand before a serious examination of the contents of the self as it exists and its formation by means of the psychological mechanism, and, as the future of philosophy is obviously with psychology, and no metaphysic can ultimately dispense with it, it might be as well for us, after so many years of neglect, before we send a new ethical theory of the self into the world, to see whether psychology has not something to say on the question, What is the self?

In the mean time, what are we to say for ourselves?P Are we to take refuge in the general assertion that reality is a paradoxical and unaccountable thing, or shall we rather look for some new formulation of ultimate good, seeing that the old one seems to have broken down in our hands? For purposes of practice it is fortunately unnecessary to have a theory, as we have all learned long ago from Aristotle: still, as long as we are not prepared to abandon all attempts at constructing a philosophy of conduct, we cannot help raising the question as a mere matter of speculation. I will not do more now than just hint at what I think a possible, if a very vague and modest, answer.

If we would know what is of the essence of morality, perhaps our best course is to consider rather the nature of the moral judgment we pass on the acts of others than our own psychological state at the moment of action. No doubt the passing of moral judgments on the acts of another implies a sense of morality as something which we ourselves are bound to do: and the evolution of the one necessitates a corresponding growth of the other. But it will, I think, be found that as a matter of fact the moral judgment on outsiders becomes articulate earlier than the sense of our own moral shortcomings: we learn to expect certain performances from those around us, and to be displeased if they are not forthcoming before we have an equally acute perception of the corresponding obligations on ourselves. Hence, if we would find what morality, in its simplest form, involves as an |369| irreducible minimum, we must, I think, betake ourselves to the analysis of the moral judgment. Now, the moral judgment in its simplest form is, I take it, an expression of approbation or disapprobation. It is at least this: so long as you have only an expression of pleasure and displeasure your judgment is as yet not moral: it is no more than this: the conception of it as a categorical law is a much more developed product. It is, that is, a judgment of relative value. It implies that there are things which for their own sake are worth doing, a life which is in itself worth living, even if it does not turn out to be the pleasantest or the best accommodated to my particular likes and dislikes. To find a first principle for morals would mean to point out the standard which is implied in this judgment of worth. If I venture to suggest, with much diffidence and without inquiry, where I think our standard of worth may be sought and how far it is knowable, I hope I may be forgiven. I would say, then, that any judgment of relative worth seems ultimately to resolve itself into a statement of the relative reality of its subject. In the last resort only that which is absolutely and entirely real is felt to have absolute worth, and relative worth means comparative nearness in the scheme of things to the absolutely real. And we cannot conceive of the entirely real except as the entirely rational.

(Both these points would, I think, become clearer on an examination into our judgments of worth generally. As a rule, except by a conscious transference by analogy, we do not make judgments about the relative worth of various forms of existence in physical nature; there it is an axiom that no one thing and no one fact is of more worth or importance than any other. We predicate worth only in the sphere of human action and production, i.e., where we can trace rationality in some form or other. At the same time, we can certainly raise the question of the relative worth of nature and man in the scheme of things, even if we finally refuse to decide it: and here the judgment of worth seems to imply the assumption that the more highly rational is of more worth because more nearly allied to the absolutely real.2 |370| Whether there is ultimately any meaning in speaking of the ultimately real as having absolute worth or whether all worth is purely relative does not concern us here. For the moral consciousness at least the entirely valuable is the completely real.)

Hence the judgment that a certain kind of life is the good seems to me to mean that in this life reality and rationality, so far as they can appear in the realm of action, are mostly fully present. The higher or better life as opposed to the lower, the fully as opposed to the partly good, means the old opposition of the real to the illusory, the true to the false. And the supreme law of ethics is that it is our duty, just because our life is bound to be to some extent a rational content, to make it as pregnant and surcharged with reality as we can. And the ultimately desirable or chief good would be a kind of life soaked and permeated through and through with reality. So far, I suppose, I AM at one with the school of self-realization. What I should deny is that the life which it is most rational for me to lead is necessarily the life which ends in the completest actualization of myself, — or, in other words, that the ‘self,’ whether individual or social, is an ultimate end. What the rational life is we can only learn from experience, and experience is, I think, decidedly against the view that nothing but my own or society’s happiness forms part of it. And experience should be taken whole and as it stands, not truncated in the interests of a theory.

A final difficulty remains. If the conception of the ultimately rational life cannot be fully realized, either in the lives of individuals or in the life of society as a whole, is it finally realizable as a life at all? Can there be anywhere, in the earth or out of it, a life of pure rationality unalloyed? That is, however, only to ask if what is ultimate for ethics may not turn out from the point of view of a higher science to be a merely partial and illusory apprehension of absolute reality. And the question is for metaphysics, not for morals. It may be that no life could ever be made actually one with the ideal, but, for morality at least, the reality is such an ideal, and the most real life is the life which most nearly approximates to it, while it need not surprise us |371| if we should one day discover that our moral ideals are not ultimately true, any more than it disconcerts us to know that all our physical science rests on a necessary basis of fiction. For “the truth is the whole,” and the life of purposive action but a part, and it cannot hold good in the end for speculation, though it very well may in practice — πλέον ἥμισυ παντός {half is better than the whole.}

1^ Cf. Plato, “Euthydemus,” 292e.

2^ Plato, “Philebus,” 65d.

Top ↑

Alfred Edward Taylor
British idealist philosopher
Fellow, Merton College, Oxford 1891–1896
Frothingham Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, McGill University 1903–1908, Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of St. Andrews 1908–1924
Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Edinburgh 1924–1941



Taylor, Alfred E. “Self-Realization — A Criticism,” International Journal of Ethics, Vol. VI. No. 3, 1898. This work is in the Public Domain.