Layers of Being

Last night I was reading an article in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, titled “Me, Myself and I.”  In this article, the author, Dr. Uwe Herwig states that human beings experience “Layers of Self-Awareness” (Herwig, 2010).  Dr. Herwig writes,

“To begin with, there is the ability to recognize one’s own face and body and to know what those body parts are doing at any given moment.  There is also the sense of ownership–you perceive your body as belonging to you–and the sense of agency: you feel responsible for your own movements and actions.  And at the highest level, there is the awareness of one’s own emotions and the ability to link disparate life experiences to a stable self-image.” (Herwig, 2010)

I was instantly reminded of Rudolf Steiner’s fourfold human being; the four bodies being the physical, etheric, astral, and the ego or “I”.  (I don’t have a source for the following material, other than my own knowledge based on various conversations with others.  My daughter attended a Waldorf school for kindergarten, and I took a year-long professional development course for early childhood educators that dealt, in part, with Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, otherwise known as anthroposophy. )  According to Steiner, the physical body is simply that–a physical body.  For me, it was helpful to compare these bodies to something, so I will do that here, for illustrative purposes.  So, the physical body is what we share with all the inorganic material in the universe.  For example, we share the characteristic of the physical body with a rock.  The etheric body is the life force.  We share the etheric body with plants.  So, plants have both a physical body an an etheric body.  They have form, and they are alive, whereas the rock is not.  The astral body is the body of impulses and desires.  We share the astral body with animals.  The astral body is somewhat linked to instinct.  The last body, the ego or “I”, is something that, Steiner asserts, is something that human beings alone can possess.  Human beings, unlike animals, can regulate their impulses and desires, and this is done by the ego.  This table, which I stole from, is particularly helpful:

I see a strong connection between what Rudolf Steiner says about the four bodies, and what Dr. Herwig is saying about the Layers of Self-Awareness (and, for that matter, what Freud says about the Id, Ego, and Super-ego, which I will discuss in a minute).  Herwig’s, “ability to recognize one’s own face and body” is very similar to Steiner’s “etheric body”, his “sense of agency” can be compared to Steiner’s “astral body”, and his ” awareness of one’s own emotions” could be connected to Steiner’s “I”.  I find it so fascinating that all of these people (and many more) are saying exactly the same thing, just in different ways.

For example, Freud talked about the “Id” or “pleasure principle”, nothing more than a mass of instincts and impulses (sounds a lot like the astral body to me).  Of the next level, the ego, Freud writes, “The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions” (Freud, 1927).  This is very similar to Steiner’s “I” and Herwig’s “awareness”.  Freud also discusses the “Super-ego”, which is a sort of overlord that punishes the “self” for its misdeeds.  I don’t see any connection to either of the other works in this regard; I believe this aspect of the theory is one of Freud’s more strange personal demons.  To me, it seems like the force at work in the Super-ego is actually just a human emotion–guilt–which has come to the forefront of consciousness through the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

All of this strikes me as profoundly fascinating.  Of course, I could be more scientific, but I am not a scientist.  I am trying to find a connection that rises above reductionism.  So, the fact that three men, from very different backgrounds, developed theories of “self” that are very similar leads me to believe that there is some kernel of truth hidden in all three theories. I can see how Steiner is undoubtedly saying very much what Dr. Herwig and Freud were saying, just using a different vocabulary and different imagery in order to create the same basic picture of the multi-faceted “I”.  I’m looking forward to exploring this further, and perhaps creating some kind of chart that will illustrate not only these three theories, but the many others that exist, and try to find how they compare to one another.

Herwig, U. (2010, July/August). Me, myself and i. Scientific American Mind, 21(3), 59-63.

Freud, S. (1927) The ego and the id (J. Riviere, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923).

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Kelli Ann Wilson

Kelli lives in rural New Hampshire with her husband Damian and their two children. She works as a writer, and in her free time enjoys reading, gardening, taking pictures, walking in the woods, and celebrating the seasons of nature and the feasts, festivals, and holy days of the Christian year.

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