Concept of Self in Social Sciences and Humanities

By Dr. Meraj Ahmad

The term ‘self’ denotes a person’s essential being which distinguishes him from others. Self also differentiates a person from other objects of nature and cosmos. Self is both a mystical and mysterious entity.

Concept of ‘Self’ in Social Sciences

  1. Psychology: Wiliams James (Principles of Psychology), G.H. Mead (Mind, Self and Society), Ernst Cassirer (An Essay on Man) and other psychologists have studied the structure, nature and development of self and man. They have postulated a mutual relationship between the origin and development of self and the ongoing social processes around them.
  2. Sociology: C.H. Cooley (Human Nature and the Social Order) has studied the emergence and growth of self in the individual. Cooley has stressed the role of social interaction and communication in the origin and development of self. Thomas and Zananiecki (The Polish Peasant) also demonstrate the causal relationship between self and society.

The major insights gained by the above-mentioned psychologists and sociologists can be summarized as follows:

  1. Self is the distinguished attribute of man.
  2. Self is the core or crux of a man’s personality.
  3. Self relates individual and other individuals while keeping its individuality intact.
  4. Self co-ordinates the feelings of “I” and “me” and other ramifications linked with the same. Thus, self helps in forming a personal and social universe for the individual.
  5. Self is not innate or inborn (natural). It is the product of social interaction in face-to- face situation in small groups, known as primary groups or in-groups.
  6. Communication through language, symbols and gestures plays a key role in the development of self in the individual.
  7. Self, besides projecting and preserving the distinct identity of man, also serves as an intrinsic mirror to show to the man his real psychic profile and social portrait, and consequently, producing in him the feelings of pride, esteem, guilt and shame.
  8. Self is fortified by spiritual pursuits, meditation, ideation and heart-searching. It is enriched by cultural and artistic activities. Art and culture liberate self from odds and barriers of ignorance, bias and prejudice.
  9. Fortified and enriched ‘self’ stands for self-respect, self-reliance, self-determination, creative-self expression, self-possession, freedom, equality and equity.
  10. Desire for attaining spiritual eminence, moral excellence and literary and artistic efflorescence is rooted in self.

Self as Epitome of Freedom

Freedom is quintessence of self. Freedom denotes the right to act or speak freely. Freedom is looked upon as the Pole Star of human soul. Breaking the fetters of slavery and living a life free from all external constraints is the intrinsic desire of every individual having a developed self. Differently speaking, the self of an individual aspires for right of self-determination and self-expression. Man wants to become the maker of his destiny and shaper of his future by his creative exertions couched in freedom and spontaneous activity. Thus, freedom is the supreme value and paramount ideal of human psyche. The self of man is deeply rooted in the ethos of freedom. Milton says, “It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven” (Paradise Lost).

Concept of Self in Humanities

The concept of self finds variegated expression in Urdu and Persian poetry and the literature of other languages. Meer, Ghalib, Sauda, Zauq, Aatish, Nasikh, Josh, Jigar, Sahir, Faiz and others have vented their feelings about self (Khudi). They have eulogized self and extolled its virtues and merits.

Self and Mysticism: The Doctrine of Solipsism

            The attribute of self constitutes the essence of mysticism. The mystics of South East Asia and India are universally revered for the esteem and respect they accorded to their ‘self’. They refused to yield before the power and grandeur bestowed by wealth and affluence. They ruled like emperors in beggary and attained nobility and celebrity in poverty through self-accomplishment and self-respect.

A doctrine has been developed by some mystics and poets that postulates ‘self’ is the only real thing known to exist. This doctrine is known as Solipsism. Due to his highly evolved self, the famous mystic Mansoor Hallaj used to say: ‘Annal Haq’ (I am God). Another mystic Sarmad was so infatuated and obsessed with his ‘self’ that he denied the existence of any external reality or force. He averred repeatedly: ‘La Ilaha’ (there is no any extrinsic reality). Sarmad strongly believed in self which was the intrinsic abode of the universal consciousness known as God. Iqbal was deeply influenced by the doctrine of Solipsism. The following couplets of Iqbal show his fascination for the attribute of self (Khudi).

  1. “ Khudi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdeer se pehle

        Khuda bande se khud pooche, bata teri raza kya hai”

       (Elevate your ‘Self’ to such an extent

       That God Himself asks “what do you want (aspire for)?”)

  1. “Khudi ko na de seem-o-zar ke evaz

  Nahin dete shola, sharar ke evaz”

  (Don’t sell your ‘Self’ for gold and silver

   As Flame is not exchanged with a Spark)

  1. “Ye mauje nafas kya hai talwar hai

  Khudi kya hai talwar ki dhaar hai

  Khudi kya hai raaz-e-daroone hayat

  Khudi kya hai bedari-e-kaenaat

  Khudi ka nasheman tere dil mein hai

  Falak jis tarah aankh ke til mein hai”

 (The wave of breath is like a sword

 And the ‘Self’ is the sharpness of the sword!

‘Self’ signifies the secret hidden in the core of life

‘Self’ denotes the awakening of the Universe

The dwelling of your ‘Self’ is in your Heart

As the sky is in the eyeball of your Eye)


To conclude, ‘self’ is the invaluable attribute and priceless asset of man. The original and fundamental aim of theology, morality, education and socialization has been the development and ennoblement of self. Modern education is deviating more and more from this basic humanitarian goal. This is the root cause of prevailing malaise and morass in Indian society.

About the Author: The writer is Professor of Sociology (Retd.), University of Lucknow, India. His areas of specialization are Sociology of Development and Modernization, Sociology of Literature and Political Sociology. His research interests include Sociology of Development, Indian Society and Culture as well as Theory of Cultural Dynamics in which he has published more than 100 articles in journals of national and international repute. He is the author of two well-known books and has several chapters/reviews in edited books to his credit. He is an avid reader and his free time activities include listening to music and writing poetry and prose. 

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