James, William. 1890. "The Self And Its Selves" (161-166).

James’ piece elaborates on the constituents, or selves, that create one cohesive “self. What people associate with the terms “I,” “me,” and “mine,” can all in some way or another be associated with an investment of self to some degree or another. James claims that the understanding of Self can be separated into three categories: “1. Its constituents; 2. The feelings and emotions they arouse,—Self-feelings; 3. The actions to which they prompt,—Self-seeking and Self-preservation” (James 1890, 162). The first category, the constituents that constitute Self can then be further divided into sub-categories of “a. The material Self; b. The social Self; c. The spiritual Self; and d. The pure Ego” (James 1890, 162). James then further explicates each of the four aforementioned sub-categories.

The material Self is constituted by: our bodies, clothes, immediate family, and home. It is it to these things, according to James, that we are the most deeply affected by because of our investments of self within these things. The more we invest of ourselves in these objects, the more attached to them we inevitably are to them.

A man’s social Self is configured based upon our interactions with society and the reactions of others that are analyzed in order to contribute to our idea of a social Self. Within this notion of the social Self, there are multiple divergences; which version of Self is present is contingent upon which of a particular social group one finds one’s self in. Seemingly, possessing multiple social Selves and maintaining the right face depending on social situation can be chaotic or harmonious. In attempts to maintain order between different variations of social Self, an individual’s sense of “fame” or “honor” regulates and determines what behaviors are or not moral, reasonable or honorable.

The next constituent is said by James to be the most intimate self, the spiritual Self. James claims that it is the most intimate version of self because the satisfaction experienced when one thinks of one’s “ability to argue and discriminate, of our [one’s] moral sensibility, and conscience, of our indomitable will” (James 1890, 164) is more pure than other sentiments of satisfaction. Then, James describes a number of bodily processes in which becoming introspective can make the acts entirely mindful, conscious processes—furthering our understanding of an intimate, spiritual self.

Finally, James addresses the last and “most puzzling aspect of the self,” (1980, 165) the Pure ego. While different schools of thought have all reached differing conclusions regarding the Ego, James begins to describe it by first addressing the deciphering of a personal identity. The first part of understanding the Ego comes with understanding that it can recognize its own thoughts; the thoughts that belong to one’s own Ego can be recognized and possess a warmth that thoughts possessed by a separate ego does not. This constructed consciousness then works in conjunction with subjective synthesis, a concept that is essential to thinking and is the act of bringing thoughts together (even if only to contrast them and realize the thoughts no longer belong together). In understanding the entirety of the Ego’s functions, however, one must recall that personal identity is perceived sameness and can ultimately be feeling—not fact.


  1. William James. 1842-1910. Psychologist/semi-philosopher (pragmatism). Born into literary elite. ‘Principles of Psychology’ (1890).
  2. This essay: attempt to classify dimensions of self; “classic formulation of the idea of a social self, described against three other parts of self”(Lemert 2010, 161).
  3. There’s a distinction, though subtle, between what is “me” and “mine,” “us” and “ours.” Often, we feel equally strongly about both categories.
  4. “Self” is comprised of all that we CAN call ours; when these things prosper, happiness is elicited and when they dwindle, we feel “cast down.”
    1. “Self” is comprised of three parts: its constituents (b), self-feelings and self-seeking/self preservation
    2. Constituents are made of two classes:
  5. The material self
  6. Social self
  7. Spiritual self
  8. Pure Ego
  9. The material self is comprised of: our body, clothes, immediate family, and home.
    1. We are the most deeply affected by these things.
  10. We are instinctively driven to acquire property; the more we invest ourselves in these objects, the more attached we are to them.
  11. The social self is configured based upon our interactions with society and peoples’ reaction to us.
  12. Distinct group in one’s life all compose a different social self for an individual. Possessing and adhering to multiple selves can be chaotic or harmonious.
  13. The most volatile, through “elation” and “dejection,” social self we experience is that with an individual we are in love with.
  14. An individual’s “fame” or “honor” is the “self” which regulates and deems behavior moral, reasonable or honorable.
  15. The spiritual self is our “psychic faculties or dispositions” (James 1890, 164), as well as our most intimate portion of self.
    1. Alienatus a se.

Introspection leads to spiritual self as mere consciousness.

  1. Attending sensations, in this case seeing (vision), can be and are inherently conscious experiences that can be described.
  2. Reflecting upon said vision incites a feeling (like when sleeping) of withdrawal when in fact the seeing consciously is the opposite.
  3. Accurately being mindful of the processes of consenting and negating, as well as describing them, is more difficult.
  4. “Spiritual activity…is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked” (James 1890, 165).
  5. The Pure Ego is most complex and different schools of thought have reached differing conclusions in regards to describing.
  6. The thoughts that belong to own Ego can be recognized and possess a warmth; thoughts that are possessed by someone else’s ego do not.
  7. Pieces that all belong to same Ego can evoke ideas of “subjective phenomenon” or “objective deliverance, or as a truth” (James 1890, 166).
  8. Subjective phenomenon declares the concept of “sameness.” Ex. “I am the same,” “the pen is the same,” or “neither I nor the pen is the same” (James 1890, 166).
  9. Subjective synthesis is essential to thinking and is the act of bringing thoughts together—even if only to contrast and realize they don’t belong together.
  10. Personal identity is the perceived sameness (by thought) and can be feeling as opposed to fact.
  11. Inner-sense of self that does the moving from branch to branch—not branches to self.


JAMES, WILLIAM. 1890. “The Self and Its Selves.” Pp. 161-166 in Social Theory: The Multicultural Readings (2010) edited by C. Lemert. Philadelphia: Westview Press.

Original source: JAMES, WILLIAM. 1890. Pp. 279-283, 287-288, and 314-316 in The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1. edited by Frederick Burkhardt, general ed., and Fredson Bowers, textual ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

(See Lemert 2010, 161 for “original source” citation*)

In accordance with DJJR:




James, William. 1890. "The Self and Its Selves" (Lemert pp. 161-166)

This excerpt is from Chapter X "Consciousness of Self" of James' Principles of Psychology (1890). Full text available here. It is the most amazing 120 year old book you'll ever read.


  1. Start with everyday understandings of self and move on to abstract detail. (161.5)
  2. The line between "me" and "mine" is a fuzzy one. (161.7)
  3. Most generally, self is all that one can call one's own. Ideas, material things, relationships, etc. (161.9)
  4. Three parts: constituent "things"; emotions they arouse; actions they prompt. (162.5)
  5. Constituents = material Self + social Self + spriitual Self + pure Ego (162.4)
  6. Material self = body + clothes + family + material property (162.7)
  7. Social Self = recognition one gets from others. As many Selves as there are groups of Others who recognize one. (163.3)
  8. The social self vis a vis someone you love has special characteristics — without the recognition, one may cease to "be" (163.7)
  9. Social selves take form of honor or reputation with respect to particular groups. "Club-opinion" (164) an important force. (163.9)
  10. Spiritual self refers to our inner thoughts, or "moral sensibility" and "conscience" but "spiritual" is almost not quite the right word. (164.3)
  11. In attending to thoughts, I sense "movement" in my head. (164,6)
  12. Thinking (attending, negating, assenting…) feels like a looking around in the head. (164.8)
  13. We experience it all as moving body parts and emotions… (165.1)
  14. The "feeling" of the "spiritual" activity is a feeling of "bodily" movements. (165.5)
  15. Lots of different ideas about the pure ego — the fundamental "what is it?" of the mind (165.8)
  16. Start with "sense of personal identity": one KNOWS the difference between one's own thoughts and others. (165.9)
  17. We can look at objectively or subjectively. (166.1)
  18. Subjectively its a simple matter of judging sameness. (166.3)
  19. There's a difference between bringing things together in a thought about them and having them be together (or same) in the world. (166.5)
  20. Personal identity is the thinking of as "same" of my various selves. We feel it, but is that objectively true? (166.7)

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James shows that the self has structures, facets, that it has social parts, that the experience of its coherence is analyzable.



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