In the peer-reviewed psychotherapy journal “Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis,” John Rowan published a paper that attempts to reconcile the philosophy of existentialism and the theory of the “Dialogical Self.”

WARNING: This article may seem esoteric and overly-technical, so please forgive any simplification as an attempt to make it more accessible.

The idea of the “Dialogical Self” is one which recognizes that there are multiple “voices” engaging internally to narrate a given situation so that the person may arrive at a decision. These voices may be competing, or even contradictory. They have also been called “sub-personalities.”

The philosophy of existentialism – put as simply as possible – is the thought-framework that “existence precedes essence,” or that what exists in the “here and now” is more meaningful than the concept of the transcendent or metaphysical “ideal being.”

The dialogical self theory has recognized that conflict, cooperation, or both can occur internally, but the theory does no harm to the ultimate being of the individual.

In existential language, multiple voices – especially when they contradict each other – does harm to the notion of the existential individual. As Rowan reminds us, “Existentialism is famous for emphasizing the real self, the true self, the authentic self – and of course there can be only one of those per person.”

But Rowan is smart enough to know that we often engage internally with a point-counterpoint “dialog” (hence, “dialogical self”). And as a committed existentialist, he attempts to reconcile this paradox.

An ontologist – one who recognizes the superiority of “being,” or “essence,” over the volatile and suggestible “existence” at a given moment – understands that these “sub-personalities,” are simply components – or accidens – of the whole being or quiddity (the “whatness” of a thing). There is no conflict. The essence rules the hic et nunc, and we exist (in whatever manifestation) always inside of that essence.

For example, we may manifest our essence exerting confidence and outgoing, or by being introverted and timid – and we may do so differently in different situations. But no harm is done to the ultimate essence of our own individuality.

What existentialists are now arguing is that these “sub-personalities” are actual independent entities in their own right – not content to be a part of the “larger self,” but to be considered “selfs” in and of themselves. As Rowan argues, “we have a theory which says that I-positions [another name for “sub-personalities”] are normal, that I-positions are temporarily real, and perhaps most surprisingly, that each I-position is a real self” [emphasis added].

This is absurd, but it is also dangerous.

Rowan continues his point by reminding the reader of an existential psychoanalytic viewpoint, “that the person changes in each interaction: the person I meet is not the same person that another therapist, or a friend, or an assessor, may meet.”

Of course we know that people may act differently to different people – i.e., to different stimuli – but Rowan is not simply saying we adjust our “self” to our surroundings, but rather that each manifestation of our “self” is a distinct and independent “self” or person! “In other words,” Rowan says, “we are now saying that authenticity as a concept does not require the real self to be separate and unique – there are plenty of them and to spare” [emphasis added].

Why this matters:

Psychotherapy has enjoyed a exponential growth in influence over society, culture, and civilization. Psychiatrists are routinely called on to consult in a variety of situations, especially in the pursuit of justice through our legal system.

And while very few people call themselves “Existentialists,” many facets of the field of psychiatry is greatly influenced by the philosophy. The existential influence is indeed growing, as is evidenced by the increased rejection of the Freudian concept of the “unconscious,” just as did Jean-Paul Sartre – the godfather of existentialism.

I think it can be safely argued that psychiatrists have more influence today than philosophers do – and have in many cases been allowed to replace philosophers as the experts on “thinking”. Thus, when psychoanalytic theories are presented, the have the potential to alter the intellectual zeitgeist. (Remember, only a few decades ago, homosexuality was reclassified from being a mental illness, and it wasn’t until 1987 that it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The case can be made that psychiatrists are and have been the drivers of cultural thought and acceptance toward this.)

So what does all this influence mean about the reconciliation of the “dialogical self” and existential thought?

In an era in which self-identification is elevated to a transcendent status – i.e., it occurs completely outside the normal rules of generalization and classification – we now face a psychotherapeutic argument that would allow individuals to self-identify as different and distinct “persons” in different situations, each of which must be accepted for “what it is.”

In legal terms, what I infer from Rowan, with his concept of “multiple selfs,” is that an individual must be judged on the circumstances of his or her existent “self” that is in question. As an application, Rowan had patients assume different “selfs” in an attempt to reconcile moral conflict. A mother that had terminated her baby with a mental illness was encouraged to assume the “Self” of the baby in an attempt to gain forgiveness for overwhelming guilt. In the end, with much coaching, the mother’s version of the “baby” absolved  her from blame and responsibility for her choice.

As an hypothetical, though, what I also infer is that if an individual must be judged on the circumstances of the existent “self” in question, is that we can rationalize any behavior. If an individual decides to shoot a baseball field full of Republican congressmen because they were acting out the “self” that was defending what was dearest to them – as a father would his children – it’s not too far a leap to argue that the action was not one of homicide, but one of self defense.

To Rowan, I would only ask this: what circumstances determine which “existent self” manifests outwardly or internally at any given time? If the answer is the individual, then that entity must by definition be superior to, and not mutually exclusive from, the existent self. If the answer is that internal and outward manifestations of “self-ness” are determined only by physical causes and reactions, then that is a horrifying proposition that absolves everyone of any responsibility to themselves and to each other.