What is a finite self?

Take a look at whatever you call your “self”. Is it an entity with hard, permanent boundaries?

In my own experience, awareness extends across conceptual spaces that could be called fields, divided by boundaries that might be called discontinuities in awareness.

Michael Polanyi described a particular type of boundary in a series of publications in the 1960s. He introduced the theory of tacit knowledge, where information tacitly known at one level of reality is the basis of explicit understanding at a higher level. For example, whenever we read a text we are tacitly perceiving all the letters but normally notice only of the words or sentences that they spell. Many such levels may exist in a hierarchy, such as letters forming words according to rules of spelling, that form sentences according to the rules of grammar, that in turn carry meanings according to semantic rules.

Each level is a field containing a consistent set of concepts that is incomplete in that it allows its boundary to be ruled by the next higher level. The lower or proximal field contains things known tacitly but the distal field consists of things that are known explicitly, or are still unknown. The proximal field is experienced as self, the distal field as not-self or in other words the external world. For the purpose of this discussion I’ll call these Polanyi boundaries.

The old truism that anything has both an inside and an outside aspect is rediscovered from time to time. For example, the botanist Agnes Arber wrote that “The fact that each organism is both a unity intrinsic to itself, and also an integral part of the nexus which is the Whole, informs it with a basic duality.”

The subjective experience of being a self and separate from an external world – that is, the rest of the universe – was analysed by Gerbode in terms of the theory of tacit knowing. We tacitly know such things as the movement of our voluntary muscles, ideas with which we have identified, skills that have been learned and experiences internalised. All these things are within the aggregate that we think of as self. The other things that we perceive are considered to be separate from the self and therefore parts of an external world.

Another type of boundary that exists between opposing postulates in the mind was described by Stephens as occurring where postulate pairs such as “must know” and “must not be known” meet head-on like opposite flows forming a ridge, a mass that we experience as sensation. Such ridges might be called Stephens boundaries. Moreover, since one self-consciousness cannot simultaneously hold contradictory postulates, the boundary may effectively divide the mind into two fields that function as if they were independent entities.

Please note that I’m using the term postulate here to mean a causative thought, following the usage of Stephens and Gerbode, and before them of Hubbard. This isn’t quite the usual meaning of the term in English. Unfortunately, English doesn’t have any word that captures this concept exactly, and the Buddha’s Pali term saṅkhāra would be more precise. In Buddhist philosophy, saṅkhāra does not depend on self-consciousness but is actually a precondition for that consciousness.

At first sight, a Stephens boundary appears to separate a pair of entities that are both on the same level. The pair of postulates that define their boundary are not immediately recognisable as a rule imposed from a higher level that defines the boundary of the lower one.

But a Stephens boundary can also be seen as an instance of a Polanyi boundary. Both types of boundary represent an inconsistency that marks the limit of an internally consistent field. In fact, the contradictions between postulates are the source of the incompleteness or inconsistency that marks the boundary.

A pair of exactly opposed postulates forms a unity, just like the two ends of the same stick. More importantly, any Stephens boundary actually has higher and lower sides like a Polanyi boundary. The stick has a proximal and a distal end relative to the observer’s viewpoint.

The proximal field is experientially a self, which is normally a lower level field than the corresponding not-self. Self (the field of what we tacitly know) is a small portion of the whole universe (the field of what we explicitly know + what we tacitly know + everything that exists beyond our knowledge). In our everyday experience, the universe of discourse is whatever we perceive as the whole world. Any thing that we can readily view, including ourselves, is much smaller than the universe. Brotherhood with the universe can be a heady feeling when meditating under the summer stars, but taking that feeling too literally is the road to megalomania.

Any thing that we call our tacitly known “self” is an instance of what Stephens called a junior universe – an object that is selected as one side of a dichotomy, leaving the rest of the universe on the other side. Compulsive game playing compartmentalises a person into progressively smaller junior universes by successive dichotomies.

Could it be that a subjective sense of self arises from opposed postulates? If one being cannot hold both postulates simultaneously, there would be a division into self and not-self. The field of not-self can then be subdivided into various objects and even other living beings known as “them” or “you”.

Conversely, resolving the postulate opposition would resolve the perceived boundary of a self. An experimental test of this hypothesis would be to erase some contradictory postulates from one’s mind and observe what happens to the sense of self. Does it expand?



Arber, A. (1954) The Mind and the Eye: A study of the biologist’s standpoint. (Cambridge University Press).

Gerbode, F.A. (2013) Beyond Psychology: an Introduction to Metapsychology. 4th edn (Applied Metapsychology International Press: Ann Arbor).

Polanyi, M. (1968) Life’s irreducible structure. Science 160: 1308-1312.

Stephens, D.H. (1979) The Resolution of Mind: A Games Manual. (privately published: Sydney).


One Comment on “What is a finite self?”

  1. DM says:

    Lots of interesting info in this post. I think its also worth considering that any division of self and non self is caused through a comparison to some earlier reference, wheres the true self exists before any reference and is revealed when we stop comparing completely. So we are not dividing our actual self into self and non self, rather we are creating both the self and non self through comparison. I think if we put the comparison mode at bay completely, we would not be able to experience any division between self and non self.

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