Am I a “Self” or an”Organism”?

Self or Organism. Which word would you use to refer to yourself and other individuals?

Self  has a long history of helping us call attention to ourselves. Its earliest root several thousand years ago seems to have been a pronoun that referred back to the subject for emphasis, roughly like saying he himself. Today it evokes the uniqueness and separateness of a single person or a group (ourselves). The Wiktionary list of 242 self- prefix words, such as self-image and self-confident, is a sprawling catalog of all that we do, think, and feel that involve ourselves in any way. And added to these are the many phrases like true self, my old self, sense of self, and of course selfie.

self (

For many people, self is an essential vocabulary item for reflecting on who they are, how they relate to others, and how they see themselves changing over time.  Phrases such as be yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself are popular tips for surviving in a culture that expects all its members to strive toward individuality.

But for others, self is an illusion that is no help at all. For them, the term conjures up a non-existent entity that demands constant attention and cuts us off from the present moment that we actually live in.

Organism is not an obvious alternative. The technical-sounding word refers not just to humans but to bacteria, whales, trees and every other living thing. Its earliest root meant to do, a sense that is closely preserved in the word work and more loosely in organize and orgy. Organism highlights the material structures and organization of an entity that is actively doing what living things do: growing, responding, reproducing, sustaining itself. In its concreteness, the term seems almost the opposite of the ghost-like self.

But the comparison between organism and self can take some unexpected turns. Wikipedia’s article on organism tells us that “there is a long tradition of defining organisms as self-organizing beings”—my italics. It adds that debates about the definition of organism  have included the suggestion that the term “may well not be adequate in biology.” In science, the self, as some kind of template of organization, may not be quite so dispensable after all.

I asked a friend who is psychologically acute and spiritually oriented which term she preferred for referring to individual people, including herself. For her, organism, even though its source is the immaterial Oneness that everything originates from and returns to, is a more usable term than self. The latter is vague, negative, an expression of our appetite for a specialness that separates us from that Oneness. Given my friend’s spiritual perspective, her preference for the “scientific” term surprised me a little at first, but only briefly.

Conversely, I recently heard the research biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough use self instead of organism in speaking biologically about “the animal self” and the responses of all “selves” (including bacteria) to their environment. Though it was unexpected to hear her discuss single-celled creatures as selves , the term fit effectively in her explanations of how living things know if they are well off or not, pursue what they need, avoid toxic substances, and repair bodily damage.

The preference for self or organism seems to depend on one’s view of the essential nature of being alive.

These days, I find myself liking organism. There is something clean about the word that suits my inclination to de-clutter my psyche and some of my life issues. The word seems to put all its cards on the table. The “I” part of the Brock organism (the irreducible self, I admit) wants to keep this brain, this heart, these connections with other people, all going along for as long as possible. And with organism I’m free of any of the old business about a true self versus a fake self, about losing oneself in something or being alienated from oneself; about the different sides of the self, deserving and undeserving selves, the blessed and the damned, centuries of European agonizing over the clashing selves.

Selves are cultivated, the product of cultures. Organisms are maintained, products of the cosmos and Earth’s marvelous chain of the self-sustaining. High expectations of my Self at my age don’t ring true, to me; have I “made a difference” (but nearly everyone does), do I “have no regrets” (but I do), am I “wise” (hah)? No thanks. I feel good and grateful enough about the extraordinary experience of being a human organism.

6 thoughts on “Am I a “Self” or an”Organism”?

  1. Our organism-selves are complex. Not surprising then that single words don’t fit. How mind emerges from physics is a mystery we may never solve. I think what you are getting at here is somehow related to that problem. Put another way, how does self emerge from organism. I like to vacilate between the two like someone trying to see both the white vase and the two red faces at the same time.

    Thanks for your thoughts about this.


  2. Years ago in a Tunisian oasis , I talked to several women who were bedouin nomads. The mother and daughter had the same names. Neither had seen themselves in a mirror. They talked about each other as if they were an extended organism, a continuous self that ran along a chain of ancestors. They felt they were extensions of nature-deserts, trees, springs, weather, skies. While they herded camels and goats, they knew they could not survive without them. They were a unit. The world was too big for selves. Allah filled the world. His omnipresent eye
    was everywhere. The bedouins spoke to the djinns who inhabited the rocks, the whirlwinds, the underground springs. An empty world filled with beings. Surrender or be lost.
    Which is my preference over self or organism. The experience of being is a conscious and mostly unconscious experience of a body in the world of other bodies and beings. Imaginary yet palpable.
    As has been offered, our definitions are shaped by our desire for comfort in the face of meaninglessness and extinction. We are nurturing and grieving primates with an overgrown cortex. Our brains go unconscious when the shocks of existence are too great. We are beings that create and experience meanings through language. Fun but overwhelming. In exasperation we often seek to find a “solution” that will get us through life and dying. Whether we chose Buddhism or evolution or everything I just said,perhaps we fumble through our unique experiences of being(s) with less agency than we realize.
    I have never been”comfortable” with the concept of a spirit separate from the body. Not only does it make no sense to me in this age of science, but my losses of loved ones make me angry that others think my loved ones are still around(in other bodies or as spirits). Through the agony of loss and grief is a doorway to repair and to continue :through my living memory my dead family and friends continue to live in me, in my finite being, until Into, no longer continue. Atleast for now. Who knows what thoughts will arise next? Are we our thoughts or do they just”happen”?
    It seems that societies have corralled the ideas of self for their own manipulative purposes. Tithing, consumerism, control. Perhaps this is what disturbs me more than the existential questions- the coercive bundling of meanings to control others with ideological systems. Original sin. Hell. Bardos. Self-esteem. Reason. Science. Etc. Etc.
    Meanwhile who is this”I” in this reply? Don’t ask”me”!


    • Beautiful. Thank you. I’ve been rereading this, especially the opening about the Tunisian women and your perception of selves and organisms in their world. I agree that we have less agency in our experience and thoughts about these things than we like to think. I would put it that we process information, including self-image, as best we can to get us through, whether we like it or not. You highlight a different and more appealing angle on this idea–that we are organisms in search of self–in search of the meaning and comfort that, we think, selves might discover.

      Thanks again.


  3. From a biological perspective, organism to me has always referred to the rather banal definition as a complete individual life form with interdependent parts [organs or organelles] that carry out specialized functions for the organism. A form and function kind of definition. In immunology, we refer to self and non-self in a strictly material manner in that everything that is out there that is not you is non-self. Thus while I would agree that I am an organism, that is not what I would use to define who I am. I also agree with Eric – single words probably don’t fit. I like the phrase human being – the human part defines us as a specific type of organism, and the being part sums up all of the rest of our characteristics that make us who we are, including our personal understanding of what self means.


  4. Thank you. This is helpful. The immunological, material sense of self and non-self is interesting–thought it’s difficult for me as a non-scientist not to see it also as a description of sorts for the dilemma for all life.

    Also, I like “human being,” but I’ve wondered about the second word a lot. It does sum us up, as you say, but how far does it extend to animals, plants, microbes as well? In a way it seems essentially human, with roots in human religion. Language again.


Comments? Questions? Reactions?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s