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Components of the Self


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We are now at the end of the second week of Coursera’s Know Thyself

So I have decided to tackle another study question to help me understand the subject. Last week I tackled The Unexamined Life

This weeks question is;
Please explain, with the aid of examples, the four main components of the self that we have isolated thus far: cognitive, affective, experiential, and character traits. Are any of these components more amenable to introspection than others? Please explain your answer. Finally, explain why some hold there to be an asymmetry between my knowledge of my introspectible states, and my knowledge of others’ introspectible states.

According to the lectures by Mitchell Green there are four main components which I will briefly describe here;

This basically means what you know, information and also memory. For example you know that Paris is the capital of France and you remember learning this at school.

Emotions and moods make up the affective component but there is a difference between the two.

Mood is a temporary state of mind or feeling

Oxford Dictionaries

Emotions can be described as

a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.

Oxford Dictionaries

The difference between them is substance. Moods don’t have substance. You can be in a particular mood, ie anxious, and not necessarily have a reason for being in that state of mind. On the other hand an emotion is about something; sad because someone has upset you, angry because you missed your train, happy because you have been told you are getting a pay raise.

Things that are based on the look, taste, feel of a thing (sensations) and an experience of a thing.

Although separate the three components intertwine. For example if you are looking at a lemon you know (cognitive) it’s in front of you and the colour might remind (cognitive) you of a dress you once owned. This will then bring up happy thoughts (affective) of the holiday where you wore the dress.

Character Traits
Character traits, basically describe your personality; grumpy, easy going, highly strung etc. Character traits are not a component of the mind in the same way that cognitive, affective and experiential are but nonetheless form part of the self.

So now we have described the four components of the mind, are any of them more open to introspection compared to the others? This is something we will be studying in the coming weeks. However, I am interested in attempting to answer the question now from a layman’s point of view.

Firstly, what is introspection?

Introspection is examination of one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings.[1] In psychology the process of introspection relies exclusively on observation of one’s mental state, while in a spiritual context it may refer to the examination of one’s soul. Introspection is closely related to human self-reflection and is contrasted with external observation.


Based on this definition, and taking each of the four components of the mind, I would suggest the following;

Cognitive introspection would be the easiest as it is tangible and you can produce standardised exams to test your knowledge and memory.
Moods and emotions are still fairly easy although not as simple as cognitive. You can look back over a day or event and consider how you felt. What might be difficult is trying to pinpoint a feeling or mood if it’s not clear. You may remember feeling tense but maybe it was anxiety or trepidation or stress. Maybe it was all four. What makes it more complicated is not necessarily knowing why you felt a certain way or what caused it. You may feel a bit down, but has that been caused by a specific event? Maybe it’s a symptom of tiredness or perhaps you are coming down with something.
Experiential is another difficult, I think, component to self study. As it is based on your experience it may be tangled up in all sorts of emotions, feelings and thoughts you were undergoing at the time. It’s also age and experience related. The way you experienced something at a younger age will probably change when you look back on it later as you have changed and experienced different things since then.
Character traits are also tricky because you may consider yourself an introvert but someone else may describe you as moody. Can you really be relied upon to conduct a truly objective introspection of your own character traits?

Which leads on to the last part of the question regarding the possibility of asymmetry between my knowledge of my introspectible states, and my knowledge of others’ introspectible states.

Are we really the best judges of ourselves? In some respects no. Have you ever been asked by someone if you are okay and said “yes, why?” And they point out that you had been fidgeting, scowling, looking sad or distracted. They saw something that you may not have been aware of. On the other hand a stranger may say that their first impression of you was that you were uptight or arrogant. However, if you are shy then maybe this is how it translates to the outside world. I suppose emotions and moods are tricky so they can be misjudged or misinterpreted by others or by yourself.

It’s a big subject which I can’t cover in one post especially as I have only just started the course. But I hope to develop my understanding over the coming weeks and improve the cognitive component of my mind without short circuiting the other components!

Image by MIT OpenCourseWare



  1. Isn’t it interesting when someone that we know very well, outside of our family is able to tell us something about ourselves? Sometimes we hear things that we don’t want to know and at other times it’s nice to hear something about ourselves stated in a positive manner.
    My mentor and I have long, involved conversations. They certainly don’t happen as frequently as I would like, but when they do, it’s amazing what pearl emerge from the clam. Many of her observations about me, when voiced initially cause me to ponder. I refrain from interjecting, arguing or defending myself. I take what she sees, what I clearly do not and ponder it.
    I’m glad that you are enjoying the lectures. I live within 1/2 hour of the university. It appears as though he is taping lectures as he goes. The campus is beautiful and I look forward to his next video segment.

    • Nat Nelson says:

      I bet that is a difficult process at times. Good on you for doing it though. The campus does look amazing. Bet it’s not always that tranquil. It’s a brilliant course. I am trying to read Descartes Meditations but it’s heavy going.

  2. In the first video clip he was in an area that I pass each time that I go to the university for a concert. I am wracking my brain to locate the area for the second taping. Guess I’ll have to ask!

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