Sometime just after the first year of life, an infant will look into a mirror and recognize for the first time, this thing we refer to as “self”. It’s not too surprising that around the same time children will also start using words like me, mine, dada, mama, and the favorite expression of all two-year-olds, no!
These two events, the reference to the idea of self and the grammar of language, are not unrelated. Although it might seem that we merely use words to refer to a reality, many psycholinguists and philosophers think, as did Martin Heidegger, that “man acts as though he were the shaper of language, while, in fact language remains the master of man.”
The word “no” is an act of distinction. To utter “no!” one must have some suspicion of their potential control over others and the manipulation of their environment. Gestating inside the pregnant word “mine” is the understanding of possession and control.
The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, pointed out that during this mirror phase, we have a fall from grace; an exiting of the blissful, infant Garden of Eden, where no distinction is made between me and m/other. In fact, it is at this very moment when we realize our own nakedness, that Lacan claims all of our worldly woes begin.
In philosophy, this idea that we can think about our self is sometimes called the subject/object split (S/O for short). At the moment of mirror-recognition, I am at once the object of my subjectivity. We find examples of humans who do not experience the S/O in feral children (children neglectfully raised without learning language). These children do not cognitively develop beyond a very basic understanding of the self.
We take the idea that we are subjects amongst objects quite literally. Most of us live captivated-in-an-acceptedness that there is a subjective world (how warm or cold it feels) and an objective world (what the number is on the thermometer). Oddly, we live in an age when we privilege the objective world over the phenomenal experience. If I am hot or cold is often less relevant than what the thermometer reads. Or is it?
When we hear certain teachings from the Buddhist tradition of “losing the ego,” I think that we come close to what Heidegger and Lacan were describing. Loss of ego is not ego in the sense of self-importance, but rather its Latin etymology of self. Losing one’s self is forgetting for a moment, the S/O that exhausts us in our daily lives. If we consider those who have lost themselves in helping others, we might get a glimpse of what it means to transcend the ego.
Similarly, we can understand what the Buddhist tradition calls the illusion of reality in the S/O split. We take the objective as the real (the temperature in the room) while living the reality of the virtual (how we experience, phenomenologically, the room to feel). We are living in a struggle between what I experience and what I know. Perhaps this is what we sometimes refer to as thinking and intuiting?
We have forgotten the reality of our pre-mirror phase existence. We cannot ask the infant because they do not yet have the words to speak reality. But we can, as both Western and Eastern thinkers suggest, remain aware of the uncertainty of our certainties.