Self-Realization and Inner Necessity – Thinking about How to Live

Theories of self-realization can be divided into two groups: collectivistic and individualistic. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) developed a collectivistic notion of self-realization: human beings have the “telos” or function of acting rationally. By engaging in rational activity humans “flourish” or lead successful lives. This notion is collectivistic in two senses: it applies to all human beings, and it presupposes the social setting of the Greek city-state, or polis. The German philosopher, Hegel (1770–1831), also had a collectivistic notion. He thought that individuals are entirely constituted by their social relations, by society, and that society is constituted by individuals. Marx was very influenced by this thought, but put particular emphasis on the importance of creative work for self-realization.

Individualistic notions of self-realization were developed in the Romantic era, when people paid more attention to individual differences. The German philosopher and clergyman, Herder (1744–1803), summed up the essence of these theories when he said that each of us has an original way of being human (Taylor, 1991). Frank Sinatra expressed something very similar in his song, I Did It My Way. My own theory of self-realization is primarily individualistic, but it has a collectivist element in that I think that individuals are partly constituted by their relationships with others (not totally constituted by these relationships, as Hegel claimed).  

It is not possible to understand what self-realization is without first understanding what personal autonomy is. Personal autonomy is self-determination, or being one’s own boss. Put in more philosophical terms, it is acting on one’s own reasons, i.e. on reasons that are truly one’s own, as opposed to the reasons of others or on reasons that have been inculcated or manipulated by others. Thus a slave or a refugee living in a camp, for whom the main decisions affecting her life are taken by others, cannot be said to have personal autonomy. Personal autonomy is that dimension or aspect of self-realization which has to do with the crucial area of having reasons for one’s actions and on acting on these reasons, so that without personal autonomy the scope for self-realization is extremely limited or non-existent.

Personal autonomy, and hence the scope for self-realization, are restricted, among other things, by chance, manipulation, oppressive socialization, inner necessity and cognitive distortions.  Inner necessity will be explained below, but cognitive distortions deserve to be more widely known. They have been described by the Israeli-American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) which sums up a lifetime’s research with his close collaborator, Amos Tversky. Kahneman speaks of system-1 and system-2 thinking. If someone asks you what 2 and 2 is, you will immediately come up with the correct answer, 4, whereas if that person asks you what 19 multipied by 37 is you will have to work it out, in my case on a piece of paper. The former is an example of system-1 thinking, which is unconscious, switched on all the time, fast and does not involve a “sense of ownership”, i.e. the answer seems just to appear rather than to be the result of a calculation which we make. The latter involves system-2 thinking, which is conscious, has to be switched on, is slow and the calculation we make is “ours”, i.e. a mental process we engage in. Cognitive distortions are the result of system-2 processes. They are universal errors in thinking which occur within the cognitive system and are not the outcome of interference by emotional input. Kahneman cites 30 to 40 different types of cognitive distortions and in the psychological literature many more have been described. Here are two examples: the optimism bias and the bias blind spot.

Because of the optimism bias nearly all of us take a more positive view of ourselves, and to a certain extent, of life in general than the facts would justify.

The Israeli psychologist, Tali Sharot (2012), thinks that this has a protective influence in that it reduces anxiety and enhances our mental and physical well-being, and so our chances of survival. In one study the outcomes of optimists and pessimists in a cohort of people who had suffered a heart attack were compared. The optimists lived longer on average, because, it was thought, they took a more optimistic view of their situation and their ability to do something themselves to improve it, and hence were more likely to adopt a healthy diet and do more exercise than the pessimists, who had a more fatalistic attitude. Kahneman describes the optimism bias as the “engine of capitalism” because starting a business involves taking risks which optimists are more likely to take.

The bias blind spot refers to the fact that it is virtually impossible to notice cognitive distortions in ourselves, and much easier to see them in others. Even people who are trained in assessing the evidence for drawing conclusions are just as vulnerable to the bias blind spot as everyone else. So doctors, for instance, who claim that they are not influenced by the propaganda of drug companies are deluding themselves, which is why these companies target doctors in the first place.

My notion of self-realization is based on the importance of what we care about, an idea developed by the American philosopher, Harry Frankfurt (1988). He was interested in the light which this idea throws on the concepts of necessity and freedom, but I see it more in terms of grounding a theory of self-realization. Frankfurt points out that what we care about has three elements: a cognitive, emotional and volitional element, whereby the volitional element is the most important one: we want to care about what we care about. He describes five over-lapping stages: discovery, identification, deliberation, devotion and, in some cases, a sense of fulfillment.

Frankfurt emphasizes how free will and necessity are closely linked when it comes to what we care about. On the one hand we very much want to care about what we care about. On the other hand, we discover rather than choose what it is we care about, and once we have made this discovery we have no choice but to act on this. If we didn’t act on it we cannot be said to care about whatever it is, or at least we cannot be said to care about it sufficiently. It is in discovering what we care about and acting on it that we realize ourselves.

A good example of this is given by Martin Luther, who when challenged by Pope Leo X in 1520, and by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1521, to recant his Ninety-Five Theses criticizing the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the selling of indulgences, said: “Here I stand. I can do no other”. I take “Here I stand” to imply that he wanted to take this stand, but it also implies, with “I can do no other”, that given the sort of person he had become by this time, he had to make this stand. Thus free will (Frankfurt’s volitional element) and inner necessity are two aspects of the same thing when it comes to what we care about. In making his stand Martin Luther probably took the most important step towards his own self-realization. At the same time this was a momentous historical event which has reverberated down the centuries.

Paul Crichton, London, 3 May, 2014



Aristotle (1964) Ethica Nicomachea, L.Bywater (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Crichton P. (2013) Self-Realization and Inner Necessity  Thinking about How to Live, Munich: Kiener Press.

Frankfurt, H. (1988) The Importance of What We Care About   Philosophical Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow, London: Penguin Books.

Sharot, T, (2012) The Optimism Bias  Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side, London: Constable and Robinson.

Taylor, C. (1991) The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Link to the book