First-Order and Second-Order Actions

Or maybe this post should be called “First-Order and second-order Thoughts”?  I’m not sure where I’m going with this but this could relate with existentialism, stoicism, action theory, free will vs. determinism, the self and identity, epistemology, and countless others.  To start, most of you know that my philosophy about relationships with other people is skewed and different from the norm.  Indeed, I actually have a hard time relating to people.  However, I’ve had a hard time explaining why or even what my perspective is.  A few weeks ago, I finally had an epiphany (along with my friend to help me out).  So let me give some examples:

  1. About six years ago, I went through a sort of breakup.  Like all breakups, there’s a lot of sadness and turmoil.  It’s a feeling that the world has come crashing down and that nothing can fix it.  It’s a horrible experience.  But in a weird way, I was also having the experience of “This person, Shaun is going through a tough time.  He’s depressed, confused, and going through despair.  I feel bad for him and I am sad for him.”  But at the same time, this new experience made me realize that this person that I feel bad for IS me.  So this first experience I had was going through the world and experiencing this sadness, but then there was another experience, as if I was watching myself have these experiences.  Put it this way: have you ever seen a movie or a play where we can really familiarize yourself with one of the characters?  Let’s say that a character is going through heartache and is really depressed.  You would feel for this person, right?  Well, this second experience is what I felt, except I also knew that this person that I’m watching going through this breakup IS me.  I don’t know if I’m making sense, but I’m going through this experience, but then I am also experiencing myself as if I was a character in this grand movie that we call life.  I don’t refer to myself in third person or anything, but I just see myself going through an emotion, and then the “second I” understands that emotion and agrees.  So with this disconnect, I felt like I didn’t get the full force of the breakup, but this person named Shaun did.  But at the same time, I realize that I AM Shaun.
  2. Two years ago, I went to vacation in Hawaii.  Hawaii is awesome!  It is the most relaxing places on the planet.  It seems like there’s no need to rush because time works for you: there’s always time.  The food is great, the atmosphere is wonderful, the people are friendly and the beaches. . . breathless.  It was definitely worth it!  I relaxed and had fun.  It was utter bliss and happiness.  But during this time, I also had this weird experience, like I was watching myself having a good time and having fun.  I was watching this person named Shaun and I felt happy for him because he was happy.  But I AM him. It’s this second-order “I” that seems to be driving. . . well, me.  It’s really hard to explain but I can’t seem to be part of the experiences I happen to have, at least fully.  Again, I am watching the world through the eyes of this person named Shaun, but I am him.  It kind of put a downer on my vacation because I couldn’t completely take in all that experience.
  3. There was a moment a while ago where I was really frustrated and angry.  I was vented up, my reason started to blur because the emotion was kicking in, and I could feel my blood boil.  It was in public, so I had to keep my cool but it was infuriating.  Again, there was this “extra self” that said, “oooh, I know how Shaun feels.  I feel for his anger and he so deserves to be angry in this situation.  Shaun is allowed to be angry.  Even though I AM Shaun.”  It was really weird.  So there’s this person named “Shaun” who’s doing the experiencing of the world, and then there’s this “second-Shaun” who is looking at the original Shaun and understanding the experiences and emotions that this Shaun is going through.

So what’s going on here?  Granted, I’m sure sometimes you go through this too.  But I would think that this is a rare moment for you.  For me, this is a constant thing.  The “second-Shaun” is always there.  There are lots of questions that pertains to this: (1) Who is the “real” Shaun?  Is it the one who is doing the experiencing, or is it the one the empathizes and understands these experiences? (2) Notice that I said that “Shaun is doing this” “Shaun is doing that” as if I’m explaining some character.  But I am me.  However, there’s this weird disconnect, like there’s something that Shaun is going through that I’m not.  So that’s the question: who is this “I” that I’m referring to? (3) Overall, who am I?

I tried talking to people about it.  There is no psychological disorder that I know of that speaks about this.  I talked to my dad about this and there is one possible theory that he brought up called the homunculus theory.  I’m familiar with it, but I never took it seriously.  (Actually, no one takes it seriously.  It’s just one of those interesting philosophical thought experiments.)  I understand this argument, but I don’t think this is quite accurate of what I’m going through.  With the homunculus, there little man watching the theater (probably?) has some sort of idea that the homunculus is a completely different person than the body he’s in.  So there’s a complete separation.  Of course, I think the point of this thought experiment isn’t to be taken literally, although again, I’m not familiar with the research.  With me, I know I’m my body going through these experiences, but I can’t get “into” the experience because the “second-Shaun” is watching me.  Even though the second-Shaun = original Shaun.

(And that’s another question: is the “original” Shaun the one doing the experiencing, or the one thinking about the experiences?)

On a side note, I don’t really enjoy watching TV that much.  Movies are better for some reason.  It’s mainly because I’m watching myself watching a TV show.  So I’m watching a TV show that’s twice removed.

In one case, it’s as if it’s a combination of Asperger’s Syndrome and an out of body experience.  I have a hard time reading people, and someone is mad (or if I’m mad) then another portion of me recognizes it but doesn’t experience it.  I have a really hard time reading people, and so I usually have to guess at what people really mean and it can lead to some awkward or unpleasant surprises.  However, my mind automatically takes the “second-Shaun” perspective, so I don’t feel embarrassed, but I’m sure the other person does.

To be clear, this doesn’t happen all the time.  There have been many cases where I can get engaged in the experience and so there is only one Shaun.  However, these instances only happen every so often.  So then, who am I?  Is this I the original Shaun or is it this “second-Shaun” that I’m referring to?  Or both?

The second question is: is this a burden or a blessing?  Is there anyway for one to get seriously engaged in the experience?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Existentialism, Paper Topic, Personal Identity, Psychology, Relationships, Stoicism. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to First-Order and Second-Order Actions

  1. thekillerj says:

    DSM-IV-TR criteria for Depersonalization Disorder

    The diagnostic criteria defined in section 300.6 of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders are as follows:[1]

    1. Longstanding or recurring feelings of being detached from one’s mental processes or body, as if one is observing them from the outside or in a dream.
    2. Reality testing is unimpaired during depersonalization
    3. Depersonalization causes significant difficulties or distress at work, or social and other important areas of life functioning.
    4. Depersonalization does not only occur while the individual is experiencing another mental disorder, and is not associated with substance use or a medical illness.

  2. Kyle says:

    So is the guy writing this blog post – the guy who’s thinking about “first-Shaun” and “second-Shaun” and how they experience the world – “third-Shaun”?


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