by Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D.

in intellectual well-being

What is ego?  Why is that an important question?




There is no standard terminology.  Since I’ve developed what I hope is a consistent, helpful terminology over the years, my tendency is to use it.  However, nothing important depends upon which words are used.  What is important is the concepts, the principles of classification, the words are used to refer to.

Although it’s an uncommon practice outside philosophy, the best procedure is really to begin with the most fundamental distinctions and work systematically from there.  Statement or question A is more fundamental than statement or question B if and only if the concepts in B depend upon the concepts in A.  The example that I usually use is the following.

It is logically impossible to answer the question, “What is a wise human being?” without depending upon the answer to the question, “What is a human being?”  Furthermore, it is impossible to answer the question, “What is a human being?” without depending upon the answer to the question, “What is a being?”

Let’s clarify some additional terminology:

Let’s agree that a form (being, thing, object) is whatever can be singled out (noticed, picked out, attended to, apprehended).  It’s anything that can be perceived, imagined, or conceived.

Let’s agree that an entity (existent, real form) can be multiply singled out.  An existent is the subject of a true material identity judgment.  A material identity judgment has the form a is b (whereas a logical identity judgment has the form a is a); in other words, it’s a two-in-one judgment.  [The variables ‘a’ and ‘b’ range over all forms whether they exist or not or whether they are taken to exist or not.]  In other words, what may appear to be two forms is actually one existent.

Material identity judgments are, if false, about two [pure] forms; they are, if true, about one existent.

For example, if the pen that I am touching is the same as the pen that I am seeing, then there is one real pen.  Although there appear to be two pens (namely, the tactile pen and the visual pen), there is in reality only one pen that is simultaneously touched and seen.  That’s an example of a true material identity judgment.  Notice that it’s clear that there are two [pure] forms because, for example, while the tactile pen is colorless the visual pen is colored.

For example, if the woman I am looking at in the grocery store is not the same woman I met at the mixer last month, then, despite what I may initially think, there are two women instead of one.  In other words it’s false that the woman I am looking at in the grocery store is the same as the woman I remember meeting at the mixer last month.  Their appearances may be similar, but I would be mistaken if I identified them.  That’s an example of a false material identity judgment.

Once we realize that what we take to be an entity isn’t one, once we realize that kind of mistaken judgment, we almost always lose interest.  Why?  We typically value entities and don’t care about nonentities.

The entities that we value are typically continuants.  A continuant is an entity that exists at two or more consecutive times.  For example, your best friend is a continuant  — and so is your automobile and your house and your favorite fishing spot and so on.  Although not all entities are continuants, the most important entities are.




There’s no disagreement that time is an important concept.

What-is (reality, the world) may be divided using time:  there is temporal Becoming and non-temporal [timeless, eternal] Being.  (For more on the Being/Becoming terminology, click here.)

Being is formless.  All forms are “in” Becoming; if they are entities, they really are in Becoming and, if they are nonentities, they at least appear to be in Becoming.

[One possible exception to this is abstract forms such as numbers.  Numerals, of course, are entities; there’s no issue about that.  What, though, does the numeral ‘4’ stand for?  Some philosophers of mathematics think it stands for the number 4 and, further, that that number is eternal.  This, though, is controversial.  Would they make the same claim about, for example, negative numbers or imaginary numbers such as the square root of minus-1?  Another possible exception concerns generic qualities such as redness (as opposed to specific shades of red).  Is it possible to single out redness itself without singling out some specific shade of red?  Having noted these issues, let’s just here agree to set them aside.]




The concept of an ego is the concept of a continuant.  There’s also no disagreement about that.

Which continuant is it?  There’s lots of disagreement about that!

That at least partly explains why there are different terms that are used when talking about it, for example, ‘ego/I’, ‘I’, ‘self’, ‘egoic mind’, ‘subject’, ‘egoic self’, and ‘soul’.  Furthermore, at least for some philosophers, there’s also the transcendental ego as well as the everyday ego. All in all, the ego is a very confusing subject.

What’s this discussion about?  Different philosophers have given different answers.  There are at least ten different views about the nature of human being.  [See, for example, Ten Theories of Human Nature, Stevenson & Haberman, eds.]  Is there anything those answers have in common?  I think so.

To be or have an ego is to identify with a form or set of forms.  Again, this form or set of forms is a continuant.

Just because there is an identification doesn’t make it true.  Specifically, if I take myself to be identified with a form or set of forms, that doesn’t mean that I really am that entity.  Perhaps I am mistaken.  As we have seen, not all material identity judgments are true; the woman I am seeing now may not be the woman I saw last month.




Here’s the important question to ask yourself:  “What do I identify with?”  In other words, “What is your ego?”

There are some obvious candidates.  You may only identify with your body; you may think that anything external to your skin isn’t really “you.”

On the other hand, especially if you are a parent or are in a love affair or have at least one friend, perhaps you identity yourself with others such as children or a lover or a friend.  Are they not parts of your life?  If you initially think not, ask yourself:  “Would I be willing to die for anyone else?”  If so, in that sense, they are more important to you than you, which may make them at least parts of your self.

People identify with many different kinds of things.  Some identify with a sex or sexual preference.  Some identify with a tribe or a race.  Some identify with a nation.  Some identify with a career or profession.  Some identify with a religious or political creed.  Some identify with a social role such as being a father or mother or husband or wife.  Some identify with their understand or opinions.  Some identify with their likes and dislikes.  Some identify with their accomplishments.  Some identify with their possessions.

Are you able to imagine being separated from your body and still remaining you?  Science fictions writers sometimes do.  Do you even need a body to be you?  The great philosopher Descartes famously identified himself with his thoughts (because he was at least certain that he existed as a thinking thing whereas it was at least possible that he was mistaken in identifying also with a certain body, a specific physical thing).

What many people take themselves to be is a sequence of thoughts.  They identify with a set of thoughts.  Since there’s nothing to the mind except thoughts, they, much like Descartes, identify with a mind.

Similarly, many people also identify with a wider set of forms, namely, emotions.  (Some include emotions as denizens of the mind, and some don’t.  This is just more terminological or conceptual confusion that we may set aside.)  Do you take emotions to be part of your self?  If you subtracted all emotions from your autobiography, how much of you would be left?

Here we approach what I think is the usual answer, namely, most people identify with their stories (autobiographical narratives, life situations).  If you subtracted all your past story from your autobiography, how much of you would be left?  (Your past story would also include all future plans since they are just thoughts.)

This begins gets complicated, doesn’t it?  Perhaps identity crises are not just for teenagers.  What, exactly, are you?  Who are you?




Whatever the exact nature of your answer, would it not be some set or other of forms?  Isn’t your self or life the set of forms you identify with?  Isn’t it the story of your life?  All stories, of course, are temporal; all require time.

Your answer is important.  Why?  If you only identify with a continuant you are unintentionally condemning yourself to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction.

It’s because you are limiting yourself to Becoming; you are ignoring Being.

As a human, you are an entity in Becoming.  Let’s assume that you do correctly identify with a continuant, some set of temporal forms.  Let’s assume that you are the subject of your own (written or unwritten) autobiography.  What’s wrong with that?

To be a form is to be separated from all other forms; a [pure] form is what it is and it is not another form.

The key insight is this:  all dissatisfaction comes from separation.  To identify with some set of forms is to separate yourself from everything else.  You go through life believing that “I” am over here and everything else is over there.

That’s normal.  It’s also a terrible fate!  It’s why, as Thoreau famously put it, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  It’s why nearly everyone is dissatisfied – perpetually, until death.




What’s the alternative?  It’s not to limit yourself to Becoming; it’s to consider Being, too, as an essential part of your nature.  Without (nonconceptual) awareness of Being, you are simply unaware of your true nature.

As a human, yes, you are a set of forms in Becoming.  However, you are not just a human, you are a human being; you are more than merely human.  As Being, you are also formless.  Your true nature is both form and formless.

To stay trapped in Becoming is to stay trapped.  To open to Being is to free yourself from the trap of temporality.

Sages” are those wise human beings who have expanded their self-awareness to include the non-temporal as well as the temporal.

They are the only human beings who lead balanced or centered lives free from dissatisfaction.  This only makes sense if one distinguishes “pain” from “dissatisfaction.”  Pain is probably experienced by all living organisms; its source is the physical.  Sages, too, experience pain.  “Dissatisfaction” is suffering; it’s unease, misery, dukka, sorrow, sadness, discontent, and so on.  Its source is psychological.  Pain is not optional, but dissatisfaction is optional.

To open to Being is to free yourself from form.  Since thoughts and emotions and bodies are all forms, to open to Being is to free yourself from solely identifying with any set of thoughts, emotions, or bodies – or anything like them.

These ideas have been expressed in many different ways.  One way that I like is to think that to identify with the ego is to be dysfunctional (mad, insane); in other words, there’s no such thing as an ego that functions well.  (Remember that an ego is a continuant, which automatically excludes it from Being.)

You are already a sage.  The problem is that your attachment to compulsive thoughts obscures that fact, which would otherwise be obvious.

Because there is no time in Being and dissatisfaction requires time, there is no dissatisfaction in Being.  If you haven’t realized this, it’s because you are attached to that continuant set of forms that you take yourself to be.  To realize it, just drop that attachment.

Realizing your true nature takes no time.  How could it?  You already are what you are.  Your true nature isn’t something to gain or achieve, because you already are it.  Don’t believe that?  Just drop all thoughts in favor of alert, nonconceptual awareness and you’ll realize its truth.

What blocks opening to Being?  Attachment to compulsive thinking.  The egoic mind is always thinking (judging, conceptualizing, evaluating).  Since Becoming is incessant flux, the egoic mind always has fresh material to think about.  It’s an addiction.

Breaking that addiction automatically opens nonconceptual awareness of Being.  That’s the key to living well, to being a sage.  In theory, anyone is able to do it.  Why not you?




Bradford’s Getting Things Done

Tolle’s The Power of Now

Tolle’s The New Earth


7-7-2014 10-06-28 AM