Lillian Wilde - The Minimal Self in the Face of Trauma: Practical Applications of Phenomenological Theory

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference, the Future of Phenomenology. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at


I shall contribute to the discussion of post-traumatic pathologies of the self from a phenomenological perspective. Does the self remain constant in severe post-traumatic pathologies, or is it impacted? I will employ a very thin notion of minimal selfhood, in line with Dan Zahavi. I am drawing on the works of Husserl, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty and shall argue that the minimal self is to be understood in a basic, prereflective sense. As the subjectivity inhabiting the point of view of experience it is intrinsic to experiential life and neither arratively nor socially constructed. Many authors amend the definition of minimal selfhood, making it more complex in order to proceed with arguments that subsequently make it vulnerable to shattering (Sass & Pienkos; Ataria & Somer). When applying these modified definitions, trauma appears to pose a significant threat to the minimal self. I will argue, on the contrary, that minimal selfhood is ubiquitous to experiential life and remains constant. However, that the minimal self is not threatened does not make post-traumatic pathologies of other dimensions of selfhood less severe. Disturbances in the sense of self, personal ownership, and experiential temporality can leave the traumatised individual devastated. A case study illustrates this. I consequently argue for a multidimensional account of selfhood that acknowledges the compatibility of different notions of the self such as narrative (Dennett) and social (Kyselo) accounts. It is the more complex notions of the self that are vulnerable to shattering. The evidence provided by trauma research thus encourages us to adopt a more complex conception of the self in order to account for its diachronicity, illuminates its fundamental fragility, and highlights the significance of the minimal self as a condition of possibility.

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