The Patterns of "We"

Yvonne Bowman
New York University

Citation information: Bowman, Yvonne. 2017. The metapatterns of “We”. The NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns, volume 1, issue 1. Available at:


Humans have a self-concept rarely seen in the animal world. This concept of self, however, is integral to our culture and the way in which it has developed. I will use the metapatterns of borders, binaries, and time to analyze the features of concept of self. In order to use these metapatterns, I must first identify the self in relation to a group in terms of two other metapatterns of holons and clonons. Through this, I will predict how concept of self might have led to our current society.


Many people are familiar with the concept of cultural development: societies change over time in response to outside or inside forces. I propose that the point at which our cultural development is at requires our rare concept of self. Many psychologists use the explanation of “theory of mind” to refer to an awareness that humans develop at a young age that others’ behaviors are based on their own sets of beliefs and knowledge, but not on knowledge that they have no way of knowing.1 This theory of mind is essential for the way we process our world.

In social psychology, individuals can be identified as being parts of groups. These groups will either be an in-group for the individual – that is, they will psychologically identify with this group – or an out-group, with which the individual does not identify. The individuals within a given in-group and out-group can be described respectively in terms of holons and clonons. Clonons describe things that are identical units that contribute to a whole, whereas holons are individual, distinct units.2 Figure 1 shows a schematic of the in-group (“we”) and out-group (“them”) organization in terms of where individuals can be easily identified as holons; as well as where individuals seem to be clonons.

Figure 1. Using circles with “Us” and “Them” in them to represent a given in-group and out-group respectively, shapes visualize the individuals within these groups; as well as how individuals in an in-group are seen more as holons than individuals in an out-group. Source: the author.

In our own in-groups, we are more likely to actively exercise our theory of mind in interpreting the behaviors of the members of the in-group. In this way, we see other members of our in-group as holons. This means that within the in-group, we more readily accept that behaviors of others are based on each individual’s own sets of belief and knowledge, therefore individualizing other members of our in-group.

However, individuals in an out-group do not receive the same treatment. It is more difficult to actively exercise theory of mind for all individuals in an out-group. It is much more cognitively efficient to assign the entire out-group its own set of beliefs or knowledge that can be then attributed to all individuals within the out-group, causing them to be seen more readily as clonons.

This thought process can be modulated based on how well an individual knows an individual in the out-group, as well as the fact that the system is never a one-to-one in-group-to-out-group ratio. In fact, there may be many out-groups, and some may even overlap, as in figure 2.

Figure 2. The in-group is constantly interacting with multiple out-groups. Each out-group is a holon made up of clonons, and sometimes the out-groups will overlap so as to make a new holon built of the individuals who are part of both out-groups. These individuals will then be clonons within a combined out-group. Source: the author.

Borders of the Self

While the theory of mind contributes to how we interact with others, it contributes to our own self-concepts as well. Because we identify individuals as having their own minds – including their own opinions and knowledge – we are able to place borders around our own selves as well. Through our concept of mind, we are able to identify the differences in opinions and knowledge separated by our own borders as well as the borders of others.

A “thick border” will contribute to apathy regarding others and their thoughts, especially when there is no conscious effort to practice empathy. Some individuals have thicker mind borders than others naturally, and so need to consciously lower their mind border opacity to better relate to others. These individuals will be more influenced by the holon-clonon dynamic as applied to in-groups and out-groups.

“Thin borders” allow more easily for empathy between an individual and the others in their life. These individuals will be less susceptible to thinking of members of an out-group as clonons, and will more easily be able to modulate their perception to think of members of an out-group as holons if the individual makes an effort to do so.

Borders of the self are useful to think about when modeling empathy, and will become even more useful when considering binaries of the self and others.

The Self-Other Binary

The self is not isolated, and interacts with many other selves or groups in different ways. This can be described through a border-modulated binary. This term is a play on Volk’s metapatterns of borders and binaries, the latter of which is “the minimal system.”3 The binary that can be seen in the case of the self-concept is that of the self and other.

This binary has been observed many times in anthropological texts, such as Fabian’s Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. This text outlines the tendency of anthropology to find an object of study that is an “other” from the anthropologist’s own society (2).4 This is an extreme example, but the self-other binary shows up in daily life as well, when we interact with other individuals.

The nature of the border-modulated binary is such that the metaphorical space and interactions between the two endpoints of the binary can be changed based on the opacity of the self-border. A thin self-border in regards to certain others may lead to the self-other binary to seem “shorter”, or closer together. Thick self-borders lead to farther removed binaries, thus further making empathy harder.

The self-other binary is not only self as an individual and other as an individual: the other may be a group – such as an out-group – instead. Rarely, however, is it the other way around; in which the self is the in-group. Because selves within an in-group are more readily seen as holons, it is not as natural to consider the in-group a “self”, because we perceive many different selves within the in-group.

Figure 3. The connections between each other and the self represent the self-other borders. Each border is of different length, and some connections do not even seem to have borders. The binaries can either be between individuals or out-groups. Source: the author.

Furthermore, there is a network of binaries related to one’s self, and the borders between the self and each separate “other” are of different opacities and interact differently, as figure 3 shows. In this way, the self-border as well as the border-modulated binary of self and other are fluid.

Some self-other binaries may seem to overlap, like an extremely close friend or a significant other. In a relationship that is close enough, the difference between self and other may blur more than with an acquaintance or a friend who is not particularly close.

The self-other binary can also be applied to fictional characters or pets, as we often assign animals anthropomorphic qualities and assume a self-concept in these things. This anthropomorphizing tendency can be applied to any nonhuman thing that we perceive as having humanlike emotions, motivations, or characteristics. The tendency of humans to anthropomorphize things is incredibly pervasive.5 This can be explained by the strength of our self-concept and theory of mind.

Overall, binaries of the self are modulated by borders of the self, and this relationship can explain many of our tendencies in relationships with other individuals and groups.

The Learning Self: Assumptive Learning

It has been theorized that some other animals; such as apes, dolphins, and elephants have a sense of self. However, human conscious learning is different from how these species learn, because it requires assumptions based on the self-other, border-modulated binary.

Studies have shown that children develop the ability to use self-referential language (and, by inference, a self-concept) around the same time that they develop the ability to see things “how they could be” instead of simply “as they are.”6 I suggest that this is because the self-concept is essential for processing time and possibilities the way humans do. This ability allows us to ask questions, as the formation of a question requires the assumption that someone else has different information than you do. Additionally, it requires the ability to believe that by asking a question, you might progress your knowledge – it requires that you are seeing things “how they could be.”

The self-other border allows this, as the assumption that someone else has a different set of knowledge than you that might answer your question requires a self-other border and the ability to identify another “self.”

In order for this conscious learning to take place, our self must be perceived within time. When we ask questions, we must acknowledge that we do not know something and plan to know it in the future through the questions we ask. Answering a question also requires the other person to share certain knowledge – language, for instance – with the question asker, but also acknowledge that there is a gap in the question asker’s knowledge that the answer to a question might be able to fill. Figure 4 is a graphical representation of this system of learning, which I will refer to using an original term of my own: assumptive learning, as it requires assumptions to be made based on the self-other border-modulated binary.

Figure 4. The act of asking a question illustrates an assumption in difference of knowledge. Shared knowledge allows both parties to understand the same language, as well as understand that both parties have a self-concept and self-other borders. Source: the author.

If you were to remove from your perception or fuse with your perception the set of knowledge possessed by the “Them’s,” as well as remove your assumption of their self-concept, as would likely happen with no self-other border-modulated binary, then you would have no reason to ask a question. Without a concept of self, it would be impossible to imagine that another individual has their own self-concept. Without the ability to imagine that the other individual has their own self, a possible difference in knowledge could not be assessed: if the other individual does not have their own self, then their knowledge must be entirely shared with yours. Questions would be pointless unless the other party has a different set of knowledge and their own self-concept with which to interpret your question.

This style of learning that I am calling assumptive learning is incredibly important for our societal development. Assumptive learning does not necessitate a question being asked; it only requires an assumption in difference of knowledge. This type of learning aids in empathetic capabilities. It also allows for debates and discussions, both of which require an assumption that the other party does not know some information you know, and so therefore you intend to tell them the information to expand your shared knowledge and possibly change their opinions.

Discussions and debates are what most western society is built upon: they are ingrained in our political and educational systems, as well as in everyday conversation. To relate with other humans as we do, assumptive learning is required.


The goal of most assumptive learning is to expand two parties’ shared knowledge. The openness to this expansion can be described in terms of border-modulated binaries, based on border opacity and the closeness of the binary. In order for our society to exist as it does, we must practice this assumptive learning while keeping in mind our self-other border-modulated binaries to reach better understandings with one another.

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