Café Discovery: selfishness v. egocentrism

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I had…or am having (it’s hard to tell sometimes)…a disagreement with someone which turned out to center mostly on our disagreement about the meanings of the words “selfish” and “egocentric.”

I believe that words come with denotations and connotations and that if our sets of either of these differ, we will have different interpretations of the words.  Because of this, all human communication is, in part, a negotiation.

The person with whom I was (or am) conversing believed that the dictionary rules.  I’ve never cared for that view because I don’t believe the language is dead, that words change meaning over time and even the best dictionaries are therefore mostly out of date.

Besides, I’m a mathematician at heart.  When we define words, they mean what we say they mean, no more and no less.  Of course, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was a mathematician:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

So in my never-ending quest for self-improvement, I headed to wikipedia.  Make fun if you wish, but on many subjects, wikipedia is as good as any encyclopedia…and probably better.

Selfishness denotes the precedence given in thought or deed to the self, i.e., self interest or self concern.  It is the act of placing one’s own needs or desires above the needs or desires of others.  Selfishness is the opposite of altruism (selflessness)

As mentioned before, I consider myself to be an altruist.  At least I try my damn hardest to be so.

In psychology, egocentrism is defined as a) the incomplete differentiation of the self and the world, including other people and b) the tendency to perceive, understand and interpret the world in terms of the self.  The term derives from the Greek egô, meaning “I”.  An egocentric person has a limited theory of mind, cannot fully “put himself in other peoples’ shoes,” and believes everyone sees what he/she sees (or that what he/she sees, in some way, exceeds what others see).

Piaget believed that all children under the age of seven were egocentric, but not selfish, because young children were incapable of understanding that other people may have different opinions or beliefs than themselves.

Piaget offered no such excuse for adults.

A visit to the Online Etymological Dictionary also seemed in order.


1714, as a term in metaphysics, from the Latin ego, meaning “I” (cognate with O.E. ic, see I).  The psychoanalytic sense is from 1910;  the sense of “conceit” is from 1891.  Egocentric is from 1900;  ego-trip was first recorded in 1969. Egomania is from 1825; egomaniac is from 1890.

“In the book of Egoism it is written, Possession without obligation to the object possessed approaches felicity.” [George Meredith, “The Egoist” (1879)]


1640, from self (q.v. for derivation).  Said in Hacket’s life of Archbishop Williams (1693) to have been coined by Presbyterians.  In the 17th century, synonyms included self-seeking (1628), self-ended, and self-ful.

Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.

–Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene,” 1976

Interesting Alan quote discovered along the way:

Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.

–Alan Watts

And Piaget:

Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.

–Jean Piaget


Skip to comment form

    • Robyn on March 8, 2009 at 20:00
    • Robyn on March 9, 2009 at 21:50

    For the restayas:  sorry for being somewhat scattered.

  1. …but signaling.  The words we speak signify meaning to the listener, but our choices of words and other factors such as tone signal our meaning to others.  Not only that, but your dispute itself could easily be a manifestation of signaling; what are you and your friend trying to tell each other about yourselves by having this dispute, and by taking opposing sides in it?

    Perhaps I am the only one, but has anyone else ever had the experience of being in an argument with someone where both of you are under the impression that you are trying to say the same thing, yet disagreeing all the same?

Comments have been disabled.