Views of the self are as numerous and varied as stars in the sky or grains of sand on the beaches. It is not unrealistic to say that there are as many theories of the self as there are people who have had thoughts about what it means to be an individual. But if we are to ever articulate who and what it means to be a conscious being, a clear definition of the self is mandatory: for to begin to fulfill our destiny, we must come to terms with what we are and the full extent of our potential to create and destroy.
The need for a clear delineation of the self poses a unique and somewhat paradoxical problem. The study of the self and what it means to be a self is necessarily subjective and intimate. Any attempts to formulate an objective and universal definition of the self is limited from its inception, because as soon as the definer looks outside of his/her self, they are no longer discussing the self - they are necessarily discussing behavior. And I think it fairly safe to claim that observed behavior and experienced selfhood are two entirely different things. But reflection and self-reports are also questionable, as subjectivity is well known to cloud clear observation. Another problem in getting a clear definition of the self is that the deep self is notoriously non-rational, all of our attempts to forge a rational articulation of the self cannot be complete, as aspects of the self will always exist beyond the ability of words to describe. These limitations imposed by the nature of selfhood renders our accustomed philosophical tools of observation, reflection and logic somewhat ineffective, as none of these approaches can truly encompass the totality of what it is to be a self.
Yet, almost anyone asked would answer affirmative if asked if they possessed a self. But do they? How would we know? How could we prove the existence of a self in another? Or demonstrate the lack of a self? Like trying to grab fog, everyone can see the presence of a self, but no one can capture its essence. For as soon as we would try to objectify the self, we are confronted with our own subjective experience of the self. Any "objective" description of the self immediately spurs reflection and self-observation in the hearer to verify the truth of the "objective" claims against personal experience. In the philosophy of mind, this is known as the problem of other minds - what proof do we have that others have an internal self, other than external behavior implying they have a self? Any attempts to formulate such an "objective" description of the self is necessarily colored and perhaps skewed by the subjectivity of the self that does the formulating. It is a circular operation with no definite boundaries.
But these problems of defining of the self have not deterred thousands from making the attempt. From the dawn of recorded history people have tried to explain what it was to be a self, and what selfhood implies (i.e.: being a self amongst other selves). Because of the sheer volume of literature on the topic of the self, a comprehensive and complete survey of all existent theories of the self is an impossible goal for these articles. However, there are some clear and influential views of the self that have been articulated. I would like to briefly review a few of these and draw conclusions inspired by these views.
Being a subjective self, myself, I have my own take on what it means to be/have a self and what this implies for both individuals and collective societies. As I cannot willfully divorce myself from my selfhood, my theory of self is necessarily drawn from personal experience and self-reflection. But I also incorporate the ideas of others when they seem in accord with my own. While I try to remain as objective and rational as I am able, the topic of the self will, no doubt, slip into the subjective and non-rational. I beg the indulgence of my readers as I endeavor to balance the outer with the inner, the objective with the subjective, observation with experience.
I begin my attempt to articulate a model of the self with a brief description of three major movements in the understanding of the self. This begins includes descriptions of theories of the self both ancient and modern, in which I will lay out defining features of the theories and show their relevance. I will draw some conclusions and implications.
In the Republic, Plato attempts
to answer the question, what is justice? In my opinion, this is the
fundamental problem of ethics, for justice is universally held as the
ideal for social interaction and modeling. In Plato, the question of
justice boils down to a question of the self. Plato spends ten books
describing the ideal and theoretical relations of the self and society.
As Plato tells us in Book II, the individual can be likened to the polis
(city-state), in that the city embodies the same ideas and values as the
individuals that constitute it. (Republic, Book II, 368d - 369a) By
describing the differing types of relations within a city, Plato also
describes what he takes to be the type of relations within an individual
self. In the end, justice is defined as a certain balance of internal
relationships in both the city and the individual. (Republic, Book IV,
443c - e) To articulate this, Plato describes what has been called the
Tripartite Soul, in which the self is divided into three parts:
parts of the soul correspond to three classes of society. Respectively,
Reason is held to be the highest part of the individual, as it is through the rational faculty that the self can grasp the ideals embodied in the forms. Reason is the controller and harmonizer of the other two parts. The Spirit or Will is seen to be the faculty which allows us to choose and to apply ourselves in the face of hardship, but this part can become discouraged or obsessive and needs the guidance of reason. The Desires are the bodily drives to maintain corporeal existence and to propagate the species, which can again usurp the just rule of reason if out of balance. Each of these parts has it's own respective virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses, which can be encouraged or suppressed at the choice of the rational self.
Justice in both the polis and the individual is then defined as:
"...with respect to what is within, and respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He [the just citizen] doesn't let each part in him mind other people's business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he arranges himself becomes his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts, exactly like three notes in a harmonic scale, lowest, highest and middle. And if there are some other parts in between, he binds them together and becomes entirely one from many, moderate and harmonized. Then, and only then, he acts..." (Republic, Book IV, 443d)
Plato claimed the foundation of personal and social action (AKA: ethics) is in the harmonization and balancing of the three distinct features found within each individual a self. In his description of the tripartite self, it is clear that Plato (via Socrates) is not referring to a conception of an everlasting soul. His description is of a pragmatic perception of the human psyche in action. For Plato, this much-desired harmony of the soul is achieved by letting each internal part control that which it is best suited by function to control. As Plato tells us in Book I of the Republic, a virtue is by definition the proper functioning of the thing in question. For a person, the proper function of the soul is justice. (Book I, 353a - e) For this reason, the just man is not attracted to vice or injustice, as the harmoniously balanced just man has no desire to upset his hard-won balance through lying, cheating or stealing. (Republic, Book IV, 442e - 443a) "The contemplation of all time and all being" undertaken by the just self makes corporeal desires and thrills dull by comparison. (ibid., Book IV, 486a)
This description of Plato's view of the human psyche is necessarily rudimentary and truncated, as it is only meant to prepare the ground for the later explication of my theory of self. To further my task of preparing a historical foundation, I will leap over two millenia to a consideration of a modern view of the self in the next section.
Sigmund Freud, the so-called father of psychoanalysis, like Plato, also divided the human psyche into three parts: the Ego, the Id, and the Superego. (Pals, p. 61) In Freud's system, the Id corresponds roughly to the desire aspect of Plato's tripartite soul. Freud's Id represents the most basic part of the psyche, which is primarily concerned with bodily drives - food, sex, security. The Ego represents the center of the will and judgement - that which strives to maintain a balance between the three parts of the psyche.
As I understand it, Plato has no exact counterpart for the ego, although some ego functions seem to be fulfilled by Plato's Rational part of the soul. The Ego is the conscious self, the face we show to the public, as well as the private self we are internally aware of. The ego is the part of the self that rationally chooses, communicates and registers reactions, but all of the ego's functions can be skewed or even controlled by either the Id or the Superego in dysfunction. The Id and Superego can also subtly influence the ego below the level of awareness, causing the ego to believe it is behaving rationally and objectively, while in reality it is being manipulated by unconscious forces. Freud's Superego represents the internalized influences of others impinging upon the individual, such as a critical parent or teacher. Again, there is no direct correspondence between Plato's and Freud's systems, but it appears that at least some of the functions of the superego are also embodied in the reasoning part of the tripartite soul, as well as some that can be located in Plato's Spirited segment of the soul.
Freud's view of the self has been extremely influential upon Western countries and has become internalized by our culture and institutions. Although Freud does not apply his work to a larger body of ethics, no account of the modern conception of the self could be deemed adequate without some reference to Freud's groundbreaking theories.
Of greater interest to me, however, is the work of Freud's student, Carl Jung. While Jung accepted much of Freud's psychological framework and theoretical approach of the talking cure, one area in which Jung profoundly differed from Freud is in the understanding of humanity's unconscious. Freud's treatment of the Id presents the psychic processes below the level of awareness as a snakepit of repressed desires, impulses and instincts. Jung took an optimistic view of the self below conscious awareness.
abandoned the more traditional triune model of the self for a simpler
dyadic model. Instead of three competing parts of the soul, Jung
hypothesized the existence of only two:
Jung's Ego is the persona by which we present ourselves to the world, "meaning between our true selves and our environment, just as our physical clothing presents an image to those we meet. The ego is what we are and know about consciously." (Shadow, Johnson, p. 3 - 4) The other side of the ego is the Unconscious, which contains ninety percent of our psychological being. The unconscious contains the snakepits of Freud's id, renamed the Shadow, as well as a rich inner world populated by internal characters and functions which embody many psychological patterns called Archetypes. These Archetypes are both personal and shared. The personal archetypes are embodied as the anima/animus, or the contra-sexual image-ideal within each individual. The anima or animus is the locus of many motivating functions of self-image and sexual relations. The shared archetypes are contained in what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. They are called collective because the same images and functions appear in some form across all times and cultures, and hence seem to be universally human. The unconscious holds our drives, impulses and instincts, as well as our aspirations and inspirations. The collective unconscious can be said to contain both the highest and the lowest that humans are capable of.
Because so much of our selves remain in the unconscious, the majority of our selves are unknown. "Most people confuse 'self-knowledge' with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities... but the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents... What is commonly call 'self-knowledge' is therefore a very limited knowledge, most of it dependent on social factors, of what goes on in the human psyche." (Jung, p. 14 - 15) What we experience as an unique individual is actually informed and controlled by the movement of these universal archetypes below the surface of awareness. The suggestion is that the internal self is predicated upon the existence of an internalized community of shared psychic patterns.
Jung is primarily an essentialist, as the True Self is contained within the unconscious, and must be recovered and revealed through the intentional stripping away of emotional accretions and defense mechanisms. These components (archetypes) in the psyche compete for control and energy unless they are made conscious. Through a creative interactive process within the psyche called Active Imagination, in which internal questions and relations are investigated subjectively, bringing unconscious material into awareness. This process uses art, self-expression, imagination and ritual to give voice to and to dialogue with the internal characterizations of the archetypes. Like Plato and Freud, Jung sought harmony within the warring parts of the self. But unlike Plato and Freud's subjugation of the unconscious to the rational or the ego, Jung's self-actualization consists of bringing more and more unconscious material into awareness and the conscious integration of this material into the self-consciousness. In Jung's view, the achievement of integration leads to balanced and harmonious social/interpersonal relations.
As I see it, Jung's view of the self offers three main
advantages over the tripartite views of Plato and Freud:
Although Freud's talking cure was also intended to bring unconscious elements into awareness, Freud limited his techniques to only the treatment of psychological pathologies. Jung used his techniques to bring about self-transformation and expanded awareness to everyman, as the means to achieve psycho-spiritual growth or self-actualization. While Plato indicates that the reasoning part of the psyche can be educated through philosophy to harmonize with the other two parts, Jung claims that the struggle between the conscious and unconscious is part of a larger cycle of unfolding awareness of self and universe. This implies that the self is in a state of perpetual growth, giving hope for improved future prospects of increased consciousness, as increased awareness leads to improved communication and interaction with both self and others. The two parts of the self are to be brought together and honored as fundamental components of a wondrous whole. In Plato and Jung, the spiritual seeker is justified in pursuing the intangible balance of inner harmony and the higher perceptions that brings, but Freud's focus on pathology precludes the use of his model for purposes other than seeking effective psychological function. For Freud, psychology was a medical discipline with the purpose of curing disease, not for self-exploration.
All three of these models tend to have a bias of elitism. For Plato, only those with the leisure to practice philosophy had any hope for achieving the delicate balance of the soul he calls justice. For Freud and Jung, only those with the resources and leisure to embark on lengthy psychoanalysis could hope to achieve mental health or self-actualization. But of these two, Jung's system is more creative and less constrained by the therapist-patient relationship than Freud's system. While Freud's technique depends heavily on therapeutic sessions, Jung's technique is more accessible to the would-be self-actualizer. Through a multitude of excellent books (by Jung and his many followers) and through self-exploration in active imagination, an individual can begin to do "inner work" alone, without mortgaging the house to go into therapy, although a certain level of education and leisure is required in order to read, understand and apply Jung's teachings.
Social Constructivism is the position held in favor by current social science. It holds that an examination of social institutions and structures reveal a functional explanation of social roles apart from any contextual or subjective meaning. The individual is seen as shaped and constituted by the social roles he/she fulfils. (Rosenberg, p. 101-102) This view is called The Blank Slate by MIT psychology professor Steven Pinker, and is contrasted by him to a biological-genetic basis for understanding the human psyche. The Social Constructivist position (Pinker's Blank Slate) holds that the effects of culture are what shapes an individual, lending features and distinction to an otherwise undifferentiated psyche. The social constructivists are in good company in this view of the lack of an essential human nature, also holding this view are the influential philosophers, Descartes and Rousseau, who believed that the human psyche is fashioned primarily by external social forces.
More recent philosophers like Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel have espoused a social constructivist view of the self. For Taylor, the self is to be understood as having developed through the historical mediation of social institutions that he calls Frameworks or Orientations. Taylor asserts that we gain our sense of identity from sources both universal and individual, complex and many-layered. (Sources, Taylor, p. 29) To define the self is to identify with Frameworks that provide a structure of meaning by giving standards for distinctions and evaluations. (Sources, Taylor, p.30) But these frameworks are inherited, not created, as they exist prior to being chosen by an individual. We might be tempted to hear echoes of Jung's archetypes in Taylor's frameworks were it not for a critical distinction which sets them opposite: In Taylor's view, the self is both molded by and the medium of inherited social institutions (frameworks) that are imposed upon the individual by external sources. These frameworks are accepted and internalized by the individual, imparting meaning and an orientation to experience. The emphasis is on the relation to these external frameworks as the primary sources of the self, of Taylor's book of the same name. In Jung's approach, the self is the center of focus, with the archetypes being internal sources of meaning and value, mediated through the collective unconscious.
Taylor offers external historic frameworks a remedy to the three ailments of modern culture, which he identifies as:
To Taylor, individualism, while offering a new autonomy to individuals, also entails the loss of traditional moral horizons which delineated and gave meaning to experience. The Disenchantment of the World refers to the loss of cosmic order and higher purpose once imparted by historic institutions. This loss of purpose is linked to a narrowing of vision caused by egoism and self-centeredness. Crucial to the success of this disenchantment is the rise of Instrumental Reasoning, in which rationality is focused on maximizing efficiency and profits. This pragmatic modern rationalism differs from the Platonian model by emphasizing the enhancement of ordinary life, rather than focusing on abstract conceptual excellence. In instrumental reasoning, others are seen as means to our ends, human life is devalued by impersonal institutions and science and technology is glorified in the worship and hope of the "technological fix." The political fallout of individualism and instrumental reasoning is the loss of freedom due to the imposition of instrumental reasoning. As self-absorbed citizens fail to participate in government, soft despotism is given a foothold. Without civic participation, individuals face monolithic institutions alone, further discouraging participation and alienating them from the political sphere. Without this, we are in danger of losing our ability to control our political destinies. (Authenticity, Taylor, p. 2 - 10)
For Taylor, meaning is created through connection to others, rendering introspection and self-exploration a harmful exercise in self-indulgence. Taylor asserts that an individual's values and choices are shaped by culture and caste, and cannot be totally self-generated, as Jung's collective unconscious could be construed to be. (Authenticity, Taylor, p. 47) Taylor links self-discovery to creative-artistic self-expression, but limits individual originality only to those creations which enhance social values. It is through immersion in the group traditions that the individual finds the fulfillment of his/her self.
There is much good to be found in Taylor, especially in his diagnosis of the malaises of modernity, but I do not agree with the social constructivist view of a self entirely fashioned by culture and institution. The selfish egoism identified by Taylor is certainly a problem prevalent in our culture, but Jung would diagnose this condition as one of alienation from the true self, not at all a goal to be striven for, as Taylor seems to want to claim.
At the opposite spectrum of the approaches to understand the self is the Cognitive view of the self. In the Cognitive camp, the self is seen as the result of brain processes. The faculties of mind are believed to have evolved in response to conditions in the environments of our ancestors. These faculties are characterized as modules in the mind, usually corresponding to specific locales in the geography of the human brain. The self or soul is seen as the interaction of these modules. Our selves are, in large part, determined by our genetic inheritance. It is undeniable that many personality traits are inherited, as science continues to discover the physical processes by which this occurs. To his credit, Pinker does acknowledge some external input, in that certain faculties (such as language) do not develop unless the individual is provided a potential-enriched environment. But to the cognitive psychologist, the individual self is still determined and constrained by forces outside his/her conscious control. And, like Freud, the exercise of cognitive therapy is limited to the correction of pathologies, not self-actualization or exploration. The cognitive view also falls prey to Taylor's malaise, as the values and relations of the self are reduced to biological processes, devoid of significance and higher purpose. Like Freud, the cognitive psychology approach utilizes and glorifies instrumental reasoning, and thus is prone to all the political and moral devolution's identified by Taylor.
The cognitive view of the self as multiple modules of different mental faculties returns us once again to a view of a splintered self. In the cognitive schema, a module or group of modules act as a central executive, coordinating and controlling the other competing modules. Like Freud, the cognitive view is a contentious model, and the internal conflict is reflected in social conflict. But like Plato, the module responsible for rational thought is considered superior to the other modules.
By now, it should be apparent that I am biased in favor of the Jungian view of the self. It has the virtue of having both simplicity and depth. While positing only two divisions of the self, it accounts for the multiplicity of drives, instincts ad aspirations, while affording the self not only creativity (like Taylor), but also spiritually - something conspicuously lacking in most of the other models thus discussed. I included the sometimes lengthy descriptions of these other systems because I believe that each of them has something vital to contribute to a holistic understanding of the self. From Plato, we get the idea of the self as an internal relation. From Freud, we get the concept of unconscious processes requiring consciousness. From Jung, we have the enhanced collective unconscious and the archetypes. Social constructivism gives us a sense of the ethical relations and connection to larger contexts, while cognitive psychology allows us to explore the connections between physical processes and personal experience.
Before he became a cultural icon, Timothy Leary was a serious researcher of consciousness. Leary posits the existence of eight levels (or circuits) of development in the human psyche, ranging from infancy (Level 1 - Bio-survival) through post-biological development (Circuit 8). Leary claims that the majority of humanity has only evolved to the fourth circuit (adolescence, industrialization and hive socialization), and is striving to attain the fifth circuit, which is characterized as "culture-free, hive-free, gravity-free and hedonic." (Leary, Info-psychology, p. 75) A privileged few have reached the sixth circuit, called the neuro-electric or Einsteinian circuit, in which humanity learns how to take control of its own brain and can fabricate reality at will. In Leary's system, the seventh and eighth circuits are post-human, as mankind will have evolved into a different form by the time we achieve these developmental levels.
Through yoga, ritual and the judicious use of entheogens, Leary claims that humanity is now responsible for its own conscious evolution. The view here is that certain states of consciousness can activate human DNA, causing evolutionary changes within that individual and within humanity as a whole. Leary's system is much more intricate than I have the space to describe, as each circuit has three stages, for a total of twenty-four possible stages of consciousness. Leary's ultimate goal is to activate all twenty-four stages of the eight circuits of attain what he calls "Metaphysiological Fusion." Obviously, such an advanced level of activation is far beyond our own, and is described as "the linkage of the universe of everything with the void of everything." through the integration and manipulation of atomic-nuclear signals. (Leary, Info-psychology, p. 132 - 133) Leary also links his system to the traditional metaphysical/alchemical keys of Astrology and the Tarot, and throws in a little I-Ching to keep it balanced. The salient points of Leary to my own system are the concepts of conscious evolution and taking responsibility of our own nervous systems.
A colleague and fellow consciousness explorer with Leary is John Lilly. Lilly pioneered work in altered states of consciousness through isolation tanks, exploring the depths of individual consciousness. Lilly adopts a computational model of mind in assuming the human brain to "be an immense biocomputer." (Metaprogramming, Lilly, p.3) Lilly holds that our behavioral, emotional and spiritual aspects are programs running on the biocomputer, and are therefore mostly unconscious. These programs often compete for expression and resources (similar to our historic and contemporary models explored in the last section). A emotional-behavioral program can be instantly activated by a multitude of stimuli. In order to achieve harmony/balance/integration, we must become metaprogrammers and rewrite or even delete programs that are no longer useful or damaged. Like Leary, Lilly used multiple techniques to reach the level of consciousness at which metaprogramming becomes accessible. (Lilly, Metaprogramming, p. 9)
For the purposes of
metaprogramming, Lilly separates the self into two aspects: 1) the
Observer - the self-aware part that watches the self, and 2) the
Operator - which is the doing-participation aspect of the self. (Lilly,
Self, p. 89) The whole self is called the "Observer-Operator." The self,
as observer-operator, is immersed in its own internal reality, even when
actively engaged in activities in external reality. The
observer-operator can only perceive external reality through the lens of
its own internal reality. Lilly also the first to coin and describes
what he calls consensus reality, which is defined as, "that set of
beliefs/assumptions/postulates/interpretations/simulations that each of
us is given/absorbs that are said to be real/true in our
culture/society/family/school etc. Consensus reality is that which is
agreed to be real/true... [through] one collection or another of
simulations of internal reality/external reality with which one
agrees/disagrees. A large fraction of our most securely held sacred
beliefs is in the consensus group of simulations of reality." (Lilly,
Self, p. 90)
All beliefs and personality traits are seen as programs open to reprogramming and tweaking. As such, reality itself as we experience it is up for grabs. Lilly suggests the creation of a metabelief operator who perfects the belief programs responsible for creating realities, both internal and external. Using the metabelief operator and metaprogramming techniques, we can explore/transform our biocomputer, programming it to perceive beyond the accustomed ruts of consensus reality. In his later years, Lilly turned to a Fourth Way School (ala Gurdjieff) as a means to further develop self-observational detachment from the confines of his own internal reality.
From Leary, we get a sense of cosmic-biological urgency to transform our low level of conflicted consciousness, and from Lilly, we get detailed instructions on how to consciously manipulate our realities, internal and external. Leary would say that Jung's archetypes are symbolic representations of the twenty-four levels of the eight-circuit brain. Lilly would call the archetypes programs running in the biocomputer, projected onto consensus reality.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, models of the self were generally dual or tripartite models, but later twentieth century models were more willing to allow a greater complexity to the human psyche.
We began with the three-part models of Plato and Freud, then moved to the dual model of Jung. Although Jung only posited two fundamental parts of the psyche, his construal of the unconscious was so configured as to allow a multiplicity of functions under the single rubric of the collective unconscious and their resident archetypes. The social constructivist view permitted an unlimited number of modules to perform the many function of the psyche, with none assuming primacy, but rather allowed for them all or for coalitions of module to come together, as well as allowing advances in brain physiology to play a part. Leary's eight-circuit brain allows a more organized reading of the modular brain, while including the idea of individual psychic growth. Lilly's metaprogramming gives us a specific technique for harnessing the various parts of the self, be they three or three thousand. All of the approaches reviewed in this essay, from Plato to social cognitive, rely upon an ultimate integration and harmonization of the multiple parts of the self in order to become a balanced self. Lilly's approach gives us a systematic way to achieve the integrations required, while the other systems seem more haphazard in their means of integration. So in the end, a picture of the self emerges that consists of many parts what somehow must be brought into some sort of alignment.
The various approaches have differing theories of the origins of the multi-faceted self - the some of them (Plato, Jung, Leary) seem to imply that these parts of the self as essential to human nature and self-generated; while the social constructivist (Taylor) position holds that these parts are created through social process. Sitting on the fence are Pinker and Lilly, both of whom seem to incorporate elements of both the essentialism of Plato and company, while still allowing room for the interaction of social processes to impact and shape the emergence of selves. I believe all of these positions have something to contribute. I most closely agree with Pinker and Lilly, in that I agree that many things in the psyche are biologically and socially determined outside of the self, but I want to allow for Jungian features through Lilly's model of multiple programs. Lilly's model of the biocomputer is very useful, but dry, in that the description of mental programs lack content. Jung remedies this lack with the rich field of archetypes to give depth and color to the internal programs. So, armed with the creativity of Jung and with the organization of Lilly, I believe that a multi-faceted self emerges who can shape and construct their own reality. Leary shows us a self in progress, and from Plato, we must assume the responsibility for the necessary harmonization of self-completion.
We end up with a representation of the self that must develop itself to integration through its own efforts. This places a great deal of responsibility upon both individuals and the society, not only to take the self into hand (so to speak), but also to provide the guidance and conditions for this necessary self-completion. An actualized and harmonized self will lead to greater social harmony and cohesion if carried to a cultural and global scale. But our culture does not yet recognize these self-needs and does not give assistance or guidance to self-integration. To implement an ethics based on this model would require a major awakening of personal and social responsibility.
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