The Problem of Self-Determination

  • Title: Contemplations, The Problem of Self-Determination.
  • Author: Arvindus.
  • Publisher: Arvindus.
  • Copyright: Arvindus, 2011, all rights reserved.
  • Index: 201107261.
  • Edition: html, first edition.



The English word 'determination' comes from the Latin 'dēterminātiō'.1 This is a compound word consisting of 'dē' (denoting a movement away, off or down)2 and 'terminātiō' (denoting a marking off or delimiting of something).3 So in a determination something is marked off, and set away from other things. The Latin 'terminātiō' can in its turn be traced back to the Greek 'terma' or 'termis'. This word has meanings such as 'limit' and 'term' attached to it.4 This meaning, along with the meanings of its Latin sprout, reverberate in 'determination', which in the English dictionary is defined to be a fixing of extend, position or identity.5

For something to be determined means that it is fixed in its extend, position or identity. In a determination a boundary is set between what a certain given is and what it is not. In this setting of a boundary there are normally two givens in play. The first is the given which boundary is set, and the second is the given which sets the first's boundary. So in a determination a certain causal relation is in play. The determiner determines the determined.


That two givens are in play is not truly applicable of course with self-determination. For in self-determination are the determiner and the determined one and the same. About this English word 'self' much can, but here only the for this contemplation necessary shall, be explicated. The word 'self' is considered to be rooted in the Old-Germanic 'selba'6 or Old-Teutonic 'selbo'.7 Many scholars trace the word back to the stem 'se', of which the Latin reflexive pronoun 'sē' is one of the sprouts. This stem has a striking similarity with the Sanskrit 'sva' (denoting one's own)8 that cannot be ignored, and the word 'self' thus undoubtedly has Proto-Indo-European roots. There is no need right now to dig deeper into possible relations and roots of the Sanskrit 'sva' and it is of more importance to proceed from the Latin 'sē' as being mentioned to be a reflexive pronoun. For like 'sē' is also 'self', when used as a pronoun (or used as part of a pronoun), reflexive.9 Examples here are 'himself', 'herself' and 'itself'. 'Self' then can be understood as 'reflexive'.


In a determination does the determiner determine the determined. However in a self-determination is the determination reflexive of nature. 'Reflexive' can through the Latin 'reflexus' (meaning 'bent or curved back') be traced back to the Latin 'reflectō' which denotes the same thing.10 So with self-determination being reflexive is the determined by the act of determining being bent back to the determiner, whereby the latter by means of this bending back is set as identical to the first. A self-determiner determines himself. Taking the meaning of 'determination' in mind does this mean that a self-determiner fixes his, her or its own extend, position or identity.

The Problem of Self-Determination

In the title of the present contemplation is self-determination explicated as problematic. The word 'problem' can through the Latin 'problēma' be traced back to the Greek 'problema'. This latter is derived from the Greek 'proballein', a compound word consisting of 'pro' and 'ballein'11 (or 'ballo').12 With 'pro' meaning 'forward' and 'ballein' meaning 'to throw' is a problem thought to be something, like an obstacle, thrown forward. This seems to be a somewhat coarse interpretation of the Greek 'problema'. For it is not the obstacle itself that is thrown forward in a problem. The Greek 'problema' carries also meanings pertaining to a defense,13 like for instance a shield or a fortress.14 And with 'ballo' denoting not just any throw, but an intentional throw to hit something,15 may a problem be thought of as a forward obstacle (or even an enemy's defense) to be hit for destruction. So a problem is primarily an obstacle that keeps one from moving forward and that therefore is fit to be hit and destroyed.

Now according to the title of the present contemplation is self-determination a problem, is self-determination thus an obstacle that keeps one from moving forward. This problem is localized in the 'self' part of 'self-determination'. Determination itself is not problematic. On the contrary. It is exactly a steadfast determination that helps one moving forward. It is with the help of determination that one is able to move from (being) point a to (being) point b. In such a case does point a determine point b. Point a is the determiner and point b is the determined. Lack of determination may keep one at point a, never reaching point b. And as such is determination part of a certain dynamism. A logical formula would express the thought as 'a⇒b' ('if a then b'). In this formula does the implication symbol '⇒' indicate a determination.

The situation is different with self-determination. In self-determination is point a both the determiner as the determined. In self-determination does one move from (being) point a to (being) point a, and thus does one not really move at all. A logical formula would express such a self-determination as 'a⇒a' ('if a then a'). This formula is obviously true, but it is in no way meaningful. Self-determination is not meaningful. That the formula comes out in the way it does is understandable. If someone or something is determined by him- or itself, then nothing really new can be the result. Self-determination determines only out of the elements that are already present in the regarded self, staying isolated from different elements. And that is why self-determination cannot lead one forward. A self-determiner may be able to modify himself, but he will never be able to renew himself. He may be able to spin around his axis, but he will never be able to move forward. And thus is the self-determiner an obstacle and problem to himself. Blind and deaf for every contextuality the self-determiner cannot lead, nor can he be lead. He is a true solipsist. Self-determination is an incestuous determination. Static waters make stinky pools. So the advice is to open the sluices and to let dynamism have its flow. For self-determination is a problem.

  • John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005.
  • Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York / et alibi, 1996.
  • John Groves, A Greek and English Dictionary, Comprising All the Words in the Writings of the Most Popular Greek Authors, With the Difficult Inflections in Them and in the Septuagint and New Testament, Designed for the Use of Schools and the Undergraduate Course of a Collegiate Education, Hilliard, Gray and Company, Boston, 1834.
  • G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford University Press, London, 1961.
  • Henry George Liddell / Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
  • Monier Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Etymologically and Philologically Arranged, With Special Reference to Greek, Latin, Gothic, German, Anglo-Saxon, and Other Cognate Indo-European Languages, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1862.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.