In a previous post I sketched the meaning and uses of the modern idea of the self. One important source of this idea is Rene Descartes. For Descartes, the ideas of the self emerges from his application of critical, methodical doubt to his own experience. The upshot of this method is the conviction, that the fundamental, indubitable reality of each human person is the self, expressed in Descartes’ famous assertion, “I think therefore I am.” Within the historical context of modern philosophy this ended up meaning that man is his consciousness. Overtime, and with the addition of many influences, the idea of the self has solidified into the conviction that the human person is bare consciousness without additional definition — an irreducible identity that floats free of determination or definition by anything exterior to itself. In sum, the modern “self” is autonomous consciousness.
There are many, many ways to critique the idea of the modern self. However, before proceeding to criticize the idea of the self, it is important to understand the appeal and apparent usefulness of the idea. At a very basic level, the idea of the self may be associated with the linguistic and practical need to speak about oneself. Even if the philosophical idea of the self is misguided one needs to be able to communicate about oneself. I need to be able to speak about my feelings, experiences, relationships, and thoughts. It would be a very sad day if we attempted to remove such language from life and culture. There is an everyday, common sense way in which talk about the “self” is perfectly reasonable and intelligible. Yet, even at this common sense level where we find the “self” non-problematic, we need to be on our guard. It is very easy to slide from common sense talk about oneself to entirely illegitimate philosophical inferences.
Analytic philosophers of the twentieth-century amply demonstrated that the grammatical subject “I” too easily may be turned into a metaphysical entity separate from the body and social relationships. Indeed, the tendency of modern men to try to transcend social definitions is grounded in the unwarranted conviction that the “I” of each man transcends his social relations. The hopeless quest to define who “I” am apart from all social relations is the root of much modern angst and despair. Sadly this romantic quest too often involves a rejection of our real, verifiable identity as father, mother, brother, citizen, artisan, etc., for an ephemeral autonomy. In this situation the person has abandoned some of the most important sources of identity in order to find his identity. This is a quixotic quest. So what is the appeal of this misguided idea?
I believe that the appeal of the modern “self” involves two factors: (a) an exaggerated sense of autonomy, and (b) an understandable desire for personal continuity. Nothing so appeals to modern man as that which aggrandizes his sense of autonomy. Modern man believes in man; he believes that he is a law unto himself, legislating his own values, purposes, and identity. And the idea of the modern self does this wonderfully. How many movies and stories revolve around a protagonist who discovers an inner identity that transcends social roles, custom, or religion? Modern man’s question for himself in many ways revolves around the quest to break free from custom and tradition — to transcend the concrete ties that bind. Nothing so grounds autonomy as the rootless and groundless self that floats above history. This is most evident in the current transgender movement, in which the human person can even transcend his own body.
The second appeal of the modern idea of the self is more attractive — the understandable desire to find a ground of personal identity. In some way that is difficult to explain I (forty-five year old male, father of two, Roman Catholic, weighing well over two-hundred pounds) am the same “person” as the five year old boy who played in the puddles with his father. If you lined up pictures of these two instances of “myself” or descriptions of the personalities of these two instances there would be very, very little commonality. On what grounds do we say that these two instances are really the same? Biologically all of the cells have changes. Even from common experience, we say things like, “well, I am a different person now.” And yet, we insist that fundamentally the same subject, the same agent endures across all of these changes. I understand this impulse; unity and consistency is one of the aspirations of the human heart. Accordingly, despite the many criticisms that may be made about the “self,” this concept is important to many men because it serves as the abiding subject beneath all of the change and variation that goes into one man’s life — the constant placeholder as it were. This is perfectly understandable, but as shall be demonstrated in my next post, the idea of the self remains dubious and misguided.