The Primacy of Connectedness

interconnection-plate

I am still getting ready to teach my course on the “self” at my senior learning institute. I got a copy of Kenneth Gergen’s book, Relational Self, out of the library and read it last week. Gergen is a psychologist on the Swarthmore faculty. His basic argument is that humans create all meanings through interactions with others. Challenging the Modernist notion of an independent self, he writes:

My hope is to demonstrate that virtually all intelligible action is born, sustained, and/or extinguished within the ongoing process of relationship. From this standpoint there is no isolated self or fully private experience. Rather, we exist in a world of co-constitution. We are always already emerging from relationships; we cannot step out of relationship; even in our most private moments we are never alone. Further, as I will suggest, the future well-being of the planet depends significantly on the extent to which can nourish and protect not only individuals, or even groups, but the generative process of relating.

I was disappointed in the book, but not in his thesis. Care is the central idea in my work. Care is fundamentally an idea about relationship. Existentialists use the compound term, being-with-others to denote the constitutive function of relationship. I am more convinced by arguments from this source than Gergen’s. Care rests on the argument that human consciousness is always consciousness of something. When we are awake and conscious, there is always some object in the field we call consciousness. The existential view that humans gather meaning from being-in-the-world or being-with-others places relationships at the center. If one adopts Heidegger’s view that objects take or meaning through our relationship with them, not from some independent essence, then both the compound phrases have essentially the same meaning. Gergen mentions Michel Callon’s concept of actor-network-theory, where both humans and non-humans are always involved in action, with no difference between the two classes. Heidegger’s notion of equipment is similar.

Meaning arises from distinct experiences that can be expressed in language. If all experiences involve interacting players, language, itself, is an expression of relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Much of my disappointment came from what I read as a failure to make the last point in the above quote clear: How can the notion of the constitutive power of relationship contribute to well-being or to flourishing as I call it? I believe that “care” can do what is missing in Gergen’s book. Care has a normative sense for me. It not only recognizes the fundamental connectedness of life, but also implies that we act in a way to preserve and enhance the flourishing of both ourselves and the other(s). Words would have first been given to describe actions that were effective, that is, meaningful. The context of meaning remains in the use of the same words even though the specific situations are different.

No matter what differences exist between Gergen and me, we send the same message. Unless the modernist culture is changed to embody an idea of human being as relational or caring, we will continue to produce pathological impacts to ourselves and the rest of the world. No amount of fixing up with fancy technologies or institutional arrangements will do. Social paradigms, especially the foundational beliefs, are very hard to change. Ours has been around for centuries and, compared to what preceded it, is considered by most to be a great sign of progress. So, even in the face of present-day human and worldly suffering and deterioration, the clarion call remains, “It’s not broke, so don’t fix it.” Fix here refers to major change. I think this is misguided. Gergen, at the end of his book, includes a discussion of some broad frameworks that are built on relationships, such as system theory, but fails to make a strong enough argument that it is imperative that we start building these into our cultural systems in place of all those based on individualism.

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