The "Self," Not Technology, Can Save Us

Self-image

School’s out for me. I am done with the course I have been leading at my school for gaffers: The Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement. My course, titled, “Who am I really?,” examined how the concepts of “self” has evolved over time from premodern days to our arguably post-modern era. The course text was On Being Authentic by Charles Guignon, a philosophy professor at U. of Southern Florida. He traced the evolution of “self” and also described how the related term, authenticity, changed. It was an eye opener to both the class members and to me, even though I have been thinking about a closely related topic, what does it mean to be human, for quite some time.

Authenticity is important when one thinks about the impact of human beings on the planet. To live authentically is to act out of a belief in who you are, what kind of self you have. Sounds easy, but there is a hooker. You never have a completely free choice in the matter. The prevailing views of society always exert a strong influence. Long before we entered the modern era, individuals believed they were a part of some cosmic or theocentric order. They identified themselves with this external framework and acted accordingly. Being authentic was to act one’s assigned part. Life’s guidance came from the outside, either the Church of the tradition. With modernity, the self appeared as something inside. Luther and other Protestant reformers looked inside for the source of salvation and created a form of religious individualism, focusing religious life on the individual. The ritualistic ties to the established Church were broken. Devout individuals, for this first time, could point to their own relationship to God. In other words, an individuals could speak of a self or some inner being responsible for their choices toward God.

Another major force in creating the modern self was the rise of science. Galileo conceived of reality as a universe, constituted by a multitude of objects interacting according to fixed laws. In the years that followed, scientists discovered many of these laws and reduced them to abstract mathematical expressions. Old traditional explanations were supplanted by new scientific findings and, absent such findings, were to be disregarded or set aside. One such belief was that of the self, whatever it was. For Descartes, the disembodied mind played that role. Self became an immaterial point of thought and will. The human being became a subject set over against a world made up of objects whose properties could be discovered by applying the new reductionist methodology. The human body was placed in the class of all other objects, just another thing with an intrinsic nature like rocks and trees.

Where earlier cultures were theocentric with God at the center or cosmocentric with a focus on the universe as the source of order, the world that accompanied these changes was anthropocentric. The human knowing self now stood at the center of the universe. As an aside, I just finished a review of a book, The Anthropocene, that argues we are now entering a new geologic era characterized by human-caused changes. Perhaps in degree, but our influence on the Earth started to be significant the moment when we first saw ourselves at the center and began to view the new-found knowledge as means to control and subdue the earth. Descartes wrote, “our goal is to make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.” The reification of society as an object created by humans reinforced the notion of otherness and individualism.

What I find most critical about this view of self is that it assumes some fixed human nature. It tilts the balance between nurture and nature all the way to the side of nature. What that nature is has been subject to argument, but the prevailing view was and is that of Homo economicus: rational beings, operating always to satisfy their self-interest within their available means. For a while, Adam Smith thought that human nature was empathy. More recently Freud gave us a model composed of the id, ego, and superego.

Given the fixedness of human nature, societal institutions that evolved upon this concept were equally fixed and followed immutable laws. The political economies of modern nations presume the economicus model of human being without question. Greed is good, as Gordon Gekko says in the movie, Wall Street:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

The emergence of the modern, bounded (relative to the pre-modern notion) individualistic self brought many new possibilities, as old traditions of a fixed place in either God’s or the mysterious universe crumbled. But a new phenomenon came along with this different sense of freedom. Life became objectified and lost meaning. People were left without guidance about how to live their lives. The rather poorly understood idea of happiness became the aim of most. It was central in our founders thinking and memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. But happiness has turned out to be chimerical; here one minute, gone the next. To many thought leaders, this central aim of life created alienation from others, both human and non-human, and even from the pursuer herself. Marx seized upon this tendency in modern, capitalistic life as did Freud with his new psychoanalytic theory. By the early nineteenth century, led by the creative actors, poets, artists and others, a new model, the romantic view of self, evolved as a counter to the cold-hearted modern self.

Romanticism, through the works of poets like Holderl├»n and Wordsworth, or philosophers like Rousseau, created counterarguments. The self was not just some object among other in the world; it is the highest and most present among all other objects. It was not something to be discovered through science, but only through immersion in one’s thought and feelings. Experience was its source. The truth about who we are was obtainable only though life itself. Last, this kind of self possessed a sense of wholeness and oneness with the world that was missing from the prevalent view. This sense of creating one’s self suggested that everyone was a kind of artist, acting out the truths derived from immersion in the world. In the absence of scientifically made rules, what one did with her life became less important than how she lived it. The romantics spawned a great outpouring of art in many forms.

But romanticism was short -lived and dominated by the modern view. The discovery of being at home on Earth returned to a sense of domination and control. With ever more powerful technology coming forth, the Earth (nature) was again being exploited as Francis Bacon had argued, “…nature had to be hounded and made a slave to the new mechanicized (sic) devices; science had to torture nature’s secrets out of her.” He had earlier written, “I am come in very truth, leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

This is not the end of the story, but it is the end of this post. It may be the end of the modern world, done in by its own thinking and acting. I will continue with the evolution of the self in another post. Philosophers and others have taken up a new way of thinking beyond the hard, analytic counterpart to the objective, unchanging, rule-bound world. The so-called linguistic turn has freed them and us common folks from the inevitability of purely positivistic modern thinking. As they and we have learned that language gives meaning to all those objects out there, we are able to think about who we are and and what that world out there means in new ways. We can think about the self in new ways that may better represent the way we think and act. More importantly, we are beginning to understand how tightly selves are bound up in the culture. This, alone, raises a new possibility: if we change the culture, we can change the way we think and act, and vice versa. We can prove Bacon wrong and begin to care for and serve both humanity and the Earth instead of enslaving them. More later.

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