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The evolution of the modern Self has been a convoluted process. At times, under the influence of the intoxicating ideas of the French Revolution, the humanism of Condorcet and Jean-Jacques Rousseau revived the themes lost since the Renaissance. However, the opposite trend of constricting the Self within larger categories such as race and nation occurred simultaneously. Of course, this was not seen as a restriction—as Dror Wahrmann puts it, during the late 1700s, the “ancien régime of identity” yielded to the “modern regime of selfhood,” as people began to conceive of gender, race, and class in novel ways. Identity was seen as external while the Self was internal. This debate must necessarily take place within the Western tradition. Eastern musings on the Self did not find their way to the West except through the works of a few Orientalists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. Furthermore, modernity as is understood in the West was never truly embraced by the East for various reasons. In any case, they hardly fit the trajectory of modern Western thought and would be seem artificial to incorporate.

In the beginning, there was Rene Descartes. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’), stands at the head of the modern tradition in Western thought. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Self became central to human knowledge about the world. Such a definition had to come first; knowledge of the world had to wait until selfhood was made philosophically secure. For Descartes, the ‘I’ had to be capable of awareness (experience) as well as rational faculties, ideas which would underscore the Enlightenment. This emphasis on the Self as the origin of all experience was continued by John Locke, who believed that selfhood was created through experience. According to Locke, the experience of forming thoughts, opinions, and attitudes created an embodied personhood that was ontologically fragmented but united through the reason and reflection. For Locke, because experience varied with perspective, the Self consisted of three parts: bodily (physical), relational (to others), and reflective (mental). Thus, Locke rejects ideas of an innate moral sense, an Aristotelian essence, or a Leibnitzian monad in the formation of the Self. Across the Channel in France, Benjamin Constant echoed this line of thought. For Constant, however, the Self is not only fragmented, but it is also fluid. The only real autonomy the Self could achieve was through constantly remaking itself in the face of subjection and incompleteness. Bernard Mandeville, however, saw the Self as united not because of reason but passion and social need. Mandeville’s social/psychological theory, that the Self is formed deep in the human psyche out of inborn needs and desires, bears some resemblance to the work of Sigmund Freud about a century later. As part of the social need, Mandeville argued for the social division of labour along occupational specialties and rejected the interference of guilds in the economy. He also rejected any moral authority that presented itself as virtue and sought to manipulate the economy. Adam Smith, known more for his The Wealth of Nations, never explicitly posed a question on the nature of selfhood, but extended Mandeville’s and David Hume’s themes of passion and self-interest. Hume had argued that one could not conceive of the Self. The mind was a theatre of perceptions, and one had no idea of where these scenes are represented or the materials of which they are composed. Therefore, reflection upon the Self merely produced these secondary images and not any “true” Self. Morality, for Smith however, was also partially dependent on economics—societal happiness was necessary to individuals who hoped to maintain a stable market, and that would promote morality than any a priori understanding of the term.

French contributions to the understanding of the Self followed the works of the early British writers. As a result, much of their thinking was a response not only to the political and social situation in France but also to their English colleagues across the Channel. Many French thinkers situated the Self in language. For example, Abbé Etienne Bonnot de Condillac rooted human psychology in sense experience far more deeply than Locke, and without any spiritual component. The Mind can gain independence from sense-experience only through language. Language is required to express oneself, and once this faculty has been achieved, people are then capable of recalling previous experiences. The formulation of their pasts with a language gives them control over their memories and experiences. Thus, language and the reflection made possible by it are the source of all human intellectual progress. Strong parallels can be drawn between Condillac and Ferdinand Saussure and Jacques Derrida, who extend Condillac’s theses in their projects. Denis Diderot, another French Enlightenment thinker, worked hard to separate morality from religion, thus creating the basis of the Self that was entirely divorced from metaphysics and undoing much of Augustine’s work. Relying upon the innate physical organisation of individuals as the basis of morality, Diderot believed that the desire for power was natural. Therefore, the prevalent social hierarchy was a structure of domination and dependency, not a beneficent system.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau furthered this hypothesis by arguing that man was a noble savage by nature, but was corrupted by society. Human beings have diminished their own natural potential by pursuing the unnatural demands of class, religion and ambition. If only they were able to liberate their true nature, they would free themselves of the suffering they now endure. Human beings should therefore recover the sanctity and promise of the individuality with which they were born. As Rousseau wrote, amour de soi, or positive self-love, was converted to amour-propre, or pride, by interaction with society. Unlike British thinkers, and even most French thinkers, Rousseau’s individual reawakened his own individuality by traveling inwards, away from external dialogue, by withdrawing into the natural self and contemplating his own divinity. These ideas reoccur frequently in Western intellectual history, the most recent rebirth being in the form of the Frankfurt School in Europe and C. Wright Mills in the United States.

In Germany, Johann Gottfried Herder, the father of the German Romantic Movement, situated the Self in biology. To realise oneself, he argued, one must realise the vast system of interactions that is the universe. Herder believed that reason is not the life-force by itself, but is closely associated with it. Therefore, language and education, the products of human rationality, were the instruments of the development of the Self. Thus, for Herder as well, language determined thought. Philosophers after Herder chose to analyse the ‘I’ for itself, rather than to approach it through linguistics or social relations. Immanuel Kant, for example, organised the idea of selfhood around autonomy: the Self achieved freedom by following the self-made laws of its own rational nature. Before it does anything, however simple, the self must think. What it thinks of at this primal stage is itself, which it conceives to be a unity: it is self-conscious. Therefore, in order for us to be in any contact with the world, we must have an awareness of ourselves, and a sense of unity of self. Such selfhood was universal in that all rational individuals were equally capable of achieving it. However, before being able to think of anything, the Self must think itself. The self, then, is the feeling of connection or consistency between all your perceptions. In a sense, there existed multiple selves—transcendental, empirical, and practical/moral—all in a unified state. “I” referred to all three selves. Thus, there remained a unity of consciousness. For Kant, subjectivity can only have content through awareness of the world. What we experience is a continuous stream of mere representations. These representations are not our faculties but the products thereof. Primary amongst these faculties, is a sense of ‘I,’ the noumenon, or as Kant called it, the Ding an sich. The I-in-itself is the foundation on which is built the rest of our individuality, tempered by sense perceptions, thought, and language.

G.W.F.Hegel, another German philosopher, attempted to solve the dualism many others had created before him, specifically Kant, in seeing the Self as material and spiritual simultaneously. Hegel posited that the Self was at once individual and universal—that the individual was merely part of the larger universal cognisance. The Self as individual was restricted to the body, but as the universal, the Self transcended every particular form of existence.

Nietzsche’s concept of the Self was based on his famous dichotomy between Apollonian (rational) and Dionysian (emotional) nature. Nietzsche believed that for full self-realisation, one must step outside this material framework. Schopenhauer agrees with Nietzsche’s assertion and continues that it is causality that restricts us to a pre-reflective level. As Schopenhauer would explain, subjectivity is imprisoned within material experience, not outside it. At another level, Schopenhauer is criticising Kant’s vision of the Self—how is it possible to unite, Schopenhauer asks, a transcendent Self with the Self that is created through sense-perception if it is not possible to step outside of a material framework? The answer, according to Schopenhauer, is simply that we cannot. Simply put, Schopenhauer rejects Kant’s dichotomy between phenomenon and noumenon. For Kant, the noumenon was the Ding an sich, but Schopenhauer saw it as the Will. In essence, Schopenhauer argues that we participate in the reality of an otherwise unachievable world outside the mind through will. We cannot prove that our mental picture of a world outside our reality corresponds with our understanding of reality by reasoning. Will however, allows us to partake in this discourse. Martin Heidegger was perhaps one of the first figures who displaced the human subject from the centre of debate. Heidegger noticed that philosophers from Descartes onwards had seen the human interaction with the world as dependent on a localised and self-aware recipient of experiences called the subject. They had not, however, looked beneath the structure of subjectivity to an even more basic and fundamental issue: what does it mean to be? With this theoretical concept, Dasein, Heidegger was able to do what Nietzsche was not, to step outside the perceived material centre of discourse. Heidegger posited that although humans had an important role in history, human-world (subject-object) relations were not necessarily dependent upon human consciousness. There could be nothing more fundamental than the fact that we are. Furthermore, Heidegger did not see the separation of man and world in the neat Cartesian manner as those before him did. Dasein is constituted by the fact that it is in the world and belongs to it, a secular monist view of sorts.

Sigmund Freud upended theories of Self that had preceded him by challenging the identification of the self with the rational processes of the conscious mind. The Freudian model of the inner Self begins with the premise that the division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis. This division posits a binary split in the mind, suggesting a state of conflict that is built into the human psyche. From the above, it appears that a tension of opposing forces is built into the Freudian paradigm. The first set of opposing forces, the conscious and the unconscious, create a primary split, followed by the division of the unconscious into the superego and the id, and the parallel split between the repressed unconscious and the preconscious. Thus, for Freud, the question was not simply the Self but the fragmented Self.

The later work of Michel Foucault seems in many ways antithetical to that of Freud and Nietzsche, since the latter two posit the existence of the individual subject who exercises power or on whom it could be exercised, while for Foucault, there is seemingly no subject who creates power, although there is motive for its creation. In framing his inquiry thus, he envisioned a Zarathustra-like transcendent self that was non-reflective. In his studies of power relations, Foucault was then able to investigate how a body was able to serve as an instrument of power, usually as a historically specific internalised norm. Self-reflexivity was a dangerous trap that imprisons us in a set of practices and routines that are determined for, rather than by, us. Thus, power relations are both intentional and non-subjective and there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject. Furthermore, he later notes that the individual is not the vis-à-vis of power; it is one of its prime effects. Consequently, Foucault thinks of power as intentionality without the subject, such that power relations are intentional and can be described without being attributed to particular subjects as their conscious intentions.

In the post-World War II era, the Frankfurt School has received much attention. Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, among others, addressed the problem Foucault had set himself: the swallowing up of the subject. The rationality of Western civilization, its positivist notion of progress and science, enslaves nature but to whom? This group of thinkers sees no force that will enable the subject to emancipate himself. Adorno insisted that the subject was still for-itself, but no longer in-itself. The self-sure subject is taken over by the hypnotism of mass culture.

The question, “when did the modern Self come into being?” immediately mires us in the ontological minefield of questions such as, “what is modern?” “what is Self?” and “what is the point of actualisation?” The process by which the perspective was shifted from the divine to the individual is explained above. Of course, it is impossible to present a full study of intellectual developments and influences within the scope of one blog post, but the milestones are briefly presented. The debate on the Self shifted from the Self’s ability to reason and interact with the world, to a primary agency by which it was self-aware, to Being itself, to an internal split in the nature of self-awareness, and finally to the self-deluded entrapment of the Self by reason. Needless to say, the development is neither so straight-forward nor chronologically neat, but the modern Self, whatever that means, was formed in the fires of this age-old debate.