The contemporary conception of self is frequently enough bound up with substantialist language, metaphors or presuppositions, all of which require unpacking. A person has a true self whose latent features determine every aspect of his or her personality. A person is born, to some extent, with a true self. A person has a true self to which his or her actions do or do not correspond. The quest to self-knowledge lies through communing with and uncovering his or her true self. By being true to his or her true self, the person does good; by being false, the person does bad.
Though couched in contemporary, secular language, it is easy enough to find the threads common to both this discourse and the religious surrounding the soul. How much of contemporary conceptions of self stems from this discourse, which, while hardly unusual, has taken a backseat in the public domain to less religious forms?
The pessimist might hold that most or all of self-discourse derives from soul-discourse. This reading strategy, following substitution of “soul” for “self”, benefits from a certain intuitiveness; this gains further plausibility when considering how parents often speak of an infant’s personality, despite the lack of formative experiences or environment. In contrast, the optimist could attempt the opposite tack and show in what way just such substitution is impossible. This defense could take linguistic, etymological, anthropological, or logical form. In particular, the contrast between organism and environment, nature and nurture, could shore up the optimist’s position, as well as the lack of explicit metaphysics regarding selves and bodies.
To our lights, it seems undeniable that the linguistic formations are linked, whatever the extent of that link. For this reason, we advocate a critical approach and seek neither to reduce nor to separate but, more modestly, to relate and to introduce distance between the notions. To get better at self, it is first necessary to determine how much of soul is bound up with it. It seems that our project entails something of a crucible (à la Bachelard and the elements.): to push the notion of self to its limit and rid it, within limits, of the linguistic and logical impurities contained therein. If we are to make use of self, then the notion requires explication and pinning down.
Wandering at an end, I set off with measured step for my destination, the university atop a hill. I prowled the grounds about the buildings and sought a way in, perhaps through a window, for it was a public holiday, when at last a member of staff recognized my plights and let me in through one of the main doors. Once inside, I found my way to the colloquium, only then beginning, and attempted to make myself understood to what I took to be my peers. It was with some surprise that I was not among philosophers but woodsmen or, more accurately, woodsman of whom I asked many question while waiting.
He held forth at some length on the utilities of practice and theory, citing his own inability, and that of his underlings, to incorporate the abstract into their everyday management and maintenance of the forests, cutting, logging, burning away. For my benefit, he recalled two examples in particular, that of a naturalist group come to make its case for a species of bat found in those woods and the broader phenomenon of diversity and biome, as well as that of an employee within the group, whose sole occupation consisted in modeling the forests mathematically.
The latter more lengthily held my attention by far, and so I was caught up in the illustration of the man’s work, at which the woodsman could only gesture in the broadest strokes given his thoroughgoing incomprehension of that same work, with the attention paid to ring growth and bough diameter, incorporation of tree and undergrowth density, accounting for the soil types and roads running through, all of this so as to produce an abstract forest of numbers which the employee could manipulate at will and at need. I marveled at the various forms that this mathematical wood might take, be it paper, word or computer simulation.
I took the long way about the grounds in an effort to find some means of ingress, coming at last upon a gate to this, the city’s art museum, within the thick belt of parks surrounding the city center. From a bench, I watched the goings-on and the passersby including today a hunt for a lost earring directed by people wrapping their mouths around not wholly familiar tongue and words. At last, security retrieves the earring, the parties separate. The guards retreat to smoke a cigarette while mean-spirited comments about the Chinese silently pursue the tourists, comments of the kind omnipresent on the continent.
Having come in from the back, I saw that the grounds themselves sweep down to the front gates, a small pond at their center and an impressive beech at its side, flowerbeds and benches interspersed throughout. Before the museum, a rolling photolab, as per the signage, has set up shop to welcome those photographers desperate to bring out still more rapidly the uncanny eternity of the ephemeral scenes that they have captured.
Off to one side of the museum, between fence and wing, I find a bronze centaur. Entitled simply Zentaur, the bronze sculpture proves slightly futurist on closer inspection, for the lines are clean and minimal, the planes smooth and unbroken, the joints between plates visible and letting through the light, such that the whole rather recalls some purified, mechanized version of the myth, armed with ruler and compass, neither bow nor spear in sight. Indeed, I saw in its glossy aspect, the head more helm than head, the intersection of Daft Punk and the Greeks.
Elsewhere, I traversed a park whose paths were not of stone, concrete or beaten earth but grass, an evenly mowed lawn as if humans and the wood had made a compromise of sorts, one unentirely to the benefit of my porous soles slicked with dew.
I found my way, after some time, to a road leading up from valley bottom to plateau height and passed beneath a length series of scaffolding, all metal frames and poles and plywood walls. Trees and shrubs poked in through the opening between walls and scaffold ceiling, some six or seven meters above, and I could not help but think myself in some greenhouse gone awry.
Still farther on, I came across fortification remains and eroded bastions, now isolated and made art displays for want of tactical value, and set within concentric white stone circles. From a distance, I spied a white villa, complete with expansive gardens.
In terraces, I am again faced with humans and their ability to make the steep flat and level, to make of natural heights other than what they are. To introduce general uniformity, I must ask whether there be something decidedly human in this undertaking, this vocation. No wonder philosophers have everywhere taken to their hills, mountains and towers.
At times, terraces seek to join the river bottom by means of stairs. Yet the stairs inevitably lead nowhere and I find myself before a shed or in a private garden or on an overgrown terrace or merely lost among redcurrants, the spillover of some unseen garden. The river fares no better than the stairs for some civil authority has seen fit to lay a concrete bottom over mud or stone, and drought has drained all but a trickle from the passage, running in a central groove.
Again lost, I came upon at a crossroads a memorial of the Second World War, a stone in the shape of a fishhook and bearing the words “Ce que l’on enterre est semencé”. I paused for a moment to consider the literal and figurative fate of their dead and asked no one in particular where those remains now were.