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Fr. 645

June 24, 2015

1.) From what image does our account proceed?

2.) From what purpose does this image set out?

Naturally, to 1.), we can provide no definitive answer, as the inquiry remains in its initial stages. Nonetheless, we can provide a sketch in the way of response, particularly as regards the relation of our image to those outlined above. At this stage, we propose as image of self a “linguistic polyrhythm”, or, in other words, the simultaneous expression of two or more distinct or conflicting subelements of identity. From where do we derive these terms?

“Linguistic”. The inspiration for this term owes in large part to Stout, for whom justification and progress towards truth pass, in greater or lesser measure, through language, expression and discourse. If there is no explicit link between language and self in Stout’s work, there remain a striking number of parallels between descriptions of language and descriptions of the individual as historically situated. This parallelism is quite accentuated in Ethics After Babel where the object consists precisely in the study of different moral languages and their interference within Moral Language. It proves easy enough to map subelements of identity onto Identity in just such a way. Moreover, given that self-knowledge and self-articulation (particularly in reason-giving) pass necessarily through the medium of language, the self, as available to ourselves and others, likewise retains (or takes on) a linguistic character.

“Poly-“. Here, we draw more heavily on Taylor’s notion of a manysided object. As suggested elsewhere, it is to Taylor’s credit that he secures a framework by which to paint self in broad strokes and that he can gesture at the multiplicity at play in the self. Yet, however many the sides of the object, the image itself does not allow for evolution or change in the number or relation of sides and, without addendum, fails to capture an important feature of self: change over time.

“Rhythm”. Indeed, it seems precisely for this reason that Taylor’s contribution stands as a suffix to the base term of “rhythm”, as seen with Barthes and rhuthmos. For rhythm captures the idea both of a changing whole, as well as the freedom concerning those changes (understood as the lack of natural necessity). Additionally, rhythm can be analyzed without pretending to exhaustivity and hence yields certain abstract terms by which to work. And this proves its great advantage with regards to Taylor’s image.

In short, our image, far from an invention of its own, rather seems a a conjugation of three: a rhythm in which traits make themselves apparent in language and which we can map in abstract strokes without betraying the particularist intuitions at its root. Certainly, this suffices as a preliminary response to 1.).

What then of 2.)? What is our purpose in pursuing this inquiry? On this count, our position seems rather closer to that of Rawls and Stout than the others in that we are interested in the conditions of a society of fair discourse, in which subject and individual, expression and rights are mutually reinforcing. Of that, more has been said and remains to be said.

Fr. 644

June 23, 2015

As with other non-empirical objects, the images, metaphors and analogies with which writers approach self tend to vary from one work to another. Indeed, they display a considerable divergence, to the point that we might consider these images, in principle, endless. This owes, at least in part, to the different goals and purposes which the writer brings to her notion of self. As the goals and purposes are not interchangeable, neither are the images of self. Accordingly, if there are infinite ways to characterize self and each corresponds to a specific goal or purpose, to what goal or purpose does my own correspond?

To better understand my goal, it is perhaps important first to situate, albeit briefly, several prominent images of self in relation to their respective goals. Taylor’s Sources of the Self evokes a many-sided object in order to suggest that a sufficiently complicated modelling algorithm could portray identity in three dimensions (in accordance with his own tripartite presentation of contemporary identity (religious – utilitarian – Romanticist, roughly). Yet with the idea of an infinitely many-sided object comes the futility of mapping out those sides, and so the image itself acts as a limiting case for inquiry into self. In sum, Taylor both proposes the broad strokes of an account of self and suggests that those strokes can be only that – broad.

In contrast, an essay in Habermas’ Between Naturalism and Religion likens self to a glove turned inside out. Seen from this angle, the glove reveals a number of threads structuring its form, much as the social fibers run through and constitute the self. Habermas aims here to bring out to what extent self and subject are socially constructed in discourse roles. No limiting instance is invoked.

Strikingly, Rawls and Stout present inverted images of self. For Rawls, the self approximates the position of Kant’s noumenal self. As citizens of modern democratic societies, it is precisely this self, emptied of particularities and endowed with certain universal properties (e.g. rights), to which we should aspire and from which we proceed in political discourse: a subjectivity free of worldviews and comprehensive doctrines.

Unsurprisingly, Stout flips the image on its head by stating, rather straightforwardly, that there can be no approach to the position of noumenal self. For we are historically embodied individuals, belonging to a given concrete place and time, for whom there can be no transcendence of the historical position. Accordingly, the truth of self lies in bringing out the conditions and particularities of our situation so as to present them to and synthesize them more accurately with others in political dialogue.

Indeed, Rawls and Stout end with different images of self, for they start, if not at cross-purposes, then at least purposes relatively distant from one another. Rawls seeks the conditions of a fair society of cooperation for which the elaboration of self takes place via abstraction and the establishment of interlocking rights. For Stout, the problem is not so much that of cooperation but of dialogue and understanding: to pursue fruitful discussion, the individual must give reasons framed by her worldview and comprehensive doctrine. If dialogue and understanding may lead to a fairer society in the end, these are still not the point from which Stout sets out.

Finally, a last image joins those already presented: Barthes’ notion of rhythm or rhuthmos, which we linked via extrapolation to a notion of self. “[C]onfiguration sans fixité ni nécessité naturelle”: in this, we found precisely an image like that of Taylor’s, but which left open the possibility of painting self in finer strokes through potential appeal to a less rigorous science, as it were. To come back to the present throughline, Barthes appeals to rhuthmos precisely because it accords with the evolving forms of ways of life brought out in his case studies in literature and monastic history: how do individual rhythms come together, yield, dominate or balance in human society?

Before presenting our account of self, two questions thus make themselves felt quite vigorously.

1.) From what image does our account proceed?

2.) From what purpose does this image set out?

Fr. 643

June 22, 2015

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.

Travelogue E5

June 19, 2015

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.

Travelogue E4

June 18, 2015

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.

Travelogue E3

June 17, 2015

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.

Travelogue E2

June 16, 2015

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.


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