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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.

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