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?