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Fr. 651

July 10, 2015

Exposition of Smith’s critique now in place, we can briefly turn to the questions that we briefly indicated as latent but undeveloped in her text. Recall that:

Although the question of reduction and romance receives considerable exposure in the text, nowhere else does the author approach it from this more general perspective. Instead, she turns to more concrete questions of how this or that service either reduces or fails to reduce the human person. Likewise is occluded the offhand suggestion that the world may be home to different kinds of personhood or selfhood, incapable of relation to broader traits, which merits greater treatment as well.

To that end, we treat the first of these questions: how does one avoid being overly reductive or romantic? Let’s first consider what the overly reductive and romantic views might look like. At one extreme, reduction could reduce self either to a collection of outwardly accessible data (as with Facebook) or, still further, to the purely accidental, biological formation seen in pessimistic materialism for which self is the experienced illusion of being a somebody (as credited, perhaps wrongly, to recent popular media).  To the former, Smith has already provided sufficient response to show precisely where it proves wanting. To the latter, we might respond as follows: how thoroughgoing can an illusion be in truth while still being something that a sufficiently observant individual can overcome? Either the illusion is as total as the pessimist claims, in which case the claim is in principle unverifiable, or the illusion is far from total and may leave room for some more meaningful notion of self.

At the other extreme, that of romance, we might find something like the view espoused by Smith, for whom the person or self is a mystery. As with the Romantics, the self would be endowed with inner depths far outstripping the expanses of the outer world and of which the majority of us only have the faintest idea. Our relationship to self would then primarily consist of the articulation of those inner depths in forms of outward expression brimming with symbols which reflect at once inner and outer meaning. Accordingly, our irreducible complexity would be communicated to others and yet would remain a work distinctly our own, always to be taken on our own terms.

To this view, many responses of varying persuasiveness have already been made, of which we shall recall only one. How many individuals are both capable of cultivating such an expression of self, which, despite itself, favors artistic expression over others forms, and choose to pursue self-articulation in this way? For these reasons, to talk of person as mystery is often joined such terms as esoteric and impracticable. These terms are merely other ways of suggesting that this image of self is ill-suited to the needs of contemporary society.

Given that both reduction and romance are fraught with difficulties and the temptation to engage in either can prove quite strong, we better understand Taylor’s decision to abstain from giving an overly precise image of self in itself, contenting himself with scattered remarks on the manysided object. For, by keeping his distance, Taylor avoids both reductionism and romance. He neither reduces self to a handful of traits (all the while highlighting certain important strands) nor romanticizes our relation to self (in elevating one strand over another). Yet, malcontents we are, the feeling lingers that his is not so much a solution to the dilemma as a means of repressing it. Hence the need, as outlined elsewhere, to illustrate self in so many broad strokes.

From this, we might draw a broader philosophical lesson. As regards self or other philosophical objects, our primary goal as philosophers consists in resisting reductionism. As we saw with the case of voting and character, the issue is neither entirely of genetics or environment. And, with self, neither substantialist notions of self nor external controls suffice to apprehend our object. Yet this slogan must be viewed with suspicion, for it is just that – a slogan – and itself an instance of reductionism, this time with regards to philosophy’s purpose.

Let’s turn to the second of the two questions that we have set ourselves here. In the world, are there different kinds of personhood or selfhood which coexist? Given the scope of this question, we will content ourselves for the time being with simply outlining some of the problems which fall out from this perspective. If there are different kinds, it would seem wrongheaded to set out an account of self that makes sense of one kind while pretending to generality. The challenge would then consist in either establishing a clear relation, logical or otherwise, between the different kinds or showing that the kinds betray a greater commonality than appearances suggest. Relatedly, were we to allow for the existence of different kinds, the task would then shift to establishing the reasons for which different kinds exists, be they cultural, geographical, biological, etc.. Would this constitute a species of (cultural) relativism and dilute our broader claims? An enquiry of this kind lies beyond our present means, which likewise accounts for Smith’s own reticence on the subject.


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