In search of self II
Before determining which tools may be available to us, we must first set out more precisely the kind of object which we are here concerned with. Indeed, without an idea of the object, it proves difficult to choose the most appropriate tools. At this point, the reader will rightly wonder whether self can be an object for consciousness or for empirical study. If, as Taylor’s Sources of the Self asserts, self is a non-empirical object at which we can get only indirectly, the effort seems all the more dubious. What can we say about that which eludes us? Some might even assert that we would do better to let the notion of self lie in favor of a more workable notion.
Yet this difficulty dissolves itself, at least partially, with the double awareness that reference to self proves unavoidable in political dialogue, wherefore a political exigency, and that people nevertheless find a way to talk about self, be it through narrative, science, or history, wherefore a historical precedent. Moreover, in that self shapes or colors our (perception) of reality, it proves all the more important to be aware of self and have something to say thereon. In sum, in response to the interrogation whether we might rightly set self as object, we can gesture both to the need which makes itself in political discourse and those studies which have come before.
If the need makes itself felt, it remains a priori plausible to fulfill this need, at least in part. The fact remains that there exist good explanations and bad explanations, better and worse, and this has unsurprisingly been the case with works on self to date. The majority of such studies have ranged from somewhat incomplete to woefully inadequate on this count, even among those which have explicitly taken self as their foremost topic. We need only consider the case of Taylor, who, in Sources of the Self, pulls back precisely at that moment where he might have the most to say, leaving his description of self at that of a “manysided object”. Instead, Taylor prefers to identify the diverse cultural strands feeding into the notion of identity while avoiding any deep investigation of how these hang together in a more complex picture of self.
If we above asserted that explanations can be better or worse, it remains to be seen in what manner we can deem them better or worse. Lacking any transcendent standards by which to levy such a judgment, any such evaluation must come with regards to purpose. This evaluation can take multiple forms, of which we shall briefly sketch three. The evaluation can bear on the explanation by questioning how well it fulfills the purpose which the explanation either explicitly or implicitly sets itself. Alternatively, the evaluation can question whether and how well the explanation fulfills other purposes than those which it explicitly or implicitly sets itself. Lastly, the evaluation might call into question the value of the purpose itself, independent of the explanation which comes to fulfill it.
For the time being, we shall remain with the first of these and hold that an explanation may be deemed better or worse in virtue of the purpose which it sets itself. By extension, if explanations can be better or worse, this would suggest that self is an object capable of receiving explanation. The question remains of which kind of explanation self is susceptible. This, in turn, leads back to the question of purpose, for the purpose alone determines what kind of explanation self will receive, i.e. what kind of considerations, evidence and argumentation are admitted in favor of or against the explanation.