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Fr. 711

February 19, 2016

A recent article from The Stone, “What Is the Self? It Depends” opens with an anecdote from the author:

I recently took my self to a gathering of a dozen selves to discuss the idea of self, East and West. This created a strange dissonance between the theoretical premise of the meeting and the empirical reality. The people seated around the table seemed very obviously all to be the same kinds of beings, yet they kept telling one another how differently they conceived the self. Stark differences between theoretical selves were completely indiscernible in ordinary human interaction.

This experience proves quite telling for inquiry into the self in that this inquiry’s seeming uniformity, as conveyed by the singular “self”, conceals a multiplicity of semantic relations and rival concepts. Beneath the univocal term, we find a crossroads between fields, practices and traditions.

Though there not be as many definitions of self as there are people, suitably small gatherings of differently inclined persons and experts may lend itself to that impression. For, despite their outwardly belonging to the same species, they understand their existence and essence as a member of their species in conflicting terms. This leads to a situation in which an observer would have considerable difficulty mapping the sources of disagreement onto observable features of their interaction. From where do such differences arise, and what lessons can the observer draw from proceedings of this kind?

The less charitable among us might simply see this as another failing of theoretical philosophy, i.e. that philosophers have difficulties pinpointing the articulation between their abstract reasonings and concrete factors and action. This lends the practice a certain specious quality, at least in appearance.

Yet the author sees an alternate explanation as to why a single inquiry into a singular self can lead to a divergence of responses:

We have different conceptions of the self the world over not because selves differ, but because at different times and places people have more or less concern with different aspects of selfhood. They provide different answers to the question “What is the self?” because that apparently singular question in fact contains any number of different ones.

Like ourselves, Baggini sees in “self” a contested concept the different meanings of which must be related to precise times, places and concerns, which we have elsewhere dubbed “purposes”. This confusion sketched, he then extracts from this provisional conclusion certain further points. Indeed, these depart from our own study into political and personal conceptions of self in the Western(-style) democracies, and the author sees such a departure as an invitation to advocate more cross-cultural approaches to self in order to examine the latter’s articulation in other countries, times and peoples.

Yet Baggini does not favor therein an uncritical, merely anthropological method. On the contrary, this cross-cultural examination should call into question both our everyday understanding of self and the conceptions operative in other societies (following sufficient study). As he frames it:

The point is not to reach some kind of warm, ecumenical mutual understanding, rooted in profound respect for difference. Rather it is to see that our questions are not the only ones worth asking and that by considering others, we might not only open up new vistas but also see our familiar intellectual territory in a different light.

Here, we might see a notion close to that of Charles Taylor’s perspicuous contrast wherein the comparison of two parallel formations enables us to understand both how they came to develop via genealogy and how we can imagine our formation’s future development via imaginative projection. It is just such a notion that the author brings to bear on “Eastern” and “Western” conceptions of self by way of “relationality”, understood broadly.

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