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Fr. 713

February 21, 2016

The author illustrates such a manner of turning questions on their head with regards to the tradition of enduring self in the West:

If we want to know what it is which underpins the continued identity of a self over time, for example, it seems to me nothing from the East threatens the account offered in the tradition of Hume and Locke, in which psychological continuity is the bearer of selfhood. The question posed by a fruitful engagement with the East is whether this continuing self is best sustained by its own resources alone or its engagement with society and with others.

In this way, we can develop an aspect theretofore unseen in the question’s original formulation, according to which we might be given to wonder about that on which selfhood bears. Specifically, we transition from the comparatively descriptive terrain of this question to a more normative inquiry as to whether psychological continuity merely survives or instead thrives in the company of others and through a more thoroughgoing engagement therewith. In other words, we can ask whether the self gains in psychological continuity, qualitatively or quantitatively, with greater exposure to community.

Such is a manner of lending new depths to a question on which Western philosophers had believed the book more or less closed. And this manner does hinge on casting doubt on the conclusions which the question’s thinkers drew from it. Rather, those conclusions can be connected with the framework of a new question as suggested by cross-cultural studies.

Of course, the thoroughness which applies to far-reaching cross-cultural studies of the sort should also bear fruit for approaches to the history of one’s own tradition and its own attempts to bring new depths to old questions. For even the Western philosophical canon has dealt at greater or lesser length with such a social self, as suggested by our allusion to Habermas above:

Western philosophers have never been completely blind to these questions. William James explicitly talked of the social self. Generally speaking, however, they have played down relationality and emphasized individuality. Many in the West now question this, wondering whether we have become too atomized, too discrete. Eastern ways of thinking about the self are a resource for thinking about how we might change this.

We may find still other challenges to this portrayal of events in the role of face-to-face interactions, listening and empathy in deliberative democracy and broad-based political organizing, as perhaps best illustrated by Stout’s Blessed Are the Organized. Still, the author appears ready enough to integrate such challenges into this broad-brushed story; after all, these movements run counter to prevailing trends rather than with them. If the key element for reconceptualizing older “descriptive” questions about self lies in elaborating the evaluative or “prescriptive” implications which the former hint at, then Western thinkers will carry out deeper engagement with relationality at the level of values and valuation.

As per Baggini:

As the West rethinks the importance of relationality, it also needs to think which relations matter most. At the moment this looks decidedly under-thought. We worry about “bowling alone” and about diminishing social cohesion but are the relations that can fix this the ones of family, friends, neighborhood, community, nation, social media, interest groups or religion? Comparative philosophy shows us that there is more than one possible answer, and perhaps others that no great tradition has yet given.

In reality, abstract approaches to instantiation or concretization challenges like those facing relationality and its valuation are, as shown in pragmatism, unlikely to yield universal solutions across all instances. The factors at the root of diminishing social cohesion will vary greatly from one instance to another, and, naturally, so will the solutions for those factors. Where greater emphasis on and visibility of neighborhood are sufficient to solve one set of problems, greater emphasis on and visibility of nation may not be.

In the end, it may prove necessary to inject a greater measure of relationality (or contextualism) into the very way of thinking used to broach such issues. At most, we might say that to greater need for relationality at the level of self is necessarily paired a greater need for transversal identities, i.e. identities, practices and communities which cut across or fuse certain of the boundaries between such extant relations as family, friends, neighborhood, etc. Therein lies perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from Baggini’s text: increased awareness of the instantiations of self’s relationality in other cultures may clue us in to new forms of relatedness to be instantiated in our own culture, be it wholecloth adoption, modified fitting or thoroughgoing translation, and at the levels of childrearing, education, politics, etc..

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