Monday, August 26, 2013

108. The self as work in progress

Heidegger is said to have abolished the spectator theory of the subject, the self as autonomous, disconnected and looking at the world from outside. Instead, the self is involved in the world, and is constituted by actions in that world. Thought and action interact. I discussed this before in this blog, in item 40, on being in the world.

The rejection of spectator theory arises also in pragmatist philosophy, as in the work of George Herbert Mead, with the idea of the self as constituted by interaction with others in the world.

This is part of a wider shift of thought from a static view of the self, with a given mind and body, a given identity or authentic self, to a dynamic view of the self as work in progress. This is found also in the thought of Nietzsche and of Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard described the self as ‘a relation that is itself related to itself’. I understand this in terms of the idea of embodied cognition that I discussed in the items on cognition (23-29). The brain constructs representations of the body, which yield a feeling of coherence of the self, and representations of the world, and higher level representations of representations, on different levels of cognition.  On some level, representations of representations may constitute self-consciousness.

The idea of the self as work in progress, in being in the world, in existence, forms the crux of existentialism, of which Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger are seen as the fathers.

As I discussed in a preceding item on Wittgenstein (item 105), meanings of words get established in their use in practice, yielding language games with their rules of legitimate usage.

The idea was carried further by Michel Foucault, who analysed how legitimate meanings and conversations get established in practices that reflect the interests and positions of persons or institutions in control. See his studies of prisons, health care and education.

This leads to a view of the human being as caught in the power of institutionalized discourse that eliminates freedom, in a suppression to which those subjected themselves contribute, in their tacit acceptance or inevitable entanglement in the language games to which they are brought up to submit. This suppressive power is all the more sinister for its being hidden in what is taken for granted, in the tacit rules of the language game, to the point that what is in fact submission is seen not only as well intended but as beneficial.

As I discussed in item 50, towards the end of his life Foucault tried to find a way for the individual to break out by ‘turning its life into a work of art’. That is what rebelling intellectuals and artists do, and entrepreneurs (as I indicated in item 41). They try to create a new game but thereby break the rules of established games and suffer for it.

In item 107 I proposed that hope turns into despair, and loss of trust, when one gets trapped in conditions one can neither choose nor influence, in established systems and corresponding language games. Kierkegaard proposed that we can only escape from despair by surrendering to God. Rebellious intellectuals, artists and entrepreneurs find other ways to create new hope.