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The Impossible Self – Laura Quinney

January 27, 2012

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake's work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecie.

In one sense the self is thriving. Magisterial works such as Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self and Jerrold Siegel’s The Idea of the Self as well as the plethora of other recent titles on the self testify to the current fascination of the topic. Yet it is a widespread assumption among contemporary philosophers and literary theorists that the concept of “the self” is obsolete. At the end of their recent book, The Rue and Fall of Self and Soul, Raymond Martin and John Barresi conclude that the notion of the self as a “unified entity” has been permanently debunked by modern science and philosophy: “Analysis has been the self’s undoing. As a fragmented, explained, and illusory phenomenon, the self [can] no longer retain its elevated status. And it is hard to see how it might ever again regain that status. It is as if all of Western civilization has been on a prolonged ego trip that reality has finally forced it to abandon.”

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science did away with the concept of the “soul,” and the eighteenth century replaced it with the concept of “self,” but the march of progress liquidated that notion too, along with the related idea of the universal “subject.” Thus much contemporary thought dismisses the discourses of soul, self, and subject as anachronisms. This common view is, I believe, malformed because it entails dismissing the actual experience of subjectivity, that is, the subject’s experience of itself as a subject.

The self supposed to be obsolete is the unitary subject, the integral, transcendent self linked to the traditional religious idea of the immortal soul. I state categorically that the actual subject has never mistaken itself for a Subject of this kind. Modern skeptical thought congratulates itself for a work of demystification that the subject by virtue of its subjectivity performs every day.

Martin and Barresi concede that this “ego trip” is likely to go on despite our putative enlightenment: the idea of a unified self is not dispensable because many everyday practices depend on it. More deeply, the individual has an intuition of selfhood so strong that it cannot be summarily dispelled: “each of us seems to have a kind of direct, experiential access to him- or herself [a Cartesian intuition] that makes the development of theories of the self and personal identity, however interesting, seem somewhat beside the point.” The intuition of selfhood is tenacious; it rides roughshod over the rational truth.

As is often the case, we are enlightened in theory but benighted in practice: “For many central and persistent purposes of everyday life, theory and practice are likely to remain autonomous, at least when it comes to theories of the self.” But does the everyday self really live with itself so naively and happily? Here Martin and Barresi make a mistake characteristic of those who treat the concepts of self and soul in the abstract: they fail to inquire further into the self’s own relationship to the idea of selfhood. For whereas the intuition of selfhood persists within the self, it also is already embattled within the self.

If the intuition of selfhood attends Western subjectivity, then so does its frustration. Subject-life entails interior struggle and disappointment because the actual “self” fails to coincide with its own self-definition. Even to speak of “the self” or “subject” here is a misnomer: we must say that an elusive and as-yet-un-unified “self” feels an imperative to find in itself a “Self” worthy of the name and that the imperative never desists, although such a Self cannot be found. The self does not possess its intuition of selfhood in comfort — it does not fall back on a reassuring confidence in its integrity, but rather seeks for such confidence in vain; it seeks wholeness, but encounters self-division and self-doubt.

Disillusionment with “the self” that contemporary thinkers attribute to modernity actually defines the experience of selfhood. When Jacques Lacan deconstructs the Cartesian cogito and demonstrates that “I” is not self-coincident, he may scandalize the theorist, but the subject is likely to assent because Lacan’s claim captures the felt insecurity of selfhood. The “error” of Rene Descartes’s philosophical idealism cannot be sustained, Lacan says, for “There is no subject without, somewhere, aplianisis [vocab: fading, disappearance] of the subject, and it is in this alienation, in this fundamental division, that the dialectic of the subject is established.”

The rhetorical power of Lacan’s argument lies in its appeal to the experience of subjectivity. Whatever the ontological truth of the matter, to be a subject is to feel that such a description of subjectivity is true. The language of “self” and “subject” may have been rendered atavistic, but the concepts can never lose their hold on the individual subject, because subjectivity is constituted in its balked relation to them.

In fact, the intuition of selfhood has always been perplexed in theory as well as in practice. Western philosophy and literature have borne witness since the time of Greek mythology to the fragmentation of the self. This sense of fragmentation has given rise to the many fascinating paradigms of self-division: everything from Plato’s tripartite division of the soul to Gnosticism’s evocation of the “incrusted” transcendental spirit, Augustine’s description of the “darkness hidden within” him, Descartes’s dualism, and Kant’s faculty psychology, to Sigmund Freud’s map of the psyche and Melanie Klein’s kaleidoscopic “inner chaos.” Radically dissimilar as these paradigms of self-division and their provenances are, they all emphasize the confusion of the self in relation to its own selfhood. They begin by treating the self’s embattled experience of itself as a central fact that cries out for explanation. And the fact is sufficiently central that its explanation opens a window on expansive metaphysical views. It becomes the pivot of far-reaching claims.

The self’s experience of itself as fragmented testifies to larger truths about human nature and sometimes divine nature and the nature of reality. Each theory offers up this feature of subjective experience as a validation of particular ontological truths. Why must reason struggle with emotion and appetite? Because reason is the highest faculty of the soul; it is confirmation of the soul’s origin in the intelligible world. Why is the transcendental soul benighted in the world? Because it fell from heaven, and was waylaid here by an evil god. Why is there darkness hidden within? Because of the human soul’s inherent perversity. Why is the ego beleaguered? It is menaced by insubordinate repressed energies.

The beauty of these claims is that evidence of their truth becomes available to everyone through the simplest act of introspection. Common experience of selfhood is the proof, as Socrates shows in the Phaedo when he disputes the definition of the soul as a “harmony.” The soul is a harmony neither in our experience of the inner life nor in the literary representation of it. (The tripartite division of the soul appears in the Phaedrus; in this passage, “soul” is a unitary faculty but selfhood is divided.)

We previously agreed that if the soul were a harmony, it would never be out of tune with the stress and relaxation and the striking of the strings or anything else done to its composing elements, but that it would follow and never direct them?

We did so agree, of course.

Well, does it now appear to do quite the opposite, ruling over all the elements of which one says it is composed, opposing nearly all of them throughout life, directing all their ways, inflicting harsh and painful punishments on them, at times in physical culture and medicine, at other times more gently by threats and exhortations, holding converse with desires and passions and fears as if it were one thing talking to a different one, as Homer wrote somewhere in the Odyssey where he says that Odysseus “struck his breast and rebuked his heart saying, `Endure, my heart, you have endured worse than this.”
(9q c-d, Complete Works 82)

The soul must discipline the wayward passions and appetites, and the result is frequent internal conflict. This internal conflict, a basic fact of psychological experience, is offered as evidence for the soul’s sovereignty and then, in a leap, of its divinity and immortality. Strikingly, it is not the soul’s conviction of its own transcendence but rather the persistence and strength of inner conflict that proves it is transcendent. The self’s fraught experience of itself testifies to major metaphysical realities. It is a surety that, like Platonic recollection, lies in every heart as intimate and indubitable truth.

From the point of view of science, the authoritative discourse of our own time, the self’s experience of itself has lost its hold on truth-value. Since the eighteenth century, the evidentiary value of introspection has come under grave suspicion. The story of how and why this change occurred is incisively told by E. S. Reed in his book From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology from Erasmus Darwin to William James. Developments in eighteenth-century thought cast doubt on the significance of the subject’s testimony as to its own state.

The tradition of British empiricism in particular taught investigators to treat the witness of consciousness with suspicion: Humean skepticism introduced the idea that consciousness may be self-deceiving, and Hartleian associationism argued that it is shaped by unconscious processes of which, by definition, it has no knowledge. The subject’s experience of itself was thus radically demoted in testamentary status and the study of it banished to “unscientific” discourses: philosophy (primarily phenomenology), religion, literature, and “humanistic” psychology.

In Reed’s view, the chief casualty of this disciplinary divide is respect for “concrete, lived experience,” now treated by science as an amorphous and incidental phenomenon unavailable to analysis. Reed concludes severely that scientific psychology has thus rendered itself irrelevant: “Once the science of psychology arrogates the right to reject out of hand the content of a person’s experience — because it is too inchoate, mystical, or whatever — it can no longer pronounce on the meaning of that experience.

Psychology in its present divided state applies at best intermittently and incompletely to the lives most of us lead.” Reed warns that as a consequence, a void appears where authoritative response to ordinary inner struggle should be. Scientific psychology abandons “the important territory connecting everyday experience with meaningful self-understanding” to the seductive manipulation of demagogues and fanatics.

According to Reed, the last scientific psychologist to try to bridge the gap was William James, who in his view resisted the subdivision of disciplines and maintained the value of investigating “a wider realm of experience” than his contemporaries. James insisted not only on taking the experience of consciousness seriously but also on treating it as a subject about which science ought to find something useful to say. James wrote a deft argumentative sally that Reed does not cite but that clearly supports his view of James. It occurs in The Varieties of Religious Experience, at a moment when James is questioning the scientific ideal of objectivity.

It is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places, — they are strung upon it like so many beads. To describe the world with all the various feelings of the individual pinch of destiny, all the various spiritual attitudes, left out from the description — they being describable as anything else — would be something like offering a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal. Religion makes no such blunder. The individual’s religion may be egotistic, and those private realities which it keeps in touch with may be narrow enough; but at any rate it always remains infinitely less hollow and abstract, as far as it goes, than a science which prides itself on taking no account of anything private at all.

Much as I delight in James’s polemical vigor, I cannot pretend I know enough to evaluate his comments on the limitations of scientific psychology. But neither do I think it is his aim to endorse “religion.” James points out that, when it comes to addressing “private” experience, there is a very strict division of labor between “scientific” and “unscientific” discourses. His polemicism enters in when he adds that supercilious disregard of subjective experience leads to a certain irrelevance. I quote this passage because I wish to draw an analogy between what James and Reed see as the neglect of lived psychological experience in scientific psychology and the suspicion of “the self” in much current literary discussion.

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