Some ideas concerning ‘self’

Martin Buber once came up with a very interesting theory of how two people can relate to each other in a respectful way. His theory is best known by the title of his most widely read text, I and Thou. Briefly, Buber holds that from an external view that nevertheless encompasses the internal view of the individual consciousness, (thus effectively merging epistemology and ontology), there are only three positions for any entity to fill – The immediate consciousness of the first personal moment (the addressing “I”), the phenomenon of another person whom the first respects (addressed as “Thou”), and the phenomenon of a person who is not respected by the first (who is thus recognized by the addressing consciousness as an addressed “It”).

Now there are quite a number of insights embedded in this theory; but the theory has some really bad flaws in it.

To begin with, one always has to bear in mind that this theory was constructed in the context of Hasidic Jewish theology. On close examination, it is quite clear that the “Thou” of address is always G*d, or a form He has created which is inhabited by His love (thus, really, a surrogate of G*d). Thus for an “I” to address an other as “Thou”, is really only to show proper respect to the divinity. To treat another human as an “It” shows disrespect for the other, and through that other, to show disrespect for G*d the creator of the other. For a long time, this theory seemed quite strong; however, in retrospect we can see that it is really only a theistic mystification of Kant’s dictum that, ethically, other people could only be treated as ends, never as means.

That raises some interesting problems itself. There happens to be a very frightening insight buried in Kant’s humanistic doctrine. Some time previously, Hume had argued that, since all that could be known of consciousness were the raw data of sense experience and thoughts concerning this data, then these experiences and their associated thought were really all we could mean by speaking of the “personality” qua subject (“self”), which stood revealed as pure illusion – a “convenient fiction” as I think Hume himself referred to it.

However, this discovery brought forth a great deal of confusion and debate. For instance, if the theory is true for any given individual, then it is true for all individuals, which means that all “persons” living together in community are merely convenient fiction, society is a collection of convenient individual fictions, which means that the very idea of society or of community are themselves merely convenient fictions; so what use is there in initiating an “I – Thou” relationship if the “Thou” is but convenient fiction? Is it even possible to show respect for a convenient fiction? Martin Buber may never have admitted this problem, but Kant surely did. Without giving a lengthy reading of the Second and Third Critiques, Kant’s solution is to set aside what we can know of other people or of society in general (which would take us into the realm of essences, which Kant had ruled out-of-court in the First Critique), and simply accept the phenomena, or show, of society since, as it just so happens, this is how we are trained from childhood on. In other words, Kant effectively trumps Hume: All of these fictions are not simply convenient, they are inevitable, and perhaps even necessary, since they are among the various limiting factors on human greed, hubris, and general self-centeredness (which taken together constitute much of Kant’s theory of “radical evil”) that threaten the possibility of community at its core. To reverse the last point in social-ethical terms (and thus make clear the real problem here): while culture is evidently required to limit our impulse toward “radically evil” self-centered behavior, it just so happens to arise as product of that behavior. (One example: “I write this novel to please myself, and then sell it to someone else as a means of acquiring wealth; but embedded in the novel is a moral insisting on the ethical necessity of abandoning self-centered wealth-acquisition”. As a self-aware poesis of such thought, Modern literature is, by its ironic nature, always hypocritical.) This makes a true “I – Thou” relationship, as Buber writes of it, virtually impossible.

Well, but is it possible to imagine some “I – Thou” relationship occurring within such a social context of irredeemable fictitiousness, if only between two people in relative separation from the whole? Not really. For one thing, this notion of “relative separation” (i.e., remaining within society without actually being a part of it) is utterly deluded. Try as we might, we cannot discard the swaddling of our birth-community; our very language is residue from this; the reality that is language assures us of it: When I speak, some segment of the community speaks with me. And without this separation, the pure relationship between two persons held under the rubric “I and Thou” is simply not plausible; neither of these persons, not my self, not that of the other, could escape expressing archaic phrases and hackneyed cliche, precisely when the two of us are prepared to open ourselves up to a possible “I – Thou” relationship between us, because the only way we can remark this possibility is in those archaic phrases we were taught as children and on which our language insists.

What I am saying is that, although Buber obviously borrows from Kant, and although Buber is chronologically after Kant, Kant remains well in advance of Buber’s theory. The “Thou”, being fiction, can only really be addressed as an “it” (i.e., e.g., ” that fictitious thing over there “).

Of all of Kant’s early readers, only Fichte and Schopenhauer recognized that this is the ethical problem toward which Kant’s epistemology tends. Kant himself believed that culture would simply continue to take a normative course; this is the general implication of his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment and of his failed effort at producing a philosophical anthropology, which occasionally reads like some article in a fashion magazine. Kant’s problem appears to be a failure to take into account the possibility of radical political change; not that he believed such change to be impossible or trivial, he simply isolates politics as an enterprise of intellection separable from the arts, religion, and other cultural forms.

For Fichte, the solution to the political problems embedded in this tendency could be found in a kind of nationalistic democracy. Once citizens adopted a religious devotion to their nation, then the practice of democracy could allow individuals to generate whatever other fiction such as would allow them to live with, and cooperate with, all these human “things” around them. Of course there were problems with such a thesis. For one thing, it offers no decent way to deal with trans-nationals who inhabit the same turf the nationals do – such people as refugees from a disaster in a neighboring state, or border-crossing gypsies – or, in the case of Germany, Jews. This lapse opens the way for other political problems of which Fichte seems unaware – for instance, individuals whose personal myths transgress the community’s demand for national identity are obviously not to have much of a say in this supposed “democracy”.

Schopenhauer, by contrast, regarded politics with little more than contempt. He looked to Eastern religions to provide the epistemological roadmap to ethics. For Schopenhauer, the ethical issue is not even a social issue at all, it is the attitude one adopts in order to think one’s way toward greater wisdom. This wisdom would lead invariably toward some sort of quiescence of the passions of the will, and along the journey one would experience another person as something similar to one’s self – indeed, as an entity exactly like one’s self. This would of course collapse the self-centered notion that one could ever really have an individual personality at all, but such humbling would contribute to a surrender of many of the goals that self-centered individuals target, and thus reduce the potential for conflict with other individuals. By the way, none of this theorizing prevented Schopenhauer himself from becoming, at the time, one of the most self-centered individuals in all Germany.

Although Schopenhauer did learn a lot from Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism (and he was one of the first scholars to read Eastern texts without a Christian bias), he was unaware of the full implication of the deconstruction of individualism developed within Buddhist psychology. Schopenhauer wants intellection to generate a space it can inhabit, and into which it can bring the individual’s sense of self. For technical reasons, this is simply not possible; rather than pursue a lengthy discussion here, I will simply insist on the sharpest point: an intellection capable of doing this would necessarily prove ascendent to the individual sense of self, which thus would be demolished in the process. This is a fundamental point of Buddhist psychology – arguably the fundamental point – its origins found in the surviving records of the Buddha’s own sermons. And what Buddhists offer is not the avoidance of such a demolition, but its complete accomplishment. Specific problems of karma, reincarnation, and nirvana aside, this demolition of the sense of self is the basic experience of enlightenment as Buddhists understand the term.
Perhaps none of this ever happens; perhaps this is but an ideal that Buddhists strive toward and yet never accomplish. Yet even mere effort in this direction is obviously preferable to any barbaric assertion of the self in opposition to any other. Violence arises inevitably because having to oppose all other possible selves inevitably raises the question whether it would be better to eliminate “the other” entirely – or even all others, if this were possible.

And now, thanks to the invention of the atomic bomb, it is possible. One suspects that the end of the world will occur when one lucky nut gets command of a nuclear arsenal and then decides to “fully realize” his self – which of course would require destruction of pretty much everybody.


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