Lately, I’ve been engaged in four intellectual activities. First, I’ve been listening like a madman to anything and everything that Rick Roderick (who is absolutely rad) has to say; secondly, for my qualifying exams, I’m reading through the 19th century thought in philosophy of religion and theology; thirdly, I’ve been dealing with the concept of authenticity, a notion upon which I’ll most likely write my dissertation; and finally, I’ve been thinking through the meaning of Christian faith, the Church’s role in that faith, and its relationship to the modern, secular world. Needless to say, that’s what you’re getting in this post: a hodgepodge of nascent thoughts that is sifting and sorting through these four projects simultaneously.
Accordingly, what I’d like to do is continue this conversation in the context of unfolding and defining a constitutive role for the church, not necessarily in a modern social order (for if anything’s become clear to me, it is not necessary in this regard), but in light of modern social-orders (for which I would most certainly include the postmodern, as directly dependent on and an extension of the modern, as well.) We’ll see if this task is possible, or if I’ll get too caught up in some of the philosophical conversations that come first. I would, however, like to
To begin with, I will need to define a “self” as this idea is deeply constitutive of most interpretations of society today. However, this is no easy or uncontroversial task in today’s intellectual climate. So, I will spend today’s blog laying out a few differing conceptions of selfhood and (one might argue), the means by which our understandings of selfhood have developed.
Regardless, then, of whether anyone thinks that the self is transcendent, substantive, or in anyway separately existing from what it means to be an individual in space and time, the self (I hold for now) refers to the means by which this lump of intellect, will, and flesh pieces together the moments of its existence, (that “lump” being definitive of you). I will have to unfold this idea in a few different ways.
First, the self presupposes something like a human being (classically defined as “rational animal”) as existing in relationship to a world. So humans, like other animals, live in an environment, surrounded by certain phenomenon beyond humans control (world), and moved by certain given needs, the assuagement of which is pertinent for survival. As such, the human objectifies the world and his or her relationship to that world, creating instruments and tools in relationship to that world to help and order it so that it’s more conducive for survival. Accordingly, we create political structures that help to fulfill more easily our human needs; we create medical structures that ensure that if we get an infection, we won’t die from it (antibiotics).
If the self first of all presupposes being a human in relationship to a world, secondly, the self is something more than this relationship. The self proper is, as Kierkegaard confusingly says, a relations within a relation. That is, within the human-world relationship, there can be determined another relationship which is a self-relationship. In this relationship, the self is understood as conscious, or really consciousness; the self is an awareness of the human-world relationship. To put this insight in perhaps more concrete terms, one does not merely go about one’s daily routine…wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, etc……unaware. Perhaps one is not always aware of the routine itself, but one is certainly always aware of something, unless of course one is sleeping. But, this routine being nothing other than the way in which you, as a human, interact with the world, this routine and your place in it is the “human-world” relationship defined above. In turn, this point leads to the fact that the self is a conscious awareness of the human-world relationship; expressed through the previous example, the human as aware of itself as and in routine.
With these two insights in mind, when I say that the self is that which pieces together moments of existence, the self is that which recognizes the disparate moments of a routine as being performed by some single self-consciousness. That is, that the same lump of intellect, will and flesh that woke up today is the identical to, or at least intrinsically related to, that lump that woke up yesterday. I think, then, at some basic level, this understanding of self is what many philosophers and theologians understand as selfhood.
But this understanding of selfhood is not innocuous. One can push this definition in several directions, many of which feel uncomfortable to most at a “common sense” level. So, one can say that the self is not merely an awareness of the link between disparate moments in a routine; the self is also the interpreter of that routine, that by means of which the routine is found to have any sort of meaning or purpose in the first place. Accordingly, such living and routines are not simply imbued with some pre-given meaning and purpose, but given meaning by the human interpreter. In other words, just like we can fashion a lump of wood into a chair made of wood, so too can we fashion our lives according to whatever it might mean to live “the good life.”
So, the various moments that makeup our day and needing to be strung together by a self are interpreted in light of the meaning that any given self perceives there to be in these moments. Why does one get up, go to a job (which that same individual hates), and earn money? Because, for instance, he or she has a family, and he or she interprets those moments as important in light of the necessity of sustaining a family. This job and these moments are interpreted; such is what it means to “live for something,” as the phrase goes.
But these moments need not have some pre-given meaning to them. It is possible that we, as selves, in fact altogether create the meaning in our routines; we are constitutive of that meaning and thus constitutive of ourselves. So it is precisely this point that is being spoken of when you hear Nietzschaens talk about “projects of self-creation.” This point is a difficult one. However, let me try to elucidate it with the following example.
When you or I see a spider, we think of a few different things, at least if you’re sane. It’s ugly, hairy, and has eight legs and eyes. Some think it intrinsically deserves death (though I only think that if it’s in my bed). Such is the theoretical construction of the spider for us, the meaning and purpose we see in it. The entomologist, on the other hand, sees a much different being. The entomologist nearly immediately experiences something that is extremely important to certain ecosystems, helping to keep down the number of possibly harmful bugs; the entomologist also experiences the spider in a much more detailed manner than we do. He or she sees not simply eight legs, but the hairs at the end of the legs that help it to climb. In other words, just as the entomologist’s our prior intellectual observations and interests helps him or her to experience the spider and its world differently, so too do our prior intellectual observations and interests help us to reconstruct our world in such a way that we actually experience it differently. How we intentionally (or even unintentionally, which is always a part of the postmodern claim) construct our worlds is what is meant by the term “self-creation.” To self-create is to construct a world of meaning.
So too with ourselves. Not only is it possible that we interpret a world, but it is also possible that the means by which we interpret that world is constructed by the very selves interpreting the world. Frankly, this insight is the beginning of certain postmodern insights (in my opinion), which leads (if we should so want) to the possible deconstruction of selfhood.
In other words, the final moment that I’d like to point out focuses on some of what were once considered the more radical insights of postmodern discourse (they’re not terribly radical anymore, though, no matter what your teachers might tell you). The self is itself a construct, for which there is no necessary ground. That is, that aspect that we tend to hold most dear…that we are meaningful, quasi-autonomous interpreters of our world…is blown apart. The conditions for the possibility of being a self rests in something prior to our selfhood…the social construct for Fucoult or the chance emergence of some signifier for Derrida.
At any rate, these are some of the basic insights necessary for understanding any constructive dialogue about selfhood, which I think is necessary for beginning to hypothesize about the role of the church today. No doubt, these insights are difficult, but I believe they are well worth their time to produce in oneself.