The Hermeneutic Self

The Hermeneutic Self (Interpreting a life)

            We are aware of the skill said of some, that they ‘read others’ well. But how do we read ourselves? We are also aware that our self-conceptions rest mightily upon not how others actually see us – this would be too harsh a portrait in most cases – nor how we see ourselves – too bright-eyed, most likely – but rather on how we imagine others see us. This projected otherness, the looking-glass self of Cooley, functions as a kind of Goldilocks zone for our personhood, somewhere in between the too-soft of solo self-perception and the too-hard of the authentic other. We are also told, on top of all of this, that we are generally ‘too hard’ on ourselves, no doubt to give us the sense that our imagined other, that constructed mirror, is more realistic than it might be if we had always patted ourselves on the ethical back. The echoist cares too much what others think or might think, the narcissist too little either way, and thus we are compelled all the more to seek some middle-ground which thence turns into a kind of groundedness for Dasein as a public self. Nevertheless, this attenuated and extrapolated selfhood still requires ongoing interpretation, not only to adjust its own expectations, reading its life-chances in the wider world, but also to process what are now becoming but biographical memories.

            The manner in which we do this mimics a more general hermeneutics, the method and theory of interpretation, dialogue, and understanding. Verstehen into Deutung, one could remark, is the dynamic of our dialogue with the self. Understanding into meaning, with the third term being either comprehension, if one is of a more empiricist-rationalist bent, or meaningfulness, if one is taken by the more existential sensibility in life. For the hermeneutic thinker, however, the apical term in this personalist auto-dialectic is rather Selbstverstandnis, or with its double intent, ‘self-understanding’; understanding one’s selfhood but also being utterly conscious that one is also doing that work oneself; that is, it is an exercise in the self understanding itself. The combined effect of ‘standing under’ oneself occurs when we defer to experiences already committed to both an authorship and a memorial authority. On the one hand, we have done this or that in the past and it has ‘worked’ for us. On the other, we are said to, or say to ourselves, that we thus ‘own’ it; it is ours and we not only take responsibility for it in the casual and popular sense of ownership, but also, perhaps more obliquely but also more profoundly, we see it as part of our self-definition, a way to own not only our actions and thus take care, ideally, about their implications in the world and for others, but also the chief manner of identifying them with our own agency.

            This volitional vector gains its verve not merely from whatever personal panache we bring to it as a kind of patent or insignia, but also simply from how consistent it appears to the others. This is, generally, also the most consistent feedback loop from the social world back to ourselves; we are regularly adjusting our self-presentation not only in accord with others’ rights and feelings as defined by both State and the state of mind of individual persons around me, but all the more so, in order to ensure that we ourselves do not fall out of the cultural frames as given and taken by the idealized other in its most ‘generalized’ and Meadian sense. I hijack George Herbert Mead’s surname not only because this conceptualization of the self’s agency is mainly his, but also to link it homonymally with the simple median; the moment in the graphic distribution of all actions wherein the most expected ‘cause-effect’ in the social world comes to be. Certainly, just as we are rarely our ideal self, our actions in the world can thus only approach what might be their idealized form. Even so, each of us confronts that same disjuncture, and the farther we are off the mark the more we generally feel it. Only those with a diagnosed mental illness or the unguarded criminal appear not to register the affront the remainder of us ourselves register with them, given their behavior. In both cases, however, the discourse suggests that indeed such an objection is taken in, it is just that both sub-sets of our fellow-persons are attempting to gauge, from moment to moment, just how much it is they can ‘get away’ with, not unlike the poorly socialized younger child. This pseudo-autism, if you will, is prevalent far outside the raft of so-labeled cases, and is better seen as a consistent function of neurosis. This takes its effect far beyond Bleuler’s original definition, which, as a hallmark early symptom of schizophrenia, did not carry any especial weight in either social or popular understanding.

            The blind side of this lack of confrontation with one’s own actions is of course that interpretation both holds little sway over our personal sensibilities but as well, marking this hic draconis against others unwary, any diagnosis would suggest a deliberate avoidance of becoming a selfhood in the first place. It is well known how the schizophrenic, or even those with lesser challenges such as authentically independent autism, suffer from a lack of ability to develop the self in relation to others. Indeed, ‘self’ has no real meaning outside of this relationship, an element of the social bond more generally. Which in turn suggests that the rest of us also incur an ongoing challenge in understanding just what it is this or that subset of fellow-persons needs from us, or what it is they cannot, or are unwilling, to give in return. The lesson for one’s own self here is, I think, that we must be aware, astutely and even acutely, of the regular disconnects between our expectations of others and what they are actually able to give us of themselves. It is also germane at this moment to give impetus to the idea that those with ‘two-spirits’ or ‘multiple persons’ in the fashionable sense are simply trying out various versions of the self’s division of social labor; one part of me adjusts to the world-as-it-is and another, perhaps seen as more authentic, does not. The ‘theyness’ of this yet other subset of human contemporaries in Schutz’s sense, views themselves as a more-than-one due to the lack of cohesion they observe between social ideals and realities, a tremendously troubling problem each of us must confront, perhaps on a daily basis.

            It is likely that this phenomenological explication of theyness is what is actually occurring, but just so, each of us bears this same intersection of selfhood, either aligned in a crucial crucis of motive and action which in turn is authored by the singular self of those who decide that their authorship denotes as well an authority upon social relations, or those whose division of agentive labor connotes a sense that the world authors them overmuch. In older terms, this would have been interpreted along the lines of ‘strength of ego’ versus ‘presence of superego’ or the like, but today we might suggest rather that the two-spirited selfhood is attempting to split the difference amongst competing ideals and social contexts, and is thus perhaps taking the sense of role conflict too literally, or perhaps actually experiences this conflict too sharply to thence too-closely adjoin these competing roles or role–sets. The expectations which others have on ourselves must then be adjudicated, reorganized and redistributed in a manner suggestive of those who subcontract their efforts or, in managerial language, ‘delegate’ tasks and are therefore able to reallocate their attendant resources, even if all of this action is internally defined and only externally observed as skirting the theatrically ‘schizoid’.

            Even so, none of this exempts any specific person from the purely human questions of ‘what I am’ or ‘who am I’ as the process of self-interpretation must needs continue, perhaps with a heightened sense of urgency in all those who work to divide and thus conquer, as it were. For most of us, the history of hermeneutics works itself out much as it had done in History ‘proper’, from the generalization of textual exegesis in Schleiermacher to the world as text in Dilthey, through the ontology of Selbstverstandnis in Heidegger to the effective historical consciousness of the selfhood approaching its own ‘fusion of horizons’ in Gadamer. For others, this more patent lineage is adjusted or yet skewed, though in wholly patterned ways: the sacredness of selfhood is conserved and made into a reliquary only for the individuated modernist soul, preserved from role-conflict and competing expectations by being held aloof from textual generalization as well as from the world. For the ‘theyness’ of being, it is Heidegger’s instanciation of hermeneutic ethics that is taken most to heart, excerpted from its own wider pedigree both past and future and caressed as would be the chalice of amethyst Richard Strauss has his singer extoll in one of his most famous songs, ‘Take my Thanks!’. For the multiplied persona, the divided selfhood is, quite literally, thanking itself for preserving what it of its utmost; their ownmost Being-aside-the-world. In our most personal moments, we too understand, belatedly, what it means to be ‘two-spirited’; the effect of retreating into our own singular self, even if just for a moment, placid and at peace with existence, bereft of world and of history but for the most noble of self-understandings: that in running along toward death I am also living mine ownmost life.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, aesthetics, education, religion, social theory and health ,as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future (On Avoiding Ourselves)

            Though selfhood is not thinghood, we have placed in our way a number of distractions that help us avoid the basic challenge of ongoingness. The fabric of this temporal vestment we are compelled, as living beings, to don and to wear and thence wear out, is such that while it admits entry to several kinds of origins, it is nevertheless something placed upon us, and which does not have as its source who we are as persons. In short, though only at first glance, the difference between nature and nurture is the same difference as exists between the what and the who. If one is content only to be a thing, then natural selection can suffice. But if one wishes to develop their fuller humanity, to become a who and not merely a what, then it is to culture we must turn, and in a sense, turn into. For it is only culture which provides an identity beyond that mammalian, and this in turn is a species-shared identity, quite apart from all of its diverse guises. Yes, there are a number of ‘sources of the self’, as it were, most of them outside of our ken and afar from our reflection, but at the same time we, with a gritty panache, come to embody and even to ‘own’ much of this source material, even if we as often feel that it also possesses us.

            This veteran selfhood, ‘mature being’ as Gadamer has referred to it, represents the dialectical pinion resting uplifted from both nature and nurture. The ‘debate’ between their thesis and antithesis is, unless seen dialectically, a false one. There is no either/or at work or at stake. We are at first animals which are then encultured to become human beings. That this socialization process begins perhaps even before birth is suggestive that our animal ‘nature’ is something to be overcome, something that culture takes pride in moving beyond, just as we might well take a similar sense of accomplishment away from having become our own persons yet within a culture. We are perplexed by this movement, even so, and I imagine that this is what is part of the elemental puzzle of ‘when’ a human being begins to become human, at birth or rather even at conception. For the vast majority of human existence, humanness does not appear, at least fully, until one had survived the first difficult years of life itself, say, in social contract societies, until age 6 or so. This first and most difficult accomplishment is celebrated through renaming rituals, and indeed, the infant and small child in these primordial societies were not generally given a name at all, reflecting the shocking mortality rate at large. Another new name at puberty and after perhaps a month of passage, almost immediate adulthood. Another new name with the marriage bond, and then finally a pseudonym, so that the living might still refer to the now unspeakable dead.

            Van Gennep, in 1909, was the first to codify the four-square rites of passage, as he first called them – birth, puberty, marriage, death – and though they resonate with us today, we have made into signage what once were assignations. And there is yet another wrinkle; that selfhood is not identical with one’s humanness, just as one’s person is not the same as one’s culture, one’s individuality not always in line with one’s society. Hence the lazy idiom ‘human nature’, which no thinking person would ever dare to utter in response to what is in fact habitus at most, irresponsibility at worst. There is no singular nature which is human, for to be human is to be a being of both language and history, both of which change, sometimes radically, over time. What remains within our essential condition as Dasein is, on the one hand, the anxiety of our running-along, and on the other, the care which we bring to our thrown projects. The apex of this more telling triangle is concernful being, itself a prequel to the mature being noted above. And if cheap talk of human nature is one common exeunt from the confrontation with both the tradition – a weighty but wholly cultural habitus and historical inertia – and of equal import, that with myself, we hold a number of other pleasant pleasures to ourselves when avoiding the day-to-day dalliance with our ownmost demise.

            Nostalgia is perhaps the most insidious of these entanglements, but the base thrill of authority and its exertion is another commonplace instance. In the one, I am free to do nothing and let everything be done for me, as it ‘must’ have been in some imagined social horizon, dimly perceived through dimwitted lens. In the second, I am free to do everything to another, and thence have them carry out my bidding. The family unit is the crucible in which their dark alchemy is carried on, to the detriment of any and all children. In the one, the child is regressed, which is convenient for our consumer economy, and in the second, she is enslaved, which in turn produces complacency for the State. If we adults bemoan the absence of courage in our politicians, we are only ourselves to blame, since we tend to desire cowardice in our children, and some, yet more evil, even take pleasure in it.

            So, let us suggest that the selfhood of self might be a way in which to distinguish the appearance, however belated, of mature being in the individual person who has also, through this same process and crossing over this same limen, moved from mere individuation to individuality. Certainly, it is a daunting prospect; this sense of aloneness, without or within the prop of aloofness or even astuteness, but the grace of adult life allows for a number of runs at it. I am unaware of anyone who has made the full hit the very first time, and perhaps it is the case that it is a cumulative affair, and after all, who’s counting? And it is doubtful that one can play the probability game with life-course maturing, as if one seeks to roll a twenty but one has five rolls of the relevant polyhedral to sum such a number before one is out of chances. So, if the looking glass self provides a basis upon which to construct a later selfhood, the elemental anxiety and care of Dasein’s thrownness develops itself upshifted into a concernful being which is the conscience of this selfhood experienced as mine ownmost compass. The cardinal directions have been exposed for what they are; if meritorious aesthetically or ethically, they are not so much thoughtlessly heeded but at least noted as benchmarks, but if they are hollow, their idols are toppled through the sheer and simple withdrawal of our specific idolatry of them. No God can exist without believers.

            The question of ‘believing in oneself’ too has been adulterated in false adulation. It occurs most commonly in hortatory manuals that describe in lurid and very material terms what the ‘good life’ is supposed to be, and to be about. One has ‘arrived’ when one attains a certain status, both in one’s professional field of expertise, in one’s purchase of esteemed real estate, through one’s trophy spouse, or even in smaller instances such as the auto one drives or where one takes a vacation. All of this sounds very 1950s, but is it truly the case that we have left these markers behind us? I would hazard rather that even the more recent in-group status-seekers have their own versions of ‘arrival’, whether feminist or queerist, transist or ethnist and so on. And what of the non-European non-binary person driving the German SUV, a common sight in any urban center. Like the creationist who also drives a similar vehicle, seemingly unaware of the essential contradiction this embodies, or blithely able to ignore it, the post-colonial culture critic, through their frontage and their rewritten self-esteem, is nevertheless a novel participant in the same sources of the self which had given all those cultures ever without a conception of the self an almost ontological pause. One might proffer a simple slogan here; ‘The West is evil but by gods I want to be Western’.

            In one’s own way, of course. And in working towards this renewed self-interest, the non-European will inevitably encounter the same existential challenges we ourselves have come to know so well. In adopting a self-conception, the traditional cultural suasions of kinship and tribe drop away. The entanglement here is the same one Europeans endured several centuries ago, and also explains in the fuller part the regressive temper and backsliding tempo of immigration societies; those whose ancestors left Europe never underwent the maturing their newly estranged relatives would, not unlike when a native of Paris visits Quebec and is bemused by the fact that there, the Francophones speak as if it were still the 17th century. All of those peasants and religious fanatics thrown up on indigenous shorelines the world over! Is it any wonder that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound found solace in Europe, only to reject it through a neo-Catholic recidivism for the one, a Neo-fascist recidivism for the other. Yes, Europe has grown stale, comfortable, weak-kneed and smug, but perhaps the perduring subsistence of the querying and querulous Cossack, as well as that of the adolescent and absolutist Yankee will provide for the best of Western thought a cracked mirror, wherein it can identify the fissures of its own latter-day revolution.

            Might it not be the same thing, writ small, for the denatured yet over-nurtured self? We each of us can stand for querying, for another to question our oft-drab druthers, just as we might be enlightened, once again, by all those who did not cross over the first time. If so, if we can step aside from all that we feel we ‘need’ to maintain both our status and our esteem, we might then discover the threshold to mature culture is much closer than we would have surmised. We might indeed begin to understand that to be fully human is not to rely on any rite of passage but to have become one’s ownmost movement of being, engaging the fusion of horizons whilst engaging in concernfulness. To know this would be to know the history of Being itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Wokeness Monster

The Wokeness Monster (Lives in a lake near you).

            If you go down to the woods today, you’ll be in for a big surprise: there’s nothing there. The remaining trees arc majestically in the breeze, their canopy verdant with both life and limb, the deer skittish at our presence, the bear blithe, the wolf skeptical, the cougar only half-interested, being a cat after all. But in a nearby lake, something untoward doth lurk. Only ever peripherally glimpsed, its form a mere parallax to reality, yet fully imagined as real, this monster dwells in a vanity of self-deprecation as much as in the absence of a mature being resolute.

            Wait a minute! Hold it right there. Did you just say, ‘the remaining trees’? What kind of woker-than-woke statement is that? Are you some kind of tree-hugging wolf-kissing Subaru-driving hippyesque liberal? I’m quitting here then. No, I really am; I’m walking, just watch me! Mom’s meter-less taxi awaits my pilot. Oh, okay then, continue.

            Though it is the case that the sardonic co-opting of the ungrammatical term ‘Woke’ – originally referring to a kind of enlightened state of political being kindred with the other awakenings haling from American religious history – by its critics represents something mean-spirited and lazy, I am going to suggest that in fact it is those who are so labeled who have done much more lasting damage to not merely the idiom but far worse, to the idea of enlightenment itself. For the followers of this fashionable flaneur are the Wokeness monster.

            The lynchpin of this sensibility is that one’s social location creates one’s perception. The genesis of this idea may be found in Vico’s ‘New Science’, of 1725, and it was given its most modern formulation in Marx and Engels’ ‘The German Ideology’, of 1846, in which the now legendary statement ‘consciousness is itself a social product’ may be seen as key. It is important to recall that this book was not published until 1932, as its authors could not find a publisher who would take it on. Daily, I feel their pain. And for me, aside from my books’ contents, the fact that I am manifestly not ‘Woke’ scares the fastidiously fashionable presses away. No, according to this locational position, I am nothing other than a middle-aged professional white straight Euro-male, and thus have absolutely nothing of merit to say to anyone. In short, I am not a person.

            It is this depersonalization that an over-reliance on social location brings to the human being which sabotages both ethics abroad and conscience at home. The idea that selfhood should only be composed of the happenstance confluence of social variables is indeed a patent evil in the face of existential integrity. For the self is what is gained when such chance factors are overcome, and not at all the outcome of their continued presence. We, as human beings, are more than the sum of our parts. Our consciousness has evolved to be that Gestalt, a melody, and not a mere series of notes. Similarly, our culture too has evolved to be a harmony, and not a random collection of sounds and of late, mere noises.

            To adhere to the sense that all you are and all you ever can be is dictated in some deterministic fashion by external structures and normative strictures is not only to do fatal disservice to one’s own humanity, worse, it is to frame the other as dehumanized. And this in spite of the apparent grave concern such framers have for ‘the other’ and even ‘otherness’! Yet this is precisely what the followers of ‘Woke’ take pride in doing; self-sabotage and the sabotage of the Self. The former might be forgivable if one is an addict, has a serious mental illness, or was abused as a child, and then only for oneself. The latter has no pinion, no remediating quality, no possible heuristic, damaged and aborted as these other concernful cases are. It has only the juvenile legerdemain of the one who lingers enthralled to what by the original definition of Woke is the very opposite of enlightenment and awareness. I would go so far to say that given this; such a sensibility is more of a malingering than anything else. It represents in many cases perhaps a knowing avoidance of personhood.

            Why would one desire to remain a mere thing in the world of things? To deny the very essence of what one is as a member of the human species? I will suggest here that it is simply due to the reality of a world which now asks of each of us to become more than what we have ever been before; more mature, more responsible, more quick-witted, more conscientious, more aware, and that for many, and that for especially the young, this demand of the world as it is, is so scary as to be unimaginable. And thus, to be Woke in today’s sense is to be fearful of one’s own authentic being and far more fatal, to give over the fate of the future to each and every limit that has made the human past such a present burden.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.