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.

The ‘Anals’ of History: e-scatological excrementalities

                        The ‘Anals’ of History: e-scatological excrementalities

                                    …the only pre-existent Logos is the world itself.

– Merleau-Ponty

                Just as did exegesis come to be generalized at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so, at the beginning of the twentieth, we see a generalization of the concept of immanence. It begins with Husserl’s lectures on internal time consciousness, given in 1904-5. The experience of time differs from measured, objective time. Lived time, to be analyzed with reference to the analytic of depth psychology in 1933 by Minkowski, includes a specifically human orientation to World and thus a specific comprehension of its worlding. This brings to immanence an entirely novel aspect, unknowing intentionality.

            The mascot deity with a human interest elides its Being into history and makes that history into the History of itself. Thus Yahweh inserts Himself into the human drama, somewhat begrudgingly, it may be admitted, but with the intent to take part in that drama, to shape it, to enroll its actors and to guide their decisions. At the same time, He brings an expectation that His people will not only act more or less within the compass of His interdicts, but also will remain loyal to His Being, even if it fragments itself within the historical world. This is knowing intentionality, and it does not alter the essential character of immanence because what is immanential to the phenomenology of eschatological history is a God itself.

            Although much of the interaction between the ancient Hebrews and their divinity is forgettable, a series of false starts and circumlocuted intrigues – the mere fact that Moses has to re-ascend to get a second copy of the Decalogue speaks volumes about the challenges facing a community that had defined itself by virtue of the previous ‘astral’ or great year procession age, that of Taurus the bull; viz. the golden calf – the power of the metaphor of that transition remains clear: any people who participate fully in the godhead of Being will now transcend their own pre-history; will bring to the world a new kind of Logos that is not beholden to history as it has been known. The newer ‘pastoral’ religions of the late agrarian epoch all re-evaluate this older authority relationship and reject it while maintaining cultural ties with its wider worldview; Christianity and Islam in the West, and Buddhism in the East. Instead of a mascot coach, as it were, we now see a shepherd guide, a messiah or prophet on earth, ensconcing himself yet more deeply into a history which is not his own. This risk is all and all; for Prince Gautama it means turning away from the world entirely while at once acting as a role model. In the West, we have two kerygmatic figures who are both role models and messengers, Jesus and Mohammed.

            These late agrarian ethical systems still have much to offer, especially in an age of anonymous social relations and material idolatries. At the same time, the conception of immanence is still possessed by a knowing intent, whether it is the understanding of Nirvana in the East or a soteriological path in the West. Only in our modern period do we depart from this once shared path. We find ourselves, rather abruptly, in a world that has no exclusive and inherent meaning. Meaningfulness has become, for us, a history rather than a destiny, an act rather than a fate. Enter subjective intent and unknowing intentionality. These two ‘events’ characterize human interaction with the world as well as underpin a new experience of time; the ‘flux’: “We can only say that this flux is something that we name in conformity with what is constituted, but it is nothing temporally ‘Objective’. It is absolute subjectivity and has the absolute properties of something to be denoted metaphorically as ‘flux’, as a point of actuality, primal source-point, that from which springs the ‘now’…” (Husserl 1964:100 [1928]). This ‘actuality’ also includes resonances of what is now past, from the just now past to the remote primordiality of consciousness, which Husserl immediately refers to as ‘a continuity of moments of reverberation’ (ibid). Then, as if to sunder any connection with any previous Logos, he declares, ‘for all this, names are lacking’.

            Heidegger, who is the original editor of these lectures, reminds the reader in 1928 that intentionality designates a ‘problem’, not an explanation. It is a problem in the same way as history is a problem, or at least, our experience thereof. By far the majority of what occurs is not at all noteworthy, and much of the noted is itself base, emanating from the ‘cloacal vaults’ which Lingis comments upon with regard to the possessive character of a psychoanalysis and a phenomenology too closely imbedded in one another. This is the content of the ‘anals’ of history, the subterranean excrementa that is certainly worthy of new life and indeed, could foster it in the same way any fertilizer would. Similarly, intentionality has within it a majority of either otiose or downright obtuse intents. This is so precisely because it has been transfigured as unknowing. We do not expect any deity to have this base layer within the kerygma of knowing intentionality. Yes, there are trickster gods, but these gods know that they dissimulate, and so the point stands. Human beings, rather, and as often as not, do not appear to know what they’re doing to this regard. It is one thing to calculate a deception, but it is a greater feat not to be yourself taken in by it.

            This novel immanence that brings Dasein into radical sensory contact with subjectivity, while at the same time not forcing only this definition upon it, lacks prescience even though it is characterized as being essentially ‘ahead of itself’. Yet all is hardly lost: our very analytic of consciousness is based upon how we presume any God to have been operating, or more mutely, be operating yet. This is the sense of the fullness of Being-now. Husserl uses the phrases ‘all-together’, and ‘all-at-once’, and this presents to us the nowness of consciousness. Indeed, each of us must designate a degree of autism to this regard, for not ‘all’ which occurs to our senses can be processed ‘all at once’. Bleuler’s interest in coining this today too-fashionable term concerns the radically inward reorientation of consciousness. Minkowski cites Bleuler as defining autism as ‘the detachment from reality accompanied by a relative or absolute predominance of the interior life.’ (1970:74 [1933]). Though originally of great interest in the study of schizophrenia, Minkowski states that as a ‘principle of life’, schizoidism cannot be reduced to purely autistic reactions to the world or to the environment surrounding the subject. No, it is rather a secondary phenomenological feature of all subjectivity that we must sift the inputs since we cannot know ahead of time what will be of greatest import. Beyond this, the value we place on this or that will change over time, as our situation is altered by acts in the ‘now’ and also by histories in what is now the ‘then’. The contrast between lived time and historical time is, in part, built along the phenomenological experience of them both, ‘at once’, and also, as separated from one another by both the fact that most of history is, and never was, ‘personally’ available to us as fully present beings – we live as a biography, not as a society, for instance; we possess a memory, not a history – as well as the sense that we ourselves can never be fully present for most of the experiences through which we do live. The usual suspects are trotted out, in no nonchalant manner, to assuage the growing suspicion that unknowing intentionality is somehow impotent, mute, and forever ignorant of itself. Sexual union, the encounter with art, the cheating of death, the giving of new life and like events certainly appear to be moments where we are most present, even to the point of our subjectivity breaking down and a genuinely shared experience occurring. And even if this is not quite the case for some of us, it does remain clear enough that autism prevents these kinds of human experiences rather than presses forward into them. Bleuler again, speaking of ‘advanced’ schizophrenics: “They are enclosed, so to speak, with their desires, which they imagine are achieved, or with their suffering, resulting from the persecutions of which they believe themselves to be victims.” (in op. cit:279). This could well be taken as an ethnographic description of any culture whose world-system never attains the wider hold of a cross-cultural franchise. The Hebrews found themselves in this perilous and fragile condition, squeezed between two great empires, Egypt and Babylonia. Today, a diaspora that observes, with some irony and even astonishment, the remains of its own ethics taken up and transformed to be more relevant to society as we know it, by two world religions.

            Cultural autism is a function of marginalization. It too shows its majority case to be something for the ethnographic ‘anals’ this time, and we, shamefully, treat these margins as at best, our own excrementalities. The exegetical meaning of maintaining such sub-cultures, even those with vast reserves of patent cultural value, such as ‘The Jews’ possess, speaks of the clique of youths who allow an eleventh wheel to ‘hang about’ more as a butt than a member. Young women are especially notorious for this – the well-known film ‘Heathers’ explores this psychology – and this is a function through which the dominant culture can assuage its own bad conscience for wielding this dominance against all others and ‘all at once’ at that. If the pariah group knows only about itself, the empire knows only everything else. Thus the one perspective that could resolve the projective overtaking of Being as world by a culture too possessed of its own Babelian destiny is missing, while the ability to communicate this perspective held within the margins is precisely unavailable to them.

            What we can take from this historical outcome is a way in which we can begin to explore the relationship between a concept of immanential structure that contains no past as certain and no future as predictable and intentionality. In this, immanence does differ strongly from the day to day experience of lived time and thus could appear to have retained its irruptive character. This is mostly incorrect, however, as the source of the irruptive quality in human experience can no longer be said to emanate from a transcendental point of knowing intentionality, as we have seen. The weight of responsibility that has fallen upon our shared shoulders at the same time does contain both the advantage of not ‘working to spec’ in any metaphysical manner as well as not having to bear any stigmata for failing to measure up to any non-human ethic or position in History as an autographed copy of a yet more distant and unknowable Being.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.