Friday, October 24, 2014

DAN ZAHAVI - Is the Self a Social Construct?

 

Dan Zahavi is a Danish philosopher and currently Professor of Philosophy at University of Copenhagen. Zahavi writes on phenomenology (especially the philosophy of Edmund Husserl) and philosophy of mind. He has written extensively on topics such as self, self-consciousness, intersubjectivity and social cognition. He is co-editor of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.

Zahavi is the author of several books, including Self-Awareness and Alterity: A Phenomenological Investigation (1999), Husserl's Phenomenology (Cultural Memory in the Present) (2003), and the classic Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective (2005). You can read selected papers here.

Is the self a social construct?


DAN ZAHAVI
University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Abstract:

There is a long tradition in philosophy for claiming that selfhood is socially constructed and self-experience intersubjectively mediated. On many accounts, we consequently have to distinguish between being conscious or sentient and being a self. The requirements that must be met in order to qualify for the latter are higher. My aim in the following is to challenge this form of social constructivism by arguing that an account of self which disregards the fundamental structures and features of our experiential life is a non-starter, and that a correct description and account of the experiential dimension must do justice to the first-person perspective and to the primitive form of self-referentiality, mineness or for-me-ness that it entails. I then consider and discuss various objections to this account, in particularly the view that an endorsement of such a minimal notion of self commits one to an outdated form of Cartesianism. In the final part of the paper, I argue that the self is so multifaceted a phenomenon that various complementary accounts must be integrated if we are to do justice to its complexity.

Author's Copy: Forthcoming in Inquiry

There is a long tradition in philosophy for claiming that selfhood is socially constructed and self-experience intersubjectively mediated. It is a view that has had many different voices. According to a widespread reading, Hegel argued that subjectivity is something that can only be achieved within a social context, within a community of minds, and that it has its ground in an intersubjective process of recognition rather than in some immediate form of self-familiarity. In the late 19th and early 20th Century related views were defended in the US by Royce and Mead. According to Royce, “Self-conscious functions are all of them, in their finite, human and primary aspect, social functions, due to habits of social intercourse”(Royce 1898, 196). Mead argued that the self is not something that exists first and then enters into relationship with others, rather it is better characterized as an eddy in the social current (Mead 1962, 182), and he explicitly defined self-consciousness as being a question of becoming “an object to one’s self in virtue of one’s social relations to other individuals”(Mead 1962, 172). Partly playing on the etymological roots of the term “subject”–one is always subject to or of something – Foucault has more recently claimed that individuals acquire their sense of autonomy inside contexts of domination and subordination. Forming subjects and subjecting them to authority were in his view two sides of the same coin. As he wrote at one point, “the subject that is constituted as a subject –that is ‘subjected’ – is one who obeys”(Foucault 1976, 112). On this reading, subjectivity and individuality are not rooted in some free and spontaneous interiority. Rather, we are dealing with categories produced in a system of social organization. By forcing us to think about ourselves in terms that might support moral categories such as guilt and responsibility, the system will be better able to control and manage us. An example found in Althusser illustrates this idea well. When a policeman calls out to someone in the street, “the hailed individual will turn round.”And as Althusser then continues, “By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject”(Althusser 1971, 174).

Without denying that there are significant differences between these various proposals, I think it is fair to say that they are all united in their rejection of the idea that subjectivity and selfhood – and for reasons that will become apparent in the following, I will be using both notions interchangeably –are something innate, automatic and spontaneous. On many accounts, we consequently have to distinguish between being conscious or sentient, and being a self. The requirements that must be met in order to qualify for the latter are higher. More precisely, being a self is an achievement rather than a given, and therefore also something that one can fail at. Selves are not born, but arise in a process of social experience and interchange. Indeed many would consider the self a construction, something more a matter of politics and culture, than of science and nature.

My aim in the following is not to dispute that there are important insights to be found in such claims. However, insofar as they are presented as accounts of the self tout court, rather than as accounts of certain dimensions or aspects of self, I find all of them unpersuasive. I think there is a basic yet crucial aspect of self that they all fail to consider let alone explain. To put it differently, I am opposed to the claim that the self is nothing but a social construct and in the following I will argue against this kind of social reductionism by outlining a more basic experiential notion of self that I consider a necessary precondition for any socially constructed self. This more basic notion is one with a venerable ancestry. It has been defended by various figures in the phenomenological tradition.
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