Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 'internal self' is a fiction. So what?

What might be the practical implications of the view of the self put forward in some of my recent posts, notably "Nietzsche on the 'self'"? Here are a few thoughts.

If one realizes that one has been treating as something real the internal 'self' or 'I' which is in fact a fiction, then one's view of who one is will change in subtle - but possibly significant - ways.

It may provide a way of dealing with death. The body dies, but arguably it is the 'internal self' we are more concerned with. And if it is only an illusion, what is there to mourn (apart from the loss of the body)?

There will be implications also for the moral sense, as the old idea of the freely willing agent - the traditional notion of the conscience - might be called into question. This is too large an issue to address here, but, briefly, my view is that we certainly have a sense of being able to choose from a large array of imagined possible actions - and in a sense we do freely choose. The problem that philosophers have addressed is to define precisely how free choice is to be understood so that it does not depend on an 'internal', immaterial self. I suspect, however, that, as the notion of the internal self is superseded in everyday thinking, the philosophical problem of human freedom will no longer seem to be a problem.

One other implication of the new view of the self is that the atomistic individualism which lies behind much political thinking comes to seem quite unrealistic and false. For there is no spiritual core to define the individual. Rather the individual is a product of society. Language is social and is a key element in an individual's identity; likewise other cultural elements and social relations of all kinds. A new-born baby only gradually becomes a human individual as it interacts with and internalizes elements of its social, cultural and linguistic environment.

It is a truism that we are social beings - but the Christian-Platonic notion of the soul and then its secular equivalent led Europeans for hundreds of years to underplay the social dimension. And current notions of political freedom, human rights and equality could be seen to derive from this discredited tradition.

Believing in a social self does not entail a collectivist social ideal, however, and certainly not an egalitarian one. Collectivism is not incompatible with the view that the 'internal self' does not exist, but then nor is the traditional conservative ideal of an organic society based on multiple institutions and complex hierarchical relationships.