Monday, August 16, 2010

Nietzsche on the 'self'

Martin and Barresi (see my post 'The ghost in the machine') draw attention to Nietzsche's brilliance in seeing so clearly and so early (his final mental breakdown occurred in January 1889) the questionable nature of the self. (The quotes are from pages 194 and 195.)

'Nietzsche is famous for having proclaimed that the rise of Enlightenment secularism meant that "God is dead." He is virtually unknown for having uncovered, in his personal reflections, the perhaps deeper truth that the self is dead ...

"Everything that enters consciousness as 'unity'," he said, "is already tremendously complex." Rather than unity of consciousness, we have "only a semblance of Unity." To explain this semblance, rather than a single subject [or 'I'], we could do as well by postulating "a multiplicity of subjects [or 'I's], whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and consciousness in general." We do not have any reason to believe that there is a dominant subject overseeing this multiplicity. "The subject [or 'I'] is multiplicity." '

(This view, by the way, is in accord with my understanding of the best recent neuroscientific theories.)

'Nietzsche concluded,' write Martin and Barresi, 'that we have been victimized by our language, that is, by "our bad habit ... of taking a mnemonic, and abbreviative formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, e.g., to say of lightning "it flashes." Or the little word "I." To make a kind of perspective in seeing the cause of seeing: that was what happened in the invention of the "subject," the "I"!" '

In other words, Nietzsche is saying that we have bought into the fiction of thinking that if there is a flashing, then there is a 'something' - an 'it' - that flashes; and if there is seeing, there is a 'something' - an 'I' - that sees. But this 'thing' that does the flashing does not exist - lightning is an electrical phenomenon in the atmosphere; and likewise the thing that does the seeing is not an internal agent, the 'I', but the physical organism (comprising eyes and brain, etc.).

So the "I" - or self - is neither a single thing, nor an agent (it does not do anything). Is it a fiction?


  1. If you changed the word "fiction" to "metaphor," calling the human mind a system of metaphors (recognizing Cassirer's view of sapiens as the "symbolizing animal"), I'd go with that. I can easily accept the "I" as not a single thing, but a construct of the mind -- and no less real for that. Part of the human distinction is "self" consciousness ... but first it must construct the self, as it constructs everything. Wouldn't it be consistent with mind theory to say "I am my symbolization of myself"?

  2. Are you saying that the "I" is one metaphor in the system of metaphors which is the mind? Yes our brains/minds construct the notion of the self, but are you giving the self a certain privileged position? "I am my symbolization of myself." This seems to imply a real "myself". No? I think my view is that some of our concepts reflect real things - like trees or stars or embarrassment. Other concepts - like the concept of the unitary agentive self or "I" - may not. Of course, it's difficult to believe this, and maybe it's impossible to settle the issue.

  3. It's hard to express the idea "I" in the way I meant without using the word "I" (and "my" etc). I didnt mean that to be a technical definition so much as a way to look at the picture. So no, I'm not presupposing the entity I'm trying to discuss. But yes, I think the brain probably creates (constructs) a self or selfhood ... the brain's metaphor of itself might be a better, more clinical way to say it.

    On the other hand I've never been very deep into the Cartesian questions of self; those questions don't fascinate me as much as some other things. Whether the "I" is some illusion or not might have some bearing on whether "I" am a moral agent (which is the one aspect of "self" that interests me). But until we get to the whole person, which is the only entity that can be an agent, my concern is not too great about how the parts become a whole. We live and deliberate on the macro level. But I'm willing to accommodate the idea that beneath that macro level, it's a system that constructs the "I;" it's not a little man inside the brain. Does that respond to your question?

    Anthropologists have revealed cultural differences in self-definition, which means the relation of "I" to "other" and to "us" is variable (programmable) -- ie, as much of "I" (as a concept) is nurture as it is nature. Since this is evident, any theory of agency must acknowledge that, which is why I accept the idea of a "constructed self" and believe as well that the human brain evolved in part towards doing that construction in a cultural context. My moral theory is a cultural theory of ethics. That's why this paragraph is so long. LOL.

  4. I'd say we're not too far apart on this. "We live and deliberate on the macro level..." Yes. In fact I find nothing to disagree with in your last comment!!

  5. Well thank you. I keep talking about being a philosopher of ethics but I've never quite spelled it out for all the world to see. I'm working up to that. Nice to see some of my background observations find some acceptance. Maybe there's hope for the big picture after all.

  6. Gentlemen, my apologies for reading these in the wrong order. Wish I'd read this earlier! One thought: Setting aside the kernel self (or what have you), on which I've already over-written, I have to say my sense of freedom (and therefore moral responsibility?) decreases the more we approach the whole person. That is, although my Cartesian "I" (sorry!) is free to think what it wants (well, assuming it is...), my actual choices at the macro level are limited by everything from social constraint to physical impossibilities. As a practical matter, we must hold people accountable for their actions. But even if we enjoy free will at the deepest level, our actual behavior appears constrained.

  7. If you have not already seen them, you might enjoy (or not!) my two posts regarding freedom at The_Moxie_Files, July 4 2010. According to my stats, these two posts have received more hits than any other. It's strange & inexplicable, but they did not set off any fireworks as they were designed to do. Hundreds of people (or perhaps one person 100 times?) have read them, yet I do not get hatemail & I have no idea why. LOL.

    (They are more intricate and difficult to read than my typical posts ... I dunno. Maybe that's it.)