Lecture Zero: Theme 0.1

0.1 Exposition

The self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering, in one way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality.

In an everyday, layman setting, talk about the self is pervasive and diffuse: myself, yourself, ourselves, me, I, the Ego, the subject, the person, the individual, and similar. This broad and diverse range of colloquial expressions usually entails an indexical reference to the agent who is also involved in the speech act. But who is this one who is speaking? Taking the term ‘self’ as encompassing all the other expressions that can be used more or less interchangeably with it, we can begin by saying that the self appears as the main character in what is presented, discussed, and experienced, and offers its own inside perspective on what is going on. The self can be approached in a non-reflexive way, by simply presupposing that we know what it is and how it works. We can refer to a sense of self, an ambiguous and mostly implicit, inarticulate feeling or perception that ‘I am here’ or ‘this happens to me.’ Imagine, for instance, the experience of hunger or thirst. Or the feeling of love, or perhaps fear or anxiety. These are not just objectively given, impersonal states, there is someone (namely you), who experiences them from ‘within’ (I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am in love, I am afraid). In all these and similar situations, we might call ‘self’ the subject of these experiences as they appear from a first-person perspective, ‘my’ perspective, and who is feeling oneself within and amidst what is happening.

However, we can also take this relatively ambiguous and fuzzy sense of self as an object of theoretical reflection. We can investigate how the sense of self emerges, when and how it manifests, what sort of actions it elicits or associates with, what cognitive structures it requires, and so on. Based on these observations, we can launch into various questions about the nature of this self. Is the self a self-standing ontological substance, a sort of entity that exists in its own right? Or isn’t the self rather a constantly changing and flowing process, something that is constantly arising and ceasing, enacted in various circumstances and depending on various conditions? Is the self a unified structure, or is it rather a manifold assemblage of various types of self? These and similar questions can be considered ontological questions, insofar as they all ask: What is the self? What is the nature of the self?

Any theory about the self aims at describing some sort of experience or phenomenon. Perhaps there is no pure experience that is unmediated by some theory or conceptual scheme. And yet, many experiences might remain inarticulate and implicit in their meaning, details, and implications. Explicitly theorizing about a phenomenon helps articulating it in such a way to uncover features that would have been otherwise overlooked, or even correct ways of looking at the phenomenon itself that might turn out to be spurious or ungrounded. In the ideal scenario, there will be some sort of circulation between the experience of the phenomenon and its theoretical articulation, in which both sides complement and sharpen each other. But this circulation entails that any theory of the self presupposes some pre-theoretical experience of what selfhood feels like, and that any such experience is open for theoretical inspection. Hence, it would be unwarranted to provide a purely normative theory about what a self should be (by thus giving prominence to the theory over the phenomenon), but it would be also unwarranted trying to simply look at the phenomenon and pretending to face it without the mediation of a conceptual or theoretical lens (by thus giving prominence to the phenomenon over the theory). What we need is neither just a theory of the self nor a pure description of how selfhood appears and is felt. Rather, we need a way of better understanding how certain manifestations of selfhood might provoke different theoretical reactions, and how these reactions in turn can shape the way in which the phenomenon of selfhood is articulated into a theoretical construction. In other words, we need to find a way of observing the circulation between theory and phenomenon as it happens, rather than immobilizing any of those components in themselves.

Today, theoretical discussions about selfhood emerge in multiple and diverse fields: philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, archeology, religious studies, literary and cultural studies, and probably more. Expectedly, selfhood is articulated and studied in different ways in each of these fields, based on different research agendas. Nevertheless, one pervading and common feature that seems to surface in all these otherwise different discussions is a certain relational approach to selfhood. What sort of experience can underpin this theoretical convergence?

Today, the sense of self is most commonly seen as something that grows from very early childhood onward, it never appears in isolation from other selves, and usually is enacted in contexts that require interactions with others (humans and not) and the world or environment in which the self is embedded. Individual selfhood is never abstracted from social and socialized selfhood. From a cognitive point of view, the experience of selfhood is likely to be the product of the convergence of multiple related factors, functions, and processes. In other words, the experience of being a self is multilayered and multifaceted, and this diversity reveals how much the self depends on a whole array of conditions (relations).

Almost a century ago, Martin Heidegger, in his Being and Time (1927), stated that human beings are entities that are inherently situated in a world, they are a ‘being-here’ (Da-sein in German). Saying that the self is relational means that the self can manifest as a phenomenon only if it appears in relation with something else. Relationality is not something totally extrinsic to the nature of the self. It is not the case that first the self is there, and then this or that relation happens to it. Rather, the self arises out of a net of relations, hence it is constitutively relational. The self is a specific sort of (arguably complex) relation. A growing trend in contemporary debates in political philosophy about the notion of autonomy (an agent’s ability to determine on their own their goals and actions) has claimed that there are good reasons to interpret autonomy as constitutively relational.[1] This means that the sort of autonomy that an agent enjoys is entirely shaped by an agent’s relations with other agents and the environment at large. This point can easily be extended to the very nature of the self, thus contending that the self is constitutively relational.

But what sort of relations are most essential for constituting a self? The self is usually understood from three points of view: as a cognitive structure, as a practical agent, and as an affective subject. As a cognitive structure, the self is connected with activities such as knowing and perceiving. As a practical subject it is associated with agency, including issues surrounding choice, freedom, and autonomy. As an affective subject, the self experiences emotions (what in earlier times were called ‘passions’) and reacts to them both in cognitive and practical ways. What makes all these three functions possible is the self’s ability to interpret experience.

In order to cognize, the self needs to interpret certain phenomena as sensory stimuli, and likely these stimuli have to be filtered and constructed to some degree before they can be experienced as objects of perception. Knowing presupposes a more fundamental ability to make sense of phenomena, namely, attributing to them meanings, and first of all understanding what ‘meaning’ could be (or mean). Language provides one (but surely not the only) paradigm of meaning. But in order for the self to deal with language, the self needs to be able to interpret sounds and images as words, and words as something that have meaning. Even earlier in its life, a self needs to interpret acts and gestures addressed to it as belonging to the domain of communication and language, just in order to learn how to play with language in the first place. These actions are all based on a fundamental hermeneutic ability. The same ability is also crucial for acting and expressing agency, since this requires understanding what a situation is, what the options are, and how a certain course of events can be initiated or stirred. Emotions also demand hermeneutics: one needs to integrate bodily sensations, sensory data, memories, judgments, and other ingredients in order to recognize a certain state as this or that emotion, and then react to it accordingly. One paradigmatic way of understanding hermeneutics is by defining it as the art (or perhaps philosophical knowledge) of how to interpret texts. But this paradigm risks being overly restrictive. We can interpret texts only because, more fundamentally and more generally, we interpret experience (of any sort). Hermeneutics is thus best understood as the art (or perhaps knowledge) about how to interpret experience, and the self is indissolubly dependent on a hermeneutic effort of this sort.

If the self is constitutively relational, the sort of relations in which the self is primarily involved are hermeneutic relations, namely, ways of understanding experience. And since the self is constitutively relational, there is no self prior to these hermeneutic relations. The self is constituted by its hermeneutic relations; hence, the self is also a construction, something that cannot stand apart from the sort of relations that constitute it. More precisely, the self is a hermeneutic construction.[2] This does not mean that the self is not real. Houses and furniture, social norms and music, for instance, are all constructions, and yet they are very real. However, constructions are real in such a way that they cannot stand on their own, they need to be put together, and then they rely on certain conditions in order to be sustained. The self is real precisely in this constructed way, as something that constantly depends on that in relation to which it arises and sustains itself.

These considerations indicate some of the reasons why, in today’s discourse, the self tends to be regarded in a relational way. Dismissing or countering these reasons would yield a different picture, in which the self is an autonomous substance, agent, knower, perceiver, the underpinning ground of all that happens to it. Although less popular nowadays, this view has in fact been dominant in other periods and contexts, and it articulates equally relevant aspects of the phenomenon of selfhood. The sense of self arises for someone, and it entails a form of reflexivity (self-awareness, self-consciousness); this fact can easily lead one to think that nothing is more intimate and private than my own self. In order for any experience to happen to me, ‘I’ must be there first. It would seem more intuitive, then, to conceive of the self as some sort of special entity with which ‘I’ have the most privileged access and acquaintance. Call this latter view of selfhood a ‘non-relational’ view, to contrast it with the former presented so far.

Confronted with radically different theoretical articulations (one relational, the other non-relational) of the same phenomenon of selfhood, we might be tempted to immediately try to adjudicate which one is preferable. However, it might be more fruitful at this stage to ask instead whether they have anything in common. If we construct the theoretical divide with sufficient sharpness, we might see opposite theories as describing substantially different phenomena. But in that case, the term ‘self’ becomes equivocal and no longer captures the same phenomenon when described in a relational or non-relational way. The tension between the two opposite theories breaks apart and they become unrelated. In order to avoid this rupture, while preserving the sense of theoretical tension, we need to look at the self not as a pregiven object ready at hand for observation and description, but rather as an enduring problem, which can receive very different, and at times conflicting solutions. What is the problem nestled in the phenomenon of selfhood? Uncertainty.

Let us see first how this conclusion can be fleshed out starting from the relational side of the discussion. Anything constructed is something that could also not have been constructed at all. The fact that a house or another artifact is constructed means that it was constructed for a purpose. Interpreting experience has also a certain purpose, which most often (if not always) entails a practical dimension. We interpret the world in order to live in it in a certain way. Asserting the constructed nature of the self introduces the crucial issue of understanding what the purpose of the self is. Notice that a purely cognitive account would not do, since it would beg the question. Claiming that the purpose of the self is nothing more than experiencing things from a first-person perspective is like claiming that the purpose of a knife is to cut. Surely, the knife cuts, and the self allows one to know experience from a first-person perspective. But the reason for the sake of which something is constructed cannot amount to the defining feature of that same thing, otherwise one could keep asking: what is the purpose of cutting? And what is the purpose of having a first-person perspective?

Today, a very common account of the purpose of the self is provided by some evolutionary appeal to its alleged adaptive function. Having a self and interpreting experience in terms of self, so the story goes, allows individuals to survive better, to preserve their bodily integrity, to defend their life, to reproduce and pass on this skill to their offspring. Assume we take this evolutionary standpoint. The background of the idea of evolution is provided by a constant and widespread sense of struggle between the life-form and its environment. The goal is adaptation, but adaptation means being able to cope with the otherwise dangerous and unpredictable circumstances that the environment offers. This involves an extremely complex interplay of various processes, most of which are seemingly hard to predict or perhaps even random. Uncertainty and precarity are intrinsic in the evolutionary account. Success (whatever this might mean) can never be taken for granted, nor kept for long. This point can be further generalized in such a way to transcend the terms of evolutionary theory.[3]

The self is a hermeneutic solution to the problem of the inherent uncertainty of conditionality. Anything that is relational is conditional. Being conditional means depending on conditions in order to appear and manifest in experience. We are all children of our parents. Nobody was born from spontaneous generation. We all depended on others in order to be. We constantly depend on the whole environment in order to survive from one moment to the next. As human beings, we constantly depend on others in order to develop our cognitive, emotional, intellectual, and social life. In fact, our life is always social to some extent. Our condition is that of being conditional beings, we are what we are in virtue of the fact that we depend on conditions, which include (but are not limited to) other human beings. To generalize, whatever is relational is conditional, and whatever is conditional is relational.

Conditionality is inherently uncertain, for at least two connected reasons. First, if the conditions change in a certain way, what allowed us to be there is removed, and we can no longer sustain our being there. The constant possibility of physical death is just the most obvious instance of the uncertainty of conditionality. Second, whatever is conditional is something that has arisen at some point due to certain conditions, something that was born. This entails that whatever is conditional is also something that has not always been there, something for which there is a real possibility of not being there anymore. The real possibility of ceasing to be part of experience is thus intrinsic to the fact of currently being part of experience. I am here, but because I am only conditionally here, my being here is not necessary, but only contingent, hence, uncertain. To generalize, whatever is conditional is uncertain, whatever is uncertain is conditional.

Conditionality entails a whole array of needs. We need air, water, food, space, shelter, other beings, goods, and the list can go on indefinitely including very complex and sophisticated sorts of needs, which can be connected with currently present circumstances, but also with ruminations on past experiences, or anticipations of future scenarios. These needs are most often associated with emotions of some sort, like fear, anxiety, desire, love, craving, hope, despair, and so on. These needs can be (and often are) in contradiction with one another. Satisfying them all is a desperate challenge, either some exclude the other, or they cannot be satisfied all at the same time. The variety of possible permutations and scenarios in the domain of needfulness is endless.

Conditionality creates a situation of profound uncertainty, and this uncertainty is spelled out in a number of emotions, drives, and concerns, aimed at satisfying the various and contradicting needs that our condition creates. Biological survival and reproduction might be two among these needs, but they hardly exhaust the list of human needs, nor they can claim to be necessarily the most important (they can be valued as the most important, but this does not entail that they are inherently the most important). Human beings can decide to sacrifice survival in certain situations (think about bravery in war, or suicide), and they can also decide to give up on reproduction (think about the choice for a celibate life, or simply that of not procreating). However, this does not entail that the human condition will then be faced with less or simpler needs. No matter how one constructs one’s priorities, to live a human life is to be faced with diverse, multiple, conflicting needs, which are experienced with urgency and profound emotional charges.

The self is constructed as a solution to this problem of being in need. In this condition, the self provides a hermeneutic structure to interpret one’s reality and thus introduces a form of mastery over needs. Mastery entails putting some order among needs, creating a hierarchy, subordinating this to that, perhaps suppressing one and fostering another. Mastery leads to order, and when order is applied to something uncertain, the uncertainty itself is apparently reduced, since now there seems      to be a degree of control over this uncertainty. What is under control is no longer uncertain. Constructing a self is meant to provide this degree of mastery and, through it, to make it possible to navigate the uncertain and needful condition of human life. From this point of view, the self arises out of the activity of mastery, in the same way in which a musician masters an instrument by playing music.[4]

Let us now turn to the non-relational view that conceives of the self as something substantial, fully autonomous, perhaps even as an eternal entity. If one endorses this view, the problem of uncertainty seemingly disappears, since a non-relational eternal Self cannot be bothered by the uncertainty of conditionality; such a Self is simply not a conditional entity. But this is precisely how a non-relational view addresses the problem of uncertainty. A non-relational view of selfhood does not deny that there is a domain of uncertainty in experience, nor that the self is exposed to it, but it denies that the true Self genuinely belongs to that domain and argues for the possibility of ultimately transcending it.

Historically speaking, one common way in which this sort of discourse is phrased is in terms of a certain soteriological path. Soteriology identifies an encompassing and structural feature of the whole field of experience as inherently problematic, urges one to find an escape, and indicates a path or practice that can lead one to actually escaping from it. Death is one of the most ancient and pervasive symbols used for characterizing and expressing this problem. Death does not necessarily have to be constructed as sheer annihilation (conceiving of annihilation is possible only in a certain theoretical space), but it is always a powerful symbol of vulnerability, fragility, of the inevitability of humans to depart and be separated from whatever they are attached to. Death is the symbol of uncertainty, and of the specific form of suffering that comes with it.

In several cases, this soteriological discourse can be articulated in theistic terms: there is some inherent problem with ordinary life in this world (say, for instance, the original sin, or the pervasive illusory nature of experience, which make death seem very real and incumbent), and there is the possibility of reaching out to some domain of reality that is outside of this world (God, Being, an ultimate reality) and thus exempt from that problem. In moving from the former to the latter, the self finds itself be a Self, or it uncovers a way of being that makes it independent from the world of death that it leaves behind. The experience of this liberated or saved Self (the most important experiential underpinning of any non-relational theory of selfhood) is thus reached as the result of a soteriological transformation, which is entirely predicated on the urgency of solving the problem of uncertainty (symbolized by death).[5] Non-relational approaches to selfhood do not dispense with conceiving of the self in terms of mastery over uncertainty, but they provide a radically different solution to that problem compared to relational ones.

However, soteriology as such does not need to be framed in a theistic context, nor in fact has to support a non-relational account of selfhood. Any acknowledgement of a global predicament that concerns the fundamental uncertainty, instability, precarity of one’s condition will pose an overall existential challenge that will provoke an urge to be addressed. This urge is the root of soteriology, regardless of how it is further declined and articulated. Appealing to some relation between the self and a transcendent order of being (in which the notion of a God might play a prominent role) is just one of the possible ways in which the soteriological challenge can be addressed, but it is neither the only nor an inevitable option. Historically speaking, non-relational accounts tended to phrase their soteriological path more explicitly and typically in a theistic context. This might also explain why relational accounts that steer away from theism tend to omit direct references to soteriology, assuming that the latter somehow forms a package deal with non-relational approaches. But this association is neither universal nor necessary. Once this is recognized, it becomes clear that even the relational conception of selfhood must have a more or less explicit soteriological dimension, even if this is not acknowledged, and no possibility of escaping the world of uncertainty and conditionality is offered. Like the self, soteriology is also a question, and it can receive a negative answer.

We can thus generalize by saying that any theory of the self (what the self is, how it works, what sorts of elements constitute it) is incomplete at best, and misguided at worst, if it does not take into account a soteriological dimension. The self is not like some sort of natural phenomenon, with respect to which various accounts can be articulated, in an attempt at finding the most satisfying. This approach presupposes that the self can be accurately described regardless of the way in which one understands and engages with it. But the self cannot be encountered ‘out there’ independently of the way in which one interprets and understands reality, including understanding oneself as a self. If the constructed nature of the self is taken seriously, then the very attempt at studying the self is also a way of constructing it and this in turn shapes how the self is understood and functions. The self can never be treated as if it was an entity that could be observed without being changed and transformed in the process of being observed. The phenomenon of selfhood can become fully intelligible only if it is contextualized in a soteriological quest for making sense of the uncertainty of reality. In this scenario, even a theory of the self is part of the enactment of selfhood (the self is such that it can also elaborate a theory about itself), and it is in this respect that the theory (any theory) can become a (more or less explicit) soteriological tool.

  1. For an overview of this debate, see Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, ‘Introduction: Autonomy Refigured’ in Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar (eds.), Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency and the Social Self, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 3-31.
  2. Taking the self as a hermeneutic construction does not exclude that non-human living beings cannot have a self, nor does this entail that this hermeneutically constructed self is based on some sort of biologically pregiven selfhood or individuality. Rather, all forms of selfhood are constructed in a hermeneutic way, including in non-human living begins, who share the vital need of interpreting and making sense of their own environment in order to interact with it (as we shall discuss in greater details in Lecture One and Two).
  3. Claiming that the self is constructed for a purpose does not entail that this purpose is intentionally and rationally set or even known to the individual self. On the one hand, nobody is a self for the first time, in the sense that everybody’s selfhood arises in the context of other selves (parents, siblings, society) in which the construction of the self is already established, and from which any new instance of selfhood will derive (at least to some extent or for some period of time) its schemes, paradigms, and goals. On the other hand, purposiveness in general does not have to be restricted to the sub-class of voluntary and self-aware intentional acts that a subject experiences as decided by themselves. In a broad sense, something is purposeful if it aims at reaching a determinate state (x and not y), regardless of whether this aim, or the reaching of it, includes a full self-awareness of it and of the process leading to it.
  4. One might resist this view by arguing that the experience of being faced with uncertainty and having somehow to master it is not constant, and there are moments in which there is a sense of self, and yet no sense of being struggling with uncertainty. In reply, it can be pointed out that it is true that the sense of self (in general) is not constant. As a process, it can unfold more or less intensely, and at some point, it might stop and then resume afterwards. However, if a self is present, it has to be present within a complex manifold of experience. In this manifold, sorting out what should be appropriated as self from what is something else is already a very basic level of uncertainty. The fact that in ordinary and familiar scenarios the self is enacted in a seemingly smooth and automatic way is due only to habituation and repetition. Just observe how even relatively minor disruptions of the ordinary situation provoke a need for at least reconfiguring one’s sense of self and one’s attitude towards the new circumstances. The concern for uncertainty might be overlooked, and at times even ignored, but this happens only because at that time the self is relatively successful in mastering the uncertainty of its condition and can thus even forget about it. But the concern remains the root of the self, no matter how buried and silenced it might occasionally appear.
  5. In terms of post hoc theorization, one might surely argue that the (eternal, non-relational) Self is a pregiven entity, and this is the reason why the Self might have a soteriological problem about saving itself. However, this order of explanation subverts the actual order in which any experience of the alleged Self is accessed and conceived. It is hardly the case that a self-standing eternal Self is assumed as the immediate experiential point of departure of a soteriological quest, and for a good reason: the ordinary experience of selfhood seems to suggest that the self is changing, fragile, conditional. If this was not the case, the soteriological problem would not arise in the first place. Part of the soteriological path aimed at transcending this condition of uncertainty consists in revealing why, despite first glance appearances, the self has a much more robust, even everlasting nature, core, reality (it is actually a Self). Hence, soteriology usually begins by acknowledging some experience of selfhood, and by regarding it as inherently plagued by uncertainty, which makes this condition in need for ‘salvation.’ Following up on this initial observation, the (non-relational) soteriological path aims at uncovering a truer and more secure Self, which can be actually ‘saved’ from the uncertainty of its departing condition. But this Self has to be reached or uncovered through some sort of activity, process, transformation, event, since its nature and experience are far from obvious. Soteriology always comes with a sense of struggle and challenge. Hence, that Self is actually constructed through the soteriological process of articulating the uncertainty of selfhood and finding a particular solution to it. From this point of view, non-relational approaches aiming at reaching towards a self-standing Self might be seen as dialectically related to more or less articulated relational views, which are used as a departing trigger for the soteriological quest.


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The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.