Lecture Two: Naturalism 2.1

2.1 Introduction

 

We began to clarify some of the interlocking components of the leading theme of this series of lectures, according to which the self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering, in one way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality. Having seen how enaction can illustrate a constitutively relational account of experience, we shall now further investigate what it means for the self to be constructed as a constitutively relational reality.

If we take seriously the enactivist account and the idea of constitutive relationality, then we can no longer conceive of the self as something that stands alone in front of a pregiven world of experience. Rather, self and world must be conceived as arising from one another, as co-constituting processes. Aa a consequence, experience can no longer be conceptualized as a passive reception of information from an outside reality. The passivity of perception is a recurrent trope in Western thought. For instance, in his sixth Meditation, Descartes exploited it explicitly to build his argument for the existence of a material world beyond the thinking subject. But if the self is enacted in its interplay with reality, then the boundary between inner and outer world cannot be sharply traced, and in fact the whole of experience has to be taken as a continuous spectrum that cuts across the inner-outer divide.

Consider the role of imagination in cognition. Imagination is the power of producing mental images, which can draw from any sensory domain ( ‘images’ here is understood in a very broad sense and not limited to visual images alone). Imagination cannot entirely be accounted for as a completely autogenous power, since its raw materials seem to be derived from a range of experiences that the cognitive subject can only discover as already given. But the fact that imagination is not entirely autogenous does not detract from the fact that it also entails a powerful autogenous component in which cognitive processes actively construct, shape and rework all sorts of images in all sorts of ways. To some extent, a degree of imaginative construction is involved in any experience, since whatever we perceive is always recognized (to some extent) as this or that thing, isolated from a more general background, with details and meanings that might not be immediately available to the senses, and so on. If there cannot be any purely passive experience in which the subject is just a mere receiver of outer information (i.e., if nothing is ‘given’ in experience), then any experience is always constructed to some degree and thus relies on the imagination.

In his first Meditation, Descartes considers the difficulty of discerning whether his current state is one of waking or dreaming. Descartes’s assumption is that it should be possible, in principle, to distinguish between what is actively produced by the subject and what is received by it. What is actively produced is imagination, like dreams, while what is received is waking experience, which arises because of some contact with the real world out there. It makes sense for Descartes to build on this assumption, given his overall concern of establishing a sharp ontological distinction between mind and body, subject and world. But if we forego this dualist project and endorse a more enactivist approach, then the distinction collapses. This does not mean that waking and dreaming states cannot be distinguished at all, but rather that this distinction has to be traced on a continuum, in which waking and dreaming cannot be opposed as mutually exclusive states, but rather differ more by degree of activation of various cognitive faculties and by their coordination in constructing experience.

Taking seriously the possibility of constitutive relationality and applying this to the notion of the self, we can see that a constitutively relational self is something that is constantly constructed in the interplay with its environment. This entails that experience, for a constitutively relational self, cannot be conceptualized as moving through rigidly distinct states, like Cartesian waking or dreaming states. It has to unfold in a more fluid and perhaps ambiguous manner. In this lecture, we shall look in more detail at how this spectrum can be mapped, and how this investigation can provide a better understanding of the nature of the self. Eventually, this also shows that the view of an ontologically independent self is not even obvious from the point of view of first-person perspective. This view becomes obvious only if the whole spectrum of experience encompassed by first-person perspective has been preliminarily filtered (and hence constructed) in order to be divorced from a wide range of aspects that otherwise challenge the sense of self. First-person perspective, by itself, does not attest to the experiential fact of an ontologically self-standing self. This ontological self-standing self is itself an interpretation (and a rather selective one) of the whole spectrum of first-person experiences.

A thorough examination of the whole spectrum of experience reveals that various forms of selfhood are constructed throughout. At each point, and in different domains, different selves are enacted, and later on they might be abandoned. We can call these ‘local selves’ to stress that their arising and passing away remains confined in time and often in a particular segment of a spectrum. When I dream, I perhaps become someone different; this is an example of a new self that is enacted. But this is just a ‘local’ self, since upon waking up, that person that ‘I was in the dream’ is discarded. However, on top of these local selves, it is also possible to enact a seemingly more enduring Self, which appears more resilient, more encompassing, and capable of emerging through various domains. Even in dreams I can dream of just being my ordinary and daily self, not much different from how I feel myself to be when I am awake. We can call this more resilient self a ‘global Self.’ Notice that the difference between local selves and global Self in not a qualitative difference, but rather a difference in resilience. The global Self is able to survive and resist more profound disruptions than local selves are. However, despite the differences in its manifestations, close scrutiny reveals that even the global Self is enacted, constructed, imagined, and this becomes more apparent precisely by confronting it with the array of local selves that arise and pass away around it.

In this lecture, we will take stock of our exploration of the whole spectrum of experience in order to further our understanding of why and how both local selves and the global Self come about. More generally, this lecture focuses on both the empirical evidence and the theoretical framework that can provide a ‘naturalist’ account of the self, in which the self is constructed in strict dependence on the human body, although this dependence needs to be careful spelled out and qualified.

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