Lecture Three: Shamanism 3.1

3.1 Introduction

 

In the previous two lectures we began to explore what it means for the self to be a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction. In this lecture and the next, we shall focus on the aim of this construction. The self aims at mastering, in a way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality. We made already two important observations in this respect in Lecture Two.

First, we observed that in a number of more or less ordinary cases we can witness the relative fragility and fugacity of the self. Hypnagogic states and dreamless sleep are major interruptions in one’s experience of selfhood, dreams offer various ways in which the same or different selves are enacted and transformed, with or without lucidity, while more extreme events can reveal how the seemingly unitary sense of embodiment can be broken and give rise to various forms of altered embodiment. While at times one global Self might arise as hegemonic, careful observation reveals that the experience of selfhood tends to be more complex, diverse, and fragmented.

Second, we also discussed attempts in cognitive science and philosophy to conceptualize the self as a fully embodied phenomenon, which emerges from the living processes of a biological body. This naturalist approach can be taken to a reductionist extreme. Neuronihilism offers one example of how scientific research can be used to explain the self away as an epiphenomenon of brain processes. But we also mentioned the problems with this form of ‘hard naturalism’ (to use Ganeri’s expression). Even if the self is only an emergent phenomenon, i.e., a fully processual and relational event, this does not entail that it must be dismissed as a mere illusion. A more ‘liberal naturalism’ can acknowledge the self as something real in its own way, while also firmly maintaining that this reality does not move beyond or away from the bodily boundaries within which the self-process is rooted.

Both points illustrate one dimension of the uncertainty that forms the background scenario of the experience of selfhood. First-person experience and bodily processes are highly changeable and unstable, constantly dependent upon various conditions to maintain and preserve them. A naturalist perspective, by emphasising the constitutively relational nature of the self, exposes the uncertainty that is inherent in the self’s conditionality. However, saying that the formation of a water whirlpool is a highly unstable and unpredictable process has a markedly different emotional and cognitive impact than saying that I am that unstable and uncertain. Being a self means taking experiences and phenomena personally, as they happen to me. To use Ganeri’s phrasing again, selfhood entails an endorsement of experience. Uncovering that one’s own condition is thus extremely uncertain is more than just stating an objective and impersonal fact, it means denouncing a problem. This problem manifests at two levels: on the one hand, uncertainty of events and conditions is a challenge for me (for my survival, for the meaningfulness of my experience), but on the other hand, I am already an attempt at mastering this uncertainty (the experience of ‘me’ is co-determined and co-constituted by this very attempt at mastering uncertainty, it is not pre-given or independent from it).

We already discussed one possible way the self can master uncertainty by actually undermining itself as a genuine phenomenon. In Lecture Zero, we considered Taylor’s genealogy of Western modern subjectivity. In Taylor’s account, one way in which Western modern selfhood is constructed is by creating a disengaged rational observer of a fully disenchanted world. I am essentially a cognitive structure aimed at understanding how the great clockwork of nature works. Nature is the vast mass of matter ruled by certain regularities or laws, and these laws are rationally accessible through some mix of reasoning and observation. By knowing these laws, one can better understand how natural phenomena are brought about, and by generalization one might expect that the whole universe will abide to the same laws, possibly the simplest and most fecund (as someone like Malebranche would add). Disengaged rationality and disenchanted nature go together with a utilitarian approach in the domain of morality. Happiness is pleasure and a good life is a life in which pleasure is maximized over pain, possibly for the greatest number of people (even if this latter clause can provoke many clashes and debates, since there is no guarantee that greatest pleasure for me will coincide with greatest pleasure for the greatest number).[1]

The sort of hard naturalism that is displayed by some trends in today’s cognitive science can be seen as inheriting this modern ideal of disengaged rationality. The opposition between first-person and third-person perspectives discussed in Lecture One can also be interpreted as a renewed attempt at attenuating as much as possible the experiential thickness of the subject. Ultimately, the self is a pure knower, what Kant and some later phenomenologists would call a ‘transcendental-I.’ The empirical person, me as a historical individual with a certain story, memory, emotions and so on, is just part of phenomena. In fact, neuronihilism would contend that I am no thing, this ‘I am’ is a spurious and dispensable part of experience. First-person perspective is just a biased perspective on experience, ultimately to be transcended in a purely impersonal, dispassionate, scientific view.

Hard naturalism is not a free-floating idea. There must be human beings who develop, argue, and propound it. Insofar as these human beings take hard naturalism as their own way of understanding their own experience, they can perhaps regard that experience in a completely neutral and dispassionate way. Uncertainty will no longer feel like a personal problem, because the first person has been silenced or disavowed, if not suppressed. Hard naturalism is thus a way of mastering uncertainty, and it does so by undermining the possibility of taking this uncertainty as a personal challenge, namely, by disavowing the legitimacy of the first-person perspective. In this sense, hard naturalism is one extreme way of constructing the self, where the self is constructed in such a manner that it cannot exist as a genuine entity. Instead, it is asserted only in order to say that it is not actually there. This is one extreme pole of the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self, and one which is also hard to defend and articulate even from within the scientific standards it adheres to. As discussed in Lecture One and Two, this reductionist attitude leads to a conflict between first- and third-person perspectives which threatens the overall meaningfulness of human experience. The talk about illusion and reality reinforces this clash, by presenting it in clearly adversarial terms, as a war in which only one contender can survive. Ironically, precisely because of its adversarial nature, hard naturalism shows that its solution to the problem of uncertainty is doubtful at best, given that this uncertainty now resurfaces as a struggle between first-person illusions and third-person objective reality, both of which claim some legitimacy in the domain of experience.

Given these problems, we saw in both Lecture One and Two that various attempts can be made to move away from the extreme of hard naturalism. The self can be acknowledged as real in its own way, namely, as a real process. Granted that the self is a process, how exactly does this self-process deal with the uncertainty inherent in its conditionality? If uncertainty is not simply disavowed, it has to be recognized as something that matters to me. Appealing to natural science does not help here, because natural science can at best describe the scope and domain of uncertainty in a certain sector of experience. Technology can perhaps do a bit more, by offering devices to manage uncertainty to some degree. Hungry? Take this food. Ill? Take this drug. Aging? Follow this program. Bored? Watch this show. Lonely? Take this phone. Dying? Ask us later. However, technology works on a case by case basis. Uncertainty is a global condition, which affects not only this or that particular area of life, but the whole of life as such. Mastering uncertainty through technology is one way of constructing the self, perhaps a very prominent way in today’s industrialized world. And yet technology by itself does not know what uncertainty is, it does not recognize it as a problem, because technology (so far at least) does not seem able to develop a full-blown sense of endorsement towards experience (if artificial intelligence will ever reach this point, it will be difficult to understand why it should be treated as ‘artificial’ anymore).

The idea of managing uncertainty through various technological means presupposes that one acknowledges and endorses uncertainty as one’s own problem and interprets this condition as something that urgently needs to be addressed. Moreover, technology can be successful in managing uncertainty only if uncertainty is understood as something that is subject to change, a domain in which some form of action or intervention could make a difference. By taking a drug when feeling ill, I act upon the anxiety and pain caused by my sense of illness under the assumption that my action can make a difference, change my illness and restore my health. An uncertain condition can be a threat, but it has a potential to be reversed for the good. If this potential was not present, then action would be idle and managing would be meaningless. Hence, the technological managing of uncertainty presupposes a hermeneutic scheme in which uncertainty is understood as a changeable condition, which can be threatening, but which can also be turned to one’s advantage.

In today’s industrialized world, technology offers a widespread and powerful way of constructing the self and managing uncertainty. In a sense, this possibility is an offspring of modern science and its capacity to transform and interact with physical reality in an extremely powerful way. However, for technology to be put to use in this way, an underpinning basic understanding of uncertainty as a reversable state needs to be in place. This understanding does not arise from within the paradigm of disengaged reason and disenchanted nature. Disenchanted nature has no preference, it does not know better or worse. As Descartes would say, a clock that fails to mark the hour is as good as a clock that does. Disengaged reason does not even see uncertainty as a problem anymore. The idea that uncertainty is reversible can be seen in fact as a much older idea, perhaps one of the oldest.

This lecture focuses on how the idea of reversibility gives rise to a distinctive form of selfhood, in which mastery over uncertainty is achieved by deliberately steering conditions in a favourable way. For this idea to work, the conditions and grounds upon which human life rests need to be interpreted as receptive to human steering. In a contemporary technological view, knowing how nature works allows humans to reproduce or alter natural processes, or even synthetize new ones. If nature is just clockwork, once the blueprint of the clockwork is known, one can interfere with it, either to repair it or to change it in some other way.

One of the pioneers of this approach was Francis Bacon, who at the beginning of the early modern period, strongly supported the idea of penetrating nature’s secrets in order to better human life. Bacon himself, however, was already a later epigone of a much older attempt to master and steer nature in line with human needs. Unlike Descartes, Bacon did not fully subscribe to a disenchanted picture of nature as just matter in motion. In fact, a long and complex debate animates the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century discussions about whether this clockwork model of nature is a good model at all. To some extent, Descartes’s project of presenting nature in a mechanist way is a reaction to other models in which natural phenomena are associated with forms of cognition, perception and agency, which extends even to apparently inanimate beings like material elements (think about the Aristotelian doctrine of the ‘natural tendency’ of fire to move upwards, or earth to fall downward). More generally, the non-mechanist picture of nature that Descartes tries to displace is a picture full of powers, forces, centres of activity and agency, nestled in a complex web of affinities, sympathies and antipathies. Aristotelian and Renaissance natural philosophy offer good examples of the kinds of models that Descartes’s mechanism is intended to displace. The development of early modern natural philosophy ultimately does not culminate in a victory for Descartes’s project. Not only do certain natural domains (biology, chemistry) appear untreatable from a narrow mechanist point of view, but even in hard natural sciences like astronomy, the emergence of Newtonian natural philosophy as a new paradigm entails the acceptance that nature is not inert after all but shaped by forces. Newton and many Newtonians had no concerns with claiming that the force of gravity is the clearest proof of God’s involvement with the natural world.[2]

This short excursion should at least make plausible that ‘knowing how nature works’ does not necessarily mean endorsing a mechanist picture of natural phenomena. Sometimes this is feasible, but sometimes it is not (as contemporary failed attempts at reducing cognitive processes to brain functions show). To master the uncertainty of human condition (its embodiment in a natural and largely mysterious world of forces and processes) by steering it in a way that will be favourable for human flourishing, one needs to know how nature works. However, the idea that nature can work only in a mechanist fashion, like clockwork, is not the only option, and historically has not been always the dominant or even the most successful one.

Nature is active. By acknowledging that much, one is acknowledging that there is agency in nature, very much like there is agency in human beings. Natural beings do things. And what they do affects human beings’ lives. Uncertainty can then be understood as the fact that human beings, embedded as they are in a natural world full of other centres of agency, often have little knowledge and even less control of how these other beings operate, and yet nonetheless depend on them. Food supply, weather conditions, illnesses, and attacks from other animals are just some of the most obvious instances of how dependent human thriving is on surrounding circumstances. But if uncertainty is reversible, then knowing better, and possibly having some control of these circumstances, can transform them from potential threats into alleys and resources. What is needed is a way to get in touch with natural agencies, understand their order, and ensure that human well-being is taken into due account. Thus, what is needed is a form of communication between human and non-human agency, the creation of a sort of continuous dialogue that will make it possible for humans to ensure that conditions remain favourable, or else steer them in the right direction when they turn out unfavourable.

We begin to delineate a distinct form of selfhood in which mastery over uncertainty is achieved by steering it, by reversing uncertainty in one’s favour. This form of selfhood presupposes an understanding of nature in which the whole natural world is seen not as an inert array of matter in motion, but rather as a complex and multi-layered playfield of various and often conflicting agents, each one endowed with its own tasks, powers, goals, and freedom. Once this view is accepted, the technical challenge becomes that of developing a way of communicating effectively with these other agencies, in such a way as to become able, through this communication, to steer them in the right way (namely, a way that is profitable for the human side). From time immemorial, perhaps from the very beginnings of humanity in prehistorical ages, views and techniques have been developed to address this issue. The most common way of referring to this domain is by using the term ‘shamanism’ and this is the topic we shall now address.

Shamanism is a subject of discussion in many fields such as religious studies, anthropology, ethnography, psychology, and cultural studies. Here, our focus remains more narrowly centred on the way in which the sort of evidence gathered around shamanism in these connected fields points to a specific way of understanding and constructing the self as capable of mastering uncertainty through a deliberate interference with it. We shall consider shamanism as a paradigm for understanding this sort of selfhood, without reducing the multifarious historical phenomenon of shamanism to just this single aspect, nor by precluding that the same model of selfhood could be developed without explicitly presenting itself as a form of shamanism.


  1. Historically speaking, Western Enlightenment ideals have been often blind to the fact that whole chunks of human populations were oddly excluded from enjoying them. Charles Mills, ‘Non-Cartesian Sums. Philosophy and the African-American Experience’ (2015) discusses how this problem applies in the case of Afro-American peoples.
  2. For those interested in exploring the historical background of the evolution of early modern science, a good starting point is Denis Des Chene, Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought (1996), which offers an overview of the sort of scholastic views that many early moderns tended to reject. For an introduction to relatively standard historiographical picture of the seventeenth-century ‘Scientific Revolution,’ see Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (1996). For a radical criticism of this same Revolution, inspired by an eco-feminist perspective, see the provocative work by Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980).

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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.