Lecture Five: Seers 5.1

5.1 Introduction


The self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering, in one way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its own conditionality. In Lectures One and Two we investigated what it means for the self to be a constitutively relational construction, and in Lecture Two we saw how this view can lead to a naturalist account of the self. Naturalism comes in two main versions. Hard naturalism tends to reduce the self to its physical basis (the living body) and thus dismisses its first-person manifestation as an illusion. Liberal naturalism entails that the self is embedded in an individual body, but is not reducible to it. Liberal naturalism conceives of itself in opposition to both hard naturalism (and its reductionist tendencies) and supernaturalism, which encompasses any view that posits only a weak embodiment (no longer restricted to the individual living body) or denies it altogether (by assuming that the self exists regardless of its physical body). By vindicating the dependence of the self on a physical living body, naturalism tends to emphasize a major domain in which uncertainty emerge; namely, the body itself, since it is the body that gets sick, grow old, and dies. Hard naturalism offers a sui generis solution by dismissing the self as a cognitive illusion. This move is problematic and engenders a cognitive dissonance between first- and third-person perspectives on experience, as we discussed in Lecture One. Liberal naturalism might appeal to the power of technology in order to manage uncertainty (as hinted in the introduction of Lecture Three), but this appeal in turn requires conceiving of uncertainty as something reversible that can be managed and shaped according to one’s own interests.

Following up on this latter observation, we introduced two other views, which together define a wider spectrum of potential ways of conceiving of the self. In the middle of this spectrum, we find shamanism, which we discussed in Lecture Three. Shamanic cultures are often tied to small-scale societies, although shamanic elements can survive in and inform large-scale cultures as well. At the basis of the shamanic worldview is what we called a ‘communitarian model of agency,’ according to which reality is inhabited by agents (usually called ‘spirits’), who are living actors, although they are not necessarily identical with individual bodies. Human individual bodies can host more than one agent, and agents can exist in all sorts of other natural bodies (animals, plants, natural places and phenomena), or just in other domains of reality (the ‘spirit worlds’). In this context, uncertainty is seen as something reversible that can be domesticated, and the thrust of shamanism is to find effective procedures for establishing a form of harmony, within the individual, between the individual and its community, and between the community and the larger natural world. The harmonious self thus constructed is a master of uncertainty.

Shamanism moves one step away from individual embodiment, by relying on what we called ‘weak embodiment.’ There is a tie between agents and bodies, but this tie is not necessarily one particular, individual body. In this sense, shamanism goes beyond even liberal naturalism. In Lecture Four we moved one more step even further, towards a paradigm of complete disembodiment. We discussed how mysticism entails the possibility of dissolving the perceived boundaries that define the empirical daily self in order to reach an experience that is often described in terms of ‘union’ with an absolute and encompassing reality. The pinnacle of mystical experience is often regarded as a form of intransitive experience, akin to deep dreamless sleep, in which sensory objects disappear and awareness is present, but no longer involves an awareness of any specific object. This experience is then interpreted as revealing a purely disembodied consciousness, whose essential activity consists in just knowing, and whose reality is ultimately strongly connected (if not equated) with the reality of an ultimate absolute being that is eternal, beyond time and change. The mystical Self achieves mastery over uncertainty by transcending the world of uncertainty and reaching the eternal. However, we observed how this solution is also sui generis because the mystical Self, in order to reach the eternal, must forego all its empirical and individual traits, and to some extent also all its social relationships. What remains is an eternal Self, but this Self is no longer really ‘me’ or ‘you,’ is more akin to some sort of ‘transcendental I.’ In this respect, mysticism provides the opposite extreme to hard naturalism, and, in this respect, it is apt to define the other pole of our spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self.

Between this and the next three lectures, we shall advance in our investigation by exploring a structural problem that pervades the whole spectrum of views outlined so far. The problem can be stated as the ‘paradox of mastery’ and it results from the tension between the two axes along which the views in our spectrum are constructed. We already mentioned that the views described so far can be distinguished with respect to the degree of embodiment (or disembodiment) that they assume. On one extreme, hard naturalism defends a strong embodiment in an individual physical body, while on the opposite extreme mysticism defends a strong disembodiment, viewing the self as something that can exist in its own right without being incarnated at all. But the body, much like the self, is also a constitutively relational construction. No body exists in a vacuum and all living bodies need an environment, or better are co-originated with their environment (as we discussed in Lecture One). If we take this aspect of embodiment seriously, then social life constitutes a particularly important dimension of human embodiment. All the views we discussed do acknowledge a certain role that social involvement plays in selfhood, and liberal naturalism and shamanism are particularly vocal about this, albeit in different ways. Mysticism faces perhaps the most significant version of this problem, given its strong emphasis on overcoming or leaving the world, hence also the social world, in order to reach union with the absolute. But even mystics usually develop various forms of sociality, from communal life to philanthropic attitudes and service for the welfare of others.

However, consociation and embodiment are not naturally consistent with one another, despite the fact that sociability can be seen as a dimension of embodiment. Social life, sociability, living with others (and equivalent expressions) point to a communal exchange among human beings within certain more or less expanded groups and according to certain established norms or patterns. We can refer to this broad phenomenon as ‘consociation’ or the fact of joining others in a shared form of social existence. Consociation addresses both material needs (providing for essential goods such as food, shelter, protection and so on) and for specifically social needs, such as recognition, esteem, respect, dignity, and so on. In contemporary Western philosophy, it is often discussed how the need for recognition is irreducible to the need for fair redistribution of goods, but also how it could make the individual overly dependent on the group that has the power of bestowing or withdrawing recognition.[1] For our present purposes, we can generalize this point by stressing that consociation is a way of addressing a condition of need and thus providing for certain goods (both material and social), but it is also a way of sustaining that very condition of need and dependency, because most of these goods can be successfully acquired only in and through social life.

Moreover, when it comes to needs in a condition of potential scarcity and conflict (which seems to be the most realistic scenario), it is unlikely that all members of the same society will get the same share of goods. This is already quite apparent with material goods, but it also applies to social goods like recognition. Recognition comes in a variety of forms and is attached to manifold aspects of social life. When a social good is equally shared by all members of a society in the same way, this good undergoes a sort of normalization. It is still recognized as a good, but it will be perceived as somehow less exceptional, it will become a minimal condition for further struggles and for obtaining forms of recognitions that are still much more exclusivist and hard to obtain. The most sought after social goods and forms of recognition tend to be exceptional, rare, or unique (think about prestige, fame, power). The increased availability of a social good does not necessarily entail a form of inflation or devaluation of those goods (although it can). However, when a social good becomes widely more available (to the point that it can be taken for granted), this will not prevent further and new struggles to focus on other social goods that are not yet so widely available. Fulfilling one need does not put an end to the condition of needfulness. And in the struggle for acquiring not-yet-common social goods, most will struggle, and only a few will succeed.

For instance, an important trend in Western societies over the last few centuries has been that of attaining (at least in theory) minimal human rights for all human beings. Today, it would appear outrageous (although it happens) to see someone denied their basic rights to life and freedom for any reason. But once these minimal human rights have been normalized and, in general, are no longer regarded as something yet to achieve, there is no longer a special sense of importance and recognition that comes with their fruition. They are taken for granted and the social struggle tends then to shift towards other rights or forms of recognition that are not yet so widely established, and for which there is much more room for them to be debated or contested.

Consociation turns out to be at odds with the idea of actually satisfying and procuring goods for all its consociates in need of them. It seems more likely that society will create further needs, but it could not possibly satisfy them for all. The reverse of this problem is also possible: it often occurs that in the name of the common good of all, the good of the individual must be sacrificed.

Western political philosophers have long been familiar with this sort of puzzle. From our point of view, the puzzle reveals a fundamental irreconcilability between embodiment and consociation. Embodiment posits the possibility and the need of consociation. Consociation itself can satisfy certain individual needs, but it easily leads to either the creation of new needs that cannot be entirely satisfied, or the sacrifice of individual needs in the name of the common good. In this way consociation reshapes embodiment but without eliminating its needfulness.

Strong embodiment or strong disembodiment appear in this perspective as ways of escaping this predicament by withdrawing from social ties into the citadel of the individual body or moving towards ‘the city of God’ (Augustine). On the one hand, strong embodiment would amount to a sort of radical individualism, in which I am my own body, owner of my own body, over which society can have no claim. This view leads to a form of anarchism (an anti-consociation), as exposed, for instance, in Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own (1844). On the other hand, strong disembodiment allows only for a universalized form of consociation, in which actual empirical society is transcended and one’s commitment to others is entirely subsumed under a commitment towards the absolute. Society is thus idealized and universalized at the utmost degree (as it happens with the self), or it is left behind altogether in the more solitary and ascetic forms of mysticism. This means that the dimension of consociation tends to shrink at both extreme poles of our spectrum, and this shrinking can be regarded as an equally sui generis solution to the tension between consociation and embodiment that we just mentioned. This tension emerges more evidently in the rest of the spectrum, in which some degree of embodiment and consociation are both maintained, and thus need to be constantly negotiated at both communal and individual levels.

The general task for this and the upcoming lectures is to flesh out, using historical details, how this tension between embodiment and consociation arises, is experienced, and ultimately leads to instability (uncertainty) in the way in which mastery over uncertainty is attempted. Or to put it more bluntly, the structural tension between embodiment and consociation prevents the achievement of complete mastery in any region of the spectrum. A self that is genuinely and fully master of its uncertainty simply cannot be constructed. This project is always doomed to fail because of its own structural features (or else, the paradox of mastery is a structural problem inherent in the very idea of mastery).

One might wish to challenge this approach already, by arguing that some form of partial mastery must be possible, otherwise our whole spectrum of possible views of conceiving of the self would amount to just a series of possible ways the same project can fail. But the very idea of partial mastery entails an effort to overcome what cannot be mastered yet, and hence exposes a present and acknowledged lack of mastery. As we shall see, individuals and whole cultures can to some extent remain content with this negative result and this form of partial mastery, but only insofar as they give up the project of building a self. In this respect, our investigation into the attempts and failures to construct a self that is a complete master of its own uncertainty will also uncover various ways in which different cultures have acknowledged the inherent problems in this project and tried to live with them. From a more theoretical point of view, we shall also see how important forces in various cultures constitute genuine attempts to overcome partial forms of mastery, and how this often led to shifts in the way the self was conceived along the spectrum we described.

In this and the next lecture, we flesh out this general scheme with respect to ancient Indian culture (roughly from the Vedic period of the first millennium BCE, to the fourth century BCE). In Lectures Seven and Eight, we shall investigate how the same problems were faced and addressed by ancient Greek culture during the same centuries.

  1. For an overview of the debate on this point, see the essays edited by Amy Gutmann, Multiculturalism. Examining the Politics of Recognition (1994), and especially the essay by Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition.’ Taylor stresses how the constitution of identity has always been relational and dialogical (thus entailing recognition from others), but in the modern West, this structure has been complexified with a new concern for subjectivity, for asserting one’s own original and unique distinctiveness. As he writes (Taylor 1994, 35): ‘What has come about with the modern age is not the need for recognition but the conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail. That is why the need is now acknowledged for the first time. In premodern times, people didn’t speak of “identity” and “recognition”—not because people didn’t have (what we call) identities, or because these didn’t depend on recognition, but rather because these were then too unproblematic to be thematized as such.’ The paradox of mastery that we shall being to explore in this lecture entails a clash between one’s reliance upon a community and one’s demand of emancipation from it. This paradox is not unique of the modern Western context, and it can be uncovered in other cultures and periods, since it does not strictly depend on specific historical and cultural coordinates, but rather on the very structural tension that animates the whole spectrum of possible ways of constructing the self.


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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.