Updated: Aug 28, 2019
Hello! and welcome to part 3 of my exploration of the question "what is the "self" In part one I set out the idea that the self, if it exists, is distinct from any ideas about it and our knowledge or concepts of it. In part two I expanded on this idea and suggested how we might arrive at knowledge of an ontological view of self, which I've called the "ecological self" and looked at how this idea of an independent "self" might fit into themes of critical reality and/or complex reality as described by Roy Bhaskar and David Byrne. I ended part two with a video, again by Oliver Thorn, highlighting the way us humans internalise our external world and the concepts of it via communication and language, following up with a question:
If "me" is the externally viewable
and "I" is the internally knowable.
what happens when "I" is not the "me" that others perceive?
and which comes first the "I" or the "me"?
As I said, the decisions we make, the actions or inactions that result from them and their consequences throughout the course of a life are all(?) based upon internal extrapolations of the "external". Or to put it another way, as we experience the world our internalised sense of the external "me" that is created continually suggests stuff that the "I" should, or shouldn't, do. Whether that be something basic like touching hot or sharp objects, to crossing the road when there's a lorry coming, right up to how we decide to interact with others and why.
So, let's open this, "box of frogs". all of them madly jumping in multiple directions. And see if we can't get them to line up into some sort of coherent direction .
"The self, Identity jenga and cultivation of identity"
In this blog I'll talk about the socially constructed, epistemologically derived views of people, and because it's a large part of what I do, much of what I say will revolve around gender. However many of the arguments could be applied to other facets of human experience.
We've considered the ecological self, and it's creation of a "self concept" via recognition of the "not self" that is an outcome of both individual and whole species evolutionary cognitive growth. We have applied this to humans, and in so doing brought human sciences into conceptual view as part of the natural sciences. Placing "homo Sapiens"* as part of the group of animals which we know collectively as Hominidae.
*or Homo sapiens sapiens depending on which view of the evolutionary tree we place our selves on in relation to others
So here we hit our first thorny issue. Humans may be just a plain old off the rack animal, but we are a peculiar one, and as a result we do some stuff that no other animal on the planet does, interacting in ways that seem baffling. Our social structures have become so complex, non linear, and intertwined that drilling down into existential questions requires us to untangle a spider's web of constructed views and perceived wisdom, that many see as actual discrete reality in it's own right, to essentially deconstruct long since constructed epistemological positions that many now regard as objective truth.
A web of truth.
One strand of this web is a view that "Socially constructed" is deemed somewhat less valid than "naturally occurring" I've heard many many people make reference to social construction in a way that uses it as a Synonym for "false" It's a nod towards natural law theory, which pre-supposes an idea that what is "natural" cannot be wrong, and which some people extrapolate into "what is un natural is wrong, that is unless we agree with it" (Dr Soh, Dr Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Germain Greer, Ray Blanchard and others) Ironically this view also misses the nuance that "naturally occurring" is a socially constructed definitional view point. However If one subscribes to an idea that humans stand outside the natural world, either in existence, action or thought, then the social constructions of human kind becomes in some sense an "unnatural" processes. This might be presented by way of an ethical, scientific or theological view point, but they all amount to the same thing.
"what you're doing is un natural"
"Un natural activities are wrong" "Therefore what you're doing is wrong"
Of course, if you've read parts one and two you'll see that "unnatural" as it pertains to humans is a moveable feast. Transphobia for example relies on the metaphysical scepticism** born of the idea that we already "know the whole truth" of our ecological selves, i.e. the male and female causative mechanisms, and that by unnecessary and/or wrong interventions we are moving away from a "natural state things" It leans on the ethical natural law versions of homophobia, since that also views some socially constructed activity as "un natural" and therefore un ethical. It comes from the same place as sexism, racism, and the arguments as to what actually constitutes false medicalisation of humans. It comes from a place of assumption. An assumption that we already know what society "should" be, that we are not in fact just at this point in evolutionary time, rather that we have "arrived"
**The idea that something doesn't really exist.
Societies' "ideal self"
This idea of an "ideal collective self" that is created by segments of society is ironic, since all the people I've named above decry the validity of mechanisms of sociological construction, yet suggest their views are correct even though they are no less sociologically constructed. (This is particularly true of the theologians, Indeed, Dr Peterson presents his arguments in such a way as to suggest that the pre existing socially derived structures are the best ones. without even considering a critique of why they have come into being) Iso given this extra bit of info, if we rewrite those premises above in view of this they would become:
"What I believe tells me what you're doing is wrong"
"What I believe is better for society/you than what you believe" "Therefore what you're doing is wrong because..."
We can see here that this argument also has a valid structure, but that they are only correct in one specific sense i.e. from the POV of the person who believes them. In the wider sense they would have to invite an exploration of what is meant by "wrong" which of course detractors don't really want to get into so they substitute "un natural" for "wrong" Because guess what ? "wrong" is a socially constructed view dependent on the particlar ethical structure one wishes to apply.. Indeed in the second version, after "because...." one could place, words such as "harmful" "sinful" "unethical" or even more insidiously "I love you" and then suggest multiple justifications for ones actions, all with differing ethical relevance, but they all start from a position of an "I" From a meta ethics point of view the above turns every argument, including my own, into an emotive one. Emotivism's central premise is that statements about what people "should do", that is ethical statements, are in and of themselves meaningless. Until one starts to discuss the application of them and drilling into details.
The rub here is that we all have an ethical view. it is part of what we build into our every day lives, our "self identity". Our own individual "Ideal self" will absorb the external ethical world of "should" that is put before us and spit it back out at us.
Sometimes that is a good thing. It keeps us from being lead down harmful, destructive paths that might prove false and helps us keep in mind our effects on others. Like a child who might touch a hot plate, get burned, perceive that as painful and therefore "bad" or "wrong", so the next time the situation arises where a hot plate is near them they surmise "it would be "bad" or "wrong" to touch that" Because of their memory of events, and knowledge acquired. BUT... it's bad or wrong because the consequences of touching the plate are pain, and pain equals harm to self... so "consequentialist" views begin to form even at this stage, and "should" could be said to have an evolutionary component, that arguably might be part of the ecological self.
But what if that little internal voice, our little imp, gets hold of our more complex internalised view point? What if it throws it back at us in unhelpful ways? what if they say "that we are not real?" ... if our internalise view contains contradiction? what "should" we do then?
Identity Jenga ..
I grew up in a conservative house hold. Being LGBT wasn't really a thing. There was a mild kind of casual homophobia that was all pervasive, and as for trans gender .. well.. it just never got mentioned beyond Lilly savage and Danny la rue.
So when at the age of 30+ I realised that I had been living with gender dysphoria since my teens my whole sense of self began to wobble. Think of it like a jenga tower. Each brick placed on top of the other by years of "identity work". The learning, social interaction, education & career, all that stuff that makes up a life. All built on the foundational premise that I was "a regular guy". To even invite the question that I might not be sounded ludicrous. and if I wasn't "a guy" then what was I? It's not like just taking a lower brick out of the Jenga stack. It's akin to sawing a leg off the table that the stack is stood on. Scary stuff.
The very short version of how I traveled from "there" to "here" is that I reconnected with my old history. Not all of it via conscious decisions, but by returning to the area of my childhood, revisiting old cycle tracks that I used to ride as a kid and getting back on mountain bike etc "I" was able to rediscover a "me" that wasn't really bothered about existential crap. Reducing life to "the legs", "lungs' "hills" and "a decision not to stop" was my route back to a stubbornly optimistic mindset that has served me well. And then the educated "me" began, slowly, to think. The results of which you are now reading some 14 years later. I grew up watching & listening to series like the blue planet, and life on earth. Sir David Attenborough was an early influence and Dr Richard Hawkins gave a series of Christmas lectures on evolution that my younger self was avidly glued to. (I'm guessing now but that was probably when I was around 12 years of age) Initially when considering my predicament, my scientific head was at odds with my own sense of self, as was my ethical "ideal self" I simply didn't think that I could apply what was, at the time, my own concept of "being trans gender" to myself in a way that would make sense, and lead to any positive outcomes for either me or the family. But luckily for me I hit a bit of an epiphany early on in life.
In these three blogs we have almost come full circle, As I've returned to the ecological roots of humankind, talked about anthropology and where our own species fits into that "whole world" view. I also stumbled across a short clip where Sir David Attenborough neatly encapsulates that which it's taken me 14 years and hundreds of words to explain, Which is an acceptance of the "concept of an unknowing self" that exists within the empirically known self. Contiguous with Bhaskar and Byrnes Critical Complexity theories
In the video Sir David talks about a God, but it is not the theocratic angle that I'm highlighting here, it is his perception that our knowledge of the world is limited to "our sense of it". Much like those termites. We can only "know" what our "physicality" allows us to. Cognition, thought and the creation of social identity's are part of that physicality. As is the ever changing "knowledge and understanding" of ourselves and our place in the world. Until today I'd never seen the clip linked here ,but I have to say it made me grin to think that one of the finest minds to ever study natural history and a simple blogger from the North East of England can arrive at the same conclusion regarding theocratic tradition. But as I'm pondering how to bring this three part series on the "self" to a fitting conclusion, perhaps the very point here is that there is no conclusion. Society needs to continue in its efforts to Identify the collective "ideal self" and so must continue its own "identity work" Just as the individual must.
Frameworks change, knowledge is altered, legal structures re written and yes, Paradigms shift, all of which continues amongst a back drop of vested self interest and power structures that strive to maintain the status quo even whilst being dragged through the unceasing changes forced upon them by time. Humans are obliged to change our views and our knowledge by virtue of the qualities of our very existence and as such one could suggest there will never be a conclusion as long as there remains enough humans left to ask "but what now?"
Avoiding ataraxia in the cultivation of identity.
The clever amongst you will by now have figured out what we are starting to bump up against within these arguments of a "self" and our "ideas of" that same self. Namely Humes Guillotine. In his writing David Hume identified a distinct line between arguments about what something "is" and arguments about what we "ought to do about it" (or ought not to do) I've shown (or attempted to) that an ecological self can exist, ontologically, and independent of our knowledge of it. But the "Self Concept" or anything assumed to be either "actual" or "empirical" in terms of Critical Reality theory must be known to us and therefore we are obliged to consider what we "ought to conceive of" as versions of that "self concept" (If you like this is the idea that we not only become aware of self, but also develop knowledge of that awareness, creating another "level" as it were, and thus we could be said to be "meta aware". This would be the process that would move us from Bhaskar's "actual" to "empirical"
As a result we can draw an distinction between the "self" and "self concept" as follows:
The "ecological self" does not contain an ethical view of self. it cannot since it has no view of self.
The "concept of self" must at some point begin to include what we would today call ethical views, since the creation of these are a direct consequence of creation of a concept of self. This thinking about thinking and thinking about why we think as we do, with ability to question if we actual should be thinking in that way, is known as "meta cognition" and "meta critique".
As a result I would say that one could use the terms "self concept" and "Identity" interchangeably as they are both outcomes of how we view our known self, and include ethical elements of "should" within them.
But in my view we need to do so cautiously, and avoid leaning into emotivism in the process of identity creation since that just leads to what the accent greeks used to call "ataraxia". This is the idea that if you believe nothing and just consider all view points equal, then you'll have no worries. And no decisions and no progress, and no division, but no legal structure.. etc... etc.. an eternal conversation with no end. A kind of absolute relativism that precludes inclusion by excluding everything, including categories.
So, we have to believe in something and in that at least the persons of Peterson, Soh, Shapiro et al have hit on a good point. Believe in something. Stand for something. It just so happens that what they have each picked to believe in and act upon are in my view, wrong, harmful and poorly justified positions, yet I am sure they would say the same of me. (were they even aware of my existence) However there's another reason why I dislike their arguments,
When Peterson, Shapiro and Soh suggest that their version of the "self concept" is in fact an "ontological self", they run straight into Roy Bhaskar's epistemic fallacy.
Indeed I hit something of a personal contradiction here too, in that when one looks at qualities of life, there are some pertinent arguments in Dr Petersons work for example. Personal accountability is something I am very aware of and it's a central principle of Military service, academic work and healthcare, all of which I have done. (not to mention being a parent and all the wonderful stuff that this brings) So too perseverance, application, discipline and dedication.
But all of those speak of the "self concept", not the ontological self, and here's the kicker. When Peterson and Shapiro etc criticise the performative aspects of trans gender people, or LGBT more broadly, they do so in the performance of their own self concept. Ironically demonstrating the very thing they say doesn't exist and presenting it as an ontological "truth" Similarly though there are elements of the trans population with whom I might disagree for similar reasons. their self concept isnt one that I readily fit in to .. and thus our concept of what it "means" to be trans gender may be just as different as say. Dr Soh's is from my own.
If we take this a step further, people, including myself create a notional identity in those they claim to represent and within their follower base. Cultivating that sense of shared identity to create a platform. Of course cultivation of identity isn't a new thing, nor is it inherently bad. Indeed it is the essence of marketing and sales, social group theory and military cohesiveness to name but a few examples. But .... cultivation of an identity based on manipulation of an ignorance and on the prescriptive idea of an ontologically fallacious version of "should"?
Damn thats some cheeky shit right there, slightly predatory and some seriously twisted logic. It's ethical stance displays either a lack of competence or a lack of integrity, or both. It's why I take great pains to avoid doing just that. It's why I studied philosophy in the first place.
If you'd like to hear a bit more on the ideas of cultivated identity then I really recommend Peter Coffin and his series of documentaries on you tube. You can find a link in the references.
Building the future - a new Jenga.
So, it should be apparent now that in conclusion(?) I am left with epistemological statements, and an ethical view point with which to rebuild my own jenga tower. I hope this 3 part min sieges has given you some insight if you're building or re building you own. We might not be able to choose our ancestry or our place in the natural sciences, and there may yet be a considerable amount of the Iceberg that is the "ecological self" left unseen, waiting for us to figure it out, but so be it.
Curiosity, Cognition and language are the tools that enable us the shape the faces of the icebergs we can see, including our own. And "ethics" is how we decide to use those tools. Let's hope over time humanity can take responsibility for the outcomes of its actions both collectively and individually. Self responsibility is vital as a social species world wide, and yes from the POV of deep ecology too. Lest in 150 years time arguments as to what we "are" change to "what we might have been"
As an empirically defined "identity", whether societally or individually constructed, that sounds like a pretty good, perhaps even "ideal", target to aim for.