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The Self

October 24, 2011

Lately I’ve been in a frame of mind that doesn’t allow the posting of the kind of critical and political essays that I used to put here almost every day. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

To break out of the paralysis, I decided to adopt a device I sometimes use in letters to my friends. I write in my notebooks virtually every day, and on most days quite a bit. But to translate those notes into proper essay form is not only difficult, sometimes it doesn’t even make sense. So I’ve begun, occasionally, simply transcribing the notes into letters (identifying them by italics) and then surrounding them with explanations about where they came from, why I happened to be making them, how I felt about them once I stepped back and took a perspectival view, and so on. I’m going to try to do the same thing here for a bit.

While I was in Chicago, I bought three collections of essays about Nietzsche, which I have since been wading through. Many of them are not easy reading, so I go slowly. And slow reading is conducive to lots of note-making, on thoughts which pop up out of the reading, sometimes directly relating to it and sometimes farther afield.

A topic that has emerged for me recently from that process is the nature of the self, what is it and so forth? I’ve jotted quite a few notes on those questions, and now I’m going to put a few of them here. Keep in mind, these are notes. So they don’t flow as smoothly as an essay would. But I think they’re basically intelligible. Also, remember that notes are spontaneous reactions to something, not perfectly considered thoughts.

The “I,” or I guess we could say in psychoanalytic parlance, the “ego,” is not something separate from the drives or emotions, but rather the organized, hierarchically directed collective of the drives. Consciousness does not form this collection but is, rather, an epiphenomenon that goes along with it. So says Nietzsche (at least at times). I don’t know whether I believe this or not. Sometimes I almost do. But mostly, I don’t.

I guess I should say I don’t know if I can “see” the entity Nietzsche seems to be talking about. But when I say that, it appears consciousness is the thing that would have to be doing the seeing. I don’t understand the process of bringing the drives into a unity, if that, indeed, is happening. It seems to be the case that most psychologists don’t think consciousness could do it.

In short, I’m not sure how to respond to the vast discourse concerning the “self.”

What is it?

Is it a thing that stands outside and in some sense above one’s various emotions?

Is it an emotion that somehow managed to take control over the other emotions?

Might it be a combination of all the emotions, collectively organized in some way or other?

Could it be a simple fiction derived from what one ends up doing.?

All these hypotheses appear to be advanced by Nietzsche at one time or another.

Does it matter what the theoretical nature of the self is?

Another question we have to ask is, how does the self relate to consciousness?

As far as I can see, there is no “correct” answer to these questions. So the issue is not what’s true about them but rather how am I going to decide to relate to them? If I take that stance I am in effect providing an answer of sorts. The self becomes whatever it is that can take a stance about what the self is. That “whatever” is me.

When I think about the stance I’m going to take, what is it that does the thinking? The inclination is to say that it’s my conscious mind, leaving aside for the moment that the conscious mind may be influenced, or even controlled, by other elements.

We struggle to think and we end up thinking something. But still we don’t know what our thoughts are. That’s because we don’t know what being is. We don’t know what it means for a thought to “be.”  And that, in turn, is because we don’t know what “meaning” is. And so it goes.

We live in a radically indeterminate world, so we go on spinning forever down the corridor of questions. Is that a horrible situation? I don’t think so. It’s frustrating at times, but it’s not horrible.

Speculations of this sort always drive me to ask how far into the philosophical thickets I want to go, and what rules I can use to decide. I made a brief note about that a couple days ago, which I’ll stick here.

Philosophic fanciness is a problem for me right now. How far do I go with it? And how do I decide when to cut it off? Richard Rorty, for example, claimed he knew the answer, and he called it pragmatism. But I’m not sure his answer is adequate. Truth is, I doubt if anybody knows how to set limits of this kind, other than simply letting exhaustion set them. Keep in mind that smart people have been struggling with this issue for a long time. And still there is no definitive answer.

In talks with my friends, I discover they feel they need settled positions about the big questions. Being unsettled is to be frustrated and neurotic, they argue. I think they’re wrong.

To be unsettled is the only way to escape being a dope. I’ll admit that being dopey may be comfortable for some people, and perhaps for most people. But I don’t think comfort justifies the position. Comfort is not what we’re about, as far as I’m concerned.

So, I don’t know what I, myself, am and I don’t expect to know. Neither do I want to know. It’s enough for me to get up tomorrow and try to make myself into something better than I was today, as confusing as that process is.

I would like it if my notes would generate some response. So if anyone reads them, tell me what you think.

©John R. Turner

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