Wednesday, 29 March 2017

speaking for my self

There are phrases we use to signal a change of game. Then some philosopher comes along and mistakes them for further moves in the same game. Et voila: metaphysics.

(Perhaps we didn't signal wildly enough. But then again, perhaps we really weren't expecting some philosopher to come blundering along.)

The topic of selfhood is a prime location for such reflective clumsiness. 

Thus often enough such 'self' talk is introduced to signal the absence of interpersonal relations. But then the philosopher thinks that what we are talking about is, say, the presence of reflexive relations.

For example: 

I live by myself. 
Speaking for myself. 
He's become more self-possessed.
She's become so self-conscious.
I thought to myself that...

'Speaking for myself' doesn't mean being my own mouthpiece. Or rather, to talk more perspicuously, the notion of 'being one's own mouthpiece' has no very obvious positive sense (but do please feel free to invent one).What it signals here is simply that I'm not being someone else's mouthpiece.

Being possessed by someone (charmed, hypnotised, gaslighted, bewitched, mesmerised, gulled, under the thumb of) is not something which requires replacing by a possessive relation to oneself. Self-possession is but the absence of possession by someone.

Being self-conscious does not mean taking one's self, instead of someone else, as the object of one's attention. It means fearing that others are scrutinising you.

Living by myself: it just means I don't have housemates, ok!

I thought to myself...: I didn't express my thought!

Talk of the self even starts being construed as talk about some kind of thing. (As Wittgenstein describes it - this absurd idea that nouns always get their meanings by standing for things.) Or, when (unsurprisingly) no thing is found, it gets construed as talk about an illusory thing! (Who knew that things could be so hard to give up?!) Here's a few lines from an article about Dan Dennett in this week's New Yorker: 
The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves—constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside.
Whoa, hold on chap! Let's leave aside the idea that I do something called 'use a system' to 'anticipate the future and change it'. (Like: what are the criteria for using a system? When we ponder that question are we likely to consider that, say, we use our liver to detoxify our blood? Surely not! Now, do we really want to say the same kind of thing about our brains and the future?) Let's consider instead the (alleged) idea that we 'look within' and there 'find that we have selves' and that these selves are emergent 'constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes'. 

So: 'looking within'. We talk like this mainly when we're doing that thing called 'examining our conscience'. We also use it to denote a moment of stepping up, taking responsibility, when we stop pointlessly trying to look for resources or causes of alleged misfortune outside ourselves. (Another good case of a phrase's primary purpose being the changing of a game (looking for the causes of what goes wrong in your life turns into a different game of owning your shit) rather than making another move within the same looking-for-the-causes game.) The author of the article is not using it in either of those two senses. That's fine. But, like, just how is he using it?

Next: 'having a self'. I know what it is for someone to have or lack personality. But having a self? 'Having' in what sense? Possessing? Surely not. (If a feminist insists that her body is her own property, presumably what she's saying is just that her body is nobody else's possession, and not - let's hope - claiming that the ordinary concepts of 'possession' or 'property' do any kind of justice to what it is to have a body.) 'I am a self', one might offer - if, say, one was trying to teach the use of the word. Right now I can't imagine a use for 'I have a self'. (Again, feel free to invent one. Just don't forget to tell us about it - preferably before using the phrase in conversation.)

Finally: the self has become some thing - or at least a 'constellation of memories and ideas and purposes.' .... The purpose of my field trip was to collect some more weevils. So, 'to collect some more weevils' is part of my self? Like, what? (I'm not disagreeing. I just don't know what you're saying... No, it's not that. Rather: I think that you don't know what you're saying.)... Or: I have a thought about Geoffrey; I have a thought about weevils; these 'thoughts are parts of myself'. ... How could one agree or disagree with such a strange phrase? Perhaps if someone is saying that these are my thoughts, not someone else's thoughts, I can begin to get a purchase...? But, like, dude, what are you actually saying with your words? How are you using them? I know you thought you had something in mind when you issued them. But, hmm... did you? Really?