Some of the Historical and Cultural Background to the Self

Pollard, R., 2001. Some of the Historical and Cultural Background to the Self. Reformulation, ACAT News Autumn, p.x.


The Self in Crisis?

The contemporary self, according to many writers is in crisis, a crisis that is a mirror of the socially complex and fragmented world we inhabit. We are told that our selves cannot keep up with the pace of technological change, the volume of information from a multiplicity of media and communication channels, our increasing material wealth and increased array of consumer choices, the structural changes in employment, our increased mobility and the effect all of these changes have on our day to day lives and relationships. This state of affairs is said to make the project of establishing a stable identity a constant struggle, as there are no certainties against which bearings can be taken. The instability of the social world is experienced as inner turmoil and confusion (Frosch, 1991). We are pulled

"in a myriad directions, inviting us to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an "authentic self" with knowable characteristics recedes from view. The fully saturated self becomes no self at all" (Gergen, 1991).

Multiple Theories of the Self

Part of the immediate historical background to the present 'crisis' of the self that also contributes to the confusion about self has been a proliferation of theories of self in the last century. Psychoanalysis has spawned a variety of selves that have interacted with and coalesced with humanist and existentialist selves as well as with Marxist, social constructionist and discursive conceptions of self-hood. Contemporary debates about the nature of self are perhaps more importantly debates between competing ideologies, which have implications for political organisation (Homer, 2000). The concern with the self is moreover multidisciplinary and is hotly debated from many different perspectives.

In fact it is impossible to talk about the self from a single perspective without being reductionist. One of the criticisms about some of the more recent theories of self, is that they are limited by disciplinary boundaries in the human sciences that have little to do with the nature of knowledge, which were not a constraint on the thinking of earlier writers (Holland, 1978, Rose, 1999). And as Homer suggests it may be more relevant to ask not what is the nature of self but rather why ideological debates about human nature have come to the fore at the present time.

The current 'crisis' of the self is also a response to or reaction against the hegemony of the:-

The Myth of the Enlightenment Self

The prevalent mythology that is sometimes termed the grand narrative of the self in Western thought is one of the progressive development of the self, in which the uniqueness of each individual is buried deep inside like a pearl in the shell of an oyster (Burkitt, 1991), and is separate from the rest of society. It is a narrative of the rise of the rational self and the demise of religious belief. It is a heroic mythology in which the individual is central, in which individual selves acquire increasing autonomy and independence and become self-creating and self-fulfilling. It idealises introspection, romanticises individual psychic suffering and alienation and the triumph of the individual who stands alone against the forces of religion and society. It reached its apex in the angst ridden existentialist hero of the mid 20th century. It is a mythology that can be traced through the Renaissance reaction against religion, Descartes, Rousseau, de Sade, Kant, Neitsche, Freud and Sartre, amongst others (Porter, 1997). The myth is of the linear and progressive liberation of the individual self.

It is a flattering and seductive account of the development of selfhood that puts human beings now ahead of all those who have gone before. It is also a very masculine and Eurocentric account that almost entirely relies on a rather selective reading of the writing of European men who were part of the privileged and intellectual elites of their times.

This myth has been increasingly called into question in the latter half of the last century by a diffuse body of thought encompassing philosophy, the arts, and some of the social sciences, which has been loosely termed 'postmodernism'. Part of the territory of postmodernism is the so-called crisis of the self in which the unified autonomous, self-creating human self has been replaced by the decentred, fragmented and fabricated subject. The European Holocaust has often been seen as the decisive event that shattered the illusion of humanity's inherent capacity for goodness and progress that ultimately lead to the post-modern critique of Enlightenment notions of selfhood.

Crises of the Self

However, the idea that the self in crisis is only a recent may be just another myth. The retrospective unified subject may just be, as Dollimore (1997) suggests, a construct of contemporary theory, a convenient backdrop for the far more interesting self in crisis. Critics of postmodernism have suggested that this grand narrative of the autonomous unified subject is a travesty of Western philosophy and that the history of self is more complex and less homogeneous than post-modern theorists allow for (Eagleton, 1996).

Historical accounts suggest that peoples' sense of self has been undermined or called into question at previous times and perhaps any thinker or writer who examines the self or, most commonly, himself does so from a position of uncertainty and doubt about the concept of self and its relation to the world.

Freud (1916-17) pointed out how humanity's view of its own significance was shaken by the Copernican revolution and the realisation that the world is only a tiny spec in a backwater of the cosmos rather than the centre of the universe. Koestler has also written about how the 'scientific revolution' in physics and astronomy

"destroyed the medieval vision of an immutable social order in a walled in universe with its fixed hierarchy of moral values and transformed the European landscape, society, culture, habits and general outlook as thoroughly as if a new species had arisen on the planet" (1959, p. 9)

Darwin's theory of evolution that demonstrated humanity's common ancestry with other animals was a further blow to humanity's view of itself that even today is contested by some religious fundamentalists. Freud's contribution to this process was to show us that not only are we not the unique creatures we thought we were at the centre of creation but that we are not even at the centre of ourselves due to the discovery of the unconscious (Porter, 1997).

So the so called post-modern crisis of the self, in which any remaining illusions we may harbour of our own uniqueness and autonomy are now further undermined by social/historic/cultural conceptions of selfhood, in which our selves are discursively constructed, could be seen as just the latest in a series of crisis. Perhaps it is the nature of selfhood to be permanently in a state of uncertainty and crisis or for those who think and write about it to find it so.

God and the self

Nevertheless regardless of the heated academic and atheistic debates around such oppositions as enlightenment/postmodernism, humanism/anti-humanism, psychoanalysis/social constructionism, cognitivism/dialogism, the majority of human beings who are alive now or have been alive, have defined and experienced themselves in the context of religious beliefs and practices. From a religious perspective, humanity's relationship with God has been the context for many crises of the self.

In the Christian tradition, St Augustine's confessions in 397AD have been read as an attempt to resolve a crises of the self threatened by inner conflict, loss and doubt (Dollimore, 1997)) although Augustine's purpose in writing about his struggles and exposing his sinfulness is to glorify the mercifulness of God rather than publicise himself (Gutman, 1988). The Protestant Reformation triggered by Martin Luther was the occasion for a major shake up of the self in its relation to God in that authority and responsibility were shifted away from God towards the individual self. This constituted

"……a movement away from the God- centred discourse of theology and confession to the man-centred discourse of Freud and Jung"

(Rothwell, 1988, p 81).

Death of God

Which brings us to another major crisis in selfhood, the death of God, most famously proclaimed by the 19th century philosopher, Frederick Neitsche who argued that the Christian belief in God was the antithesis of life and happiness. Although there had been increasing scepticism about a belief in God from the Renaissance onwards, Western philosophy in the 20th century has been unique for its lethal attacks on religious belief across a range of schools of thought, from dialectical materialism to existentialism to logical positivism. The death of God brought about the liberation of the individual freed from religious repression. The human self was now at the centre of things although now more vulnerable and burdened with anguish and responsibility.

Death and the Self

With or without God, death is commonly held to be fundamental to human subjectivity (Becker, 1973, Brown, 1959, Craib, 1994, Dollimore, 1997). Culture in the broadest sense has been seen as an attempt to transcend the temporality of existence by achieving a vicarious immortality. Without culture, there would be no history and it is culture and history that are said to distinguish human beings from other animals. Lacking a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it, other species are said to lack the reflexive capacity to contemplate their own mortality. This has lead the anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973) to write that the essence of humanity is its paradoxical nature, that we are half animals and half symbolic-

"Man (sic) has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, creature with a name, a life history….yet man is a worm and a food for worms. This is the paradox, he is out of nature and yet hopelessly in it" (p26).

This tension between the enduring symbolic world we are born into, that existed before us and continues after us and our own inevitable death, has lead Ian Craib (1994) to claim that the human self is doomed to be a disappointed self.

Death of the self

Without God, alone with our own mortality, the anti-humanist philosphers were relatively soon to point out, the centrality of the individual was an illusion and the relatively brief life of the humanist self was over to be replaced by the " decentred subject" a product of historical, linguistic and social structures (Dollimore, 1997). For anti-humanists, the death of God, far from placing the human individual at the centre of things served to underline humanity's cosmic insignificance and the ephemeral nature of the self. As Dollimore implies the death of the self, or the humanist bounded individual self, could be the occasion for a perverse celebration of the fragmentation that was the inevitable outcome of the failures of Marxism. There is no debt to the past and morality becomes an "ethics of joy" (Deleuze, 1988)

Foucault and the technologies of the self

The anti-humanist philosopher, Michel Foucault, has perhaps done more than any other writer to debunk the idea of progress in the history of self-hood undermining the notion that the western self now is any more liberated than the selves of other times and cultures. For Foucault there can be no universal presuppositions about the nature of human subjectivity which is rather constituted by social beliefs and practices. He exposed the prescriptive and moralising nature of Enlightenment humanism and its ideal of the rational self and how this came to serve as a justification for the exclusion as well as the 'treatment' of people who were deemed to be mad or bad as well as for colonial exploitation. (Ghandi, 1998).

Foucault was a Neitschean for who there was no absolute truth, only 'regimes of truth'. Foucault referred to the social sciences as 'games of truth', discourses which emerged in the early 19th century and concerned themselves with the nature of human beings such as medicine psychiatry economics and biology. These 'disciplines' produced the knowledge through which power accrued to certain groups and these were related to certain techniques that people used to understand themselves. One of these sets of techniques are referred to as the 'technologies of the self' which

"permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality" (Foucault, 1988, p. 18)

The technologies themselves, though, predate the human sciences by two millennia. Foucault (1988), in tracing the development of these technologies in the Hellenistic period, observed that taking care of the self was an important moral principle necessary for citizens to participate in civic and political life. Knowing the self was part of and subsumed by the importance of taking care of oneself. Writing notes about oneself or keeping a diary, writing letters to friends became important means of taking care of oneself

This order has been reversed in Western culture, which has inherited the tradition of Christian morality, in which knowing the self is the moral imperative in order paradoxically to renounce the self and achieve salvation. Two different techniques for achieving self-knowledge have been identified in early Christian practice:- one from the Eastern Gnostic tradition involves the renunciation of the world and a solitary contemplation of oneself and reading of sacred texts, in order for the self to become known to itself.

The other is from the Western Hellenistic tradition that emphasised the practice of self-disclosure to another that was dialogic and social (Martin, 1988). This latter practice has come to predominate in the Western ethical tradition, for example in the Roman Catholic practice of confession to a priest. It is perhaps interesting to note here (given the centrality of Bakhtin to the dialogic dimension of cognitive analytic theory) that Bakhtin's idea of the key to an ethical existence being the disclosure of self to another through dialogue was inspired by the Christian practice of confession. (Hirschkop, 1999). However, far from advocating confession as an ethical practice, Foucault saw it as part of the policing and supervisory process associated with the exercise of power (Miller 1993).

This western Hellenistic tradition is also seen in the Puritan practice of self-scrutiny using journals and inner dialogue. In this Puritan tradition, the self becomes both its own observer and interlocutor. These technologies of self disclosure to another, letter writing and diary keeping are now part of the practice of Cognitive Analytic Therapy although their purpose now is very different.

Writing and the self

For Foucault, writing was a way of changing oneself and becoming other than who we are (Miller, 1993). The importance of writing both in the technologies and in the histories of the self cannot be over emphasised. Most, though not all, of what we know about the selves of previous times is contained in written accounts; in diaries, letters, plays, archives, philosophical and religious books and also from poetry, novels, and the increasing prevalence of the biography and autobiography as literary forms. The rise of the social sciences, particularly psychology, from the mid 19th century has given rise to a whole swath of writing about the self in textbooks, research papers, journal articles, and of course the case notes written up by the medical professions, social workers and therapists. The influence of psychology has permeated western culture to such an extent that many pages of newspapers and magazines and a significant quantity of popular books are given over to various forms of writing about the self and how we can understand it, act on it and improve it.

The Psychological Self

In historical terms, the psychological versions of the self are relatively recent. The modern discipline of psychology created the self as an object of scientific investigation that can be measured, evaluated and written about in scientific terms. In doing so it both reflected and perpetuated the dualism of mind and body and self and society that is associated with the philosophy of Descartes that gave rise to a new sense of self in the 17th century which is distinctively modern and western. This modern self is pre-occupied with itself and all things personal (Smith, 1997). Psychology ignores the historical specificity of its pre-given object, the unitary rational individual, abstracts it from its historical and social context and so creates a partial subject, consistent with investigation by a positivist science and amenable to the rationalisation of capitalist administration and bureaucracy (Venn, 1984). Psychology is therefore normative and prescriptive in its theories of self, redefining the irrational aspects of subjective experience as psychopathology.

Not surprisingly, these concepts of self have been subjected to harsh critiques from both inside that outside psychology from the 'post perspectives' The postcolonial theorist, Leela Ghandi (1998), accuses the modern Cartesian self of celebrating its own epistemological possibilities and by its rational scientific ordering of the world outside itself, including other people, reducing everything to the contents of its own mind. Erica Burman in a critique grounded in feminist and intercultural perspectives is even blunter when she asserts that:-

"The rational unitary subject of psychology is rigid incoherent and shot through with racist and sexist assumptions. Its measurements make already marginilised people mad, and it self-centres and censors itself by using itself as the yardstick by which others are negatively evaluated. With its emphasis on fixed measures and scientific detachment, institutional psychology misses the invested and contested character of research and therapeutic relationships. The politics of method and practices of exclusion are therefore interlinked by virtue of institutional psychology's strategies of only admitting that which can be recognised by its own categories" (1997, p1).

From a post-structuralist perspective, psychology, like the other human sciences is associated with the increasing power of the state since the 17th century over the everyday conduct of peoples' lives.

Nikolas Rose (1989, 1999) suggests that the power associated with psychological knowledge is not monolithic but is dispersed amongst a whole range of authorities with variable relations to the state and whose activities do not only serve power, they shape and create the objects of power that is our selves. Rose here is referring to the whole range of institutional and professional arenas in which psychological knowledge and practices are used:- this would include the activities of nearly all educational and health related occupations, social workers, counsellors and therapists, voluntary and charitable organisations, the police and prison services and also commercially driven professions like management consultants and market researchers

According to Rose, psychology's function is primarily a productive one in that it has produced and reproduces forms of selfhood or subjectivity that makes us into 'governable subjects'. We have become psychological selves, construing our selves and others in the language of psychology, a language that is essential if we are to be the objects of our own reflection.

"These practices of self-inspection and self problematization in terms of an inner psychological domain and its vicissitudes become the key elements in our contemporary art of living: a style of life whose very ethos might be termed therapeutic" (Rose, 1997, p 244).

The self or subject produced by psychology is enjoined to strive for autonomy and self-fulfilment and create meaning for itself, is obliged to be free, regardless of the constraints of its existence. For those in a position to do so it means immersing oneself in the project of one's own life or personal development, for those less fortunate, it means enduring the shame of personal failure about not having control over one's own destiny. It places burdens of responsibility and aspiration on people regardless of the social and material conditions that can make the realisation of them impossible. Either way it vitiates political resistance creating

"docile bodies and obedient souls, drained of creative energy" (Miller, 1993).

This analysis though compelling is also deeply pessimistic and disturbing- it allows little room for human agency and like other social historical discursive conceptions of self, implies that subjectivity is wholly determined rather than created or negotiated- that we have no influence on what we feel or how we experience our selves. Part of social and political background to this kind of bleak Foucauldian perspective is the ultimate failure of the attempted 'revolution' in France in May 1968 and the growing disillusionment with traditional Marxism. The intellectual left turned its attention away from the mechanisms of power by coercion to the more subtle effects of power in relation to our subjectivity, to understand how it is we not only acquiesce in our own subjugation but manage to enjoy ourselves in the process. That it is when we imagine ourselves to be free, that we are most enslaved. This analysis does seem to be borne out of despair.

Radical psychologists influenced by Foucault and also by Derrida's deconstruction of institutional power (e.g. Parker, 1999) have attempted to deconstruct the unified autonomous subject as an illusion constructed by the dominant discourse in liberal capitalist societies and replace it with a decentred, desiring subject defined by difference. But this new subject is still a constructed subject and arguably without the 'illusion' of autonomy is even less able to contest the constructions placed upon it. The psychologist or therapist who seeks to deconstruct their own power creates a double bind around the issues of power and knowledge which is not easily resolved (Larner, 1999).

Ian Hacking (1999) in a critique of social constructionism offers a partial way out of this pessimistic cul-de-sac by pointing out that human beings unlike other objects of scientific discourse respond to the way they are classified, described or diagnosed in ways that can confirm, deny or modify the constructions put upon them. Human beings are interactive and the construction process is not a "one way street" but "a labyrinth of interlocking alleys". Human beings to use Hacking's terms are therefore "moving targets" who are in what could be seen as a dialogical relationship with the disciplinary regimes that seek not always successfully to pin them down. Whilst this does not eliminate disciplinary power from the equation, it makes it less absolute and allows people to adopt different positions in relation to it and allows for the possibility of resistance.

Eagleton (1997), rather than construing the autonomy of the self merely as a delusional effect of power, sees it a necessary outcome of the social and historical conditions that gave rise to modern capitalism and as a precondition of political critique. Even if this autonomy is determined, it is fashioned in such a way that it can react against the conditions that determined it. Moreover, for those who have not given up on Marxism, this capacity for self-determination can be collective as well as individual and is compatible with a decentred conception of self formed in social relationships. Unlike Marx, Foucault in focusing on how the world is created in discourse had little to say about the transformation of the real world through labour and how this is in turn related to the operations of power and knowledge (Burkitt, 1991).

Crisis of subjectivity

So perhaps the present crisis of the self, if indeed there is one, is a crisis of ideology and political organisation. One response to the apparent nihilism of post-structuralism and the apparent abdication of political responsibility of postmodernism is a return to humanism in an attempt to find a moral and less relativistic position. Another is to deconstruct the oppostions between enlightment/postmodernism and humanism/antihumanism. As Homer (2000) and Eagleton (1996) suggest, humanism encompasses a range of subject positions that are diverse and even contradictory. If Foucault and his followers have shown how ethically dubious it is to make universalising statements about the self by perpetuating the hegemony of the dominant discourse and subordinating different subjectivites, it can seem equally dangerous not to do so, for if the idea of a common humanity is deconstructed in its entirety, it is impossible to sustain any concept of human rights and remain consistent (Todorov, 1987, cited in Lehman, 199). It seems that the search is still on for forms of subjectivity that are non prescriptive, inclusive of difference and that can connect people in a direct way to engage with the political complexities of the 21st century.


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Rachel Pollard

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