Saturday, October 24, 2009

The house I live in

A few weeks ago, some section I was reading in Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of the Mind” impelled me to attempt a moment of pure introspection, turning off any conscious thought in so far as possible, and just trying to be aware of my immediate impressions – sense impressions, and random passing thoughts viewed as an observer rather than as agent. This is not the first time I have tried such a thing. For some reason, on this occasion, the thought occurred to me that I do not directly perceive my “self”. This led me to the conclusion that I infer myself. On further reflection, I speculated that humans, as infants, learn to infer the existence of themselves by comparison with the role others play as agents of actions (causes of effects) in the infant’s environment. They see other effects, with a “hole” in the middle (no agent evident), and infer that they exist, as people like others, in order to fill the hole. The effects inferred to be caused by this “self” are associated with feelings, desires, motivations, so they infer similar feeling, motivated “selves” associated with the other agents, as well.

I offer this as of interest mainly because of the immediacy and specificity of the intuition. I make no claim to originality – if nothing else, I am reminded of the motivating insight in the c. 1972 American Zen book “On Having No Head”, as well as a few barely remembered passages on the construction of the ego in Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents”. I have long accepted the idea that our understanding of ourselves, in the sense of who we are, is constructed and reconstructed over the course of our lifetimes through social interaction and other life experience. And I certainly don’t offer the above speculations as a developed theory. They were the result of a few moments of introspection and reflection – what they mainly suggested to me was the need to do more research into other people’s views on the development of the self.

But I haven’t been able to avoid (or postpone) thinking more about this, because the nature of the self has been an important issue in several books I’ve been reading. It came up in Jean Grimshaw’s book, in her critique of some of Sartre’s ideas, it was important (from very different viewpoints) in MacIntyre’s book, and in Rorty’s, and it is important in Chapter 3 of the book I am reading now: “The Future of Democratic Equality”, by my friend Joe Schwartz, in which he critiques the ability of post-structuralist ideas, including the “fictive” nature of the self, to serve as a basis for building the concepts and institutions necessary to sustain democracy.

I guess I’ll have to read some existentialists and post-structuralists to get a first-hand understanding of their ideas. In the meantime, if I may be indulged in an argument from second-hand sources, it SEEMS to me that a false dichotomy is being drawn; i.e., if a “self” is not some natural, monist, indivisible, unchanging core of our being, then it must instead be “fictive” and “unstable”. Why? An automobile is a constructed artifact, but this doesn’t make it a phantasm, nor does the fact that it would fall apart if all the bolts were removed make it unstable.

I may not know much about the “self”, but I know a lot about houses. I built houses during my teens as a “carpenter’s helper”, working both with framing crews and finish crews; I’ve designed the structure (and restructuring) of many houses in my professional career as an engineer; and I’ve overseen at least four major remodeling projects in my role as a homeowner. To most of us who haven’t had these experiences, houses often seem the epitome of the solid, concrete, and stable. The British even have an expression, “Safe as houses”, which sums this up perfectly. But I, and others in the trade (or other “post-remodelist” homeowners) know differently.

Houses are “fuzzy” things, with uncertain boundaries, and they are in a constant state of flux. Our definition of “house” can change contextually: does it include the furniture? the outbuildings? the stove, sink, refrigerator? The house itself continually changes: we move furniture in or out, put up new curtains, paint the walls new colors. Left to itself, a house will sag, settle, decay. Termites eat the sills and other supports. A house not built properly is especially vulnerable: absent a few nails or ceiling ties, the walls can spread under the base of the rafters, causing the ceiling to crack and the ridge to sag. I’ve been involved in a few projects where houses in which this had happened needed to be pulled back together and resecured.

Houses are of course, initially constructed, and this construction is the result of a social “conversation”. The owner may have his ideas, more or less well articulated; the architect has hers; as does the contractor, and for that matter each of the many individual construction workers (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters...) There is no unity in these differing conceptions (despite the ambition of the architect), and each makes its own contribution to the outcome. The “final” product is massively unpredictable in its details as they will stand at the moment of “completion” (an arbitrary moment in time perhaps defined by the Building Inspector making a final sign-off on the permit form). And the house immediately begins to change, under the actions of the kinds of forces described above, as well as from the grander plans of the occupants, who may decide they need a new baby’s bedroom, home office, or kitchen.

Despite all of this, none of us, even we who are well acquainted with these processes, would refer to a built house as “fictive”. Nor, except in extreme (dare I say “psychotic”?) cases would we refer to it as “unstable”. “House” remains a concept, and houses things, that we would rather not do without.

So my “self” may be something that is formed and reformed continually throughout my life, by my social interactions (including those with powerful and/or repressive institutions), and by other things. It may be difficult for me to specify with precision, at any given time, just exactly what my “self” is, or what it contains. It may even be that my sense of agency is in some way illusory, because I can’t help doing what I do because of who I am, and who I am has been (and is being) constructed by forces that are beyond my control. Still, it’s a useful thing, this “self”, and it seems to have at least a certain pragmatic, dynamic stability (even if I can’t precisely define the state to which it “returns” after a “disturbance” – which is an engineer’s definition of “stability”).

So, for the moment, at least, I find I have no more desire to give up my "self" (either as a concept or an artifact) than I have to make my home permanently under the stars.

References: In the course of the above, I referred (yet again) to Jean Grimshaw’s “Philosophy and Feminist Thinking”, as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”, and to: Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, Sigmund Freud “Civilization and Its Discontents”, D. E. Harding “On Having No Head”, and last but not least Joseph M. Schwartz “The Future of Democratic Equality”. It’s also clear, if I am to get a better understanding of various ideas of the self, that I am going to have to read some Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida, as well as some more up-to-date books on the psychology of ego formulation. (I’m open to suggestions...)

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