Self; Errors

May 28, 2011

{Post one of four}

Training. One is socialised into a space – and then one is stuck in that space, not, or not only, because of objective pressures to remain there, but also because one cannot think beyond it. There are different versions of this – a single homogeneous absorbing Social, or a specific Social for a specific socialisation. The second is what used to distress me – the idea that the source of real legitimacy, the environment that would produce appropriate deeds, was elsewhere, and that I would never be able to find my way to it because the starting set-up was not one that would allow me to think in such a way, to act in such a way, to accomplish such deeds.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or irrational about this idea. One can, indeed, be socialised in such a way that certain dispositions of self are unlikely or impossible. We are most of us just stuck with some deplorable disposition or other, most likely. But there are also many different aspects of self, each aspect with many different possible implications, depending on whose judgements we take as legitimate regarding them. And one can deploy aspects of self against each other – socialisation is not homogeneous, one can leverage some practice or disposition against some other practice or disposition, and transform the self as one goes.

When I was a younger man, I had little faith in the ability of the self to transform itself. I felt that dispositions were formed by circumstance, which came from outside, and that transformations of the self would therefore only come from transformations of circumstance. It seems to me now, though, that the leveraging of aspects of self against aspects of self can be, at times, a (to me) surprisingly internal affair. The human organism’s capacity for self-monitoring, self-training, and thereby, self-transformation, is, potentially, considerable. Conditional on circumstance, it goes without saying. I’m not making a very strong claim here – objective circumstances count more than anything. But I think my earlier self was wrong to see circumstances as quite as internally determining and encompassing as he did – or, rather, (put right), he was right to see circumstances as entirely determining and encompassing – for there is nothing to the self beyond the body’s biological (and contingently evolved) existence in a particular socio-historical context – but he was wrong to see this determining context as determining in a single, given, way, because the context and the self are both multiple and can be pushed in different directions, with different consequences.

One of the other things my earlier self thought, at times, though – and this is wrong too – was that the aspects of self that should be used to push with (push against other aspects of self, I mean, or against circumstance) should be truly internal to the self – innate – core. (I was interested in seeing if psychoanalytic theory could get me to something like this for quite some time.) One of the things that Brandom’s apparatus, if correct, makes clear, I think, is the specific way in which the self is thoroughly social – a fairly banal (and non-hypostatised) way, albeit also a complex one. In leveraging aspects of self against aspects of self, one is necessarily deploying a judgement of propriety (where ‘propriety’ is understood in very broad terms – this doesn’t rule out self-conscious evil, for example) that can only emerge from a more broadly social system of judgement. That is also to say that I think Brandom is as good as his word in extracting and elaborating the rational core of Wittgenstein’s remarks on rule-following and sociality – which were another preoccupation of mine, as a younger man.

Finally, another confusion, as I now see it, that performed a powerfully leveraging function in my earlier thoughts and days, was the idea that because core socialisation produced unwitting or unconscious dispositions, the core dispositions that guide one’s actions should be unwitting, or opaque to the self’s reflective gaze, and that thought directed at the origins and justification of one’s motive impulses could at best only miss the point, and at worst destroy a genuine source of justified action by exposing it to the crippling bright white light of consciousness. This confusion in particular – a romantic one – was stymieing for me for quite a time, I think.

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3 Responses to “Self; Errors”

  1. Jed Harris Says:

    Your Brandom exegesis is very helpful but it is good to hear more of your own voice.

    In your description (perhaps not your thought) you seem to slight (what might be called) temperament — pre-social dispositions (we need not argue about genetic vs. developmental). The conceptual framework you are using implies that socialization can only get traction by engaging with various pre-existing dispositions. In fact these dispositions vary considerably between people, even children of the same parents. The easily measured ones include such things as the degree of startle in response to loud noises, tendency to follow others gaze or imitate facial gestures, etc. (measurable soon after birth, and fairly stable, allowing for masking due to socialized self-management). In some cases these dispositions can be traced to the size or wiring of specific brain structures. By contrast other dispositions are traceable to structures that vary according to training but don’t differ systematically prior to training — with the clear implication that they are socialized dispositions.

    I think that much socialization works by playing temperamental dispositions against each other, in just the way you describe. For example, very crudely, the social value of “justice” leverages our temperamental disposition toward “fairness” against our equally deeply rooted dispositions toward “revenge” and “selfishness”. (Good evidence for the structure of relatively complex, abstract pre-social dispositions is hard to provide, but one source is cultural universals among diverse very local societies, and these three dispositions meet that test.)

    I further speculate that major innovations in socialization and social structure (surely they have to go together) depend on / arise from the invention of new patterns of orchestrating these pre-social dispositions through socialization.

    I guess the upshot of this is that I agree with your / Brandom’s point that “the self is thoroughly social – [in] a fairly banal (and non-hypostatised) way, albeit also a complex one.” But while the construction of the self is social, the materials are to a large extent pre-social, and their properties and form constrain the possible structure of the self, and so are worth keeping in mind, and perhaps including in the investigation.

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Jed – thanks for your kind comment – sorry to take a bit of time to reply.

    You’re right that my description here slights temperament, and that I shouldn’t. I too am of the opinion that there are dispositions of character that precede regular socialisation – itty bitty babies seem to me to have visible personalities prior to any socialisation that one would think capable of producing such strong differentiation of character. That’s not a scientifically grounded opinion, obviously – and for that reason I’m cautious about building it in to this sort of metatheoretical apparatus – but it’s my working assumption; I’d be very surprised if something like this weren’t true.

    As to what those dispositions might be, and how they interact with the processes of socialisation – I simply don’t know enough about the relevant research to make informed judgements on this (and of course this sort of research is also really hard to do well). My inclination is to ‘black box’ this stuff, such that the apparatus is compatible with any number of different hypotheses about what exactly the pre-social dispositions – shared by or differentiating individuals – might be; at the moment I can’t see this issue as having major impacts on the downstream work one might want to do with an account like this. But I definitely agree with your points. The only possible proviso I might add would be that categories like selfishness & revenge seem like quite complex or abstract ones – I wonder if the pre-social dispositions we’re talking about might be better understood in a more micrological way. But fundamentally: yes.

  3. Jed Harris Says:

    I’ll have other related comments on later posts, for example “The Social Construction of the Self”. But one point that seems to belong here in response to your reply:

    Certainly revenge and selfishness are complex and abstract dispositions. Also, they are pretty much folk concepts, and when we understand them in terms of their implementation and evolutionary role they will probably look quite different.

    However just complexity and abstractness aren’t disqualifications for built in dispositions — though they should make us cautious. A good example is territoriality. A “territory” and “defense” of a territory are extremely complex and abstract concepts, but they are certainly “built in” to most or all individuals of many species (allowing for translation from the folk concepts, already done to a fair extent in ethological studies of territoriality).

    After all it is not surprising that an organism with billions of (largely developmentally programmed) neurons, and trillions of synapses would have some complex and abstract dispositions as a result of its developmental channelization.

    On the other hand, assuming some built in dispositional properties or variation can be an easy and dangerous alternative to deeper analysis. So I agree with the general strategy of factoring out built in dispositions as much as possible, though in other comments I’ll point out that some assumptions about built in dispositions may be unavoidable, and if so it is probably harmful to leave them implicit.

    This probably isn’t very helpful in theory building, because it doesn’t offer much guidance. I guess my point is just that we should not automatically avoid positing built in dispositions because they are complex or abstract.


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