Antti Laitinen, It’s My Island. Δράση κατασκευής νησιού, 14 – 25 Ιουνίου 2009.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. 
In the above poem John Donne articulates poetically the argument that Charles Taylor puts forth in his description of the self as being dialogical. Individualism is a modern concept based in the humanist perspective of the Renaissance. Modern philosophy, economic theory and political thought are all bound to uphold the rights of the individual. Such a concept has created political freedom, economic prosperity and self-expression. However, it is also responsible for an egotism and self-centredness which results in alienation and an unwillingness to contribute to the common good. Taylor argues that ‘we see ourselves as selves, because our morally important self-descriptions push us in this direction’. However, a human being also exists within an ethical environment that must be assessed in accordance with some standards. To not have this environment would be totally disorientating and cause a crisis of identity. To assess whether individual identity and agency can be accounted for sufficiently by a concept of a social or dialogical self, this essay will explore Taylor’s concept of the dialogical self and its ability to sustain agency.
Taylor contends that while we speak of ‘self’, our ancestors or other cultures might say ‘soul’. This shift in thinking has led to radically reflexive practices in the modern world. While thinking about one’s health or welfare is not radically reflexive, the active examination of subjective experience, such as scrutinizing one’s own thinking, is radically reflexive. Also, while the concept of the self is a notion of modern Western culture, even earlier societies had a sense of reflexivity. This can be seen through linguistics, as reflexive pronouns exist in all sorts of languages. This reflexivity can be seen as post-Cartesian thinking where one disengages from embodied prejudices and thinks outside the embodied self. Another form of reflexivity is the creative imagination, especially in the arts, which is a principle form of self-expression and individual identity in post-Romantic times.
A human being’s sense of self is established in the context of their ethical space. The concept of identity is related to ‘who I am’. I situate myself in a contextual environment that may include my relationships with family and friends, and my abilities and the occupations in which I am, or have been, engaged. This identifies what is ultimately important to me and how that relates to where my identity is in relation to this. It is not just a bare sense of self-awareness, which has no ethics attached. It is the concept of identity which is attached to this thick concept of the self involved in a moral situation that is a product of the disembodied perspective that has shaped the modern self. A crisis of identity results from this environment being disrupted, or becoming uncertain, where you may not know who ‘you’ are. Therefore the sense of self and its ethical space can also be profoundly culturally relative, with each sense of good having its own telos and standard of law.
In the modern world each individual has been expected to be a thinking mind that is self-reliant for their judgements. Yet, this thinking has recently been questioned with globalisation bringing new worldviews and cultural resources from non-Western societies into the debate. There is now a more intercultural understanding of global society. The disengaged first person singular view can be found in the foundational works of Descartes and Locke, and this view of the self is made up of representations of the outside world and the fears and desires that accompany them. For Taylor, this is the basis of monological consciousness. However, this notion of monological consciousness leaves out the body and the other.
Emmanual Levinas considered contact with the face of another as primarily ethical. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it is when one is aware of another’s gaze that one becomes reflectively conscious. Through another’s gaze one becomes aware and recognises itself as the object. Philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein see the agent not essentially as a receptor of representation but as a being who acts in and on the world. What distinguishes its agency from something that is inanimate is its capacity for inner representations. Through its body an agent reacts to the world and acts within it, recognizing patterns of appropriate action and the norms that accompany them. Pierre Bourdieu uses the word habitus for this level of social understanding.
The other plays its role in the encoded understanding of the rituals played between the self and the other. These rituals between people are coordinated action that sustain integrated agency, such as two people sawing or playing a duet, or in an orchestra or ensemble, or dancing. For Taylor, an important feature of human action is rhythm or cadence. It is crucial for these actions that they are shared. We must place ourselves in a common rhythm for them to work. When gesture is coordinated it has a flow. However, it falls into confusion when the flow is lost and becomes inept and uncoordinated. Therefore, the acts of a single agent can be called monological acts, while the acts of two or more can be called dialogical acts.
As an action is dialogical when there is a sharing of agency, these shared actions require a shared understanding and make up a common agent. Integration into a common rhythm is one of the features that this form of understanding can take. It s found in political and religious movements whose members are scattered but brought together in a common purpose, such movements as those Occupy Wall Street or Anonymous are examples of movements that are scattered but have a common purpose to redress global injustices, and whose agents work together for this common purpose. They use the satyagraha or non-violent resistance method advocated by M.K. Gandhi.
As no man is an island, the monological subject is inadequate as an understanding for human life. An individual agent can only operate in the world effectively as a constituted part of a ‘we’, whether that be family, tribe, community, society, etc.. Taylor argues that ‘much or our understanding of self, society, and world is carried in practices that consist of dialogical action.’ Therefore our identity does not consist only in our individual properties as we are also aligned with some social space and we define ourselves within this space through our dialogical actions . Being able to understand the actions of another through putting oneself in their shoes, so to speak, is an important feature of maturity and prevents egocentricity .
Taylor extends Dennet’s concept of a narrative self and states that human beings are not only constructed of their own narrative but also of conversations with others. Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democratic individualism posed an obstacle to civil society through its propensity for each person to withdraw into their own family/friend circle, leaving society to degenerate into ‘downright selfishness’. Individualism tends to predispose humans ‘not to consider their fellow creatures’. Schopenhauer contends that as all malevolence is grounded in the idea that one is absolutely separate from other beings (‘someone else’s pain is no matter of mine’), so kindness is grounded in the unconscious knowledge that there is no ultimate reality in individuality. As this silent awareness grows kindness passes into altruism, the subordination of self-interest to those of all other beings.
How can the dialogical self account for identity and agency when the self appears to be such a subjective concept? How can individuals work together as a common agent? In order for the exercise of agency individuals must rely on social recognition in order to be able to form and sustain a self that has agency and identity. In the process of maintaining a stable self the exercise of agency depends upon social infrastructure which provides the framework for an individual’s identity to be formed. Once identity is formed agency can follow in the form of personal autonomy. In the path to a mature personal autonomy that allows us to rely upon our feelings and intuitions, develop our sense of belief and to consider out projects and accomplishments worthy, we are constantly vulnerable to autonomy-undermining injustices, such as material deprivation or disruption to the social nexus. The central idea put forth by Honneth and Axel is that the agency that comprises autonomy requires that an individual is able to sustain certain attitudes to oneself such as self-trust, self-respect, and self-esteem, and that these self-conceptions are dependent on the attitudes of others.
In her response to David Velleman’s claims that an individual’s self-image is made reflexive by some association to another that represents it as a subject, Catriona Mackenzie contends that this is like saying a person’s self-image is like a third-person representation of the person. While Velleman’s analysis of identity tends to ignore the perspective of others in relation to how these perspectives are used in our own summation of ourself, this third-person perspective, argues Mackenzie, is what allows an individual to recognise themselves as an individual.
A good example of the consequences of a breach of mutual recognition that comprises our dialogical self, are practices and institutions that express attitudes of denigration and humiliation. They erode an individual’s self-esteem and agency through a process that results in feelings of shame and worthlessness. Therefore, this example of identity and agency eroding effects of denigration make it clear how important an individual’s social environment is, since the autonomous self appears reliant on the establishment of relationships based upon mutual recognition. Taylor also recognises this relationship between individuals and mutual recognition, stating that dignity is bound to the notion of ‘self-worth’ and that this notion probably exists in every culture. It is reflected in such international documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The UHDR is an instance of the establishment of legally institutionalized relations of universal respect for the autonomy and dignity of human beings, which is central to self-respect. Self-trust is reliant upon close relations of love and friendship. Also, networks of shared values within which community members can be acknowledged are central to self esteem. These three relationships and their social contexts are significant in their contribution to autonomy. The revolution in the seventeenth century of the theory of law began this expression of universal moral norms, of the right to life and liberty. What is different about modern concepts of morality is that they are bound in rights. That these rights were decided by a group of people representing other the demands of other people from across cultures shows that a dialogical understanding of the self is not only sufficient but necessary for human identity and agency.
Perhaps the most important concerns that we have about the autonomous rights bound in such legislation is its respect for the life, integrity, well-being and the flourishing of others. We infringe them when we steal or kill, maim or terrorise them, or even refrain from helping them when they are in distress. People may differentiate who they owe this moral concern to, but most contemporary thinking would say that they are universal to humanity and many would say to other animals as well. The contribution that identity makes to being a morally accountable agent arises out of our concern for our own self. Such contributions may be a sustained interest in our future and, through a dialogical perspective, we present ourselves in social exchange with others to further the interpersonal enterprise of moral accountability and the realisation of a possible future for us all.
What is needed for an identity was explored by one man, Neill Ansell, recently. After a life of wandering he settled on becoming a hermit in a small cottage in Wales for five years. He lived self-sufficiently and so remotely that he hardly saw another person for weeks on end, and had no neighbours, vehicle or phone. He writes that in the first year he kept a diary of reflections on day to day events. By the second year the diary had become a nature journal on what birds he had seen or a record of the weather. By the third year it was a mere almanac recording any significant event within that year. Rather than solitude leading him to protracted self-reflection and self-awareness, as Ansell thought it would, he notes that he began to forget himself with his focus being turned completely to the world around him. Ansell writes: “It was as if we gain our sense of self from our interaction with other people; from the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of another. Alone, there was no need for identity, for self-definition… I am an absence, a void, I have disappeared from my own story.” This appears to confirm Dennett’s description of how human animals use narrative to construct a protective shell of identity around themselves.
Dennett describes his concept of a narrative self in this way: “We are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves in language and gesture, external and internal…Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.” Interestingly, it was when Ansell felt a compulsion to have children that he decided to leave his isolated life and go back to live in the city. Taylor’s concept of the dialogical self appears to correlate with Ansell’s need for other human life. In an addition to Dennett’s concept of the narrative self, Taylor states that human beings are not only constructed of their own narrative but also of conversations with others. Conversation can move beyond simple coordination and attain a common rhythm. With one acknowledging being the listener as the other one speaks and vice versa. The self-interested bore is impervious to this rhythm and so convivial atmosphere is lost.
Such self-interest as seen by individualism tends to predispose humans ‘not to consider their fellow creatures’. Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democratic individualism posed an obstacle to civil society through its propensity for each person to withdraw into their own family/friend circle, leaving society to degenerate into ‘downright selfishness’. For Schopenhauer all malevolence, such as selfishness, is grounded in the idea that one is absolutely separate from other beings (‘someone else’s pain is no matter of mine’). Therefore, Schopenhauer argues that kindness is grounded in the unconscious knowledge that there is no ultimate reality in individuality. As this silent awareness grows kindness passes into altruism, the subordination of self-interest to those of all other beings.
Perhaps the most important concerns that we have about the autonomous rights is its respect for the life, integrity, well-being and the flourishing of others. We infringe them when we steal or kill, maim or terrorise others, or even refrain from helping others when they are in distress. People may differentiate who they owe this moral concern to, but most contemporary thinking would say that they are universal to humanity and many would say to other animals as well. The contribution that identity makes to being a morally accountable agent arises out of our concern for our own self. Such contributions may be a sustained interest in our future and, through a dialogical perspective, we present ourselves in social exchange with others to further the interpersonal enterprise of moral accountability and the realisation of a possible future for us all.
Therefore, of the many accounts of selfhood, the dialogical self stands out as one that explains a human being’s position as part of the world. We are indeed clods of earth that are parts of the main, as Donne elicits so beautifully. When another human is violated, so is our own humanity. Our identity is bound inextricably with our place amongst others and within the greater world. We are involved in humanity through being human and it is in the protection of this identity that we must act, for a breach of humanity does not simply happen to another it happens to us as well.
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