Tuesday, 1 March 2016

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.  
              -  William Shakespeare, As You Like It
One of the themes of postmodern philosophy the general public does not want to hear about is the deconstruction of the self.  Your self - the person you think you are from birth to death -  we are told by postmodern sages, is nothing but a socially constructed concept or image or narrative shaped by historical forces and concealing numerous biases and strategies of deception.  The self until recently had been conceived as the independent ‘I’ of Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum,” the sovereign individual as in ‘rugged individualism,’ the John Galt of Atlas Shrugged, the bearer of the universal human rights and freedoms ensconced in the world’s constitutions and charters.  That sturdy, enduring self or ego, the postmoderns tell us, does not exist.  It’s an illusion.
The theory behind this claim is called social constructionism.  There are at least two versions.  Whereas some postmodern thinkers use deconstruction to expose the self as a creature of Eurocentric triumphalism and male chauvinism, Erving Goffman took a more empirical, sociological approach.  Goffman, termed by some “the most influential American sociologist of the 20th century,” made his mark with a book titled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  He argued that humans in social situations constantly position themselves to be perceived by others in the best light possible by taking on roles appropriate for the given social context, much as an actor adopts a persona or mask in a stage production.  Different masks are required for work, parties, official gatherings, school classrooms, etc., sometimes juggled one after the other depending on who is encountered in fast-changing interactions.  Although Goffman did allow that in one’s private life, the masks can be dropped and a person can be herself,  he nevertheless drew the conclusion from his dramaturgical analysis that there is no True Self, no enduring entity answering to the pronoun ‘I.’*  The self just is a collection of masks and nothing more.  Many other contemporary thinkers have taken the same view.  Philosopher Julian Baggini states the  no-self argument with startling candor on Ted Talks.
The first thing to notice about this argument is that Goffman’s conclusion does not follow from his premises.  Granting for the sake of argument that:
People perform various habitual roles in different social situations,
it does not follow that:
There is no such thing as a person’s true self.
Goffman states his argument from an objective, sociological standpoint, but one’s true self, if it exists, will not be revealed by any objective approach because ‘self’ is essentially a subjective concept.  ‘Who am I?’ can ultimately be answered, if at all, only by me.  Objective facts do not lead necessarily to subjective conclusions.  I may infer from Donald Trump’s rhetoric that he is a racist, but that may only be one of his masks.  Perhaps deep inside he is not a racist; only he can know for sure.
A recent lighthearted summary of Goffman’s theory appeared recently on the Aeon Magazine website.  (Press here to see the two-minute video.) It hinted at a second serious flaw in the no-self position.  Who exactly is telling us this story?  A social role called Erving Goffman?  Is Goffman himself communicating behind a mask?  His theory says he is.  Does he actually consider himself to be just a mask labeled ‘Sociologist?’  If so, can we be sure that, behind the mask, he is telling us what he actually believes?  If he insists, “Yes, yes, I am telling you the truth,” can we be certain he has not just put on another mask labeled ‘Truth Teller,’ which conceals another mask labeled, perhaps, ‘Very Insistent Truth Teller,’ and so on?  This is the dreaded quicksand of infinite regress—masks behind masks behind masks indefinitely.  That might suit impish deconstructionists just fine, but Goffman wants to be taken seriously as a sober-minded scientist. Like ourselves, he can’t live with an infinite regress. 
Another big problem.  Can Goffman deny the existence of his selfhood without committing a performative contradiction?  Here’s what I mean.  A performative contradiction occurs when someone states a claim that is falsified by the act of stating it.  For example, if a person says, “I will not mention Susan’s divorce in this conversation,” the contradiction between the statement and the act of saying it is immediately apparent.  (This is different from a logical contradiction, which is a clash between two statements both of which cannot be true.  For example, “Socrates was a Greek,’ and ‘Socrates was not a Greek.’)  Similarly, if Goffman is required by his theory to admit, “I am just a mask,” he would appear to be uttering something equivalent to “I do not exist.”
In order to convince the rest of us that we are something like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, Goffman has to deal with the pesky feeling of ‘I am’ that we all have moment-to-moment at least during our waking hours.  Whenever I wish I can report to myself or to others what I am or what I am doing.  The popular custom of continuous texting gives self-reporting more air time than at any time in history.  A texts B:  ‘What’s up?’  B replies, “I’m fixing dinner.”  Five minutes later, A:  “Hey, I’m watching the hockey game.  What are you doing?”  B:  “I’m eating dinner.”   This “I am” could be prefixed to anything we are doing at any time, and we are convinced that this ‘I’ that I am is the same ‘I’ that I mentioned or felt or intuited five minutes ago or five days ago, perhaps even five decades ago.  Yes, the self undergoes many changes over a lifetime, some quite dramatic, but unless we suffer serious brain damage somewhere along the way, the sense of our core identity over time for most of us is very hard to dislodge, even if difficult to explain. 
Actually, our sense of self-identity needs no theory to support it.  It is a simple feeling of being that is ever present in our waking lives and even when we are dreaming.  “I am” seems to be the enduring background of our entire lives, the organizing principle of all our thoughts, feelings, memories, decisions, and actions.  Prior to any of those activities is this simple ‘I amness.’  Prior to taking on any social role—father, friend, business manager, socialite, cook, etc.— you simply are this ’I,’ the actor who executes the parts in your social drama and the one who is aware of yourself performing the roles.   Without that sense of being you, the agent and experiencer of all the role-changes life requires of you, your social process would be utterly incoherent, something very like insanity.
Although everyone has access to the sense or intuition of their enduring selfhood, that doesn’t mean they understand it or how it works.  Most of the time we identify with a particular role or set of roles that we think define us and are only dimly aware of the foundational ‘I amness’ that provides the ground of all our conscious activities.  If this Self is not a role or an emotion or a thought, what is its function?  An ancient Hindu philosophy, Vedanta, provides the answer:  ‘I am’ is pure awareness, the One who notices or observes or is aware of everything that happens in your life but is not involved or active in any of it.  For that reason, Vedanta calls it the Witness.  The Witness has no thoughts or feelings but is aware of all your thoughts and feelings.  It makes no judgment about what you do but merely observes your actions.  It is not a role that you enact in society, but it sees your roles just as they are.  The Witness, according to the tradition, is your True Self.
Philosophers say that the Witness is ontologically prior to any thinking, feeling, sensing, imagining, or role-playing that you may experience day-to-day, moment-to-moment.  If you were not already aware of what happens in your experiential space, you could not think about what is happening in the experience or have any feeling about it.  For example, while on a walk in the local park, you look up from the pavement and see a rosebush in full bloom.  Just there, in that indivisible moment, you are purely aware of the flowers.  The reaction follows in a flash: “Beautiful!” First the awareness, then the feeling.
This bare witnessing is the reason you can remember past experiences.  During the racketball game yesterday, you were completely immersed in the activity.  You were the player, dodging, leaping, making shots.  At the same time, unnoticed by you the player, the Witness was noticing everything you did and filing it away somehow in memory.  This doesn’t mean you will remember everything - some people can apparently - but without the Witness dispassionately recording your performance, you could remember nothing at all.
All of the foregoing is what philosophy tells us.  But you don’t have to rely on mere speculation to apprehend the reality of the Witness.  You can directly experience your ’I amness’ whenever you have a quiet moment.  It’s not complicated.  Sit in a quiet place, relax, and just begin to notice what comes up - bodily sensations arise, thoughts, feelings, memories - one after another, never the same moment-to-moment.  Let them go; try not to analyze or judge them.  Before long, you will realize that you are not any of those sensations, thoughts, feelings, or memories.  You are the Witness of those, the ‘I am’ that operates above and beyond the stream of ever-changing experience, noticing all of it, recording everything like a video camera, without judgment, without preference, without emotion.  Pure awareness, pure ’I am’ - that’s who you really are. 
The Witness is always on duty, usually in the background, a perspective on all you do but hidden from your ego-self in the stream of everyday experience.  The Witness is not a social role that you can take on and take off. It is not any particular mask that you might use to present yourself to the world.  It is not even your ‘authentic self,’ for that too may be just another mask or a delusional self-image.  

Imagine Erving Goffman searching among his masks for his true self.  Like most of us, he did not know how or where to look.  It was there the whole time, “hard to find, but impossible to avoid.”
* For a humorous portrayal of one man's attempt to 'be himself,' watch the video Just Be Yourself  here.