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Rejecting the "Uncorrupted Self"

Hugo Schwyzer did me the unintended favor of making explicit in a recent post an assumption underlying much of his writing that I simply can't agree with:

Not to verge dangerously onto philosophical ground, but I think most of us (even if we haven’t read Plato or been washed in the Blood of the Lamb) think we have a "true self" somewhere deep inside, somewhere deeper than the corrupting influences of a sexist patriarchal culture could reach.

This strikes me as more Rousseau than Plato or Paul, but in any event it's a familiar story. Each person has a true, authentic self which is innocent and good, but which is warped and corrupted by the influences of society. The task of personal development, then, is to shake off these extra influences that have been layered on us to find and follow our authentic desires and way of being. It becomes crucial in this way of thinking to distinguish what is "real" or "ours," what we are born with and what is encoded in our DNA, on the one hand, from what is "false" or imposed on us later by society, on the other hand. If something is in the first group, it should be celebrated. If in the latter, rejected or overcome.

What I would like to reject or overcome, however, is this idea of an authentic essence or uncorrupted self. If Schwyzer's idea of human nature is the "uncorrupted self," we can call my proposal the "incomplete self." (Relevant philosophers here may include John Dewey/Jane Addams, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Judith Butler). There is no true self that exists apart from our shaping by the circumstances of our lives and our reactions to them. Someone who has unquestioningly absorbed the ideology of patriarchy is as authentically partiarchal as a committed feminist is authentically egalitarian. We are not born as total blank slates, but neither are we born as fully-developed selves. Egalitarianism is a social product, a shaping of the raw materials offered by our DNA and uterine environment just as patriarchy is. The good news is that even octogenarians are still incomplete, still open to reworking of the residues of 80 years of life.

In this view, self-development is not a separation of the authentic from the corrupting, but of reshaping all possibilities. But if we lack a "true self" as an anchor -- particularly a true self that can be counted on to be good and pure -- how can we guide that reshaping process? Here I think the Pragmatist tradition offers a good guide. Pragmatism rejects a search for (Descartes-like or logical positivist) foundationalist truth in favor of a spiraling, provisional process that starts from where we are. In parallel, we can see a Pragmatist agenda for self-development as a resolution or mediation among conflicting aspects of the self. We start from the existence of a problem -- something strikes us as wrong or unsatisfying about who we are and how we relate to the world. The answer is found when the problem reaches a satisfactory resolution. That's satisfactory to the one perceiving the problem -- no external or objective guide like the "true self" can tell you where to go or when you've arrived.

Aspects of the self that are held more shallowly, and which are less integrated into other aspects of the self, are the most likely to give way in this process of reconciliation. This is what creates the illusion of separating a true self from corrupting social influences -- but that's only an illusion.

Writing about reform on the social level almost 120 years ago, William James captured the Pragmatist project well:

Since everything which is demanded is by that fact a good, must not the guiding principle for ethical philosophy (since all demands conjointly cannot be satisfied in this poor world) be simply to satisfy at all times as many demands as we can? That act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions. In the casuistic scale, therefore, those ideals must be written highest which prevail at the least cost, or by whose realization the least possible number of other ideals are destroyed. Since victory and defeat there must be, the victory to be philosophically prayed for is that of the more inclusive side-‑of the side which even in the hour of triumph will to some degree do justice to the ideals in which the vanquished party's interests lay. ... And yet if he be a true philosopher he must see that there is nothing final in any actually given equilibrium of human ideals, but that, as our present laws and customs have fought and conquered other past ones, so they will in their turn be overthrown by any newly discovered order which will hush up the complaints that they still give rise to, without producing others louder still. ... Pent in under every system of moral rules are innumerable persons whom it weighs upon, and goods which it represses; and these are always rumbling and grumbling in the background, and ready for any issue by which they may get free.

James' incomplete society works in the same way as the incomplete self I am proposing here. We don't reject patriarchy because it's a corruption of our true nature. We reject patriarchy (as a social system and as a personal practice) because it persistently creates problems, forcing unsatisfying conflicts among our ideals and practices.

Yet despite my fundamental disagreement with Schwyzer's idea of an uncorrupted self, I think the very next few lines of his post after the bit I quoted above are basically useful -- though they take on a different tone when viewed through the Pragmatist idea of the incomplete self:

Overcoming sexism or racism is about overcoming learned lessons, not about changing our very nature. The fact that the lessons began to be taught before our conscious memory doesn't change the fact that they were learned after birth rather than encoded in our genes or written on our hearts. And the feminist man in an argument with his female partner needs to remember that both he and the woman he loves have had their perspectives warped by society — and that each of them has an uncorrupted self which is no more or less valuable than that of the other.

If "our very nature" is something fixed and unchangeable, written into our genes, then there is no need to change it because there is no such thing. And we are each valuable not because we have an uncorrupted essence, but because the lack of an essence means we can never be corrupted beyond repair or corrupted out of being a creature that can perceive problems and make claims for their solution.


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